Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery
I thought it might be helpful to pick a few thoughts about epic fantasy and sword and sorcery out of that other post. Here are some of the characteristics that were thought might distinguish them:
- The plot is central to the world’s history or even cosmology.
- The story come to an end, usually with some sort of healing of the land, and either a restoration or dissolution of magic
- The story is published as single narrative arc (for example, a trilogy).
- Characters tend to the heroic.
- Setting likely to be pastoral and expansive.
Sword and Sorcery:
- The plot is what adventurous people tend to do within a particular world.
- There is always room for another adventure.
- The stories are published as a series of interlocking narratives (for example, individual novels)
- Characters tend to the anti-heroic.
- Setting can be urban and intimate.
Obviously these are not hard and fast rules and should be taken in the spirit of thinking aloud in public. The fact that these distinctions break down, particularly, in modern commercial fantasy, returns me to thinking about the history of the subgenres. For epic fantasy, this is relatively straightforward and seems to come in clear waves; for sword and sorcery, things are murkier and the waves are overlapping. Again, these are notes towards a theory so treat them with the scepticism they deserve and feel free to shoot me down in the comments.
- Progenitor text: Tolkien – Lord Of The Rings (1954-55)
- First wave – emergence as a commercial subgenre: Brooks – Shanara (1977-85), Eddings – Belgariad (1982-84) and Weis and Hickman –Dragonlance Chronicles (1984-85)
- Second wave – bestsellers within a mature subgenre: Jordan (1990-), Goodkind (1994-) and Martin (1996-)
Sword And Sorcery:
- Progenitor text: Howard – Conan (1933-35)
- First wave – emergence as not quite a subgenre: Leiber – ‘Fafhrd And Gray Mouser’ (1939-) and Anderson – Broken Sword (1954)
- Second wave – deconstruction and subversion: Moorcock – Elric (1965-75) and Wagner – Kane (1970-78)
The third wave of commercial fantasy then seems to be a merging of these two traditions. So, for example, Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains (2008) explicitly ties itself to the sword and sorcery tradition in opposition to Tolkien tradition but is not especially different to contemporary epic fantasy. Equally, Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards (2006-) follows in the footsteps of Leiber but is highly popular and influential within epic fantasy circles. This isn’t entirely new, as previously mentioned Glen Cook’s The Chronicles Of The Black Company (1984-85) is an early example of this, but it does seem to be increasing and it may well explain the reason people have increasingly felt the need to resort to the adjective “gritty”.
Right, I have to go to a charity fundraiser now so I don’t have time to fully integrate two other important influences: Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and Perdido Street Station (2000). And yes, I know I need to read Wizardry And Wild Romance. (I also realise women are under-represented in this crude history.)