Elric and the Advent of Sword and Sorcery

I probably don’t need to remind anyone that there are a lot of genres of literature out there. Sometimes, of course, books can be forced into categories that they truly don’t match, but for the most part, the reason we have genres is because a lot of stories tend to fall into those categories fairly neatly.

And for every genre of writing, there are endless sub-genres, too. Look no further than Amazon’s ranking system, where The Redemption of Erâth falls under “Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Epic” as equally as “Literature and Fiction > Horror > Dark Fantasy”. (I don’t make up these categories, nor did I place my books into them; there’s precious little horror in The Redemption of Erâth.) The goal of this, of course, is to make accessing literature easier, so that the reader knows what to expect. After all, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are both considered fantasy, yet they have about as much in common as The Wheel of Time does with A Song of Ice and Fire.

But then, every once in a while, something comes along that redefines a genre. Or, if you’re lucky, creates a new one. Within the world of fantasy, which typically governs stories with alternate worlds, magic and medieval-type settings, the gamut runs from high fantasy – set in an entirely alternate world – to urban fantasy – set in a cross between a fantasy world and the real world. And whilst Tolkien is typically regarded as the master of the first, with C.S. Lewis arguably pioneering the second, today I want to talk about a genre that is sometimes unfairly dismissed as ‘easy’, or less serious: sword & sorcery.

Sword & sorcery fantasy, as the title implies, typically deals with the heroic adventures of a sword-wielding hero as they go from battle to battle, traveling the length and breadth of whatever world they’re set in, often pitted against dark sorcerers or magicians. Whilst there are obviously many possible crossovers between sword & sorcery and other fantasy sub-genres, some of the key elements are that the hero often knows they are the hero, and may even embrace that fact; also, that those same heroes typically live for adventure, and may go seeking for the glory of battle.

The term “sword & sorcery” was first coined by author Michael Moorcock in a letter to the magazine Amra, looking to describe the works of Robert E. Howard, and in particular, his Conan adventures. He was looking for something to distinguish these tales from other, similar genres, whilst focusing on the supernatural/mythical element that is so often prevalent in the genre.

Michael Moorcock himself became one of the best-known names in the sword & sorcery genre with his ongoing tales of Elric, the last emperor of Melniboné, and his adventures through lands of danger and deception. One of the lynchpins of sword & sorcery – the sword – makes a prominent appearance in these stories in the form of Stormbringer, a weapon that both confers strength to Elric (a physically weak antihero) whilst also eating away at his soul.

I remember greatly enjoying the tales of Elric and Stormbringer when I was young, primarily because they didn’t necessarily come with the deathly-serious world-saving implications of books such as The Lord of the Rings. It was adventure, pure and simple; there were stakes, yes, but they were always personal to the hero, and the world was just the world in which these adventures took place. For me it was refreshing, as so many of the tales I had read unto that point revolved around a reluctant hero that had to save their entire world (too many stories today, I fear, follow this tradition – including my own!).

It’s an interesting sort of idea, I think, to have a story whose sole purpose is to entertain; a story that has no allegory or moral, no lesson to be learned, and no great consequences for the world should the hero fail is something that provides a delightful escape from the realities of the ‘real’ world around us. And whilst there will always be a place for the Harry Potters and the Brandyé Dui-Erâths, there should equally be room for the Elrics, too.

What are your favorite sword & sorcery fantasies, and why?

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