"Thud and Blunder" is a term used to describe a certain style of Heroic Fantasy. It focuses heavily on personal combat and often relies on deus ex machinas and other asspulls popping up for the hero whenever things are getting sticky — an ally discovered among the other galley slaves, a powerful artifact is activated at just the right moment, a plucky slave girl throws herself in front of the Big Bad's mighty sword stroke that would ordinarily cleave the hero in twain; stuff like that.
The name comes from an essay called "On Thud and Blunder" written in 1978 by Science Fiction/fantasy author Poul Anderson, a play on "Blood and Thunder," one of the nicknames of the Sword & Sorcery genre. He did not use it in a complimentary way, but it has since then come to be adopted as a vaguely affectionate term when used by people who acknowledge the shortfalls of the type but still enjoy it, while remaining a completely derogatory term to those who dislike the type.
Hallmarks of the Thud-and-Blunder story include sacrificing characterization and dialogue in favor of a roller-coaster plot and extremely Purple Prose; Anachronism Stew by the gallon; and lots and lots of Rule of Cool. It looks substantial but is mostly fluff; it can be fun, but it is not satisfying for very long; and it tends to be a polarizing thing.
The hero of a Thud-and-Blunder story is not an intellectual. He may be quite intelligent, but he prefers to take the simple way through any problem, thus his solution to most situations is:
- Hit it with his mighty sword or other huge implement of destruction (an axe, hammer, or club).
- Ride it down under the trampling hooves of his great steel-shod warhorse.
- Kill it some other way.
He will almost always be a Barbarian Hero and everything he does is Rated M for Manly; he is always Made of Iron, while his opponents tend to all be Made of Plasticine; all his battles are incredibly one-sided, unless his capture is necessary to advance the plot. His clothing is virtually always a loincloth.
The Big Bad is most often an Evil Overlord or Evil Sorcerer, or the two combined into one, the Sorcerous Overlord. The priests of a Religion of Evil are also a popular choice. For a change of scene, the villain may be a villainess: a Dragon Lady, a Vain Sorceress or or an an evil Queen or Empress.
In terms of secondary and minor characters, expect to find at least one Distressed Damsel, plucky Beautiful Slave Girl, or Amazon wandering about. If the hero has a companion, he will most likely be a Loveable Rogue, a deposed prince, or an ex-gladiator or galley slave. You can also pretty much bet that an Artifact of Doom (or possibly, some Sealed Evil in a Can) of some sort will make an appearance. There will certainly be lots of Evil Minions running around for the hero to kill; the most common types are Elite Mooks or a Henchmen Race; there may also be a Praetorian Guard or giant mooks.
This can arguably be described as Flanderization or Lost in Imitation applied on a macro-scale to the Trope Codifier of Heroic Fantasy, Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories. Conan himself became a Fountain of Expies and the stories were continued after the author's death by many other authors, retrofitted into a chronological timeline, etc. This was even enforced by the rights holder for decades, L. Sprague de Camp, who dismissed the idea of the original stories having any meaningful themes and literary merit while rewriting the texts, keeping the unedited versions buried and writing new stories himself purely for entertainment and money.note Many post-Howard Conan stories are Thud and Blunder done decently, and The Eye of Argon is an excellent example of Thud and Blunder done So Bad, It's Good.
- Averted in Berserk. Guts is a Barbarian Hero who can eat monsters and small armies for breakfast, and can take punishment that would kill other humans many times over, but he is probably never going to defeat the Big Bad or gain any real redemption, because causality says otherwise.
- Fist of the North Star is the post-apocalyptic martial arts version of this, with a heavily-muscled, frequently shirtless hero Walking the Earth and making mooks explode by the gallon of blood.
- Red Sonja: Takes what she wants and hacks it pieces if she can't have it. Also something about revenge, possibly.
- The Warlord is a Planetary Romance about an Air Force officer who crashes into a Hollow World where he becomes its greatest hero largely through his prowess with the sword.
- The comic Groo the Wanderer parodies the Thud-and-Blunder genre unmercifully. Groo himself is not only not an intellectual, he's flat-out stupid.
- Depending on how you look at it, either subverted, averted, or deconstructed in "Planet Hulk", seeing as every time he just goes and smashes things it actually ends up being kind of pointless, even when he's no worse than where he was — whereas when he acts intelligently, or works to save people without killing, things go really well.
- A lot of 1970s' The Mighty Thor comics, to boot.
- Spawn: The Satan Saga Wars arc is this. Hell, one of the issues doesn't even have text, being made entirely of fights!
- The Swedish gaming-mag comic strip Birger Barbaren also parodies the genre, but in the opposite way from Groo. The eponymous main character — you cannot call him a hero — is a selfish, lecherous, beer-loving fat slob of a barbarian warrior, who also happens to be really smart in crude, tricksterish way.
- While the first Conan the Barbarian film is an aversion, since director John Milius and writer Oliver Stone injected their own brand of philosophy (albeit opposite to Howard's themes at times), the sequel Conan the Destroyer is pure beefcake fluff. Just like the books, the success of the first film inspired a boom of derivative films without the depth.
- Deathstalker, in particular the first and fourth installments. The third... sorta-kinda. Part II? Naaah.
- The Scorpion King starring Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson has it all: a villainous sorcerer (who turns out to be a sorceress, and who pulls a heel/face turn); an evil Emperor; not one, but two lovable rogue sidekicks; an elite mook; and a final Deus ex Machina to save the day.
- The Beastmaster is another Thud and Blunder flick, from the loinclothed hero down to the Evil Sorcerer antagonist. The hero's various animal companions have more charisma and, in the case of his weasel rogue duo, more intelligence than the hero.
- The Barbarians: not one but two muscular, action packed, barbarian heroes, with swords fights and magic aplenty.
- Joel, Mike, and the bots were subjected to more than a few of these films. Cave Dwellers is a prime example; its high point (in a narrative sense, and arguably in terms of entertainment value) involves the hero staging an aerial bombing raid from a prehistoric hang-glider. To the film's credit, it at least tries to have its characters think their way out of some situations, but when this is the result...
- Many literary expansions of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, written and published after his death as detailed above, and often with the newer writers trying to imitate his style but barely the substance. The actual original stories always tried to avoid this, like with a running subtext of the fundamental clash of civilization vs barbarism, and only rarely failed at it.
- Many stories starring barbarian or warrior heroes derivative of Conan, written after the Conan books became a hit in the 1960s under L. Sprague de Camp's supervision, fall under this. Such characters include Thongor, Kothar, Lankar, and Brak. Who? Exactly.
- The Eye of Argon is widely regarded as the absolute nadir of the genre, with all the elements of this trope amplified beyond any literary sanity. This doesn't keep it from being entertaining in its own right, though.
- The Blade of the Poisoner by Douglas Hill (perhaps better known for The ColSec Trilogy) is a relatively family-friendly example of this genre. Mind you, the word "relatively" is doing a lot of work here: the plot kicks off when the obligatory sadistic, Stupid Evil Overlord uses the titular object to carve his initial into the main character's chest, dooming him to a slow death rather than, say, lopping his head off with it and going home for lunch. By the time the heroes have to cross the overlord's Garden of Evil in order to Storm the Proverbial Castle, one starts to wonder whether Mr. Hill intended for the book to be sold alongside a set of Low Fantasy Bingo Sheets.
- Also, the overlord's name is Mephtik; one less vowel, and he could have been a character in The Eye of Argon (see above).
- To be fair, Poisoner does subvert some of the expectations of the genre. For example, the kindest, most level-headed of the heroes is also the one who best fits the term "barbarian," and although the overlord's inevitable deal with a demon does end badly, it's not in the usual way.
- Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, one of the Books on Trope, discusses some of the Thud and Blunder tropes as well as things found in other fantasy genres. In particular, barbarians and evil overlords make several appearances.
- The Baldur's Gate novelisations by Philip Athans reduce the original story to Thud and Blunder as much as they can, sacrificing plot in favor of action and actual action in favor of gorn.
- Harry Dresden likes to blow off steam by playing this type of character in Billy and the Alphas' tabletop gaming sessions. The word "thews" comes up a lot, and his character's catchphrase is "Enough talk!"
- Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde from the Discworld series are best described as an Affectionate Deconstructive Parody of the trope, the deconstructive elements being most prominent in The Last Hero.
- Andrzej Sapkowski's essay "Pirog, Or There Is No Gold In The Gray Mountains" wittily deconstructs a lot of the tropes of the genre, while acknowledging, tongue in cheek, if quite condescending, AS' own, often also deconstructive use of them. Though Sapkopwski's preferred genre of Low Fantasy virtually ensures that any use of them will be a deconstruction by default.
- In Tabletop RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons, campaigns that focus heavily on Dungeon Crawling tend to have a Thud-and-Blunder feel, as whatever plot exists is mostly an excuse to kill things and take their stuff.
- Barbarians Of Lemuria actually aims for a style of play emulating Thud and Blunder stories, with fast-paced game mechanics, and things like heroism Points enabling the players to pull a Deus ex Machina during play.
- The swordsman Yeagar in the webcomic Nodwick is pretty much a typical thud-and-blunder fighter. The only real difference is that he tends to hit things with Nodwick at least as often as he does with his sword. The series itself is somewhat of an aversion of this trope — while Yeagar himself is an idiot content to approach any problem with violence, it rarely actually has much of an impact on the plot (and often makes things worse); actually resolving anything significant pretty much always hinges on (in order of frequency) Nodwick's common sense, Artax's intelligence, or Piffany's general good nature. Yeagar's job is more to keep the others alive long enough to use their various traits while they rescue him from his attempts to keep them alive.
- Darths & Droids has a lot of fun with this view on Star Wars:
Palpatine: Do not trust anything he may say.
Obi-Wan: Oh, don't worry. We're good at ignoring things opponents are trying to tell us during fights.
- American Barbarian is a nice homage to the genre, complete with a Jack Kirby-esque art style.