Sword & Sorcery: "An earthier sort of fantasy" discussion

About Sword & Sorcery > A Definition of S&S and subgenres

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message 1: by Periklis, Fafhrd (new)

Periklis (periklisbegzos) | 425 comments Mod
[source: swordandsorcery.org]

What Is Sword-and-Sorcery?

Some people use “sword-and-sorcery” to mean any kind of fantasy fiction. While sword-and-sorcery is certainly a type of fantasy fiction (as a sports car is a type of automobile), the label “sword-and-sorcery” was proposed by award-winning speculative fiction author Fritz Leiber (originally to Michael Moorcock) to distinguish the genre from other categories of fantasy. So the simple answer to the question is that “sword-and-sorcery” is a label used for a sub-genre of fantasy.

What makes sword-and-sorcery different from other fantasy?

The environment, the protagonists, the obstacles, and story structure.

The Environment: Sword-and-sorcery fiction takes place in lands different from our own, where technology is relatively primitive, allowing the protagonists to overcome their martial obstacles face-to-face. Magic works, but seldom at the behest of the heroes. More often sorcery is just one more obstacle used against them and is usually wielded by villains or monsters. The landscape is exotic; either a different world, or far corners of our own.

The Protagonists: The heroes live by their cunning or brawn, frequently both. They are usually strangers or outcasts, rebels imposing their own justice on the wilds or the strange and decadent civilizations which they encounter. They are usually commoners or barbarians; should they hail from the higher ranks of society then they are discredited, disinherited, or come from the lower ranks of nobility (the lowest of the high).

Obstacles: Sword-and-sorcery�s protagonists must best fantastic dangers, monstrous horrors, and dark sorcery to earn riches, astonishing treasure, the love of dazzling members of the opposite sex, or the right to live another day.

Structure: Sword-and-sorcery is usually crafted with traditional structure, meaning that it isn't stream-of-consciousness, slice-of-life, or any sort of experimental narrative—it has a beginning, middle, and end; a problem and solution; a climax and resolution. Most important of all, sword-and-sorcery moves at a headlong pace and overflows with action and thrilling adventure.

What is Planetary Romance?

The structure of planetary romance (sometimes called “sword-and-planet”) feels absolutely identical to the structure of sword-and-sorcery; the other elements are very similar. In place of magic, planetary romance has telepathy and scarce technological leftovers from a remote, absent, dead, or dying race of advanced beings—so advanced that their technology might as well be magic. The protagonists of planetary romances, like those of sword-and-sorcery, are outcasts and foreigners, dropped in to strange lands (often by accident). They might be explorers from advanced civilizations, but all they are likely to carry are a beam weapon with a few shots and a handful of survival gismos. More often a planetary romance protagonist has to make do with his wits and the sword he wrested from the planet’s primitive culture. He or she faces obstacles very similar to those faced by sword-and-sorcery heroes.

What Is Swashbuckling Historical?

A swashbuckling historical is similar in tone to both sword-and-sorcery and planetary romance; a swashbuckling historical is an historical adventure or alternate history rooted in the past of planet Earth. The preceding comments about protagonists and structure are identical for swashbuckling historicals, and obstacles and setting are similar. Think The Three Musketeers or Captain Blood. A supernatural element is NOT required (though it is welcome), but action and excitement is a must.

message 2: by Charles (new)

Charles (Kainja) | 382 comments I did a series of blog posts on this topic at one point. I'll have to dig up those links sometime.

message 3: by Charles (new)

Charles (Kainja) | 382 comments Here's a link to an expanded part of the blog post I originally did on Sword and Planet fiction. It was published in ERBzine. A friend of mine named Steve Servello expanded it some for this publication.


message 4: by Aaron (last edited Aug 16, 2013 12:16AM) (new)

Aaron Meyer (loptsson) | 75 comments Really enjoyed the article Charles. Gave me a few new authors to hunt down.

message 5: by Charles (new)

Charles (Kainja) | 382 comments Thanks, Aaron. Glad you liked it.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 264 comments I would add that one difference between S&S and epic fantasy is that a S&S hero is pursuing his own objectives. They don't have to be wrong-headed goals, they may be admirable -- and he can certainly do some incidental good works along the way -- but he's definitely not saving the world. When the stakes start getting out the personal range, the story starts heading out of S&S.

To be sure, if your hero's a king or something, you can have the fate of nations rest on his personal stakes.

message 7: by Charles (new)

Charles (Kainja) | 382 comments Mary wrote: "I would add that one difference between S&S and epic fantasy is that a S&S hero is pursuing his own objectives. They don't have to be wrong-headed goals, they may be admirable -- and he can certai..."

I agree absolutely that the S&S hero is pursuing their own goals.

message 8: by Jadis (new)

Jadis Reich (HyrkanianDjinnSummoner) | 20 comments How would you say Jack Vance fits in here? "Planet of Adventure" is pretty spot on for sword-and-planet, but I am here thinking of rhe tales of Cugel the Clever, who is a lot like an S&S protagonist except for the penchant to get himself into more trouble than he can handle. The post-apocalyptic sci-fantasy setting of the Dying Earth is not entirely unlike that of Conan, but the stories almost always have a strong element of absurd humor in addition to Eldritch Horror.

message 9: by Charles (new)

Charles (Kainja) | 382 comments Elise wrote: "How would you say Jack Vance fits in here? "Planet of Adventure" is pretty spot on for sword-and-planet, but I am here thinking of rhe tales of Cugel the Clever, who is a lot like an S&S protagonis..."

Vance was always very different for me to categorize, outside of the Planet of Adventure stuff, which even so is a little off kilter. I generally just sort of lump him in as fantasy

message 10: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 264 comments He is, after, the culprit behind Vancian magic, even if his own system was far more logical than D&Ds.

message 11: by Jadis (new)

Jadis Reich (HyrkanianDjinnSummoner) | 20 comments Charles wrote: "
Vance was always very different for me to categorize"

Lists of favorites are always artificial, but Vance is close to my favorite author despite the fact that I've only ever read the Dying Earth and Planet of Adventure stories. I've met people - especially Tolkien fans, for whatever reason - who despise Vance. Pretty funny, actually because I never much cared for LotR (the Silmarillion on the other hand...)

message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

I love Vance, and the Cugel stories are amazing. It's not really sword & sorcery though. Cugel and say, Ports of Call, fall more into the realm of picaresque. They are "clever rogues," but it's not quite the same as a Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. It's a related genre though. My favorite Vance is the Blue Planet.

Lord of the Rings is rather dull in comparison to S&S because it's more about the setting than the adventure. Tolkien created a world to be explored and enjoyed so it's for a different audience than say the pulps. I think the movies try and turn it into a fast-paced adventure a skim over all that pesky backstory. :P

message 13: by Jadis (new)

Jadis Reich (HyrkanianDjinnSummoner) | 20 comments What I really prefer about S&S vs. LotR (and especially it's derivative fantasy) is believable characters and motives. No Chaotic Insane or Lawful Stupid people, no grand narrative of morality. Conan is trying to get money, stay alive and bust people who screw with him, you don't get sentimental fools, because they die fast.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Conan is sentimental though, he often puts his life on the line for women (eg Black Clossus) and quite often impoverishes himself to save a woman (eg Jewels of Gwahlur) or (The Black Stranger) just to give her a chance at a new life).

I'm not quite certain how often Howard's Conan is loin-cloth clad, and in fairness there are generally good reasons for him to be so, but Tower of the Elephant, The Black Stranger, Jewels of Gwahlur, The Devil In Iron at least all see him so.

Now I fully agree that when he has the chance and the need, he'll clad himself in the best armour he can lay hands on, but a good few of the stories do see him near naked. It's more the fact that very few or no illustrations show him in mail or plate than the fact he's often portrayed scantily clad that would seem to be the issue.

However fantasy fiction (art and covers) tends to delight in scantily clad men and women on the covers. I don't think Conan's any harder done to in that regard than Red Sonja, say (at least Sonja's loincloth is often mail . . .)

message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Yeah, there's nobody with a destiny or an ancient prophecy or anything (unless the protagonists are crossing paths with these people). It's grittier and more realistic. "I'm looking to rob you or pull a scam or steal something to get rich, get laid, and get drunk."

I like to think of sword & sorcery as either a heist or action movie except some kind of awful magic or monster is bedeviling the heroes instead of say the FBI.

I would say that the majority of Conan stories describe him as wearing armor, and the comics are pretty faithful to that. He is usually getting into an adventure either immediately following or during either military service of some kind or another adventure.

Of course, cover art, particularly at that time, is designed to titillate and draw the reader in to buy the stories contained within. Accuracy isn't as important as sales. :P

message 16: by Jadis (last edited Dec 20, 2013 01:35PM) (new)

Jadis Reich (HyrkanianDjinnSummoner) | 20 comments And while Conan is occasionally not wearing armor, hr is also not a hairless freak. Especially if Cimmerians are anything like their Scottish descendents. As far as Frazetta goes, I have no problem with how he portrays Conan's physique (huge but supple) or his face/hair. It's the nakedness and hairlessness that are bizarre to me. As for women - I have no problem with nekkid girls in S&S art, but I hate the chainmail bikini. And don't get me started on breast-conforming plate armor. Great way to catch a spear and get impaled.

message 17: by Martin (new)

Martin | 49 comments A while back, in my attempts to learn and understand how Sword & Sorcery ticks and how various elements give the style it's distinctive feel, I came across this article on Black Gate.

The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery

I found it quite enlightening and very much agree with it on all the main points.

message 18: by Damien (new)

Damien Black | 23 comments Interesting debate... I wonder, where does Grimdark feature on this spectrum? Because it seems to me that the cynicism that cuts through work like Joe Abercrombie's or George RR Martin's is an echo of the earlier grittiness of Moorcock (Elric) and Howard (Conan).

Is Grimdark really just a recasting of Sword & Sorcery for the 21st century, or are there nuances that set them apart?

message 19: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 264 comments Well, the term "grimdark" comes from Warhammer. Which is a war game. it tends to have, therefore, a very dark backstory because everything in it's an excuse to fight.

message 20: by Greg (new)

Greg (adds 2 TBR list daily) Hersom | 76 comments Damien wrote: "Interesting debate... I wonder, where does Grimdark feature on this spectrum? Because it seems to me that the cynicism that cuts through work like Joe Abercrombie's or George RR Martin's is an echo..."

I think there is some truth in that. If something doesn't evolve it does die out.
Also, I always likened S&S to Westerns, which Howard drew elements from Western stories to create a sub-genre we now call Sword & Sorcery. To that point, Westerns have gotten a 100 times darker and grittier than what they began as.
I always kinda wondered why story-telling in general became much darker. I think its a combo of the audiance has a lot more formal education, which lends to the need for more complexity, sophistication, and realism to hold interests. Also I think that real life was so hard back back then, that maybe readers just needed their entertainment to be much more black and white, and the good guys needed to always win.

message 21: by Jason M (new)

Jason M Waltz (WordDancer) | 168 comments @Mary - best defense, er, definition of 'grimdark' that makes sense and I can accept as qualifying it as a standalone genre.

message 22: by Martin (new)

Martin | 49 comments There is some overlap between classic Sword & Sorcery and this new thing called Grimdark in that both of them are fantasy and involve elements of horror fiction. But I think that's where it already ends.
Sword & Sorcery has bleak moments, but in the end the hero usually has his triumph and destroys evil. From what I understand, Grimdark is miserable from the first page to the last and it's all suffering with no victories.
Now Kane never finds peace or happiness, but the main source of misery is himself. And Elric gets pretty bleak towards the end, but the story is still about hope and faith in a bright future. Neither Kull, Conan, or Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are grim, Jirel comes out on the other side of her horrors being fine, and the adventures of Geralt are really about love and kindness.

Sword & Sorcery is about exciting adventures and encountering strange supernatural things (and then usually killing them). It's about thrill seekers and daredevils craving for adventure.

(Also, when Grimdark appeared as a term for Warhammer 40k in the 90s, it was totally camp and satirical of dark military sci-fi. But that irony went over the heads of 12 year old boys eager for edgy fiction.)

message 23: by Peter (new)

Peter W Blaisdell | 3 comments Interesting thread - assuming that the conversation isn't extinct, would M John Harrison's 'Pastel City' be considered S&S?

I'd say 'no', but it's close with ancient, decayed technology filling the role of magic and a hero (perhaps more conflicted than usual for S&S) wielding a saber for much of the story. There's even a princess in distress. An older book, but a very fun blend of SF and fantasy.

message 24: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 264 comments Planetary romance and S&S have always had a kinship.

message 25: by Henry (last edited Dec 27, 2017 01:54PM) (new)

Henry Brown (MachineTrooper) | 10 comments Thanks for this thread, folks. Ive been trying to define and differentiate the fantasy genres for a while (and will follow these links).

The posted difference between S&S and epic fantasy makes sense. What about "heroic fantasy"?

message 26: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 264 comments Eh, in my exprience, "heroic fantasy' is usually used to mean, "sword & sorcery trying to sound upscale."

message 27: by Henry (new)

Henry Brown (MachineTrooper) | 10 comments Thanks, Mary. I almost assumed they were interchangable terms, but after reading the demarcation article (linked above) I now understand that S&S is a subgenre of heroic fantasy.

message 28: by Clint (new)

Clint | 23 comments I love this thread. One problem is you have bozos like me that use the terms “Heroic Fiction” as an umbrella to include S&S, S&P and Heroic Adventure. I do so for no other reason than there are similarities, as pointed out above, and I enjoy all three.

I may just well say “Good Heroic Stuff I Like”.

I really like the earlier comment of “Heroic Fiction is a term to make Sword & Sorcery sound upscale”. Spot on and I apologize for not naming who wrote it. I am guilty of making S&S sound upscale myself.

message 29: by Clint (new)

Clint | 23 comments And I have a tendency to interchangeably say “Heroic Fiction” for “Heroic Fantasy”. I think I prefer Heroic Fiction as an umbrella term. It can encompass a wider range of sub genres.

I do like the term Swashbuckling Adventure, but think Heroic Adventure of Historical Adventure could work. I recently read King Solomon’s Mines a few weeks ago. It’s adventure, but I’m not sure I’d call it swashbuckling.

I did not know that Grimdark was derived from 40K Lit. That’s amusing

message 30: by Μάριος (new)

Μάριος Μητσόπουλος | 9 comments Hello everybody,
What a fantastic thread. From my point of view and after reading an introduction by Moorcock in an Elric book, I think one of the main differences of the S&S genre in comparison to the high fantasy one for example, is that in the latter the heroes get from point A to point B through a complex road and point B is usually a goal that has to do with the world and not not with the main character's motivation and adventures as in the Sword and sorcery books.
Nevertheless most fantasy subgenres have often provided us with marvellous stories.

message 31: by Jarod (new)

Jarod Meyer | 4 comments Genres are great for honing in on a type of book that one wants to read. I think too many readers fall into the trap of convincing themselves that they only like a select few of the many genres that have formulated over the centuries of fine literature.

I have figures in magnificent armor wielding swords on the cover of my books, but there is so much more to them than swordplay.

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