Reality Skimming
11Jan/12Off

Dialogue #1: Matthew Graybosch (1 of 2)

Dialogues: Lynda Williams and a guest author tackle the same topic from two points of view.

Topic: Why did it have to be swords?

In Lynda Williams's Okal Rel Universe, Sevolite society settles even large-scale conflicts in a dueling system in order to protect precious habitable space from the potential damage of nuclear warfare. In Matthew Graybosch's Starbreaker, post-Nationfall society has seen a revival of sorts in the use of swords for the same reason Sevolite society insists on dueling as a means of settling disputes, even if Adversaries and active militia still carry firearms. Why, when many other weapon choices are available, does the sword play such an important role in speculative fiction?

Today...

Matthew Graybosch at Niagara Falls Matthew Graybosch
studied computer science and applied demonology at Miskatonic University, but learned that even after the dotcom bust, software development pays better and is steadier work than exorcism. He is the author of Starbreaker, a serialized science fantasy novel published by Curiosity Quills Press, and lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and a cat who insists on reading the Okal Rel Saga with him.

Next week...

Lynda Williams Lynda Williams
is the author of the Okal Rel Saga, published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Part 7: Healer's Sword arrives in 2012. Lynda's work features moral dilemmas in a character-driven, multi-cultural setting with radically different attitudes to sex and social control surrounding space warfare and bio-science.

Matthew Graybosch: Why Did it Have to be Swords?

Even the most casual reader of speculative fiction will notice the preference for swords when a protagonist must resort to violence. This cannot always be justified in science fiction, but the preference becomes more pronounced as science fiction softens, puts aside rationalism, and becomes fantasy. Hiro Protagonist bore an unnamed katana in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Jedi and Sith alike bore lightsabers, swords with plasma blades, in the Star Wars films. Michael Moorcock's first protagonist, John Daker, first bore Kanajana, and then the Black Sword -- and his other incarnations wielded other manifestations of the Black Sword, such as Dorian Hawkmoon's Sword of the Dawn, and Elric's hellblade Stormbringer. Gandalf, the archetypal wizard of modern fantasy, carried the elvish sword Glamdring. Even in Alexandre Dumas' historical romances, the Musketeers did most of their fighting with rapiers, not firearms.

Why do swords figure so prominently in fantasy? One could point at human history, and suggest that in every human culture capable of metalworking people forged swords. Swords, named or unnamed, figure prominently in the mythology of many European and Asian cultures. Perseus was given a sickle-bladed sword with which to behead Medusa. King Hrothgar gave Hrunting to Beowulf when he set out to kill Grendel's mother. In Judeo-Christian mythology, the archangel Uriel carried a flaming sword with which to keep humans from returning to the Garden of Eden. King Arthur wielded Excalibur, but was warned by Merlin to value the scabbard more highly than the sword, for the scabbard would preserve his life no matter how badly he was wounded. The French knight Roland carried Durandal. In east Asia, the Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven) figures so prominently in Japanese mythology that when it was given to the mortal Yamato Takeru it eventually became part of Japan's Imperia Regalia -- emblems of the Emperor.

We can claim that swords hold preeminence in fantasy because they figure so prominently in so many cultures' hero myths. However, that still does not explain our fascination with swords in a century where wars are fought with more efficient weapons: semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, cruise missiles, and now remotely piloted drones. Who needs a sword, to fight enemies one at a time and hand to hand, when we have the technology to kill in bulk and at a distance?

Though I am neither a psychologist nor an anthropologist, I would submit that we romanticize the sword because we have made violence utterly impersonal in real life. A modern soldier in a modern war can be killed without warning by an unseen enemy, and have no chance to fight back. The use of the sword makes violence personal. By making violence personal again, we limit the scope of conflict to the combatants. Lynda Williams builds an entire ethical system based on the need to preserve habitable space by restricting the scope of conflict in her Okal Rel books, and her Sevolite culture gives this system a simple name: Sword Law. I work along similar lines in my Starbreaker series, since characters in my setting not only wished to preserve their environment, but live in a culture possessed of a horror of government-sponsored mass violence.

As seen in films like The Princess Bride, the use of swords makes violence more appealing in the aesthetic sense, as we can see the combatants make of combat both a dance and a dialogue. I doubt anybody would be satisfied if Inigo Montoya were to say, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.", and then open fire on Count Rugen with an AK-47 set for fully automatic fire.

It is reasonable to claim, however, that violence could be made personal and the scope of conflict limited without the use of the sword. Clubs, knives, and brass knuckles would do just as well, to say nothing of empty-handed martial arts like aikido, kung fu, savate, and krav maga. Indeed, bare-handed fighting figures prominently in Asian media, though Chinese martial arts films tend to blend empty-handed fighting with the use of melee weapons. However, there are other reasons for heroes in speculative fiction to carry swords, and not knives or brass knuckles. The sword is considered an aristocratic weapon, while knives and knuckle dusters are for thugs and gangsters. Though every man in Rome's legions carried a sword, later European cultures limited the use of the sword to the upper classes for economic reasons. Though the Roman gladius was a weapon simple enough for a common soldier's use, swords in use during the European Renaissance tended to require years of rigorous training for which only the wealthy had time. By the Enlightenment, swordplay had become a liberal art, and the use of swords in combat was limited to cavalry charges, and duels between gentlemen.

Bearing all of this in mind, it is little surprise that with exceptions like David Gemmell's Druss, most heroes in fantasy and the softest forms of science fiction often favor the sword. Our mythological heroes carried them. Knights and nobility carried them. Officers and gentlemen (and sometimes ladies) carried them. Why not place them in the hands of starfaring Sevolites, or Adversaries sworn to the defense of liberty and justice for all?

Next week: Lynda Williams writes her response to the central question.

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