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Prominence of Swords in Fantasy Settings

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
I'm now glad that my stories take place in modern and futuristic settings. Guns are easier to work with. You can even grip them like an idiot, hold them sideways and still be relatively effective in short range. Perfect for the incompetent slackers who make up my protagonists.

As for why swords are so prominent? Besides everything mentioned prior, I also think a big chunk of the popularity comes from simple memetics. If something is prominent in a work, then those inspired by that work are likely to imitate it.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
I was just reading sections of Living the Research to my wife and writing partner and she almost fell out of her chair laughing.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
It helps that he's ambidextrous and a little over a thousand years old, so I'm cheating a bit. He tends to wield the sword in his right hand and the normal gun in his left hand. He also has a magical gun in Faerie Rising, but that only comes out on special occasions.
 

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
It helps that he's ambidextrous and a little over a thousand years old, so I'm cheating a bit. He tends to wield the sword in his right hand and the normal gun in his left hand. He also has a magical gun in Faerie Rising, but that only comes out on special occasions.
One of my MCs is carrying guns. They'll only see use twice in the story though, and at both times it's in situations where the technical details aren't really relevant to the story - because it's not that kind of story. :p
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
I just take the Tarantino approach to gun violence. Flashy and bloody with some nice camera angles. I'm again lucky that I put most of my stories in the future. Who's to say they don't have built-in gun stabilizers and other enhancements by then?

Gun research would just distract me from the important stuff. Writing food scenes.
 
The poet Auden had a perspective that matches mine. At least, once I read his I began to see the issue similarly:

The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed. If St. George meets the dragon face to face and plunges a spear into its heart, he may legitimately say “I slew the dragon,” but, if he drops a bomb on the dragon from an altitude of twenty thousand feet, though his intention — to slay it — is the same, his act consists in pressing a lever and it is the bomb, not St. George, that
does the killing.
[from "The Poet & The City"]

From the height of 10,000 feet, the earth appears to the human eye as it appears to the eye of the camera; that is to say, all history is reduced to nature. This has the salutary effect of making historical evils, like national divisions and political hatreds, seem absurd. I look down from an airplane upon a stretch of land which is obviously continuous. That, across it, marked by a tiny ridge or river or even by no topographical sign whatever, there should run a frontier, and that the human beings living on one side should hate or refuse to trade with or be forbidden to visit those on the other side, is instantaneously revealed to me as ridiculous. Unfortunately, I cannot have this revelation without simultaneously having the illusion that there are no historical values either. From the same height I cannot distinguish between an outcrop of rock and a Gothic cathedral, or between a happy family playing in a backyard and a flock of sheep, so that I am unable to feel any difference between dropping a bomb upon one or the other. If the effect of distance upon the observed and the observer were mutual, so that, as the objects on the ground shrank in size and lost their uniqueness, the observer in the airplane felt himself shrinking and becoming more and more generalized, we should either give up flying as too painful or create a heaven on earth. [from "Hic et Ille"]

Lots to unpack there, but for me the central theme is that swords are far more personal. The effects of every move are immediate and near. I think it's true that the bomber from the airplane (or from a further remote drone-operating station) can feel regret and unease and remorse—depending on the person; but even so, there's still some distance, some inherent safety in being able to strike while being very hard to strike in return. Isn't this why guns and bombs were invented, at least in part? The nearness of swordwork lends itself very well to the sorts of stories we write; I am tempted to say there is an analogue between the use of swords and the use of close third-person limited narration in many fantasy novels.

I think there's also a nostalgia involved, or a pseudo-nostalgia, insofar as advanced technology and related developments in our world have made so much of our world seem impersonal and even threatening beyond our ability to control what happens. As if we are the "family playing in a backyard" or a flock of sheep, and distant, unknowable threats are circling far overhead. Lately I've been wondering whether the fantasy genre is little more than this attempt to escape into a more...heh, manageable world, or at least give us that sense of possibility, as a reaction against the complex modern world.

Of course, guns are a bit more personal than bombs dropped from 10K feet, but not nearly as personal as swords.
 

Futhark

Inkling
I think Malik has the right of it. Swords were never tools, they were made to kill people. I think this is true of the six-shooters in westerns too. Rifles, as I understand it, are more accurate and reliable, but they evolved from hunting weapons, I think.

There is also the coolness aspect and the status of carrying a death dealer on your hip. Which is my second point. The sword was only rarely mass produced for the common rank and file, Roman Legionaries being the exception. It was a status symbol, a mark of rank that few could afford but many aspired to. From the stereotypical medieval knights to the samurai, the sword marked them as the elite. And of course the main character is special, so he needs a sword, right?
 
Well put. I have a character in Eve of Snows who “earns” a sword froma family (their ancestor earned it long ago by for fighting for the local lords) and they give it to him for saving their daughters. The next town he walks into, he finds people quite impressed to see a man carrying a sword. It’s old fashioned (for anyone who knows swords) but godsdamnit, it’s still a sword. The man earns respect, nd they find he’s asking questions about a guy that nobody likes! They’re right willing to talk, LOL.

But, a lot has to do with time period also, and culture.

I built a career on the fact that vast numbers of fantasy authors don't.

The sword does a thing that other weapons don't--and can't.

The sword is defined by its singularity of purpose. It's a tool for the taking of human life. Daggers, spears, axes, hammers, bows . . . they all have secondary roles. More to the point, they're tools that have been repurposed.

Swords kill people. Period. You don't hunt with it, you don't drive nails with it, you don't split wood with it, you don't eat with it in a pinch. If you carry a sword, you're carrying a prominent thing for the sole purpose of killing someone with it. Throughout history, that has spoken immense volumes: if you've trained with a sword, you're a trained killer. If you're carrying one, you're ready to kill someone at any moment. Just contemplate that for a moment. I think it gets lost in the trope quite a bit. It's not a thing to be taken lightly. For all of time immemorial, the hard and fast rule has been to stay the f*** away from someone carrying a sword. We never see this, of course, because it's the go-to for fantasy characters ("Oh, you have a sword? Cool! I have a sword! YAY SWORDS!") but when you really think about what a sword is, and what it does, and what it stands for, it gets kind of weird to think that everyone is carrying one all the time, everywhere. I mean, that's an awkward and ultimately untenable social construct, right there. Just my two cents.
 
The revolver was not purely for killing people. The revolver has a lot of utilitarian uses, a signal, or in herding cattle for instance, or even as a hammer... heh heh. Lots of old revolver butts will show signs of being used as a hammer.

The revolver in the old west and the sword are similar in one aspect, they’re side arms. That is key. The spear and its variants and the rifle are awkward in various situations. Comparisons: A (shorter) spear and carbine are both good horseback, a musket and heavy-bladed halberd, not so much.

Another point about swords is that not only were they designed to kill people, their design is extremely effective in defense and in relatively tight quarters! In later periods, the era of the rapier then small sword, they’re both status symbol and practical self defense that you can just hang from your hip. Much like the revolver in the old west. An axe can kill just fine, but defensively just doesn’t match up with the sword. Although offensively, the sword offers more options.
 
The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed..
Thanks for posting this. Relevant to a story idea that popped in my head today.

On Topic: I think fantasy stories, readers and writers, are on a quest for Agency. When bad things happen in the real world, those issues are not solved by the choices of one person. But in Fantasy, Climate Change can be solved by slaying Ice Zombies with what... MAGIC SWORDS!!

Magic is often the element that gives the protagonist agency. Like many Greek Heroes are Demi-God, and most Shakespeare heroes are Royal. Those are the elements that give them both the freedom to act, and what makes their choices matter to the universe. Now we don't believe in gods or kings like we used to, so now it is magic.
 
Thanks for posting this. Relevant to a story idea that popped in my head today.

On Topic: I think fantasy stories, readers and writers, are on a quest for Agency. When bad things happen in the real world, those issues are not solved by the choices of one person. But in Fantasy, Climate Change can be solved by slaying Ice Zombies with what... MAGIC SWORDS!!

Magic is often the element that gives the protagonist agency. Like many Greek Heroes are Demi-God, and most Shakespeare heroes are Royal. Those are the elements that give them both the freedom to act, and what makes their choices matter to the universe. Now we don't believe in gods or kings like we used to, so now it is magic.

Thanks for bringing magic into the discussion. I'd been pondering it since I posted my previous comment here. Also, I think you are right about the issue of Agency.

Sorry to mix metaphors, but magic is like a double-edged sword.

On one hand, the character possessing magic can gain Agency, or have the power to affect the world in significant ways.

But on the other hand, magic in fantasy can be used in an allegorical way to represent our modern world. I recently watched the new trailer for GoT S8, and the line Rob delivers about the enemy stands out: "Our enemy doesn't tire. Doesn't stop. Doesn't feel." The magic-created enemy is an impersonal, somewhat vague and distant threat..until it's not distant anymore, heh. This is like some politician in Washington D.C. or on the other side of the world, or some shadowy hacker collective, or hidden but moving terrorists lurking in the shadows doing things or planning things that will change the world for the worse. Magic can play that role very well in a novel, and perhaps readers will recognize the feeling of being threatened by those impersonal but powerful forces.

Swords—and probably more so, magical swords—may be a way to condense positive Agency into the hands of the characters, like giving them a lever on the power dynamics of whatever is happening in the fantasy world.

Now that I think of it, swords had this effect in our world too, hah. But then again, so have guns and bombs. This is becoming an even bigger issue now that the general public has greater access to guns and explosives, compared to when those technologies were first invented. These technologies may give the individual a sense of greater agency, and depending on the individual...well, you know our world.

Sometimes in discussions on various topics, we seem to begin an objective discussion relating our world to our fantasy worlds, to the point of discussing these things in the abstract and forgetting, I think, the interstice. The interstice is the literary use of these things. While I like crossing the bridges between the real and the fantasy in abstract thought, I'm leery of forgetting the bridge.

Bombs and guns can be effective in a story—just like offensive magic—although I do think swords and other melee weapons have the effect of adding/heightening stakes and agency for the characters while also allowing us as authors the opportunity to explore the "nearness effects" in various ways. We can slow down the fight; the fight's not decided with a single bullet, heh. We can explore the physical effects of the fight, insofar as swinging a sword in a hard-won fight is more exhausting than pulling a gun's trigger. We can explore the learning curve because wielding a sword effectively takes a lot more practice than being able to shoot a gun effectively. (However, I don't want to dismiss the positive effects of long training for marksmen!) We can have our character both receive and give many nicks, slices, punctures, close calls during a sword fight. We can have our characters seeing and displaying growls, grimaces, and the blood and sweat, up close, and reacting to all these things.

Offensive magic gets an easy pass from me, depending on how it's used. There may be some similar effects—the learning curve, the exhaustion or other negative physical reactions, even closeness if the magic wielder is inexperienced and his opponent is a master swordsman. I do think offensive magic has another thing going for it when compared to guns and bombs: Readers already know all about guns and bombs, but the effects, use, limits, etc. of magic may still be quite mysterious for the reader.
 

pmmg

Vala
Mr. Fifth, you are a well thought out individual.

Since I live right next to DC, it really does not seem all that distant to me. In fact, I have installed computers in both the White House and the Supreme Court at various times in my life (not quite the Congress yet) (oh, and the Pentagon too, I used to work there once), and pretty much our local news is national news. And I do at times walk around in DC with the thought that maybe DC will blow up today, a lot of people would like to... I suppose I wont have much agency then, but if it was to happen (and I survived), I could see getting my apocalypse gun out and providing some agency.

Swords are still cooler though. When I used to watch the show Walking Dead, it was bothersome to me that so many characters were not prepared properly. If you are gonna be in a zombie apocalypse, you should have three weapons, a rifle, a pistol and a melee weapon of some sort. I would have all three of those really quick. And no doubt, I want a sword. (BTW, one of those weapons was not a crossbow--Darryl. Unless stealth matters, your weapon is silly).
 
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Miles Lacey

Maester
Swords are associated with rank, status and honour which is why many armies still have swords as part of their ceremonial or formal uniform.

However only one word needs to be used when it comes to why swords are so popular in fantasy: Excalibur.

Need I say more?
 

AlexK2009

Dreamer
Why do you think that swords feature so prominently in most fantasy stories? Is it due to symbolism, historical significance, or something else?

As well as the phallic bit (latin for a sheath is 'vagina') Swords are like big knives and can be used like axes if need be. They are versatile tools. I understand they are not always effective against a staff. They can also be used like a crutch.

I would suggest it is because it is what readers expect. But why do so few fighters put poison on their swords?
 
Poison coated swords... probably lots of practical reasons, not the least of which is that poisons tend to act too slow for combat. In 1 on 1, the fight would be long over. In battle, it’s not going to be effective for long. And if you had, say, an extremely effective contact poison, the hell if you want to be carrying that around much... good way to x your eyes. Speed and practicality.

As well as the phallic bit (latin for a sheath is 'vagina') Swords are like big knives and can be used like axes if need be. They are versatile tools. I understand they are not always effective against a staff. They can also be used like a crutch.

I would suggest it is because it is what readers expect. But why do so few fighters put poison on their swords?
 

Insolent Lad

Maester
It helps that he's ambidextrous and a little over a thousand years old, so I'm cheating a bit. He tends to wield the sword in his right hand and the normal gun in his left hand. He also has a magical gun in Faerie Rising, but that only comes out on special occasions.

That was kind of the accepted approach for a cavalryman of the 19th Century. The sword was considered the primary weapon, the pistol his auxiliary, and the reason the US cavalry wore their revolvers butt-forward on the right side. Of course, if you used both at the same time, managing a horse became a little more difficult!

The combination of sword and gun is common-ish in my Donzalo books, which are set in a quasi-Late Renaissance period, when men still wore armor and carried swords, but also would have a good wheel-lock pistol (if they could afford one).
 
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