So, a couple of nights ago I got into a discussion with my friends (the non-imaginary sort – yes, I have those) about what is the difference between Epic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. However, as the argument progressed, so did our enjoyment of various substances – liquid and the other kind, and sadly we never really made it to a conclusion. A satisfying one at least.
I mean, we determined that we can definitely tell those two apart. That, when encountered with a book, after turning it around a couple of times and leafing through the pages, we could with some amount of accuracy say “Yup! That’s Epic Fantasy, alright. I’d know it anywhere”. Or S&S. You get the point.
Surprisingly, the following morning that question still resounded in my mind – with a raging hangover to keep it company. The issue had not faded into that foggy, or smoky, oblivion along with 70% of the conversation from the night before.
Actually, this isn’t that surprising since this is the geek version of the “chicken or the egg” dilemma. The dividing lines between fantasy subgenres are a topic of much debate. When discussing whether or not A Song of Ice and Fire should be considered grimdark, passions run high, tempers flare and, sometimes, keyboards get smashed.
With that in mind, I shall not attempt to give a complete analysis of the dichotomy between Epic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery. Nor shall I try to list and categorize authors and their works in their respective slots. Well, I will a bit – but only for demonstrative purposes.
I am only stating my opinion. (And by that I mean that I am absolutely and unequivocally right.)
Swords and Magic Everywhere!
Some things are definitely not the dividing points between EF and S&S. That is to say, a book doesn’t belong to Sword and Sorcery just because its characters poke each other with their swords or fling sorcery about.
Sure, Elric of Melnibone has a sword and he can sorcerer here and there if needed. But that is not the reason why his saga is considered S&S. For that matter, Aragorn has a sword too and sorcery exists in Middle Earth. But The Lord of the Rings belongs on the Epic Fantasy bookshelf. And yet, we clearly feel that there is a categorical difference between Moorcock and Tolkien.
Snooping about on the internet, I found that some “authorities” on matters fantastic and fictional. And they claim that the difference between the two sub-genres relates to their respective differences in the numbers of pages and characters. Epic Fantasy supposedly has more than Sword and Sorcery. This is clearly wrong for at least two reasons. Firstly, we are talking about qualitative, not quantitative differences. Secondly, it is simply empirically untrue.
Nine Princes in Amber – book one of The Chronicles of Amber, has around 150 pages and you will still have digits to spare if you name each of your fingers and toes after a character. But that series is definitely Epic Fantasy.
Also, the difference does not reside in whether or not there is a moral polarization between the characters. Supposedly, characters in S&S tend to be morally ambiguous. Meanwhile, in EF you have a clear demarcation between the heroes and the villains.
Think of Boromir – he was power hungry and egotistical, but he was one of the good guys. Even Gollum was partially redeemable. (And the clever basement-dweller that thinks to point to the spilt personality, and say that Smeagol was good, while Gollum was evil, will prove only that he doesn’t understand how psychology or ethics work.)
Tall Stories and Short Friction
To make matters more confusing, within the fantasy genre there is a split between High Fantasy and Low Fantasy. Sometimes, you will find places that claim that the term EF is completely synonymous and interchangeable with High Fantasy.
If you search for Epic Fantasy on Wikipedia, you will be redirected to HF. (One of the many flaws of that great online well of knowledge…) So, it is easy to make the mistake of equating than S&S with Low Fantasy.
And why is all this wrong? Well because the HF/LF refers to an “amount” of fantasy that some work contains. Like, how different is the setting in the book from our own world. Are we talking about a completely made up world? Does it have a cyclical Age system, the One Power, Myrddraal and so on? Or, are we talking about a specky kid, with a funny scar and a magic stick, who talks to snakes in the London Zoo?
Nah, this dichotomy has nothing to do with what we are looking for. But this next thing might!
Just how Epic is Fantasy?
Some of those “authorities” claim that Epic Fantasy takes its name from an ancient tradition in poetry. Stuff like The Iliad or The Odyssey. But to anyone actually acquainted with those books, it is apparent that the “epic” in Epic Fantasy is not the same as in epic poetry. And I am not just talking about it being an uppercase E.
When we say that a book belongs in Epic Fantasy, it’s like when someone asks us what was the party like the night before and we reply: “Epic!” There is a certain weight to this word that makes the difference. It has gravity.
So, the real difference between EF and S&S lies in the scope of the storyline. It is a battle between Good and Evil – Chaos and Order, and the fate of that world is at stake. Again, it doesn’t have to be morally polarized. It could be a clash of certain archetypes, of gods – and none of those involved needs to be good or evil, in the traditional sense.
In The Wheel of Time, the battle between light and dark is not just a matter of nomenclature. If the Dark One breaks free, and the Last Battle is lost, a lot more is going to happen than the re-structuring of that worlds upper and middle management. Rand-land would be first undone, then made again according to Shai’tan’s design.
Oppositely, Sword and Sorcery is more about the wyrd of the main character/s. The stakes are smaller metaphysically speaking. What Conan does as king of Aquilonia certainly has an impact on the whole of Hyperborea, but it’s not Good versus Evil.
If anything, it’s S&S that reminds me more of Homer’s works. A bunch of humans fights each other over money and women, the supernatural elements stir things up and meddle over their own mini power struggles and what-nots. But at the end of the day, the world is pretty much the same. Minus a nation and several thousand people. It is fun, it is gritty, it has magic and sharp metal weapons, heroes that we favour – and that’s it, the world doesn’t end.
You know, I often wonder if both sub-genres are outdated now. I mean Fantasy itself is thriving and it’s impossible to keep up as a reader. You have amazing writers today – people like Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch, to name a few, who are literally reinventing the genre. However, both EF and S&S seem to be a bit past their prime.
This is understandable since it is difficult to follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, Zelazny or Jordan. It’s not easy to surprise and thrill the audience with an original story about the Doom of a new and unique world. Or, on the other hand, to create heroes that are as cool, or cooler, than Conan of Cimmeria or Elric of Melnibone.
Besides, this whole labeling thing is an exercise in futility since I am sure that most of you will disagree with what I have written here. However, you will all be wrong because I am completely right.