What is Swords and Sorcery?

Swords & Sorcery is one of those terms that defies precise definition. So, it is, I suppose, another one of those other concepts that can be encapsulated in the phrase  “I know it when I see it.” And there is, I think, a certain prurience involved, without which S&S would fail to distinguish itself as a distinctive branch of Fantasy.

Consider the term itself. Swords and Sorcery. Those three words intimate a certain precision: a story in which both swords and sorcery prominently feature. But that’s utterly misleading. There are many stories in which swords appear either peripherally or not at all and yet are unquestionably S&S. The same goes with sorcery, an overly specific class of the supernatural that was clearly chosen for alliterative purposes. More undoubted S&S stories fail to include sorcery than fail to include swords.

So, if an S&S story doesn’t require either of the objects clearly printed on the can, what does it require?

Good question. An earlier descriptor for this type of story was Heroic Fantasy. I think that failed as an adequate term for the simple fact that, as a rule, the protagonist of the story was seldom heroic. Generally speaking he was a rogue, a ruffian, perhaps even a picaresque scoundrel. The stakes involved tended to the small scale, the personal, seldom rising to heights that would demand what we’d consider heroism.

The obstacles between the protagonist and whatever was at stake usually involved some sort of supernatural element, either directly, indirectly, or baked into the story setting. And the resolution often demanded violence, commonly manifested as swordplay.

So, putting this together, we’ve got a story featuring a less-than-heroic lead, small stakes, a supernatural element, and violence. As a hard and fast definition this strikes me more as a suggestion than a rule. But I think that’s appropriate: S&S is suggestive. Swords and Sorcery is an evocative rather than a descriptive term. And that’s all to the good, allowing for the creativity that keeps the artform from growing stale.

Long live S&S.