Loughborough University
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Revivifying the Ur-text: a reconstruction of sword-&-sorcery as a literary form

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posted on 2018-12-03, 16:41 authored by Philip Emery
From the early 1980s until the late 1990s the genre or sub-genre known as sword-&-sorcery was largely moribund. The Tolkien-derived high fantasy novel, on the other hand, flourished and mutated into six, eight, ten volume, or open-ended series. Even though the terms high fantasy and sword-&-sorcery are sometimes used interchangeably, sword-&-sorcery came to be viewed as an inferior, cruder form: rougher in style, more limited structurally, stunted in terms of character development, even morally questionable (rather than ambiguous). Revivifying the Ur-text aims to investigate if it is possible to subvert the genre, to create a work that realizes the form s potential to exist as literature . In order to do this it attempts to both analyze and re-vision the form by rendering the genre down to its pristine elements - exemplified but not monopolized by the widely-acknowledged creator of the sword-&-sorcery form, Robert E. Howard. The critical areas of the thesis thus concentrate on Howard, but extend backwards to Beowulf as proto-sword-&-sorcery and forwards to contemporary fantasy writers such as Joe Abercrombie and Steve Erikson. It begins by constructing an account of the creation of the form by Howard, hypothesizing that the conditions for its genesis are a result of the writer s internal emotional and thought processes interacting with external circumstances. This is followed by a study of a set of highly influential anthologies published in the sixties edited by Lyon Sprague de Camp, interrogating de Camp s introductions as well as his selections, sub-categorizing these into the variations on the Howardian model which evolved in the wake of his 1920/30s work, work from which other writers developed a commonly perceived genre. From this the thesis proceeds to a consideration of related forms such as epic fantasy, science fantasy, and grimdark, prefaced by a survey and analysis of what sword-&-sorcery was/is perceived to be by commentators such as de Camp, Brian Attebery and Peter Nicholls. These sections are followed and augmented by a refocusing on Robert E. Howard. A consideration of the crucial relationship between violence and the numinous in his fantasy is central to this thesis. This is done both through research into published texts, mainly fictional but also non-fictional, and is discussed both generally and through in-depth case studies of two stories, attempting to identify the particular elements of his writing which contributed to the birth and definition of sword-&-sorcery in order to establish Howard s output as an Ur-text . The creative heart of this research is my sword-&-sorcery fiction, The Shadow Cycles. Here I have attempted to write a narrative in the form which innovates narrative techniques, modifying or abandoning the generic scaffolding of situations, and methods of characterization, and developing a style of language appropriate to my aim of revisioning Howard s Ur-text for the 21st century. This is followed by a concluding afterthesis which draws on all the preceding sections to explicate the relationship between the critical and creative elements of the thesis. As with earlier critical sections, these recruit a synthesis of literary history, influence studies, genre theory, narratology, and practical criticism. By so doing they touch on conceptions of the literary such as those of Bakhtin, Eagleton, Todorov, and Katherine Hume.



  • The Arts, English and Drama


  • English and Drama


© Philip Emery

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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