Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

After All, It's Just Fantasy!

Some words on swords and the like.

By Mike Campbell
©2004, Mike Campbell

Fantasy as a genre is often treated with scorn by other "proper" authors. People look down their nose at it and see it as a step below "real" fiction, and consider it the genre of sloppiness, error and easy writing. Itís much easier to write a fantasy novel, right? You donít need to do any research or get any of your facts correct; after all, itís just make believe and nonsense. Right?

This attitude has caused me to wonder if some people actually write fantasy for these very reasons: they assume that as it's fantasy there is no need to do detailed research on anything. A horse can run twenty hours a day; a sword can carve through (or be made of) anything; medieval-era kingdoms can produce armies numbering in the millions; peasant boys can rise up to become king. And so on. Heck, itís just fantasy; itís not meant to be realistic, right? Wrong!

If you want your reader to suspend disbelief when it comes to magic, fictional worlds and shepherds turned kings, you had best get the other things right! The topics of army size and equine matters have been dealt with excellently in previous Vision articles, so I will stick to the weapons and armour.

Some of the most common errors found in fantasy are those concerning weapons. Recently I started A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones and groaned aloud when she described (more than once) the fuller in the sword as a groove for letting enemyís blood run down. The novel was going great up until then but that one minor thing caused me to stop suspending disbelief and put it down. I am sure I will pick it up again, and I am also sure that I may be one of the fussiest readers out there, but wouldnít it have been better if this one tiny error hadnít been there?

The actual purpose of the fuller (which is a groove running down the blade) is to lighten the sword, without weakening it.

I was skimming through a forum for fantasy writers recently when I stumbled across a topic relating to weapons. I read it and found exactly what I feared I would. Someone had recommended a Dungeons and Dragons weapon handbook as a good guide to weapon weights, citing a 10 lb bastard sword as an example. When I waded in to say that this was a ridiculously high weight my post was ignored, with the original poster asking where he could find such a handbook online. Many authors, it seems, do not know about realistic weights for weapons, and what is worse just do not want to know! Again we encounter the "itís just fantasy" mindset. In reality a bastard sword should weigh at the most three and a half pounds, though there are probably some examples of heavier weapons existing. Many of the myths about twenty pound swords are based on discoveries of bearing swords, made to be carried in ceremonies and parades, not for actual use in combat. Can you imagine trying to fight with a twenty-pound bar? After a few minutes your arm would drop off! See below for some links to actual weapon weights.

And what is it with heroes brandishing two-handed great swords? Often these weapons are strapped to their backs and drawn from there with the greatest of ease. There is a reason this was never done historically. The German Landsknecht mercenaries had men who carried such swords and fought in the front lines of the battle; their job was to cut the heads off enemy pikes. The fact that they drew double pay shows how dangerous this was. However, when battle was near they carried their swords resting against their shoulders, much as a soldier will carry a rifle in parade. So if your character simply must have that great big two hander strapped to his back, you had better have him take it off before he tries to draw it, else the poor guy is going to cut his ear off.

Another problem with such blades is the fact that our hero does not have a hand free to hold a shield. If he encounters an opponent of roughly similar skill who has a shield, the enemy is going to block the first blow our hero makes and skewer him, which will be easy to do, because fantasy heroes rarely wear armour. Well, why would they?  We all know armour weighs a ton, right? Wrong! However, I will get to that later. Personally speaking, I love to see a fantasy hero armed with something other than a sword. There are all sorts of exotic weapons out there, so why do authors always seem to restrict themselves to the staples?

Take the medieval war hammer, for example. Despite the dungeons and dragons image of a huge hammer, in fact it more closely resembled a pick. It was excellent for penetrating armour. Perhaps your hero might carry a mace? It will be effective against both armoured and unarmoured opponents and he can use it with a shield. Most fantasy artists seem to think of any kind of axe used for war being double headed, though evidence would indicate that this was not so. Again, it seems to be a much better option to use a one handed weapon to allow you the added protection of a shield. A shield can be used offensively too; you can hit with the edge of it, or even smash the whole thing full force into an enemy.

If your sword can carve through anything and never needs sharpening then you had better explain it (ŗ la Jordanís One Power-forged steel). Medieval swords were not sharp enough to shave with because they did not necessarily need to be. They were designed for fighting mostly armoured opponents so razor sharpness was not required. The Japanese katana was a sharp blade designed for cutting but those wielding it never faced a knight in full plate.

It is surprising what a sword can do, however. It is possible for one blow to take off a head or arm, and it can (using the right techniques) puncture plate. Sure, it might be unusual, but you are allowed a certain leeway.

Yet another common myth relates to the weight of armour. People will earnestly tell you how knights had to be winched up onto their horses, and that when they fell over they could not get up without help. Much of this misconception may come from the fact that armour used in tournaments may have been this heavy, but this was not armour used in actual combat. Archaeological evidence shows that a suit of full plate armour from the later Middle Ages would have weighed up to seventy pounds (though obviously it differs based on the size of the knight). With this weight being distributed about the body it will not affect its wearer all that much Ė though he will become hot and thirsty after fighting for a while.

Chances are, if your hero is travelling a lot, or if he is not all that wealthy, he probably will not be carrying a full suit of plate with him. Hopefully he can afford (or has inherited) a decent mail hauberk. The mail hauberk was the standard armour of the majority of troops throughout the middle ages, and it was quite effective. A good mail hauberk can protect from a cut, or stop an arrow from a light bow (a crossbow or longbow will most likely penetrate it), but it will not protect much against blunt force weapons or from a heavy blow. It is relatively light, though all the weight will lie on your shoulders unless you use a belt with it, or some ties to fasten it about your person. Mail is made of rings of interlinked metal and is often referred to as chain mail. The hauberk can extend to below the knees, split like riding skirts at the groin, and be tied around the legs. Padding should be worn underneath it to absorb the force of blows and prevent it chafing. Your hero should keep his mail from rusting by cleaning it in a barrel of sand and giving it a bit of an oiling.

A lot of the currently popular fantasy (especially George RR Martinís Song of Ice and Fire series or anything by Robin Hobb) is mostly realistic when it comes to weapons, armour and combat. Part of the thrill in reading these books is that you know if the hero takes a blow he may well die, or at least be badly injured.

So please, take a bit of time to research a little about weaponry before you write about it. Doing so will improve your knowledge and ability to write convincing combat scenes, and who knows -- maybe you will find some new ideas for your stories. In addition, you will be doing your bit to erode the image of fantasy as an inferior genre fit only for people who are unable to write "proper" fiction.  

Just a small selection of western medieval weapons to give you an idea of the variance.  

An excellent site for learning about weapons and armour. Donít be afraid to post any questions you might have, as the users are very friendly and willing to help. Geared more towards western medieval weapons.  

Matt Galas' Sword Stats.  

Cariadocís Miscellany. Contains some useful weights for swords and shields.

Valentine Armouries page on historical armour weights.

On Thud and Blunder Ė it has some things wrong, but it is still well worth the read. By the late Poul Anderson, author of a huge number of fantasy and science fiction books and shorts.