Friday, May 21, 2010

What Is Swords & Sorcery?

I think the absolute common definition is this:

"It's in ancient times, see? There are no phones, no lights, no motor cars. No guns. So people use swords."

combined with

"Magic is real! So maybe you have wizards or dragons or other unrealistic stuff."

... and that's pretty much it, really.

That sound you hear when the words "Tolkien wasn't swords and sorcery because yadda yadda yadda..." are spoken, or any argument claiming that "swords and sorcery" is a specialized, specific form of fantasy, is the sound of eyes doing revolutions and brains clocking out in the face of a truly insignificant argument. I'm as big a pedantic categorizer as you'll find, as I like having labels that identify the differences between things, but honestly, nobody really gives a shit.

So let's review:

Conan? Swords and sorcery.
Lord of the Rings? Swords and sorcery.
The Odyssey? Swords and sorcery.
Sinbad? Swords and sorcery.
King Arthur? Swords and sorcery.


  1. Wow, really want to go THERE?

  2. Eh.

    "Fantasy" was used as the name of a literary genre before the phrase "sword & sorcery" popped up as a genre name.

    I'm with you on the basic concept that it may really be something simple, like "something that includes swords and sorcery".

    But I figure that the fact the term appeared first in adventure pulps, and the similarity to the "sword & sandal" label used for Steve Reeves movies, points to it being "an adventure story featuring swords and sorcery".

    Whereas Tolkien's stuff, although literally "an adventure", isn't really adventure fiction. It's an epic. Hence, "epic fantasy". LotR feels different than H. Rider Haggard's stuff, so it should be a different genre than adventure fiction.

  3. The Sword & the Sorcerer? Swords and sorcery.

    I think.

  4. Tthe Hobbit is definitely an adventure story. It has epic quest undertones, but, really, it's an adventure. Which opens the whole can of worms about is "adventure fiction", what is sword and sorcery, etc. If one acknowledges that The Hobbit is an adventure, then it stands to reason that most closely related other work, Lord of the Rings, is also an adventure. So you start to have trouble drawing defining boundaries around the concept "adventure story".

    For a real world example, in scientific taxonomy there is no such category as "Vertebrates". Instead there is the class Chordata, chordates, because there are several species (lampreys, hagfish, etc) that are more closely related to true vertebrates than they are to any known invertebrate. So the decision was made to cast change the name of the class to fit the most sensible division of species.

    In other words, the boundary you are attempting to define is poorly conceptualized, and will always lead to argument.

  5. Just thought of something. With the use of lightsabers and The Force, could Star Wars be labeled Swords & Sorcery?

  6. To the original assertion: no, no not at all.

    The difference in tone is an important difference even if the utilities are the same. It's the difference between Walls of Jericho and Keeper of the Seven Keys, to make a crossover example.

    The important thing to gather is this: when a lot of people find themselves liking one thing and not its cousin, who are for most intents and purposes in the same genre, then it's worthwhile to detect the differences between them. Even if it doesn't arrive at a new 'genre' or 'sub-genre' tag, those differences should not be swept under the rug for reasons of simplicity. That we're not constantly serving simplicity is a reason for a lot of our most inventive and interesting behavior.

  7. Star Wars = spaceships and ray guns = science fiction

    As soon as you start thinking about it, you've gone too far.

  8. >>The difference in tone is an important difference even if the utilities are the same.

    It depends on the audience though. If you're attempting a critical review, that's one thing. If you're trying to be conversational, you're slitting your own throat worrying about this kind of thing.

  9. In the same way that Call of Cthulhu, the excellent Harry Potter series, Akira and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are all "weird fiction".

  10. Jim, yes, if you're starting a conversation with 'let me explain to you why what you think as swords & sorcery really isn't' it might not go far.

    Again, crossover with how sometimes people come up to me (and to you I bet) and go 'woah you like metal? I like metal too!' and then they explain how Slipknot is their favorite band or whatever. It takes self-control and training to not be patronizing to that but it's certainly possible. And yes, if needed I will concede that both Slipknot and Omen belong in a vague same category if that's what's needed for the conversation to move on.

    But when talking with enthusiasts, the faux pas is to simplify for the sake of it :)

  11. The problem with that formulation is that the term was developed to describe something that already existed. It wasn't used as the original model. So, "sword & sorcery" as a term can only be seen in relation to that critical history. Tolkien isn't sword & sorcery because it was not a part of the subgenre that was being described by the term.

    Trying to think of the term on its own is overthinking. Just go back to the origins of the conversation, in the pulps, where "sword & sorcery", like "sword & planet", was developed by analogy with "sword & sandal" (as mentioned above).

  12. hahaha, foolish mortal. Science fantasy maybe, but Star wars is far from science fiction.

  13. Why use the term at all for precise work? Clearly there are problems with it.

    "Picaresque adventure story with ancient fantasy setting" describes most Conan stories quite well.

    Realist/romanticist/fantasy/science fiction

    Plug and play.

  14. science fiction is defined one way by everybody except for theo ther way as its defined by elitists (which is done so they can exclude what they don't like).

    Sword & Sorcery to me is a type of fantasy novel. I pretty much think of it in the same was 'high fantasy.' If often fails to have any complexity/depth.

  15. Woah, Swords and Sorcery is a bit different than say Swords and Sandals. I also don't think "ancient times" is needed as its often in the future.

    I also think Mythology is another branch that could handle that criteria but is not "swords and sorcery".

  16. Yeah, I gotta disagree as well. Fantasy is the papa genre - S&S is a sub-genre.

  17. "Ancient" is the only thing I'd drop. Pre-gunpowder is fairly key, although not necessarily... Indeed, a good longbowman was better in a pinch and at range until the Kentucky Blue and equivalents arrived.

    How about Highlander? Moderno-swords and sorcery.

    So, the question is what are we trying to achieve with these categorizations?

    OH ONE MORE THING: What about the fact that the Odyssey, Beowulf, and original Arthurian legends were written under the illusion of truth and mythology in lieu of the modern concept of "fantasy". Indeed, to contemporaries, particularly in the cas eof the Odyssey, it was no fantasy. In fact, the Odyssey serves as a religious source too.

    The fundamental question there is: Why is the Odyssey not in the Fantasy Sc-fi section of the book store, nor is original Sir Gawain and Green Knight written centuries ago, but every modern interpretative iteration of Arthur is?

    Fantasy means what it does literally - not real, or perceived so by its authors.

  18. No, James, the absolute common definition is this:

    Did it really happen?


    Then it's fiction.

    I really can't see any kind of point to what you're saying, James. If you're talking to anyone who's into fantasy and is interested in some kinds but not others, S&S is a distinct and useful categorization.

    If you're talking to anyone else, they wouldn't even know what you mean when you say "Sword & Sorcery", so why would you even use that term?

    If you don't like genre labels then fine--that's a valid position, I get that. But to choose a subgenre label and say it applies to everything within it's wider parent genre is pretty absurd. I mean, you know S&S was coined by Fritz Leiber in the early 60's about a very specific kind of writing by a handful of authors, right? It didn't come out of some marketing dept in the last couple of decades.

    I dunno, James. Do you actually believe what you just wrote or are you just shit-stirring?

  19. Groo the Wanderer comics have my favorite sword & sorcery stories.

  20. So your argument's that a lot of people don't make a distinction between types of fantasy? That's probably true.

    But you don't make a compelling argument that a distinction shouldn't be made--other than just to evoke the notion people find it silly--but then people find rpgs and blogs and all sorts of things silly, and...well, here we are.

    Also, you don't give a reason why "S&S" should be the name of this thing that's its too tedious to break into smaller parts. Why that as opposed to "fantasy" or "heroic fantasy", or simply "fiction"?

  21. 1. Does it have an underground setting?

    2. Does it have serpents?

    Then it is Dungeons & Dragons.


  22. I agree with Trey and some of the other commenters. Most people (i.e., those who don't read fantasy) don't give a shit about the differences between epic fantasy and S&S. But for people who do care and do read it, these distinctions are important, if for nothing else than to give broad recommendations.

    Besides, any nomenclature that lumps together Robert E. Howard's Conan stories with drek like Dragonlance and The Belgariad is woefully inadequate. Lumping them all together as swords and sorcery is rather clumsy.

  23. So, Brian, by your lights, any attempt at categorization should clearly differentiate between what YOU like and don't like? Is that it?

    Your "broad recommendations" should be determined by the person you are making recommendations to, not by the category. For a 13-year-old boy, I'll happily recommend Dragonlance and The Belgariad.

    If you're thinking about it, you've already gone too far...

  24. >>For a 13-year-old boy, I'll happily recommend Dragonlance and The Belgariad.

    That's cruel.

  25. Ha, why should I be the only one to suffer through them? Besides, lots of the Belgariad is genuinely funny. My problem with Eddings is that he uses the EXACT same characters for the 20-odd books after the Belgariad.

    You've also got to take reading level into account - Belgariad and Dragonlance are decent books for lower reading levels - not too difficult, not too long. Just because I was reading Howard (but not Lovecraft, sad to say) when I was 13, doesn't mean that you should hand it to everyone.

    Still, this is getting away from your main point, which I agree with. Categorization is less a useful tool than knowledge of tastes and reading level.

  26. Anything that gives me a reliable hint as to what books are (or are not) worth my time has value. Overanalysis of such distinctions is pedantic, not practical.

  27. I think it is a useful label as I like Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet but not typically high fantasy.