“Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer…”
–Robert E. Howard
It was born in 1929, named in 1961, and died sometime in the early 80s. Yet its rotting, shambling corpse would never rest. It lumbered ahead, losing vital pieces of itself along the way, stumbling toward a dark rebirth in the early twenty-first century.
I’m talking about the fantasy sub-genre known as “sword-and-sorcery.” It was by most accounts invented by Robert E. Howard with his King Kull story “The Shadow Kingdom,” published in the legendary pulp mag Weird Tales in August, 1929. Howard’s gritty and blood-soaked take on heroic fantasy stood in stark contrast to the fantasy works that inspired it, works by authors such as Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Dunsany, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Howard wrote the poetic prose exploits of sword-swinging protagonists who were usually not out to save the world but were motivated by their own survival, tribal affiliations, or hot-blooded desires. A believer in the essential purity of barbarism, Howard never flinched from the clashing of steel on helm, the spattering of brains and gore, or the exploration of primal savagery versus decadent civilization. He wrote pulp fiction that was primarily read by men, so his heroes tended to be brawny and clever alpha males.
Howard’s writing reached the height of popularity with his Conan of Cimmeria tales, and this character all but eclipsed Kull, who was Conan’s literary progenitor. The Conan tales became one of Weird Tales’ most popular attractions, even though Howard only wrote 17 stories of the Cimmerian (including one serialized novel). While Howard was cranking out these tales of the lost Hyborian Age and defying the romantic tropes of high fantasy, he probably never imagined he was creating something that would endure for decades after his death. As a pulp writer, he got very little respect and no literary credibility. But the Weird Tales readers loved his work.
After Howard’s death in 1936, Weird Tales tried to fill the void of his passing by having other authors create heroes in the mould of Conan (Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis, for example). Yet there was only one Howard and he was gone. His stories, however, endured—especially his Conan stories. They were collected over the years and inspired generations of writers to follow in his footsteps.
Long after Howard died, Clark Ashton Smith continued to write sword-and-sorcery-flavoured tales set in the worlds of Zothique and Hyperborea. Smith took the genre to a darker and more frightening place by having most of his swashbuckling heroes die horrible deaths in the course of their adventures. Smith’s fantasy tales were equal parts sword and sorcery and weird horror, but until ’61 they were simply considered examples of “dark fantasy.”
In 1961 author Fritz Leiber coined the phrase “sword and sorcery” to describe the fantasy-adventure phenomenon that Howard had created decades earlier with only a handful of unforgettable stories. Leiber did this coining in the pages of the fanzine known as AMRA, itself named after one of Conan’s pseudonyms. Leiber’s own contribution to the genre was his tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, a legendary rogue-and-barbarian duo. Michael Moorcock soon turned the sword-and-sorcery genre on its head with his Elric of Melnibone stories.
For the next two decades sword-and-sorcery literature continued to rise in popularity, and new authors arose to continue the tradition: Karl Edward Wagner, L. Sprague DeCamp, Andrew J. Offutt, Poul Anderson, Lin Carter, and others. Marvel Comics adapted Howard’s Conan and Kull into the comic book medium with astounding success, spawning a generation of comics that tapped the sword-and-sorcery vein. The most successful of them all was Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan the Barbarian, which launched in 1970 and began a decade of sword-and-sorcery popularity the likes of which has never been seen since. The comic’s success spawned a “mature readers” black-and-white comic magazine, Savage World of Conan, which amped up the levels of blood, nudity, and violence. Now the stories could weave closer to Howard’s original vision, unrestricted by the limits of the “Comics Code Authority” that toned down colour comics.
Conan became the undisputed king of sword and sorcery, culminating in the 1982 major motion picture Conan the Barbarian, directed by John Milius and co-written by Oliver Stone. I was twelve years old that year—a big fan of the comics and the magazine—when I saw Conan brought to life on the silver screen. It was stunning. While the movie took some liberties with the narrative history of Howard’s barbarian, it stayed true to the core of the character and brought the Hyborian Age to life in all its big-budget glory. It was a perfect storm of blood, action, grit, sorcery, and exotic wonder that represented the absolute pinnacle of the sword-and-sorcery genre itself. It was also the last time sword and sorcery would be taken seriously, if indeed it ever had been.
After the ’82 Conan movie, the inevitable low-budget, low-quality imitations began. A slew of terrible movies with none of Milius’ vision, style, or respect for the genre appeared one after the other. Even the sequel to the original Conan movie was entirely unlike the first movie—no Milius, no Stone, a lower budget, and pressure from the studio to make it more kid friendly. All these factors contributed to making a sequel that didn’t seem like a sequel at all, but more like a weak parody of the genre. Even as a fourteen-year-old moviegoer I remember being disappointed and a bit angry at how bad it truly was. But this was to be the new paradigm for all ensuing sword-and-sorcery movies. I won’t offer the names of any more awful 80s sword-and-sorcery movies in the interests of not promoting them and staying on-point with this article. But there were a lot of them.
The entire sword-and-sorcery genre had grown so popular it had become a parody of itself. The best (i.e. worst) example of this decline was certain cartoon hero of Eternia, who shall remain nameless. The sword-and-sorcery genre was never meant for the “wee ones,” but it had been watered down specifically to capture the pre-teen demographic. New sword-and-sorcery novels kept appearing as well, and few of them did anything original with the genre. In the 80s, sword and sorcery became associated with misogynist imagery, bad prose, and cheesy artwork. That is, when it wasn’t being watered down to fuel various children’s cartoons.
By the mid-80s book publishers had figured out that the term “sword and sorcery”—once used to sell hundreds of thousands of comics and novels—did not work anymore. Publishers went back to the generic term “fantasy” or upgraded to “epic fantasy” or started calling their fantasy books “science fiction” in the hope that nobody would notice how different sci-fi and fantasy actually were. Meanwhile, writers such as Tanith Lee, Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson, and Darrell Schweitzer (to name only a few) had created their own versions of sword and sorcery—each one adding something special and decidedly more “literary” to the basic concept.
Weird Tales had reappeared many times and became known as The Magazine That Wouldn’t Die—just like the genre it had given birth to in 1929. Moorcock’s Elric saga and Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books were reprinted many times over, and never seemed to go out of print. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales were continually re-appearing in new volumes as well. Yet nobody was calling any of this stuff “sword and sorcery” anymore. At least not in public.
Epic fantasy, meanwhile, was doing quite well. Authors like David Eddings, Robert Jordan, and Raymond Feist were hitting it big. But sword and sorcery was the bastard stepchild of fantasy, neglected and forgotten, if not openly mocked as inferior to epic fantasy. To be fair, a lot of it truly was inferior by this time. Still, those of us who grew up reading sword and sorcery cherished our mouldering paperbacks and our dog-eared comics: Conan, Kull, Claw, Warlord, Beowulf, Red Sonja, Savage Tales, and Savage Sword. I remember an “All Sword and Sorcery” issue of Creepy that I bought in 1979—I was ten. All the stuff we loved as kids lingered in our psyches and became part of our deep creative drive. A new generation of fantasy writers-in-training started channelling sword-and-sorcery inspirations to create new forms of adventure fantasy.
In 1996 George R.R. Martin released his well-received novel A Game of Thrones, the first volume in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Although it was marketed as “epic fantasy,” A Game of Thrones was heralded for its realistic and “gritty” depiction of medieval-style life and its highly complex and believable characters. Sure it was light on the sorcery, and sometimes on the sword-fighting too, but Martin knew exactly what he was doing. He drew readers in over the next fifteen years with his less-is-more approach. Each book revealed more of his fantastic world and slowly unveiled the mystical forces that permeated it.
This grimmer, darker, and more realistic approach to epic fantasy caused some to dub Martin the “anti-Tolkien.” The monumental work of J.R.R. Tolkien, after all, was the yardstick against which all fantasy used to be judged, and often still is. Yet Martin had done in the 90s what Robert E. Howard did in the late 20s: He removed the idealism, cut out the pastoral myth and infallible heroes, and replaced them with mud, blood, shit, and a focus on the darker aspects of human nature. Martin’s epic resembled historical fiction far more than traditional fantasy; it smacked of realism. Yet fantasy it remained—simply a more relatable form of fantasy. Psychology replaced ideology. Brutality replaced honour. Sword and sorcery had finally “grown up,” or at least been transmogrified into something that modern audiences craved. None of the previous fantasy labels seemed to fit Martin’s saga. A Game of Thrones is widely credited as the beginning of the “Grimdark” genre (along with certain fiction inspired by the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000).
In the past decade a new breed of authors has come along to dominate and further define the grimdark fantasy sub-genre: Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, Mark Lawrence, and R. Scott Bakker (among others). I discovered Bakker’s work about ten years ago (2005), beginning with his first novel, The Darkness That Comes Before. It was a revelation. I remember trying to describe to friends how different his Prince of Nothing trilogy was from the usual epic fantasy. It wasn’t easy to do. Bakker’s work was more philosophical, more psychological, more brutal, and of course it was darker. Reading Bakker’s trilogy energized me—it made me believe that the fantasy genre was still alive and kicking, and that I need not stick to works written in the 70s or earlier to get the kinds of adventure for which I hungered. Like Martin before him, Bakker offered sword-and-sorcery thrills with a whole lot more: a literary sensibility that was often too rare in the context of epic fantasy.
Once I devoured all of Bakker’s trilogy, I discovered Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga (which I had totally missed until then). People I knew online and offline were raving about Martin’s books so much that I decided there was NO WAY they could be that good. But when I dove into A Game of Thrones in 2008, I immediately discovered to my amazement that YES, THEY ARE THAT GOOD. I blazed through the first four Song of Ice and Fire books in a matter of months. What I didn’t know was that my two favourite new writers, Bakker and Martin, were soon to be considered co-founders of a new fantasy sub-genre that didn’t even have a name yet.
At the 2010 World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, I joined in the recording of a podcast discussion with several authors from Black Gate magazine (along with its publisher John O’Neill). We had an amazing discussion for over two hours about “modern sword and sorcery”—which authors were bringing back the tradition and even doing something new with it. I remember Howard Andrew Jones singing the praises of Joe Abercrombie and Jason M. Waltz touting the genius of Steven Erikson while I kept insisting that everyone simply HAD to read the work of R. Scott Bakker. I think I actually RAVED about it. I tend to do that sometimes with the books I love.
We thought we were talking about the New Breed of sword and sorcery. We had lovely arguments about what defined and did not define sword and sorcery, never coming to any sort of final agreement. We all loved this much-maligned genre and we all saw that it was coming back, yet it wasn’t quite the same. It had evolved, grown, progressed, become something greater than it used to be. Something dark, powerful, and undeniable. Something more important then ever.
It was only recently (five years after that great World Fantasy Convention discussion) that I had a strange epiphany. I normally don’t pay much attention to genre labels. I simply write/read what pleases me. I draw upon influences, experiences, and dreams, hoping to create something worthwhile and maybe even original. Like my contemporaries in that Black Gate discussion, I had grown up on sword and sorcery. But, just like us, that genre had grown into something more mature, something vital that befitted the times in which we lived.
My epiphany was this: Grimdark fantasy is the new “sword and sorcery.”
The old sword-and-sorcery label has been consigned to history for the most part. This new breed of authors—including myself, I discovered—has taken that dead genre and spun it into something new and alive. What spurred my realization was the reading of a brand-new R. Scott Bakker story, “The Knife of Many Hands,” in Grimdark Magazine. Then I started seeing articles and posts about Clark Ashton Smith being a progenitor of Grimdark with his Zothique stories in the old Weird Tales. I realized this whole thing had come full circle and despite the preference of sorcery to the sword in my own works, my stories were grim and my worlds were dark.
Grimdark does not prohibit any certain styles or author voices. Within the broad genre category of grimdark fantasy there is room for different voices, different flavours, and a plethora of different approaches. Grimdark simply implies a certain approach toward the fantasy world and its inhabitants. Readers are free to choose those writers whose particular styles appeal to them, and to disregard those that do not. This is only as it should be, and has always been, regardless of genre labels.
It’s been said that perception is reality. Case in point: If you say “I read sword and sorcery” to a fantasy fan today, they will likely assume you mean the kind of adventure-based fantasy that was published in the 60s and 70s, which was itself a throwback to the glorious pulp era of the 20s and 30s. Conversely, if you say “I read grimdark” to that same fantasy fan, they will likely assume that you mean any number of contemporary writers working in this new subgenre grown from old and cherished roots. A genre that is more inclusive, more diverse, often more literary in its depth, and more suited to the tastes of twenty-first-century readers.
Yes, “sword and sorcery” is an outdated term today, one that may never gain back the status or popularity it enjoyed during the last century. But that’s okay. What’s in a name?
Grimdark offers everything sword and sorcery did, and so much more.
Grimdark is the new sword and sorcery.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #4.