Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

An earthier kind of fantasy

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Swords_and_Sorcery-anthologyI’ve been involved in a lot of talk, in the past weeks, about Sword & Sorcery and the definition thereof, and what makes S&S different from Heroic Fantasy and blah blah blah.
The subject is dear to my heart as I like S&S, and I both read and write it.
And as luck would have it, hot on the heels of that discussion I got a contract for a number of S&S shorts (yeah!!)1 – so it turns into a matter close to my bread-winning activities, too.

But do we really have to undersign a standard definition?

I still love the definition provided by Glen Cook (an author I love) in an old piece on the SFSignal Blog:

I see Sword & Sorcery as a species of proletarian fiction. The heroes are working class guys, within the context of the story and mores of the time when it was written. They are guys who get stuff done but you would not want them in the drawing room for high tea because they smell bad, break things, and leave bloody messes all over. Despite their class, or lack thereof, they are not much into progressive politics, seeing that sort as easy meat.

This one works fine with me, and while I am not much for definitions it was one of the bits I had in mind when I started writing Aculeo & Amunet.

When I was something more structured, complete and articulated, I usually go to The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery, an old piece by Joseph A. McCullough V that you can find on Black Gate, and I really invite you to check it out.

heroic-fantasyAnd I love the fact that you can’t write down the formula of Sword & Sorcery, because while in the hands of a good writer the formula can do wonders, in the hands of hacks and wannabes the formula is permanent, undiluted death.
And hacks and wannabes are those that are constantly out looking for formulas, rules, definitions…

As I said before, I am not much for definitions – because they trap writing like an insect in amber.
Look at the image here: DAW Books’ Heroic Fantasy, whose tagline is All new stories of sword-and-sorcery, sports a gorgeous cover that I’d describe as planetary romance (the guy has a sword and a raygun, there are two moons and blue-green men).
That’s the way I like it.
And I realize that to some this uncertainty can cause headaches – but I don’t think they are readers. And for readers, I mean people that are in for the pleasure of the ride, and not just to write an essay2.

Has a reader ever really said “Oh, no, that’s heroic fantasy, I read only swords & sorcery! And don’t even get me started about the raygun!!”
Of course not. If you are in it for action, magic, entertainment (to quote the cover of the Lyon Sprague De Camp anthology up at the top), you don’t give a damn about definitions and taxonomy.
Ditto when you are writing – unless you had some very specific requests (like “Abolutely NO RAYGUNS!”).

In the end, Leiber’s an earthier sort of fantasy is exactly what I need as a definition when somebody asks me to write a Sword & Sorcery tale.
Because when somebody asks you to write Sword & Sorcery, they know what they mean, and you know what they mean, and while both probably have rather different ideas, in the end the result will be mutually satisfying.

“Oh, you mean stuff like Howard, Leiber, Moorcock…”
“Yeah, or the old Beastmaster movie…”
“Or Hawk the Slayer…”

It’s vague, it’s fluid, it changes with time.
And that’s what good about it.
And we know what we are talking about when we say Sword & Sorcery.


  1. more about this in the future. 
  2. note that I said just to write an essay – there’s lots of great essaysts and critics out there that are first and foremost readers, and remember they are when they set out to write a critical piece. 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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