Why You Should Look Up Conan The Barbarian: Part I Sword & Sorcery

In the first part of this epic analysis of Conan the Barbarian, Brendon takes a look at what exactly Sword and Sorcery fantasy is.

When it comes to storytelling, there are so many sub-genres within a single genre. Take fantasy for example. We have Epic Fantasy like the Lord of The Rings series in which fantastical locales and creatures exist and sinister evil threatens the realm. Then, there are historical fantasies in which fantastical things take place in a historical time period. There is also heroic fantasy, where one hero is chosen to save the world (which, let’s be honest, is quite a familiar trope across the genre). Even fairy-tales like Rapunzel and what not are considered a sub-genre of fantasy.

Very often, Lord of the Rings author J.R.R Tolkien is considered the father of modern fantasy literature, but maybe that is a bit of a broad statement. Perhaps, it is better to say that he is the father of Epic Fantasy and that other sub-genres have their own definers who changed the nature of story-telling forever.

Many consider Robert E. Howard the father of Sword & Sorcery fantasy. But, what exactly is this subgenre? Well, we’ll briefly take a look at the difference between Epic and Sword & Sorcery tales down below.

Epic Fantasy Generally Focuses On Catastrophic World Events…

Firstly, epic fantasy usually involves tales of a much grander scale. Armies clash, nations collapse and the entire world is in immediate danger. The stakes are high and the heroes are grounded on the right side of the sword. It’s epic and large.

But where Epic Fantasy is about the nations and wars that shape the world, Sword & Sorcery is about the individual mercenary with his or her own stakes and agendas while these world-shaping wars happen in the background.

Sometimes, these characters have a hand to play in these world events, mostly unwillingly, but the stories feel more intimate to the character than to the world. It’s a different change of pace but when the action does happen, it is high and fast and sometimes a little extreme.


Conan the Barbarian 2011 (Source: Lionsgate)

…But, Sword & Sorcery Stories Generally Focus On One Character’s Tale (And They’re Not Always Good)

Often times, the protagonists of these stories are adventurers, mercenaries, thieves or just generally people that are considered to be morally grey to an extent. These are not heroes predestined to save the world. Those types of characters are doing something else in the background.

These stories focus on the souls who make their own destiny in blood and fortune. This isn’t to say that the genres haven’t blended over time. Not every Epic Fantasy has morally pure characters and more often than not, characters from Sword & Sorcery stories end up in those grand battles on a regular basis. However, when looking at the contrasts between the core of these two genres, one can see the differences.

3839363-conan-1-jmlConan the Barbarian, for example, only focuses on one character and his journey. Lord of The Rings or Game of Thrones focuses on many characters and how their stories intertwine. Another common trope of Sword & Sorcery is that magic is almost always bad and corrupts the body.

But as far as examples go, Conan The Barbarian is a perfect example of Sword & Sorcery. It’s fantasy storytelling but on a smaller scale and opts for a story about the individual opposed to a story of the world. Although the world is still fantastical, it’s not the focus.

These stories are very straight-forward, instead of elaborate schemes to take down an adversary, the characters just go and deal with the monster or evil wizard that is getting in their way. In many ways, The Witcher could be considered a Sword & Sorcery narrative, or it at least displays some elements of it.

Geralt is a monster hunter who has his own agenda. Although he gets caught up in world-changing events, he is, for the most part, adventuring and following through with his own personal goals, while everything else happens around him. (It will be interesting to see how Netflix portrays this in their adaptation.)

Well, there you go; the basic difference between Epic and Sword & Sorcery fantasy. In the next article, I will be discussing exactly what the world of Conan is all about and why it has gone down as one of the most brutal and interesting fantasy worlds in literature history. They don’t call him a Barbarian for nothing.