As a pre-teen, I devoured sword and sorcery. Even then, I could see most of it was mediocre at best. The sole exception was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which was rarely about hack and slash, and first made me aware that fantasy could be humorous and ironic.Leiber, at least, stilll holds up today (In fact, I wrote and published a Master’s thesis on his career). But unfortunately, Leiber was never typical S & S. So when I recently came across a magazine whose goal is to revive S & S, I had to wonder why anyone would want to. The conventions of S & S date both badly and embarrassing.
The most obvious convention is the portrayal of women. In vintage S & S, women are accessories. They kneel at the hero’s feet and gaze lustfully up at his face in a way that leaves no doubt who is the dom and who is the sub in the relation. Often they are manacled. At the end of the story, they tumble into bed with the hero, only to mysteriously disappear before the start of the next adventure. Personally, I suspect the hero sold them for drinking money. Yes, you can point to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Joanna Russ’ Alyx, but they are exceptions, and you can’t easily find them to point out. Vintage S & S is toxic masculinity, soaked with the outlook of a boy who has just discovered puberty, but is still a little nervous about girls and probably doesn’t know any
Less obviously, S & S is still enmired in a concept of other cultures that was dead and rotting before the twentieth century. This concept is seen in the typical barbarian hero — a simple, but honest Noble Savage who is always pitted against the corruption of civilization. S & S rarely stops to consider that such a character never existed, and is essentially racist. A true member of a culture that S & S labels “barbarian” may be unable to read, but is likely to have tens of thousands of lines of poetic wisdom stored in their heads. Probably, too, they can rattle off complicated family relationships and social obligations. They may have no agriculture because they live in a rich environment where you would have to be stupid to starve. Or perhaps their agriculture is centered on practices like clam farms or the rights to a defined hunting ground that the so-called civilized eye misses because it doesn’t expect them. They may even have breathtaking arts. In any event, they are not ill-bred half-wits like Conan. And far from despising or being over-awed by technologically advanced cultures, they will gladly trade with them and cheerily borrow anything that might enrich their daily lives. Barbarians are a stale fictional conceit that has been kept alive only by roleplaying games. In real life, there are only humans with different cultures.
Most of the time, Sword and Sorcery has one basic plot. And it’s not the Hero’s Journey, the story of how a character matures and becomes useful to their society. Instead, the story is a power fantasy, a tale of how brawn and pigheadedness win out over wits and knowledge, traits that are often personified by evil wizards. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, puerile — the outlook of a naive teenage boy who feels overwhelmed by looming adulthood and longs to imagine himself superior to it. There’s a reason Sword and Sorcery has become unpopular in recent decades: shackled with such conventions, it is nearly impossible to write a story in the genre that is meaningful in today’s world. The genre deserves to stay buried — or, better yet, cremated, and the ashes scattered to the winds where they can never be reassembled.