Creeping into the deepest darkest basement of the old neglected shop, Seejay the Valiant kept his eyes on the target ahead of him. For years, he had heard of the legendary tomes and treasuries of ancient knowledge, but he had never before dreamed of being in the same room as them (let alone having a pocket full of hard-earned gold pieces garnered from such labours as raking yards and shoveling driveways). Here, in this musty, dusty storeroom were treasures he had heard whispered of from his fellow adventurers… tomes with cryptic names like Swords against Deviltry and Elric of Melnibone and Conan the Cimmerian, tales of the Hyborian Age and Lost Atlantis and Gor and Newhon. He knew that anyone who possessed such legendary books would be filled with new life, energy, and the very fire of creation.
Sword and Sorcery may be the oldest of the fantasy genres. Certainly, we’ve been telling tales of swords, magic, and the men and women who wield such power since before we ourselves were wielding pens and printing presses. The earliest epics are filled with larger-than life heroes swinging two-handed swords and witches and wizards twisting the powers of the gods to serve (or destroy) mankind. The very word ‘epic’ comes from a word to describe the long dramatic poems of the medieval French and the Eddas of the north. But it was during the pulp era of the 1920s and 30s that it truly came into its own, bloodily ripped into the world by Robert E Howard and his tales of Conan the Barbarian. Conan may have carved out his kingdom in the pages of Weird Tales, but he and his ilk were not destined to stay there.
Soon after, men such as Lin Carter and Henry Kuttner, and women such as C. L. Moore, Andre Norton, and Leigh Brackett, created their own swordsmen, carving a way through a violent, passionate landscape. (Deleted from this section is where I get angry at people who say that Sword and Sorcery is ‘boy’s fiction.’ Men and women wrote it, men and women read it. Deal with it.) The alternative versions of such fiction came later, with Leiber’s tongue in cheek tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or Michael Moorcock’s Elric, the Übergoth Doomed seriously-emo warrior prince appealing to those who liked the adventure aspect but didn’t necessarily want everything in strict black-and-white tones.
Often, Sword and Sorcery is confused with Heroic Fantasy, and there are a lot of similarities. However, I stand by my definition that the basic hack and slash and save the victim and grab the treasure is the earlier form. Heroic Fantasy may have swords, and sorcerers, and strange races and quests into dark towers, but it also concerns the Hero’s Journey, and the development of a character or characters through adversity. Think Star Wars, and not Krull or any of the Conan movies. Heroic fantasy will sometimes have good heroes forced to do dark things, or vice-versa. And while one isn’t better than the other (I have a two-handed bastard sword bathed in the blood of dragons for anyone who disagrees), they are different flavours of fiction.
Because sometimes you want a straightforward adventure. You don’t want to hear about the orphan Conan and his apprenticeship to a wise old warrior before striking off with a few companions to fulfill his destiny; you want to know if he made it into the tower and killed the evil wizard holding the countryside in thrall. You want to know that Fafhrd was able to escape. You want to know that Elric was able to forge a path through the enemy.
Not that this is something unique to fantasy fiction (though the way some people talk about it, you’d think it was). But seriously… we don’t read about young Sherlock and his quest from childhood to adulthood. We don’t care about the character arc of James Bond or Jack Reacher. We’re not too concerned about whether Dortmunder is able to defeat the evil warlock. (And if you don’t recognise that name, run, don’t walk, to your library, go to the section where they keep the Donald Westlake books, and pick up everything about that rogue. It’s not fantasy at all, but it is awesome.)
Sword and Sorcery, like Mystery fiction or Thrillers, or a lot of Horror, or Romance, is escapist fiction. And really, if you’re not in the mood or don’t feel like guzzling a few drinks at the corner bar (or if like Seejay the Valiant, you’re much too young for the one-eyed half-Orc barkeep to serve you a mug of mead) it’s a noble and fun way to escape. Forget about what the dragon represents or why the Paladins are questing or what the multi-race fellowship says about our own world. Let the sword be a sword, let the treasure be hidden, let the warrior be brave, and let the quest begin.