So last week, when I was talking low fantasy, I made lots of promises that I would go through and clarify the differences between low fantasy and sword and sorcery. Well, today is the day.
Now, the main confusion comes from the fact that, yes, sword and sorcery absolutely fits all the criteria for low fantasy. The main thing that makes sword and sorcery so different is the scope. Take everything that makes low fantasy what it is (cynicism and questionable morality and rare-to-nonexistent magic), but amp up the conflict. Like majorly. Normally, whatever your hero is up against will have magic, while he or she has nothing but a sword and determination. And the antagonists can get pretty far up there on the scale of terrifying and world destroying, including Lovecraftian horrors (Conan of Cimmeria, for example, existed right alongside HP Lovecraft’s world of elder gods.).
Sword and sorcery is also identified by the hero or heroine. Physically powerful, able to wield some kind of physical weapons, doesn’t fit in with the rest of society, or is a final remnant of their culture/kingdom/village/what-have-you. It’s not a glamorous, pretty genre. It’s about fighting and killing and glory and sex. The dirty parts of life that normally get swept under the rug.
Obviously, the most famous of all sword and sorcery works are the Conan books by Robert E. Howard. Kull the Conqueror is right up there in fame as is Red Sonja, inspired by a character in one of Howard’s stories, but taken much further than that. You also have Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga in the mix.
When it comes to TV, there are approximately two sword and sorcery shows worth watching: Hercules and Xena. Hercules came first and Xena was a spinoff… and much better, in my opinion. Both have wandering warriors of great fame, and both have to deal with enemies far more powerful than themselves. I would personally say that Xena fits the genre better, only because she’s a much darker gray on the morality scale than Hercules (she was a warlord, after all).
With movies, I’ll bypass the Conan flicks (although you really should watch them) and go for The Scorpion King. It’s perhaps a bit heavy on the magic, compared to other works in the genre, but if you’re looking for a quick intro to sword and sorcery and can’t bring yourself to watch Conan the Barbarian/Conan the Destroyer, The Scorpion King will give you some idea of what you’re working with.
If you’re looking for something a little bit more diluted, then ignore what the reviews say and take a chance watching John Carter (based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princes of Mars). Yes, it’s on Mars, which technically makes it scifi. However, the main character is big and muscular and has a physical strength him (the long jump). The enemy has a strange power (in this case, highly-advanced technology), and in spite of that, the main conflict is on a fairly small scale (all John Carter really wants is to get back to Earth). And obviously, he doesn’t fit in where he is, being a human and all.
So, what are your favorite sword and sorcery works? Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe, if you want more Subgenre Saturdays.