Please, let us have some more of Leiber’s Fafhrd-Mouser stories! Leiber is the only man now writing heroic fantasy, and this is a genre which gives a number of readers, when well done, and including myself, the purest pleasure we get out of any kind of fiction printed.
‘Heroic fantasy’ is the name of a class of stories laid, not in the world as it is or was or will be, but as it ought to have been to make a good story. The tales collected under this name are adventure-fantasies, laid in imaginary prehistoric or medieval worlds, when (it’s fun to imagine) all men were mighty, all women were beautiful, all problems were simple, and all life was adventurous.
It was in letters with Fischer that the characters and some of the background of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were first developed, and it was one of these that sold to Unknown and brought the author an immediate following among ‘heroic fantasy’ fans.
Directly, Amra’s articles deal with what we call Heroic Fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery fiction—that kind of story in which heroes and villains may cast a spell or wield a blade with equal propriety, according to the terrain and the tactical situation: in a general sense, stories with pre-gunpowder technology in which magic works. In addition to their basic devotion, they touch on other heroes created by Howard; some other Conan-like heroic heroes written of by different authors; and people in sword-and-sorcery settings who are principal characters without being exactly heroic about it.
There would be no use at all in talking about what is generally passed off as ‘heroic fantasy’, all the endless Barbarians, with names like Barp and Klod.
The kind of story Howard created with his Conan yarns, and which C. L. Moore imitated with her tales of Jirel, we call ‘Sword & Sorcery’ today. The term, however, was not coined until long after the new sub-branch of heroic fantasy appeared. It was, in fact, coined by Fritz Leiber (himself probably the finest living writer of Sword & Sorcery) as recently as 1961. The British writer Michael Moorcock had published an open letter in the amateur magazine Amra, asking for ideas on a name for the sub-genre, his own suggestion being ‘epic fantasy’. Leiber suggested ‘Sword & Sorcery’, an obvious derivation from such terms as ‘blood and thunder’ and ‘cloak and dagger’. His response first appeared in another ‘fanzine’—as amateur periodicals are called in the sub-world of fantasy and science fiction enthusiasts—a publication called Ancalagon, and was reprinted in the issue of Amra dated July 1961. Although some prefer ‘heroic fantasy’, as being more dignified and literary and a few employ a variant, ‘swordplay-and-sorcery,’ the term ‘Sword & Sorcery’ caught on and is now generally accepted.
A player may portray either a Warrior, a Priest or a Magic User. This is irrespective of the fact that the typical adventurer of heroic fantasy is not precisely any of these three professions.
This is a quick rundown of the main possibilities an omnivore might fix on: classic fantasy (ghost stories, legends, tales); supernatural horror (two categories: classic—from Le Fanu, Blackwood, and Machen to Stephen King and Rosemary’s Baby ; and Lovecraftian, the school of H. P. Lovecraft and his followers); Tolkienesque fantasy (in the manner of Lord of the Rings—carefully constructed fantasy worlds as the setting for a heroic quest); heroic fantasy (barely repressed sex fantasy in which a muscular, sword-bearing male beats monsters, magicians, racial inferiors, and effete snobs by brute force, then services every willing woman in sight—and they are all willing); Burroughsian science fantasy (adventure on another planet or thinly rationalized SF setting in which fantasy and anachronism—sword fighting among the stars—are essentials); space opera (the Western in space); hard science fiction (the SF idea is the center of attention, usually involving chemistry or physics or astronomy); soft science fiction (two alternate types: one in which the character is more important than the SF idea; the other focusing on any science other than physics or chemistry).
Heroic fantasy, often commercially applied to Sword and Sorcery tales featuring muscular barbarian heroes, but sometimes to any variety of Epic or Quest fantasy, particularly those that derive from specific heroic tradition, such as Arthurian tales.
I too am a heroic fantasy reader who often complains that too many writers…aim for the lowest common denominator.
And although he experimented in poetry, as well as a variety of pulp formulas and series characters, Howard will always be remembered as the father of Conan, and, thereby, one of the founders of the sub-genre that would be called, variously, epic fantasy, heroic fantasy, and sword and sorcery.
But for those blood-lusting after the adrenaline rush of straight-ahead heroic fantasy—for flagons ’n’ dragons, swords ’n’ sorcerers—here are four recommended fantasy series to tide you over until ‘Winds’ [sc. The Winds of Winter, the next Game of Thrones book] sees print or ‘Thrones’ returns on HBO.
L. Sprague de Camp, 'Sword and Sorcery'
Last modified 2021-10-17 20:16:53
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.