When “The Shadow Kingdom” by Robert E. Howard appeared in the pages of Weird Tales, no one would have guessed that it would continue to provide inspiration for fantasy authors for ninety years and counting. This remarkable story is often pointed to as the beginning of the sword and sorcery genre, although this opinion is not unanimous.
Is it truly the first sword and sorcery story? To answer that question, we must first state what we mean by “sword and sorcery.” Defining genres is always tricky, so I’ll put it in basic terms: it’s a genre of fiction that combines swashbuckling action and adventure with supernatural elements (often of the horrific variety). Michael Moorcock once called it “Captain Blood meets Cthulhu,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe it than that.
In “The Shadow Kingdom,” Kull, King of Valusia, learns that serpent-men with the power to mimic the appearance of true men have infiltrated his court. They plan to replace Valusian officials (including Kull himself) with impostors of their own kind. Kull doesn’t know who he can trust, and the unfolding tale is one of intrigue, suspicion, and violent action.
One story predating the publication of “The Shadow Kingdom” that some would argue is the origin of sword and sorcery is “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth,” by Lord Dunsany. It first appeared in 1908 in Dunsany’s collection The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories. This is the tale of Leothric, who acquires the magic sword Sacnoth in his quest to put an end to the evil wizard Gaznak. On the surface it has all the trappings of the genre, but in my mind it lacks one crucial ingredient in the recipe for sword and sorcery: the element of danger.
While he wields Sacnoth, nothing poses a serious threat to Leothric. Just from reading the title of the story, you know what will happen. And not just the title, either—“The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” is the full and proper name of the Gaznak’s stronghold!
With Sacnoth in hand, Leothric hews and hacks his way through every obstacle in front of him. Although the size of the fortress is immense, he doesn’t bother exploring it, he just walks in a straight line until he ends up in Gaznak’s chamber. This is in sharp contrast to many sword and sorcery stories that take place in labyrinths or vast subterranean complexes. For example, in “The Shadow Kingdom,” Kull must warily make his way through the winding secret passages of his castle.
Almost every inhabitant of the fortress, man and monster alike, flees at the sight of Sacnoth. Needless to say, when Leothric faces Gaznak, the conclusion is inevitable (although Gaznak’s combat tactics, and the way Leothric counters them, are very imaginative). Again, this is very different from “The Shadow Kingdom,” where Kull is challenged by numerous assassins, and if not for his battle prowess and mighty thews, his life would be forfeit.
What of Sacnoth, the incredible weapon that allows Leothric to perform such great feats? Sacnoth is a strip of steel contained in the spine of Tharagavverug, a dragon-crocodile made of iron, steel, bronze and lead. The beast cannot die by any means other than starvation. So our hero prevents Tharagavverug from feeding on the villagers, and only needs a stick to do it:
In short, Leothric won the mightiest sword on Earth by poking Tharagavverug in the nose for three days until he starved to death. You’d be hard pressed to come up with a less epic way to kill a dragon than that.
Part of what makes sword and sorcery fiction exciting is the visceral thrill of mortal danger. While I don’t think having a more whimsical, lighthearted tone should be grounds for disqualification from the genre (that would probably exclude some of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser tales), neither should we hold up such a story as the exemplar of S&S. Furthermore, I believe bestowing the title of “first S&S story” on “The Fortress Unvanquishable” actually does Dunsany’s tale a disservice. I know I was severely disappointed the first time I read it, due to distorted expectations. After multiple re-reads I’ve come to enjoy it greatly for the fantastic imagery and prose. If you’ve never read it, I recommend doing so. Just don’t try to compare it to the works of Howard.
“The Shadow Kingdom” appears in Kull: Exile of Atlantis and The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1: Crimson Shadows. “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” can be found in Lin Carter's Simrana Cycle and The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories.