Sword and Sorcery Questions

So, I’ve been enjoying the recent sword and sorcery podcast series over at SF Signal. As I listened to part two,  I got the urge to write up a blog post dealing with my own views and questions about swords and sorcery.

Now, I’ve been interested in sword and sorcery for a long time now. It was the first form of fantasy I ever encountered. I still remember watching Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Beastmaster, and some movie with a giant spider. This was my first love as a fantasy fan, and I still have a soft spot for it. I don’t pretend that I am well read in the genre (hell, I won’t pretend I’m well read in any genre, even if most people would say that I am), but I have read a few works (just not as many as I would like).

Besides the podcast, two other events have caused me to start thinking about sword and sorcery more indepth. The first is a review over at Black Gate of Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders’ recent anthology Swords and Dark Magic that posited a slightly more conservative take on the genre ( there are a few stories in the anthology that I personally did not see as especially sword and sorcery, but I still liked most of the stories). The second catalyst is my own reading of sword and sorcery and its relationship to the weird genre.

So, I wonder, does sword and sorcery fiction have to be about the swords? What I mean by that is, does the story have to focus on the non sorcerous figure over the sorcerer? Can a sorcerer be the protagonist? If no, why not?

Another question, is there a set limit of when a sword and sorcery tale can be set (in relation to earth history)? Is a sword and sorcery tale no longer sword and sorcery when guns make better weapons than swords? Or what if the sorcery is so powerful that the swords are completely ineffective? If it is no longer a sword and sorcery tale, what is it? Gun and sorcery? A more fantasy oriented steampunk? Dungeonpunk?

Finally, does a sword and sorcery tale have to rehash the style, the feel, even the politics of the greats? I listened to the Skiffy and Fanty podcast today, and they mentioned Robert E. Howard’s Conan. The two hosts (and the guest) were unanimous in assuming that Conan, as he was, is not palatable for a modern fantasy audience. Are they right or are they showing themselves to be rather uninformed and foolish (given that a major topic of discussion was Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the two hosts showed a deplorable lack of knowledge about the books, I would not be surprised)? But, the moderator of the sword and sorcery panel herself seemed troubled by the sexism (and other things). So, is there a valid point about the genre that disqualifies it? Or is it, as I think, the attention is payed almost exclusively to the beginnings of the genre and its golden age?

In the end, I don’t know the answers yet. These are just the questions. Maybe as I get my own stories in a more complete form, I’ll know the answers (or at least my answers).


Posted on December 13, 2011, in Books and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I certainly don’t think racism & sexism are inherent to Sword & Sorcery, which seems to be the main point made by its harshest critics (and, to a lesser extent, some of its fans). Imaro and the “sword and soul” movement has shown how flexible S&S conventions can be in crossing cultural lines. The Sword and Sorceress series of anthologies went a long way towards redressing gender bias in the subgenre, I think, what with 25 volumes of strong female protagonists.

    It would be interesting to explore why S&S has fallen out of favour, considering how (I think) it’s quite robust and adaptable in the hands of the right authors.

    • Yeah, I agree that racism and sexism are inherent to sword and sorcery, and I agree that some fans do prefer sword and sorcery with sexism and racism (which I don’t get, but whatever).

      • Oh, I get it, it’s just repugnant. Part of the reason I don’t post on the Black Gate blog is because *certain members* think this way (and that Lin Carter was murdered by feminists, which is, uh, um…what?).

        • I know what you mean. Sometimes I’m just disgusted by what some posters say. And I’m dismayed that those comments aren’t always called out.

  2. You pose some interesting questions here, and I’m not sure there can possibly be definitive answers. But for my two cents worth, I think that sword and sorcery itself operates as the nexus of many other genres.

    Most of the classic sword and sorcery tropes (the wandering adventurer with moral ambiguity, the localized/non-epic nature of their objectives, etc.) are shared with westerns. The only difference? In a western, we’ve got guns and we rarely have magic. It’s also, I think, not without cause that both the western and sword and sorcery have their roots firmly in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century.

    But to answer your questions specifically: I think that sword and sorcery can focus just as easily on the magic as it does on the sword. There are a slew of short stories written from the perspective of the magician where the adventuring hero is cast in a villainous light, or stories where the adventurer and the wizard must team up in some fashion to fight a grander evil. In general, I’ve seen more play with S&S in the short form than in novel-length works, but I highly recommend Beneath Ceaseless Skies for some great recent examples.

    As to whether S&S can work without the swords (e.g. in a different time period, or with different technology), I think that it definitely can. However, when it does so it invariably gets pegged with a different genre label. For example, if swords give way to guns and it loses the sorcery, it might be called a western. Or if the sorcery stays in it might get labeled urban fantasy (see Jim Butcher, Harry Conolly, et al). If “sorcery” becomes “alien technology” then we might label it science fiction like Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example. So I think the tropes definitely work without either swords or sorcery, but tend to get labeled differently when they do.

    And I don’t think we need to re-hash the styles (let alone the politics) of past masters. And I definitely think some of the better stuff that BCS is doing shows that the genre can be made new and exciting again with different styles, different voices, and very different politics.

    They’re interesting questions, though, and I think the best way to answer them is to put our pens where our mouths (or fingers) are and write new S&S stories that challenge the genre.

    • Chris, thanks for your comments. Thanks for pointing me to Beyond Ceaseless Skies. I definitely check it out once I’ve got my back log of reading taken care of.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: