Swords and Sorceries

I started reading Jirel of Joiry a while back, and got distracted from it – easy enough to do, as it’s a series of loosely connected short stories, rather than one novel – but came back to it again as this time I needed to absorb some of the flavor of sword and sorcery for an upcoming project. I can recall reading this genre many times in the past, with Edgar Rice Burrough‘s John Carter of Mars, some of the later Tarzan books, the Pellucidar stories. I also read Robert E Howard, and not just the Conan stories. H Rider Haggard’s tales of barbarism and romance (and not in the sense of finding a romantic partner) color my past reading as well. I asked, as I do, for suggestions of good Sword and Sorcery titles to read and deepen my experience… and promptly realized that how I define the genre is not how others define it. There is a book list of crowd-sourced recommendations on my blog, but this post is my thoughts on what the genre is.

Defining any genre is a nebulous business. That’s a given, and I don’t want to try and nail the ephemeral mists of this one down into some kind of container, any more than I do other genres. They ooze into one another, and some books can be categorized in more than one way. That’s all fine and well. What I loved about ERB, and Howard, and my late discovery of CL Moore with the Lady of Joiry’s dire adventures is what I wanted more of. They are all of them writing far enough back to have spawned a thousand imitators, some of them pale mewling creatures that can only inspire fear in the dark as the least light of introspection dissolves them into nothingness. Others have carried the tradition of the bloody swords and magical worlds to higher planes that can stand next to their ancestors in the hall of glory.

I wanted purple prose, barbarian queens who take no prisoners, and a mighty-thewed swordsman who would rush into hell for the love of her and his brothers-in-arms. I wanted the worlds to be dark, eerie, and never quite what they seem on the surface. I wanted the trappings of civilization to fall away, and what remains is not the law of men, but honor, justice, and the thick dark line between good and evil. I wanted heroism, and calumnious villains I did not have to parse to find out their evils.

There’s a reason this genre has so many mocking words written about it. Blood and thunder! becomes thud and blunder. It’s not realistic. There’s no connection to my everyday life in the magnificent mailed figure of Jirel, with her flame-haired head held high while she fights gods and witchery for the love of her country. It might make my heart beat faster to imagine myself daring greatly and rushing headlong into battle like she does, but I know that here in my world battles are insidious things you don’t always know you are fighting, sometimes until you have won or lost. But the appeal of the barbarian, be it Conan, or Dejah Thoris, who is bounded by no laws but their own pure hearts, is evident. It’s not purely escapism. There is a resonance with the concept of fighting to the death for something that really matters. Your own life, but more often, the life of another as the heroes in these tales tend to be protectors.

Which isn’t to say that this bounds the genre. Over and over people on the thread where I’d asked for Sword and Sorcery titles kept suggesting Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and since I owned it, I picked it up and started in on it once I had finished up with Jirel. Within minutes, perhaps mere sentences into the book, I could see the firm outline of Lieber’s tongue, pressed into his cheek. It’s not that I’m not going to enjoy the book. I suspect I will, very much. But as with so many of the other modern writers in the genre, he’s very aware of what came before him, and rather than trying to recreate that un-selfconscious and unabashed storminess of mood and atmosphere, he’s creating his own take on it, with characters who are the very antithesis of the hero.

And I think that’s what I wanted, in the end. The vivid, atmospheric descriptions of worlds, and humans, who never worried about washing the blood from their skin (although they always wiped off the blade they had used). The humans who picked themselves up after the kiss of a black god, and who although they suffered with nightmares, never let it break them. Who fought sorceries with the elemental nature of their very humanity. Unapologetic, one of my respondents described these early tales. Yes. That’s it. They didn’t apologize for their deeds. They found themselves in dire straits and they fought to save themselves and others. It might be outre, it might be pulpy, it might be politically incorrect. I don’t care. I shall read it, and do my best to write it in my own way, with my own heart poured out into the pages.

Fantastic beasts and warped imagination was around long before the printed novels! Hieronymous Bosch’s work in evidence as header image and below. 


  1. “…he’s creating his own take on it, with characters who are the very antithesis of the hero.”

    I’m not going to sit here and bash Fritz Leiber, because he managed “his own take” very successfully. But there does come a time when one tires of the “unique takes” and modifications. Sizzle is all very well, but you want to eat the steak.

    For the steak, like you said, you need to go to Pelucidar, or Barsoom.

  2. The appeal of Sword and Sorcery is so simple and primal that it eludes the a lot of modern writers. I dread to think what will happen now that so much of Robert E. Howard’s stuff is entering the public domain. I expect a lot of brain-dead “revisionist” takes in the years to come.

  3. I think the major problem with modern writers attempting to recapture the romance of past works of Fantasy (and, in a different way, Science Fiction) is that the last century of technological change has drastically altered our life experience.

    Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in 1875, ten years after the end of the last war in which cavalry sabres were a significant military weapon. Mounted men on horseback charging into battle were part of living memory during his youth.

    Fritz Leiber, on the other hand, was born in 1910. His cultural experience of war in his youth included machine guns and barbed wire and poison gas. Men on horseback with swords were already an anachronism when he was learning to read–something one saw in parades and museums, but not a military force to be taken seriously.

    Michael Moorcock was born in 1939, in London, and his early knowledge of war was of bombs dropped by airplanes, a sort of battle in which calvary is not so much an anachronism as entirely irrelevant. The Luftwaffe would obliterate a knight in full armor without even noticing he was there.

    This is not to say that modern writers should not attempt to write stories set in historical periods, with the technological base of previous eras, but to point out that it IS historical to modern authors (and readers) in a way that it wasn’t to writers at the beginning of the 20th Century.

    Barsoom, for Burroughs, was a “realistic” place in a way that Melnibone could never be for Moorcock. And is shows in the prose of both writers.

    It’s the same thing that occurs when modern writers attempt to recapture the London of Sherlock Holmes or the Paris of Jean Valjean. There is an inescapable gulf of time between the author and the characters (and an even greater one for the readers–who presumably haven’t done research on the time period.)

    Quality Sword & Sorcery or other forms of pre-industrial fantasy can be written by modern writers, but I think it’s important not to try to emulate writers who were not working from academic knowledge, but from stories they grew up hearing from their grandparents.

    1. _The Blue Sword_ is a good example of someone who, in my opinion, manages your blend of Sword and Sorcery with “modern looking back.” The setting is a frontier, swords and horses are still required, as is archery, there’s a Victorian air about part of the story, and something completely different on the other side of the mountains. Pure evil, struggling good, and people who have to choose, with rip-snorting adventure in-between.

      I also like S. M. Sterling’s “The Peshwar Lancers” for similar reasons, and because it is an unabashed love-song to Talbot Mundy and Kipling.

  4. > Conan

    John C. Wright has been reviewing Howard’s Conan stories over the last year or so. It’s worth reading his articles. He’s reviewing the original Conan stories, not the mishmash often published under Howard’s name after his death. There is a difference…

    > Peshawar Lancers

    Definitely Mundy and Kipling. And don’t forget “In the Courts of the Crimson Kings.”

    > Lieber

    FWIW, there are Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories at archive.org that don’t show up in Lieber’s ISFDB page. I’m not familiar enough with his ouvre to know if they’re just under different titles, never-before-collected, or became parts of some of the Lankhmar novels.

  5. I think part of it is there is no tongue in cheek irony in those stories. The story’s world is presented and taken seriously.

    1. Yeah, there’s not of that in the classical S&S canon, which is why modern writers can’t handle it.

      “So, this Solomon Kane guy, he fights evil?”
      “But he’s got some kind of issues himself, right?”
      “Not really.”
      “Or maybe he’s just fighting ‘evil’ ironically?”
      “I don’t get it.”
      “You certainly don’t.”

      1. Depends on what you mean by “issues”.

        Robert E Howard had two “basic” characters (with wide variations).

        One was the Barbarian traveling in more civilized lands (Conan for example).

        The other was a man born “out of place” in civilized lands who traveled to more barbaric lands (El Borak for example).

        In many ways, Solomon Kane is the second type of character. Not really comfortable in his England, he travels to more barbaric lands. Of course, he fights evil but he’s more a traveler who encounters evil outside his native land.

        1. Conan was a “barbarian” in that he did not espouse the “civilized” values of lying, cheating, backstabbing, nepotism, murder for personal advancement, etc. He fought and/or killed mostly because he was a paid mercenary, and occasionally when he came across something that needed killing.

          He was not stupid, was often introspective, and sometimes downright philosophical. The “barbarian” part was because he simply didn’t think like the “civilized” people.

          Sort of like a “civilized” sheriff would see some nut shoot up a school, and his primary concern would be, “how can I spin this incident to gain maximum advantage to myself and my patrons?” A “barbarian” sheriff would be thinking “what’s the fastest way I can catch that sonovabitch?” Completely different goals starting from the same events.

      2. I think Solomon Kane makes perfect sense if you look at him through some form of Congregational/Puritan theology. Although Howard did not play up that aspect (probably because readers of the time would still be familiar with some Puritan culture), there’s a lot of those ideas in Kane’s character.

        Full disclosure – I tend to read a great deal about that branch of Protestantism and history, so I could be reading a lot back that Howard did not intentionally put into the stories.

        1. I don’t think you are.
          Solomon Kane is always as a Puritan, as dour, stern, and not given to introspection (as opposed to Kull, who absolutely wallows in it! )
          I think one of REH’s best Solomon Kane character studies is actually a poem written in third person, “The One Black Stain”.

          1. Last week I finished stepping through the run of Weird Tales at archive.org The published a bunch of poetry by Howard that isn’t listed on isfdb, and as far as I know was never collected or anthologized.


            Howard (and Lovecraft, for that matter) must have done a ton of verse; that one magazine was printing new stuff ten years after their deaths…

            “Hey, a new poem from Howard came in this morning. Where can we fit it in?”

            “I thought he passed away some years ago?”

            “You haven’t dealt with writers much, have you?”

          2. Irony, in that the Puritans were maniacs for introspection. Had you really had all the checklist events that let you be saved? Had God deceptively let you think you had them — and all in the right order — so that was a falsehood?

            1. True. Trying to work that into a pulp short story or novella though… I don’t think even REH could have pulled it off. He has moments where Kane is considering the state of his soul and the nature of evil, but not many.

  6. With respect to Leiber, he definitely started the Lankhmar stories with his tongue in his cheek. The first one featured Fafhrd using rockets as ski poles to jump over a canyon, after all.
    But as he got going, his tongue mostly left his cheek. His two heroes will never be as doggone earnest as Kull, Conan, John Carter, etc. but they’re enjoyable rascals.

  7. Lieber wrote F&GM stories throughout his entire career. As you might expect his viewpoint on the characters changed over time as does the craftsmanship. Nowadays the stories are almost always published in internal chronological order, which is not the order that they were written. The later stories are not necessarily better than the early, but they are different.

  8. If I ever wrote a comic (I certainly can’t draw one), I think I’d do an old-school Sword and Sorcery title. The only one from the Big Two right now is Marvel’s Conan, and they’re too busy having him join the Avengers (I wish I were joking) than actually depicting the character Robert E. Howard created.

    1. I’m planning a follow on post about the art of sword and Sorcery. It’s as visceral and evocative as the writing. It’s also completely beyond my skills, sadly.

  9. If you enjoyed the Jirel stories, let me suggest the Northwest Smith stories, also by Moore. They blend science fiction of the 1930s with some pretty atmospheric situations in which horror and dark fantasy are as much a part of the story as the sf elements. And while you may have heard that Smith was the prototype for Han Solo, they are very different characters. There’s really very little out there like them, but you can see the irinfluence on a number of things if you look.

      1. And you also need to read the other female writer from whom S&S was born — Leigh Brackett. Admittedly, her Mars is more of a dying/dead planet, which leaves lots of room for lost civilizations, etc. Try something like The Sword of Rhiannon to start with, and get a feel for her writing style.

        Her career as an SFF writer kept getting interrupted because Hollywood kept grabbing her to write screenplays. Among her many credits, she co-wrote The Big Sleep, a bunch of John Wayne movies, including Rio Bravo, and the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.

        Unlike the Moore/Kuttner collaboration (where, once Moore married Henry Kuttner, their work became totally collaborative, and it’s generally impossible to know who wrote what from the time they started until Kuttner’s death), she collaborated on only one novel with her husband, Edmond Hamilton (one of the founders of space opera), with one of her characters crossing over into one of his worlds.

        1. It’s really hard to go wrong with Brackett. And while much of his work wasn’t S&S, Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis and Prince Raynor stories are worth reading, too.

        2. The Hamilton’s work habits were not compatible, but they ‘collaborated’ a bit more than you can tell from the by-lines. Leigh is credited with writing the Captain Future novelettes that appeared in Startling Stories in the 1950s. And Ed is credited with the expansion of one of the Stark novellas into paperback novel.

  10. Which of the many Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books did you start reading? Fritz Leiber was a good writer who played around with the characters and genre. Some are definitely tongue in cheek, some are humour, but my opinion is that he was always respectful, never mocking, towards the genre.
    For pure adventure, and wonderful structure with every character playing a part, I recommend The Swords of Lankhmar. It probably helps that it is the only full length story rather than a collection of shorts.

  11. All of Howard’s known poetry has been collected by the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press except for a few poems that have turned up in recently discovered letters and other documents. The book, over 700 pages, is currently out of print, but a new edition is being planned that will include all the recently discovered poems.

  12. Keith Taylor’s tales of Felimid, which can be found in the 5 BARD novels, are excellent hybrids of Howardian/Andersonian historical S&S. David Drake’s tales of Vettius and Dama are also fine historical S&S that blend influences from REH and Poul Anderson.

  13. Aren’t Geralt of Rivia books translated to English? They are written by a polish writer, Andrzej Sapkowski, and any S&S book recommendation in Spain shows his works. But I don’t remember him being mentioned in any of the American Authors words and forums I read. These books are an inspiration for The Witcher video games…

    1. OK, I should have checked before replying. His works are translated to English, in fact, the series in English is referred as The Witcher, for easy finding.

  14. Sorry I’m so late commenting on this but took a few days off blog-reading.

    I’ve written a total of 1 S&S story which was accepted for an anthology coming out at the end of August from,DMR Books.

    So far all of my protagonists in all of my adventure stories, whether SF or pulp or modern thriller, are pretty basic in their motivations. Then again I come up with situations and plot ideas BEFORE even thinking about what sorts of characters to use.

    This comes from my reading hundreds of actual pulp-era stories from archive.org the last 3 years or so. A man in these type of stories is usually motivated by one or more of a few basic things, like reputation, wealth/power, revenge, finding a good woman, etc. Other men would consider him “unmanly” to dwell on any emotional or personal problems longer than the briefest moment. Real men tackle problems head on and live with the success or failure of their efforts.

    This entire worldview seems alien to many people in our soft,protected society of today.

    A S&S protagonist is basically out for himself in a harsh and unforgiving world. He may find a trusted companion or two he’d risk his life for, but otherwise he’s pretty mercenary in outlook. He may end up destroying some great evil, but usually incidentally as a result of pursuing some other more immediate goal. High fantasy with shining knights and grand quests this ain’t.

    Don’t get me wrong, I also write stuff with a male character risking himself for women or the defenseless for no other reason than “that’s what men in my society do.” I admire truly noble and heroic figures like John Carter, but not every character can be a paragon of virtue. In a S&S world the self-sacrificing types get killed off first.

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