“If I am, what am I? And if I am something – why?” – Lord of Misfits
Some of the most distinguishing features of Sword and Sorcery are also among the most rarely mentioned. For example:
There is an absence of moral or social purpose in Sword and Sorcery, such as it normally inheres in Heroic or Epic Fantasy. The protagonists of Sword and Sorcery operate beyond moral and social restraints. Its protagonists are not heroes (see below), as sometimes described, but are embodiments of nature, primed to survive or perish in a world that throws up constant hardships against them. Against such a backdrop, morality is useless – an inadequate part of the mental and physical armoury required for survival.
“Behold, the competing demands of life and death – the only demands that truly matter.” – Clach of Skalaan
There are no heroes (reluctant or otherwise) in the true sense of the word – people performing valorous or commendable deeds to the benefit of others or for the sake of some abstract notion of serving the greater good.
The emphasis is on the warrior, not his or her idealisation or idolisation as a restorer of life to some fallen social order. Again, the fascination of Sword and Sorcery comes from the struggle for survival of its protagonists against natural and supernatural hazards placed randomly against them, without any kind of meaningful purpose or cohesion whatsoever.
Sword and Sorcery accentuates brutality for its own sake, often glorifying its consequences without illustrating the negative outcomes of them. Violence is seen as the foremost part of a process of survival in which anything goes; but, more than this, violence is also enjoyed and celebrated.
Sword and Sorcery is gratuitous without attempting to disguise the fact that it is gratuitous. It is too much engrossed in its gratuities to consider whether or not being gratuitous is the right thing to do. Which is to say that, for Sword and Sorcery, being gratuitous is always the right thing to do.
Sword and Sorcery is episodic and fragmentary, not linear or cyclical. Connections between events are tenuous, random and unconnected. Chaos versus order is the predominant theme, as opposed to good versus evil. And the struggle is often one where chaos prevails as the overriding factor of causation in the turn of events. It does not conform to predefined archetypal tenets derived from some collective source of Christian allegory.
The narratives of Sword and Sorcery are structured accordingly, without a moral framework within which to operate or refer to beyond the constraints of the world of the story itself. There are no higher aims to ensure settled and conclusive outcomes. There is no illusion of completion in the rounding off of plots. No apotheosis of the hero-figure. No recovery of lost, iconic objects of restorative power and influence.
Sword and Sorcery completely avoids the trappings of the mythos. It is a fantasy world that fails to play out the allegory of the mythical cycle. It is autotelic fantasy which doesn’t operate within an archetypal framework. It is pared back to the bare bones of its own internal mythical projections. It posits a world of human endeavour without beginnings and ends. Everything is ongoing. And, to this extent, Sword and Sorcery is a very modern form of fiction. Much more so than the Tolkien fantasies that have their basis in the failed religious traditions of the western world.
Sword and Sorcery avoids the complications of character and plot. It retains a simplicity and a lack of elegance – a hard-edged prose that can be colourful and lyrical without losing its raw descriptive impetus.
Its plots are almost non-existent and propelled by incidents and situations of forced dangers, pain and endurance which must be confronted without the alternative of avoidance or escape.
“The dynamic of conflict is conveyed with bluntness and rigour rather than artistry.” – Vral of Skains
Just as Aesthetes may use the slogan of “art for art’s sake”, so Sword and Sorcery advocates “sensationalism for its own sake”. In Sword and Sorcery, there is an intensive focus on the purely sensational aspects of fantasy action and setting. The stories are not about human relations, moral dilemmas, emotional impasses, social upheavals and the resolutions that may, or may not, determine their outcome.
Sword and sorcery is rawer and more violently and erotically charged – shamelessly open-minded in proposing violence and eroticism as self-contained elements of story-telling, which are worthwhile and purposeful in themselves.
“Sword and sorcery is the art for art’s sake of Fantasy.” – Brogan of the Icy Kingdoms
In Sword and Sorcery, the accentuation of the erotic is characterized by a fetishistic appeal to fantasies involving domination, bondage, enslavement, homo-eroticism, masculinisation of women, torture and sadomasochism of all shades. It also accentuates brutality as part of the fetish matrix, including: prolonged suffering or exposure to extreme dangers or persecutions; nakedness and vulnerability.
In Sword and Sorcery, sexual fetishism, closely related to violence, is the most outstanding characteristic of the subgenre. It is the thing that most acutely separates it from other forms of Fantasy fiction. Such other forms may tend to include sexual fetishism – not as defining – but as elements of plot and characterization, which are positioned within a broader mix of story telling elements, to aid the dramatic context, rather than satisfy the fetishistic indulgence of its themes alone.
There is a definite sense in which the protagonists of Sword and Sorcery show an open mistrust and contempt for civilisation which can be associated directly with the concept of the noble savage.
In Sword and Sorcery, the assertion of noble savagery is posited as an alternative to a corrupt civilisation which is often scorned for its deception, sophistry, social hierarchies and power games, fripperies and culture of excess, emasculating comforts and material obsessions.
The rejection of civilisation can be seen as a valorisation of barbarism over the assumed superiority of the civilised world, in which morality is often cited as a confirmation of that superiority.
There is a tendency, too, towards a rejection of intellectualism which is best described by the dichotomy of sword versus sorcery in itself, where savagery is presented as an uncontaminated state of being, reminiscent of the natural intelligence of the human character – aka the noble savage – whereby barbarism posits an essential vitality against the nihilism of overly sophisticated cabalistic rituals and rites, which are often portrayed as wilfully destructive, disordered without purpose, callously indifferent towards suffering, and dangerous in the extreme.
This tension between opposing forces or states of being – of savagery versus civilisation, of natural intelligence versus intellectualism, of physicality versus occultism – lies at the core of Sword and Sorcery: it is the very source of a dynamic of positive versus negative opposition that defines the subgenre overall.
The Sum of its Parts
Unlike other forms of Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery exists in order to create conditions in which the elements described above are played out in a fictional space where they are not only allowed to happen, but are bound to happen.
The attributes of fetishistic indulgence, brutality for its own sake, wish-fulfilment gratification, the accentuation of barbarism – they are more fundamental to Sword and Sorcery than to any other form of Fantasy. In other forms of Fantasy, these attributes are present but are not core to the purposes they serve.
In Game of Thrones or The Blade Itself, for example, they are used as plot elements, as facets of character-building, as factors that contribute to the realism of brutal worlds undergoing periods of brutal political and social upheaval. They are not solely there to excite a response in the reader. They are there to construct a complex, three-dimensional narrative, which may excite the reader, yes, but only as part of a broader mix of emotional and intellectual inducements – not as bare-faced stimulations requiring a masturbatory response of crude appreciation for what they are.
By contrast, Sword and Sorcery is gloriously one-dimensional and utterly meaningless beyond its core contingencies of sordid, instant, irresistible gratifications.
And that is all.