I’ve been a stalwart fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre and its iterations for a very long time. It is second only to horror and weird fiction for my fictional genre enjoyment. I have also been just as much a foe and hater of high fantasy for an even longer period of time. I never really gave much thought as to why this is until recently, assuming that the rank corniness and ethical Manicheism of high fantasy as compared to the more ambiguous and earthy nature of sword and sorcery were alone enough to clinch the deal for me. But my recent discovery that cultural commentary need not all be a horror show of religious fanatics, entertainment industry neoliberals, and blue-haired-septum pierced woke scolds jarred some thoughts about this topic. Indeed, the people mentioned in the sentence above-the ruiners of cultural critique-are a big part of the difference between traditional fantasy and sword sorcery, and more importantly, the kinds of people each appeals to. Plus, if your rivals are going to use such language in the real world, ridiculous as it is, you might as well be able to meet them on a level they can understand. Much like a sophisticated vocabulary is not a good idea when speaking to children.
What makes S&S what it is are protagonists with base motivations, magic being rare and mind-bending if not outright a cosmic horror, glories being relegated to a mythical past if even mentioned, and above all the love of a good tale about powerful outsiders, usually barbarians or criminals, and the decadent magical and political forces they often find themselves at crossed swords with. There are no grand battles of good vs evil or light vs darkness here. Large conflicts tend to be one local petty kingdom vs another with the protagonist happening to find themselves on one side or the other through chance, personal vendetta, or mercenary motives. This is the stuff of Robert E Howard, usually considered the inventor of the genre (as well as the maker of its two greatest incarnations, Kull and Conan), not of Tolkien or his many many increasingly terrible imitators. This is the less famous and far more interesting world(s) of Imaro, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kane, Jirel of Joiry, and Nifft the Lean.
What I like most about the genre aside from its general fun, of course, is its Ibn Khaldun-derived general view of human nature and of societal processes. Unlike the dominant ideologies of our time (which are reflected in our dominant fantasies apparently), history isn’t a teleology. It isn’t going along some pre-determined path. It is rather a series of competitive crisis managements that fail or succeed to different levels amongst a series of cultures and societies that were born into some form of success or stability and have been declining towards their fall and replacement ever since. Then the cycle begins anew. This is neither the reactionary thought of a Burke, the Catholic Church, or of modern-day patrician centrism, where a magical tower is continually built towards the heavens, nor is it the edginess of the pure radical, who revels in the demolishment of all for a wholly new leap in the dark, but rather sociology as a natural process. In fact, both of these extremes are often the antagonists of S&S stories. The first as the cloistered evil wizard or decadent king in their ivory or onyx tower, the second as a re-awakened cosmic horror or the monsters that dwell out in the wilds. Often, one is summoned by the other.
The protagonists of this genre tend to share things in common too. An outsider status, tight but rare friendships in an untrustworthy world, and a disdain for declared authority. Most importantly, many of these characters follow the Khaldunian path of barbarian nomads by eventually leveraging their advantages into kingship, toppling the old order but replacing it with a new and more vigorous one. Conan, the most famous hero of the genre, becomes king of Aquilonia. Kull was king of Valusia aeons before him, both were barbarians who started out fighting those very kingdoms. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser eventually end up as the local bigwigs on a subarctic settlement, Imaro as a legend across the lands with a mixed reputation. All come across dark entrenched forces that more live by inertia in entropy than by dynamic action. Most importantly, the various wizards, sorcerers, and the like are usually not world-threatening menaces but rather merely another cog in some kingdoms political machine, or a criminal guild’s most prized member, or the secret forces behind events within kingdoms. The decadent throne of Valusia was only given vigor by Kull, and first he had to survive assassination attempts by literal lizard people who had secretly controlled the kingdom and held it in bondage to old ways by puppeting previous kings. If that is not a conspiracy theorists fever dream come to life, I don’t know what its. But symbolically it resonates much as Pizzagate is obviously an (ironically hilarious) farce that no one should actually believe, but it speaks volumes about how many view our present ruling classes. It was after all only after the various housecleanings of Conan that Aquilonia entered its golden age, even if this, like all times before, could not last.
S&S is, in effect, the Virgin vs Chad meme of fantasy genres. Cold steel always outperforms the elaborate machinations of a bunch of tower-dwelling neckbeards, court eunuchs, and inbred aristocrats. In a temporary, ever-fluctuating world, only the right use of force and alliances can see you through. This is not a glorification of violence and always taking the offense either. The vast majority of S&S heroes, when not being thieves, are usually wronged before they act. They do not seek fights, but rather respond decisively when such battles are forced upon them. The kingships of Kull and Conan are remarkable for how much less warlike they often are compared to their neighbors, with the real battles being keeping the decadent dying courts of rivals at bay. Meanwhile, all of these outsider protagonists tend to be extremely well traveled, multiple language speaking, highly analytical thinkers. The Nerd-Wizards, on the other hand, so haughty and proud in their rote-learned intelligence, are almost helpless without prestige, ceremony, and dependency on established power networks. Their lack of contact with the brute reality of the world is their undoing.
It all reminds me of recent commentary I read somewhere (source presently slips my mind) about the superiority of speculative realist philosophies against correlationist ones, with the hobbies of the thinkers compared with their thought. It basically broke down that the realists tended to like hiking, travel, adventure, while the correlationists and idealists were often desk bound thinkers. This was shown by the nature analogies used by each, with correlationists tending strongly towards inanimate solitary objects like furniture and the realists using animals, plants, ecosystems, and weather.
And look, there I managed to tie this post into my fascination with Speculative Realism too. Anyway, back to the point.
It is these decadent courts whose thumb we presently dwell, tolerant as they are of neckbearded nerd-wizards in their towers and court lanyards that are the most aggressive threats to the world arise. Lacking true fortitude and strength as intrinsic character traits, they must rather pretend they have it through fraud and posturing- a far more dangerous proposition. Fantasy Bill Kristol types in effect. And if some group or leader came about who actually was interested in changing these entrenched interests they would face plots and palace coups aplenty from the dark forces that fester in the shadows of the kingdom. But that’s no reason not to try anyway. Even if you fail it will make for a good tale around a few pints, anyway. And someone needs to Hold the Sword against this high fantasy loving nerd tyranny we live in, where neoliberal nerds who identify their politics with the entertainment they consume are the predominant cultural force of strange cosmic horror summoning sorcerer class. If we must live in a nerd-dominated culture, then we can at least speak the language of the Chadliest of nerds…and that is of Sword and Sorcery. It is not like high fantasy represents anything but the pathologies of both liberals and reactionaries alike and their presently collapsing world views.
Anyway, here is a picture I did for a Mandy style movie poster (Mandy may take place in the 1980s but it is very much a S&S genre film-trust me) of Tulsi Gabbard clearing out the wretched dungeon of the Democratic establishment (special guest MBS, with Hillary, Booker, Harris, Podesta, Biden, and Power all thrown).
But seriously, read nonfiction first for real commentary, people. Actual history and philosophy will always rule at the end of the day. But maybe…maybe sword and sorcery can help on the propaganda front anyway. It certainly can break up the high virgin fantasy monotony.