Fled & Done: Sword & Sorcery

With The Red Man and Others, we aimed to present our own take on the Sword & Sorcery genre. However, a recent conversation with a friend, a Fantasy author himself, highlighted an inherent problem:

“I would not have put Red Man in the same bracket as Conan—they just feel *utterly* different to me. My love for Conan, was whittled away by some friends who were obsessed with it —that was a culture of the cis-het white super-dude.”

Can readers like him really be blamed for not recognising a broader chorus of voices as having an S&S accent? Modern Sword & Sorcery writers face an uphill battle, if they want to emerge from the shadow of Conan (including, and in particular, his Marvel comics and Schwarzenegger film incarnations). And that indeed sums up our dilemma: is it worth trying to expand the genre, when the general audience’s idea of S&S has calcified in cliché? Especially when a large section of S&S fans (and authors) have very firm ideas of what S&S was, is and always will be?

The Red Man and Others: Swords? Sorcery?

There is an ongoing discussion about decolonising the curriculum, and it’s worth considering whether it’s time to ‘de-Conan-ise’ Sword & Sorcery. Robert E. Howard’s Conan has undeniably become the alpha and the omega of the genre; think of Sword & Sorcery, and that Cimmerian immediately springs to mind: black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand – a thief, a reaver, a slayer. Yet, paradoxically, while he trod the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet, the idea of him has been watered down through a thousand-and-one clones, hundreds of comics, Frazetta’s book covers and muscle-bound movies into something much less compelling.

That Conan himself has a ready audience is not in question, and they are willing participants in his adventures, via RPG supplements, video games and a board game. Related areas also have blossomed: witness the Dungeons and Dragons resurgence, for instance, with more non-white/cis/male players than ever, or the vast mainstream audience by TV success of Game of Thrones and The Witcher. Why don’t they translate to a renaissance of Sword & Sorcery, then, when it’s so clearly visible in their blood and sinews?

Iconic: Frank Frazetta’s interpretation of Conan for Conan the Adventurer (1965).

Perhaps it’s because of those iconic images of Conan that have stuck in the popular imagination – Frazetta’s gurning caveman, Marvel’s fur-diapered giant, Schwarzenegger crushing his enemies – are now forty, fifty years old. They define the genre in a diluted form that does not reflect the atmosphere, the poetry and potential of Robert E. Howard’s earliest stories. When people’s first association with a genre are images that have not,changed in all those decades, and with a fan culture that at its core has not grown, nor wanted to, there is a sense that we must disown Sword & Sorcery, in order not to have to damn it.

But the films and TV series we are huge fans of; why can’t they be counted as Sword & Sorcery? Take the 1980s Robin of Sherwood and John Boorman’s Excalibur. Both have swords, sorcery, and are not pretending to be real history. How about Primal? And the upcoming The Green Knight? Its Arthurian lore, of course, but updated with a modern aesthetic borrowing from Fantasy. Imagine the huge popularity of Vikings, which blends action with eerie mysticism, in a way that we know and love in classic Sword & Sorcery, and then realise there’s no crossover with S&S spaces. What all these have in common, with the early works in which Robert E. Howard distilled Sword & Sorcery into a recognisable genre, is atmosphere and meaning.

Robin of Sherwood, 1980s television steeped in swordplay, mysticism and a sense of wonder.

We get a feeling that older stories that very much fit the S&S definition of “sword-swinging action focused on personal battles rather than world-shaking events, with an element of magic or the supernatural and sometimes one of romance”, like Talbot Mundy’s 1925 Tros of Samothrace, are excluded from the canon because they are written before Howard became the “Father of Sword & Sorcery”. Then look at some of those early Conan and also Kull stories, and ask yourself, is Heroic Fantasy really different from Sword & Sorcery? Is Grimdark? Are these evolutions, or are they attempts to distance ourselves from an image we’re embarrassed by? Are we afraid to reckon with its most tired, predictable and misogynist extremes?

Meanwhile, there’s a defensive insistence among many writers and fans that Sword & Sorcery should remain within a very specific mould, with one writer drawing up the rules: “…an adventure story with fast-paced action that focuses on ONE or TWO protagonists; the level of violence is often high, and that violence is depicted in a gritty and granular style. The sorcery in S&S is most often nefarious, tainted by the horrific, and used against the protagonist(s).” (etc.) You want to get a bit more contemplative, you’ve got THREE protagonists, and sympathetic magic? Alas, poor Almuric, you’re out!

The debates over what is and isn’t S&S must seem the narcissism of small differences. As it stands, whereas SFF fandom is increasingly, though not always willingly, transformative with the influx of more diverse, younger fans, Sword & Sorcery by and large is male, middle-aged, and backwards looking: curatorial. There are admirable corners in S&S fandom, in which the genre’s underlying significance and its problems are openly examined, and its porousness with other genres appreciated, but they find that S&S is not a viable market for them: ignored by outsiders, and regarded with suspicion from the inside.

C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in Black God’s Kiss: destroying her enemy not with the sword but with a kiss.

Yet, examine Howard’s own work by that rigid standard, and many of his early yarns do not make the grade. With Kull he was still experimenting, still figuring out both what worked narratively and what sold on the pulp market, and the result is a surprising number of byways en route to the codified Sword & Sorcery that we are told today is its one true form. And it’s not just Howard. In the first of C.L. Moore’s tales of Jirel of Joiry, while she faces a supernatural threat, Jirel also schleps through a Dantean landscape like some latter-day Virgil, more witness than participant. Tonally they are strange stories and they mitigate against a strict definition of S&S. So, are we to discard these classics in our pursuit of genre purity?

And even if we ignore Howard’s Kull stories and say S&S starts with Conan, we ignore that few of his stories are as pedestrian as those hewn from his template, and those that are were written to make a sure sale. In all this legalistic wall building, there is a deep reluctance to explore the genre’s underlying meaning.

Boris Vallejo’s 1980s Conan: muscle-bound and stiff in posing pouch, staring vacantly.

The success of High Fantasy over the past twenty-plus years makes sense in an era when many people and groups, for various reasons, feel that their world is under threat. Writers and fans of that genre are pragmatic enough to explore and embrace many different reflections of that premise. In theory, Sword & Sorcery ought to have enjoyed a similar renaissance, its personal stakes deeply resonant with the atomised society and lonely individual struggles of our time.

Moreover, Howard’s civilisation – the transient oil boom towns of the American west – like our own, was crumbling, and this crisis is presented as an inevitability. As a result, his stories are full of outsiders who are bold and pragmatic enough to accept that fact and work outside civilisation’s constraints, from Conan to Dark Agnes de Chastillon, who are suspicious of both the seductions and the chains of hearth and home, of a settled life. The appeal of Sword & Sorcery lies in the idea that you can live by your wits and your blade, but the threat of it is that you’ll have to. There is so much that can be done with these themes, and a rich appeal for people who themselves remain on the margins of our modern society, but what progress is being made is tainted by association with tired retreads of the same old tropes, and with regressive attitudes.

Robert E. Howard, called the Father of Sword & Sorcery.

This prescriptiveness prevents the genre achieving cultural escape velocity or wider respect. When the S&S formula is imaginatively expanded, in works that resonate with large audiences, often those audiences do not recognise those works as Sword & Sorcery. Meanwhile, a large part of S&S fandom tends to ignore or rejects the works in question, out of stubborn genre purity or fear of progress. These S&S fans have barricaded themselves within a genre ghetto, while outside those high walls the wider fandom quite happily pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

Projects which are perilously close to Sword & Sorcery are billed as anything but. Our eye fell on an article about an animation for Disney+’s Short Circuit program. Directed by Kim Hazel, it’s called Dinosaur Barbarian, and its promo image features a barbarian, axe held high, astride a dinosaur, surrounded by lightning – indeed, strong hints of Frazetta’s Against the Gods. The article cites ’80s cartoons as influence. The official synopsis for Dinosaur Barbarian reads: “Battling evil is all in a day’s work for Dinosaur Barbarian, but what about taking out the trash? Sometimes even a superhero needs to clean up his act.” That’s right, Dinosaur Barbarian is a superhero.

Dinosaur Barbarian: superhero.

To take another recent Sword & Planet example (now, there’s a term we don’t use often enough!): fans of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix are unlikely to trace the line of descent back to C.L. Moore’s classics. The first thing a 14-year old She-Ra fan encounters when she sticks her curious head over the parapet is angry men on the bottom half of the Internet, proclaiming that this She-Ra is woke garbage: “She’s not even a proper girl! She wears pants, ffs!” Our young fan will have none of it, and moves sideways, into Steven Universe, and from there she graduates to character-driven, inclusive SciFi like that of Corinne Duyvis, Becky Chambers, and the people who have been winning Hugo Awards for the past years. Maybe they’ll transmute those early influences into writing the great S&S series of the 2040s, but it’s unlikely that they, or their readers, will recognise and name it as such.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: pants!

What is the alternative, then? Do we accept that Sword & Sorcery is a damaged brand among audiences who would rather not be associated with the worst the genre has to offer: the retrogressive attitudes to women, predictably white casts of characters, stock plotting, clichés and laughable prose? Do we give up and call what we read and write Heroic Fantasy or Grimdark, or are these genres heirs to all the same problems?

Sword & Sorcery can, and should be, so much: it offers such a big canvas for conflict, magic and trickery, and vast expanses of adventure. So do we rebel, Conan-like, against limitations, and venture to change the narrative, the brand itself? Can we rescue the best of Sword & Sorcery’s past, the malleability and potential that characterised those early days, and build a tent worth inviting people into? Can we plant the flag for Big Tent Sword & Sorcery and invite in those riders from the margins of the genre?

Or, and this requires real consideration, is it futile trying to save a brand when half its adherents don’t want it to be saved from itself? Is it even possible for it to evolve? In the end, are we more in love with the idea of S&S than the reality of a genre dying on its feet because it can’t accept the world moving on?

Is the feast over, and are the lamps expiring?

10 thoughts on “Fled & Done: Sword & Sorcery

  1. I seem to be naturally a tad genre-blind. Sure, I get the larger categories: science fiction and fantasy, say, but even between these two monolithic genres there seems to me to be considerable interbreeding. Beyond this—the sub-genres—are these much more than commercial categories invented so that bookshops know what shelf to put a book on? If genres were invented for this sort of purpose, have we, in a time where online book shopping can layout the books along infinitely more dimensions than those that bookshelves are restricted to, outgrown the need for them? I really don’t know, but on the specific issue of Sword & Sorcery, even from the argument (in your excellent article) above, is it not perhaps a historical genre, one that is now closed? Could this not be the reason why new genres such a Grimdark have been invented? Rather than trying to ‘fold’ these new categories back into old ones, why not just march forward across the broader vistas that are now open to us?

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    1. It’s certainly possible. We were reading an article earlier about Amazing Fantasy #1, and it was interesting to notice that it was characterised as “sci-fantasy” and as “pulp” – making me think that people in general may be collapsing the range of genres that pulp once encompassed into one, characterised by a certain “feel”. Of course a problem then arises if you’re trying to share something which takes from those old genres, but for the sum of its parts, “pulp” is a misnomer. That’s where I find strength in having a variety of genres. But you’re right that Sword & Sorcery may not be one that is legible in that “Which shelf do we put this book on, and which shelf will people go to if they’re looking for something like it?” context…

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  2. I think you miss a couple of key points that are at the root, and must be brought in to the conversation. One must examine the genesis of the term by Fritz Leiber as discussed in AMRA as the very original definition of S&S lies there. Secondly, S&S was considered a sub-genre, but of what? That also needs to be looked at to set the stage. Has the definition changed over the last 60 odd years since Leiber’s pronouncement, or should it be expanded? I think you cover all the possible modern influenced modalities well but the ultimate question remains – should S&S change or should new sub-genres be created. Personally I think S&S should be left alone as a time honoured marker of an era that saw many imitators of Howard. Let the new stuff stand on its own merit and if meritorious enough, create new sub-genres to mark their emergence as was done for Howard.

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    1. Ang, I find it interesting that Scotty and I have—no doubt coming from wildly different hinterlands—come to a similar conclusion: that S&S could be a closed, historical box…

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    2. I appreciate your comment! You pose some interesting questions, and as you’ll have noticed, we have more questions than answers ourselves. The S&S label, and definition, was indeed retro-actively applied, and I’ve got a suspicion that REH himself would find it needlessly limiting, seeing as he was constantly mixing genres (if you can speak of that) and points of view. In applying the definition, Leiber etc were already dealing with a generation of semi-pastiches (from Elak of Atlantis onwards). “A sub-genre of what?” – I’m not sure. “Weird” stories perhaps? Or “Adventure” stories? When you look at REH’s influences, it seems very light on his Fantasy forefathers. Then muddy the waters further by going a decade forwards in time, to Michael Moorcock. Is Elric actually S&S (and if it is, why not then Boorman’s Excalibur?) – seems to me that Elric’s been included because he was sitting at the same Flashing Swords table as Carter, De Camp, Leiber, etc. That’s fine, call it New Wave S&S; lump in Tanith Lee’s Birthgrave too. But then, indeed. Has the genre evolved much since then? Or since it’s ’80s prime popularity? I don’t think it has, much, and if it did then it’s indeed possible it’s not recognised (or recognisable) as S&S. Perhaps S&S should be left alone – aspects of it are not of this time, as well as (imo) too many fans still clinging to those aspects. In the world at large I do notice a certain embarrassment about the term, associated it is with those (today, again, I saw something so clearly inspired by S&S without naming it – https://www.comicsbeat.com/the-marvel-rundown-amazing-fantasy-1-review/ )… Or can the brand be redeemed? The Western has been moribund at times too, and yet it manages to be reinvigorated for each generation, at times commenting on its own history. I honestly don’t know, and time will tell… There are definitely a lot of people who are working hard on dragging it into the 21st century, and making it accessible, inviting, but I’ve also noted frustration with those that drag it down. We found that with marketing The Red Man and Others to a S&S audience we got great reviews and support from one part of fandom, but a cold shoulder from the other side – and in such a small fandom that’s just not viable. (See recent discussion on REH group with people explicitly saying they do not want new books on the shelves). While we’re working on follow-ups, we’d think twice, thrice of putting an S&S label on it – and to be honest, realising this has freed us to push these stories into directions which have us sit upright ourselves…. So, despite the good people, and the good work being done, to me the genre -unkindly so- feels like an old friend you’ve shared a lot of good and bad times with growing up, and have fond memories of – but when you invite him to a party, you’ve got to have a talk first about proper behaviour (and do some damage control afterwards with other guests who’ve raised eyebrows) – and who you really wouldn’t want to be in a business relationship with… (This became a long comment – and still not really answering anything, I know…) – Remco

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      1. I wonder if one of the reasons that S&S may be a historical genre and one that is no longer viable is because it is a ‘colonial’ form? I say this because another sort of work that would seem to me that Conan (for example) is closely related to is Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, for example) and H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mine’s for example). Those were clearly colonial… and Conan stories seem to me a bit like that, as well as possessed of the social mores (sexism, for exmple) of those earlier times

        Westerns are a more subtle colonial form—one of the most pernicious, being profoundly linked to white supremacy and genocide. If Westerns were not protected by the necessary collective amnesia of the American Empire and the brainwashing by Hollywood, they might also be a ‘closed historical genre’… If our civilization endures, I would be surprised if this doesn’t happen

        How much is your desire to label Red Man as S&S to do with your own childhood nostalgia? She, by Rider Haggard, was a profound influence on my own work and, if I had been able to put my books in that genre (whatever it is), I might have been tempted to do so

        Red Man does not seem to me to be S&S—it is vastly more progressive and ‘gentle’. In other words, it is of its time. Why insist on shoehorning it into a colonial marching boot? *wide grin*

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      2. You may be on to something with the ‘colonial genre’ – but, in understanding that, how can you react to it? The Tarzan film of a few years back did an excellent job of ‘decolonising’ Tarzan; the African people were -well- people (one scene has Jane sitting with other young women, talking about what young women talk about world-wide) and there was a deliberate reaction to its original racial/racist tropes. Westerns too, particularly so, have become a commentary on the history of the Western itself, as well as the times they were set in, and the genre is very much alive (though it waxes and wanes) – ‘Django Unchained’ for example is a very unflinching portrait of the white supremacy you mention.
        Yes, of course it’s nostalgia, but also wanting to be part of something that’s got a legacy. And we still may; surely I should be able to write about stubborn Northerners?……

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  3. I don’t see that “colonial” has anything to do with REH. ERB, Kipling, Lamb, Haggard and similar, yes as they extol colonial attitudes of the late colonization period and speech that today is quite offensive, but common then. And I might note that westerns continue a tradition not because they are protected somehow by Hollywood, but because cowboy culture is very alive and present in modern North American. Every year I go up into the interior Cariboo area of British Columbia to live in a log cabin for two weeks, amongst ranchers and people who live horse and cowboy culture and living and frequent rodeos from small local towns to larger events all the way to the Calgary Stampede, one of the premier rodeo events in N. America.
    So re-examining S&S it is a medieval-like setting with adventure, romance, magic, sorcery, wizards and some horror. Typically it involves sword play (broadsword mostly) with elements of the supernatural or wizardry. It is distinct from High Fantasy with a focus more on and individual(s) versus global battles such as in Game of Thrones. The settings are completely fictional and created by the author.
    Looking at 14 main literature genres, I would say S&S is mostly a subgenre of Fantasy, but it includes elements of 8 major genres. In the case of Howard I would say his S&S includes elements from Literary Fiction, Mystery, Horror, Historical, Romance,BildungsRoman, Speculative, and Fantasy. So it’s a complex issue, and that probably goes for a lot of fiction as they often cross lines. BildungsRoman is interesting, as it indicates character growth over time. This is well displayed in the conan stories as there is a definite change in Conan from youth to King, his attitudes and knowledge.
    So why do tales of King Arthur for example not qualify. Basically IMO it is because it is based on real myth like Robin Hood. The tales of Arthur are distant enough that we are not really sure of their authenticity, but myth is based on aural tale telling passed down through the generations and while it may have drifted in the retelling, is nevertheless based on some original real tale and history.

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