The Swords of Our Fantasies

The weapons of true heroes. (Taken by Glsanthoshkumar)

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.

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5 Responses to The Swords of Our Fantasies

  1. Roffles Lowell says:

    It makes me think of gravity sabers in Space Pirate Captain Harlock; in 2977 you can use them to shoot a man from a distance, but the individuals who command respect arbitrarily use them to fence.

    Once you start to think of guns as “cheating” you can almost use them to unravel the whole direction of modernist and postmodern fiction, if you want to. The hero ‘cheats’ to hold his own against the villain in combat; but when everyone must ‘cheat’ or be outmatched; what does this mean for the hero? We get antiheroes… And then before long the whole notion of heroism itself is derided. Someone smarter than me could probably tease a great essay out of all that.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      Regarding that “guns as cheating” bit, I was thinking much the same thing. As guns changed war, they changed our conception of heroism along with it.

      • Roffles Lowell says:

        Hm, as we saw play out when American Sniper hit movie theaters and controversy arose over the very idea of a sniper being a hero at all.

        This is kind of a disturbing train of thought to follow. The more autonomy we surrender to machines, the more it would imply we will embrace either cynicism or a totally disconnected escapism.
        I vote for the latter. But it seems a little precarious, for society at large.

  2. Pingback: Romantic Weapons -Rawle Nyanzi

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