Thursday, January 12, 2012

Swords: Make it, Break it, or Fake it

What’s a good fantasy without a few sword-wielding heroes and heroines? That’s why, in today’s blog post, we’ll be looking at what exactly you need to know about swords (and, more importantly, what you don’t).

In fantasies, as in the great legends and epics of old, the primary weapon of choice is the sword. Soldiers stride around with giant broadswords dangling by their side, heroes defeat the villain with a clean swipe of their shining blade, and even Eowyn the shieldmaiden of Rohan (Lord of the Rings reference alert) had a sword to wield against the dreaded Nazgul witch-king.

Now, if you’re anything like me, swords don’t just confuse you. They frighten, intimidate, befuddle, and positively stupefy both you and your writing. Do you need to mention swordsmanship at all? If yes, how do you describe a sword, anyway? What do you do with a sword (besides swing it)?

Let’s start with an overview of the major types of swords.

1. Rapier
-- Basically, a fancy fencing sword that doesn’t do much damage. It’s quite long, so it keeps your opponent at a distance. However, it’s not durable and incapable of withstanding strong blows.
--This sword works best in situations like The Princess Bride, where fencing is a humorous way in which the hero and villain combat each other. Not for serious wounds, this one.

--This is a small knifelike sword that is sharp on both sides and comes to a deep point. The dagger is usually used for slashing at opponents in self-defense. In a variant on the dagger, the stiletto has an extremely sharply tapered the point and blunt sides, which make it ideal for stabbing (as opposed to slashing and hacking).
--Is your main character female in a dangerous, male-dominated society? Chances are, a full-on sword would be too obvious for her to have, but a dagger is just the trick to protect her from most attackers. The dagger doesn’t do enough damage for a soldier to use except as a backup weapon (or, if he’s the type that likes to show off, he may try to eat with it).  However, the stiletto in particular is easily hidden and perfect for assassination attempts.

--The sabre is especially distinctive for its curved, single-edged blade, which allows both slashing and stabbing. These swords are carried primarily by cavalry and are used when fighting on horseback. A cutlass is a variation on the saber that is used at sea by naval forces and pirates.
            --Got cavalry, navy, or pirates? Then here’s your ticket!

--As a historical sword used primarily in the Middle Ages, the longsword is often the weapon of choice in fantasy stories. The blade is slim yet strong and long, making it suitable for both slashing and stabbing. This is the weapon most used by infantry, as well as the knights-in-shining-armor of Camelot fame.
--If I’m allowed to be biased here, the longsword gets my vote for the ideal fantasy sword. Heavy enough to cause serious damage yet light enough for youths and less skilled soldiers to master, the longsword is excellent for battles and single combat alike.
--Note: the construction of the longsword changed with the introduction of plate armor in medieval times. If you’ll be featuring the longsword, it may be worth your while to consider the types of protection that your characters have available.

-- This sword is named for its particularly broad blade. It is slightly shorter than a longsword, mostly because of its great weight. The broadsword, while difficult to master and fight with, came into use after plate armor became widely used. It is particularly effective when using heavy blows to hack and slice. (Note that another sword named the broadsword is a heavy fencing blade, quite different from the broadsword I’m discussing here.)
-- Good for highly-trained muscled soldiers. Not so good for damsels in distress or your average worthy woodcutter’s son.

So there you have it. Of course, swords are a true art, and if you’re interested in them, you’ll find many more categories to study. I’ve included some pictures that have been very helpful to me for further observation. The first illustrates other types of swords, and the second details the different components of a generic longsword-like blade. The second picture is particularly helpful when trying to describe which portions of the sword the hero is grasping, swinging, sheathing, or cleaning.

Good luck and God bless in puzzling out the confusing world of swords in fantasy!


  1. Haha, I love your bit of info on swords... thank you :-) You explain things very well!

  2. Thanks, Ryan! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes I wish I didn't have to know all this stuff...and yet, more often than not, it can be quite useful in writing accurately. Thanks again for the comment!

  3. I just found your blog! It's exciting to locate yet another Christian fantasy enthusiast! Great post. Swords are marvelous, aren't they? Definitely agree with you on the longsword. My personal favorite.

    One of the best books I've discovered about swords and medieval swordfighting is called, surprisingly enough, Medieval Swordsmanship by John Clements! There's so much helpful information in there! It's wonderful.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Gillian! I agree--it's insanely exciting to realize that we're not alone, even in such a seemingly small niche as Christian fantasy! Yes, swords are pretty cool, although personally they can be a little beyond me (which is largely why I wrote this post!).

    Oh, that sounds like a great book to get! I'll need to look it up. My next post is going to be on bows...I don't suppose you have any good resources for that? :) Thanks again!

  5. Hmm. Bows! Sweet. I look forward to reading it. I don't have any books specifically on bows (I wish). But another super great handbook is called Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman. It has a decent section on bows and their history and tons of other information as well!

  6. That does sound like a great book to have on hand! It's amazing how many ideas you can get (even for fantasy) just by researching some historical time period. Medieval times are especially interesting, in my opinion. I'll definitely have to look that one up! Thanks so much :)

  7. I had wanted to post a comment on this one before, but I'm only now getting to it. (sorry :D). Anyway, people sometimes act like these are the only five sword types to use in books...fantasy seems to take more after the English 'knight' style of fantasy. Whereas I prefer the Japanese Katana (I study in the arts of Kenjitsu and Kendo with a group of people). The Katana is a really neat weapon because it's typically a lighter weapon (but they can get heavy depending on the smith). But the point is that its blade is curved, and it has a point. That allows you to do more of a slashing motion, where most of the 'knight' swords can only deliver powerful stabs. Anyway, now I can see a photo of different swords. Mostly though, as you get more south into Asia and Africa, you'll find a greater variety in blades and weapons of all kinds. In fantasy novels, it can be great because there's no end to the amount of creativity in a weapon (or anything for that matter).

  8. That's a great point! I love katanas (especially having grown up in Japan). For some reason I thought they fit into the saber category, which is why I didn't cover them separately in this post. Thanks for adding all those notes on katanas! I love profiting off of other people's wisdom :) .

    You raised a really good point there, you know. Other nations outside of the western world really do provide some of the best untapped inspiration, not just for weapons, but for creating your fantasy world in general.

    Thanks for the comment!


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