Genre and sub-genre labels exist for a good reason – to connect readers with the type of fiction they like. Often, at least these days, such categorization is more the function of marketers and booksellers than actual fan- or author-made distinctions. But such was most definitely not the case in 1961 when members of the Robert E. Howard fan group the Hyborian League realized they needed a name for the particular kinds of stories they liked to read and write. The question as to what exactly to call these tales was posed by young up-and-comer Michael Moorcock, with the solution provided by the veteran writer Fritz Leiber:
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure story) – and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!
Unmentioned by Leiber was the popular film genre of sword and sandal, a kind of storytelling more immediately similar to the sort of fiction in question and, indeed, a precursor of the sword and sorcery film explosion of the 1980s. However, long before the John Milius Conan the Barbarian film launched the sub-genre into mainstream consciousness, writers and readers the world over sought to understand just what exactly made sword and sorcery so special.
Sword and sorcery is perhaps most simply described as fantasy adventure fiction with a supernatural element focused on the immediate or personal needs of the protagonist(s). It is a sub-form of heroic fantasy, which are stories that follow the exploits of champions in exotic, fictional locales. At its core is an adventure element, as these are first and foremost action stories in which the plot moves relentlessly forward, and challenges are confronted head-on. The supernatural ingredient, the “sorcery” half of the equation, is nearly always in opposition to the protagonist – though mystical aid or knowledge employed by the central character is not uncommon. Magic is usually depicted as rare, uncanny, and dangerous, whereas the protagonist’s cunning and competence are the primary virtues pitted against the esoteric and the strange.
It is the personal scale and focus of these stories that is perhaps their most important aspect outside of the aforementioned elements. Sword and sorcery protagonists are not selfless heroes on epic quests, though, of course, nothing is stopping them from behaving nobly or getting embroiled in matters of large importance. But such lofty designs are not their goal when setting forth for adventure, for such characters are usually outsiders in whatever world or situation in which they find themselves. Indeed, it is usually the adventure itself that is the primary motivation for such heroes, and the reason why they are misfits and rogues in the first place. Whether their rationale is to plunder an ancient hoard, rescue a buxom maid, or escape an angry militia (and a good sword and sorcery hero should ideally be doing all three at once!), it is their restlessness and search for adventure that underlies all these incidents. It could be said that the typical sword and sorcery protagonist has more in common with the average reader of fantasy than most genre heroes – for both seek pure adventure and an escape from the mundane.
And it is this personal element that also colors one particular aspect of the sword and sorcery story – it slants the magical and supernatural toward the horrific and macabre. While the heroes of epic or high fantasy themselves often confront monsters and mages, it is generally only in sword and sorcery where such things take on a truly suspenseful or sinister aspect. By rooting the perspective of the tale squarely in the protagonist’s immediate fight for life and death, sword and sorcery tales take on more of the veneer of true horror than do epic fantasies that see such confrontations as part of a larger story.
As adventure fiction, sword and sorcery skews heavily toward short, serialized stories. While the large concerns of high or epic fantasy necessitate a tapestry of cause and effect, interwoven plot lines, character arcs, and definitive resolutions, sword and sorcery tales lean more toward the episodic, allowing heroes to go on fresh adventures with relatively little in the way of long-term consequences. Of course, good writers of sword and sorcery reflect the reality of a lifetime of struggle in their characters – but such is the nature of the genre that even retired or dead protagonists can return for new adventures simply by chronicling another incident from their past career.
It is of course possible to find many stories that blur or subvert these hallmarks and yet still remain sword and sorcery at their core. As part of the tradition of pulp storytelling, sword and sorcery – no matter the flourishes individual authors may place upon it – retains certain other characteristics of concision and pace and attitude that further serve to set it apart. In true pulp tradition, characterization, stylistic experimentation, and psychological depth take a back seat to storytelling, clarity, and plot. Not that these markers of “serious” literature need be absent, but they cannot ever be the sole justification for a sword and sorcery story. Instead, these tales enshrine the audience’s desire to be entertained as their highest good, eschewing the superfluous and the self-indulgent in favor of solid storytelling and a sense of wonder and adventure. Much like a sword itself, sword and sorcery stories always come to a point.