Sword & Sorcery is a rather unique subgenre in that it can exist in different kinds of fantasy worlds. Most S&S exists in what are called Secondary or Constructed worlds – completely imaginary worlds designed, as it were, from the ground up – while other stories in the genre are told in a genuine historical context.
This is, again, largely a legacy of Howard, the inventor of the form. Most of the models he had for adventure stories were of one of two types: historical adventure, or what are called “Lost Race” stories set in some unexplored corner of the earth. Talbot Mundy was the king of the historical adventure in his day, and a big influence on Howard. Some of his finest works are tales like “The Grey God Passes” or “Worms of the Earth” which are expressly set in the real world. Howard was drawn especially to the years of Roman Britain, or the dark ages of Celtic or Viking Europe.
But like a lot of writers, he felt constrained by history. It was not always possible to tell the kinds of stories he wanted in a real time and place, even one as poorly documented as the Dark Ages. Plus, history requires research, and the ever-present chance that some new finding will make your story look foolish. Even in Howard’s time, the blank spaces on the map were shrinking. Lost Race tales of hidden valleys and forgotten civilizations were becoming harder to get away with.
So he made his own world. He was not the first. Other writers had done it before, most famously the pseudo-Arthurian world laid out by William Morris in The Well At The World’s End and by Lord Dunsany with Pegana and the stories set there. Neither of these were quuuite like modern Constructed Fantasy worlds. Morris’ world was too reminiscent of our own, and Pegana was more poetically evoked than detailed. Also, Howard wanted a world that resembled our own history but was not bound by it. A gritty, barbaric world for his gritty, barbaric stories.
And so was born the Hyborean Age. Howard mixed in elements of history, myth, and fantasy to create a place that was reminiscent of our own world, but not limited by it. Taking a leaf from Lovecraft, he posited an age forgotten by history, between the drowning of Atlantis and the rise of the historic age. This was all based on the cataclysmic theory of geology, which was not considered so farfetched in those days, as Plate Tectonics was not widely accepted until the 1950s. It was not considered silly to postulate the world being remade by great upheavals and disasters, or to imagine that such disasters would erase from the record numerous peoples and places.
With this imaginary age, Howard was free to cobble together a kind of “cool stuff” idea of history, with medieval-style Western European kingdoms like Aquilonia sharing the world with Imperial-Spanish-style Zingarans, Egyptian-inspired Stygians, and Mongolian “Hyrkanians”. He took all the eras of all the parts of history he liked the feel of and had them inhabit the same world with names culled from archaic languages and maps. He didn’t have to worry about iron age versus bronze age, or when such-and-such a style of armor became available. He could just use what he liked.
This was a rather revolutionary kind of idea. He built a world, delineating a history for it that he pretty much stuck with, and he used it as the basis for numerous stories, filling in corners of his own map as he went. He wanted pirates so he invented the Barachan Isles for them to lair in. He wanted to do Middle Asian adventures like the tales of muscular British heroes in Afghanistan, so he invented Ghulistan so he could do that too. Of all the adventure writers of the period, he was the only one to invent his own world, and to this day the Hyborean Age remains the most varied and adaptable.
Now, of course, Constructed worlds are almost literally a dime a dozen, and most fantasy stories of any kind are set in one. The term “worldbuilding” has entered the popular terminology, and books are judged on it just as much as on character and plot. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is often seen as the gold standard for these kinds of worlds, but it is worth noting that Howard was there in print with the concept twenty years earlier, along with the other pioneers such as Lord Dunsany and M. A. Barker. Among all invented worlds the Hyborean Age shares a unique place – mysterious, lusty, violent, varied, strange and yet familiar.