Ink on paper, drawing of a hill with glyphs. Own work. 2023.

Sword and sorcery and the mid-career hero

by AK Krajewska

For a long time, I've been thinking about why I love some kinds of fantasy, even though it's not that good by my usual standards, while at the same time I can't get into other kinds of pretty OK fantasy that everyone else likes. Like, why do I love the Witcher short stories and TV show, but find Wheel of Time just OK as a show and impenetrable as a novel series? (And why are the Witcher novels so meh?) Why did I inhale every Andre Norton novel that came my way but could barely get through The Lord of the Rings? Why is Luke Skywalker so boring and Conan the Barbarian so awesome? Also, why does Columbo feel like it belongs in this list even though it's not fantasy?

These weren't burning questions, exactly, just things burbling away at the back of my mind as I tried to figure out what I wanted to read or watch next. I mean, yes, I could tell these things are largely sword and sorcery, or low fantasy, but why was that so enjoyable? What makes these stories tick?

When I started daydreaming about what kind of thing I might want to write for NaNoWriMo, I wanted a story that's like those stories I like best, even when they don't have cough high literary merit. Not so much because I don't trust myself to produce fiction of high literary merit (though I don't; fiction is not my strong point) but because I'd prefer to write the kind of thing I want to read. Now it's the last weekend before NaNoWriMo, and lots of people are trying to figure out what kind of story they want to write, so it feels like a good time to share my theory about sword and sorcery. Even if I don't finish a sword and sorcery story, maybe you will, and then I can read it.

Sword and sorcery's distinct structure is both about the character's relationship to the world and when the story takes place in the character's life. Let me explain.

The hero's relationship to the world

In epic fantasy, the fate of the world rests on the hero's actions. In sword and sorcery, people are counting on the hero, and lives might well be at stake, but it's not the literal end of the world if the hero fails. The epic hero is fighting a great evil, and even the small every-day creeps are signs of an encroaching darkness that the hero must vanquish. In sword and sorcery, the hero just wants to get paid, or get through the day. The sword and sorcery hero might be trying to do the right thing in the immediate situation, but frankly they might be a bit selfish. The creeps and assholes are just creeps and assholes, and the cursed tomb is just a particularly challenging place to plunder.

Because of this smaller scale, you can also start writing a good sword and sorcery story without a lot of preliminary world-building to make sure it all fits into the grand narrative. As a writer, you can explore the world with your character. Incidentally, I think this explains why the Witcher short stories are so good and the novels are so so-so. Sapkowski started with the short stories in sword and sorcery mode, with just enough back story to give the tales texture, but when he pivoted to novels, he started including epic world-is-at-stake themes and needed to fill in the background, and try to make it plausible that it had world-changing stakes. Then, to make it all seem serious, he also turned up the grimdark slider.

The divine right of kings and scoundrels

In an epic, the world must be restored to its rightful place. The king must return. Kings are good, and when kings are bad they are corrupted or usurpers, and must be replaced with the rightful king. The hero might even be destined to be king or be a king in exile, and they are quite likely to have an official relationship with the king. By no means would the idea of kingship be abolished in an epic.

In the noble epic fantasy, if the king is absent, or corrupt, or a usurper, you know that part of the thing that has to happen is restoring the rightful king to the throne. If, on the other hand, your epic's grimdark slider is set to grimdarker, the king might be cruel, selfish, or even evil, but incredibly powerful and impossible to unseat except perhaps by another even worse king. No matter if you're ripping off the Arthurian tales or George R.R. Martin, your epic fantasy is basically politically regressive.

A simplified ink drawing of a mountain range

In sword and sorcery, you may well have kings, but they tend to be background figures, and they certainly aren't divinely preordained. The Witcher's attitude of basically, I came here to slay some monsters and I don't give a shit who is the king, except in so far as it affects what kind of coin I'll be paid in, is pretty typical. There might not be kings at all, because sword and sorcery thrives in an interregnum, or they might be very weak and clearly failing as an institution, not because of the shortcomings of a particular king, but because the institution is inherently unstable. Samuel R. Delany's NeveryĆ³na series, much as it tweaks sword and sorcery expectations, actually embodies that uneasy attitude towards hierarchical power that, I posit, is typical of the (sub)genre.

Sword and sorcery is not inherently politically anything in particular, but it has a lot more room to maneuver because the rightness of hierarchy and order aren't built into its foundations. (You can probably subvert epic fantasy structures, too, but you'll have to fight against the shape the stories will want to spring back into when you let go, and if you really succeed, maybe you won't have an epic anymore.)

In an epic, a king might be hiding as a scoundrel among a band of basically good-hearted thieves. In sword and sorcery, the scoundrel is just a working class scoundrel who perhaps switched careers from swineherd to something a little more lucrative when she figured out she was good with a stick.

I'm just doing a job

The epic hero is doing something outside of their normal life. In fact, their whole life is probably interrupted by the events of the story, and they are driven to do the thing that they do for a higher cause, often reluctantly. They just want to return to their life of being a gentleman farmer in the Shire, and in as far as they aren't able to do that, it's a tragedy.

The sword and sorcery hero is here to do a job. Whether they chose it thoughtfully or kind of fell into it, adventuring is their normal life now. They might feel a great deal of professional pride in what they do and not be motivated solely by money, but it is a job. Or at least a way of life. They're pretty unlikely to be whiny about it, because, again, they've chosen to be here. They aren't just waiting to return to their normal life. This is their normal life. The sword and sorcery hero is working class.

The mid-career hero and the tyranny of the hero's journey

An epic fantasy story is about the most important thing that has ever happened to the character and also the most important thing that has happened in the world.

Usually we join the epic hero pretty early on in their hero-ing, when they are still learning. It doesn't have to be that way, and isn't that way in older epics (like, you know, the Iliad), but contemporary epic fantasy is a sucker for the origin story. It's probably because of the narrative tyranny of Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" idea introduced in his 1948 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. So many storytellers since 1948 have taken Campbell's description and theory as a prescription of how a story has to be, that now it's the dominant form of story in the West. It dictates a bunch of story patterns, which you can read about anywhere where people tell you what you ought to be writing, but one of the big ones is that the hero has to start out kind of wimpy and then come into his power over the course of the story. And, yeah, that's a deliberate "he" there. Don't get me started.

So epic is about the hero doing the most important thing they'll ever do, and optionally, also about them coming into their full power. How do we know they'll succeed? I mean, we don't, but we do, because in some way or another, they are the chosen one.

Sword and sorcery, on the other hand, is a day in the life of a swashbuckling professional or sorcerer or what-have-you. We meet the hero mid-career. He's swashed a lot of buckles. She's cast a lot of fireballs. To the people she meets along the way, she's the most exciting thing that's ever happened. To her, it's just Tuesday. Assuming days of the week have been invented in your fantasy world.

A sword and sorcery hero can be ridiculously competent. How do we know the sword and sorcery hero will survive this scrape, aside from that their picture is on the cover of the book? Because look at them! They're so good at what they do! They just totally vanquished goopy swamp monster or stole that priceless jewel right from the cursed tomb. They're a pro at this shit! A complete badass. Then something happens that's hard even for them, and the real fun begins.

You could also have a bumbling sword and sorcery hero, I suppose. I like the competent ones, like Columbo and Murderbot.

Sword and sorcery can include an origin story, but it's just the start of the story, and often, a backstory that's written after the mid-career stories. Because the sword and sorcery hero isn't saving the whole world every time, you don't get into a game of impossible escalation of greater and greater threats to the whole entire world ever. The only real threat to the sword and sorcery hero's career is retirement from the adventuring life.

I say, if you want to write a sword and sorcery story, and here I'm giving advice to myself, too, start in the middle. No need to have the whole thing about the hero leaving home reluctantly for some important reason. Don't worry about a call to adventure. Just have the adventure. You can save backstory for cryptic comments they share over ale after they pull off the first heist in chapter one. If you start writing origin story, it's all too easy to get pulled into the shape of the epic.

Disclaimers and so forth

I'm not a narratologist or even a storylologist, and I'm just making this up. My only qualification is that I've read a lot of fantasy and a lot of other stories, too. If you've got a different idea about the line between sword and sorcery and other types of fantasy, I don't want to fight you about it. But I would be curious to learn where you draw it.