Swords & Sorcery – Where Is It?

The other day I read a great essay by Misty on Grimdark and its relationship to Horror and Dark Fantasy, that included links to other great essays, and it sparked something in my head. The bit that specifically caught my eye is this quote from one of Frohock’s essays:

“Grimdark is a story where the protagonist faces a supernatural threat, but s/he isn’t helpless against their adversary. Rather than run from the supernatural threat, the grimdark protagonist actively seeks to subvert or control it.”

And something in my head went “isn’t that Swords & Sorcery though?”

Swords & Sorcery, one of this genre’s great building blocks, often seems one of it most misunderstood blocks too (amidst very stiff competition). In fact, I’m not 100% sure I understand what it is, and therefore might be about to make an ass of myself. But one thing I do understand is that its origin as something distinct lies with Robert E. Howard mashing together the horror of his friend Lovecraft’s work with two-fisted pulp adventure, before seasoning generously with his own preoccupation with the barbarian. The result were stories were the protagonist faced supernatural threats and was super un-helpless. Despite that, arguably no Fantasy sub-genre (other than Dark Fantasy) has been closer to the Horror genre. Kull and Conan less sought to subvert or control the supernatural than bury it, but it’s not hard to find examples of prominent S&S writers doing just that, and I feel fairly sure that with a little thought and research I could find a few cases of Howard writing subversion and control.

So is S&S related to Grimdark? J.R. Fultz seems to think so – calling it the new Swords & Sorcery in an essay Misty cites – yet in the comments section, 2 out of the 3 commenters disagree. Grimdark has nothing of the feeling of S&S to them. I have to admit, I was half-tempted to add my own on similar grounds. S&S is adventure fiction with loners on the edge of things; Grimdark stories are often mired in intrigue, and feature large institutions prominently. There may be – is – a kinship there, but there’s too big a difference between the two for one to be a resurrection.

His point about the S&S sub-genre having connotations of being outdated, not modern, is utterly correct though, which is quite a fate for the once dominant form of fantasy. That a sub-genre of fantasy should be cannibalised by its own success is nothing new; it has happened to Epic Fantasy and Urban Fantasy. But mostly they bounce back. S&S hasn’t. Why? Surely fantasy readers haven’t lost interest in tales of fantastical derring do? And if they haven’t, where are the things like it?

It is easy to see why S&S went under (again, for the second time) in the 60s and 70s judging from some of the satires and commentary coming from fantasy authors, particularly Pratchett. Indeed, Mendlesohn and James speculate that Pratchett in many ways killed S&S with The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic in their A Short History of Fantasy. But why no resurfacing? Particularly when S&S continued to have a huge influence on popular fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons (see the legendary Appendix N, stuffed full of S&S authors) and Warhammer (very heavily influenced by Moorcock)?

I think – speculate – toss out as a theory – that we are looking at society’s desires as much as anything.

The tale of Fantasy is as much as anything, a tale of what society has wanted to read, a swinging pendulum between desiring amorality and desiring virtue, desiring mimesis (the depiction of reality) and desiring fantasism (something complicated by people’s different views on reality), desiring different types of escapism. S&S can be read as a kickback against the end of frontier values in the US, and a desire for something simpler; amoral adventure, mimetic to the perceived advantages and disadvantages of human nature in a manner fantastical. Lord of the Rings exploded in the counter-culture by offering something different; ancient virtue and anti-war sentiments, mimetic to the psychology of the idea of the sacrifices needed to preserve and create the peaceful and simpler, again in a manner fantastical. Grimdark is fueled to no small extent by a counter movement to that, a fury at fallen idols that betrayed us, at the terror of the impending nuclear war that overlaid many of its authors’ childhoods, a conviction that that escaping to ideas of virtue was a mistake. It has a mimetic base that life is sordid and that it wishes to portray such sordidnesses.

While Grimdark shares something of its mimetic base (man am I probably using that idea wrong but hopefully you understand) with S&S, there is a hugely different direction of travel. S&S seeks to escape the intrigues, the institutions, the compromises of modern life; Grimdark dives headlong in. It is deliberately anti-escapist. The romance of wild adventure is a small strand in the DNA at best.

If S&S seems a discernible relative to Grimdark – although I have to say I’ve found it rather difficult to find major authors celebrating it as an influence, and that if there’s a fantasy book celebrated as an influence (rather than something to react against) other than Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it might be Peake’s Gormenghast (which arguably makes Grimdark a Fantasy of Manners offshoot in part, which is not where I was expecting this essay to go) – it clearly does not share its chief traits. Where can they be found?

Also I really apologise for that sentence structure, but not enough to edit it.

In many ways, I think it lives on just as much in Epic Fantasy – or Quest Fantasy to be very specific – a genre that took in a generous draught of S&S’s adventurous and violent mindset at its foundation. Epic might share a lot of its ideas of virtue with Tolkien, but it shares a lot of its ideas on entertainment with Howard and Leiber. Works such as Williams’ The Winnowing Flame and Barker’s The Wounded Kingdoms show a lot of such DNA. It is mixed in with other elements of course, but the lone (or few) adventurer(s) are more celebrated there than in most Grimdark. I think. Full on adventure fantasy… well, this is something I need to dig into. There doesn’t seem to be much outside of RPGLit, which I haven’t read much of. But it is inherently fantastical and escapist in this age, and I think people playing in that sandpit seem to be looking for escapist, and cleave more to Tolkien’s promotion of virtue. Again, I think.

In any case, we can see S&S in just about everything, and we can see the full form in very little. It almost seems to have become a taproot, like Medieval Romance and early Gothic, rather than a part of the living genre.

Could we see a revival? Some will hold up The Lies of Locke Lamora, although it seemed rather short on swords for that (but in many ways, does qualify). You can perhaps see Kings of the Wyld as being that mould in some ways. The Unspoken Word seemed to me to be a perfect mix of adventure and railing against institutions; I hate that I did not like it more. It seems to fit all of S&S’s main traits while not being some throwback. Therefore, it clearly can be done. Agents and acquiring editors think it’s worthwhile. But will there be more? Will it be a movement? Will it be recognised as S&S? Will people want to do so?

Time will tell.

9 thoughts on “Swords & Sorcery – Where Is It?

  1. I believe you and I should read Marlon James’ “The Dark Star Trilogy” and compare our thoughts and opinions about it. I believe it can be argued that grimdark is a crazy combination of both sword-and-sorcery and dark fantasy.

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    1. I definitely need to give that a read. Maybe I’ll have a look next time I go to the library.

      And I think some of it can be – but for me, I think first and foremost I see a riff on Epic Fantasy, and I do see something very social/intrigue based before the horror/adventure. But then there’s a lot of different takes on it by now…

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  2. Following your find of Barker and Williams for a “revival” of S&S (fun, adventure, epic), I add:

    * The Greatcoats series by Sebastien de Castell, especially book 1 “Traitor’s blade” (in the later books he expands the world and the politics, which personally made me like them better)
    * Michael J. Sullivan and the Riyria Revelations books
    * And I think that John Gwynne is also a good candidate

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    1. I’d say they’re more elements within than full revival.

      But – I need to try Sullivan and De Castell properly, although I didn’t like their initial dips. Gwynne… eh, doesn’t do it for me I think.

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  3. I think I always get confused about what S&S is simply because I haven’t read it in it’s pure / older form. Certainly the idea of it being closer to horror made me go “wait, what really?” Because I always kind of thought of it as strength with or again magic in something episodic or low stakes in feel. With probably a less dark tone. So things like Riyria and another book that used to be mentioned in the same breath but I haven’t heard mentioned for awhile “The Hammer and the Blade” by Paul S Kemp

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    1. I keep meaning to try Riyria and forgetting.

      I think a lot of S&S had mutated away from that part of it – and I think even then, it was more borrowing its ideas rather than atmosphere if that makes sense – but if you look back, there’s definitely stuff that leans hard into it. CL Moore’s Jirel of Joiry can get very horror-esque in places for my money (admittedly as someone who doesn’t read a lot of horror).

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    1. Additional: I suppose I’d categorise S&S, in the spirit of Leiber, as “high adventure”. Maybe that spills over into grimdark but generally, if you consider Lankhmar as the quintessential S&S setting then you’re getting pretty close to a solid definition there.

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      1. Leiber coined it, but did so in a Conan fanzine – or so I’ve read it. Certainly, Howard is very universally held as the originator of the genre, and Leiber coining the term no more makes him the originator than Lloyd Alexander coining High Fantasy makes him the originator ahead of Tolkien or Dunsany or Eddison or Morris.

        Is S&S high adventure? Yes, for a given value of high. But it can’t be the only definition, or S&S is the genre of Stardust and a few Tom Clancy books to boot among other things. There are clearly more attributes.

        I would add that for me, the quintessential S&S setting is some ruined settlement or temple, probably from a forgotten civilisation or darker powers, set in dangerous terrain and including at least one demon or dangerous super-animal.

        And that grimdark is no more the modern genre of high adventure than half a dozen sub-genres at most, and I think there’s strong reason to consider it more politics and intrigue driven than most.

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