Friday, September 10, 2010

Swords in fantasy

Wow, where to start?

Swords can be a sign of office or status.

The first one I ever read about was the Sword in the Stone, which showed Arthur was the rightful King of England, and then there are all the ancestral swords in A Song of Ice and Fire - each one corresponding to a different family. They also have lovely names – Red Rain, Lady Forlorn, Needle, Lion’s Tooth, Heartsbane and so on.

In Rosemary Edghill’s The Sword of Maiden's Tears, the titular weapon was the heirloom of the elven House Rohannon, but there was a curse on it – any human who wielded it would be changed into a monstrous creature.

Swords can be magic.

That would be the second such sword I read about, Sting from The Hobbit, which glowed blue when there were Orcs around. Though as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, that’s only an advantage if 1. the sword won’t give you away by such a warning 2. all Orcs are evil and out to kill you.

Otherwise, all you need is for a Good- or Neutral-aligned Orc to join the party and the sword is permanently glowing, or permanently on fire, etc.

The Twelve Swords of Power in Fritz Saberhagen’s novels are some of my favorite magic weapons. Not only are their powers varied, but they have real weaknesses, to the point where some of them can’t even be drawn. The Sword of Despair, for instance, causes instant misery and depression to fall in a battlefield-wide area around it, meaning that no one has the will to fight. That would be great, except that it also affects whoever draws it, and that person loses all inclination to sheathe it again.

Woundhealer, the Sword of Mercy, is incapable of killing. Coinspinner, the Sword of Chance, brings good luck but has a habit of leaving its wielder when it’s most needed. Farslayer can literally fly across the world to kill an enemy, and nothing will stop it – except that once it’s buried in that enemy’s heart, it’s not coming back. The enemy’s bereft friends and relatives can then get to use it.

The Blood Sword role-playing gamebooks, a series of five that are sadly out of print, featured the titular weapon, which was “forged by the Archangel Abdiel and tempered in the Savior’s blood”. Blood tempering seems to be a way to ensure the sword will have magic powers – as in the tale of Lightbringer, King Stannis’s sword in A Clash of Kings.

Swords can be sentient.

I especially liked the evil sword Stormbringer, carried – but not owned – by the doomed Elric of Melnibone in Michael Moorcock’s novels. Stormbringer ended up murdering Elric, just as Turin Turambar in The Silmarillion was killed by his sword Gurthang.

"Hail Gurthang! No lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee. From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou therefore take Túrin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?"

And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: "Yes, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly."

There’s also Wirikidor, the Mankiller, in Lawrence Watt-Evans’s novel The Misenchanted Sword. Wirikidor fights with superhuman skill and always defeats its opponent… but has certain possibly lethal weaknesses as well, hence the title of the novel.

I’m sure there are swords which are a little less eager to stick them with the pointy end, perhaps wanting the victim to have a fair trial first. Just haven’t come across any yet.

Swords can be matched.

They can be a pair or an entire set (for serious collectors only). I especially like this when the two swords are half of a whole, and something unforeseen or terrible happens when they come together. Usually, one will be in the hero’s hands and one in the villain’s.

Back in 2000, I joined a discussion board but wanted a handle that sounded cooler than my first name. So I picked “Queen of Swords”, after the Tarot card. The Swords suit represents freedom, strength and power – but also the responsibility and negative consequences, such as violence, that can result.


Kaiser said...

In my WiP, the antagonist wields a very powerful sword: It never dulls or break, it's very, very sharp, and it's invulnerable to magic. The twist here is that the antagonist himself is made of the same material, and the sword is just a crude weapon forged to disguise this fact, so he could infiltrate among the humans.

Anonymous said...

I've used the magic sword gambit myself, in my U/F WIP. But swords are not the only weapons with particular meaning. Axes, spears, hammers, bows are also common in mythology, less so in modern literature because of the aura that surrounds the sword which requires a high level of skill, it's more expensive than similar melee weapons and is associated with military officers and nobility.

Marian Perera said...

Kaiser - that's an unusual and intriguing detail. It makes me want to read more!

Ralfast - I was thinking of writing more posts about weapons in fantasy, so thanks for mentioning hammers and axes. That gave me a few ideas to use as a starting point.