Though Sword Sorcery (S&S) as a whole has experienced a resurgence over the last few years, by and large many fantasy readers look down on the very genre that preceded, and in many ways, paved the way for the epic fantasy stories they love today.
I love both sub-genres for they each offer different things. My favorite series blend both sub-genres and blend them well.
Here are my top 12 reasons for why you should be reading Sword & Sorcery.
1. Larger than life characters. Conan. Elric. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. John Carter (technically Sword & Planet, but whatever). These are all characters that most people who read fantasy know by name alone even if they’ve never read the work. In many cases, sword and sorcery characters are beyond memorable, not just because of appearance, but by accolades, sheer strength of will, and personality.
Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.
― Robert E. Howard
“We must be bound to one another then," Elric murmured despairingly. "Bound by hell-forged chains and fate-haunted circumstance. Well, then—let it be thus so—and men will have cause to tremble and flee when they hear the names of Elric of Melinbone and Stormbringer, his sword. We are two of a kind—produced by an age which has deserted us. Let us give this age cause to hate us!”
― Michael Moorcock
Men told that Kane was a giant in stature, more powerful than ten strong men. In battle no man could stand before him, for he fought with a sword in either hand - wielding easily weapons that another warrior could scarcely lift. His hair was red as blood, and he feasted on the still-beating hearts of his enemies. His eyes were the eyes of Death himself, and they cast a blue flame that could shrivel the souls of his victims. His only delight was in rapine and slaughter, and after each victory his banquet halls echoed with the tortured screams of captive maidens.
― Karl Edward Wagner
Talking about Druss the Legend:
When he stares, valleys tremble; where he walks, beasts are silent; when he speaks, mountains tumble; when he fights, armies crumble.
2. Potential for deep characterization. The genre usually focuses on a smaller cast of characters than epic fantasy. This allows for a potentially quicker connection by the reader to the characters, but also the potential for the author to really add some depth to what’s going through each character’s minds.
“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
― Robert E. Howard
“I may be stupid, as you say, to believe in honour and friendship and loyalty without price. But these are virtues to be cherished, for without them we are no more than beasts roaming the land.”
― David Gemmell
“There is evil in all of us, and it is the mark of a man how he defies the evil within.”
― David Gemmell
3. Great Action/Fight scenes. Yes, there are parts of Howard’s work that come across as dated such as his dialogue or treatment of minorities. However, everyone could learn a thing or two about writing action from the man. And he is not alone. S&S may not have as many scenes of massive army against massive army, but what it does offer is the personal nature of your POV trying to survive against one or several attackers.
4. Tight Focus. Rarely does a writer of S&S include pages of information unnecessary to the main narrative just to show off the world they’ve built. An economy of words is used when writing S&S and this leads to a much more focused tale.
5. Fast Pacing. Whether in short story form, or in novel length, S&S lends itself to quicker paced stories. This doesn’t necessarily mean a low word count which admittedly is often the case, but just a story that rarely drags.
6. Imaginative settings. Everyone gives epic fantasy the nod when it comes to creative worldbuilding. However, worldbuilding is just as interesting and creative (if not more so) in S&S. These imaginative settings are often what drive much of the story along as obstacles and creatures spring up from places the characters visit.
7. Tone. S&S works vary significantly between something very dark to something light-hearted and funny, offering something for everyone.
“I ask you now, is any little thing like being damned eternally a satisfactory excuse for behaving like a complete rat?”
― Fritz Leiber,
“I do not understand exactly what you mean by fear," said Tarzan. "Like lions, fear is a different thing in different men, but to me the only pleasure in the hunt is the knowledge that the hunted thing has power to harm me as much as I have to harm him. If I went out with a couple of rifles and a gun bearer, and twenty or thirty beaters, to hunt a lion, I should not feel that the lion had much chance, and so the pleasure of the hunt would be lessened in proportion to the increased safety which I felt."
"Then I am to take it that Monsieur Tarzan would prefer to go naked into the jungle, armed only with a jackknife, to kill the king of beasts," laughed the other good naturedly, but with the merest touch of sarcasm in his tone.
"And a piece of rope," added Tarzan.
― Edgar Rice Burroughs
“One can only know as much as one has lived to know, though it is certainly possible to learn a great deal less than this.”
― Saladin Ahmed
“What will you do now?'
I think I will become a monk and devote my entire life to prayer and good works.'
No,' said Rek. 'I mean, what will you do today?'
Ah! Today I'll get drunk and go whoring,' said Bowman.”
― David Gemmell
8. Self contained story. Generally speaking, most S&S short stories and novels have a definitive beginning and end. Granted, there may be an overarching theme in a series as characters grow, or hints of a larger threat lurking that can be used for future stories. However, I don’t think I’ve ever read an S&S tale that ended on a cliffhanger or left a large question unanswered.
9. The weird. Bizarre customs and strange creatures even Lovecraft would have a hard time fathoming are sprinkled throughout most S&S stories. Who needs something boring like a dragon when you can create a half-human, half-lion hybrid with wings?
10. It influences almost all fantasy works. Most of what you’re reading has elements of sword and sorcery anyway whether you know it or not. Steven Erikson with Karsa Orlong, Joe Abercrombie with Logen Ninefingers, etc. are all examples of larger than life characters swept up into adventures they had no intention of beginning. The other plot threads in these massive series are what moves those characters from the S&S genre to Epic Fantasy, IMO.
11. S&S is tried and true. Jason and the Argonauts, The Twelve Labors of Hercules, The Odessey, and even the Epic of Gilgamesh are all S&S tales—heroes going off on strange adventures. It worked then, and it works now.
12. Because my new S&S series, The Epic of Andrasta and Rondel is coming out soon. (Wink, wink. See what I did there?) In all seriousness the first book in the series, The Cult of Sutek, will be released in May 2014. Afterward, I plan to release The City of Pillars in June, and hopefully, The Tower of Bashan in July. Three books in as many months with several more planned over the next couple of years, all of which contain the very things I love about the genre as listed above.
So, what are some of your favorite S&S stories?