Swords: The Most Overused Trope in Fantasy

Think of your favorite fantasy hero. What is their weapon of choice? Look at the covers of those worn out, loved and yellow-paged fantasy books of your childhood. Can you guess my next question? What are they wielding? It’s not a flail, because anything with chains on it is evil.

It’s a sword. And it’s absolutely ridiculous.

 

 

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Please spare me, ghost of Frank Frazetta

 

I can hear the masses already chanting for my execution. “Heathen!” they would say from public forums. “How dare you ruin our collective childhoods! Swords are perfectly practical and the author knew exactly what weapon they would wield! Off with his head!”

Hell, the very genre that I myself write in is called Sword and Sorcery, so this may seem like a bit of a lip service and duplicity. Of course, if anybody has my read my book, they’ll understand that the Roman/Holy Roman roots of the Vexian Imperial Infantry infrequently wields their swords (except perhaps in the arenas) and prefers the peasant weaponry to conquer.

Swords are a trope. Why are they so frequented in fantasy and fiction? Weren’t they used for hundreds of years throughout history, marking them as the contemporary and utility weapon for the greater part of our documented history? Mr. Know It All, are you just trying to look for an argument? The answer to all of the above, except perhaps the latter, is no.

Swords were not used as frequently, if not hardly at all in history. They were in fact, what we consider sidearms to many, and only to be used in close quarters in medieval combat. And when I say close, I mean really close. Swords, even most axes, maces, and so forth were considered dueling weapons. And contrary to popular understanding, the blade of even a well-honed longsword/bastard sword/claymore would have a hard time hacking through even rusted chainmail. Why were swords used?

Because a sword, while it had less utility and created less damage than a Danish axe, or spiked mace, was a status symbol. They were far more difficult to smith and create, were easier to embellish and decorate, and were considered a lord’s weapon. Therefore the symbolism aspect makes a great deal of sense when considering their popularity in earlier fiction writing and mythology.

So what exactly should the fantasy heroes we write, read or watch wield, if not a sword? The easy answer: a spear.

 

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Truly? Are we back in the stone age? Shall I don my sabertooth loincloth now?

 

I know you’re thinking back to every reference to spears. Savage weapons, used by wicked barbarian tribes clad in animal skins who lust for your women. You’re thinking “We used to use those, before we invented fire! Why would our heroes need spears?”

This is in fact, not true at all. Variations of the spear, including the pike, were used commonly through to the early 18th century. Some were even used in the 19th century. Even when the muskets found themselves in circulation by every major European force, they still used pikeman to defend the riflemen and cannoneers in combat.

Spears were the staple weapon by soldiers, especially the peasants, commoners and non-royalty throughout our history. They had range, they were easy to use, and were preferred. Unless you were of royal blood and trained by a weapon master in the keep, a professional soldier and man at arms, if you were conscripted to fight then chances were that your weapon of choice would be a polearm. Not only were you effective against cavalry, even a duke with a longsword would have trouble cutting you in pieces if you had any idea how to use that halberd.

Roman Infantry, Assyrian Guard, African Tribes, Persian Infantry, Greek Hoplites, Swiss Pikeman, French Halberdiers, Norse Berserkers, you get the idea. Everybody used polearms. The variations of spears are almost endless: halberd, trident,  lance, bardiche, pike, javelin, pilum, bec de corbin, guisarme, billhook, glaive, partisan, ranseur, fouchard, voulge, boar spear, fangtian je, quinglong ji, ji (dagger-axe), naginata, yari, su-yari, naga-maki, kama-yari, etc. 

 

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Granted, fighting in a horse suit with a spear isn’t as cool

 

So when we are talking about fiction, mainly fantasy, it is quite the opposite of pragmatic for our heroine to be charging beyond The Wall with not but a bastard sword against a horde of undead flesh-eaters (The Wildlings figured it out, so why hasn’t the Night’s Watch?). More often than not, the underdog in fantasy is fighting a far more experienced force of antagonism, and usually has to learn how to fight in order to overcome said villain in the end. If you’re not a witcher with amazing (and inhuman) speed, wizardry isn’t an option, and the storm of war is on the horizon for your hero, then finding that really nifty, legendary sword is the least of your worries.

Fantasy is in fact, not a subjective format or genre of storytelling. It is deeply intertwined with our own history, religious mythology and the archetypes of our subconscious. Fantasy is based on a hyper-exaggerated version of the medieval era, with our own set of objective truths that are repeated with variation. This is why it is more niche than mainstream: people gravitate towards relevancy in storytelling. Hordes of people desire stories that make sense.

Swords are cool. They have a purpose, no doubt, and I certainly have a few really important ones in my own books. Let us just not forget, that while they are glorious, they are certainly not the weapons of war that we should obsessively gravitate towards.

 

 

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Good one. I have my warriors use mostly spears in my own fantasy (Pearseus) because I based it on ancient Greece and the phalanx. While researching the book, I pretty much reached the same conclusion as you. I do have Generals and high-ranking officers use swords, though, because it’s pretty much an archetype, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a great archetype and swords are fantastic (unless you’re being hacked to pieces by one, then it is likely not very pleasant). I found that addressing the elephant in the dust closet regarding their practicality in fantasy novels. Which for me, derives from reading Bernard Cornwell and his historical fiction, which is well based and researched in in actual medieval war knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

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