A Hammer with an Edge: Swords in Fantasy Literature9 min read

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Back in my early days, when I was still discovering fantasy literature, Robert E. Howard was the first author I remember reading who used swords for something other than hewing down his protagonist’s foes. This may sound surprising — this was REH, after all, creator of Conan and Solomon Kane: there was plenty of hewing — but along with singing steel and mighty thews, there were also different kinds of swords scattered across his work. Broadswords and scimitars, tulwars and sabers, each linked to one of the ancient Hyborian kingdoms. You could often tell a character’s kingdom of origin (and thus his real–world analog) by the weapon that hung at his side. It wasn’t always consistent, and never rose above basic cultural–tagging, but the fact that he was at least making an effort to differentiate peoples through their choice of blade made an impression on me. It still does, if only because Howard remains more an exception than the rule when it comes to conveying world and character through something as simple as a sword.

More recently, K. J. Parker examined what weapon choices and fighting styles can say about a society, and how they can impact story. In “Sharps”, Parker puts a band of competitive fencers in a foreign country, where the favored national weapon is the brutal long knife called a messer. But even here, Parker doesn’t move beyond the nationalistic identity imbued within the messer and its bloody combat style. Parker leaves the other swords on essentially equal footing, with little to distinguish either country’s character through the remaining weapons.

And in between the two? Cunning rogues with flashing rapiers; mountain–like savages with great swords; dashing cavalry men with sabers or pirates with cutlasses. Sword–as–cultural–stereotype may have given way to sword–as–character–archetype in some corners of fantasy, but we’re still essentially tagging characters with steel.

I think there’s room to do more, both on a smaller and a larger scale, when it comes to utilizing this staple of fantasy. We build elaborate magic systems, forge cultures both broad and deep, cut villains and heroes from imaginative cloth — and yet when it comes to the swords in our worlds? A bit of magic, a keen edge, maybe a prophecy or two, and we move on.

We can do better. But to do that, we first need to understand what we’re working with. We need to understand some of the ins and outs of the weapon. We need to understand its potential.

Swords Are Tools

Well of course they’re tools. Tools you use to carve other people up. What’s so hard to understand about that?

A couple of things.

Think of a hammer. What kind of a hammer is it? Claw? Ball–peen? Raising? Depending on the job, you’re going to want a specific kind of hammer. Trying to drive a penny nail with a four–pound sledgehammer, while possible, isn’t the best use of either your time or your soon–to–be–flattened fingers. Likewise, a claw hammer isn’t going to help you drive railroad spikes. You want to have the proper type of hammer for the job at hand.

Now, imagine instead you needed to drill a hole. Or drive a screw. Or cut a piece of wood. How useful is your hammer then? For that matter, how useful is it to have only one size of drill bit? One kind of screwdriver?

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Just like the different tools we keep in our basement or garage were designed with specific kinds of tasks in mind, so were many kinds of weapons developed to meet specific needs. Swords just happen to be the most versatile of those weapons. Clubs and spears and axes and the like have their place, but if I had to pick one weapon that was both easy to carry and could be used effectively against most other weapons and people I encountered, I’d trade the whole lot for a decent sword.

Not All Swords Are Created Equal

My wife and I both fence. We both use rapiers. We bought our weapons from the same weapon smith. Both are even the same length (42–inch blades). They aren’t even that different in overall weight or design. And yet if you blindfolded us and handed each the other’s weapon, we’d know it instantly. I don’t like fighting with her sword because, for me, it doesn’t move right. The balance is different, the quillons are different, the axis of rotation and the (for lack of a better term) “action” of the sword is different. If I pick up her sword to fight, I am at a handicap. Same length, same blade, same kind of sword, and yet my fight is thrown by a couple of ounces of steel being further forward or back from what I am used to.

Now imagine me, a rapier fighter, picking up a scimitar, a longsword, a saber. I’m not as happy as I could be, all things considered.

My point? Swords are not Oreo cookies: you can’t interchange one for another (or dunk them in milk. Okay, you can dunk them, but it’s not nearly as satisfying). In our modern, uniform, replacement part/disposable world, we forget that things used to be made one at a time. That’s still how it is with a truly good sword. Each blade is hand forged and hammered, the steel in the guard bent and welded one piece at a time, each handle made from a unique piece of wood. Even if I buy two of the same sword, there will be differences between the two. They will move and behave and react differently. Maybe not much, maybe a lot — it depends.

So what does this mean? It means that a good swordsman knows his sword. It means that while he might be able to grab a blade off a fallen guard during his escape, he will also be aware that it doesn’t move like he is used to. And if it is a different type of sword entirely? Bigger change, bigger challenges, bigger potential for tension and mistakes. Mistakes that can make a difference in the story.

And if the character doesn’t notice the difference? If he blithely steps forward and tries to carve a path to the door? Well, that tells us something too. About character. About world. Or, at least, it could.

It’s up to you. But its something not enough of us do or think about when we write.

Approaching the Fight

How you fight says a lot about you. After sex, it’s possibly one of the most intimate things one character can do with another. Intimate? Hell yes: you don’t get much more personal than trying to put three feet of steel into someone while they attempt do the same to you. Feeling their flesh part and their blood spill? It may not be romantic, but very little is more cathartic. Or more revealing.

But it doesn’t even have to come to blows. Just drawing steel and facing off against someone can tell you, the characters, the readers, so much.

Let’s look at some pictures to illustrate the point:

[Ridolfo Capoferro, The Art & Practice of Fencing, 1610]
[Ridolfo Capoferro, The Art & Practice of Fencing, 1610]
[Nicoletto Giganti, The School, or Salle, 1606]
[Salvator Fabris, On Defense, or the Science of Arms, 1606]

These are each examples of the basic guard (starting defensive position) taught by these fencing masters during the Renaissance. All three masters were from Northern Italy, all three published their works within four years of one another, and all three employed a similar philosophy and approach to the fight.

And yet, each guard is noticeably different.

What does that tell us? For one thing, it shows that even with the same weapon, one’s style of fighting can be distinctly local. If I’m from Sienna and studied under Master Capoferro, what am I to think when I meet a Venetian who fights like Giganti? Or a Paduan who takes Fabris’ stance? Does their guard tell me something about them, or is it news to me? Am I confident? Cautious? Nervous? If know about them, why? If not, why not? Do I even want to risk crossing blades with them any more, or is there suddenly a better option? The unknown is scary, after all, especially when it is threatening to perforate your innards.

Character building at sword’s point.

But even beyond that, there are the larger questions. Move outside Italy. To the Spanish masters…

[Girard Thibault, The Academy of the Sword, 1630]

Or the German.

[Joachim Meyer, Thorough Descriptions of the Art of Fencing, 1570]
[Joachim Meyer, Thorough Descriptions of the Art of Fencing, 1570]

We now encounter not just different stances, but very different approaches to the fight. Where the Italians are cut from a fairly straightforward geometric cloth, the Spaniard is more mathematical in his approach to the sword. He moves differently, attacks differently, defends differently. He’s cool and methodical. And the German? He looks poised to explode. To cut your sword out of the way. To flow from one assault, one threat, to the other and back. To take you to the ground if it comes to that — and he’d like it if it comes to that.

National character is on display now. Culture. Values. Educational systems and religious outlooks. How I fight tells you who my people are, how we grasp and embrace life, how we approach and handle conflict. Diplomacy is here. Politics. Economics. Trade. Art. All behind the guard of a sword.

Am I simply some sword geek reading too much into this? Maybe, but nothing exists in a vacuum, including combat styles. If we can have several different styles of fencing within a couple of hundred miles of one another in Renaissance Italy, why can’t we have some differentiation across borders? Or even races, for that matter? Humans tend to do things in three by nature: on your mark, get set, go! Lift on three. Attack–parry–counterattack. It’s something primal, almost hard–wired in us. So what if elves naturally think in groupings of four, or even five? If your human protagonist is used to three cuts in a sequence in his system (like the Bolognese masters did), what happens when an elf throws four? Interesting things, at the very least, I would guess. And how does this extend to the rest of elven society? Or alien ones? How does it affect basic assumptions that no one even thinks to talk about because, hello, basic assumption.

Sounds like conflict. Sounds like drama. Sounds like an interesting aspect to a story or world, if you ask me. All because the other guy instinctually counts to four when he fights, instead of three.

Does this mean you have to spend years studying swordplay, or developing it for your story? No, of course not. You don’t need to know everything there is about something to write about it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think about it, can’t do a dash of homework now and then. Can’t pull out a different lens when it comes to world building and character development.

Swords are tools. But so are so many other things we keep in our writer’s box of tricks: language, clothing, food, customs, religion, money, magic, and so much more. It’s about time we took a look at this worn and battered staple of fantasy and saw it for the potential shiny hammer it is.

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