East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Heroic or not?


Turns out a debate opened, on Facebook or thereabouts, two days ago, about the fact whether Howard’s Conan stories are sword & sorcery or heroic fantasy.
Because that’s an important thing, you see.
To some.

I was not present when the thing started, but apparently a friend referring to Conan as sword & sorcery caused somebody’s knicks to get in a twist.
Which is interesting, because everything started from a discussion about Fritz Leiber (him again), and we all know – or should know – that the label of Sword & Sorcery was coined by Leiber when Moorcock asked him about a tag for “the sort of fantasy stories Robert E. Howard wrote”.
It was 1961, the venue was the fanzine Amra.

So, the point should be moot, and yet… is there a difference?

I usually tend to use the terms interchangeably, and it’s quite good when writing articles, so you can alternate “heroic fantasy” and “sword & sorcery” and not be overly repetitive.
But is there a real difference?

The basic rule of thumb I tend to apply if really need to make a distinction is, heroic fantasy features heroes, sword & sorcery features less-than-heroic characters (but still not the all-out sociopaths of grimdark).
At this point, it all depends on your definition of “hero”, of course.
The swashbuckling, happy-go-lucky factor should also be taken into account – we could try and define a scale, the Sabatini-Dumas scale of swashbuckling, to see what fits where.
At right angles with the Sabatggini-Dumas axix, there should probably be a scale to measure the horror-exotic element, that is generally higher in sword & sorcery (shall we call it the Smith-Lee scale?)

Missing those scales, let’s say that based on my very primitive rule of thumb, in a pinch I’d label most of David Gemmel’s novels as heroic fantasy, and Glen Cook’s Dread Empire stories as sword & sorcery.
So sue me.

In the end, while this makes for a great “shooting the bull” argument while we’re out with some friends for a pizza, I still find a lot of these discussions – especially on venues such as Facebook – to be part of a stake-claiming procedure: choose a label, work to become associated with it, and then decide who’s in and who’s out.
It’s a common marketing practice – but it being common does not make in healthy or good.

Read some good stories.
Don’t worry whether they are heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery, sword & soul, sword & sandal, urban fantasy, raygun gothic or whatever.

And stay safe.

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.

5 thoughts on “Heroic or not?

  1. I am very fond of the term sword & [sorcery/planet/sandal/whatever].
    Heroic fantasy has always seemed to me an implicit recall to… heroism?
    Conan, Elric, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are not heroes, maybe John Carter, but is he after all? His actions are somewhat heroic, but his motivations are pretty egoistic: he rescues HIS wife most of the time.


  2. Sheesh! Who knew it was so complex. I just call anything slightly fantastical “fantasy”.


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