Question of the Week: Sword & Sorcery vs. Epic

Do you prefer sweeping tales of nations, monarchs, and world-threatening dangers? Or would you rather travel with a pair of scoundrels looking out for themselves?

There’s a lot of middle ground between epic fantasy and sword & sorcery, but the poles make a clear distinction between the ideals.

Does sword & sorcery always have to be gritty? Is it more likely than epic fantasy to be humorous? Is epic fantasy more like a movie and sword and sorcery more like a TV series?

What are your thoughts on the difference between these two popular subgenres of fantasy?

13 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Sword & Sorcery vs. Epic

  1. Quite simply, both. As long as it is fantasy and the writing is at least good (don’t worry Dave, you fall into the excellent variety), I usually enjoy it. The only characters I don’t really enjoy are antiheroes with no redeemable qualities.

  2. I think these two subgenres overlap more often than not, in large part because their defining characteristics are not only entirely independent of one another, but they also play well together.

    Epic fantasy is a reference to scope. The plot revolves around more than the fate of the main characters, and has wide-reaching, if not worldwide influence. Such sweeping scope and severity of stakes can lead to melodrama and taking itself too seriously, but there’s nothing that says that has to be the case. There is plenty of room for humor and light moments in an epic.

    Sword and Sorcery is a flavor that sets more of a period and a technology. It’s generally medieval, or at least a time period when the sword is the symbol of martial prowess. It’s combined with elements of overt magic, which often takes the form of a wizard as either an adversary or a companion to the main character (usually the main character is more of the “sword” variety, though not always). Sword and sorcery as a genre implies that both will be used, not just that they are appropriate to the world; you can expect sword fights and magical duels, and generally a fair amount of action. I think grittiness is better fit to lower magic worlds, where the glitz and flash-bang of magic takes a back seat to swords in the gut as far as the action goes.

  3. It is an interesting question. And in fairness I like both kinds for different reasons.

    The epic fantasy typically has more than one or two protagonists so the opportunity for humour is much easier to accomplish. With additional characters the chances of them all surviving is less likely, especially characters that you may really like (curse you George RR Martin!). But when the consequences of failure and success have wide spread effect it does make for an interesting read.

    Sword and sorcery isn’t by itself more grittier, but because there are few characters trying to achieve their goals (which may be survival) it tends to seem that way. As the viewpoint now focuses more on 1 or 2 characters, more detail can be used that in a sense is hand-waved in epic. Characters need to make money in order to eat, sleep, buy equipment, etc. So whether they have real jobs, steal, beg, they are doing something to get by (it does help if they are rich, but then why are they out adventuring?). Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber are a good example of the genre.

    One of my favourites is a blend of both genres, there is an larger threat to the city, kingdom, empire that one or two main characters work at discovering a solution. (like a lot of L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Recluse series).

    Whether the work is humourous really depends more on the characters and the writing style. It works better in epic fantasy, as you have more characters to work with. If your pair of gritty sword and sorcery are both humourless and grim it is difficult to work in humour and make it believable.

  4. I see S&S as a sub-genre of Epic Fantasy (which is itself a sub-genre of Fantasy). Yet the two sub-genres are next exclusive. EF often has S&S elements in it, and S&S often has EF elements. The other factor is that nobody can define quantitatively what constitutes (precisely) either sub-genre. Opinions vary from reader to reader, writer to writer. In the end, a good story is a good story. )

  5. I enjoy an epic as much as the next guy, but I’ve always been more partial to sword & sorcery and the way it gets down to the personal level of the characters involved.

    • I appreciate all these comments. For now I’m not weighing in not because I don’t have an opinion but because I don’t want to direct the conversation in any particular direction. Please feel free to argue with the others if you like. 🙂

  6. If it’s a question of what I like to read, I have to say both. If it’s a question of what I write, I have to say S&S. I feel the focus is more personal, and as a writer I’m more comfortable with that. Like John, though, I see S&S as a sub-genre of Epic, so the two really aren’t mutually exclusive.

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