Sub-genres of fantasy literature are manifold and multiform, each pursuing and providing a different central idea around which a magical, marvelous world is built. However, to truly understand what each sub-genre entails, one must first look into what fantasy itself is as a genre/type of literature. This series of articles will begin with an overview of most commonly referenced theories of fantasy and the fantastic, and will then move on to explore and analyze fantasy’s most prominent sub-genres.
Theory of Fantasy Literature 101 is divided into six chapters including:
6. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Sword & Sorcery
Pondering a quintessential representation of fantasy would most likely lead in the direction of J. R. R. Tolkien for the “high” and perhaps J. K. Rowling for the “low” end of the fantasy spectrum. Regardless of one’s qualitative impression and opinion on those two authors, their works have unequivocally shaped the history and present of fantasy as a genre. However, preceding both of them, there existed a notion about fantasy being a lackluster, commodified genre — sword and sorcery is the sub-genre of fantasy literature that embodies many of fantasy's most frequently criticized aspects. After discussing some of the most common traits of sword and sorcery, brief commentary on its role and position in contemporary fantasy circles will be provided in order to achieve an understanding of the sub-genre and of everything that it entails.
Although there exist earlier texts that could be considered a part of this sub-genre, Robert E. Howard’s Conan (referred as both the character and the stories) establishes and epitomizes everything that the sub-genre of sword and sorcery is known for.
Howard had pioneered a new frontier in action/adventure fiction by borrowing imaginary prehistoric civilizations from the scholarly fantasies of theosophy and centralizing a new kind of Noble Savage as protagonist (Stableford, 2009, p. lxiii).
The story does not exist without the hero: even more than in other heroic sub-genres, sword and sorcery is entirely driven by the singular masculine sword-wielding hero on a quest to destroy something evil and magical. That is not to say, however, that the protagonist is never female: C. L. Moore, Jessica Amanda, and Marion Zimmer Bradley are some of the writers who utilize a female sword-wielder. However, these characters are rarely truly characters with actual (emotional) development or elaborate story arcs — even when the protagonist is female, they resemble a female version of a male character, rather than being a female character built from the ground up. Troublesome portrayal of women is deeply ingrained in sword and sorcery, frequently drawing inspiration from the many variations of the damsel in distress trope which removes all agency from female characters.
The aforementioned “noble savage” phrase was first coined by John Dryden in his two-part tragedy The Conquest of Granada. It essentially grew to mark the “belief in the moral superiority of primitive over civilized man” (Rounds, 1961, p. 65) and it was a major “shift away from seeking the utopian ideal exclusively in nature, to seeking it primarily in the native savage himself” (Verhoven, 2016, p. 219). In simplified terms, it stems from the idea that cultural development causes moral deterioration of mankind: those never exposed to culture have a natural sense of morality. Protagonists of sword and sorcery are typically such characters — they bring some form of liberation or natural justice to a corrupt world.
However, this interaction with the world is limited. Whereas in epic fantasy the threat is world-ending, the sword and sorcery hero is focused on smaller, personal battles: “Their ambitions are usually selfish and modest, in consequence of which their achievements are rarely as prodigious as those of the messianic heroes of epic fantasy” (Stableford, 2009, p. lxiv).
These tales are also significantly more focused on action than other sub-genres of fantasy literature. It is clear, for example, that George R. R. Martin’s heroes wield swords and they do use them to fight off a supernatural threat. However, that constitutes a small facet of the story and the world which otherwise explores deep themes and complex relationships between good, evil, and everything in-between. In other words, the allure of Martin’s storytelling does not hinge on Jon Snow cutting through an army of undead.
The storytelling of sword and sorcery depends upon the hero defeating the villain so much that it is evocative of contemporary superhero narratives. Both are based on action and comedy, and both at their peak were seen as products for a mass audience, since their importance stems from their entertainment value and popularization of fantasy as a genre. However, this popularization is frequently negatively charged. Sword and sorcery especially went hand in hand with the low qualitative evaluation of fantasy literature, where it was seen as inconsequential in any serious literary debate. Even though “books written in a fantastic mode may convey psychological or emotional realism” (Gamble and Yates, 2002, 101), all realism and all discussable consequences are secondary or even tertiary to action and entertainment in sword and sorcery.
There is doubtless still a place for sword and sorcery in contemporary fantasy. However, fantasy as a genre has moved to the main media stream and has become one of the most lucrative genres/modes of storytelling, and there exists a desire for complex, fully realized worlds and characters with compelling story arcs and enticing motivations — the fact that they are set in a secondary world merely augments the story and makes it unique.
As a concluding remark not only to this article, but to the fantasy 101 series as a whole, a statement from Philip Pullman, one of the most successful contemporary fantasy authors, seems apt: "I have said that His Dark Materials is not fantasy but stark realism, and my reason for this is to emphasise what I think is an important aspect of the story, namely the fact that it is realistic, in psychological terms. I deal with matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism, such as adolescence, sexuality, and so on; and they are the main subject matter of the story — the fantasy (which, of course, is there: no-one but a fool would think I meant there is no fantasy in the books at all) is there to support and embody them, not for its own sake… Why shouldn't a work of fantasy be as truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being as the work of George Eliot or Jane Austen?" (n.d., question 4).
Here, Pullman hits the proverbial nail on the head: it is not that a work of fantasy should not be “truthful and profound”, but an audience exists that cares not for such aspects of storytelling. Sword and sorcery, to name an example, is a sub-genre driven by action: when a reader seeks out that genre, the reader is not looking for political intrigue or explorations of the human condition — there is a simple desire for a sword-wielder to cut through enemies in an entertaining fashion. For every Pullman, Tolkien, or Martin, there are a hundred authors who simply desire to entertain, and that is perfectly fine as long as the reader understands from the onset what kind of story they are in for. Fantasy has outgrown the confines of mere entertainment, and plenty of its other sub-genres offer a deeper and richer human experience than sword and sorcery does — some of those, such as epic fantasy or magical realism, have already been presented in this 101 series. There exists a fantastical text for every reader and while this series does not offer an all-encompassing list of all that fantasy is, it does provide an insight into what it can be, hopefully enticing readers to give the fantasy genre a fair shot.
Gamble, N. & Yates, S. (2002). Exploring Children’s Literature: Teaching the Language and Reading of Fiction. Paul Chapman Publishing.
Pullman, P. (n.d.). Interview with Philip Pullman. Achuka. Retrieved from: https://www.achuka.co.uk/archive/interviews/ppint.php
Rounds, D. (1961). THE NOBLE SAVAGE. The Classical Outlook, 38(6), 65–66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43936088
Stableford, B. (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press.
Verhoeven, W. (2016). ‘When wild in woods the noble savage ran’: The European Discourse of American Utopianism, 1748–1783. The Yearbook of English Studies, 46, 219–241. https://doi.org/10.5699/yearenglstud.46.2016.0219
Cover figure: Antônio, R. (2020). Conan the Barbarian. [Illustration]. Behance. Retrieved from: https://www.behance.net/gallery/88561861/Conan-The-Barbarian-13-COVER
Figure 1: Anonymous. (n.d.). Conan the Barbarian [Illustration]. Polygon. Retrieved from: https://www.polygon.com/2015/3/25/8291961/president-obama-was-pretty-into-conan-the-barbarian-and-spider-man
Figure 2: Twentieth Century Fox. (2009). Avatar; Jake Sully. [Movie Still]. IMDb. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0499549/mediaindex?ref_=tt_mv_close
Figure 3: Frazetta, F. (n.d.). Conan and the giant serpent. [Illustration]. Dark Worlds Quarterly. Retrieved from: http://darkworldsquarterly.gwthomas.org/the-monsters-of-hyboria-2-satha-the-giant-snake/
Figure 4: Marvel Studios. (2011). Thor; Thor wielding Mjolnir. [Movie Still]. IMDb. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/?ref_=tt_mv_close
Figure 5: HBO. (2019). His Dark Materials; Lyra and Pantalaimon. [TV Series Still]. IMDb. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5607976/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1