Monday, July 10, 2017


If there is a problem with the Sword & Sorcery genre, it is that it dwells in the shadow of its most famous hero, and it’s not possible to study the history and development of Sword & Sorcery as a whole without being struck by the fact that 90% of people’s interest in the genre lives and dies with Conan of Cimmeria.

This is not a new problem. Conan casts a loooong shadow, not just in a relatively small fantasy subgenre, but in the popular culture as a whole. Everyone knows Conan, and when I talk about Robert E. Howard with the uninitiated, I usually have to use Conan as a reference point to explain who he even is. The fact of the matter is that Conan, as both a character and a pop-culture icon, outgrew both his genre and his creator, and looms larger than both.

Howard created a lot of characters, and his most well-known are his continuing ones that went through multiple tales. It was a feature of the era in the pulp magazines – every writer wanted to create a hero that connected with the audience, that way readers would follow the hero and clamor for more of his adventures. It helped sell stories to editors and helped sell magazines, and so when a character hit it worked out for everyone. Howard made a lot of these two-fisted action heroes, from the real-world adventurers like Steve Costigan and Solomon Kane, to dwellers in worlds of pure fantasy.

A lot of the characters we think of as being fantasy heroes – like Cormac Mac Art or Bran Mak Morn – were actually men who lived in historical periods. Howard only really created two ongoing heroes who lived in purely fantastical worlds: Kull, and his kindred barbarian Conan.

Kull was very much the prototype for Conan. A barbarian who leaves his primitive homeland and ventures through an exotic world of strange civilizations, cutting his way with sword and iron will, eventually carving his way onto a throne. Kull inhabited a rather poorly-defined world of generic fantasy with a number of Lovecraftian flourishes. For Conan, Howard made the Hyborian Age, and it is rather surprising that he created such a well-realized fantasy world and then never used it for any other characters. I suppose he might have, had he lived.

Conan was a major hit, and so Howard kept writing stories about him, and they sold like crazy. In 1934 and 1935, when he was selling at his peak, Howard was making the equivalent of over $30,000 a year just from writing – a pretty extraordinary achievement for a freelance author in any time period. Conan was the most lucrative character he created, and the most enduring.

That hasn’t changed. Sword & Sorcery fiction in print, films, and comics, is dominated by Conan. There have been a lot of other S&S heroes of many kinds, but none of them has made the same impact, for whatever reason. Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn are just as interesting, if not moreso, but Conan is the one the fandom took to heart, and has never relinquished.

And in any genre there will be indelible works that continue to attract new fans. The advent of new fantasy does not tarnish the Lord of the Rings, the emergence of new bands does not reduce the appeal of classic music. But Conan’s overpowering ubiquity seems to drown out any other real development of the genre. No original Sword & Sorcery tale is going to get the attention the umpteenth Conan pastiche gets, and in fact the very genre of S&S is unfashionable among publishers today. Rather than a vital, expanding fantasy subgenre such as we get with Urban Fantasy or Steampunk, we get Conan, and only Conan, always and forever.

I feel like this is doing a terrible disservice to literature as a whole. The Sword & Sorcery genre is little-seen, and not taken very seriously, when it is viewed as just part of an aging IP being exploited by film studios or comic book publishers. The effect is similar to what would have happened if “rock and roll” was seen as just “Elvis music”, and rather than an entire genre of creativity and expression we just got Elvis repressings and cover songs forever, with no thought given to what else might be done with the form. I would much rather Conan was the beginning of the genre, rather than just being seen as the end.


  1. This article expressed some of my thoughts on the genre as well. For years I've been thinking about some of the possible reasons for this.

    First of all is the character himself. Conan is a pinnacle of individualism. If the stock market had a logo it'd be the Frazetta painting of Conan, no question. Even tho Kull is kinda the same as a general outline, Conan's personality and characteristics seep deep into our collective memories of Darwinist survival. Conan's the product of Natural Selection at it's best, strong and quick but also encompasses strange, deep rooted superstitions we all understand as well as morbid fears.

    Conan as a character, from his raging fights to win, to his daring yet desperate toil to live another day while laughing in the face of certain doom lest it be his last moment, connects with humanity on a very profound level by answering the question...what is life? Conan answers: it's a brutal series of struggles, pain and despair and then you die. What makes it worthwhile is the sprinkles of glories in between and whether you care and can carve your face into a mountainside to show you were alive to those coming after you're gone. That's it. That connects with us, why we work, why we toil, why we believe in gods, why we have children. To create a sense of worth in all human suffering and to create some sort of immortality. No other character I am aware of does this. Lord of the Rings for all it's praise is just Lord of the Rings, never Gandalf or Frodo or Aragorn or whoever. Each character has tidbits that connect but who would you or anyone use to make an ongoing series of stories? I don't think any LotR character has that sort of appeal. And unfortunately it seems that not any other S&S character's manages to "be the right story" in order to further the genre.

    B) This is even tougher I think than Conan himself, and it's (for me at least) what is a S&S world? Tolkien defined high fantasy to the letter. It's gotta have noble elves, grumpy dwarfs, vain humans, highfalutin ideals, majestic architecture, video game magic and Tolkien's most important contribution to fantasy, a Dark Lord. With such a precise and expansive buffet you can mix things up, expand, contract, reverse some stuff, but as long as 60% or the above is there you've got a high fantasy world.

    What's a S&S world? To me the closest thing to what it is is REH's writings, a collection of Frazetta paintings and inks, the Schwarzenegger film and score, some Conan comics and I'd personally add a 1995 video game Weaponlord and the old He-man cartoon (yea I know it's got lasers, so what?). My vision would include much more, darker themes and images, weirdness, terrible histories and archetypes but that's just me. But looking at the above of what a S&S world is, I see a problem. It's so small and not very well defined. We can get a vague idea of what the characters look like and what they wear if we look at Frazetta's art long enough, but we only get what he painted. What do pirates look like in such a world? What do forests look like, what's the difference between people living in a hamlet in different kingdoms? How does magic work? Etc etc. Looking more closely at REHs writings, the movies, some of the comics etc and literature other than Conan, there's a mass of great answers. But it never was compiled, organized, evolved and massed into one big volume that had the distinction from other genres and at the same time the internal diversity to make it feel vibrant and varied beyond what REH loosely defined. As a result, this loose base, I think, has inhibited creators from creating a world that feels as alive as Howard's because it's hard to fill in the gaps without using his vision as a crutch, so most don't stray too far.

    I haven't had much access to other books and characters of the S&S genre up until recently and even then, from the little I've looked at some of the issues I find with it remain.

  2. Well,in MY opinion the reason could be that the Conan formula(but just the howard ones,the pastiches don't have the quality to really capture that howardian feeling)
    is so perfect that is almost impossible to perffect it,at least in that particular genre that is sword & can do no better.but they can do good in other sub genres,maybe inventing new ones,but..they did it.especially in the peter jackson era,game of thrones styled stories,steammpunk,vampires for teens and stuff like that.

  3. And this just proves my point, because this post got about twenty times as many views as my articles normally get and continues to go.