Sword-and-Sorcery was the beginning of the fantasy genre. It was overwhelmed by epic fantasy in the 1990s. Many thought it was never coming back. There has been a response to epic fantasy, the so-called grimdark, which shares many characteristics of sword-and-sorcery but remains distinct.
I see signs that there are some writers returning to sword-and-sorcery. I don’t expect to see Del Rey or Tor publishing anthologies of new stories. I think we are in the beginning stages of a spirited small press revival of the genre. I have a few ideas why that might be.
Sword-and-sorcery has long been a genre sneered at by literary snobs. Even some of its foremost storytellers have been critical of the genre when it became overwrought and cliched.
In the fantasy world, epic fantasy has been the dominant form of the genre since the late 80s’. Multi-book series of a group of heroes battling against dark lords to save the world displaced the more contained stories of adventurers slaying sinister sorcerers for selfish purposes. Brandon Sanderson’s massive Kickstarter is one example of the popularity of these stories.
As independent grocery stores, and drug stores were swallowed up by chains; the spinning display racks of paperbacks disappeared along with the comics. Floor space costs money and the bean counters in the retail world determined that the paperback trade wasn’t paying its way. Many sword-and-sorcery novels were only published in paperback and never saw hardback. Removal from drug store aisles was a major blow to sales.
The publishing industry’s recognition that a series would hook readers in to buy three hardback books rather than one trade paperback was a major factor. The short fast paced sword-and-sorcery stories were no longer accepted by editors. They wanted multi book deals or nothing.
Sword-and sorcery, it seemed, had been slain.
Not dead yet.
Even though new sword-and-sorcery stories have not received much interest from the Big 5. The best and most popular of the old stuff has remained in print or recieved new adaptations.
Del Rey has put out collections of Howard’s original Conan stories. Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories have received some excellent treatment in the Titan comics series and the recent hardback omnibus editions from Saga Press. A brand new Elric book is coming out late 2022.
It’s great that the back catalogue of sword-and sorcery continues to be published. What excites me more is that there are new sword-and-sorcery stories being written. They are being self published but also put in print by small publishers and amateur magazines.
What’s driving the return of sword-and-sorcery?
I don’t know. I can only speculate.
It is hard to discount the power of nostalgia. I fondly remember my care free teen years reading tales of adventures of characters who could go where they wanted, do what they wanted, whilst winning the affection of attractive women. It was intoxicating. A certain amount of my interest in the genre is recapturing a little bit of that joy.
In our attempts to understand where classic fantasy adventure games came from, how they work, and how to get the most out of them; many of us have sought out the fiction that inspired Dave and Gary.
While the OSR is a relatively small phenomenon, it still accounts for thousands of readers interested in the genre. As a group, players of classic fantasy adventure games are readers. It isn’t surprising that people who love to read are coming back to the sword-and-sorcery genre that spawned our favorite games.
The Old School Renaissance has also brought many of us back to the fold by a deeper inspection of Appendix N. As gamers tend to be educated, well read and intelligent people. We like to read. We like to talk about (and argue) the things we love. There has become a vibrant discussion around the stories found in Appendix N. Many bloggers, YouTubers, and podcasters have devoted a great deal of time and effort to read, discuss, and consider the literary structures and themes of the genre as a way to understand the aesthetic and thematic origins of classic fantasy adventure gaming.
The gates are gone.
The distribution of books via print on demand and digital formats makes selling books and stories a lot easier than it used to be. There are a variety of accessible routes to self-publishing and distribution. Crowd funding and ecommerce make it possible to recoup expenses if not make a reasonable profit from small scale publishing. Sword-and-sorcery is beginning to grow a network of small publishers and magazines.
There is some serious scholarship on the subject of the sword-and-sorcery genre. Pop culture scholars have recognized the important contributions to contemporary pop culture that came out of the pulps and paperbacks of the sword-and-sorcery era. Though it isn’t an area of study that will get you deep respect and accolades in the academy, it is no longer a ticket to permanent adjunct professor status either. Papers and manuscripts of some of the most important writers in the genre have been collected in universities where scholars can study these works and analyse them. I expect we will continue to see more work done in the future.
Let’s acknowledge that there is a lot of ugly stuff happening in the world right now. Five minutes of doom scrolling on your phone is enough to show you the spiritual and mental sickness we are experiencing. I try to avoid it as much as I can. The horror of it is more than my heart can take. I need a reprieve.
Sword-and-sorcery is a restorative. It gives me some space from what’s going on.
I know I am not alone in that.
Here are some links to blogs about sword-and-sorcery as well as new works of sword-and-sorcery you might enjoy.
The Silver Key a blog by Brian Murphy who wrote Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery
Tales from the Magicians Skull by Goodman Games