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

38 views
About Sword & Sorcery > Continuing the evolution of Sword & Sorcery into the 21st century

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Martin (new)

Martin Christopher | 67 comments Sword & Sorcery is great. We all know it; but we also know that not a lot of people who are fans of fantasy are seeing it that way. It has the reputation of being the stupid and immature one with senseless slaughter and naked slave girls. Which of course is not anywhere near the whole picture, but it's also hard to deny that it's not true. "90% of everything is crap" and when we're talking about counterexamples we're really picking a few shiny gems from a big mountain of dung that nobody remembers anymore. When we talk about great Sword & Sorcery writers it's usually really just a small handful of people you can count on your fingers. And the majority of them wrote almost a century ago.
These are still great to read, but in the same way that ancient Greek or Indian stories are still very readable. We give them slack for being products of their time and enjoy them for what they are, but you just can't do the same stuff today and expect anyone to accept it as great contemporary literature.

I often see mention of people voicing the idea that maybe Sword & Sorcery is remaining in it's obscure niche because the field has not succesfully evolved to go with the times. That it's stuck in a 1930s mentality that doesn't appeal to wider modern audiences. In recent years I've seen the anthologies "Swords & Dark Magic" and "Sword & Mythos" that tried to be modern Sword & Sorcery, but to me they felt just like generic modern fantasy short stories. That's not going to get Sword & Sorcery fans any new great works to read. No thrilling action, not monsters, no creepy magic.
At the same time, things like Star Wars and Game of Thrones are hugely succesful and it seems that a lot of their success comes precisely from the strands of Sword & Sorcery DNA that are clearly visible in them. Modern audiences still love the ideas, but the only Sword & Sorcery icon with any kind of public exposure is still great grand daddy Conan.

Now assuming it's really the case that Sword & Sorcery is clinging to ancient conventions that don't work for most people today but that the essence that made the genre great a century ago is still highly appreciated and very much in demand. What might those things be that make Sword & Sorcery unappealing to the wider fantasy audience? And how could they be adapted to become less objectionable without losing the essence that makes the genre great?
And I am not talking about selling out to the paying masses. As a fan and aspiring writer of Sword & Sorcery, I am also very much interested in the possibility of seeing new works that are even better than what we have now.

What are your feelings on this subject?


message 2: by S.E., Gray Mouser (last edited Mar 05, 2016 05:50AM) (new)

S.E. Lindberg (selindberg) | 2113 comments Mod
Martin wrote: "Sword & Sorcery is great. We all know it; but we also know that not a lot of people who are fans of fantasy are seeing it that way. It has the reputation of being the stupid and immature one with s..."

Martin, great topic. As with the intro. to the recent Anthology Group Read, I'll echo my optimistic feelings on the health of the genre. Just in 2015 there were at least three Anthologies that continue the roots of S&S with different themes/emphasis:

Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues: for the up and coming "grimdark" fans; lots of new writers and interesting takes

Heroika 1: Dragon Eaters: for the mythological fantasy take on S&S. My first, non-Indie work appears in that, so I am a fan :). Look out for more thematic anthologies from Perseid Press in the near future.

Weirdbook 31: For the "weird fiction" fans (this reboot volume had only a few S&S contributions, but S&S grew out of weird fiction, ie via Clark Ashton Smith and Howard Phillips Lovecraft)

Then there are others continuing to broaden and add life to S&S. Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology was not published in 2015, but Milton J. Davis continues to publish Sword & Soul books, which are a great extension of Charles R. Saunders's works.

Then there are the eZines like:

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly :http://www.heroicfantasyquarterly.com/

and Beneath Ceaseless Skies: http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/


message 3: by S.wagenaar (new)

S.wagenaar | 382 comments Part of the appeal of old school, traditional S&S is it's non-PC attitude. In an effort to avoid offending readers, a lot of he-man heroics and masculine attitudes were shaved off and replaced with angst and boring introspective un-heroic heroes. This sort of pulp-adventure (where S&S was born) makes publishers nervous, so in the last 30 years, traditional S&S has almost disappeared. The nature of the market and demographics of the readership has shifted; far more women buy and read books than men. This is reflected in the types of books on the market today. Of course, there was a reaction to this trend, and grimdark sought to add grit to fantasy. But some of this material was so dark/grim as to be unreadable. The heroes were still whiny and torn, but ultra-violent. No obvious heroes and villains. Yes, that old stuff was racist and misogynistic, but a lot more fun to read. You can eliminate the bad stuff and still have good S&S. And it is found in the small press publishers and online. Traditional S&S lives, and is coming back more and more.


message 4: by Martin (new)

Martin Christopher | 67 comments I think the inherent injustice and unfairness of the settings in most Sword & Sorcery is actually a pretty integral part to the genre. Maybe people back in the 30s would have objected to this view, but as I see it, good Sword & Sorcery stories are very much about how characters are dealing with this adversity the world throws against them.
It's easy to see Conan as the Big White Hunter or the Straight White Male power fantasy. But in the stories themselves Conan is constantly faced with racism. It's not just the black Kushites or the Picts who are treated as sub-humans by the Hyborians. The Cimmerians get it as well. But Conan is obviously not a victim. And any female or black character in such a story doesn't have to be a victim either. Rising above that and showing the bigotted people that they can't just shove those around who they think beneath them is an important part in Robert Howards writing.

Sword & Sorcery can not be sanitized for modern sensibilities. That would be pointless and the result not worth reading. But I think where some real positive progress could be made is in adressing the injustices of the settings more openly. Going again back to Robert Howard, there are a few moments where female characters are given space to voice their frustration and anger about the position they are given in their societies. (I once saw a quote from one of his letters in which he states pretty clearly that the women of his time are so dependant on men because there's a systematic supression in he education system and economy to keep them from acquiring the skills needed to be independent and self determined. Surprised me a bit, coming from the man whose most famous character is usually depicted with a nubile leg warmer.)

We don't need to put Eowyn on a soapbox, but I think writers should aknowledge within the stories that the worlds they are showing are unjust and unfair. And maybe keep the sexy slave girl outfits reserved for the appropriate occasions. Even in a desert setting it's not exactly neccessary to spend a paragraph to point out the state of undress of every female character.


message 5: by Rich (last edited Mar 08, 2016 07:52AM) (new)

Rich | 58 comments S.wagenaar wrote: "Part of the appeal of old school, traditional S&S is it's non-PC attitude. In an effort to avoid offending readers, a lot of he-man heroics and masculine attitudes were shaved off and replaced with..."
I have to take issue with this attitude towards modern fantasy. There is plenty of good fantasy out there if you are willing to step outside the comfort zone of s&s. Not all of it is angst and non-heroics, and there is some damn good stuff that's unfortunately been saddled with the label of grimdark. To dismiss everything other than s&s is pretty short sighted. Take a look at things like Paul S. Kemp's The Hammer and the Blade or Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, both are very good, and straddle the line of s&s while still bringing a modern sensibility to the works. And to try and blame women for the change in trends is not even worth replying to.


message 6: by Martin (new)

Martin Christopher | 67 comments What I am really missing in contemporary fantasy books, even though that kind of associate themselves with Sword & Sorcery, is the exhilarating rush you get from Howard and Leiber. Where are the gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth? Where is terror and demonic evil of Karl Wagner?
The big warrior on a pile of corpses with a girl at his side used to be a symbol for all these things. But now it seems too often that all focus is on these symbols which have been hollowed out into meaningless and obnoxious cliches. It seems like we're worshipping the ashes while we have forgotten the flame.

I like reading Robert Howard, with his big barbarian, naked slave girls, and piles of dismembered corpses. But of course none of us can be Robert Howard and it will never be 1932 again. Sword & Sorcery for the 21st century must come in a new guise with the original ideals.


message 7: by Dan (last edited Mar 08, 2016 08:46AM) (new)

Dan (TheGreatBeast) | 213 comments I feel like Howard's work often gets unjustly lumped in with many of the other pulp authors of his time (and later imitators too). Which tended to be much more misogynistic and racist than Howard's works. When you consider works from Dashiell Hammett or other hardboiled authors, their works are much more dated. Conan would at times end up with a beautiful woman, but just as often or not he wouldn't, and much of the time she would actually be a capable partner in action sequences. Unlike the more stereotypical femme fatale or maiden in distress of other pulp authors. Hell he even created some very capable heroines, like Red Sonya or Black Agnes. Same goes for racism, his work have different races, and characters have different prejudices, but rarely did he paint a race as outright stupid or evil, like say Lovecraft tended to do. Which is also why his works outlasted those of most others of the era.

Also I think the introspective side of S&S dates back to it's originators, Conan was a dark brooding character, Bran and Kull even more so. Were they whiny? No not really, they were men of action, but it doesn't mean they were not introspective characters. And what about Michael Moorcock's Elric, he is one of the most analytical and brooding, maybe even considered whiny at times, characters in the genre, and is also probably one of the most well known.

What I think really distinguished S&S, like Martin said, was the struggle against oppression or injustice. In some ways they are the perfect escapist fantasy for those of us that at times feel like a man or woman out of time. As we are all oppressed, if not by tyrannical rulers than by social norms and constraints, by laws, by our jobs, by our obligations. And who wouldn't want to be able to combat and conquer those constraints using only our might and cunning.

And with that said, I feel it to be completely possible to work within the parameters of the original S&S stories of Howard, Moorcock, Leiber and Moore. And while reading Swords & Dark Magic I realized that not only can it be done, it is being done. Caitlín R. Kiernan's story is perhaps the best example. New and fresh, yet still distinctly in the Sword & Sorcery style of fantasy, from aesthetics to ethos. Andrzej Sapkowski Witcher series seems to be that way too, and has become very successful.

And as Richard said, why limit yourself? S&S maybe a bit more scarce now, but that doesn't mean there isn't any good fantasy to be read out there. Just like epic fantasy isn't just The Lord of the Rings anymore S&S isn't just Conan. I feel much of what we are getting now is an extension of S&S, a darker fantasy but also mixed with the expansive style of high/epic fantasy, and there is nothing wrong with that.


message 8: by Dan (last edited Mar 08, 2016 09:23AM) (new)

Dan (TheGreatBeast) | 213 comments I also want to note, at least to me, that it's the prevalence of dark imagery that is the most important aesthetic of the early and best S&S, and not so much the booze, broads and broadswords, as others seem to believe. And it's a trait that can still be found in modern fantasy, just taken in new directions.


message 9: by Dan (last edited Mar 08, 2016 10:38AM) (new)

Dan (TheGreatBeast) | 213 comments ^I agree to a certain extent. Elric of Melnibone is an interesting character to contemplate within that context. He sees his own people oppressing humans, and languishing in lethargy and riches, and he acts. However, I'm not sure that he acts for the benefit of the humans that are being oppressed, and if he does then, he does not always do so. In fact he is a distinctly selfish character at times.

However there is another example of that exact description, with a slightly newer character, David Gemmell's Druss. He fights for those who can't, and aids those who can to fight better, and in so doing he elevates those around him with his deeds.

Edit: And with Howard's works the same could be said for Kull and Bran Mak Morn as well as the aforementioned Solomon Kane, but not always Conan. Who at times act solely on instinct or for selfish purposes.


message 10: by Randy (new)

Randy Harmelink | 785 comments For me, it's Alan Burt Akers' (aka Ken Bulmer) Dray Prescot. More sword & planet than sword & sorcery.

One of the most memorable scenes for me is him flying an airship to a distant city, on urgent business. On the way, he sees a farm being attacked by raiders.

There's a page or two of him arguing with himself, because he's in a hurry and knows he doesn't have time. But, of course, he ends up turning the airship around to go back and help out.

As I recall, he ends up not making it to the city that day... :(


message 11: by Martin (new)

Martin Christopher | 67 comments Yeah, perhaps the fact that S&S protagonists don't have to be heroic and can be even villains has been somewhat overemphazised in the past. You can have antihero protagonists, but you don't have to have one. Knights in shining armor would still seem unsuitable for me (but who knows, maybe one day someone really surprises us), but there's a lot of room for atypical heroes that can still be very heroic.


message 12: by S.wagenaar (new)

S.wagenaar | 382 comments Richard wrote: "S.wagenaar wrote: "Part of the appeal of old school, traditional S&S is it's non-PC attitude. In an effort to avoid offending readers, a lot of he-man heroics and masculine attitudes were shaved of..."
Relax Richard, I blame no one for anything. The trend in fiction in general, also in fantasy, are books/characters that appeal to the mainstream reader. And the fact is, more women read than men. It is in the best interest of publishers to provide material for the meat of the market; it is a business first and foremost. I am not offended or upset by that trend at all. And the plus in today's world is the unlimited access to anything you want to read. It's out there, you just might have to dig a bit. The fact remains that the old-school "masculine" reader is dying out, and the product that goes with them. Much of this is to the good, as a great deal of that material was, well, not that good. I still feel that S&S is a viable genre, and need not be diluted into epic fantasy to the point of being unrecognizable. And what I mean is the length and scope of the story. Multi-generational, world encompassing, all life on earth at risk epics of 3-10 books @ 1000+ pages is not S&S. I am talking about lean, mean stand alone tales told in 200-300 pages with fewer characters told at a lightning pace with thrills, spills and chills. And the hero can be man, woman, white, black, Orc, or whatever you want. But he/she/it better be bad-ass and fun to read about. End of rant.

And to be honest, I have read very little recent fantasy due to imposing size and/or commitment in time. I am sure there is lots of stuff out there that would tickle my fancy, but so much of it looks the same to me. I have The Hammer and the Blade, so I need to give it a try.

I grew up in the 70's, and most of what I read back then ran 150-200 pages. It just feels like the right length for a fast, fun adventure. Maybe it's all because I'm 50 years old...


message 13: by Martin (new)

Martin Christopher | 67 comments No, I am just 30 and the manageable length is clearly one of its big drawing points. And generally the lack of irrelevant exposition.


message 14: by Dan (new)

Dan (TheGreatBeast) | 213 comments S.wagenaar wrote: "Richard wrote: "S.wagenaar wrote: "Part of the appeal of old school, traditional S&S is it's non-PC attitude. In an effort to avoid offending readers, a lot of he-man heroics and masculine attitude..."

Pick up The Last Wish if you haven't already. It's the closest thing I've read to old school S&S in years. Though it's actually from the early 90's, it wasn't published in English until the 2000's, sometime after the Witcher games were released here I believe. Simply put it's succinct and action packed heroic fantasy as it was meant to be.


message 15: by Rich (new)

Rich | 58 comments S.wagenaar wrote: "Relax Richard, I blame no one for anything. The trend in fiction in general, also in fantasy, are books/characters that appeal to the mainstream reader. "

Sorry, I shouldn't have gone off like that. I'll try to keep a cooler head next time.


S.wagenaar wrote: "And what I mean is the length and scope of the story. Multi-generational, world encompassing, all life on earth at risk epics of 3-10 books @ 1000+ pages is not S&S. I am talking about lean, mean stand alone tales told in 200-300 pages with fewer characters told at a lightning pace with thrills, spills and chills. "

Coming from a publishing background (I worked at HarperCollins in the SF imprint for several years), books of the sort you are looking for are going to be harder and harder to find. The cost of putting out a book with 200 pages is almost the same as one with 900 pages from a production standpoint. Both go through the same process, and there's a better return on investment with a higher page count. The fatter books sell better and can be priced a bit higher (perceived value: bigger=better), therefore making the publisher more $ per copy. And readers go for the big series, more time invested to (hopefully) get a bigger payoff in the end.

I'd love to see more shorter, all in one, titles out there. That's one reason I'm really excited to see Tor.com putting out their line of novellas. I've bought a few of them, because I want to see the program succeed and get more books like that out into the market. I really hope it takes off, that's a place where those shorter stories without a market can find a home.

I get where you are coming from, I'm only a few years behind you and know the feeling of ripping through a short, fast paced, action filled book. These days those fast paced, action filled books are out there, there just aren't many short ones. Give Hammer and the Blade a try, I think you'll be plenty satisfied. If you like it, there's a sequel out (they stand alone just fine), and a third coming the end of the year.


message 16: by Martin (new)

Martin Christopher | 67 comments I think Sword & Sorcery has probably the most to gain from ebook publishing, because of just these reasons. File size and word count don't matter as far as production and distribution costs are concerned and you can sel stories fo 50 or 20 cent per piece if you want. If reader reactions are good, you can still collect them to get a print release in a single volume.
Probably still very difficult to build a fanbase this way, but technically it's an ideal form of distribution.

Stand alone stories probably would have a hard time, but something like Conan, Kane, or the first two Witcher books could work great. A truly episodic series where you don't have to read every installment and don't have to read them in order would be much more to my taste than something that is a single big novel released in individual chapters. But you still have regular characters and locations that you can get used to.


message 17: by Jason M (last edited Mar 08, 2016 02:38PM) (new)

Jason M Waltz (worddancer) | 287 comments Just tossing in my observation that this conversation (while very good, don't take me wrong) has a cyclic appearance, popping up in my Google Alert feed about every 1.5-2 years. Here's another take on it:

another new examination of the qualities and worthiness of S&S


message 18: by Martin (new)

Martin Christopher | 67 comments Yeah, that was me. ^^


message 19: by Jason (new)

Jason | 113 comments S.wagenaar wrote: "I am talking about lean, mean stand alone tales told in 200-300 pages with fewer characters told at a lightning pace with thrills, spills and chills. "

I think your only hope here is e-publishing and independents/small press. Unfortunately, like with all things seemingly these days, there is just so much to have to wade through to find it.


back to top