Sharp Pointy Things 3: Now with More Slashing

Here we are, back with more swords and even more mayhem. In my first Sharp Pointy Things post, you might recall that I flippantly raised the question about the over-prevalence of swords in fantasy fiction. And then I just as flippantly dismissed the question for another time. Well, guess what? That time is now.

Why swords?

Every time I write a character with a sword, I almost feel compelled to apologize for a lack of creativity. Almost. I can’t speak for all fantasy writers, but I can speak for myself, and it’s from my own perspective that I’m going to approach today’s blog post.

I choose swords for a couple reasons which I’ll explore one at a time in an almost orderly fashion. The first reason is that I have a working idea about how to use them. Writing fight scenes is difficult for most people, and I’ll include myself in that group. As a writer, you want to convey to your audience the sense of being in the fight, and that’s the crux of the problem because for those who’ve ever been in a fight, it’s hard to convey to another person what it’s like and still leave them convinced that they experienced it. Some people self-detach in a fight. Some people honestly blank out. Others become hyper aware of everything around and inside them to a degree that cannot be transliterated as realistic.

Now add a tool into that fight and convince your reader that the tool is being used in a believable way.

Yeah. That’s hard to do.

I understand swords. True, I could probably extrapolate from my understanding and apply it to other melee weapons, and I will when my main characters fight somebody who doesn’t have a sword. But when I’m delving into my character’s head and my thoughts are moving her muscles, I need to know what the heck I’m doing. Other writers operate differently, and this might make them better and more effective writers than I since they can engage with a weapon they’ve never held. But often as not, they don’t engage successfully. Look, it behooves me nothing to be a jerk and name names or point fingers. However, I will say that I’ve read some ridiculous stuff involving swords. Everything from swords are useless as weapons (huh . . . what?) to the prevalence of weapons that weigh so much the hero might as well be swinging around an Olympic barbell. I don’t want to contribute to the confusion any more than I might already do so, which means I stick to swords.

Ok. That’s my practical reason. My other reason is historical. In our world, swords have held a place in the psyche of not just Western Europe, but of other cultures. They are a symbol of the warrior elite, even when non-elite soldiers wielded the weapon. Swords were integral to a knighting ceremony and were imbued with religious significance. A knight may well fight with a mace, but he maintained his sword. Or what about the samurai whose bond with his sword was linked to his soul? These ideas have been instilled in us as fantasy readers because their roots stretch down into real soil. When I write about swords, I’m writing about a weapon that already resonates with my audience.

One of my series of stories follows various family members linked to a sword that speaks to the one who wields the blade. Could I have made it, let us say, an ax? Of course. But the sword comes with a history stamped into our awareness and it brings a gravitas that an ax or a mace would not (if that sentence just made you spit fire from your eyes, please keep reading and I’ll elaborate. But first grab a fire extinguisher before your house burns down–I will not be responsible for that).

Yeah . . . so, that’s some lazy writing then, isn’t it, Melion? A real writer would impart that mythos to a different weapon.

Possibly, yes. But simply peeling the history and cultural significance off the sword and overlaying it upon a battle ax doesn’t necessarily make for creative writing. All I’d have done is pretended the history of the sword was really the history of the battle ax.

Nobody will be the wiser.

Which means that if my goal is to bring a can of creative whoop-a**, then I need to strip away all that the sword is and reconstruct it. So I want the ax to be the weapon of choice for my elite warriors? Cool. Why would it have developed in that cultural role? Is it a world that doesn’t have swords and the ax filled that void? Then there’s the other practical consideration that in our world, the ax does have cultural significance.  Rome adopted the Etruscan symbology of the fasces–a bundle of rods surrounding an ax–as a symbol of power and authority. The Norse, the Chinese, the Incas, and many others all attached great significance to the ax. Those of your shooting fire from your eyes can now relax–I’ve addressed the problem.

So why am I bringing this up? Am I just trying to make everything a frustrating mess? Of course not–chaos is just a side benefit, not the end game. What I’m trying to say is that you, as the author, could have a weapon that isn’t a sword, but that is a military tool which represents power, authority and rank among a martial elite class. You can do this, and not have the weapon be the sword with the serial number filed off.

All right then, why don’t I do that since I’ve got some basic awareness of cultural significance for other weapons?

Truth is, I might. Should I find the time to work with another weapon and get a feel for how it would be wielded, I’m sure I’d give some love to something that isn’t the sword (shh! my swords don’t know I’m contemplating cheating! I haven’t talked to them about open relationships yet). However, I have a personal reason for wanting to prominently feature swords as my weapon of choice and that reason ties back to the practical reason. I’m tired of the sword being misunderstood. Everybody who studies physics, raise your hand. Ok, uh, you right there. Do you get tired of science being mangled in the supposedly “hard” scifi? Yep, I see you nodding.

That’s how it is for me. I wouldn’t know the mangling of physics if it leaped off the page, bit my face and constantly paddled me with a Planck (yes, I’m ashamed of that pun; no, I will not apologize). Yet those who understand the way such things work get frustrated when people disregard the reality. It comes down to truth, in a way. We all want to defend what we know is true, no matter how absurd the fight. I want to defend the use, and usefulness, of swords.

So, I’ve now worked in some memes and a terrible pun. I’m guessing that means I’m about to have my keyboard yanked away from me. I hope this has been a helpful discussion on why I keep writing swords and why I also think there’s room for other weapons. Hopefully, too, I’ve brought some understanding to how swords function and why it’s important to understand the proper function in order to add depth to your writing.

Want to continue this conversation? Hit me up with questions or comments. But don’t burn down my house with your flame-shooting eyes–I wouldn’t want any harm to come to my precious swords.

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