The Mud, the Blood and the Years: Why “Grimdark” is the New “Sword and Sorcery”

Age of Conan

“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