Sword & Sorcery

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Sword & Sorcery is one of the oldest Setting Aesthetics to exist in all of fantasy. Emerging from the era of pulp fiction novels in the 1920s or so, Sword & Sorcery evolved from the "Weird Fiction" genre - a mishmash of fantasy, horror and science fiction popularized in pulp fiction by magazines like "Weird Tales" and championed by authors such as H.P. Lovecraft - as a result of the efforts of Robert E. Howard, who created the first recognizable S&S stories when he wrote about Solomon Kane and Kull of Atlantis; his subsequent development of Hyperborea became the groundwork for Sword & Sorcery as a whole, although it wouldn't be named as such until the 1960s.

As one of the oldest fantasy genres, Sword & Sorcery has a far-reaching impact on fantasy gaming. Many of the authors Gygax denotes as inspiring the creation of Dungeons & Dragons were writers of Sword & Sorcery, whilst Greyhawk itself has a strong Sword & Sorcery motif to it.

What is it?[edit]

Sword & Sorcery is a hard genre to define for many; it overlaps heavily with, if is not the same as, Heroic Fantasy - focusing intimately on a singular protagonist or a small group of protagonists, and concerning itself with personal issues, rather than the grand, sweeping, world-shaking threats of High Fantasy. Sword & Sorcery is larger-than life and action-focused, and usually characterized by the antiheroic nature of its protagonists - they are almost always motivated by matters of self-interest. Many S&S protagonists are aimless wanderers of life, drifting from battle to battle driven by little more than whim and chance.

Some have defined Sword & Sorcery as a mixture of fantasy, horror and mythology with historical romance, action and swordplay; the most famous of the S&S worlds ever published, Hyperborea and Zothique, are a lost primeval Earth and a far-flung future Earth respectively.

Likewise, argue that a "true" S&S setting is distinctly low magic; the iconic vision of a Sword & Sorcery protagonist is a driven, grim, hard-bitten warrior who stands against fiends, aberrations, dinosaurs and evil mages armed with nothing more than grit and a trusty sword. Others argue that this isn't so; Zothique featured magic or even spell-wielding protagonists fairly extensively. Fritz Leiber's protagonist "The Gray Mouser" had originally trained as a wizard before becoming a sell-sword. And Elric was a demonblade-wielding warlock from a highly magical world.

Sword & Sorcery tends to shamelessly incorporate pulp-era science fiction into its ostensibly fantastical world; Frazetta Man was born in this kind of setting, tentacled monsters out of the Cthulhu Mythos make frequent appearances (although rarely to the bleak outcomes Lovecraft envisioned), and dinosaurs often stand in for dragons.

Backlash[edit]

Sadly, Sword & Sorcery has long fallen out of fashion. Partly it's to do with changing cultural mores; the mystical orientals and savage black-skinned cannibals that so frequently appeared in Sword & Sorcery tales of old are now a huge no-no. More importantly, Sword & Sorcery became synonymous in the 70s and 80s with cheap, cheesily written, low-grade, derivative fantasy; if it was advertised as "Sword & Sorcery", usually it'd be a schlockfest. Although fans strive to revive it, Sword & Sorcery has become heavily stigmatized, especially amongst the arrogant and pretentious lot that are fantasy literature critics.

Sword & Planet[edit]

A sub-genre of Sword & Sorcery, Sword & Planet is essentially what happens if you blend Science Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery together. The basic principles of S&S or Heroic Fantasy remain intact, but the setting is on an alien world, usually revolving around a human protagonist mysteriously transported to this strange place. The emphasis is on the fantastical; the alien races may not resemble the standard demihumans, but fantasy trappings such as the use of swords to fight or Fantasy Armor for decoration remain prominent. Any alien technology is strictly to make the world feel more otherworldly or serve the needs of the plot.

Edgar Rice Burroughs kicked off this genre with his "John Carter of Mars" stories, but perhaps the most recognizable example today is the many stories of Flash Gordon.

/tg/ Examples[edit]