In almost every breed of fiction, even those furthest removed from the ancient or medieval worlds, the sword retains some hold on our stories. Deadpool slices bullets, Neo ends up fighting with katanas, and of course there are those pesky Jedi. Everywhere you turn, we return to swords as the weapon of choice even if the setting features planet killers and machine guns as common as rain.
There are two levels to why this is interesting. The first is the simple fact that a melee weapon centuries outdated pops up continuously in the first place. What hold does hand to hand combat have on our imaginations?
The second is the question of why swords in particular. Not spears, not axes, not the host of other mundane or exotic weaponry mankind devised to murder each other with while we could see the whites of each others’ eyes. Oh, they pop up now and then, but not with the same frequency. And if anything, their appearance in odd genres is more notable for the fact that they are exceptions to the rule of swords popping up everywhere.
Answers, thoughts, commentary? Well of course there’s the penis joke. But then spears would seem better suited if one even felt like having that tired metaphorical discussion. What else then if Freud would lay down for a nap while the adults have a serious conversation?
For the first question, I think there’s certainly the visual element, or at the least the dramatic one. Fights with swords take time, they have movement to them, they can become a ballet of action and words. All the efficiencies of firearms at killing make that generally less so. Scenes can be extended, usually through terrible marksmenship or cover, but even well done action scenes with such weapons lack that ability for the action to mirror the dialogue, for patience and frenzy alike to be mirrored in the dance of the fight.
There’s a physical logic in the melee that we have a physical intuition for. An angry man swings with all his body, a calm one dodges with the casual turn. Moved beyond the melee, this physical intuition disappears or is at least more muted. We return to these weapons because our stories can be reflected in them.
But why swords then? It’s a tradition of course, which isn’t something that should be overlooked. We as a species will keep doing the same shit for a thousand years just because we did it for the thousand before. But that’s also the trivial answer, the easy one that just pushes the question back one step, answering it with another almost identical question.
Swords have a certain poetry in the way that they are simultaneously both defensive and offensive. We block with the same blade that we attack with, and the dance of strike and parry becomes one in which the weapon plays both parts. That’s taken to a certain extreme with light sabers, in the way that only one blade can block another, the immovable object and the irresistible force colliding. And that dichotomy is why it captures our imaginations over and over again.
A sword fight can mean elegance, grace, brutality, and every other adjective of human movement. Because whether it is historically true or not, in our fictions sword fighting is always a chess game of both intellect and emotion. This appeals to the part of us that insists that even if the world isn’t just, stories should be. Guns decide things with too arbitrary of a result, but swords, ah, the civilized weapon of our fictions, they decide the direction of story with honor.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.