Sword-and-sorcery continues to show stirrings, and life. Outlets like Tales from the Magician’s Skull, DMR Books, new projects like Whetstone, New Edge, etc., are publishing new authors and new stories that embrace its old forms and conventions. Obviously the genre ain’t what it used to be circa 1970, but who knows what the future may hold for us aging diehards.
I speculate on some of the reasons why S&S died off in Flame and Crimson (which, by the way, just surpassed 100 ratings on Amazon—thank you to everyone who took the time to rate or review the book, as these help with visibility in some arcane, Amazon protected manner). I won’t rehash them all here, they are available in the book.
What I haven’t written as much about is why Grimdark filled the void, what makes that genre popular with modern readers, and what we might have to learn from this transition.
First, I am of the opinion that Grimdark is the spiritual successor to S&S. One of them, at least. I agree with the main thrust of this article by John Fultz. S&S has many spiritual successors, from heavy metal bands to video games to Dungeons and Dragons. But in terms of literature, the works of Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, and George R.R. Martin, bear some of the hallmarks of S&S, while also being something markedly different.
I believe this occurred as part of a natural evolution within S&S, with some things gained, others lost. As occurs during the general course of all progress.
First, I think this shift mirrored a broader cultural change. If we accept that Grimdark is marked by graphic depictions of violence, as well as a bleak/everyone is shit/might is right outlook (grossly simplified), then we can see what was acceptable in the 1950s-early 70s was different than what we saw in the popular culture in the 1990s and into today. Heavy metal was born in 1970 with the gloom and doom of Black Sabbath, before Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, then Metallica and Megadeth and Slayer, took the form to 11, giving the hard rock of the late 60s/early 70s a much harder, darker, aggressive edge. Popular westerns went from the tough but heroic John Wayne to the spaghettis of Clint Eastwood, reaching a culmination in Unforgiven that essentially deconstructed the genre and cast the “hero” in a very different light. War films gave us Platoon instead of The Longest Day. Frank depictions of sexuality also became acceptable. Essentially “the culture” decided this shift, artists and directors and musicians needed to break norms and explore new territories to keep their visions fresh and original. It’s a natural process, the way art always evolves. But things are lost, old forms abandoned along the way. S&S was a casualty.
I also think the ascendance of Grimdark mirrored a change in publishing trends. Grimdark borrowed from high/epic fantasy in form and length, and with its emphasis on world-building. This aspect is less appealing to me, for the most part (I love Tolkien, but I think very few if any authors have done the world-building aspect of Tolkien as well). But it seems many fantasy readers love getting lost in worlds and so gravitate toward multi-volume series. I won’t argue with that impulse, though I think a really good writer can accomplish that with few words and deft sketches of detail. Trilogies and stretched-out stories offer a far more reliable and lucrative business model for publishers and authors. But less cynically they also allow for greater character development, a thought which struck me during a recent read of Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself (Glokta and Logen Ninefingers and Jezal all feel very real, and three-dimensional, as we consistently read/hear what they are thinking). Again, some like this aspect of fiction, some don’t. S&S can do this, and has, albeit across multiple stories (see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), but it’s not a typical hallmark of the subgenre. But readers seem to want that, hence our fascination with origin stories, identification with characters "like us" rather than larger-than-life or abstract heroes, etc.
The general cultural trend of amplified violence and post-Vietnam war-weariness led to grittier literary material like David Gemmell’s Legend and Glen Cook’s The Black Company. Before Martin gave it full life with A Game of Thrones and his multivolume A Song of Ice and Fire, and Joe Abercrombie picked up the torch with The First Law trilogy. And we have what we have today in Grimdark, a sort of mash-up of S&S and epic fantasy and other influences.
Grimdark’s ascendance doesn’t mean we can’t have S&S too, with its greater emphasis on the short form, wonder and weirdness, and less emphasis on world building and cast of characters stories. But whether it will become commercially viable again remains to be seen. Baen is about to give it a shot with its signing of Howard Andrew Jones, and Titan Books set to publish a new Conan novel.