Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — I came across, or was pointed in the direction of, Eric S. Raymond’s superb essay A Political History Of SF. Besides simply being fascinating reading, it introduced me to linguist George Lakoff’s concept of radial categories. More specifically, it introduced me to the idea of using radial categories as a tool of genre analysis.
As I understand it, the idea of radial categories is that we tend to define things as belonging to a category based on a “prototypical” or “archetypical” member of that category. Things that are similar to the prototype are regarded as belonging to the category; the more similar they are, the stronger the identification in our minds. Thus, membership in a category can be gradated from “strong” to “weak” (and ultimately “nonexistent”) based on degrees of similarity. The permissible amount of variation from the prototype defines the category as a whole.
The example Raymond uses is “fruit.” The prototype of the fruit category is the apple. We tend to identify other objects as “fruit” based on how similar they are to apples. (The botanists among you are no doubt wincing at this, but remember — Lakoff is a linguist, not a plant guy.) Thus, the identifying characteristics of the “fruit” category are such traits as colorful outer skin, strong sweet flavor, and ease of throwing at people we don’t like. The more of these traits that an object has in common with an apple, the more like “fruit” it seems. Thus pears, peaches, and oranges are all “strong” members of the fruit category, whereas coconuts and pineapples might be considered “weak” members (or at least, weaker).
Raymond’s essay (and I repeat, it’s superb, check it out) applies the radial categories concept to argue that the prototypical form of Science Fiction is Hard Science Fiction. Since I’ve been thinking about Swords And Sorcery Fantasy a lot lately while writing my novel, it occurred to me that it might be fun (and perhaps even instructive) to analyze S&S in radial categories terms.
(For those of you who are interested in my general discussion of defining the different subgenres of Fantasy, see my essay Defining Fantasy. When I use subgenre names in this blog post, they follow the definitions laid out in that article.)
The first step, naturally, is to define the identifying characteristics of the “Swords And Sorcery” category. That could probably be the subject of an entire book, but from my perspective I’d say the following characteristics strongly identify S&S:
These characteristics more weakly define S&S:
I think it practically goes without saying that the prototypical or archetypical S&S stories are Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan the barbarian. The characteristics described above practically read like a checklist of elements you’d find in a Conan yarn, and I think fans and literary critics alike would generally credit Howard for inspiring (if not founding) the entire subgenre.
Thus, a story can be regarded as Swords And Sorcery to the extent that its characteristics resemble those of Howard’s Conan tales taken as a whole.
Obviously I haven’t read every Swords And Sorcery novel or story out there (who has?), but I think I’ve read enough of them to offer some opinions about “strong” and “weak” members of the S&S radial category. Hopefully the concepts described in this article will let you make up your own mind about where stories I haven’t mentioned belong.
The strongest members are stories that are direct Howardian pastiches or are obviously inspired by Conan and his ilk: Lin Carter’s “Thongor the Barbarian” tales; Gardner F. Fox’s characters like Kyrik and Niall of the Far Travels; and so on. Not everyone would necessarily agree that these stories are good (though I think many of ’em are), but to my mind there’s no denying that they fit squarely into the S&S radial category.
At just a slight remove from the “strong” center I’d put Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In the minds of many they’re nearly as important to defining Swords And Sorcery as Conan, and I think with good reason. But to my perceptions they’re not quite as pure. They lack a certain amount of the grimness, and there’s just a touch more magic (some of which is practiced directly by the Mouser himself, a definite departure from Conan and Kull). Karl Edward Wagner’s “Kane” stories probably also fall into this part of the category. I think I’d also assign C.L. Moore’s “Jirel Of Joiry” tales to this “slightly less strong” section of the category (though I confess that it’s been so long since I read them that I’m not entirely sure).
One step further and we’re out of the “strong” section of the category into the fields of the more weakly-associated stories. This is where I’d tend to put much of Clark Ashton Smith’s work. To me his stories usually ooze Swords And Sorcery “feel” and aesthetic, but they do sometimes depend too much on the mystical or fantastic to be purely S&S. I think the same can be said for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Lythande” stories and for Carter’s Kellory The Warlock. To me, both of those have a great Swords And Sorcery vibe even though the protagonist is a spellcaster.
Similarly, Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” stories are also weakly associated with Swords And Sorcery. Their grim, foreboding nature fits very well with S&S in many ways, as does the thrilling swordplay. However, there’s a lot of magic (Elric is a practicing sorcerer, arguably the most powerful one in the world, and wields just about the coolest enchanted sword in all of Fantasy), lots of fantastic creatures and races, and frequent interaction with gods and other planes of existence. Those are all elements of High Fantasy, not Swords And Sorcery. I think the Elric stories can perhaps best be categorized as an S&S/High Fantasy hybrid, or S&S with strong High Fantasy tropes mixed in. (The same could probably be said of many of Moorcock’s other tales, such as the “Corum” series.) Some might say they’re High Fantasy with strong S&S tropes mixed in, but hey, this is an article about Swords And Sorcery, so I’m coming down on the other side of the fence for the time being. (On the other hand, I’d probably categorize L. Sprague de Camp’s Reluctant King trilogy as much more High Fantasy with some S&S elements.)
Of course, organizing Swords And Sorcery as a radial category with “strongly” and “weakly” associated members — which tends to suggest a sort of Venn diagram — isn’t the only way to do it. I think you can accomplish much the same by envisioning a “continuum” of S&S stories from “purest” (or “strongestly associated”) to “least pure” (or “most weakly associated”). If I had any graphics skills I’d draw one, but I’m afraid you’re just going to have to settle for a textual description. ;)
In this scheme, with “purest” on the far left at the “1” position and “least pure” on the far right at the “10” position, the Conan stories (and Howard’s related fiction) are definitely holding down the left flank at 1. Most of Leiber’s Newhon tales probably sit at around 2-3, with some trending up as high as 4-5 and some down to 1.
Clark Ashton Smith’s stories are mostly in the 5-8 range, though with any body of work that large there may be some outliers. The adventures in Lythande are more like 7-8, since Lythande uses magic so much of the time. Carter’s Kellory is probably an 8-9; he uses magic even more than Lythande. (He has to, after all, since his sword hand is useless.)
The Elric stories are 9-10 — indeed, some of them may verge off the scale to become High Fantasy with a few S&S touches.