Book Review- Flame and Crimson by Brian Murphy

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the revival of sword-and-sorcery fiction. Since then, a new Elric novel has been published along with a new edition of the old stories. A new magazine of sword-and-sorcery has been Kickstarted.

Is there a sword-and-sorcery revival happening? Yes, there is.

That term, sword-and-sorcery, is in the blog header and on my social media profiles but you might not know exactly what it means. Often it is mistaken as an alternative term for “fantasy.” Sword-and-sorcery is a specific sub-genre of fantasy Robert E. Howard brought roaring into the world on the pages of Weird Tales. Fritz Leiber and others identified the genre as something distinct within the pages of the fanzine Amra. Writers, editors, and fans have kept the genre alive for nearly 100 years through love and implacable determination.

A book that increased my understanding of the sword-and-sorcery genre is Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword and Sorcery by Brian Murphy.


Who is it for?

This book is obviously for anyone who enjoys sword-and-sorcery fiction and wants to find out more about it.

Flame and Crimson is for anyone interested in the pop-culture history of the 20th century. Sword-and-sorcery emerged within a technological, economic, political, and cultural context. Like other storytelling and art forms of the period between the first two world wars, the themes of S&S trend toward cynicism, irony, and disillusionment. This work provides further context to an important period of pop-culture.

Flame and Crimson is for fans of old school Dungeons & Dragons. Most of the stories listed in Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide fall into the category of sword-and-sorcery. If you want to understand old school D&D, you need to understand sword-and-sorcery.

Finally, this book is absolutely required for anyone who wants to write sword-and-sorcery fiction. Fiction, particularly popular fiction, requires a firm grasp on genre and its conventions. Even if you are going to break, subvert or stretch the conventions of the genre you are writing for; you need to know them.

What’s it for?

Brian set out to explain the sword and sorcery genre, inform readers of its origins, development and relevance in the broader culture. He achieves those goals admirably.

He begins the book by defining S&S and its essential elements.

While no story is likely to contain all these elements, it typically features men (and occasionally women) of action, pitted against enemies wielding dark and dangerous magic, in pursuit of personal and/or mercenary aims. Story and page-turning adventure is privileged over in-depth characterization or worldbuilding.

…rooted in pulp adventure stories and weird horror…

It is inspired by history, and particularly owes much to historical fiction, adventure fiction, and Icelandic sagas. Typically it is short…

Finally, it’s “heroes” are often outsiders, uncomfortable in positions of great authority, and ill fitted to the civilized mores of the lands through which they adventure.

Brian Murphy- Flame and Crimson

He goes through each of these major conventions required in a proper sword-and-sorcery story, explaining each element and providing examples from stories in the genre. He makes a convincing case. There are certainly some stories and characters that subvert or stretch some of these characteristics. Elric of Melnibone often fights dark and dangerous magic but he also makes use of it himself. Murphy also gives adequate examples of other forms of fantasy to differentiate between them and swords-and-sorcery type stories.

After laying down his definition, Murphy goes on to explain the origins of the genre, and its progenitor Robert E. Howard. Howard’s story The Shadow Kingdom published in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales is the first true swords-and-sorcery tale. Murphy illuminates Howard’s influences such as adventure stories and historical fiction to go along with mythic legends and Icelandic Sagas.

The bulk of the book is a recounting of the eras of sword-and-sorcery fiction and the prominent authors of those eras. In each period there were stories and writers that brought new elements to the genre and some that kept it from breaking its bounds.

Murphy provides a great deal of information about important zines, anthologies, publishers, editors, and scholars of the genre. Much like the horror of H.P. Lovecraft the stories from the pulp era of the genre were kept alive by fellow writers, editors, and fans. Some of that resulted in a stubborn resistance to change when it was needed most.

The only part of the book that I disliked was the exhaustive catalog of stories, articles, and anthologies described in the chapters about the 1970s and 1980s. Some of that could have been listed in an appendix at the back without damaging the narrative or authority of the book. There was a lot of material about Lin Carter and how he harmed the genre and Robert Howard’s reputation in many ways. It felt like too much of that was included. It was good to include evidence of the assertion but there is a point where it gets to be too much.

There’s a good chapter about recent publishers of sword-and-sorcery such as the Goodman Games collection Tales from the Magician’s Skull . He also gives the Old School Renaissance a nice mention.

Brian closes out Flame and Crimson with a chapter on the pop-culture inspired by sword-and-sorcery and a chapter about why anyone might want to read it. Two of the noted cultural products that are especially important to me and this blog are heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons. Many of the early heavy metal bands were influenced by S&S. Many still are. DMR books publishes stories by heavy metal musicians whose music is inspired by sword-and-sorcery.

The last chapter talks about why the fans of the genre love it and continue to study it, read and re-read the old stories.

Sword-and-sorcery breaks the spell of despondency cast by an unsatisfying reality, and the suffocation of economic and social forms of control. Readers returning from its pages look upon the world with a new perspective and a restored vision.

What I learned

The pulp magazines where the first sword-and-sorcery stories were published was one of the first forms of mass market entertainment. The technology to make an inexpensive media product didn’t exist until the 1890’s. The pulps combined cheap steam powered printing, with cheap paper and inexpensive writing specifically for working class people. The character of the magazines were both a strength and a weakness. While accessible and affordable to almost anyone, its “common” nature made it seem as if it was purely for entertainment with no value as literature.

Sword-and-sorcery had difficulties throughout it’s history when new technologies changed the way people experienced stories. Fewer people read the pulps when TV became affordable to most households. The trade paperbacks started to fall off when cable TV and video games grew in popularity. I consider Flame and Crimson a case study in how the creation of a new forms distribution can cause massive change in an artform. It’s a lesson we should pay attention to in an age of rapid change in distribution and creation of media.

Murphy devoted a considerable number of paged to the hardcore fandom of sword-and-sorcery. The fandom of S&S is much like the fandom of other pop-culture phenomenon. There are those who love the stories, are vocal, active and even productive contributors to the scene but whose efforts constrain the possibilities of the form. Then there are others who want to alter the original form to such a degree that it has become something else. Always there is tension between the stasis of too much Law and the formlessness of Chaos! Too much of either is damaging and destructive. It is difficult but ideal to find the balance between a narrow and restrictive vision and one that is overly expansive. The best work within a genre is created by artists who explore the boundaries of its universe without straying into shapeless dimensions.

Its also important to recognize when a new form, inspired by and related to the old form has been created and celebrate it as it’s own thing. Grimdark fantasy, such as The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie takes elements of both sword-and-sorcery and combines it with the longer formats of high fantasy and turns up the cynicism to 11. You can see its roots while noting it is its own interesting development distinct from its predecessors.

There was one major danger lurking in Flame and Crimson. The list of books I have on my wish list has grown like a warrior’s appetite for strong wine and beautiful women after a day on the battlefield. Brian Murphy has made me aware of a great deal of reading material I did not know existed. Some of those are stories but also biographies, and the collection of letters between H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard have great appeal.


If you want to understand the context of where sword-and-sorcery came from, how it developed, how it inspired games, films and music; read Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery. Those familiar with the genre will find something they didn’t know and those new to it will learn a great deal though it might feel like you are trying to carry a mint worth of gold coin out of the dungeon all at once. I also recommend Brian’s blog, The Silver Key.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that sword-and-sorcery is experiencing a revival. Robert Howard’s yarns of high adventure came out of an era when the culture was facing frightening uncertainties and new disruptive forms of media at a scale previously unimaginable. Old assumptions had been proven false and new ideologies destructive beyond comprehension. A zeitgeist of nihilism, cynicism, and ressentiment prevailed.

We face a moment that has similar disturbing uncertainties.

Sword-and-sorcery provides an opportunity to take our minds away from those terrors and offers a paradigm for life.

One day, I will die but until the day comes I will live fiercely and I will be free if not materially then in my mind and spirit.

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One thought on “Book Review- Flame and Crimson by Brian Murphy

  1. Pingback: Swords-and-Sorcery is the Intersection of Heavy Metal and Old School D&D – Grumpy Wizard

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