Why Fantasy Swords Belong in Fantasy (not elsewhere)
Mega swords, super swords and all other kinds of made-up dragon-slaying swords belong where they rightly exist–in fantasy! But why do they belong there, and not in real life? In Earth’s historical reality, the European one-handed arming sword has become a well-known and predictable symbol. But in popular medieval fantasy, whether it be in video games, books, movies or comics, the European sword has become a target for unpredictable creative reinvention!
Unlike real historical swords, fantasy swords, in a generic sense, don’t care about proper weight distribution, an important factor medieval swordsmiths took seriously. The classic medieval arming sword, shaped like a cross, has developed into a very specific shape that is the optimal design for hand rotation when you consider key pivot points in the sword’s geometry.
The two YouTube videos below by Roland Warzecha explain the secrets of sword geometry in way more detail than I’ll be doing here. I’ll be making different interesting points. If you don’t have the time or patience to watch these highly-informative videos, here’s an analogy to give you a rough idea of why the classic arming sword has always looked roughly the same throughout history.
Analogy: Think of your modern handyman hammer. Yea, your average nail-hitting hammer you might see hanging for sale in a tool shop. There’s a reason why the hammer is the shape it is, and most people around the world would recognize one as soon as they saw it. The hammer looks the way it does because it possesses the optimal shape for doing the job it was meant to do. It’s a tool. Just like a sword, the hammer is designed to complete a certain task, and it does a very good job at doing it.
If we continue this discussion while ignoring possible magical enchantments we can observe swords in fantasy art and see that if we possessed human arms it would be more practical to use a historically-designed sword rather than a sword invented by modern world-builders. Perhaps we can use a higher quality steel in our swords today, but, for optimal efficiency in the human hand, we’d still want to copy real medieval swordsmiths as much as possible when it comes to geometrical design.
Now I know what some of you might say. Maybe it’s possible for modern master scientists and master mathematicians to design a sword that is more geometrically perfect than medieval swords. But consider my next observation: most fantasy authors and artists are not master scientists or master mathematicians. In many aspects fantasy swords can look a lot more beautiful and impressive than historical swords, but that doesn’t mean they’re better at providing optimal function. Seriously consider watching these videos to understand what I mean by optimal function. They’re made by a master swordsman.
So why are most swords in fantastical artwork NOT “optimal” for the human hand and arm?
The main reason why swords from the Middle Ages were so simple in shape and design was because medieval swordsmiths were aiming for an optimal hilt-to-swordpoint weight ratio. When a hilt becomes heavier than the blade, the whole way the sword should be used changes. Rapiers have most of the weight in the hilt for easier point control and sabers have more weight in the blade for chopping, but your typical medieval arming sword has the weight distributed somewhat evenly to enable effective cutting AND thrusting.
Unless you have super fantasy arms, a sword that is thrice as thick as a historical sword would also be thrice as tiring to wield. Real swords are extremely thin, almost like kitchen knives, but many in fantasy art are thicker than the wielder’s thumb.
To demonstrate further why using many fantasy swords in real life would be impractical, let’s choose a design similar to something you might see in a MMORPG and do some pedantic nitpicking. Ah, this sword should work for the task!
My first critique is how expensive this sword would cost to make, if we’re not spawning it by magic, of course. And right away I can see that the spikes on the pommel might cut your own wrist after practicing a moulinet.
In later medieval times when plate armor was at its heyday, many quillons became pointier and some pommels became blockier. This was to benefit the wielder when he was half-swording, a technique for grappling, or performing a murder stroke, a technique where the sword is held upside-down to function as a mace.
The sickle-like quillons on this fantasy sword could be useful for hooking while half-swording, but they wouldn’t come close to competing with a 15h century longsword if it came to the deadliness of a murder stroke. Why not? Firstly, these sickle-like quillons have more surface area connecting with the target. Secondly, they would have less chance of punching through fabric or chainmail because, unlike pointy quillons on later medieval swords, these ones aren’t even pointing toward the target.
Am I finished yet? (nope, warning: things get really cringy from here)
Those four tiny teeth-like spikes on the crossguard could make a great back scratcher, and you could possibly punch someone with them, but I would much rather go without them on my sword because when practicing a two-handed guard like the cross ox, or an attack like the squinting cut, I don’t want to accidently jab them into my own skull.
It’s hard to say for sure without wielding it first, but I’d assume this sword is extremely unwieldy in the hand. Point control might be difficult because there is a lot of extra weight on it. The rather wide blade, which is like a Roman gladius, wouldn’t pierce gambeson as easily as thinner medieval swords but it would still be deadly against naked flesh. Having this weapon in a fight would be better than having a pocket knife or a screwdriver. But in a real life-or-death battlefield, why not give yourself the highest advantage possible by emulating the millions of professional swordsmen throughout medieval history and pick up a classic arming sword?
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11 thoughts on “Why Fantasy Swords Belong in Fantasy (not elsewhere)”
Thanks. This is very informative. 🙂
Reblogged this on Author Adrian G Hilder and commented:
Fantasy swords look cool, but are they any good?
That initial picture couldn’t be more wrong, though. The swords in the forth panel are the ugliest, most boring swords I’ve ever seen, even worse than the swords of Game of Thrones. It’s like the smiths weren’t even trying to make them look decent. I’m not asking for a flamberge even (which are very real and even practical) but at least give them some ornamenting on the crossguard or some engraving on the blade. ANYTHING.
The point of historical swords was- unlike fantasy ones- not for show. They were very much mainly for function. If you are charging into battle, would you rather have a reliable but boring weapon or a showy unreliable one? I’d prefer the former myself.
I mean I guess that one picture critiquing a very unrealistic sword. On the other hand, the very first picture/meme, there are swords that get inspiration from real Mongolian swords. The swords that are supposedly the correct ones are really boring. If someone wanted to show a medieval knight, then sure. They have no flair at all though. If an artist, writer, or cosplayer wanted a fancy looking sword that wasn’t just a straight stick, let them have it. They may not too far off from the real thing if they really wanted to be realistic about it.
That is a good point, but logically wouldn’t most decoration be on the crossguard and the hilt to not impede upon the effectiveness of the sword?
I think that’s a yellow version of the Lich King’s sword from WoW.