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Sword and Sorcery

Entry updated 10 October 2022. Tagged: Theme.

This term – describing a subgenre of Fantasy embracing adventures with swordplay and Magic – is usually attributed to Fritz Leiber, who is said to have coined it in 1960 in response to Michael Moorcock's request for such a capsule description; but the kind of story it refers to is much older than that. (Other terms that overlap with "sword-and-sorcery" are Heroic Fantasy and Science Fantasy, the overlap being considerable in the former case, but all three terms have different nuances. See also Science and Sorcery.) Earlier terms with similar meaning are "weird fantasy" and "fantastic romance".

Leiber was a member of the Hyborian League, a fan group, founded in 1956 to preserve the memory of the pulp writer Robert E Howard, to which many professional writers belonged; the group's Fanzine was Amra. The members believed that Howard founded the sword-and-sorcery genre with his stories in Weird Tales, especially the Conan series of swashbuckling, romantic fantasies, beginning with "The Phoenix on the Sword" (December 1932 Weird Tales), set in Earth's imaginary past, and featuring a mighty swordsman, violently amorous, who often confronted supernatural forces of Evil.

Howard's stories were not sui generis, however: the creation of imaginary worlds on which colourful adventures took place was very much a feature of Planetary Romances in the Pulp magazines, notably the Barsoom stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which began twenty years before Conan's debut; see also Edwin L Arnold, whose various novels, including Gullivar of Mars (1905), arguably influenced those who followed him. Burroughs did not feature magic to quite the same extent as Howard (and usually rationalized it as advanced science), but the atmosphere of the books shows a clear continuity between the two writers. In Mainstream literature, too, there was a long tradition of picaresque adventures in imaginary worlds, though usually more modest (and literate), and sometimes less energetic, than Howard's. The usually quoted high points of this tradition up to the time of Howard are the somewhat etiolated medieval fantasies of William Morris, the stylish though mannered romances of Lord Dunsany (often set in a sort of "Faerie"), the rather more swaggering romances of E R Eddison, and James Branch Cabell's elegant, ironic and elaborate Poictesme series. All of these influenced various of the Weird Tales sword-and-sorcery writers, though Howard less than Clark Ashton Smith, C L Moore and Henry Kuttner. Moore was perhaps the best writer of this group, with her Jirel of Joiry and her Northwest Smith stories. But there is no denying the colour and vigour of Howard's work. The essential, new element which Howard brought to the genre was the emphasis on brutal, heroic ambition in the Hero, who is seen (unlike Cabell's heroes, for example) quite without irony, as simply admirable.

Sometimes sf devices are used to explain the setting of the societies (nearly always tribal or feudal) in which such adventures take place; they may be in Alternate History, Parallel Worlds, other Dimensions, Lost Worlds, Earth's prehistoric past even before Atlantis, on other planets such as Mars or Venus, inside the Hollow Earth, or even on forgotten colonies of a Galactic Empire. It does not really matter which; the thing is to provide an exotic background – the more elaborately worked out the better – to a dualistic conflict, almost invariably between Good and Evil.

Weird Tales continued to publish sword-and-sorcery stories up to the 1940s; many did not see book publication until much later. Clark Ashton Smith's extremely colourful, "jewelled" prose was popular; C L Moore had perhaps the most baroque imagination, especially when it came to dreaming up sinister menaces. But sword and sorcery was a very minor genre by the 1950s, despite the activities of the Hyborian League and the publication in book form during that decade (often by Gnome Press) of the works of Howard, Moore and others. The chances are that it would never have attained the extraordinary popularity it has today were it not for the belated but huge success of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (3 vols 1954-1955), and the lesser though still remarkable success of T H White's The Once and Future King (1958), the latter forming the basis of the musical Camelot (1960), filmed in 1967. When these works had filtered through to the mass market via paperback editions (not until 1965 in the case of Tolkien) it became obvious that there was a huge appetite for work of this kind; publishers began to fall over one another in the effort to feed it.

Tolkien's long, richly imagined work is as important to modern sword and sorcery as Howard's, the two representing the two ends of the genre's spectrum: Howard all amoral vigour, Tolkien all deeply moral clarity of imagination. (Also, Howard's heroes were very big, Tolkien's very small.) Common to both – although the two writers could not have had the remotest influence on each other – is a powerful commitment to the idea of worlds where magic works, and where heroism can be pitted against Evil.

By the time Tolkien was published, sword and sorcery was showing signs of vigour elsewhere, its two finest exponents being perhaps Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance. Leiber, with his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series beginning with "Two Sought Adventure" (August 1939 Unknown; vt "The Jewels in the Forest" in Two Sought Adventure, coll 1957), had been one of the few to publish sword and sorcery through the 1940s. The series is imaginative and full of verve; Leiber's stroke of genius was to have two heroes, one huge and powerful, one small, nimble and quick-witted. Vance's The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950) and its successor The Eyes of the Overworld (coll of linked stories 1966) are dry, ironic, moving, cynical, and often very witty indeed; they are written with precision and flourish, and, insofar as they can be compared with anything else in the genre, recall the work of Cabell.

Other writers who have had a strong influence on the development of the genre are L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett (especially her Mars stories) and Lin Carter. Both De Camp and Carter have had a hand in adding to the Conan series, and Carter's style in particular is more verbose than that of the original. Carter was also from 1969 editor of Ballantine Books's Adult Fantasy series, which certainly did much to increase the fantasy readership among young people, and he was a tireless proselytizer for the genre. An unfortunate but inevitable consequence of sword and sorcery's sudden popularity was (and continues to be) the large amount of hackwork that came to be published in the genre.

Among the stronger writers is Andre Norton, whose Witch World books, set in parallel worlds where magic works, are genuinely macabre and evoke vividly the difficulties of maintaining some kind of civilization in the face of Evil, ambition and chaos, though like other works in the genre her books sometimes suffer from a rather clotted, mock-medieval rhetoric. Even Robert A Heinlein wrote one sword-and-sorcery novel, Glory Road (1963), but his matter-of-factness and preachiness render the book less than spellbinding. Sterling Lanier, Fred Saberhagen and Christopher Stasheff have all produced entertaining stories in the genre, as has Avram Davidson, with perhaps more originality.

Michael Moorcock is one of the relatively few UK writers to work in the genre, and though his sword and sorcery (which he began publishing around 1963) has been dismissed, not least by himself, as hackwork, and while he certainly wrote too much too fast, his fantasy generally and his Elric books in particular imported a welcome breadth to the genre: Good and Evil in Moorcock's books are never easy to define; the forces of Chaos and the forces of Law are alike unsentimental, self-seeking and untroubled by human anguish. Moorcock put paid to the idea of the hero in control of his own destiny; in his books an indifferent universe cares nothing for heroism, but Moorcock does, and the courage shown by his heroes is the more touching for being (usually) doomed. His sword-and-sorcery work is as much a critique of the genre as it is a continuation of its traditions. M John Harrison's The Pastel City (1971) is a more interesting than usual variant, using the conventions of the genre with skill, but to slightly deflationary effect.

Many fine Women SF Writers have been attracted to sword and sorcery, including those noted above and C J Cherryh, Jane Gaskell, Barbara Hambly, Katherine Kurtz, Tanith Lee, R A MacAvoy, Sheri S Tepper, Joan Vinge and Patricia C Wrede (1953-    ).

Sword-and-sorcery readers appear to welcome long – sometimes seemingly endless – series, and many writers have obliged: John Jakes with the Brak books, Lin Carter with the Thongor books, John Norman with the Gor books, and others by Alan Burt Akers (Kenneth Bulmer), Gardner F Fox, Jeffrey Lord, Andrew J Offutt, Peter Valentine Timlett, Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994) and Robert Moore Williams. Not all of these works are pure sword and sorcery; many, such as Akers's, are more directly in the Edgar Rice Burroughs Science-Fantasy tradition. It can be said that most of these (Jakes's and Wagner's being perhaps the best) are routine, and that at their worst they are execrable.

By the mid-1970s sword and sorcery as a marketing term was giving way to Heroic Fantasy or sometimes "high fantasy". In practice, however, this meant little (if any) change in the sort of material being published. Many sword-and-sorcery motifs found their way into sf proper, too; e.g., the violent Horseclans series (from 1975) by Robert Adams, set in a Post-Holocaust future. Generally, though, the late 1970s and the 1980s saw a greater separation between sf and sword and sorcery than before, with fewer writers working in both fields, though Stephen Donaldson, who had made sword-and-sorcery history by introducing a protagonist with leprosy in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series (from 1977), went on to write some sf, as did MacAvoy and, most notably of all, Tepper. The scenarios of some sword-and-sorcery writers, such as David Gemmell, Hambly and Eric Van Lustbader, occasionally approach the science-fictional, but many of the most publicized sword-and-sorcery authors of the decade – e.g., David Eddings (1931-2009), Raymond E Feist (1945-    ) and Robert Jordan (1948-2007) – have had nothing to do with sf at all.

Sword and sorcery is not sf; it is an accident of publishing history that its links with sf are so strong, but hardly a surprising accident: both have roots in 1930s pulp fiction, and they were for a long time often written by the same people. Both genres, indeed, revel in the creation of imaginary worlds. The fact that sf attempts to rationalize its mysteries while sword and sorcery simply attributes them to supernatural powers does not, perhaps, make as big a difference as sf purists would like to believe. Certainly genre-crossing between the two by writers as various as Norton and Vance has strongly influenced both genres. John Crowley's The Deep (1975) uses the confusion between the genres interestingly in its actual structure.

Sword and sorcery has also moved inexorably into other media, notably Comics but also (seldom with much success) Cinema, as with the John Milius film Conan the Barbarian (1981) and George Lucas's production Willow (1988). More interestingly, Star Wars (1977), Lucas's great success, arguably owes as much to sword and sorcery as it does to sf. The most extensive influence of sword and sorcery has been in Role Playing Games (which see), whose scenarios it has wholly dominated ever since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created and published Dungeons and Dragons (1974).

The genre has, perhaps, too narrow a range of interests, and the constant recurrence of the same themes is likely to make all but the most fanatic enthusiast tire quickly, at least with work at the lower end of the market. Much sword and sorcery is violent, sexist and even, according to some, fascist. Norman Spinrad showed what he thought of the genre in The Iron Dream (1972), which contains a heroic fantasy purportedly written by an alternate-world Hitler. But at its best the genre welcomes wit, imagination, and freewheeling invention; it has produced some memorable images.

There are no outstanding studies of sword and sorcery at book length. De Camp's Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (1976) is useful, however, and Michael Moorcock's uneven Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (1987) has a number of shrewd observations. [PN]

see also: Gods and Demons; Paranoia; Pastoral; Sex; Villains.

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