Everything Is Nice

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Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery

with 22 comments

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:

Epic Fantasy:

  • 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.

Epic Fantasy:

  • 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.)

Written by Martin

20 February 2010 at 12:06

22 Responses

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  1. “Epic fantasy” to me refers to size and scope, which is attained by pretty much every fantasy series after a few volumes.

    When you say: “The plot is central to the world’s history or even cosmology,” I would suggest, not entirely facetiously, “Epoch Fantasy,” where the story is tied to the ending or beginning of an Epoch in the world’s history or cosmology.

    SF Strangelove

    21 February 2010 at 01:44

  2. Where would you place Mervyn Peake’s Ghormenghast works?

    LT Thomas

    21 February 2010 at 04:14

  3. Interesting. On the whole, well reasoned and acceptable conclusions. I’d say Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen lands square in the midst of that third wave, as it rather uniquely puts individual titles smack dab in the S&S yet moors the entire series firmly in the epic.

    Jason M. Waltz

    21 February 2010 at 07:27

  4. LT: I don’t see Peake as having much to do with either of these traditions. In terms of its creation, it is sui generis; in terms of its (huge) influence, it probably goes with Machen and Hodgson and the like into the weird category.

    Jason: that’s interesting. I’ve not read Erikson but I had mentally filed him as late period second wave. Maybe he does fit as a good example of the third wave changes we’ve seen this decade though.


    21 February 2010 at 09:34

  5. Your mind is trapped in a Structuralist prison. Nobody can break you out of this place; you have to free yourself.

    Adam Roberts

    21 February 2010 at 22:46

  6. Adam, it’s clear that you fail to properly understand Attebery’s notion of the fuzzy set!

    David Moles

    22 February 2010 at 11:08

  7. For me the really key difference is your first point in epic fantasy ” The plot is central to the world’s history or even cosmology, ” Although Moorcock would probably disagree…

    eric orchard

    22 February 2010 at 18:16

  8. I genuinely don’t see ‘fuzzy sets’ as the get-out-of-jail-free cards they are sometimes taken as being.

    Adam Roberts

    23 February 2010 at 13:22

  9. First, I would disgard “epic”; or, rather, I would use it for describing size and length and complexity, not plot type.

    Then, I would distinguish “high” and “low” by saying that high fantasy has the events be central to the world. I say events rather than “plot” because there are books like “The Book of the New Sun” where it may reasonably be said that the ‘plot’ is central to the world – but it’s almost by accident, and throughout the greater part of the quartet the actual events seem to have little bearing on anything important other than through symbolism. To me, high fantasy should have its own importance at the centre.

    Then I would distinguish how familiar the world is: fantastic realism (including most magic realism) has the ‘real’ world with a few unpredictable deviations; ‘secret history’ stories have the apparent real world but with a whole new side to them; and then there are pseudo-Earths (eg medievalism) and alien fantasies.


    23 February 2010 at 17:56

  10. […] Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery � Everything Is Nice (Fantasy,Fantasy.Epic,SwordAndSorcery,… […]

  11. The more I explore the Sword & Sorcery subgenre the less I think there is really much difference at all. The only real difference between Tolkien and Howard was the venue they were published in and Tolkien used hobbits to mediate between his heroes and the reader. This is why S&S has a bad rep for being over-blown and silly. Tolkien was smart enough to keep that hyperbole at a distance. Howard wrote for the Pulps so he could not do this.


    G. W. Thomas

    27 February 2010 at 18:46

  12. I would put Conan as part of the first wave of sword and sorcery, with Burroughs’ Mars and Venus stories as the progenitor texts. As part of that first wave then you would’ve had your neglected woman writers, like Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore.

    As for epic fantasy, Tanith Lee is another name you would need to fit in somewhere, together with Stephen Donaldson. Both are writers who do not fit easily in your schemata, less commercial than Brooks et all, yet wildly popular all the same, especially Donaldson

    Martin Wisse

    7 March 2010 at 16:47

  13. […] Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery […]

  14. […] or thieves instead of kings and lords, the stakes personal rather than world-endangering. (See Martin Lewis' article Epic Fantasy Vs. Sword And Sorcery for a good comparison.) Plenty of recent novels fit perfectly into the S&S category, like Doug […]

  15. […] or thieves instead of kings and lords, the stakes personal rather than world-endangering. (See Martin Lewis’ article Epic Fantasy Vs. Sword And Sorcery for a good comparison.) Plenty of recent novels fit perfectly into the S&S category, like Doug […]

  16. […] […]

    sword and socery?

    24 July 2012 at 06:43

  17. Has there been any Swords & Sorcery since the 70s? Epic fantasy seems well represented, but I want another Leiber (or Howard… maybe minus the ethnography…)


    1 March 2013 at 03:05

  18. Swords & Dark Magic, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, is a good place to start for the modern stuff.


    1 March 2013 at 18:15

  19. I … really don’t have any major disagreements. Especially given the scope of this (“thinking out loud”), I really like these divisions. (If you have to have definitions, then these are good ones, etc.)

    Maybe something about third wave / deconstruction epic fantasy? Starting with GRRM and running through Abercrombie? Abercrombie’s particularly interesting, as the characters are trying to change the world whilst being self-aware about how useless trying to change the world actually is.

    I owe myself a big ol’ argument about Dragonlance at some point, but I think it is surprisingly close to post-revisionist epic fantasy. It is bizarrely philosophically well-constructed, and not in a Tolkienny way.

    D&D is extremely epic – the whole premise of, say, 4e was the players are “shining lights in the darkness”. Warhammer, however, is definitely swords & sorcery.


    5 March 2013 at 17:11

  20. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckJBoPkLt-A here is a trailer to our new independent sword & sorcery flick, “Prince Ashley and the Magical Crystal Quest” !

    Joey Corpora

    31 July 2013 at 21:16

  21. […] – Boo to Gregory Benford and his stupid ideas about economics, politics and space opera. 5) Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery – Exactly what it says on the tin with signal boost from Liz Bourke. 6) Woman On The Edge Of […]

    Five | Everything Is Nice

    28 September 2013 at 12:47

  22. […] Epic Fantasy Vs Sword & Sorcery – Perhaps a suggestion that there is insufficient critical writing about epic fantasy out […]

    Six | Everything Is Nice

    31 October 2014 at 08:47

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