What do Fiction Authors Get Wrong About Swords?

Another really fabulous, useful Quora answer from Eric Lowe: What do fiction writers get wrong about historic medieval and ancient weapons?

This is a long, long answer that is well worth clicking through and reading in its entirety. But here is a brief summary of the points Eric makes in this answer:

–Authors sometimes treat sharpness as if it’s an immutable, inherent quality of a sword. It is not. It’s more like cleanliness: a sword that has been sharpened will stay sharp until it does something that makes it not sharp, at which point it will remain not sharp until it has been sharpened.

–Many swords can hack into a mammal with a reasonably sharp edge and some force. A truly sharp sword whistles through mammal as if it isn’t even there.

THERE is an image. This is also relevant to a scene I just wrote a week or two ago, when Ryo gets into a (very brief) duel with someone who, um, never mind, probably better not to mention too much about that scene considering the book isn’t out yet. Anyway, I think this comment makes that scene more plausible, so that’s handy. Moving on.

–Swords require constant maintenance. Did you touch your sword today? Then it requires oiling. And I don’t mean, “Did you touch the metal parts?” Did you touch your sword at all today? Then it probably requires oiling. 

–virtually any weapon you can think of has been ascribed deep cultural significance, even in societies that lionize the sword.

–There is a trope in adventure fiction in which a character trains obsessively in secret, emerging as a sort of wunderkind to take his revenge (its almost always revenge). This is not how training works. While there are many ways to practice solo, fundamentally, it takes two to fence. It takes many more than two to fence well. High-level proficiency requires practicing against a multitude of different opponents.

–[A fighter] might well have a preference or specialty, but the idea of someone being an expert in one weapon and only that weapon flies in the face of how historical arts seem to have been structured.

–When you think of medieval “fencers,” you mustn’t think of effete dancers. Think swaggering desperadoes whose schools are almost gang headquarters, rowdy and dangerous men who have studied the art of fighting more obsessively than most warrior aristocrats and have a reputation for getting into frequent fights. 

–From a non-fencer’s perspective, there are no slow swords (nor any other weapon, for that matter). From inside the fight, timing differences of a tenth of a second may seem downright ponderous, but from outside the fight, unless you know what you’re looking for, every single weapon is blindingly fast. 

–for the most part, skilled fighters seem to have acted like predators, which is to say they generally avoided people who stood even a reasonable chance of injuring them. You stack bodies by picking on people who are far inferior to you or by using standard predator tactics such as ambush and attacking in packs, not by engaging in a series of fair fights, or even partially fair fights.

–We are more familiar with blunt force trauma today, so we more easily imagine the bone-crunching impact of a shield rim or a pommel. We have a harder time imagining the dread of implacable steel: the flash of edge or point that invades your body to steal your soul, leaving behind only butchered meat. But if you look at historical martial arts treatises, blunt force techniques are a distinct minority. If you have a blade in your hand, plans A, B, and C should involve using it.

A whole bunch more at the link. I excerpted just little bits. By all means click through and read the whole thing.

I know a whole bunch of commenters here are working on novels of their own. Are you all following Eric? I feel like everyone should be following Eric. I feel like everyone should be begging him to write a book about the craft involved in writing believable, dramatically effective fight scenes and for that matter believable warrior and soldier characters to go with his book about Medieval weaponry. He’s great at expressing ideas and he knows how to think about scene construction and storytelling.

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7 thoughts on “What do Fiction Authors Get Wrong About Swords?”

  1. I’ve lately been rereading the King’s Blades series by Dave Duncan, and I’m impressed by how they hit pretty much all of the items Lowe mentions here.

    The books follow a number of young swordsmen trained in the legendary fencing school Ironhall, which turns out the best swordsmen in the known world–where “best” encompasses quite a range of skill and speed, of course. All the Blades train in the use of sabres, rapiers, and broadswords, even if they might eventually prefer one type (or a hybrid, like a schiavona, for versatility). And in their five years of training they NEED a huge number of practice partners, so any prior graduate returning to the school always gets pressed into practice with the current trainees!

    There’s a lot of truly excellent fight scenes, but it’s also interesting how often the swordsmen AVOID fighting, because they’ve made a calculated evaluation of the odds (or because it would endanger the ward they’re magically bound to protect). And even so, it’s noted several times that taking on two opponents at a time should be expected of a Blade, but three opponents is exceptional and four is legendary — quite a difference from the mob-on-one fights we often see on TV!

    They’re swashbuckling adventure books and I really enjoyed the reread. (Start with THE GILDED CHAIN.)

  2. Thanks, Mary Beth! I’m definitely picking up The Gilded Chain … there, done, very low price, no doubt as an inducement to begin the series. I believe Duncan is an author I just have never happened to try, even though the name is familiar. I’m happy to give his books a try … eventually … when I’m reading again. (I have started the second Grandmaster book) (but just barely).

  3. I hope you enjoy it! (And that you’re enjoying Grandmaster too!).

    Duncan died in 2018 but he’d returned to the Blades series for one more book just before his passing. Apparently the publisher had only first draft, with no edits, and so decided to go ahead and release the book in that form, as a final tribute. That’s the only one I haven’t yet read—I’m of two minds whether I want to see that unpolished first draft version (and get a look into the writing process). Though I’m sure I’ll read it someday—but as long as I postpone that day, the series hasn’t ended for me yet!

  4. I’m glad the publisher released it, but if that ever happens to me, I hope another author will clean up the draft a bit if necessary.

  5. This. All of this. There’s this nonfiction book called When Violence Is the Answer by Tim Larkin, and he basically makes the point that the more you know about martial arts and weapons, the less you want to fight, because you understand what kind of damage violence can do to your body and your psyche. So you pick your fights very, very carefully. He also talks about social and asocial violence, which is a fascinating subject all of its own.
    But that’s off-subject. Thanks for sharing this, Rachel! I’ll happily click through when I have a minute, because this sounds fascinating.
    @ Mary Beth,
    I’ll have to try that series, it sounds like fun. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. There’s a Chinese story about an imperial butcher who had sharpened his cleaver on taking the job and never again.

    This was because he cut through the gaps in the animal. It observes that the cleavers grow dull based on how clumsily the butcher cuts.

    Of course, in a fight, you don’t have the option to cut so carefully that the blade goes through the joint and strikes no bone.

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