Sword & Sorcery was founded as a development of the Adventure story, and so one of the most salient features of the style has always been an affinity for action, and because of the kind of writer founder Robert E. Howard was, it has always been action of a particularly bloody stripe. It could be said that S&S trades not just in action, but in savagery.
Howard’s stories were always violent, and even when there was no violence on screen, as it were, there was a streak of violence woven into the very fabric of the stories. Even when there is no action there will be mention of beheadings, raids and wars, cruel justice and treachery. There is a very casual kind of ambient violence embedded in Howard’s work that makes them seem brutal even when there is nothing really happening.
This kind of thing serves a number of purposes, and it is a feature not to be overlooked by those who are really looking to dig down on the roots of the genre. Firstly, this creates an aura of tension and suspense, making the world around the characters seem unfriendly and dangerous. It also makes the world of the story seem darker and more primitive, evoking our own more brutal past. The last thing it does is give the reader no illusions about what kind of story and what kind of world this is.
Howard’s stories always featured a lot of violence, and the adaptations of his work have mostly followed this. It is telling that when they veer off from this ambiance of doom and death, they mostly don’t come across very well. Sword & Sorcery really needs the promise of brutal violence to sell the feel of the world.
Some other writers in the genre have opted not to lean on this as heavily. C. L. Moore was light on violence, as was Leiber. The action in their stories more often centered on swashbuckling swordplay, as did the lesser works of Carter and de Camp. Moorcock is one S&S writer who traded more heavily in violence, especially in his Elric tales.
As S&S became less of a literary genre and more of one that expanded into comics and games, the violence associated with it has, if anything, increased. The best Sword & Sorcery stories seem to be those that take the gloves off, and don’t try to play to a PG audience. When they do, it always makes the stories seem less visceral, less exciting, more like “standard” fantasy.
My position is still that S&S is best when it is grim and dark, when the characters are morally questionable and the world feels like a dangerous and uncertain place. This is not the kind of story that does well with Errol Flynn-styled derring-do and stories where everyone lives at the end. The best S&S stories contain strong elements of tragedy as well as action.
Some have criticized the genre as one where people solve all their problems with violence, but in the best tales this is not the case. Violence abounds, but often the real obstacles the characters face are not ones that can be overcome with blood and iron. In Sword & Sorcery a hero may brandish their sword against the dooms of the world, but they know the best they can win is a temporary victory.
S&S fiction is the story of those victories. Action remains a necessary feature of the genre for two reasons. The first is just that it is fun. Well-written action is tense and exciting, it fills a tale with vivid moments and dramatic choices. The second is because the best stories are about the consequences and the cost of violence, in revealing that while killing may solve one problem it creates more. S&S heroes do not shy away from violence, and they revel in it, in ways that may make more sensitive readers uncomfortable. But violence is the story of the human race, and one of the great unspoken truths of our kind is that we like violence, and we like killing - we would not do so much of either if we did not. S&S embraces that truth and does not judge it, one way or the other. Even if you wanted to, you cannot take the action out, and still remain Sword & Sorcery.