Mystery and Monsters

One essential element of sword and sorcery is the presence of monsters. Protagonists in sword and sorcery must confront monsters at one point or another. I want to meditate briefly on the nature of sword and sorcery monsters.

I propose that an important characteristic of sword and sorcery monsters is their "indeterminate" or "mysterious" nature. In other words, the protagonists and the readers looking over their shoulders should rarely know "what" they are facing. Unlike high fantasy or traditional mythology, monsters in sword and sorcery are not organized by a taxonomy.

Let me explain. High fantasy and mythology is filled with defined monsters with rich histories and mythologies. There are the humanoids: goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, and ettins. There are the undead: vampires, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, and ghosts. There are the dragons and demons, giants and magical creatures. But unlike high fantasy, the monsters in sword and sorcery are undefined novelties, formless horrors. They can suggest traditional monsters, but they should always express an excess in terms of categorization.

Let me illustrate by two brief examples.

1) Here might be a typical line from high fantasy where a swordsman meets a monster: "Mogal the Swordsman stood before a cave, and out of the darkness emerged three goblins wielding small axes and swords with serrated blades!"

2) Let me contrast this sentence with a "sword and sorcery" version of it: "Mogal the Swordsman stood before a cave, and out of the darkness emerged three small creatures with long, yellow teeth like knives and deep-set, pupil-less orbs of red. They screamed in a high-pitched, strange language and brandished small stone axes and serrated sword blades!"

I hope the major difference between these two scenes is clear. In the first, the monster is indexed by a shorthand and a whole mythology and set of associations is engaged in the reader as the protagonist confronts a "goblin." In the second, the monster is approximated, and something of the horror aligned with a confrontation with the unknown and the threatening is conveyed.

My hypothesis is that, generally speaking, the second strategy, emphasizing mystery and indeterminacy, is the more "pure" sword and sorcery mode.

Sword and Sorcery and Violence

Some might argue that a major component of sword and sorcery is violence. Indeed, the title of the genre includes a reference to a weapon. Some of the famous sword and sorcery characters are warriors. Conan the Cimmerian, Jirel of Joiry, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and many more: these characters get involved in many violent exchanges, wield their weapons with skill, and kill.

But then there are other sword and sorcery characters who are not necessarily warriors. For example, Jack Vance's "Cugel the Clever" is not a warrior. He tries to avoid fights. Also, there are rarely any battles in Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books. Few would call these stories sword and sorcery; however, if you consider those books approximately sword and sorcery (as I do), then we have a powerful exception to the rule.

There needs to be conflict in sword and sorcery but not necessarily violent conflict. Actually, I try to write sword and sorcery that minimizes violence. At this point, I get tired of excessive violence in sword and sorcery narratives. I enjoy descriptions of swordplay, but few can do that well (Howard was one of them). In terms of the narrative, the only major plot question that violence is an answer to is, "Which character is triumphant?" The vast majority of the time it is the protagonist.

The essential conflict in sword and sorcery is not between enemies and heroes, warriors and goblins, barbarians and wizards; rather, the conflict is between the ordinary and the supernatural. More specifically, it is about the effect that confronting the supernatural has on characters.

I'm currently writing a sword and sorcery story that features a protagonist who is not a fighter. In fact, he is more of a victim of violence than a participant in violent conflict. The character does encounter the supernatural, but the conflict that plays out is internal rather than external.

The status of violence in sword and sorcery is a complicated idea, one I am not going to be able to untangle in one post.

Sword and Sorcery and the Supernatural

Some might argue that in sword and sorcery the supernatural is considered a violation, a transgression, and is therefore always evil. In the earliest sword and sorcery, the protagonists find themselves opposing the supernatural, fighting demons, slaying sorcerers. If elves show up, they are evil and deserve the blade. Accordingly, the barbarians and rogues who are the heroes of sword and sorcery stories are mundane and their enemies are extraordinary and fantastic.

This generalization does not hold for sword and sorcery any longer. Plenty of sword and sorcery stories and novels feature supernatural elements that are "good," that are on the protagonist's side. Nevertheless, in the earliest sword and sorcery, particularly Robert E. Howard's, the supernatural is indeed evil, is a transgression that needs to be corrected.

I think Howard and other early sword and sorcery writers's representation of the supernatural continue to influence the genre. So, in sword and sorcery proper, the supernatural tends to be marked by an aura of darkness. Although the supernatural might be on the side of the protagonist, the supernatural is always suspect.

We can really see this distinction if we compare the status of the supernatural in Tolkien with that of Howard. In Tolkien's "Middle-Earth," wizards can be both good and evil. Gandalf is an ally; Saruman is an enemy (Saruman is the perfect sword and sorcery bad guy, by the way). However, in Howard's "Hyborian Age," sorcerers are categorically evil. For example, consider the horrible Master of the Black Seers of Yimsha from Howard's, "People of the Black Circle," the archetypical evil sword and sorcery sorcerer. I leave you with one of the greatest scenes from this story:
"I think I will take your heart, Kerim Shah!"
He held out his hand as if to receive something, and the Turanian cried out sharply like a man in mortal agony. He reeled drunkenly, and then, with a splintering of bones, a rending of flesh and muscle and a snapping of mail links, his breast burst outward with a shower of blood, and through the ghastly aperture something red and dripping shot through the air into the Master's outstretched hand, as a bit of steel leaps to the magnet. The Turanian slumped to the floor and lay motionless, and the Master laughed and hurled the object to fall before Conan's feet--a still-quivering human heart.

The Differences Between High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery

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Many people will make a distinction between "high fantasy" and "sword and sorcery." I think that is a useful distinction. However, I think it can be overstressed. For the most part, these genres share fundamental characters.

In both "high fantasy" and "sword and sorcery" the story is set in a secondary world with a medieval or historical technology level. Moreover, in both of these genres there is magic and monsters, wizards and warriors. Furthermore, in both of these genres there is an emphasis on action rather than psychology, narrative events rather than literary flourishes or stylistics. Both of these genres have a propensity toward the formulaic, and this formulaic nature means quality of narrative becomes a matter of atmosphere, vitality, and authenticity rather than originality.

Next, let's consider some differences. These are just hunches, and there are many exceptions to these rules.

In high fantasy the emphasis is on the fellowship, the group of adventurers. In sword and sorcery, the focus is the individual hero or pair of heroes.

In high fantasy the moral atmosphere is binary; there is clear evil and clear good. The protagonists are without a doubt good and the antagonists are unforgivably evil. In sword and sorcery, the moral landscape is gray. There is indeed good and evil in sword and sorcery, but its definition is not so clearly defined. Often elements of good and evil exist on both "sides" of the story. The protagonists, while rarely totally evil, can be self-interested in sword and sorcery. They can do horrible things and good things.

In high fantasy, the scale is global and the stakes are often the world at large; in sword and sorcery, however, the stakes are often an individual life or at most a group of people. The scale is local: a individual kingdom, city, or hamlet.

Because of these differences, epic fantasy lends itself to longer lengths, extremely long novels. Sword and sorcery flourishes best in the short story or even the novella.

These are just some basic ideas and are definitely debatable.

Sword and Sorcery and Fantasy Gaming

Sword and sorcery for me is wrapped up with my experience playing Dungeons and Dragons. So, sword and sorcery has always been both a literary and a gaming experience. My original experience with fantasy literature was J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. This classic was recommended to me by a well-meaning English teacher in the sixth-grade. I had been prepared to enjoy this story because, at the time, it was as though fantasy imagery and icons were everywhere. I was playing the dungeon crawling board game, HeroQuest, and the art of that board game compelled me; so, I started drawing pictures featuring dragons, wizards, orcs, and goblins. Although I can't remember this clearly, my hypothesis is that my teacher saw me drawing these pictures and recommended Tolkien. So, in a way, my love of sword and sorcery began not as a literary experience but as a gaming experience.

Of course after The Hobbit I read The Lord of the Rings. Very soon after that I was playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I was never really a player and nearly always was the Dungeon Master. For me, Dungeons and Dragons was just a way of extending the literary experience of sword and sorcery. It gave me an occasion to draw maps of kingdoms, wilderness expanses, to create races and creatures and imagine histories. I am not sure why this sort of escapism appealed to me. One hunch is that I am a very imaginative person who lives in a very ordinary place (by my reckoning), and fantasy literature and gaming offered a way of negotiating this tension. Maybe, maybe not.

Some people are embarrassed to talk about sword and sorcery's association with fantasy gaming. My impression is that in the 1980s there were lots and lots of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns turned into cheap novels, and that the concern was that the literary reputation of the genre suffered due to the ossification of plot, character, and scenario formulas. I find this confusing and intriguing. To be completely honest, part of the pleasure I get from fantasy gaming and fantasy literature is its formulaic nature, the way one simply knows who is who, what is what, and how the plot will play out. Why is this? Another post.

The symbol of the overlap of fantasy gaming and sword and sorcery literature is a creation of Gary E. Gygax (one of the inventors of Dungeons and Dragons). This is his famous "APPENDIX N: INSPIRATIONAL AND EDUCATIONAL READING," which appears in the 1st edition of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide. This appendix was a roadmap for me for discovering some of the best, core works sword and sorcery. It lists the works that influenced the atmosphere and content of D&D and is a wonderful reading list for anyone interested in sword and sorcery.

Robert E. Howard and the Origins of Sword and Sorcery

Robert E. Howard, 1934

Robert E. Howard is arguably the inventor of sword and sorcery, though there are other candidates for this distinction who I will write about in later posts.

Howard's work is widely available in print. If you're going to get print copies, I recommend the three Del Rey editions, The Coming of Conan the Barbarian: The Original Adventures of the Greatest Sword and Sorcery of All Time (2003), The Bloody Crown of Conan (2004), and The Conquering Sword of Conan (2005).

You might be familiar with Howard from the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you haven't read Howard yet, this movie will inevitably shade your understanding of Howard's work, which is unfortunate. I don't think it is a particularly bad movie (in fact, I love it) but in terms of atmosphere and characterization, it simply is not an accurate representation of Howard's fiction and character. If you're interested in a more accurate understanding of Howard and don't know where to start, I recommend reading, "The Tower of the Elephant" (1933), a wonderful Conan the Barbarian story published in the pulp magazine, Weird Tales. There is a digital version available through Project Gutenberg.

Here it the opening paragraph of that story, a beautiful bit of prose that establishes the tone and atmosphere of sword and sorcery:

"Torches flared murkily on the revels in the Maul, where the thieves of the east held carnival by night. In the Maul they could carouse and roar as they liked, for honest people shunned the quarters, and watchmen, well paid with stained coins, did not interfere with their sport. Along the crooked, unpaved streets with their heaps of refuse and sloppy puddles, drunken roisterers staggered, roaring. Steel glinted in the shadows where wolf preyed on wolf, and from the darkness rose the shrill laughter of women, and the sounds of scufflings and strugglings. Torchlight licked luridly from broken windows and wide-thrown doors, and out of those doors, stale smells of wine and rank sweaty bodies, clamor of drinking-jacks and fists hammered on rough tables, snatches of obscene songs, rushed like a blow in the face."

I love the use of the phrase "held carnival." It establishes an antique mood. Also notice who populates this world. It is the anti-social, thieves and rogues. I also like the gritty quality of the description, the "crooked, unpaved streets" with "refuse" and "sloppy puddles." And this is a dangerous place, with "steel glinting" and the smell of "rank sweaty-bodies," where people are drunk: "drinking jacks," "snatches of obscene songs."

There is so much in this one paragraph that contributes to the alchemy of sword and sorcery. Here is a dangerous world that it vital and sensuous, dangerous and mysterious. Although the supernatural has not appeared as yet, here is a distinctive stage for it.

Defining Sword and Sorcery

Artist: Jack Batton

Sword and sorcery has crystallized into a distinctive genre. I don't think its major characteristics are too debatable. That's not to say nuanced distinctions can still be discussed; however, the general outline is established: melancholy heroic adventures set in a secondary fantasy world where magic and monsters exist.

First, sword and sorcery is a form of fantasy literature, which means that the virtual reality of the fictional world simulated in sword and sorcery is metaphysically different from our world, the one we experience every day. But how is it different? The major distinction of the sword and sorcery world is the status of the supernatural. Things can happen in sword and sorcery that violate natural laws as we know them. Magic can be worked. The dead can walk. Immortality is a possibility. Though they rarely have an interest in human enterprises, the gods can directly involve themselves in the affairs of mortals.

Aside from this metaphysical distinctiveness, we can also talk about the protagonists and antagonists that anchor sword and sorcery narratives. Sorcerers and monsters show up in sword and sorcery. The protagonists, generally of a non-magical nature, usually fight against them (although some sword and sorcery can have sorcerers as the protagonists).

Some have argued that a distinctive characteristic of sword and sorcery protagonists is that they are much more self-interested than other fantasy protagonists, such as the hobbits and the people of the West in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." I think it's true that sword and sorcery protagonists are not mindlessly altruistic and the scope of their interests is generally local in nature: they are concerned with themselves, their friends, their tribe, their village, etc. I think a fantasy stops being sword and sorcery and starts being more of an "epic fantasy" when the stakes become the world at large.

There are also distinctive settings in sword and sorcery. The majority of them take place in detailed secondary fantasy worlds, worlds that have only a partial connection to our world historically and spatially. Some sword and sorcery can be historical in nature, but in order for fiction with fantasy that takes place in a historical culture to be considered sword and sorcery, you need a supernatural element. The old Sinbad movies are an example. Some might call them sword and sorcery, considering the fantastic elements, despite the fact they are set in a fantasy version of Arabia, an actual culture. I wouldn't call those movies sword and sorcery, but I can imagine an argument that might make that case.

Much more could be said about the kinds of action-based plots that are typical of sword and sorcery; the themes and atmospheres that dominate sword and sorcery narratives, such as the sublime, horror, and unconscious drives, but that will have to wait for another post.