Over the last two or three years, I've come to develop a great interest in the Sword & Sorcery genre. Located somewhere between what's now often reffered to as Heroic Fantasy and Dark Fantasy, it seems to have been fading into the background since a short boom of mostly rather trashy movies in the early 80s. (Conan the Barbarian
being the one noticable exception, and even that one is probably only really good if you know what you're looking for.) Interestingly, it seems to have made a recent comback in videogames. The Witcher
, Dark Souls
, Dragon Age 2
, Bound by Flame
and Heavenly Sword
, just to name a few. Only after being familair with these did I discover that there's a really good comic series about Conan running since 2003 and still continuing. Four years ago, there was the anthology Swords and Dark Magic
, but other than that there seems to be not much current literature that tries to aim at the genre, at least as far as I am aware.
Unlike most fantasy subgenres, Sword & Sorcery is relatively well defined. Fritz Leiber introduced it to refer to his own stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
, and included the stories of Robert Howards Conan
as another great example of the genre, as he was staking it out. I think there's a really good article on what constitutes Sword & Sorcery as a genre here
, and I agree with the three main points made there.
- The protagonists are highly capable and qualified to deal with the threats they encounter and rely on a combination of offensive action and cunning trickery to defeat their foes.
- The protagonists in some way exist and live outside of normal society. They may have fame, power, and connections, but they are always different from normal and respectable folk, even when among their own people. They may be wanderers or outcasts, or simply following an occuptation that is not part of normal social life.
- The protagonists are motivated by their own benefit and do what they want to achieve their own goals. In the most basic form it might be for gold and for glory, but it might also be the simple drive to survive and the desire to save someone they care for. They almost never do anything out of a sense of duty and their loyalties shift depending on who they consider the best ally to get what they want for themselves.
There seems to be a popular notion that Sword & Sorcery needs to be dark, violent, with protagonists who are overall terrible people, but I think in most works this is not actually the case. There tends to be a general abscence of idealism and situations often get quite uncomfortable, but the hero can still be a hero, doing good things and directing his wrath at the actually guilty. Some call it nihilistic, but I think it is rather something quite existentialistic and postmodern. The world is not black and white, try to make the best of it as you can.
I've only read a couple of Sword & Sorcery books and always looking for new recommendations. I think I read all of the original Conan stories by Robert Howard, and while some of them are stronger than others, I think not a single one of them could be called weak. Both the description of the scenes and the pacing, which I consider very important in a story, are very well done and the plots are generally quite interesting as well.
I also read the two collections Swords and Deviltry
and Swords against Death
of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, and these ones I can not recommend at all
. Descriptions are noticably lacking, pacing is poor, and the actual stories usually not interesting in any way. It's only two books, but from other people have told me about the others in reply to my criticisms, the other ones are not substentially different in this regard.
I am currently reading Sword and Dark Magic
, which is much newer than the others that I mentioned, but I'm still not very far in, so I can't say too much about it yet.
Do you have other recommendations for the genre?