Sword and Sorcery, or Heroic Fantasy, is a sub-genre of fantasy and historical fantasy, generally characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of High Fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters.
A film genre tangentially related to Sword and Sorcery, at least in name, is Sword-and-Sandal, though its subjects are generally oriented to Biblical times and early history, instead of Fantasy.
The term "Sword and Sorcery" was first coined in 1961, when the British author Michael Moorcock published a letter in the fanzine Amra, demanding a name for the sort of fantasy-adventure story written by Robert E. Howard.
He had initially proposed the term "Epic Fantasy". However, the celebrated American Sword-and-Sorcery author Fritz Leiber replied in the journal Ancalagon (6 April 1961) suggesting, "Sword-and-Sorcery as a good popular catchphrase for the field". He expanded on this in the July 1961 issue of Amra, commenting:
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! (Fritz Leiber, Amra, July 1961)
Though not explicitly mentioned in Leiber's letter, the originally Italian film genre known as "Sword and Sandal", depicting heroic adventures in settings derived from the Bible or Greek mythology, was at the peak of its popularity in the US at the time when the letter was written.
Since its inception, many attempts have been made to redefine precisely what "Sword and Sorcery" is. Although many have debated the finer points, the consensus characterizes it by a strong bias toward fast-paced, action-rich tales set within a quasi-mythical or fantastical framework.
Unlike High or Epic Fantasy, the stakes tend to be personal, the danger confined to the moment of telling. Settings are typically exotic, and protagonists often morally compromised.
Many Sword and Sorcery tales have been turned into a lengthy series of adventures. Their lower stakes and less-than world-threatening dangers make this more plausible than a repetition of the perils of Epic Fantasy. So too does the nature of the heroes; most Sword-and-Sorcery protagonists, travelers by nature, find peace after adventure deathly dull.
At one extreme, the heroes of E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros grieve for the end of the war and that they have no more foes equal to those they defeated; in answer to their prayers, the gods restore the enemy city so that they can fight the same war over again.
The subgenre has old roots. Ultimately—like much fantasy—it draws from mythology and classical epics such as Homer's Odyssey and the Norse sagas.
It is also influenced by historical fiction, begun by Sir Walter Scott, under the influence of romantic collection of folklore and ballads. However, very few of his works contain fantastic elements; in most, the appearance of such is explained away,but in its themes of adventure in a strange society, this led to the adventures set in foreign lands by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Haggard's works included many fantastic elements.
However, sword and sorcery's immediate progenitors are the swashbuckling tales of Alexandre Dumas, père (The Three Musketeers (1844), etc.), Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche (1921), etc.) and their pulp magazine imitators, such as Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, and H. Bedford-Jones, who all influenced Robert E. Howard.
However, these historical "swashbucklers" lack the truly supernatural element (even though Dumas' fiction contained many fantasy tropes).
Another influence was early fantasy fiction such as Lord Dunsany's "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" (1910) and A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar (1924).
All of these authors influenced Sword and Sorcery for the plots, characters, and landscapes used.
In addition, many early sword and sorcery writers, such as Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, were heavily influenced by the Middle Eastern tales of the Arabian Nights, whose stories of magical monsters and evil sorcerers were a major influence on the genre-to-be.
It can also be noted that in its frequent depictions of smoky taverns and smelly back alleys, sword and sorcery draws upon the picaresque genre; for example, Fritz Leiber's city of Lankhmar bears considerable similarity to 16th century Seville as depicted in Cervantes' tale Rinconete y
Sword and sorcery proper only truly began in the pulp fantasy magazines, where it emerged from "weird fiction." Particularly important was the magazine Weird Tales, which published Howard's Conan stories as well as such important S&S influences as Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.