I’d like to shed some light on a misconception concerning the genres of Epic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. For those who don’t know, the genre of Sword and Sorcery was created primarily by Robert E. Howard and thrived for many years in pulp magazines. Epic Fantasy, on the other hand, was created by Tolkien with works such as The Hobbit after World War I and The Lord of the Rings after World War II.
What is “Sword and Sorcery”?
Atsiko defines the Sword and Sorcery (S&S) sub-genre as having “less emphasis on magic systems than epic and high fantasy. It most often features morally grey characters on quests for wealth and glory.” He goes on to say that
Common tropes of S&S include grey morality, a me-first attitude among the protagonists, and while tales may be epic in scope, the protagonist is more concerned with the here-and-now and personal stakes than the fate of kingdoms.
This, to me, describes A Song of Ice and Fire perfectly, despite its fans’ habit of referring to “‘Tolkien-esque’ Sword and Sorcery.”
“You Win Or You Die”
One of the most important distinctions is that the stakes in Sword and Sorcery are much lower than in Epic Fantasy. Had Frodo and Sam died on Mount Doom, it would not have meant their failure so long as the ring still died with them. Théoden’s death in the Battle of Pelennor Fields doesn’t mean that Théoden has “lost,” as despite his death, the battle—and later the war—was won. With a character like Conan the Barbarian, by contrast, the story focuses entirely on him. Were Conan to die, the story would be over. To continue after the hero’s death in such a story is essentially a waste of time.
My main point here is that the stakes in Sword and Sorcery rarely extend beyond the well-being of a single character or a small group. If all the main characters die in a Sword and Sorcery story, then they automatically fail in their goals. The focus is on whether the protagonist prevails—not whether a kingdom prospers. When Conan becomes king, it is a triumph not because the kingdom now has a wise and just leader, but because the hero has achieved his dream of ruling a kingdom. What’s important here are Conan’s goals, and from his perspective there really is no bigger picture.
The Scope of the Stakes
The scope of the story, therefore, is not so vital as the scope of the stakes. Even filling the story with a multitude of characters does nothing to heighten the stakes if each is concerned only with their own personal success. Indeed, when the whole cast is sufficiently selfish, the death of a reader’s favourite character essentially makes it redundant to read further.
Were you to compare an epic battle in The Lord of the Rings to one in a Sword and Sorcery story, the most striking difference would be that the Battle of the Morannon feels far more important. The outcome of such a battle means something for the fate of the world; in this case, if the forces of Mordor should win, then all the free peoples will be eradicated. The death of a main character is less important than the battle’s greater outcome, and as with Théoden, a character may give their own life to win such a battle. The legacy of a fallen character is therefore greater than their death.
When Conan is defeated in a battle, even if all his men are slain, he is always the one man left alive. He always comes back, and always with his own goals in mind. Again, were Conan to perish as one of them, the story would be ended. If in such a case the story continued, it would likely be rather dull as the only point to the story is no longer relevant.
Ancient Greek Heroism
Sword and Sorcery adheres more to an old-fashioned definition of heroism—one that was unable to hold up to the savagery of the Great War. After being confronted with the horrors of the trenches, people became disillusioned with the idea of classical heroism and many other concepts. This disillusionment gave rise to “dada art” and other nihilistic movements, but Tolkien’s work gave people a new definition of heroism.
Sword and Sorcery is in many ways very similar to the ancient Greek myths, whereas Tolkienian Epic Fantasy is entirely different in tone and scope. I do understand how some might confuse the two (or even assume them to be one and the same), as the majority of Epic Fantasy involves swords and magic, but Sword and Sorcery as a genre is almost entirely distinct from Epic Fantasy.