So I’m nearing the completion of Warglaive Volume One’s second draft. As this is a book largely inspired by Sword and Sorcery (and to a lesser extent Planetary Romance) , I wanted to explore some of my favorite aspects of this once-popular genre. What makes it distinct from the Tolkienesque or D&D-inspired fare of today? Here’s a few thoughts on what I feel are the genre’s essential elements.
The Weird, Pulpy Settings
One of the things I find really lacking in much of “modern” fantasy is the sense of the truly weird. Fantasy nowadays is filled with familiar tropes and archetypes such as your orcs, elves, dwarves and manual monsters. Back in the 20’s and 30’s however, these tropes weren’t anywhere near as prevalent. Before the widespread appeal of Tolkien and D&D, pulp fiction authors came up with a weird cocktail blend of jungle opera, cosmic horror and mythic adventure.
You never quite knew what you were going to get with a “fantasy” story, as the “genre” wasn’t playing by any rules yet. One story might have wizards in an Aztec-style temple attempting to stop a giant ape, while another might have Throngar the Barbarian astrally projecting himself through NYC’s Central Park. One of my favorite author quotes comes from an interview with Michael Moorcock, where he compares fantasy to early rock n’ roll. This was back in the day when “rock n roll” meant everything from Black Sabbath, to Led Zeppelin and DEVO. And in his words, when you know what to expect from rock n’ roll, “the rock n’ roll dies.”
There were downsides to this approach, namely that the worldbuilding was usually far less rigorous than that of Epic Fantasy. Fantasy readers, especially in the age of the internet and wikis, tend to enjoy more fleshed-out and lore-rich worlds like Middle Earth. However, Tolkien’s influence is a double-edged sword, in that most of these secondary worlds look suspiciously like Frodo’s.
One thing I think many people forget is that despite coining the term, Tolkien’s Secondary World really isn’t one in the strictest sense. Like Hyboria and the world of the Wheel of Time series, Middle-Earth is meant to be our world from a long-forgotten age. The trend these days however, is completely different universes, such as World of Warcraft’s Azeroth. These worlds tend to have a very “familiar” feeling though, which makes me wonder…what happened to the fantasy? For such a fantastical genre, it can be awfully derivative at times…
Which leads up back to pulp Sword and Sorcery. While it does have its tropes, said tropes are spread out across a million genres ranging from horror to sci-fi, dark and heroic fantasy, sometimes crossing into full-blown slipstream. And that’s something I really love about this style of fantasy fiction.
Speaking of which…
The Sci-Fi and Horror Elements
I’m the sort of person who really likes sci-fi peanut butter in my fantasy chocolate if you couldn’t tell. The juxtaposition of science and sorcery is one of my favorite tropes, and something I feel the writers and creators of the 60’s and 70’s really took advantage of. Ralph Bakshi’s excellent film Wizards is a microcosm of the cultural struggles and fears of the time, pitting an evil Nazi sorcerer against the good Fey folk of the woods.
Horror is yet another major influence in the S&s genre. While I previously discussed the “weird” aspect, Gothic, Post-Apocalypse and other Horror tropes are also present. A good example of this is the influence of the “mad scientist” trope in games like Path of Exile, where ancient temples and eldritch horrors coexist with frightful technology. Creeping crypts, horrific monsters, unspeakable cults and dark magic are all common fantasy tropes “borrowed” from the horror side of Sword & Sorcery. Which is something largely born from pulp authors borrowing from one another’s respective settings.
When I first started writing, I started writing horror. Halloween’s always been tied with Christmas as my favorite holiday, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every episode of Tales From the Crypt. Which is why the horror stuff in pulp fantasy appeals to me so much. There’s just something really bad-ass about heroes going toe-to-toe with monsters that utterly terrorize in other stories. Sure, the vampies in Salem’s Lot are spooky, but Conan has f*cked vampires up beyond recognition and that’s just cool.
Individual Heroes Struggling Against a Dangerous World
Though it’s the third item on this list, individualism is arguably the most important facet of this genre. According to an article on the genre by Black Gate Magazine:
“Sword and sorcery tells the tales of men who are free from all constraint. Their stature and skill mean they are free from the tyranny of other men. Their birth and raising free them from the morals and mores of society, and the lack of higher powers unbinds them from any concept of fate. Thus the heroes of sword and sorcery become the true representatives of free-will, and through their stories, readers are able to imagine the capabilities and the triumphs of men who are completely free to chart their own destiny.”
Heroes such as this are notably different from those in Heroic and Epic fantasy stories, who often work in service of a higher power. These stories are often inspired by myths and epics, while Sword and Sorcery’s roots lie largely in the culture of the Pulps. Stories written for and by working-class individuals, from the same cultural landscape that brought us heroes like Superman.
And ultimately, I feel that’s why the archetypes of Sword and Sorcery (if not always the genre itself in fiction) has lasted as long as it has. Conan for all his failings, was a hero of the downtrodden, freeing slaves and saving those who needed his help. Is he a selfish character compared to say, Superman? Hell yes. He was after all, created as a power fantasy for the dock-workers, factory men and youths who flocked to his stories. But beyond that, he and other heroes like him represent the power to affect change (good or ill) of their own volition, free from (and often against) the will of deities, daemons and meddling kings. Which is just as powerful and timeless a message as you can get.
The Bad and the Ugly
There are of course, issues with the genre despite all my gushing. And while some of the decline of Sword and Sorcery can be chalked up to over-exposure in the 80’s, there are other reasons.
One of the biggest culprits in my opinion is the pulp short story format. The formula where Conan, or other pulp heroes like The Shadow would encounter an enemy/trial, defeat it, and repeat the cycle anew. While great for one-off stories in the era of newsstands, in today’s Netflix-and-Kindle focused landscape, this sort of storytelling is sub-optimal. People love progression, and characters that dynamically change over time. Which isn’t to say that Robert E. Howard’s characters never changed (Barbarian to Pirate to King). But said stories were done in a very episodic, almost monster-of-the-issue sort of way.
Nowadays with the aforementioned Netflix and Kindle, it’s much easier to include story and character progression without having to worry if you missed an issue of Weird Tales. And as a result, modern readers have begun leaning more towards doorstopper epics and even web serials. Although one notable figure who transitioned to new online stardom is H.P. Lovecraft, whose work was introduced to many a modern kid via the “creepypasta” (necro)phenomenon.
There’s also the overexposure the genre had in the 1980’s, after a glut of genuinely terrible films like Deathstalker, Ladyhawke, Red Sonja, Krull, Conquest, Hawk the Slayer (it’s rubbish, deal with it) and many more. There were also a number of knock-off Conan characters in toys, comic books and novels that sanded off the bloody, sexual edge and made it woefully PG-rated. By the time the 90’s rolled in, everything “cool” about Sword and Sorcery had been cannibalized by both Heroic Fantasy (Barbarian characters, big monsters, epic adventures) and Grimdark (all the violence, sex, nudity and horror).
Sadly, the sense of the truly weird got lost as a result, as did many of the strange and alien locales. Gone was the sci-fi, and the weird horror. And while there are many aspects of Sword and Sorcery that can use an update, I feel there’s still a lot of elements unique to the genre that can still work. Whether they be other genres borrowing from the classic pulps, or new takes on old styles of storytelling, there’ll always be a future for Swords and Sorcery!