The Function of the Blade

A long-haired white man in a black tee stares mysteriously into the camera.

A.J. Smith

A. J. Smith has been devising the worlds, histories and characters of THE LONG WAR CHRONICLES for more than a decade. He was born in Birmingham, UK, and works in secondary education. He is the author of The Black Guard (October 1, 2016) and The Dark Blood (December 1, 2016) from Head of Zeus, distributed by Trafalgar Square Publishing.

Swords are big chunks of toughened, often sharpened, metal. They have one practical application – to cut or pierce flesh. Some are better at cleaving or crushing armour, some are designed to be light and others designed to be duelling weapons – the clash of steel upon steel needing a particular kind of blade. In our modern world, where the sword is less of a life and death object, it has become a beautiful artefact to be studied and admired. There is now a romanticism attached to the blade, as if its status has become more important than its function.

The duality of the sword fascinates me. I’m as guilty as anyone in seeing the blade as a symbol of protection, status, chivalry, brotherhood or strength, as thousands of civilizations have recognised it as such. But how did it come to be so romanticised? Simple. It helped strong people gain control, kill their enemies and consolidate power. Its ability to kill has given it transcendental power.

Bronze became iron and iron became steel. By the Middle Ages, Europe preferred double-edged blades, whilst Asia focused on single-edged. But the differences never eclipsed the functionality of the swords. No matter where they evolved, or the technology that forged them, every blade was designed to kill. The sword entered an arms race with armour, as people wanted to kill their enemies whilst protecting themselves. This went on for centuries with neither side truly out-distancing the other – until gunpowder came along and ruined everything.

Now go to a fantasy world where guns don’t exist and the sword is the only means of legitimate defence you have. There’s no romanticism there. The world doesn’t have much of a code of chivalry, nor any discernible law-enforcement. All you have is your blade. Firstly, you had better learn how to use it. Secondly, you had better wear armour because everyone else has a sword too. And, most importantly, you should avoid using it at all costs. If you draw your blade you’re telling someone that you’re prepared to kill them. If they draw theirs, they’re telling you the same thing. You both know that the duel is likely to end with blood, maiming or death. Style goes out the window, as does chivalry and romanticism. Your blade is once again a toughened chunk of metal designed to cut or pierce the opposing person’s flesh, and only your skill and luck matter.

The Black Guard, by A.J. Smith

The Black Guard, by A.J. Smith

Fantasy duels should tell a story. Who is wielding these swords? And what drove them to do the unthinkable – to draw their blades and swing them at another person? Are they skilled? Or paper tigers, flailing in hope at their foe? Both have reasons to fight. Some may just be defending themselves, and their sword is all that stands between them and the edge of another sword. If they were the aggressors, what do they have to gain by instigating a duel, and are they really prepared to kill or be killed?

So, who gets a sword? It’s an important question. Historically, we’ve given them to everyone from rank-and-file soldiers to kings and emperors – though a Roman legionnaire’s spatha or gladius had no special significance, and would have looked small next to Charlemagne’s supposed sword, Joyeuse. Perhaps if anyone can get a sword, then anyone can achieve greatness. Or perhaps they lose their power as they get more numerous; certainly there are few, if any, famous swords from ancient Rome. I prefer the latter view, so generally give swords only to professional knights and nobles. In the world of my books, it’s illegal for commoners in most cultures to own a longsword. They are forced to train and fight with maces or large daggers, instantly putting them at a disadvantage next to those privileged enough to own and wield a sword. In cultures that use axes and hammers, there are far fewer restrictions, as the perceived romanticism is lessened with other weapons.

But is this all a con? Is a sword, no matter how well-forged, truly that much better than an axe, a mace, or a spear? In skilled hands, surely any of the above can be lethal, but we don’t end up loving them as we love the blade – something that is plainly reflected in fantasy literature. Tolkien had one named spear and dozens of named swords. I have, in my small way, emulated this, although I also have a named axe, a named hammer and a named longbow. But, when a young character comes of age, it’s a sword that is placed in his hand. Anything else would somehow seem wrong.

So, yes, it is a bit of a con. An axe, being swung by someone who knows how to use it, is at no intrinsic disadvantage against a swordsman of equivalent skill. And, I must confess that I have an abiding love of the axe. But it’s just… not a sword. If I was a White Knight of the Dawn, charged with healing the land, I’d want a sword. I’m still bound by the romanticism of the blade.

I don’t recall reading or watching fantasy that didn’t include swords (by “fantasy” I mean epic, heroic, grimdark, rather than Pan’s Labyrinth… you know what I mean). The blade is synonymous with fantasy, perhaps more so than wizards or orcs – after all, there are plenty of fantasy books that contain neither of these, but do contain swords. It may not have a name or any special significance, but it’s there, as ubiquitous as a comma or an over-written fight scene – sometimes even featured in the title or on the cover.

Through history, legend and myth, we have inherited a love of the blade that keeps it firmly in the hand of our beloved heroes and hated villains. And long may this continue, because a fantasy hero armed with a bread-knife would be rubbish.

Readers, what are some of your favorite weapons in fantasy or sci-fi? One lucky commenter will receive one copy of The Black Guard by A.J. Smith.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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4 comments

  1. David Benavides /

    I always liked the steam punk style weapons. For instance one of the series I’ve read, The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, there are crazy experimental steampunk weapons that the main characters always have to privately panic when they use it or say a small prayer. Then the wwagons would start whistling or whirring building up energy in one way or another. Then BANG!!!! And half the structure is gone where they shot (sometimes). Love that stuff.

  2. I have pretty classic tastes when it comes to fantasy weapons. A longsword or a bastard sword or a broadsword would do the job perfectly.

  3. David, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of THE BLACK GUARD!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  4. This was a great article! In my book I never really specify that commoners that lack a military background are unable to wield a sword. However while the average citizen learns basic exercises with wooden swords as children mainly only nobles and those that choose a career in the military become master swordsmen. Although the country in my book shares a lot of similarities with ancient Japan I don’t specify that characters wield katanas either. I’ll let the reader use their imagination. When I visited Nara Japan 2 years ago the famous temple with the giant Buddha has a nice museum with ancient weapons and I fell in love with the gold incrusted ornate artwork of the fuller and scabbard of some noblemen swords. Seeing those gorgeous weapons was one of the pivotal things that made me want to write in the first place.
    I like all kinds of swords. I love the elegance of katanas that I thankfully got to see up close when I visited both Japan and Chile but the beauty of kilij swords with their elegant curved blade has it’s own merit. I like it how kilijs were better designed for cavalry giving me ideas of those warriors that wield them roam in lands invaded by meandering criminals that will soon see their doom.

    I find the idea of swords forged with sorcery to be especially interesting albeit not as widely used in fantasy. I started to hint the existence of amazingly powerful cursed swords into the 5th book. The way they are created is beyond heinious. I don’t imagine they need to have a specific shape, just that they simulate very well made ancient schmitars or quality katanas with multilayered folds of steel for extra resistance and beauty. Even Harry Potter that takes place in a modern time has the amazing Gryffindor sword that absorbed the venom of a basilik rendering it nearly indestructible. Fantasy wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without them.

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