Thought of the Week: The Role of the Fantasy Sword

When I first began delving into the world of fantasy, a quest that would eventually lead to the world of Erâth, Brandyé Dui-Erâth and his journey into darkness, I came across a number of articles outlining common themes throughout fantasy literature. At first, of course, I thought I had to adhere to these commandments, laid down by the god of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. As time, and the novel, progressed, however, I began to realize the value of originality, and discovered certain aspects that deviated from the tried and true classical form of fantasy. One key element was that I came to realize there were no true ‘heroes’ in my story. The protagonist, Brandyé, is weak, both physically and emotionally, preyed upon by both beasts and darkness. There are no master figures, no Aragorns or Gandalfs to save the day. There are people with kind hearts that nonetheless do cruel things.

The metaphor is (I hope) different as well. Whereas Tolkien’s darkness was (in my mind) a metaphor for the dismal horrors of war, for me it holds a much more personal facet: it is the great, all-consuming and unsurmountable darkness of depression and despair. The world is already covered in darkness; the forces of good have already lost. Our hero has no conviction, and despairs that he can ever do good in his life.

However, there are still many elements that fit neatly the stereotype of high fantasy, such as a dark lord, fictional worlds and languages, a quest to defeat said dark lord, kingdoms great and small, etc. And one of the elements preserved, though I didn’t know it at the time, was the fantasy sword.


The Shards of Narsil

Nearly every high fantasy story I can think of (though I’m not as widely read as I should be) has swords, which is natural for a genre that tends to romanticize the middle ages. But more than that, there is usually at least one sword, if not several, that has a merit beyond its ability to kill. These swords have a history, their forging is legendary, their uses are magical, and in the right hands they are undefeatable. The Lord of the Rings has NarsilElric has StormbringerHarry Potter has the Sword of Griffindor, although I would argue that the wands represent the same functional place as these others. The Redemption of Erâth has Namrâth.

It’s hard to deny that these swords are an integral part of such fantasy, but it became curious to me that it should be so. Certainly swords are necessary if the story is to contain fighting of any kind, and it would be poor fantasy indeed if there were not epic battles involved. But the question remains precisely why it is so important that there be at least one sword with mystical origins and powers.

I have one or two thoughts on the matter, which may or may not be way off the mark. Wikipedia has a fantastic list of famous fantasy swords, and one of the first things I noticed is that, with the exception of J.K. Rowling, every author who has invented such a sword (including myself) is a man. Cue the obvious sexual innuendos. High fantasy rarely has sexual content of any kind, and even romance is often sidelined (the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings is hardly touched upon in the book, as opposed to Peter Jackson’s film versions). And it’s easy to see how a great, whopping sword could be seen as a phallic symbol. (Interesting, then, that Rowling’s wands are so small!) These swords are themselves almost invariably wielded by men, and represent their great strength and prowess. It’s certainly possible that, consciously or unconsciously, these magical swords represent the manliness of their bearers.

A magical mace?

A magical mace?

Another, more mundane explanation could be that there have to be mystical swords. After all, what fun would it be if the great demon lord was defeated by any old blade kicking around on the battlefield? Great, magical beings require great, magical weapons, and the sword is the natural weapon of choice. (Brandyé, in The Redemption of Erâth, actually carries a crossbow for the majority of the first book.) But why not magical maces, or whips (Indiana Jones, I suppose), or daggers? Perhaps because there is something clean about a sword, that it can effortlessly stab, slice and decapitate with little or no mess. A great spiked mace is a pretty messy weapon, it has to be said, and high fantasy is, along with being romance-less, usually pretty bloodless.

Finally, the thought that comes to me is that the magical sword represents power greater than the wielder can manage; the metaphor of runaway technology leading to the wars in which they are actually used. Elric’s Stormbringer, sucking the souls of any it touches, is exemplary of this: the sword is a curse to its wielder, who becomes ever more bound to it the more he uses it.

Perhaps there is another, socio-psychological answer to this pondering question; if so, I am too blind to see it. Perhaps the fantasy sword just is, no questions asked. But I’d like to turn this over to you: what do you think the purpose of these fantastical swords is?

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