Sword & Sorcery, often shortened to S&S, got its start in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and now, nearly a century later, why should a modern reader read these and similar stories and what will they get out of them?
What is ‘Sword & Sorcery’ fiction? The term was coined by Fritz Leiber, Jr. in the early 1960s to describe the sub-genre of fantasy fiction where the story focuses primarily on the action and its characters. Worldbuilding, while present, is not presented in long or flowery prose. Sword & Sorcery is lean and direct, getting to the point with a dagger thrust.
This was not a choice of style in the beginning, but of a necessity imposed upon writers by the editors and publishers of those early pulp magazines. Space was limited and money tight. No pulp editor would have published a story like The Hobbit with its songs and descriptive narrative. The stories had to grip the editor, and thereby the reader, in two or three sentences at most. Pulp magazines were out to do one thing, make money, so S&S had to make money as well.
The most famous Sword & Sorcery creation is undoubtedly Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard. The initial publication of The Phoenix on the Sword in Weird Tales in 1932 has left a shadow over S&S to this day.
While Conan’s shadow is long there have been other creations that demand recognition. Creations such as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane the Mystic Swordsman, and Michael Moorcock’s anti-Conan Elric of Melniboné to name just three. Creations like these took the original Sword & Sorcery ideal and changed it to fit their views. What they didn’t change was the no-nonsense approach to storytelling.
The other end of the spectrum is the High or Epic Fantasy that has become extremely popular with readers today. These stories are often long on descriptive details that give insight to the characters’ worlds, motivations, and reasonings. Initially, these types of stories were limited to trilogies; most likely to emulate the three separate ‘books’ of The Lord of the Rings. This trend began to change in the ’90s with the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Initially conceived as a ten-volume saga it was eventually concluded in thirteen volumes with Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s untimely passing. Since then the number of multi-volume sagas has risen.
As a fantasy fan, I can and do appreciate the little flourishes and touches that such a vast amount of space can allow. However, this can also be a weakness. With so much space to fill how much of the story can be served with rather mundane scenes? This is where S&S can serve as a model.
Sword & Sorcery also provides many of the same details found in more grievously paged tomes but they are usually only as a bridge to further action. Robert E. Howard often wrote of Conan’s great mirths and appetites but never strayed into detail that would bog the story down. Conan would drink wine when thirsty, eat meat when hungry but Howard didn’t dwell on any unneeded aspects.
Sword & Sorcery gives as much detail as Epic Fantasy but in a more circumspect way. This allows the reader’s imagination to decide how they are fleshed out. S&S’s strength is in treating the reader like a participant in the story’s action. You are allowed and required to decide what the author meant with the sparse descriptions provided.
Sword & Sorcery can be an exercise in developing one’s imaginative powers. If you are told about a wall in the desert in the daylight you can use your imagination to fill out the specifics based on your own knowledge and experiences. If you are familiar with ancient buildings in the desert you may see the wall as one of bricks made of mud and straw given to erosion by wind and sand; if you aren’t you may see it as stone on stone or as something else altogether. Each viewpoint is correct from the perspective of each reader and that’s a fantastic thing to my way of thinking.
This individuality of seeing things makes the story a more personal experience for each reader. If the author goes to the trouble to explain that the wall is of crenellated mud-brick, eleven feet high and three feet thick, painted ochre by the light of the dying sun with no break as far as the eye can see, there is very little room for individual interpretation. The wall has become a solid piece and blocks our imaginations.
Sword & Sorcery is meant to get our hearts pumping and our minds racing within the action of the story. Reading S&S, I believe, can only lead to unlocking the potential of our imaginations. After the story has been read our minds go back and fill in the details unconsciously. It’s surprising how a good Sword & Sorcery story will linger on the mind for days afterwards.
Unfortunately, since its very beginnings, Sword & Sorcery has been left with a pulp fiction aura and because of that, it has never been able to be taken seriously by a large part of the reading population. However, if given a chance, the modern reader may find that their imaginative musculature can be enhanced with these stories to barbaric proportions. If a reader’s imagination is improved then so will their enjoyment of all literature.
I know that most people would never classify Sword & Sorcery as literature but I can’t help but think that they have never really given it a chance. Sure there is terrible S&S but there is terrible literature everywhere. Some of it quite popular as well. I’m sure the fans of those pieces of terrible literature are just as passionate about it as say a fan of Austin, Dickens, or Joyce.
First is the Warhammer series of books from Black Library. If you are unfamiliar with Warhammer, it is a table-top wargame using plastic miniatures that often painted by the players. The game has been continually developed since the 1980s and in that time there has been a vast amount of backstory created. To complement the game stories were written and then novels, first by Games Workshop and then by their publishing company, Black Library. Among the denizens of the ‘Old World’ as it is known in Warhammer, you will find Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and others often associated with High Fantasy, however, they are handled in a very different manner. The Old World is a coarse and violent place with life often in peril around each corner. The stories of Warhammer I would suggest for the new reader are the Gotrek and Felix stories beginning with Trollslayer (1999). There a huge number of books set int the Warhammer universe and many, if not most, could be regarded as modern-day S&S.
I will also recommend the writing of Scott Oden. Scott is no stranger to S&S having recently written a new Conan pastiche for Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan entitled “The Shadow of Vengeance”. His original stories often have historical settings and flavours but they are deeply steeped in the S&S ethos. I would suggest reading his A Gathering of Ravens for that barbaric element within the Viking age.
Sword & Sorcery has fallen on hard times of late but that doesn’t mean it’s been forgotten. There are several websites where S&S and related genres are actively discussed and critiqued. Two of the best are Black Gate and Dark Worlds Quarterly. Sites like these help to keep the interest in S&S active.
If you’ve never read Sword & Sorcery I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough to give it a try. While its origins are humble the works themselves rank among some of the best ever put to page. If they weren’t we wouldn’t even remember names like Howard, Leiber, or Wagner. I hope Sword & Sorcery makes a resurgence in the near future and that new readers will explore and find enjoyment treading the less beaten paths of fantastic fiction.