Monday, November 18, 2013

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas...

Sword & Sorcery

The exact meaning of the term, especially when related to film (and television) is often debated. Still, the foundation of Sword & Sorcery is the collected tales of Robert E Howard. It is there that we begin. With other genres that often are crossed over into, or mislabeled as, Sword & Sorcery, it can get difficult to pin down that definition. Let us start then, with what it is not.

The Lord of the Rings is not Sword & Sorcery. One might argue (and some have) that there are both swords and sorcery involved in these stories, but stories of this nature are "High Fantasy". High Fantasy are massive tales of epic proportions. While, in both cases, the world may lie in the balance, in High Fantasy the tale is less a personal one, being more a global one.

In film, Arthurian Legends is middle-ground for Sword & Sorcery, this being a case where there is some overlap. Arthurian Legends often skirt the line betwixt High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery, many times combining elements of both. Still, inspired by legend, they often deal with an individual's struggle as opposed to an epic storyline.

Sword & Sandal is rarely Sword & Sorcery. This genre crosses back and forth from historical to fantastic, and it is those fantastic tales with which we concern ourselves. For those tales rooted in mythology, some allowance can be made. The tales of Hercules are sometimes both categories, but the movie Spartacus is firmly Sword and Sandal.

So, this gives us a starting point. The genre is one of fantasy that most often revolves around an individual's journey. There is adventure, but the stakes are not often the world. Instead, the risks (in the literature) tend to be more personal. In the movie Krull, for example, while the world has been invaded, it is Colwyn's personal quest to rescue his bride that drives the movie. Colwyn's objective isn't to overthrow dark armies, it is to save the woman he loves. While this may change the fate of his world, such a result is secondary.

To quote author Fritz Leiber (who coined the term), "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!"

In literature, the field is filled with giants among the field, Robert E Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Sprague de Camp, and others. In Film? Maybe not so much. While Howard's Conan has made three notable (and one less notable) appearances on the big screen, there is corresponding love for Elric or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. While the written portion of this genre is capable of handling dozens of stories per character, rarely does the cinematic do so, at least successfully.

Finally, there is the "feel" of the stories. Much of the accepted Sword and Sorcery film canon has a distinctly European feel, laid down by those early authors. While this is not a requirement (much of the early writings in the field were influenced by tales of the Arabian Nights) it is a cultural feel that dominates the field.

Bit by bit we will delve into the films, and even television, of this genre. We will explore all of this as our adventure begins....