Fans of our increasingly Manichean world of Yankees and Red Sox, liberals and conservatives, blue colour-coded babies and pink ones will be thrilled to learn that there are essentially only two kinds of fantasy. The distinction is simple: wistful nerds read about Bilbo, and angry nerds read about Conan.
Some people will tell you all about something called “steampunk” and “hot sex with vampires”, but we’re not too concerned with those right now. Steampunk is basically just Bilbo or Conan with a flintlock and gaslight. Paranormal romance actually had its genesis in horror (Dracula, and then Ann Rice’s re-purposing of same), and plays with slightly different tropes.
What we’re talking about, essentially, is map fantasy. Ever cracked open a book whose cover depicts some dude with a sword racing towards a dragon? Chances are the first thing in there is a map. That’s our bag today.
We’ve discussed previously that genre is a convenient short-hand made up of common tropes and themes. What then are the tropes that make up fantasy? What is fantasy?
And before we delve into that, a disclaimer: fantasy nerds can be prickly sorts, and I don’t want people casting spells at me. I may be glib. But believe you me, I love the silly shit, warts and all.
The tl;dr version is simply: fantasy stories generally use the supernatural as an element of setting or plot. It’s all about magic. It’s also occasionally about the cleaving in twain of creatures and people, but since the swords are magical too, I’m counting that.
Fantasy’s best known face is, of course, that of Lord of the Rings. A magical McGuffin, a Dark Lord who’s been biding his time for millennia to acquire it, elves and dwarves and hobbits, and an epic quest requiring multiple books, skirmishes with orcs, and the occasional infodump by an ancient wizard who’s rarely as helpful as it seems like he should be. LotR was written after the war, but it didn’t start to really hit it big until the hippie counter-culture got at it in the ’60s. Once Robert Plant began to write songs about ringwraiths, it was over. Fantasy exploded, and the shelves groaned under millions and millions of words about elves and ancient evils. Games got in on the act, first with Dungeons and Dragons and then computers, and now 11 million people log into World of Warcraft on the regular to smite orcs and dark lords who sport volcanoes on their shoulders. For the sake of classification, this came to be called high fantasy. I assume that’s a dig at hippies.
But this wasn’t always the face of fantasy. It was a codification, and had an enormous impact on what came after. But first, there were pulps. The second kind of fantasy, typified by Robert E. Howard’s mighty-thewed Conan, was in fact mostly about thews. They strained, and groaned, and ran red with blood. Lots of blood. The pulp fiction era was often violent, and dark, and… well, deeply weird, actually. The lines between speculative fiction weren’t as clear then. Fantasy and horror skipped merrily hand in hand, and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a medieval-tech society built on the bones of space-faring aliens. The Conan genre, which Fritz Leiber named sword and sorcery, is in many ways similar to the high fantasy that followed it, but it’s perhaps even more similar to some of our own mythology. Zeus’s thews would be right at home in Conanville.
There are other nuances, of course. We have Dunsanies and Lovecrafts and Vernes, fairy tales and eddas, etc. And, of course, there’s been quite a lot of divergence since, and there was plenty before. But as far a highly simplified history of modern map fantasy goes, the above is workable.
What, then, are these genres? How are they similar, and how do they differ?
Covers are an easy way to tell the subgenres apart at Your Favourite Bookstore.
HF – Men with swords and shiny armour staring grimly at dragons. Wistful-looking women with unicorns. Dark lords in spiky armour sitting on top of evil beasties (such as dragons). Castles. Wizards with pointy hats.
S&S – Bloody, mostly naked men with swords staring defiantly at reader or else burying swords into heads of other bloody, mostly naked men, or Things That Should Not Be. Pouty-looking women typically found wrapped around heroic thews. Sorcerers made up primarily of tattoos and skulls, daggers bloody with the afterglow of sacrifice. They also have thews.
Oh, yeah. We got maps.
Here’s where the divergence begins. The stakes of high fantasy are global. Sure, the occasional princess may need saving, but you’d best believe that in snatching her out of the way of danger, the bold heroes will also save the world. Saving a country is pretty much as small-time as it gets. Those pesky Dark Lords are always messing shit up.
Sword and sorcery is somewhat less magnanimous. The stakes are usually personal, and sometimes very petty. If Conan were to save the world, it’d be pretty much by accident, but the question doesn’t really arise. For one thing, the world isn’t worth saving – or, at least, its deliverance is beyond the capabilities of anyone. At best, Conan managed to make the trains run on time in one kingdom. Certainly, he killed himself a dark wizard or two, but it’s usually because he was bored, well-paid, horny or because the wizard just cheesed him off some. S&S is generally character-driven, not setting-driven. And its characters are frequently psychopaths.
HF – Medievalish Europe, minus the plagues (unless the Dark Lord spreads them). And it’s always Medievalish Europe. Good places are pastoral, with doughty kings and hardy, surprisingly clean simple folk who will tragically be drawn into conflict when the Dark Lord finally collects the McGuffin and his shadow passes over the land.
S&S – willing to experiment. There’s a lot of Medievalish Europe, but there’s also a lot more happening on the fringes, in the wilderness, or in other earth-based societies. Grimy cities swarming with thieves, deep swamps in which cultists make sacrifices to goat-headed demons or Ctulhoid monstrosities, etc. Farms and the like are basically non-existent, because they’re unnecessary. The murder-based economy is perfectly capable of putting food on the table.
HF – Humans are generally the baseline, and it’s generally explained that they’re Gifted With Choice. Humans can be bad or good, in league with the dark lord or the Conclave of Free Folk, ambitious or timid, etc. Basically, they’re people. They’re joined by a number of monocultures who deal mostly in essentialism. All dwarves are drunken louts with faux-Scots accents, all elves speak stiltedly and flourish in the woods. All orcs are evil and probably in the Dark Lord’s thrall. Sometimes, the protagonist will be joined by The One Blanketyblank That Isn’t Like That, as part of a racism-is-bad subplot that proves all people can transcend their upbringing, while glossing over the fact that the monoculture actually only has the one rebel, and that this nuance (such as it is) is limited to the goodly races that form the Conclave of Free Folk.
S&S – where high fantasy might turn non-human monocultures into thinly veiled racist allegories, sword and sorcery cuts out the middle-man. It’s mostly just racist with people. Conan is especially cringe-worthy in this respect, in that it’s presented as a theoretical pre-history of our own world, complete with the inscrutable Orient, vicious cannibals in the jungle, etc. Non-humans are a little more rare, but you can bet they’ll be bestial servants of Nouns What Ought Not Verb.
Monsters of various sorts exist in both milieus, be they undead, demonic, etc. They’re usually rarer and meaner in S&S.
HF – Magic in high fantasy is usually pretty well understood. It can be rare, like in Lord of the Rings, or it can be so widespread that one has magical hospitals and magical streetlamps and magical toasters. But it’ll generally follow certain rules more or less predictably, and it’ll be simply a tool. Good people will use magic to heal the sick and feed the poor, bad people will use it to infect the healthy and turn the poor into a shambling army of zombies. If it’s rare, it’s just about guaranteed that people are born with the talent. It might be hereditary, or it might just happen, but either you’ve got it or you don’t. If it’s common, that’s probably still the case. Very rarely, it might be universally accessible through study and hard work.
S&S – Magic is usually rare, and almost always unpredictable, or just flat-out evil. It’s still occasionally an inherited trait, but more often, it’s accessible to anybody that’s willing to sell a bit of soul to some gibbering demonic entity or another. Traditional sword and sorcery is, in fact, largely concerned with the triumph of sword over sorcery. That said, of all the fantasy out there, S&S is also the most likely to tell stories that don’t revolve around magic. These stories may still run into mild supernatural elements, and of course they take place in a setting where the supernatural is assumed to exist.
HF – High fantasy protagonists are usually special in some way. They’re marked by ancient prophecy or secret bloodline. If it’s the latter, they’ll probably have been spirited away to live as an ignorant farmboy somewhere out of the Dark Lord’s grasp, because apparently this makes more sense than just teaching them how to deal with shit. They usually accept their quest with perhaps a bit of trepidation or why-me, but in the end, it’s The Right Thing To Do.
S&S has a soft spot for the anti-hero. The best of them profess some sort of code of honour, but if it has to be laid aside now and again, that’s life in Conanville. They don’t accept quests because it’s the right thing to do, generally speaking. They do it for money. Or revenge. S&S loves it some revenge. The genuinely self-sacrificing tend to build up calluses pretty quickly, and their do-goodery often comes out only when they think others aren’t watching. If that sounds a lot like other pulp-era protagonists, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
The Supporting Cast
HF – The protagonist’s childhood friend, also probably a farmer, who will be largely ineffectual until he gets that one moment to remind us all that heroes persevere in the face of adversity. A love interest, sometimes. A party made up of representatives of the free folk of the world, featuring one dwarf, one elf (they don’t like each other), a bunch of other people who are largely extraneous, and occasionally a hard-bitten mercenary or outlaw with a heart of gold who’s dramatically more competent than everybody else but can’t aspire to anything more than a heroic death, because heroism isn’t what you do, it’s who you’re born.
S&S – Because so much of the corpus of sword-and-sorcery is made up of short stories, and so much of it focuses on lone-wolf protagonists, S&S is a bit thin on supporting casts. Once in a while, the protagonist will work alongside a mightily-thewed comrade (choice comrades are thieves, bandits, and brigands). Certainly, floozies abound. Still, when we meet new people, it’s mostly to kill them.
HF – We’ve already talked about the Dark Lord. Why’s he so mean? Usually, because he has to be. Welcome back, essentialism. He’s evil because he’s Evil with a capital ‘E’. Evil, in high fantasy, is not something people do so much as an animate force that must be vanquished. We’re in very black and white territory here.
S&S – The villain is the guy mildly more unpleasant than the hero. Capital-‘E’ Evil does exist here as well, but that’s typically in conjunction with magic, and as we’ve seen earlier, magic is frequently a matter of choice. Like the hero, the villain isn’t driven by a lust for philosophical purity. He’s not nice, but he’s also not evil for Evil’s sake. He probably wants power, or women, and figures the best way to get there is a shambling army of the pustulent dead. Fair enough, really.
HF – Collect six pieces of the Thing That Was Sundered so that you have a weapon against the Dark Lord, and in so doing learn valuable lessons about friendship and growing up. Defeat the dark lord in a climactic showdown, ascend to the throne, and become the doughty king ruling justly over pastoral splendor.
S&S – Boy meets girl. Girl turns out to be a succubus controlled by evil wizard. Boy kills evil wizard for money (or more hot succubus sex). Fuck yeah, money (or hot succubus sex)!
HF is far likelier to be written with women in mind, and indeed there are entire reams of female-oriented high fantasy. They’re usually heavier on elves than dwarves and feature shit-tons of unicorns. In most HF, though, women will happily fall into their traditional entertainment roles of bait, largely silent (or else spunky-until-the-plot-calls-for-capture) love interest, or sneering harridan.
For the role of women in S&S, see the section on Cover Art.
HF – mostly chaste, although the occasional roguish sort might bed a buxom wench or two. If the protagonist is getting some, it’s usually with his twu wuv that was fated by the stars and prophecy and I can’t finish this sentence because I’m too busy pining.
S&S – yes, please. Note that these buxom wenches are somewhat likelier to turn into ravenous flesh-eating demons.
A note on homosexuality in mainstream fantasy: it’s actually mildly common in HF aimed at women, and then frequently portrayed as normal, if perhaps a little twee-with-good-intentions. It’s essentially nonexistent elsewhere, unless one wishes to insult a mightily-thewed barbarian (not recommended).
HF – The free peoples of the world, working together, can triumph over adversity. Even the meanest farmhand can save the world provided his veins secretly run with the blood of kings. Heroism is who you are, not what you do. Ancient wizards are surprisingly useless when push comes to shove. The world – or our suspiciously English-looking corner of it – is a beautiful, bright place that must be defended from Evil.
S&S – Fuck yeah, money! You can accomplish whatever you want if you’ve got a strong sword arm and the will to swing it at somebody’s head, because normal people are sheep! Not like you, you mighty Adonis. Of course, you may also die horribly because you stumbled upon Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, but that’s magic for you. The world is a hive of scum and villainy, so get yours before they do.
HF – Forged in the c’rucibles of Ap’ostrophis, L-ord of PreTensia.
S&S – Tends to resemble writing, but has a real fondness for Words Man Was Not Meant to Capitalize.
The Critical Reception
Why do we love it so much?
HF – it allows us to bask in the warm glow of moral clarity while heading out for high adventure and butchering up some orcs. It reminds us of fairy tales, and gives us a sense of nostalgia for simpler days that never were. It speaks to insecurities about wishing to be somebody else. Somebody important.
S&S – anti-heroes are cool. All of us have our little frustrations, and desires for things that are out of reach… but if you go after those things with a battle-axe nowadays, people call you crazy. S&S allows us the freedom to chase after our dreams, come what may, and the only price the occasional murder at the hands of Things That Were Not Meant to Devour Man. It allows us to enjoy the delusion that, were we to live in a rough frontier where the only things that count are wit and weaponry, we’d be mighty heroes and not dying of a spear in the gut.
Obviously, the bare bones of any genre are subject to reinterpretation, picking and choosing, and deconstruction. It’s rare that an actual fantasy novel in this day and age will cleave strictly to all of the above generalizations, but they remain themes and tropes that pop up with some frequency.
High fantasy has been ascendant for a long time, and with the huge popularity of the LotR movies, Harry Potter, and World of Warcraft, it’s most certainly going to keep on keeping on. But a curious thing happened over the last twenty years, as people tired of the dominant paradigm – many of the tropes and ethics of sword and sorcery books have been quietly making their way back into books of their own, or melding with high fantasy, and the results have been pretty interesting.
George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, certainly one of the champions of the last decade of genre writing, is basically a high fantasy told in an S&S style. More broadly, the save-the-world plotting of high fantasy is (mercifully) fading away some, and characters are growing more varied and far better developed. The Bakkers and Kays of the world have been some of the more conspicuous proponents of literary fantasy – serious books, about serious issues, that also happen to give us some of the ancient wizards and mighty thews that we thrive on. But then, there’s also been a new wave of D&Disms, led by guys such as Erikson, with knife-wielding level 13 assassins taking on elves, slightly different elves, and prehistoric elves in a land where everything glows with magic.
Now, with the explosion of independent publishing, we can expect to see still more variety. It remains to be seen what new writers will draw inspiration from, and what tropes they’ll build on, but I think we’re going to ride the wave of high fantasy back into pulp – weird, wild, and varied.
In upcoming weeks, we’ll expand a little on what some of the underlying themes of fantasy mean and how they might have developed, and we’ll play a little with deconstruction, post-modernist hipsters that we are.