Sword and sorcery (S&S) is a subgenre of fantasy characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent adventures. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy.
The term "sword and sorcery" was coined in 1961 by the celebrated American author Fritz Leiber in response to a letter from British author Michael Moorcock in the fanzine Amra, demanding a name for the sort of fantasy-adventure story written by Robert E. Howard. Moorcock had initially proposed the term "epic fantasy". Leiber replied in the journal Ancalagon (6 April 1961), suggesting "sword-and-sorcery as a good popular catchphrase for the field". He expanded on this in the July 1961 issue of Amra, commenting:
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!
Since its inception, many attempts have been made to provide a precise definition of "sword and sorcery". Although many have debated the finer points, the consensus characterizes it by a strong bias toward fast-paced, action-rich tales set within a quasi-mythical or fantastical framework. Unlike high fantasy, the stakes in sword and sorcery tend to be personal, the danger confined to the moment of telling. Settings are typically exotic, and protagonists often morally compromised.
Many sword and sorcery tales have been turned into a lengthy series of adventures. Their lower stakes and less-than world-threatening dangers make this more plausible than a repetition of the perils of epic fantasy. So too does the nature of the heroes; most sword-and-sorcery protagonists, travellers by nature, find peace after adventure deathly dull. At one extreme, the heroes of E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros grieve for the end of the war and that they have no more foes equal to those they defeated; in answer to their prayers, the gods restore the enemy city so that they can fight the same war over again.
It is also influenced by historical fiction, for instance that of Sir Walter Scott which was influenced by Scottish folklore and ballads. However, very few of Scott's stories contain fantastic elements; in most, the appearance of such is explained away. However, its themes of adventure in a strange society influenced the adventures set in foreign lands by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Haggard's works included many fantastic elements.
Sword and sorcery's immediate progenitors are the swashbuckling tales of Alexandre Dumas, père (The Three Musketeers (1844), etc.), Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche (1921), etc.) and their pulp magazine imitators, such as Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, and H. Bedford-Jones, who all influenced Robert E. Howard. However, these historical "swashbucklers" lack the truly supernatural element (even though Dumas' fiction contained many fantasy tropes) that defines the genre. Another influence was early fantasy fiction such as Lord Dunsany's The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth (1910) and A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar (1924). All of these authors influenced sword and sorcery for the plots, characters, and landscapes used.
In addition, many early sword and sorcery writers, such as Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, were heavily influenced by the Middle Eastern tales of the Arabian Nights, whose stories of magical monsters and evil sorcerers were a major influence on the genre-to-be.
Sword and sorcery's frequent depictions of smoky taverns and smelly back alleys draw upon the picaresque genre; for example, Rachel Bingham notes that Fritz Leiber's city of Lankhmar bears considerable similarity to 16th century Seville as depicted in Cervantes' tale Rinconete y Cortadillo.
Sword and sorcery proper only truly began in the pulp fantasy magazines, where it emerged from "weird fiction." Particularly important was the magazine Weird Tales, which published Howard's Conan stories and C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry tales, as well as key S&S influences like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.
The genre has been defined, strongly, by the work of Robert E. Howard, particularly his tales of Conan the Barbarian and Kull of Atlantis, mostly in Weird Tales from 1932 and 1929 respectively.
Other books and series that define the genre of sword-and-sorcery include:
Other pulp fantasy fiction—such as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series and Leigh Brackett's Sea Kings of Mars—have a similar feel to sword and sorcery, but, because alien science replaces the supernatural, it is usually described as planetary romance or sword and planet, and considered to fall more in the area of science fiction. Despite this, planetary romance is closely aligned with sword and sorcery, and the work of Burroughs, Brackett, and others in the former field have been significant in creating and spreading S&S proper. Sword and sorcery itself has often blurred the lines between fantasy and science fiction, drawing elements from both like the "weird fiction" it sprang from.
From the 1960s up till the 1980s, under the guiding force of Lin Carter, a select group of writers formed the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA) to promote and enlarge the sword and sorcery genre. From 1973 to 1981, five anthologies featuring short works by SAGA members were published. Edited by Carter, these were collectively known as Flashing Swords!. Because of these and other anthologies, such as the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, his own fiction, and his criticism, Carter is considered one of the most important popularizers of genre fantasy in general, and S&S in particular.
Another notable sword and sorcery anthology series that ran from 1977 through 1979 was called "Swords Against Darkness" (Zebra Books), edited by Andrew J. Offutt. This series ran to five volumes and featured stories by such authors as Poul Anderson, David Drake, Ramsey Campbell, Andre Norton, and Manly Wade Wellman.
Despite such authors' best efforts, sword and sorcery has more colloquially come to be known as a catch-all phrase for low grade, derivative fantasy. During the 1980s, influenced by the success of the 1982 feature film Conan the Barbarian, many cheaply made fantasy films were released in a subgenera that would be called "Sword & Sorcery". The term is sometimes used in a derogatory manner by writers and readers of the fantasy genre.
After the boom of the early 1980s, sword and sorcery once again dropped out of favor, with epic fantasy largely taking its place in the fantasy genre. However, there was another resurgence in sword and sorcery at the end of the 20th century. Sometimes called the "new" or "literary" sword and sorcery, this development places emphasis on literary technique, and draws from epic fantasy and other genres to broaden the typical scope of S&S. Stories may feature the wide-ranging struggles national or world-spanning concerns common to high fantasy, but told from the point of view of characters more common to S&S, and with the sense of adventure common to the latter. Writers associated with this include Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch, magazines such as Black Gate and the ezines Flashing Swords (not to be confused with the Lin Carter anthologies), and Beneath Ceaseless Skies publish short fiction in the style. These authors and editors are attempting to return the genre to the status it enjoyed during the pulp era of the twenties and thirties.
Despite the importance of C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, and other female authors, as well as Moore's early heroine, sword and sorcery has been characterized as having a strongly masculine bias. Female characters were generally distressed damsels to be rescued or protected, or otherwise served as an inducement or reward for a male hero's adventures. Women who had adventures of their own often did so to counter the threat of rape, or to gain revenge for same. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthology series (1984 onwards) attempted the reverse. Bradley encouraged female writers and protagonists. The stories feature skillful swordswomen and powerful sorceresses, working from a variety of motives. Jessica Amanda Salmonson similarly sought to broaden the range of roles for female characters in sword and sorcery through both her own stories and in editing the World Fantasy Award-winning Amazons (1979) and Amazons II (1982) anthologies; both drew on real and folkloric women warriors, often from areas outside of Europe.
Early sword and sorcery writer Robert E. Howard had feminist views, which he espoused in both personal and professional life. He wrote to his friends and associates defending the achievements and capabilities of women. Strong female characters in Howard's works of fiction include Dark Agnes de Chastillon (first appearing in "Sword Woman", circa 1932–34), the early modern pirate Helen Tavrel ("The Isle of Pirates' Doom", 1928), as well as two pirates and Conan the Barbarian supporting characters, Bêlit ("Queen of the Black Coast", 1934), and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood ("Red Nails", 1936).
Introduced as the co-star in a non-fantasy historical story by Howard, "The Shadow of the Vulture", Red Sonya of Rogatino would later inspire a fantasy heroine named Red Sonja, who first appeared in the comic book series Conan the Barbarian written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith. Red Sonja received her own comic book title and eventually a series of novels by David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney, as well as Richard Fleischer's unsuccessful film adaptation in 1985.
The dictionary definition of sword and sorcery at Wiktionary
Black Colossus is a 1979 collection of two fantasy short stories written by Robert E. Howard featuring his sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian. The book was published in 1979 by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc. as volume IX of their deluxe Conan set. The stories originally appeared in the magazine Weird Tales.Conan and the Shaman's Curse
Conan and the Shaman's Curse is a fantasy novel by American writer Sean A. Moore, featuring Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian. It was first published in paperback by Tor Books in January 1996.Conan the Destroyer
Conan the Destroyer is a 1984 American sword and sorcery/adventure film directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mako Iwamatsu reprising their roles as Conan and Akiro the wizard, respectively. The cast also includes Grace Jones, Wilt Chamberlain, Tracey Walter, and Olivia d'Abo. It is the sequel to Conan the Barbarian. The film grossed $31 million in the US.Conan the Unconquered
Conan the Unconquered is a fantasy novel written by Robert Jordan featuring Robert E. Howard's seminal sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian. It was first published in paperback by Tor Books in April 1983, and reprinted on a number of occasions. The first British edition was published by Sphere Books in February 1988. The first trade paperback edition was published by Tor in 1991. It was later gathered together with Conan the Invincible and Conan the Defender into the omnibus collection The Conan Chronicles (Tor Books, 1995).Hercules the Avenger
Hercules the Avenger (Italian: La sfida dei giganti) is a 1965 Italian adventure film directed by Maurizio Lucidi. It was composed mostly of re-edited stock footage from Reg Park's two 1961 Hercules films, Hercules at the Conquest of Atlantis and Hercules in the Haunted World.List of sword and sorcery films
The following is a list of sword and sorcery films. These tend to focus on single heroes, romance, and magic.Queen of the Black Coast (collection)
Queen of the Black Coast is a 1978 collection of two fantasy short stories written by Robert E. Howard featuring his sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian. The book was published in 1978 by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc. as volume VII of their deluxe Conan set. The title story originally appeared in the magazine Weird Tales. "The Vale of Lost Women" first appeared in The Magazine of Horror.Red Sonja (film)
Red Sonja is a 1985 Dutch-American sword and sorcery action film directed by Richard Fleischer. The film introduces Brigitte Nielsen as the title character with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Ronald Lacey, Ernie Reyes, Jr., Paul L. Smith and Pat Roach in supporting roles. The film features the sword-wielding Marvel Comics character Red Sonja, created by Roy Thomas, who first appeared in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian series (#23) in 1973. The film's character of Red Sonja was based on Red Sonya of Rogatino, a character created by Robert E. Howard appearing in his short story "The Shadow of the Vulture" (1934). The film acknowledges that it was "based on the character created by Robert E. Howard" in the introductory credits.
As in Howard's stories of Conan, the film takes place in the Hyborian Age, a fictional prehistoric time that had been depicted previously in the films Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer.Sword and Sorcery Studios
Sword and Sorcery Studios (S&SS) was an imprint of White Wolf, Inc. used to publish its d20 System & Open Gaming License material in from 2000 to 2008. The imprint also acted as publisher for other small press game developers, such as Monte Cook's company, Malhavoc Press, and Necromancer Games.Swords and Sorcery
For the combination table-top and role-playing game by SPI, see Swords & Sorcery (SPI). For the video game, see Swords and Sorcery (video game).
Swords and Sorcery is an anthology of fantasy short stories in the sword and sorcery subgenre, edited by L. Sprague de Camp and illustrated by Virgil Finlay. It was first published in paperback by Pyramid Books in 1963. It was first sword and sorcery anthology ever assembled, and was followed by three additional such anthologies edited by de Camp. It has also been translated into German.The book collects eight sword and sorcery tales by various authors, with an overall introduction by de Camp. The piece by Poul Anderson introduced his Cappen Varra character, later one of the foundational characters of the Thieves' World shared world anthologies edited by Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey.The Amazing Feats of Young Hercules
The Amazing Feats of Young Hercules is a 1997 animated short film distributed by UAV Entertainment. The Greek mythological hero Hercules, as a teenager, longs to be free and be just like Zeus, the supreme Greek god. Zeus gives him the chance to by giving him four challenges (though his wife Hera claims she can think of twelve), involving encounters with such monsters as the Stymphalian Birds, the Hydra and a Gorgon. Along the way, Hercules is accompanied by Pegasus and also meets a talking loudmouth female sable named Falina who tells Hercules that she used to be a princess until the day Hera turned her into a sable when she mentioned that Aphrodite was prettier than Hera. She tags along with Hercules and helps him in the challenges, and in the end is returned to her human form.The Conan Chronicles (Robert Jordan)
The Conan Chronicles is a collection of fantasy novels by American writers Robert Jordan, featuring the sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian created by Robert E. Howard. The book was published in 1995 by Tor Books and collects three novels previously published by Tor.The Conan Chronicles II
The Conan Chronicles II is a collection of fantasy novels written by Robert Jordan featuring the sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard. The book was published in 1997 by Legend Books and collects three novels originally published by Tor Books.The Devil in Iron (collection)
The Devil in Iron is a 1976 collection of two fantasy short stories written by Robert E. Howard featuring his sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian. The book was published in 1976 by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc. as volume V of their deluxe Conan set. The stories both originally appeared in the magazine Weird Tales.The Fantastic Swordsmen
The Fantastic Swordsmen is a 1967 anthology of fantasy short stories in the sword and sorcery subgenre, edited by American writer L. Sprague de Camp. It was first published in paperback by Pyramid Books. It was the third such anthology assembled by de Camp, following his earlier Swords and Sorcery (1963) and The Spell of Seven (1965). It has also been translated into German.The book collects eight sword and sorcery tales by various authors, with an overall introduction by de Camp.The Gem in the Tower
"The Gem in the Tower" is a short story by American writers L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, featuring the fictional sword and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian created by Robert E. Howard. It is a rewritten version of "Black Moonlight", an earlier story by Carter alone featuring his own sword and sorcery character Thongor (for which see below). The Conan version was first published by Bantam Books in the paperback collection Conan the Swordsman in August 1978, and was reprinted in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 5 (DAW Books, 1980) and later editions of Conan the Swordsman (Ace Books, 1987 and 1991, Tor Books (first hardcover edition), 2002). The collection was later gathered together with Conan the Liberator and Conan and the Spider God into the omnibus collection Sagas of Conan (Tor Books, 2004). The story has also been translated into Italian and French.The Spell of Seven
The Spell of Seven is an anthology of fantasy short stories in the sword and sorcery subgenre, edited by L. Sprague de Camp and illustrated by Virgil Finlay. It was first published in paperback by Pyramid Books in June 1965, and reprinted in December 1969. It was the second such anthology assembled by de Camp, following his Swords and Sorcery (1963).
The book collects seven sword and sorcery tales by various authors, with an overall introduction by de Camp.
Four of the seven authors represented were members of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA), a somewhat informal literary group of fantasy authors active from the 1960s to the 1980s, making the book a precursor of the five Flashing Swords! anthologies of SAGA-member works edited by Lin Carter from 1973 to 1981.The Sword and the Sorcerer
The Sword and the Sorcerer is a 1982 American sword and sorcery fantasy film directed by Albert Pyun and starring Lee Horsley, Simon McCorkindale, Richard Lynch, and Richard Moll.
The screenplay concerns a mercenary with a three-bladed sword who rediscovers his royal heritage when he is recruited to help a princess foil the designs of a brutal tyrant, and a powerful sorcerer, in conquering the land.Warlocks and Warriors
For the fantasy anthology published by Mayflower see Warlocks and Warriors (Mayflower)
Warlocks and Warriors is an anthology of fantasy short stories in the sword and sorcery subgenre, edited by American writer L. Sprague de Camp. It was first published in hardcover by Putnam in 1970, and in paperback by Berkley Books in 1971. It was the fourth such anthology assembled by de Camp, following his earlier Swords and Sorcery (1963), The Spell of Seven (1965), and The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967).
The book collects ten sword and sorcery tales by various authors, with an overall introduction by de Camp.