NEWS – Part Two: Sword and Sorcery

Howard Andrew Jones is the author of The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne Books 2011), a historical fantasy set in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate featuring the characters Dabir and Asim, who’ve been appearing in a variety of short fiction venues since 2000. His Pathfinder novel, Plague of Shadows, is set to appear in March of 2011. In addition to his many writing exploits, Howard is a writing instructor and Managing Editor of Black Gate.

We are thrilled to welcome Howard as our April Guest Blogger. Please leave comments or questions for Howard on these pages, and check back throughout the month for more thoughts on fiction and writing! And please read Part One: On Heroes and Why We Need Them.

Part Two: Sword and Sorcery

by Andrew Howard Jones

Sometimes discussions about what is and isn’t sword-and-sorcery come down to arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin. I’ve seen and heard all sorts of break downs and sub-categories and knife-fine distinctions, and I’ve honestly grown a little tired of them.

It was Fritz Leiber who coined the term “sword-and-sorcery” to distinguish what he and Robert E. Howard had written from the sort of fantasy Tolkien wrote. Joseph McCullough has said that the two kinds of stories lie at either ends of a spectrum, and have points where they overlap (Tolkien’s Strider, for instance, sure seems like a sword-and-sorcery protagonist). And how absolute must we get? Some would say that Kull and Conan are sword-and-sorcery heroes but that Solomon Kane is not, because Solomon Kane was adventuring in the real world, although he was fighting hideous sorcerous things and wielding a blade against them. Ten years ago I might have agreed, but I have tired of the quibbling. Close enough.

With a little help from Robert Rhodes and John C. Hocking I’ve put together an inclusive set of descriptors here, which includes a primer that can get someone unfamiliar with the genre a good leg up on what it feels like. I’ll excerpt just a little:

The protagonists in sword-and-sorcery fiction are most often thieves, mercenaries, or barbarians struggling not for worlds or kingdoms, but for their own gain or mere survival. They are rebels against authority, skeptical of civilization and its rulers and adherents. While the strengths and skills of sword-and-sorcery heroes are romanticized, their exploits take place on a very different stage from one where lovely princesses, dashing nobles, and prophesied saviors are cast as the leads. Sword-and-sorcery heroes face more immediate problems than those of questing kings. They are cousins of the lone gunslingers of American westerns and the wandering samurai of Japanese folklore, traveling through the wilderness to right wrongs or simply to earn food, shelter, and coin. Unknown or hazardous lands are an essential ingredient of the genre, and if its protagonists should chance upon inhabited lands, they are often strangers to either the culture or civilization itself.

Sword-and-sorcery distances itself further from high fantasy by adopting a gritty, realistic tone that creates an intense, often grim, sense of realism seemingly at odds with a fantasy setting. This vein of hardboiled realism casts the genre’s fantastic elements in an entirely new light, while rendering characters and conflict in a much more immediate fashion. Sword-and-sorcery at times veers into dark, fatalistic territory reminiscent of the grimmer examples of noir-crime fiction. This takes the fantasy genre, the most popular examples of which might be characterized as bucolic fairy tales with pre-ordained happy endings, and transposes a bleak, essentially urban style upon it with often startling effect.

Further distinctions are available in the longer article. I strove to keep the boundaries as gray and loose as possible (note the italics in “most often,” for instance). A lively discussion about defining the genre is taking place right now in the new founded Swords and Sorcery League on Facebook, with some well-informed editors and writers weighing in with their own opinions.

A fair question might be why I care how the genre is defined. I suppose I wanted to understand what it was about some fantasy fiction that I loved more than other kinds. I knew that I honestly preferred Howard and Leiber and Brackett (1) to Tolkien (sorry) and wanted to understand why. And then part of my purpose was to try to defend sword-and-sorcery against those who assume it comes down to a guy with a sword in a loincloth rescuin’ nekkid women. That stereotype, promulgated by a slew of 70s comic books, b-movies, and derivative fiction, is a central reason behind the disappearance of sword-and-sorcery and the triumph of its relative, long-form Tolkien fantasy. The sexism in the worst sword-and-sorcery was unwelcome both by readers who wanted something a little less ridiculous and by a new generation of editors, many of them women, who objected to a form of fiction in which they were usually objectified. That is not to say that there weren’t female sword-and-sorcery heroes almost from the beginning: Catherine L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry was the second big sword-and-sorcery character(2), found in Weird Tales back in the days of Robert E. Howard. But sword-and-sorcery seemed to appeal most strongly to men, just as some genres appeal most strongly to women, and male readership, as anyone involved in the publishing industry can tell you, has been shrinking for a long while. I can’t help wondering if the disappearance of sword-and-sorcery was a cause of male readership dropping, or a symptom. It may be that men turned away because they could find the vicarious release earlier generations found in fiction by sitting down with increasingly involved video games.

Whatever the reasons, as recently as a few years ago, there was little sword-and-sorcery available on the bookshelves, and for years it has been almost completely absent in the magazines. Right now, though, sword-and-sorcery seems to be on the upswing. There have been occasional books all along, but for the first time in a very long while, more and more popular writers seem to be playing with sword-and-sorcery tenets. Some say that Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie are writing long form sword-and-sorcery and have been for a while, marrying epic fantasy with some of sword-and-sorcery’s conceits. Sword-and-sorcery comic books have seen a sudden resurgance, and publishers like Pyr and Thomas Dunne and Tor are launching new book lines. For whatever reason, sword-and-sorcery doesn’t seem as dead, no matter that men still seem not to be reading as much, no matter that videogames are more engrossing than ever, no matter that sword-and-sorcery still isn’t very common in magazine form. I wish I could tell you why the genre’s on the rise – all I can say is that I’m delighted to see it happen. Not because I want some other genre driven out of town with pitchforks, but because I’m glad it looks like the kind of fiction I like to read and write has a seat at the table again. It’s a sincere pleasure to be active in the industry as it happens.

(1)You might be saying, “wait a moment, Leigh Brackett wrote space opera and westerns and sword-and-planet.” Fair enough. I’m thinking mostly, though, of sword-and-planet being pretty much sword-and-sorcery with a science fiction veneer. You might take spaceships to get where you’re going and occasionally carry a radium pistol with a few shots, but mostly you settle things with swords. Close enough.

(2) If you want to get technical, by most accounts, Kull was the first sword-and-sorcery character, Conan the second, and Jirel of Joiry the third.

2 Responses to “NEWS – Part Two: Sword and Sorcery”

  1. Great post, Shaun. Since my youth, I have always been a huge fan of epic fantasy. It’s only now, in my more mature years, that I have discovered the joy of sword-and-sorcery. Maybe I’ve started to tire of the simplistic moral stance that’s part and parcel of much epic fantasy, and I want something more gritty and realistic. I think that’s part of what has drawn so many readers to George RR Martin. He’s writing a story that’s long, with a huge cast of characters mainly from nobility—both trademarks of epic fantasy—but he’s doing it in a manner more reminiscent of sword-and-sorcery as far as the general harshness and moral uncertainty. That’s where my own writing tends to head naturally, as well. I need to read more deeply in sword-and-sorcery, though. I’ve never even read Robert E. Howard!

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