Follow TV Tropes


Sword and Sorcery

Go To

"I live in a world of fire and sand. The crimson sun scorches the life from anything that crawls or flies, and storms of sand scour the foliage from the barren ground. This is a land of blood and dust, where tribes of feral elves sweep out of the salt plains to plunder lonely caravans, mysterious singing winds call travelers to slow suffocation in the Sea of Silt, and selfish kings squander their subjects' lives building gaudy palaces and garish tombs. This bleak wasteland is Athas, and it is my home."
The Wanderer, Dark Sun

A subgenre of Heroic Fantasy, with which it is often lumped together, but having its own distinguishing characteristics. Coined by Fritz Leiber in the early '60s to define the style of his own works and those writers that inspired him, and to differentiate it from other works described as Heroic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery is a genre of fantasy that is often considerably less glamorous and all about fast-paced action. Almost universally, Sword & Sorcery stories are about mighty warriors fighting supernatural horrors with blade in hand, either an Eldritch Abomination or Evil Sorcerer. Any political or criminal leaders are usually merely an Unwitting Pawn of a much darker power. Many victories will be by the skin of their teeth and usually won more through quick thinking and cleverness rather than physical might. There will be at least a few times where they cut their losses and bail on a fight, and they will have at least one Run or Die moment when they recognize that a threat is way out of their league. While they may have genuine allies here and there, they know better than to trust most people; as far as they are concerned, everyone they meet has a hidden dagger in their clutches until proven otherwise, and even then, they are usually still prepared for betrayal at some point.

Sword & Sorcery protagonists can usually be identified by three main traits, which separate them from most heroes from Heroic Fantasy:

Robert E. Howard is widely seen as the Trope Maker of the genre, with Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock being the Trope Codifiers a generation later. Many famous stories were first published in Pulp Magazines and short story anthologies are still a popular form of the genre.

If the heroes of a story are actually heroic and morally unambiguous, it's probably Heroic Fantasy. If there is only a low supernatural presence, it is most likely Low Fantasy. Can sometimes overlap with Dark Fantasy. See also Wuxia and Sword and Sandal, the Chinese and Bronze Age Mediterranean versions (respectively) of the genre, both with very strong overlaps. Unrealistic and formulaic sword and sorcery stories have been referred to with the disparaging term "thud and blunder".

Because of the genre's history in pulp fiction, which goes as far back as the 1920's, there are a few bits of Values Dissonance that have become tightly associated with the genre and may result in some Unfortunate Implications if an aspiring sword and sorcery author isn't careful. Such problematic tropes include Orientalism, Fantasy Counterpart Cultures, Romanticized Abuse, and Noble Savage. Tread lightly, brave writer.

Not to be confused with Sword and Sorcerer, which is a character duo trope.

Common tropes in Sword & Sorcery:


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Amon Saga: A story set in a chaotic fantasy world with magic and monsters based around a young man seeking revenge for the death of his mother. Many of the characters are mercenaries or villainous soldiers, dark magic is used by evil sorcerers and the hero has to slay both man and beast in his quest for vengeance.
  • Claymore: The titular Claymores are warrior women who hunt monsters called Yoma but are shunned by humans for being part-Yoma themselves.

    Comic Books 
  • The Tales of the Jedi series is quite different in style from most Star Wars stories and has very stong allusions to Sword & Sorcery, being set 5,000 to 4,000 years before the rest of the Expanded Universe. Being the stories of the ancient Sith, it's full of demonic-looking evil sorcerers, their huge palaces and temples, and alchemy.
  • The Goddamned has elements of the genre. A morally-grey Barbarian Hero with nothing but bones for weapons, Amazonian Beauties, a Sandal Punk setting full of giant beasts of dubious physiologies, barbaric Frazetta Men, giants, cults and cult-leaders, curses and the duality between faith in oneself and a higher power.
  • In Robin Wood's Or-Grund, the protagonist is a blond and muscular barbarian hero with some similarity to He-Man (although only physically), who travels the world facing vampires, ghouls, snake-men and all kinds of evil creatures. He is quite primitive at first, rather silly and acts solely on instinct, like an animal, but out of necessity he must become smarter and more cunning, as well as less impulsive.

  • Mandy (2018) takes place in (a stylized version of) the real world in the early 1980s and adds elements of horror and psychedelia, but it qualifies. It's about a Barbarian Hero taking brutal but justified revenge against an Evil Sorcerer cult leader and his demonic mooks for murdering the woman he loves.
  • Sorceress is another Conan imitator, with the twist that it takes much inspiration from The Corsican Brothers, featuring twin sisters raised as boys who have to prevent their own birth father, who's an Evil Sorcerer, from sacrificing the eldest to gain more power from his master, a dark god.

  • The Barbarian and the Sorceress, a short story which is clearly in the original style of these, with a heroic wandering warrior having to fight an Evil Sorcerer. It subverts some conventions, though, as the hero has to be rescued by the title sorceress, who learned magic from the sorcerer's books without him realizing.
  • Some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulpy Two-Fisted Tales provide formative early examples. Though the stakes are often high enough to push the stories more into High Fantasy territory, the magic — or, in the case of the Planetary Romance John Carter of Mars series, Psychic Powers — is limited enough to keep the focus more on swashbuckling action and swordfights. His heroes are principled and unambiguously heroic, but typically still have a little bit of Blood Knight in them. The Frank Frazetta covers many of Burroughs' books received later were a natural fit.
  • Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian is the TropeMaker — if not Trope Codifier — of the entire genre. In addition to the titular Conan being the Trope Codifier of the Barbarian Hero, almost everyone who uses magic is portrayed as some type of Evil Sorcerer due to its nature (the one exception, who tried to use magic to help Conan, creeped the latter out to the point he wanted nothing more to do with them), Conan faces off against said sorcerers and things that should not be regularly (keep in mind the franchise is technically part of the Cthulhu Mythos), and he's an Unscrupulous Hero unafraid to get his hands dirty. It's almost impossible to find any sword and sorcery fiction that doesn't owe its existence to these stories in some shape or form.
  • Michael Moorcock's The Elric Saga, which alongside Conan the Barbarian and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is considered one of the defining entries in the genre, telling the story of a decadent but sickly sorcerer-king who becomes a great warrior after acquiring a demonic soul-eating sword, traveling the world in search of redemption and constantly running into tragedy thanks to said sword's effective enslavement of its wielder.
  • The Eye of Argon is an infamously terrible novella that goes for this sort of tone, mostly trying to mimic the style of Conan. It tells of a Barbarian Hero named Grignr getting mixed up in the decadent city of Gorzom, running afoul of The Evil Prince, and rescuing a princess from being sacrificed by a cult. Its legacy as a try-not-to-laugh contest played at science fiction conventions is more than well-deserved.
  • Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is considered one of the pioneer entries in the genre, retelling the adventures of a hulking Barbarian Hero and his thief/wizard friend as they do mercenary work and battle all manner of foes, typically in the city of Lankhmar, when they're not boozing, brawling, wencing, and gambling.
  • Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian and its Animated Adaptation Fangbone! are a kid-oriented Affectionate Parody of the genre, with the title hero being a young barbarian warrior from the fierce world of Skullbania who must protect a magical artifact of immense evil (in this case, the severed digit of an Evil Sorcerer) with the help of his friend and ally, a clever but otherwise normal kid. Creator Michael Rex even confirmed Conan the Barbarian to be a major inspiration for the series.
  • Goblin Slayer is a grim Deconstruction of the genre that follows the bloody exploits of a man and his relentless quest to murder every goblin he comes across.
  • The Iron Dream is a Deconstructive Parody of the genre by posing an Alternate History where Adolf Hitler became an author of pulp fiction in the mode of Robert E. Howard, where mighty Aryan warriors fight villains who are thinly veiled antisemitic stereotypes.
  • Legends of Panthera is set in the semi-medievial world of Panthera and follows the adventures of a group of champions who battle against gods.
  • Tales of the Black Raven by Seth Skorkowsky is a collection of stories about a master thief in a world of tombs, corrupt city-states, evil magic, and femme fatales.
  • The Testament Of Tall Eagle by John R. Fultz is a Tribal Fantasy about a Fantasy Counterpart Culture for the Comanche dealing with Cthulhuoid monstrosities and Human Aliens threatening their land.
  • The Ties That Bind (Hayes) is set in a spectacularly grim and gritty world where the world's second-best swordsman has to deal with a lot of trouble from her male rivals. Thankfully, she has help.
  • The Witcher: Monster hunter Geralt travels the land, killing monsters and lifting curses for coin, using swords, alchemy, and magic.


    Tabletop Games 
  • Atlantis: The Second Age, which awards experience depending on how heroically you slay your enemies and revolves heavily around mechanics that require you to do outrageous and badass things the whole time.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: The game's roots are in this genre, with Gary Gygax claiming the game owes more to Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber and Jack Vance than to Tolkien. This is especially evident with art in early editions of the game, as well as the mechanics and visuals for certain classes early on, taking heavy inspiration from Conan and similar characters. Over time however, later editions have diverged from the genre, opening up greater flexibility, although most lean towards Heroic Fantasy.
    • The Dark Sun setting (which also provide the page quote) specifically aims to emulate old pulp stories and is heavily influenced by John Carter of Mars, as well as Conan the Barbarian. Set in the post-apocalyptic desert world of Athas, the setting is ruled by depraved sorcerer-kings of godlike power whose magic corrupts and drains the landscape. Brutal and deadly, only the strong survive, with Gladiator Games and Psychic Powers being commonplace.

    Video Games 
  • Bound by Flame: Even though the goal of the protagonist is to prevent the destruction of what little is left of the world, Vulcan keeps fighting the Ice Lords mostly out of self-preservation, rather than saving the world.
  • Ecstatica: A traveller stumbles into a town ravaged by eldritch beasts, and must fight their way out using swords and magic.
  • God of War is epic in scale and revolves around a war of the gods, but Kratos is really only out for revenge and nothing else, simply not caring for the cataclysmic destruction following in his wake.
  • Heavenly Sword: A young warrior claims an ancient magical sword to rescue her father from the evil sorcerer and his monstrous henchmen, even though the spirits of the weapon are likely to doom her.
  • Icewind Dale: A group of mercenaries sets out to find the power behind the monsters and unnatural winter coming from the mountains.
  • Legacy of Kain: While lots of people are trying to convince him to fulfill his destiny and restore balance to the world, Kain really is only after personal power and revenge against those who got in his way. Raziel is somewhat more noble, but also mostly motivated by getting back at those who wronged him.
  • The Witcher video game series (also includes Assassins of Kings and Wild Hunt), much like the books they are based on: A lone monster hunter hunting a sorcerer who stole the alchemical secrets from the witchers.

    Western Animation