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Author Topic: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?  (Read 10097 times)

Offline Yora

Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« on: March 05, 2016, 04:45:20 PM »

This is Sword & Sorcery. You can probably guess why the genre has been having a bit of a poor reputation for the last half century.

But of course, this is not all there is to it. It's a genre about protagonists who refuse to submit to authority and conformity and who go through life guided by their own desires and convictions. Some of them are heartless and evil bastards and many of them are deeply selfish. But most of them are ultimately good and don't hesitate to use their great might and skill to do the right things that nobdy else is willing to do. When the conventions and traditions of society paralyze everyone else, they do what they know someone else should have done a long time ago.
It's also a genre about action, magic, monsters, and fantastic places. Probably one of the most exhilarating genres of fantasy where it's always all about big emotions. A genre I think still has a lot to offer to modern audiences. You can find elements of it in Star Wars and Game of Thrones, and quite often it happens at those moments which are the really cool ones.

But after some decent books in the late 70s and a series of terribly trashy movies in the 80s, Sword & Sorcery has pretty much completely disappeard from the mainstream perception. One thing that people occasionally bring up is the idea that maybe the genre is just too outdated and never really manged to evolve and go with the times. And admitedly, most works that are considered classics of this genre were written back in the 1930s. I think most of these are still very readable, but you really couldn't write and publish anything that is just like that and expect today's audiences to accept it.
It's an interesting topic to talk about with people who are great fans with deep knowledge of the genre. But it's also of only limited use to learn why people who are not fans are not attracted to it. So I am taking this question to you, who I believe are mostly not terribly familiar with the works of Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. To people looking in from the outside and not being terribly impressed by what you think to be able to make out: What it is about Sword & Sorcery stories that makes them appear unappealing and what seems to be missing that you want from your fantasy stories?
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Offline Barbara J Webb

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #1 on: March 05, 2016, 06:08:47 PM »
In some ways, I think Sword and Sorcery has been cannibalized for parts. There are elements of it running through a whole lot of the fantasy genre. And roleplaying games. And video games.

It is an interesting question though, one I hadn't thought about but now that you bring it up, I'm having trouble thinking of a good answer. I don't think this is a genre that can't evolve. So why hasn't it?

I will contemplate this on the Tree of Woe.
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Offline ArhiX

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #2 on: March 05, 2016, 06:44:04 PM »
It's most likely, because of it, being really straight-forward. People go for a journey. Do stuff. Battle monsters and get women. It's fun 20 times, but after 21st you slowly loose interest, and have a De-Ja-Vu kind of experience, which is not good at all, considering books should be interesting and distinguishable. And in end, this genre was propably devoured by (or fused with) "gritty/grim/dark fantasy" with much more complicated plots, were characters like Kane, aren't main characters, but are only a part of, much bigger, story arc. That is my guess.
"The world is full of stories, and from time to time, they permit themselves to be told."

Offline magisensei

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #3 on: March 05, 2016, 08:13:34 PM »
To answer your question about whether or not S+S is unappealing in the 21st century, I think you first need to look at its covers. 

Just the image that you put up - shows why it has fallen out of favor to some degree.  Here we have a muscular almost unclad barbarian in a powerful pose but we also have another image of a woman - also scantily dressed but in a very passive position - like a very weak damsel in distress or a prize to be won. 

I think that S+S need to update how it imagines this world to some degree.  In the 21st century do these images appeal to the masses anymore? No we need to read about muscular barbarians and damsels in distresses as prizes to be won - no, I don't think so - or at least not ones that are so obvious in its portrayal of gender differences. 

While some might argue that S+S has had strong female characters - and I can agree that there are some - eg Red Sonja etc - these woman warriors are also treated almost like sex objects - is a bikini chain mail really a practical armor to wear – although you might say that the male warrior is also in a bikini as well but oddly enough he is almost never posed as a sexual object and more of a naked bloody barbarian warrior hero.  I think as readers we are searching for more than this in our stories and cover art. 

That is not to say that S+S does not remain popular to some degree in different mediums even if it does less well in printed word medium.  Conan and Red Sonja as comic are still being produced and still have a following. 

For S+S in fantasy – I think it needs to evolve or at least change to some degree and I think it has done that.  Do we really need the half naked barbarian slashing and hacking through his latest adventure or do we want something a little bit more complex than a bloody battle followed by looting and winning the damsel in distress. 

I think we can see S+S still in popular fantasy: Sub-genres like grim fantasy has sort of taken the traditional S+S and just made it darker with less heroism and honor and more darkness and selfishness.  While other sub-genres like the thief / assassin protagonist (still with the essence of S+S) has moved away from the strapping muscle bound barbarian to a more “anti-hero” character that is a little more sophisticated and worldly but still skilled in doing there job. 

While more traditional S+S might not be published as frequently – there are many fantasy novels that still possess some of the essence of the sword and sorcery genre in their own stories.  When we read about individual adventures by thieves, mages or assassins – these protagonist characters continue the trend of sword and sorcery – it’s just that they no longer rely on the muscle bound barbarian nor the scantily clad female to sell books. 

Offline Yora

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #4 on: March 05, 2016, 09:26:52 PM »
Yes, I think you are totally right regarding the art. I love Frank Frazetta, Ken Kelly, and Boris Vallejo, but they really are no longer suited as advertising to broader audiences. Established fans might rejoice, but it's probably more a barrier to keep newcomers away instead of drawing them in.

Just the image that you put up - shows why it has fallen out of favor to some degree.  Here we have a muscular almost unclad barbarian in a powerful pose but we also have another image of a woman - also scantily dressed but in a very passive position - like a very weak damsel in distress or a prize to be won.

I actually just picked the first image that came up when I looked for one. But actually, it's even worse than you say. I think it has all the three things that are the most obviously objectionable: Big grim barbarian, naked slave girl, and a big pile of corpses.

First is the big dumb barbarian. When Robert Howard laid the foundation for what would become Sword & Sorcery in it's recognizable form, he created the character Kull who is a highly intelligent philosopher king who rose from humble birth by climbing the ranks of the military. That one didn't sell and Howard rewrote the character to be more barbaric and not quite as intellectual, and Conan became a huge success. Then Fritz Leiber created Fafhrd as a big dumb barbarian with no trace of Conan's intelligence. And then you got all the immitators who tried to jump up on this train to success which created the terrible cliche. About which people had already been complaining decades ago. But of course they never disappeard. Because they look great on all those paintings!
Yes, sure, these paintings are an instantly recognizable icon that immediately tells everyone "Sword & Sorcery". But it's exactly this type of Sword & Sorcery that is still stuck in the 70s. Conan can be the godfather of Sword & Sorcery protagonists, but I think he's no longer suited to be the poster boy.

The second is obiously the naked slave girl. Again, she looks great on paintings, but if Sword & Sorcery wants to draw in a new audience she can't be our foot in the door. I think there's a big place for sexiness in fantasy fiction even today, but it has to be an element among many. There is a place for everything, and the naked slave girl does not belong on the front cover.
Though of course the matter goes a lot deeper than just the showing of skin. While I don't have a problem with the portrayal of women by Robert Howard or Karl Wagner, there is no denying that Sword & Sorcery has a major women problem. As I see it, injustice, inequality, prejudice, and discrimination are quite essential elements of Sword & Sorcery worldbuilding. It is the confrontation of the unbound individuum with the unfairness of society that I consider the very heart of the genre. Because of this I don't think the answer to this issue can lie in focusing on setting with gender equality and absence of racism. Instead, I think, the genre would be much better served by retaining these inequalities but adressing them openly. What is needed is not equal opportunity, but equal agency. You can have a story set in a world that is inherently unfair to women, but you need to give these women a space on the pages to show that they are angry and dissatisfied. The really problematic female character is the one who is told to sit down and be quite while the men are talking and does so without a sign of objection. I've seen many cases of supposedly "Strong Independent Women" characters who match the cardboard cutout description of this archetype, but who don't actually get to participate in any decisions and actions. Just a few days ago I read a story that was all about this badass woman confronting her dark past and making peace with her sins she had tried to keep burried. And she's really one of the strongest fighters in the whole series. But what happened was that the entire story consisted of her old rival, her old teacher, and her new boyfriend fighting over her while she stays quietly in the background and doesn't say what she thinks or wants. She does have some awesome fight scenes in that story, but always only when her old teacher or her new boyfriend tell her to. This is just awful! Putting a woman into armor and a sword in her hand doesn't solve anything. It's neither sufficient to make a genre less sexist, nor is it necessary. What Sword & Sorcery needs is women and other marginalized characters who get agency. They need to be able to make descisions and take actions that make a difference, and do so on their own initiative. I think you can even have a misogynistic racist as your main character, as long as you also show that not everyone admires him for that and many people have other opinions and think he's a terrible pig.

And thirdly, there is a certain tendency for hyperviolence in Sword & Sorcery. Not always, but it's quite common. This genre aproaches violence just the same way as 80s and 90s action movies. People are killed in the dozens left or right without a second thought and nobody aknowledging their deaths. Extreme violence is not necessarily a bad thing and certainly has it's place. But I think it needs to be taken much more seriously. Yes, in most Sword & Sorcery works, lives are cheap. But that doesn't mean that killing has to be without consequence. Less is more.

It is an interesting question though, one I hadn't thought about but now that you bring it up, I'm having trouble thinking of a good answer. I don't think this is a genre that can't evolve. So why hasn't it?

I know of one major example of what I consider an evolved form of Sword & Sorcery, which is The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski. It has almost all the elements of the genre that I consider essential:
It has a hero who exists outside of established society and is not bound by its conventions. This hero acts based on his own desires and values and not in conformity with what society expects. And he deals with problems by taking action and getting his hands dirty instead of creating elaborate plans and directing large armies. It has plenty of fight scenes (the Swords) and a lot of hostile magic and threatening supernatural creatures (the Sorcery). The only thing where it moves a bit away in its own direction is in its more somber or even serene atmosphere instead of going for great passion and exhilaration. But it's still a story about powerful emotions that are much more important than the political and military machinations.

And interrestingly, The Witcher avoids all the three big problem I mentioned above. Geralt is not a big dumb barbarian but an agile swordsman with great self control. He also does not engage in violence lightly. I think I am halfway through the series and I remember only one really chaotic battle scene in which he kills a random enemy who doesn't have any characterization. Usually they have names and there are conversations to establish their relationship and the nature of their personal confrontation.
And thirdly, there are a lot of women who all have agency. And almost none of them are occupying male roles. They don't have to become "one of the guys" to get a meaningful role. There is one woman who could be said to fall into that category and she's a terrible person. And when she starts torturing prisoners she gets half her face smashed in in self-defense. I very much like that scene because she suffers the consequences of her own actions and decisions and she does not recieve a lighter treatment for being a woman. It's actions that matter, with no previleges or discriminations one way or the other. There's also a good amount of briefly mentioned and glossed over sex in the series, but the woman are never decorative or a prize. They are equal participants.
The series was a very big success in Eastern Europe and the English translations where delayed for many years and only arriving now. But the videogame series based on it is remarkably faithful to the worldbuilding and tone of the books and are incredibly popular. People love this stuff. I see this is a case where Sword & Sorcery did evolve and it does have a big audience. So it can be done. But that's only one series and it was written 20 years ago, so it's impact on the genre today is still a relatively minor one.
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Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #5 on: March 06, 2016, 01:27:54 AM »
I need to read The Witcher one of these days.

As for Sword and Sorcery, I agree that it needs a modern update. You've seen it in other forms of fantasy. Very little epic fantasy these days is about elves and dwarves and such. Epic fantasy outgrew that. I think Sword and Sorcery needs to do the same.

I'm not all that familiar with S&S, but I do believe a lot of other fantasy sub-genres have borrowed from it. You see a lot of it in thief and assassin books. You might also argue that some heroic fantasy, such as Sebastien de Castell's Greatcoats series, borrows elements from S&S.

Offline cupiscent

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #6 on: March 06, 2016, 06:49:22 AM »
I think we can see S+S still in popular fantasy: Sub-genres like grim fantasy has sort of taken the traditional S+S and just made it darker with less heroism and honor and more darkness and selfishness.

I think you're on the money here. I was pondering as I was reading through this thread, and considering how much certain story elements of Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy are drawn (and twisted) from S&S works. Logan Ninefingers and Bayaz - and even the dandy highwayman swordsman whose name I forget - are heroes on a quest, but when the camera pans out a little and you see the broader context that Abercrombie paints, nothing is simple.

It's that lack of simplicity and addition of context that gives the story some oomph, for me. I've tried to read Moorcock and Howard, and I stopped because I was bored. Is it partly that the writing style is dated? Sure. But mostly it's that I just didn't care about these "heroes". They were selfish and untethered from wider cares and responsibilities that might have given the story of their lives some weight for me. "The man alone" narrative really isn't at all compelling for me.

...though saying that now makes me think of an updating-the-trope example from outside the fantasy genre. Lindsay Davies' Falco novels - historical crime set in ancient Rome - feature a private eye whom she intentionally made the opposite of the usual noir tropes. Sure, he's got the war-history bitterness and the down-at-heel circumstances, but instead of being a solo stoic figure, she gave him a meddling Italian extended family, and a capable wife. It gives the character humanity, depth and reality, and makes his stories colourful and engaging.

To return to the point - I follow a lot of literary agents and help-for-writer blogs and twitter feeds, and a commonly asked question is "can I still write [exhausted genre/trope]?" (usually YA dystopia at present). The answer is almost always a variant on: "You can write whatever you like, just do something amazing, compelling and new."

Offline DrNefario

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #7 on: March 06, 2016, 10:57:28 AM »
Sword & Sorcery seems to be a short form. Even when expanded to novel length, they tend to be very short novels by modern standards. It could just be as simple as the length being out of fashion. I have certainly read stories in anthologies recently - the Legends 2 anthology and Fearsome Journeys, maybe also Rogues - which I have thought might fit your definition of S&S.

Although I'm still not convinced that S&S is a definable separate thing to the rest of epic/heroic fantasy, rather than just being a few authors' particular style.

Offline Yora

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #8 on: March 06, 2016, 11:06:29 AM »
(I type this before reading the post of DrNefario, but it adresses the same thing.)

Yeah, every writing advice needs to end with "if you think you can pull it off well".

The lone wanderer looking for shit to stir up might indeed be one of the problem that is holding the genre back. It happens to be the biggest challenge I keep running into with my own writing attempts. I constantly stumble at giving the protagonist a reason to actually care. When they are in it just for the thrill and money, there is little to use as a foundation to build a more complicated plot.
I think part of it comes probably from the original magazine short story format where you had very limited word counts. There is only so much you can do in 15,000 words and the next story needs to be again fully accessible to new readers who have not read any of those published before. But that really doesn't need to be a constraint now. If you want to take yourself 30k, 45k, or 60k words you can do that. If you want to do an episodic series with continuous plot arcs, you can do that too.

Again, it's interesting when you look at The Witcher. The first book is six stand alone stories. The second book is much more episodic. And from the third book the rest of the series reads very much like episodic novels.
What probably doesn't work are the true 15k word one-shots. I don't think anyone is interested in reading about a character who they will never see again in 20 minutes. If you start with a series of six or eight stories, it would probably be much easier to get attention. I believe The Copper Promise was actually written as as four episodes and then combined into a single volume. And that book was also very succesful.
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Online ScarletBea

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Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #9 on: March 06, 2016, 11:36:46 AM »
And I keep thinking that @sennydreadful's books, starting with The copper promise are a really good modern take of the S&S tradition :)
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Offline Yora

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #10 on: March 06, 2016, 11:49:23 AM »
Oh yes. Her opinion would be really interesting here.
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Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #11 on: March 06, 2016, 12:14:06 PM »
Oh yes. Her opinion would be really interesting here.
I'm not sure she checks everything, we need to 'call her'.
@sennydreadful, could you give us your opinion on this, please?
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Offline sennydreadful

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Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #12 on: March 06, 2016, 08:34:27 PM »
Oh yes. Her opinion would be really interesting here.
I'm not sure she checks everything, we need to 'call her'.
@sennydreadful, could you give us your opinion on this, please?

Oh hello! *waves*

Gosh. Well. I think that like any genre, it's possible to create something fresh and new by bringing a new perspective. The Copper Cat books are very much a love letter to sword and sorcery in many ways, while also bearing in mind that it can be a genre mired in a lot of old fashioned ideas.

I love Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, partly because they take fantasy landscapes and view them through the eyes of the 'little guys'. Not kings or queens or great military leaders, but the mercenaries trying to earn a few quid. I love them because they are funny, and morally dubious, and the characters are mostly out to look after themselves. To me this has always felt more human and interesting than the POV of a king manipulating  a battle from a distance...

They are also very blokey. Rather like the picture that starts this thread, it's a man's world with a man's POV. For me, I thought - what if sword and sorcery wasn't blokey? What if it could be progressive and diverse? What if the main character were a charming, likeable rogue, just like the Gray Mouser, who also just happened to be a woman? What if the Fafhrd character were gay? For me, the whole genre suddenly became a lot more fun, and a place I wanted to play in.


Offline Yora

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #13 on: March 07, 2016, 12:05:32 PM »
Coming back to the art for a moment, I think this subject might actually be a really big source of the image problem. Just look at the covers of books, movies, and games from the last 5 years:

Spoiler for Hiden:





This is how Sword & Sorcery still always tries to draw an audience. With imagery that is a complete turn off for probably almost everyone who isn't already a longtime fan. It's actually classic gatekeeping. It turns away everyone who isn't already an initiate. This isn't how you get a new audience. This his how you keep out a new audience.

It's a nice visual shortcut that any fan instantly recognizes, but it absolutely fails at communicating that not all Sword & Sorcery is big savage brutes on piles of corpses with naked girl on their legs. If you self publish: Don't do this. If you have a publisher, fight to not get cover art like that. It might get a quick sale to old fans desperate for new stuff to read, but you probably will never reach an audience beyond these. It hurts you in the long term.

One article I've found somewhere yesterday (I think it was at Tor) had one comment describing Sword & Sorcery as "fiction of the encounter", in particular with the supernatural and mystical. That's something that doesn't seem particularly common in fantasy these days. And it's also something for which Sword & Sorcery seems to be particularly well suited with its tradition of short form narratives, small casts, and big emotions. And that doesn't in any way require a huge sword and a naked chest.
This seems like a direction into which Sword & Sorcery might head, that really would allow it to shine. It doesn't have drop cherished elements or replace them with new ones. This is stuff the genre is already great at. It really would be mostly a change of focus away from the violence to something more cerebral.

Here are some images that also could showcase Sword & Sorcery:
Spoiler for Hiden:








We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline JamesLatimer

Re: Is Sword & Sorcery outdated? And how can it move forward?
« Reply #14 on: March 09, 2016, 11:19:14 AM »
I think "traditional" S&S is outdated, but so is a lot of traditional Epic or Heroic Fantasy. I don't think there's anything inherent in S&S that makes it hard to update to the modern era - as Jen Williams points out. We do have an obsession with Epic Fantasy these days, and the anti-Heroic Grimdark. If one of the defining things about S&S is one-hero/pair-against-the-darkness, then what about things like Peter Newman's The Vagrant or even Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire (inverted, obvs)? They seem to be modern era equivalent of Moorcock-style "Epic S&S", while Michael Sullivan's series would seem to be an updated Lankhmar. Some of David Gemmell's stuff is quite S&S, and I know he's had a huge influence on modern (mainly British) fantasy.

Of course, I may be talking out of my ass because I haven't got round to reading my examples here... :/