Sub-genre of the Week:
Last week I discussed Mundane SF. This week I’m going to talk about Sword & Sorcery, a genre whose definition is notoriously hard to articulate. I did consider calling the genre S&S/heroic fantasy, since the distinction between the two is so fine. But perhaps that’s an issue to tackle in a later post. Much later.
Sword & Sorcery is a sub-genre of fantasy with adventurer heroes and less emphasis on magic systems than epic and high fantasy. It most often features morally grey characters on quests for wealth and glory.
The name “Sword & Sorcery” originated in 1961, when a letter written to the fanzine Arma by Michael Moorcock demanded a name for the stories of Robert E. Howard. Fritz Leiber replied in Ancalagon, suggesting S&S, and he described the genre further in Arma the same year. The genre itself had origins in the 30s and grew until the 70’s where it arguably peaked.
Common Tropes and Conventions
Common tropes of S&S include grey morality, a me-first attitude among the protagonists, and while tales may be epic in scope, the protagonist s more concerned with the here-and-now and personal stakes than the fate of kingdoms.
Sword and Sorcery has a great deal of crossover with several fantasy and science fiction genres. Sword and Planet, heroic fantasy, and epic fantasy share many of the same character traits with S&S hero(ine)s, and many of the plots are similar.
Sword & Sorcery became popular in visual media ever since the release of Conan the Barbarian in 1982, which spawned many derivative films, such as Kull the Conqueror and others. It was also extremely popular in the short fiction pulp magazines, with many anthologies and short-story collections as well.
Popular authors like Joe Abercrombie have brought back novel-length S&S, and it looks to remain popular in the future, although it’s doubtful it will ever reach the popularity it had at its peak in the early half of the 20th century.
Many of the books on the goodreads list are really epic or high fantasy, so do keep that in mind.
Check in next time for a discussion of Social Science Fiction.