Swords & Dark Magic - By Jonathan Strahan

Sword and sorcery. The name says it all. Action meets magic. If high fantasy is about vast armies divided along the lines of obvious good versus ultimate evil, epic struggles to vanquish dark lords bent on world domination, then sword and sorcery is its antithesis. Smaller-scale character pieces, often starring morally compromised protagonists, whose heroism involves little more than trying to save their own skins from a trap they themselves blundered into in search of spoils. Sword and sorcery is where fantasy fiction meets the western, with its emphasis on traveling swordsmen wandering into an exotic setting and finding themselves thrust into unanticipated conflicts there. As high fantasy concerns itself with warring nations and final battles, sword and sorcery focuses on personal battles, fought in the back alleys of exotic cities, in the secret chambers of strange temples, in the depths of dark dungeons. If high fantasy is a child of The Iliad, then sword and sorcery is a product of The Odyssey.

J. R. R. Tolkien is the undisputed father of high, or epic, fantasy.* His Lord of the Rings drew on Norse mythologies, his personal experiences in World War I, and, arguably, Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung (though he denied this vehemently). The story of a titanic struggle for the fate of nations, it single-handedly led to the creation of the fantasy genre as a recognized genre, and spawned a thousand imitators. Famous names such as Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Roger Zelazny, Stephen R. Donaldson all owe an immeasurable debt to the Oxford professor. But the earlier form of sword and sorcery fantasy owes its genesis to Texan-born Robert E. Howard, who drew upon his Irish ancestry and a lifetime of tall tales of the American West to create stories of adventure that were, in contrast to his contemporaries, laced with a grim pessimism and an edge of violent realism. A boxer who stood six feet two inches, known for his stamina and for rarely losing a fight, Howard brought to his imagined conflicts a reality backed up by experience. It was in the pages of Weird Tales that he, a popular writer who wrote for scores of classic pulp magazines, would debut his greatest and most influential creation, Conan the Cimmerian. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard set Conan’s adventures in an imagined prehistoric land, Hyperborea, which existed between the fall of Atlantis and the time of recorded history. From out of the barbaric north, Conan came, “a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” As he detailed Conan’s exploits, Howard pioneered a new kind of fantasy, one that owed as much to the swashbuckling tales of Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini as it did to the outlaws and renegades of the American West.

Like the gunslingers whose exaggerated exploits form the bedrock of Howard’s childhood entertainments, Conan was an opportunist, a self-serving fortune seeker with a fatalistic outlook, albeit a man loyal to his friends, often given to penetrating psychological insights. Between 1933 and his death in 1936, Howard placed eighteen stories of Conan in the pages of Weird Tales. An instant success, the character’s most immediate influences were writers C. L. Moore and Fritz Leiber. The former introduced Jirel of Joiry in 1934, the year after Conan’s debut. Notable for being the first female protagonist in sword and sorcery, Jirel was the monarch of an imagined medieval French province, known for relying on her wits over her fists, albeit not shy of taking up a sword and shield. Moore penned six tales between 1934 and 1939, beginning with the classic “Black God’s Kiss.”† For his part, Fritz Leiber (in conjunction with his friend Harry Otto Fischer) conceived of the first S&S buddy duo, Fafhrd the Barbarian and his friend and accomplice, the diminutive thief known as the Gray Mouser. Appearing first in 1939 in the pages of Unknown, Fafhrd and the Mouser are notable in that their adventures continued until 1991 and ended with the heroes settling down into married life. Unlike Howard, Tolkien, and Moore, Leiber chose to set their adventures in a purely invented, secondary world, the world of Nehwon, rather than a lost past or fantastical version of our own history. This was not fantasy’s first foray into alternative constructed worlds but it was certainly one of the most influential.‡

Furthermore, Howard’s contemporary Clark Ashton Smith is notable for his own contribution to the genre, not the least