SF/F Genre Glossary

What is Sword and Sorcery?

This is a continuation of the Science Fiction / Fantasy Genre Glossary Project posts. For the complete genre index click here.

The Axe by Charles Keegan
The Axe – Charles Keegan

What is Sword and Sorcery?

A subgenre of fantasy characterized by action driven plot and warrior protagonists. These protagonists must pit physical strength against danger.

Common Characteristics

  • Protagonists are societal outsiders. For example, barbarians or outcasts.
  • Though a protagonist may perform heroic deeds it is not without personal reward.  For example, treasure, women, or survival.
  • Free will. Destiny is controlled by the protagonist. He/she has no help from higher powers, and must face dangers using his/her own strength.
  • Strength is often pitted against magic.

Perhaps two of the most famous archetypes of this genre are Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror

Further Reading:

The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery

Is there more to be said? Feel free to add some comments or your own thoughts on the definition.

Sword and sorcery tells the tales of men who are free from all

constraint. Their stature and skill mean they are free from the tyranny

of other men. Their birth and raising free them from the morals and

mores of society, and the lack of higher powers unbinds them from any

concept of fate. Thus the heroes of sword and sorcery become the true

representatives of free-will, and through their stories, readers are

able to imagine the capabilities and the triumphs of men who are

completely free to chart their own destiny.

4 Comments

  1. I can’t say that I can easily push the boundaries of Sword & Sorcery much farther than what you’ve outlined here, except to suggest, perhaps, that brute strength is only potential path for a S&S protagonist to take. Other possiblities include wit & wiles, or physical dexterity. Also, in S&S, good and evil are not monolithic. You’ve already defined S&S heroes as not necessarily or even primarily altruistic, which I think is essentially true. Finally, S&S typically takes place in some sort of dark ages. Whether that’s a strictly necessary component of the genre, I don’t know, but the name of the genre pretty heavily implies an age where both swords and sorcery are common.

    Finally, I noticed a distinct lack of the archetypal example of the Sword & Sorcery example: Conan.

    1. Good points, however, I would think those protagonists with wit, wiles, or dexterity, also possess at least some physical prowess. If the protagonist should win by poisoning the antagonist (wiles) I don’t think that would fall under sword and sorcery as a genre. Sucess must still come through pysical means. I think, anyway, or that’s always been my concept of it.

      Ahh Conan – In my search for images I nearly overdosed on artwork composed of half naked barbarians and scantily clad, large breasted, women.

      Added in two brief examples. Thanks!

  2. I agree with everything said and listed. S&S is the easiest to distinguish genre from the bunch and there is not much fuzzy or confusing. Just say Connan or Sonja and wham instant recognition.

    I am so syked about this feature. I am inspired to do my own [I had such ideas a few years back]. When will you tackle New Weird?

    1. Maybe next week! I saw a couple articles pop up online about it recently. I’m a little worried about New Weird. It seems to be ill-defined, or at least what I’ve read has been confusing. It will be a challenge. 🙂

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