If I were to distill the elements of Swords-and-Sorcery to their essence, what story would I find pooled at the bottom of the alembic?
To answer such a question, I’d first have to gather the elements. It requires a confident man or an arrogant fool to think he knows what those elements are. Let’s take a collective leap and pretend I’m not a fool. Moving forward, let’s see if we can glean the fundamental components of S&S.
One is scale. The stakes cannot be too high. If, within the fiction, the matter to be resolved by the protagonist is consequential to vast numbers, even world-shaking, then it is by definition epic. Epic Fantasy may be kin to S&S, but it is another creature. What the S&S hero hopes to accomplish should be personal, or at least the effects on the page must be largely limited to the hero, without dwelling on the outcome for those suffering any collateral impact.
Two is immediacy. The hero is directly involved in the action. Not merely a guiding hand. He may be a cat’s paw, but the results of the events will depend on his sword, his choices, his activity. If an S&S hero is a general, he’ll at some point lead from the front.
Three is horror. That ingredient might cause a raised eyebrow among some of you. But I believe horror is always an element in S&S, even if it is only subtle or inferential. Consider it baked into the very name given the genre. “Sorcery.” There is something elementary horrific within the supernatural. The unknown, the uncontrolled, the unnatural. A horripilation at the back of the neck that you may barely notice. This is distinct from “magical.” A narrow distinction, perhaps, but real.
Four is excitement. S&S is an action genre. Cozy Swords-and-Sorcery is a contradiction in terms. The reader expects fights, suspense, daring. Obvious enough, given the word “Swords” right there on the label.
Five is magic. There must be some element of the unreal, something to distinguish the tale from historical fiction, from the rousing tales of Dumas or Sabatini. It can be as simple as the McGuffin of the story, or be embodied in the antagonist.
Five is a good number. We’ll stop there, with Five elements of S&S. Set these over the fire and distill them down to a potent essence, what do we get?
The Tower of the Elephant gleams at us from the alembic, dangerous, fiery, and intoxicating, direct from Robert E. Howard’s alchemical Underwood.
Prove it? Well, I’ll try.
The scale remains small. This is a story that commences almost as a bar bet, though involving Conan, it is a bit more violent than that, and also concerns the clash of the “civilized” and the barbarian. If a story begins in a tavern, or drinking and feasting, that’s a clue you might be reading S&S. (Baldor, son of Brego swearing a drunken oath to take the Dimholt road, is the commencement of an S&S story we never got to read.) The point is, at its simplest, Elephant is the story of a burglary, undertaken by a man goaded into the act by pride and ego. There is nothing epic about that. But it is more than enough to get the wheels turning.
Conan is the instigator of all that follows. He is immediately involved in all that occurs. He decides to scale the wall, to link up with Taurus of Nemedia, to climb the tower. He chooses to accede to the request of Yara.
Yara is himself both a figure of pity and of horror. Not only of horror, but of horror harkening to the Lovecraftian branch of horror. A cosmic being from the depths of space, inhuman. Though Howard offers a creature we can comprehend, bringing a touch of humanity that Lovecraft might have disdained.
The story up to the introduction of Yara is a feast of action, one moment of suspense, combat, and daring-do after another, starting with a tavern fight, then going to include a lion-attack, scaling a jeweled tower, and fighting a giant, poisonous arachnid.
The culmination of the story employs the McGuffin directly, the Elephant’s Heart, providing a memorable and satisfying magical conclusion.
There. I’ve laid forth my proof. Is The Tower of the Elephant the quintessence of Swords-and-Sorcery? What say you?
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I’ve read mystery fiction all my long life, but am just starting to appreciate sword and sorcery. Thanks for this helpful distillation.