Sword and sorcery (S&S) or heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent adventures. Elements of romance, magic, and the supernatural are also often present. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy. The genre originated from the early-1930s works of Robert E. Howard. The term "sword and sorcery" was coined by Fritz Leiber In the May 1961 issue of the fantasy fanzine Amra, to describe Howard and the stories that were influenced by his works. In parallel with "sword and sorcery", the term "heroic fantasy" is used, although it is a more loosely defined genre.
Sword and Sorcery tales eschew overarching themes of 'good vs evil' in favor of situational conflicts that often pit morally gray characters against one another to enrich themselves, or to defy tyranny.
Sword and sorcery is grounded in real-world social and societal hierarchies, and is grittier, darker, and more violent, with elements of cosmic, often Lovecraftian creatures that aren't a staple of mainstream fantasy. The main character is often a barbarian with antihero traits.
American author Fritz Leiber coined the term "sword and sorcery" in 1961 in response to a letter from British author Michael Moorcock in the fanzine Amra, demanding a name for the sort of fantasy-adventure story written by Robert E. Howard. Moorcock had initially proposed the term "epic fantasy". Leiber replied in the journal Ancalagon (6 April 1961), suggesting "sword-and-sorcery as a good popular catchphrase for the field". He expanded on this in the July 1961 issue of Amra, commenting:
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!
The term "heroic fantasy" has been used to avoid the garish overtones of "sword and sorcery". This name was coined by L. Sprague de Camp. However, it has also been used to describe a broader range of fantasy, including High fantasy.
Style and themes edit
Sword and sorcery stories take place in a fictional world where magic exists. The setting can be an Earth in the mythical past or distant future, an imaginary other world or an alien planet. Sometimes sword and sorcery stories are influenced by horror or science fiction. Sword and sorcery, however, does not seek to give a scientific explanation for miraculous events, unlike actual science fiction.
The main character in sword and sorcery stories is usually a powerful warrior who fights against supernatural evil. The typical protagonist is a violent, self-respecting and emotional barbarian who values freedom. The main character often has the characteristics of an antihero. Although the main character mostly behaves heroically, he may ally with an enemy or sacrifice an ally in order to survive. A hero's main weapons are cunning and physical strength. Magic, on the other hand, is usually only used by the villains of the story, who are usually wizards, witches, or supernatural monsters. Most sword and sorcery heroes are masculine male characters, while female characters are usually underdeveloped. A recurring theme in the genre is a damsel in distress. However, some sword and sorcery stories have a female protagonist, and the genre's traditional emphasis on male protagonists has declined since the last decades of the 20th century.
In his introduction to the 1967 Ace edition of Conan The Barbarian, L. Sprague de Camp described the typical sword and sorcery story as:
[A] story of action and adventure laid in a more or less imaginary world, where magic works and where modern science and technology have not yet been discovered. The setting may (as in the Conan stories) be this Earth as it is conceived to have been long ago, or as it will be in the remote future, or it may be another planet or another dimension.
Such a story combines the color and dash of the historical costume romance with the atavistic supernatural thrills of the weird, occult, or ghost story. When well done, it provides the purest fun of fiction of any kind. It is escape fiction wherein one escapes clear out of the real world into one where all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple, and nobody even mentions the income tax or the dropout problem or socialized medicine.
The circular structure is common in sword and sorcery series: the hero stays forever young and every day is like the first for him. The main character's victory over his enemies is not final, but in the next short story a new threat arises, against which the hero has to fight once again. The world has a wide variety of exciting and exotic locations designed to act as a stage for the main character's exploits. Many sword and sorcery tales have turned into lengthy series of adventures. Their lower stakes and less-than world-threatening dangers make this more plausible than a repetition of the perils of high fantasy. So too does the nature of the heroes; most sword and sorcery protagonists, travellers by nature, find peace after adventure deathly dull.
Sword and sorcery resembles high fantasy, but is darker and more jagged. The scale of the struggles depicted is smaller, and the main character usually pursues personal gain, such as wealth or love. The opposition between good and evil characteristic of fantasy also exists in sword and sorcery literature, but it is less absolute and the events often take place in a morally gray area. These features are especially emphasized in newer works of the genre. The stories are fast-paced and action-oriented, with lots of violent fight scenes. Sword and sorcery is by nature a light and escapist genre whose main purpose is to entertain the reader. There is usually no deep message or social statements in the works of this genre.
In his introduction to the reference Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter notes that the heritage of sword and sorcery is illustrious, and can be traced back to mythology, including the labors of Hercules, as well as to classical epics such as Homer's Odyssey, the Norse sagas, and Arthurian legend.
It also has been influenced by historical fiction. For instance, the work of Sir Walter Scott was influenced by Scottish folklore and ballads. But few of Scott's stories contain fantastic elements; in most, the appearance of such is explained away. Its themes of adventure in a strange society influenced the adventures set in foreign lands by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Haggard's works included many fantastic elements.
Sword and sorcery's immediate progenitors are the swashbuckling tales of Alexandre Dumas, père (The Three Musketeers (1844), etc.), Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche (1921), etc.) and their pulp magazine imitators, such as Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, and H. Bedford-Jones, who all influenced Howard. However, these historical "swashbucklers" lack the supernatural element (even though Dumas' fiction contained many fantasy tropes) which defines the genre.
Another influence was early fantasy fiction such as Lord Dunsany's "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" (1910) and A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar (1924). All these authors influenced sword and sorcery for the plots, characters, and landscapes used. The American author Gertrude Hall's 1895 novelette "Garden Deadly" appears to anticipate the genre with the tale of a blighted kingdom, a seductive enchantress who turns men into animals, and a brash, brawny outsider who sets out to save the day.
Also, many early sword and sorcery writers, such as Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, were influenced by the Middle Eastern tales of the Arabian Nights, whose stories of magical monsters and evil sorcerers were an influence on the genre-to-be.
Sword and sorcery's frequent depictions of smoky taverns and fetid back alleys draw upon the picaresque genre; for example, Rachel Bingham notes that Fritz Leiber's city of Lankhmar bears considerable similarity to 16th century Seville as depicted in Miguel de Cervantes' tale "Rinconete y Cortadillo".
Sword and sorcery proper only truly began in the pulp fantasy magazines, where it emerged from "weird fiction". The magazine Weird Tales, which published Howard's Conan stories and C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry tales, as well as key influences like H. P. Lovecraft and Smith, was especially important.
Rise in popularity edit
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From the 1960s until the 1980s, under the guiding force of Carter, a select group of writers formed the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA) to promote and enlarge the sword and sorcery genre. From 1973 to 1981, five anthologies featuring short works by SAGA members were published. Edited by Carter, these were collectively known as Flashing Swords!. Because of these and other anthologies, such as the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, his own fiction, and his criticism, Carter is considered one of the most important popularizers of genre fantasy in general, and S&S in particular.
Despite such authors' efforts, some critics use sword and sorcery as a dismissive or pejorative term. During the 1980s, influenced by the success of the 1982 feature film Conan the Barbarian, many cheaply made fantasy films were released in a subgenre that would be called "sword & sorcery".
After the boom of the early 1980s, sword and sorcery once again dropped out of favor, with epic fantasy largely taking its place in the fantasy genre. There was, though, another resurgence in sword and sorcery at the end of the 20th century. Sometimes called the "new" or "literary" sword and sorcery, this development places emphasis on literary technique, and draws from epic fantasy and other genres to broaden the genre's typical scope. Stories may feature the wide-ranging struggles of national or world-spanning concerns common to high fantasy, but told from the point of view of characters more common to S&S, and with the sense of adventure common to the latter. Writers associated with this include Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch, magazines such as Black Gate and the ezines Flashing Swords (not to be confused with the Lin Carter anthologies), and Beneath Ceaseless Skies publish short fiction in the style. According to the literary critic Higashi Masao regarding Japanese works Guin Saga and Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, they were initially planned by their authors as novels that could be classified as belonging to the European sword and sorcery subgenre but had various major elements that distanced themselves from the typical novels in the genre.
Women creators and characters edit
Despite the importance of C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and other female authors, as well as Moore's early heroine, sword and sorcery has been characterized as having a masculine bias. Female characters were generally distressed damsels to be rescued or protected, or otherwise served as a reward for a male hero's adventures. Women who had adventures of their own often did so to counter the threat of rape or to gain revenge for same. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthology series (1984 onwards) tried the reverse, encouraging female writers and protagonists. The stories feature skillful swordswomen and powerful sorceresses working from a variety of motives.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson similarly sought to broaden the range of roles for female characters in sword and sorcery through her own stories and through editing the World Fantasy Award-winning Amazons (1979) and Amazons II (1982) anthologies; both drew on real and folkloric female warriors, often from areas outside of Europe.
Early sword and sorcery writer Robert E. Howard had espoused feminist views in his personal and professional life. He wrote to his friends and associates defending the achievements and capabilities of women. Strong female characters in Howard's works of fiction include Dark Agnes de Chastillon (first appearing in "Sword Woman", circa 1932–34), the early modern pirate Helen Tavrel ("The Isle of Pirates' Doom", 1928), as well as two pirates and Conan the Barbarian supporting characters, Bêlit ("Queen of the Black Coast", 1934), and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood ("Red Nails", 1936).
Introduced as the co-star in a non-fantasy historical story by Howard entitled "The Shadow of the Vulture", Red Sonya of Rogatino later inspired a fantasy heroine named Red Sonja, who first appeared in the comic book series Conan the Barbarian written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith. Red Sonja got her own comic book title and eventually a series of novels by David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney, as well as Richard Fleischer's film adaptation in 1985.
Selected works edit
Other books and series that define the genre of sword-and-sorcery include:
- Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean and Zothique tales, beginning with "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" and "The Empire of the Necromancers" in 1931 and 1932, respectively.
- C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry tales, beginning with "Black God's Kiss" (1934), which introduced the first notable sword and sorcery heroine.
- Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sequence, beginning with "Two Sought Adventure" (1939).
- Michael Moorcock's Elric sequence, beginning with The Dreaming City (published in Science Fantasy 1961), notable for its adherence to counterstereotype.
- L. Sprague de Camp's Swords and Sorcery, the first sword and sorcery anthology, was published by Pyramid Books in December 1963.
- Karl Edward Wagner's Kane novels, beginning with Darkness Weaves (1970), credited with reinvigorating the genre.
- Robert Lynn Asprin's Thieves' World, a series of shared world anthologies first created in 1978.
- Samuel R. Delany's Return of Nevèrÿon, a series of three-story collections and one novel influenced by critical theory, published from 1979 to 1987.
- Charles Saunders's Imaro novels, beginning with Imaro (1981), a collection of short stories first published in the seventies for Dark Fantasy fanzine. Imaro was the first notable black sword and sorcery protagonist. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter had created Juma of Kush as a secondary character in a short story published in 1967.
- Gardner Fox's Kothar and Kyrik novels and "Crom the Barbarian", the first sword and sorcery comic series.
Other pulp fantasy fiction, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series and Leigh Brackett's Sea Kings of Mars, have a similar feel to sword and sorcery. But, because alien science replaces the supernatural, these books are usually described as planetary romance or sword and planet. They fall more in the area of science fiction. Despite this, planetary romance closely aligns with sword and sorcery, and the work of Burroughs, Brackett, and others in the former field have been significant in creating and spreading S&S proper. Sword and sorcery often blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction, drawing elements from both like the "weird fiction" it sprang from.
Another notable sword and sorcery anthology series from 1977 through 1979 called Swords Against Darkness, edited by Andrew J. Offutt, ran five volumes and featured stories by such authors as Poul Anderson, David Drake, Ramsey Campbell, Andre Norton, and Manly Wade Wellman.
See also edit
- Nicholls, Peter (10 October 2022). "Sword and Sorcery". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Retrieved 29 July 2023.
- Nicholls, Peter (30 October 2015). "Heroic Fantasy". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Retrieved 29 July 2023.
- Moorcock, Mike (May 1961). "Putting a Tag on It". Amra. 2 (15): 15.
- Fritz Leiber, Amra, July 1961
- de Camp, L. Sprague (1967). "Introduction". Conan the Barbarian. Ace Books. p. 13.
- Stableford, Brian (2009). "Heroic Fantasy". The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810863453.
- Westfahl, Gary (2005). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Themes, Works and Wonders. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 73–75. ISBN 978-0-313-32950-0.
- Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 464. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
- "Sword and Sorcery". Best Fantasy Books. Archived from the original on 22 September 2013. Retrieved 29 July 2023.
- Strahan, Jonathan; Anders, Lou (2010). Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery (1st ed.). New York: Eos. p. xi. ISBN 978-0-06-172381-0.
- Martin, Philip (2002). The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest: how to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value (1st ed.). Waukesha, WI: Writer Books. p. 37. ISBN 0-87116-195-8.
- Martin, Philip (2002). The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest: how to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value (1st ed.). Waukesha, WI: Writer Books. p. 35. ISBN 0-87116-195-8.
- de Camp, L. Sprague (1976). Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House. p. xi. ISBN 0-87054-076-9.
- Moorcock, Michael (2004). Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (rev. ed.). Austin, Tex.: MonkeyBrain. p. 79. ISBN 1-932265-07-4.
- Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 845. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
- Moorcock, Michael (2004). Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (rev. ed.). Austin, Tex.: MonkeyBrain. pp. 80–81. ISBN 1-932265-07-4.
- Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 444–445. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
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- Moorcock, Michael (2004). Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (rev. ed.). Austin, Texas: MonkeyBrain. p. 82. ISBN 1-932265-07-4.
- Hall, Gertrude (1895). "Garden Deadly" in Foam of the Sea and Other Tales, Boston: Roberts Brothers, pp. 249-299.
- de Camp, L. Sprague (1976). Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (1st ed.). Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House. p. 10. ISBN 0-8705-4-076-9.
- Dr. Rachel B. Bingham, "The Enduring Influence of Cervantes" in "Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Spanish Literature and Culture" (published in Spanish, French and English)
- Stiles, Paula R. (November 2011). "Tales From the Brass Bikini: Feminist Sword and Sorcery". Broad Universe. Archived from the original on 28 December 2011. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
- de Camp, L. Sprague (1976). Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (1st ed.). Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House. p. ix: Chapter IV (Lovecraft), Chapter VIII (Smith). ISBN 0-8705-4-076-9.
- Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 171. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
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- Howard, Robert E.; Sweet, Justin (2006). Kull: Exile of Atlantis. New York: Del Rey. p. xix. ISBN 0-345-49017-7.
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- Crom the Barbarian" is the first true S&S comic
- Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 152. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
- Clute, John; Grant, John; Ashley, Mike; Hartwell, David G.; Westfahl, Gary (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 915. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
- The dictionary definition of sword and sorcery at Wiktionary
- Oxford English Dictionary citations for Sword and Sorcery
- Sword and Sorcery in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction