With new movie versions of Robert E. Howard’s black-maned hero Conan and Edgar Rice Burrough’s gentleman adventurer John Carter of Mars, it would appear that the sword & sorcery genre may be about to resurge into the public sphere.
A staple of the pulp era, sword & sorcery fiction can best be recognized by the presence of roguish, larger-than-life heroes battling supernatural and earthly foes by magic, might and mein. Usually these heroes aren’t exactly “good” guys, but many times the results of their adventures tip the scale in favor of goodness. An example: a sword & sorcery character might indeed wage battle against a powerful demon cult, but rather than doing so to benefit society, he or she will more likely be motivated by the possibility of treasure or the gain of personal power. True, society may benefit from the adventurer’s quest, but such is rarely his or her primary – or even secondary – concern. Characters like the aforementioned Conan and John Carter are exemplary examples of the type.
While epic fantasy has long maintained a hold on genre readers, Sword & Sorcery fiction has made a number of notable forays onto local book shelves as of late. Classicist and author James Enge’s tales of Morlock Ambrosius (Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way) both meet the bill, as does Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series, and Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Even the grandfathers of the genre – Howard, Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Lieber among them – have seen a revival, with many of their long out of print works being reprinted into affordable editions for today’s reader.
Even today’s publishing atmosphere would seem to be friendly to the typically episodic adventures of the Sword & Sorcery hero. Back in the thirties there were scads of pulp magazines, all of which were hungry for stories from talented fantasy authors. Ironically, in an age where paper magazines themselves seem to be dying, e-zines and web-based magazines offer a myriad of publishing opportunities for the author. Admittedly, not all of these pay especially well, but neither did the original pulps.
Could a revival at the movie house catalyze the nascent Sword & Sorcery scene in the written world? Maybe. While there’s no guarantee that Swords & Sorcery fiction will assume a place of prominence in the fantasy genre, I have heard several authors and even a publisher or two say that they hope – even expect – it to dethrone Steampunk as the sub-genre du jour, and like Steampunk, it too could benefit from the modern sensibilities of a new generation of writers. As it stands, Steampunk – while still incredibly popular, is well-trodden territory. Sword & Sorcery is a wide-open world begging for the traditional white male hero archetype to be joined shield to shoulder by heroes of color, strong and independent women adventurers and more. This could be sword & sorcery’s moment, if only more writers – much like the heroes themselves – recognize this golden opportunity and seize it for themselves.