Let Us Speak of Swords & Sorcery

In which the author speaks of Swords and Sorcery.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser settling matters with steel. Painting by Tom Kidd.

Let Us Speak of Swords & Sorcery

Dear Reader,

I am working on something I call my Sword & Sorcery Project. When I’ve got enough prepared and written, I’m planning to publish it weekly on the serial fiction platform Royal Road. There’s a community of readers on Royal Road that is well-inclined towards Sword & Sorcery stories, so hopefully I’ll meet more readers like you who enjoy my work. (And the site will provide me a platform to share weekly chapters written at speed!)

But that still leaves the question: What is Sword & Sorcery?

Now we could go find a definition out there in a book or an essay or some library of the internet. But we won’t – or this wouldn’t be much of a newsletter! No, Dear Reader, we’re going to go on an adventure.

It Begins With The Name

There must be swords (or axes, spears, daggers, halberds, atlatls, or just plain mighty thews) and there must be sorcery. Any work that claims to be Sword & Sorcery must, at the least, meet these conditions.

Well, there are swords and sorcery in The Lord of the Rings – but LotR is not what we’re talking about. Neither are we speaking of The Earthsea Cycle, which has plenty of sorcery but not many swords. Nor is The Black Company in view, though here we are closer and in an adjacent realm with plenty of overlap.

Thus in the above paragraphs we have established:

  1. The minimum conditions of our investigation
  2. Some negative boundaries.

We will explore our negative stories further and why they don't qualify, after we’ve laid out some positive examples. Which now follow.

The Paragons of the Art

Conan by Robert E. Howard, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, and Elric by Michael Moorcock are all recognized paragons of the genre. Why?

Well, Conan has the sword and the thews, and he encounters his fair share of sorcery. There are monsters and men that need slaying. In his journeys he is known as a reaver, slayer, thief, mercenary, and king, but really Howard’s Conan is an adventurer through and through. If courtly intrigue enters into his narrative, it is briefly unfolded and then fiercely met with weapon in hand. If thieving needs being done, there will be a monster that needs dispatching. If reaving is taking place, there is likely an eldritch horror lurking in the ruins.

Conan and the spirit of his beloved Bêlit against a monster. Art by Mark Shultz.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are urban heroes in the City of Lankhmar. They are unparalleled swordsman and the Mouser knows some minor magic. Again monsters and men need slaying, and again there’s magic in the air. (Both heroes also have mysterious magical advisors.) Adventure is to be had often and steel settles disputes.

Elric has sword and sorcery in abundance. Men, monsters, and the very gods must beware his power. He is an emperor but we rarely see him operating in said role. No, Elric is also an adventurer. Sometimes he is in pursuit of friend or foe or both. Sometimes he’s just wandering about and danger comes to him. The fate of individuals, cities, kingdoms, planets, or even the multiverse may be at stake, but Elric will be in the thick of it, black sword in hand and summoning chants on his lips.

Let us then observe that in all of our examples, the characters are adventurers who settle matters with sword and/or spell, and that the settling of things is the main affair of the story.

Comparing the Negatives to the Positives

So why not Lord of the Rings? Well, there’s an epic quest, which, while aided by sword and sorcery, isn’t defined by them. The matter is not settled by steel, and our hero, Frodo, isn’t even a warrior (though he is an adventurer).

A Wizard of Earthsea and The Earthsea Cycle have sorcery and you’ll see the occasional sword, but matters aren’t settled by steel, and men and monsters aren’t often slain. (Though Ged handily dispatches a number of dragons that dare to challenge his might.) There are adventures and plenty of danger, but there’s more of a sense of questing and personal discovery to these tales.

What about The Black Company? Well Glen Cook’s work is much closer to our subject. There’s plenty of swords and sorcery and adventure. Matters are settled with spell and steel alike, but like Steven Erickson’s Malazan books, there’s a grander narrative unfolding that involves great powers and armies. This kind of epic military fantasy is certainly akin to our topic, but it maintains a distinct identity. Adventures might be embedded in the narrative but they aren't the core matter at hand.

That's all to the good. But let us pick up another thread of the discussion from the thinking of Gary Gygax to add to our efforts.

Abandon Hope, by Jeff Easley. The visage of the Dungeon Master.

What We Learn from the Dungeon Master

In the first edition of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gygax included a list of authors and books that inspired the game along with a brief paragraph. This material may be found in the famous Appendix N:

"Appendix N," AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, 224, Gary Gygax

Note that the capitalized titles are of special significance to Gygax, so you're going to get more of the spirit of his thinking from reading Moorcock's Elric (Stormbringer in particular) rather than Hawkmoon. Now, looking more closely at the list we find there's a good deal of sword and sorcery in there – a lot of which I've never read – along with Tolkien’s work. But D&D isn’t meant to emulate Middle Earth and that ultimately has something very interesting to say about our subject. Let's hear Gygax's side of things:

Though I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit, I found the “Ring Trilogy”…well, tedious.
- Gary Gygax, “The influence of J. R. R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D games: Why Middle Earth is not part of the game world,” Dragon Magazine 95, 12

This explains why Gygax capitalized The Hobbit in his Appendix N list, but left the “Ring Trilogy” in lowercase. What is his reasoning?

Considered in the light of fantasy action adventure, Tolkien is not dynamic. Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered (in terms of the D&D game). Obviously, neither he nor his magic had any influence on the games.
- ibid

According to Gygax, there's a lack of dynamism in LotR. It's not filled with the kind of swordplay and sorcery you’ll find in Conan or Elric. Instead of always settling matters with spells and Glamdring, Gandalf goes about dispensing advice and encouragement. He is more of a prophet than a sword-sorcerer like Elric. Also, there are long drawn out councils and plenty of extended plodding through the wilderness.

But, as I wrote elsewhere, Tolkien's register is broader than most authors. In his creative effort, he chooses to provide a wide variety of literary pleasures to deploy in The Lord of the Rings – which happen to encompass some of those found in Sword & Sorcery, though not in the pure, concentrated form of that genre.

Still, I agree with Gygax that Tolkien is not writing "fantasy action adventure."

Yet, in The Hobbit, we get a lot of adventure along with flashes of swords and sorcery. Bilbo does a fair number of daring deeds and his sword settles matters with the spiders of Mirkwood. It's just that LotR doesn’t have the same consistency of action or power. Though there was a chance, Gygax goes on to say:

The Professor drops Tom Bombadil, my personal favorite, like the proverbial hot potato; had he been allowed to enter the action of the books, no fuzzy-footed manling would have been needed to undergo the trials and tribulations of the quest to destroy the Ring. Unfortunately, no character of Bombadil’s power can enter the games, either for the selfsame reasons!
- ibid

If only Bombadil had been unleashed, then we would have seen some real Sword & Sorcery! But Gygax sees immediately that this just isn't possible for the sake of maintaining a compelling narrative. Indeed, if Bombadil had likewise been allowed into D&D, then there wouldn’t have been much of a challenge in the game either!

Tom Bombadil is Master. Trust Gygax, he knows a thing or two about beings of power.

Jests aside, we see that pacing and violent action are a major part of Gygax’s vision of the genre. Things need to move with vigor and power needs to be on display in flashes of peril. Thus Gygax's preference for The Hobbit over The Lord of the Rings makes sense.

A similar illustration might be drawn between, say, A New Hope and The Phantom Menace. Both Star Wars movies have political talk, action, and sorcery, but the original film is much more of a sustained adventure than the prequel, with the political talk merely sprinkled in to provide context and depth. Whereas, the primary complaint that I often hear about Phantom is that there's too much time spent in the senate doing politics (something I don't personally mind myself). I believe the typical phrase is "Phantom Menace gets bogged down." That doesn't sound so different than Gygax calling LotR "tedious," does it?

Thus our conversation has brought us to a Working Definition:

Sword & Sorcery: Action adventure fantasy where the matter is largely settled with spell or steel.

About That Project I Mentioned

For the last two weeks I've been using sandbox tools that I mentioned in earlier letters to create a worldbook (see in particular Ray Otus' The Gygax 75 Challenge for something of my inspiration). This notebook and the maps I've drawn up with it are meant to be an engine to help me grow stories. The goal of this particular project is to produce a serial novella that will run to a proposed 20 chapters.

And I have begun working on those now.

It's an experiment that I am quite excited to embark upon, as serial writing has long fascinated me, and it is certainly a staple of the sword and sorcery genre. So, I'm looking forward to sharing the fruits of these labors in the days to come, and hope that you will join me in this journey (adventure?) through Sword & Sorcery.

Still, I will say now that I don't feel bound to keep the writing strictly within the bounds of the definition that I have offered herein...

Happy reading.

Ah, Dear Reader, here we must part ways for a time. Until next we meet, I hope that you are well. Do you have any favorite Sword & Sorcery that I should consider, perhaps from the Legendary Appendix N or some other dread source? Please let me know!

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

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Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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