I am writing an article about sword & sorcery.
Now, mind you, I have written a lot about the genre – a lot of scraps of ideas, scattered here and on my Italian blog, basically me, talking out loud in a vain attempt at putting my ideas in order.
But this time it is different – because I have pitched an article to a learned magazine, and therefore I must write something that will, hopefully, make sense.
I have been through a lot of discussions, in the last few weeks, about the definition of sword & sorcery – and indeed a good friend of mine just posted on his blog a thing called The Definition of Sword & Sorcery (According to Myself), grab yourselves a translation system and check it out, it’s not bad, not bad at all1.
But I still find it extremely unsatisfactory.
And of course it’s just me – so here I am once again talking out loud to myself, trying to give my ideas some order.
You see, I am growing more and more convinced that, if noir is a mode and science fiction is a genre, then sword & sorcery is an attitude, just like hard boiled, and the definition of this attitude is not in a list of ingredients, but in the way you mix them.
What defines sword & sorcery is the world-building.
Now, Wikipedia claims that
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe.
and goes on to distinguish two different kinds of worldbuilding
In the top-down approach, the designer first creates a general overview of the world, determining broad characteristics such as the world’s inhabitants, technology level, major geographic features, climate, and history. From there, he or she develops the rest of the world in increasing detail. This approach might involve creation of the world’s basics, followed by levels such as continents, civilizations, nations, cities, and towns. A world constructed from the top down tends to be well-integrated, with individual components fitting together appropriately. It can, however, require considerable work before enough detail is completed for the setting to be useful, such as in the setting of a story.
With the bottom-up approach, the designer focuses on a small part of the world needed for his or her purposes. This location is given considerable detail, such as local geography, culture, social structure, government, politics, commerce, and history. Prominent local individuals may be described, including their relationships to each other. The surrounding areas are then described in a lower level of detail, with description growing more general with increasing distance from the initial location. The designer can subsequently enhance the description of other areas in the world. This approach provides for almost immediate applicability of the setting, with details pertinent to a certain story or situation. The approach can yield a world plagued with inconsistencies, however.
OK, first rough idea: sword & sorcery is usually a bottom-up sort of world.
This might explain why sword & sorcery works so well with short fiction: because the author has little time to build a detailed map.
One goes with a few suggestive names – Aquilonia, Shadizar the Wicked – or some striking concepts – The Island of Screaming Statues, the Weeping Solitudes – and then wings it.
If you think about it, great sweeping descriptions of the worlds of sword & sorcery usually assume the tone and style of old legends “Know ye, oh king, that in the time…”.
They are placed at the very beginning of the book, and serve to hoodwink the reader in thinking that a great lot of planning went into the world – but most of all they have to suggest a deep history, deep time (in the geological sense) and to “drag the reader in”.
Most often that’s all the geography and history that we get1 apart from very specific bits… This is the tomb of King Whatsisnameathon, whose reign brought a close to the Third Widdershins Dynasty… look out for spike-filled pits and falling blades…
Maps are drawn afterwards, maybe because there is a young fan pestering you via mail.
There is this sense of uncertainty, of ink bleeding at the borders of the map, in the way the greater world is presented.
OK, son this is the world… more or less. The map is a bit old, was drawn by a blind monk, distances are probably not to scale.
Maybe this is the reason why sword & sorcery characters are so often outsiders – because it’s damn hard being an insider in a world that’s so sketchy and uncertain.
Worldbuilding of course is not just geography – it is also physics, history, natural sciences…
When designing a world we must set down the house rules, and the house rules of sword & sorcery are very specific to the genre.
Like the supernatural, that is commonplace and yet scary.
But see, once again I am doing a list of ingredients.
I’ll have to think about it a little more – but the deadline looms closer and closer, and these are the ideas I am juggling.
Any idea or suggestion?