Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
"I don't know what 19-year-old me would think if he could see me today. But he'd probably be happy that I still read David Gemmell and listen to Angel Witch." - Me, circa 2015
All in all, that offhanded Facebook comment from a couple of years ago sums up how I feel about the turning of the New Year. While a lot of my fellow writers are posting long lists of their accomplishments, publications, and kudos earned in 2018, I'm not going to do that.
The fact is, I'm not happy with what I accomplished this year. I had a long list of things I set out to achieve, both professionally and personally, and I failed at pretty much all of it.
Not looking for pity here. Just stating it plainly. My list of goals didn't get a lot of check-marks this year, and pretending otherwise would be dishonest.
But I am happy that I'm still me.
And after a year filled with self-doubts, mental health issues, and maddening, Kafka-esque administrative fuck-ups at the Department of Veteran's Affairs adding fuel to both...
Well, shit. That's actually something, guys.
The fact is, sometimes the best effort we can muster is to hold on for all we're worth. And I managed to do that in 2018, if nothing else. I did it no thanks to the worthless fuck-wits in the VA, and all the thanks to my wife, my fellow vets, and some good friends.
Not to mention a pair of spoiled-rotten dogs. It's amazing how even in the middle of the shittiest of shitty days, a dog curled in your lap can suddenly be the brightest spot in the whole universe.
Which leads me to 2019.
For the year ahead, I do have a handful of irons in the proverbial fire.
Watch this space for more. I'll have some updates on all of the above coming soon.
As for me, I have some work to do. Right after I listen to some Angel Witch.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.