We live in an era of truly destructive weaponry: Automatic rifles, precision guided missiles, nuclear bombs. They are delivered by tank and by plane, by ship and by rocket. Comptuer technology has taken this to another level, allowing for delivery of all those weapons with minimal human intervention. It is a capacity for destruction our ancestors once ascribed only to gods.
Yet in our fantastic fiction, we have a distinct prefence for ancient weapons: spears, axes, bows, and above all, swords. Even in modern environments, hand-to-hand combat is often emphasized over gunplay, as if the hero and the villain would rather fight with cold steel than hot lead.
I can think of a few reasons why this is the case.
Guns, for all their coolness and practicality, feel like cheating. The ability to kill an opponent comes not from careful training, but from the element of surprise, the presence of good cover, and excellent body armor. The first is a “cowardly” tactic, the second relies too much on the external environment, and the third is a piece of gear, not a skill. To make matters worse, no matter how elite your training, a novice kid can still drop you like a bad habit if you’re in his — or indeed, her — line of fire.
It is no accident that the superhero as we know it today emerged after World War I, when the true impact of mechanized warfare made itself felt. Superheroes have awesome powers, often honed by years of practice, that allow them to defeat common technological methods of combat such as firearms and missiles. For the same reason, the Jedi in the Star Wars films have the Force.
Which brings up the largest point of all: wielding a sword effectively is more than having the best equipment. Putting in the years of practice it takes to become skilled with a sword says something about the wielder’s character. Ancient weapons require great discipline if one is to master them, and that dedication, that determination, is attractive to us. If you best someone with these weapons, it is because you are truly stronger and more dedicated, not because you can see them and pull a trigger. In this way, the sword makes the hero more heroic. Guns, on the other hand, ultimately come down to luck and timing, a poor substitute for the heroic virtue that enables one to become a master of the blade.
It’s not for nothing that the arms of our ancestors are so romanticized.