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Prominence of Swords in Fantasy Settings

Chuck

Scribe
Magic gives the user an advantage. It allows them to attack from a distance. That creates tension, since the warriors will have to risk injury or death to get close enough to defeat the wizard. Once you introduce guns to the story, that range advantage disappears. There is no point to spend the time studying magic if a new infantry private is just as powerful as the wizard.
 

Gray-Hand

Minstrel
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?
It is dangerous to the person wielding the sword. Even assuming that they don’t cut themselves, there is still a good chance that they will touch something with the blade - their hand, their clothes, their horse, their shield etc that they don’t want to accidentally wipe poison onto. For that matter, if the poison is in liquid form, just swinging the blade about might be enough to send the poison flicking about all over the place.
 

TheKillerBs

Inkling
Magic gives the user an advantage. It allows them to attack from a distance. That creates tension, since the warriors will have to risk injury or death to get close enough to defeat the wizard. Once you introduce guns to the story, that range advantage disappears. There is no point to spend the time studying magic if a new infantry private is just as powerful as the wizard.
It depends on the guns and the magic. If it's line-of-sight wave-a-stick spells like Harry Potter against modern assault rifles, sure. Even then a suitably powerful and creative wizard could come up with spell combinations to render even modern gunmen useless.
 
The importance of swords is due to their association with the warrior class. For centuries, swords were the universal symbol of nobility, chivalry, and military might. Because of this, several swords throughout history have been associated with mystical, holy, or otherwise powerful properties. Such as the Sword of Giants from Beowulf or King Charlemagne's sword, Joyeuse, which was said to have been forged from the spear that Christ was stabbed by. Heck, Excalibur is so ingrained in our culture that we don't even bat an eye when we see it depicted in media. These mythical swords inspired fantasy writers like Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and others to write about fantastical swords with mythical powers that granted their wielders untold gifts.
 
Tangent!

Which got me to thinking... what other weapon is really made JUST for killing people? A good mace. A flanged mace wouldn’t be good for shit except maybe popping open treasure boxes, heh heh. The halberd you could call crowd control, but as the sword is a specialized knife, so to speak, so too is the mace an advanced and specialized version of the club, and the halberd a specialized spear against armor and depending on design, against mounted foes. A horseman’s pick is also a specialized killer. The lance as specialized spear... don’t see much use hunting or anything else wth a lance. Sport, but many weapons have a sport version.

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.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
There's a lot of specific weapons that are designed for killing. An ax might be a tool, but a battle ax would obviously be designed for killing and war. A bow might be used for hunting game, but there's no question what the longbow is designed for. I suppose the sword benefits from being easy to carry around the city though.

I would argue that a good part of the reason we like swords is because of the sport of fencing, which means that for hundreds of years people have witnessed swords in action. Fencing might not be a realistic portrayal of warfare, but it's a good portrayal of how much skill goes into wielding a sword. We don't get that sense of skill thinking about an axe or a spear or even a bow. Okay, it takes a lot to swing the weapon all day and hit your target accurately. But with fencing you get to see the parries, and redoubling, and how an opponent might hope to counter your movements.

Skill is cool, that's what you want in a hero. Other weapons are missing that.
 

Gray-Hand

Minstrel
Tangent!

Which got me to thinking... what other weapon is really made JUST for killing people? A good mace. A flanged mace wouldn’t be good for shit except maybe popping open treasure boxes, heh heh. The halberd you could call crowd control, but as the sword is a specialized knife, so to speak, so too is the mace an advanced and specialized version of the club, and the halberd a specialized spear against armor and depending on design, against mounted foes. A horseman’s pick is also a specialized killer. The lance as specialized spear... don’t see much use hunting or anything else wth a lance. Sport, but many weapons have a sport version.
Morning Star. Barely usable as a weapon, and completely useless for anything else.
 

Insolent Lad

Maester
Morning Star. Barely usable as a weapon, and completely useless for anything else.
Though a morning star is a radical redesign of an ordinary flail.

Btw, one non-weapon use of a sword can be for cooking, shish kabob-style. Not good for the tempering of the metal, of course.
 

elemtilas

Inkling
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?

Because that's what Orcs do! Noble folks like Elves and civilised Men do not stoop to such low tactics. ;)

My take on the sword in fantasy, in general, is because they are a matter of legend and mythic history.

Who carries swords? Heroes carry swords! We venerate George Washington and Robert Lee and Ulysses Grant as heroes. We have their swords that saw many heroic battles. Charlemagne carried a sword. It's in a museum. It is named Joiuse. Ogiers bore Curtana; Roland bore Durendal. It's been banged into the side of a building.

Genghis Khan bore a sword as did Caesar (Yellow Death) and Alexander and Arthur (Excalibur) and Cú Chulainn.

We expect heroes to carry swords, and so they do. When we arrive at the time when fantasy as a genre was being forged, the ideals of knights and chivalry and ancient heroes become cemented into modern mythmaking. And so we have Guthwine and Narsil/Anduril and Sting. The pattern set, later heroes in fantastic settings all bear swords too. Garion bears the sword of Iron-Grip. Martin the Warrior bears a (broken and reforged) sword. Conan bore a sword. Luke bears his father's sword.
 
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.

Anytime I make a list of examples, I feel the twinge of guilt knowing that there will be exceptions to those cases, heh.

The "shadowy forces" could as easily be mortgage banks, insurance companies, or school boards. They could be regulatory agencies or Facebook's clients who buy the data Facebook collects from its users.

I could launch into a looooong discussion on this. Usually, I start with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as an example, for metaphor. There was a Prince (central power) who the Montagues and Capulets somewhat feared, but his fingers didn't reach everywhere all the time, so the families basically could take vendettas into their own hands. At least, some members of those families could do this until the Prince became aware of their efforts. They used swords, heh. But modern societies have organized to eliminate that sort of personal endeavor as much as possible. (Many murders and other crimes still reverberate in a R&J way....) Modern society and modern technology have led to a complexity that results in having various levers on powers distributed to such a degree, we can't always know who or what has or will cause us harm. Some unknown file clerk 1000 miles away misfiles our insurance claim and....boom! We might be negatively affected in a serious way. I think this has led to an uneasiness (at the very least) that can be exploited in fiction via the use of malevolent magic.

That's a nutshell of the looooong discussion I could launch. :sneaky:

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).

Ah, I've always liked crossbows in fiction. :) In Walking Dead, they are put to use because of the necessity of stealth. Guns make loud sounds that will draw more Walkers. Or more of Negan's forces, as was the case in a military assault in at least one of the recent seasons. [Edit: I think simple bows were used in that scene.] This creeping about, trying not to draw attention, can create tense situations, and many of my favorite stories feature that kind of situation at least once. Alas, most of those examples didn't feature a crossbow, however.

But this raises the issue of balancing the various powers of Agency between heroes/protagonists and villains/antagonists. A crossbow works in Walking Dead. GRRM invented a seemingly unstoppable magical force but also introduced Valerian steel and dragonglass. This can seem too pat when first considering a story—but it's probably a good thing for an author to consider, whether guns and bombs or swords or magic is used!
 
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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?

Or bullets that go around corners.

But this is why movies often have to default to the incredibly poor training for gun wielders. I mean, 1000 misses from the blasters in Star Wars—from the bad guys at least, heh.
 
The importance of swords is due to their association with the warrior class. For centuries, swords were the universal symbol of nobility, chivalry, and military might. Because of this, several swords throughout history have been associated with mystical, holy, or otherwise powerful properties. Such as the Sword of Giants from Beowulf or King Charlemagne's sword, Joyeuse, which was said to have been forged from the spear that Christ was stabbed by. Heck, Excalibur is so ingrained in our culture that we don't even bat an eye when we see it depicted in media. These mythical swords inspired fantasy writers like Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and others to write about fantastical swords with mythical powers that granted their wielders untold gifts.

Thor's hammer is similar. If we first define the weapon as being a talisman signalling intrinsic worthiness—an outer display of inner worth—then we can easily show the wielder to be good, true, noble, etc. This was used to good effect when Vision picked up the hammer.

There may be an odd historical parallel for magical incantation. Those who could speak and/or sing in a language largely unknown to the general public might have acquired the status of being particularly good or evil. Latin was used by Catholic priests to this effect—but also, evil spellcasters, heh. At least, from the POV of the common man. I don't know to what degree earlier priests or shaman, from other cultures, used this method, but I imagine there were plenty.
 

AlexK2009

Dreamer
One thing occurs to me.
At one time smiths were regarded in a way similar to sorcerers, able to turn goose droppings ( which contained iron filings they had fed to the geese in order to carbonise the metal as it went through the goose) into a blade that would cut a cloth dropped onto it.

Perhaps we are seeing the remnants of this magical aura.
 

Malik

Auror
One thing occurs to me.
At one time smiths were regarded in a way similar to sorcerers

We need to remember, too, what steel is and does. The idea that a handful of charcoal and a day-long, arcane process steeped in tradition could alter iron's properties so drastically and create effectively a super-substance can be viewed as a type of magic. Absolutely.
 

Gurkhal

Auror
One thing occurs to me.
At one time smiths were regarded in a way similar to sorcerers, able to turn goose droppings ( which contained iron filings they had fed to the geese in order to carbonise the metal as it went through the goose) into a blade that would cut a cloth dropped onto it.

Perhaps we are seeing the remnants of this magical aura.

Exactly. And its not like magical or superhuman smiths are uncommon. In fact I can't think of a single craft that is as prominent in, the ones I know at least, mythology. I'm thinking of Weyland and Hephaestus and at least a few Celtic deities as I recall.
 
Cause they're cool...

I think it really has a lot to do with the romantic and chivalric imagery. A sword kind of represents taking ones destiny into their own hands, and bringing about, for good or for ill, whatever change needs to come about. And it carries with it an honorable method of bringing about, I am not challenging the fates in an underhanded or unfair manner, they get to pick up their sword and defend what they do not want to change if they can.

I don't think other weapons carry this connotation as strongly, but I think there is a similar feel with six shooters via gun slingers in the west, and WWII fighter planes dog-fighting it out.

In a fantasy setting, I also think swords kind of make sense. Its like an easy to carry, to use, and universal type of tool. I can see why many would carry one. Not always the best choice, but never the worst.

I've heard others talk about the phallic nature of the sword and its imagery and suggest that that is also part of it. Male symbols of power forcing their way upon things, but I never quite found that imagery to resonate. Maybe...


I agree that they're totally cool. I would add- elegant. Even the largest sword has an elegance about it, that I don't necessarily feel with guns. In my fantasy series, The Kingdom of Uisneach, the protag is a female and she carries a large broadsword type of sword made out of magical faerie steel. Automatically one would roll their eyes at a woman wielding such a heavy, large weapon, but I was determined to portray the sword as a symbol of more than just male power and dominance. Briana's sword is not just capable of lopping of a villain's head, but of aiding our heroine with its magic.
 

Mizore

Dreamer
I would ask about the prominence of melee weapons over range weapons in fantasy settings. I think one reason is that it's easier for a melee weapon to become legendary, like Excalibur or Dragonslayer, than a range weapon. Legendary range weapons are in fiction works but they are much less frequent. This can be because range weapons are always going to leave something out, that is, the projectiles, so they can never be so valuable or close to the wielder. Instead a much more intimate relationship can be established between a melee weapon and its wielder, making the weapon legendary.

Then the prominence of the swords concretely, I do not have it clear, it can be because swords are more balanced than other melee weapons.
 

Malik

Auror
I would ask about the prominence of melee weapons over range weapons in fantasy settings.

Range weapons also don't work in one-on-one combat, which is a huge component of heroic legends.

There's a whole thing about flight times and arrow speeds in the Ask Me About Archery thread. The short and nasty of it is that an arrow isn't a bullet. They are comparatively very, very slow. Even at rock-throwing distance, you can't hit someone with an arrow if they see you pointing it at them. As soon as you loose the arrow, all they have to do is take half a step to the left. I've had deer duck under an arrow from a recurve bow at a few yards' distance just from hearing the string.

And a spear? Forget it.

You're not going to get the whole, big, heroic champion battle if you have two people running around a field shooting arrows or throwing spears at each other. They'll be there all day.

"Dammit! Stand still!"
"No!"
 

Chuck

Scribe
Range weapons also don't work in one-on-one combat, which is a huge component of heroic legends.
I remember reading that archers were not considered honorable because they fought from a distance and did not put themselves at the same risk as the swordsmen. I don't remember what culture that was from, though.
 

Mythopoet

Auror
Jarrod-Argyul-Lesson-sm.png


Only took ten years of study and practice and only cost me the tip of one finger. Just sayin'. Y'all better hurry.

To be honest, this kind of thing bores me. I mean, great job for all the people who are into move-by-move fight scenes but I just skip over them. In general, I hate reading any lengthy fight scene.
 
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