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G. W. Thomas Presents


See the Difference?

Back in the 1970s Fantasy fans would argue about whether J. R. R. Tolkien’s style of “high fantasy” was better than the tales of Conan, “sword and sorcery” or “heroic fiction”. Are they the same thing? It didn’t seem that way back in 1974.

Today, with the film version of The Lord of the Rings I find myself asking this same question again. The trilogy of films by Peter Jackson is dark. Jackson was a horror director before attempting the classic fantasy series. What is so different about Frodo facing the Dark Lord and Conan defeating Thoth Amon?

Tolkien’s inspiration came from Icelandic mythology. Howard’s inspiration came from history. Both men created a fantasy world that is loved by fans. Middle Earth. Hyboria. Granted Tolkien went to much greater lengths, inventing languages and alphabets, lengthy histories. But Howard did not have the luxury of “playing” in his world. He was a Pulp writer. Writing paid the bills, while Tolkien had a university job.

When Gary Gygax invented Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970s, he largely created a fantasy realm where a player could meet Tolkien’s elves or Howard’s barbarians. The two types of fantasy became a compatible, if overly-generic, playing field. These two types of fantasy were married easily for role-playing. Nowadays, younger readers, who are also gamers, might not even realize that people used to argue about such things as “high” and “low” fantasy.

Last year I re-read The Lord of the Rings and more recently the original Conan stories. I have to admit there are similarities and differences. In most things they are very similar. They both have stalwart heroes, a vague history in the background, monsters, magic, both good and bad. Some creatures are very similar. The Watcher at the Lake that guards the Mines of Moria is a typical snaky Howard beast. The Balrog could easily be a demon faced down by Conan.

There are two big differences between the canons. One is the population of the world. In Hyboria humans live everywhere. Humans are supreme. The monsters are the last vestiges of pre-human races. Here, Howard is more Lovecraftian than Tolkien-esque. While in Middle Earth the humans are only one of several races, and certainly not top of the pile, though they do claim the earth at the end of the story. The Elves are leaving Middle Earth. The monsters are largely destroyed in the War of the Ring.

The biggest difference I noticed is one of perspective. A Conan story is the tale of an individual, a single sword-swinging dude on his way from barbarian to king. The camera—so to speak—is on Conan all the time. We might get a glimpse of the villains in the background occasionally but only for plot-sake.  Tolkien on the other hand is telling a grand, epic tale. He has several story lines with major characters. Aragorn has his tale, while the hobbits another, and Gandalf still another. Conan would seem a singular section of this tale if he were in it. It is as if we were comparing an individual portrait with a huge scenic mural. Are they the same? No, because of their scope.

So, to return to the original question: is The Lord of the Rings Sword & Sorcery? If S&S is defined as a Robert E. Howard-type story, I’d have to say no. The tales of Fafhrd &Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber tell of more than one person, but are still essentially a spotlight and would be Howard-esque. The Sword of Shannara, a LOTR pastiche, would not be S&S. The elements in “High” fantasy and S&S are pretty much the same. The intent behind them differs. Tolkien wanted to create a new mythology, while Howard just wanted to entertain without an agenda of any kind. Both writers created wonderful stories for fantasy readers, but the canvas on which they worked differs too greatly to make their works the same thing.

Sword & Sorcery author Jack Mackenzie writes in response:

I just read your article (IS THE LORD OF THE RINGS SWORD & SORCERY?) on the KINGS OF THE NIGHT website. I believe that the article's conclusion is essentially correct but I would go further to state that one of the big differences of the so-called "High" and "low" fantasy is found in the main character's intent.

Heroes in S&S are generally out for themselves. Their motives are more selfish and practical than those of characters in Tolkienesque fantasy. In Tolkien and in other fantasies of the same ilk, characters are usually part of a band who are dedicated to a higher ideal: saving the world from the evil wizards, or destroying the one ring before Sauran destroys Middle Earth.

Aragorn does not want to be king. He takes the crown when it is the only way to save the world. The Hobbits don't want riches, they just want to be left alone to be middle class English hobbits in a fairy-tale version of Sussex. They take the ring because they are called to a higher purpose.

Even Boromir, who wants to take the ring for himself, is only thinking about defending Minis Tirith against the dark forces. He would wield the power of the Dark Lord to help defend his country and make his insane daddy proud.

While an S&S hero may have a similar task before him, his motives are usually more selfish, less altruistic. Conan, or another S&S hero, wants to steal a treasure to make himself rich. Or he wants to rescue a girl so he can have sex with her (or have sex with her, then return her to her father, claim the reward and make himself rich) Or become king. Even characters like Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are usually out for themselves at the beginning of a tale. If they must save the world they have to be tricked into doing it, or have it be contingent upon getting what they want. "You can have the Jewel of Ages, but only if you stop Agon the Dark Headed from destroying the world with his dark beasties"

Even Moorcock's Elric, although he was out to save a kingdom, it was his kingdom, and he wanted it for himself. He wanted to kill his evil brother Yrkoon, not because he was so philosphically different, but because he stole his girlfriend and Elric wanted her back.

So, where would these S&S characters fit into Tolkien's tale? Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would, at best, probably hire themselves as mercenaries to Minis Tirith or to Theoden's army. If the action got too heavy they would be just as likely to cut out and find an inn somewhere.

Would Conan involve himself in the quest for the ring? Probably not. At best he would perhaps ally himself with Ghan Buri Ghan and his wild men. It's even possible that he would join up with Sauron's army of men. Perhaps he would feel that if he conquered Minas Tirith he could take the crown for himself.

If an S&S character were to pop up in LOTR, they would, at best, be uninterested in the noble quest and want to know what they could get out of it all for themselves, or they would openly ally themselves with Mordor in the hopes of opportunities for looting and pillage.

And how would the hobbits fare in a Conan tale? Ever wonder what hobbit kabobs taste like? How would Aragorn be received in Lankhmar? "Self rightous git! Gonna get us all into trouble, that one. Best if he got an arrow in the back whilst nobody was lookin'. You get my meaning?"

Even when D&D put the characters together, they did so with an S&S sensibility. Campaigns were rarely for the higher purpose of saving the world. The modus operandi of gamers was usually to find treasure, a motive that would be most familiar to readers of the Conan stories.

The two subsets of the fantasy genre, though they share many elements, are worlds apart in their basic philosophy as are, I suspect, those who prefer one over the other.