We all know that heroes should only use the swordiest sword, or perhaps the bowiest bow, but how do you determine that? Which sword has the most sword-like qualities? What if you, gasp, want to use some other kind of weapon? Well then, this episode is for you, because we’re talking about every fantasy weapon we could think of, and a few we probably couldn’t.
Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Wes: Welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is-
Wes: And today the Mythcreants podcast is the “What Fantasy Weapon Are You?” podcast. Because if there’s one thing we know about weapons and fantasy stories, it’s that they define the character completely. [laughter] No exceptions, entire personalities are wrapped around specific weapons and the associations readers have with them. So Oren, Chris. What is your signature fantasy weapon, knowing that it says everything there is to know about you?
Oren: That’s all right, I got this, I prepared. Okay. Mine is a gun shield from the armory of Henry VIII. It’s literally a shield with a gun built into it. Like me, it seems cool and neat when you first hear about it, but the more you learn, the more you realize that it’s really impractical and doesn’t actually do much-
Chris: [laughs] Oren!!
Oren: -and this also matches who I am on the inside. [laughter] I love the gun shield, it’s one of my favorites. It’s like even cooler than a gun blade somehow. It’s like, it feels like such a cheesy gamer weapon too. Where the idea is that you’ll have your shield out and just be able to shoot from behind it with no real thought given to how you would reload or aim. It’s like, yeah, this is definitely something that someone made after playing a lot of Elden Ring and wishing they could shoot through the shield. [laughter]
Chris: Let’s see, my weapon that defines me…so I was trying to think of what the definition of a weapon is, because if you make a magical weapon, then that really matters, right? Cause a magical weapon could operate in ways that, you know, normal weapons don’t and I was wondering if you animated a skeleton and punched somebody with it, if that would be a weapon.
And then I decided, well, y’know, technically with these fantasy weapons, you should have to hold them at some point. So if I was holding an animated skeleton arm and then that arm punched people. [laughter]
Wes: You’re like, one step away from just creating an army of Muppets as weapons.
Chris: [laughs] Yeah, that’s me. That’s it.
Oren: So Wes, what is your weapon? You have to answer, you asked us this question.
Wes: I mean, I was going very, I suppose, boring in comparison, but I’m a fan of the classic cutlass. I appreciate a pointy end, a curved blade, and a pommel with, you know, a hand guard on it that I can punch people in the face with when they get too close.
Oren: I mean, that’s really important if you’re going to be fighting on the deck of a ship, cause there’s not a lot of room there. You’re very often not going to be able to have room to swing your weapon.
Wes: Exactly. Although I think in role-playing games, I’m honestly more drawn to halberds and glaives. Because they’re cool. [laughs] Not practical, but they’re cool.
Oren: I’m a big fan of polearms, although for all of its issues, the Seventh Sea role-playing game first edition had a really neat mechanic with encouraging you to use alternate weapon strikes. You could just stab someone with your sword. Or you could roll a pommel strike or you could roll what was called a beat where you were trying to hit their weapon with your weapon. It was just very neat and it was a little complicated, but as far as fencing systems go, it’s one of the better ones out there.
Chris: I think one of the central tensions in, especially in speculative fiction weapons, which also translates to fantasy weapons in particular, is the fact that effective human weapons have a limited number of designs simply because they have to be practical as weapons, but everybody wants to create weapons that are unique or varied or weird and different. And so it’s hard to do that and also have a weapon that could actually be used.
Oren: That’s how you ended up with the bat’leth. This is mostly a sci-fi problem. Fantasy writers have mostly just consigned themselves to the fact that they’re going to use weapons that are more or less like what historical weapons were like, although there are some exceptions, JRPGs exist, but in sci-fi in particular, it’s like, I want to invent a knife and it has to look like an alien knife. And it’s like, what would an alien knife look like? Other than like a knife. Those are pretty efficient for the thing they’re designed to do, right?
Wes: It’s an interesting point kind of about like, the limitations of how we can have weapons. Cause I think if we set sci-fi aside and focus some more on fantasy, high fantasy stuff, there’s a pretty bog standard group of weapons that are acceptable. And to me, it seems like they’re chosen because their, I suppose, power levels are more or less comparable. I think that is why it’s attractive. It’s like, okay, so anybody could grab something, like somebody could grab a blowgun and somebody else could have a warhammer. And the person with the blowgun would kill the warhammer wielder because ranged weapons always win. But…[laughter]
Chris: I mean, you could throw the warhammer.
Wes: You could throw the warhammer, exactly. Like, and that would be just as effective, if you’re going into battle, if you’ve got an axe as opposed to a sword, you can probably do just as fine. One isn’t inherently better than the other, unless you’re the Chosen One, and the sword is always the Chosen One’s weapon.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, fantasy writers do love swords for various reasons. And like I’m willing to let them get away with it as long as they don’t use katanas as super-swords. That’s where I draw the goddamn line. Looking at you, Name of the Wind. [laughter]
Returning to our earlier point about ranged weapons, this is actually a thing that I find very annoying and I think writers could do to look at more is the question of, how well can a person actually use a weapon in close range? And this doesn’t just apply to ranged weapons, it can apply to polearms, or even big swords, too. These weapons are like, physically awkward and hard to use really close up. And you sort of have the opposite problem in stories with guns because in fiction that has guns in it, you always have sequences where the main character is being held at gunpoint, and then the main character like, lunges and attacks the person and takes the gun. And it’s like, y’know, this isn’t D&D, they don’t have to wait their turn, right? They can just shoot you as you’re doing that. But like in fantasy, it’s almost the opposite problem where someone will have a longbow and shoot an enemy that’s like five feet away. And it’s like, you’ll be lucky if you can get the arrow pulled back in that amount of time. Longbows are not melee weapons, hot take. I don’t care what Legolas showed you.
Wes: The only thing that I really appreciate with Legolas was when he pulled an arrow out of his quiver and just stabbed someone with it. I’m like, okay, granted, it’s probably not a great stabbing device, but that makes more sense to me.
Oren: Look, it’ll get the job done if you need to, okay? It’s not ideal. Let me put it this way: If someone was like, right on me and I had the choice between trying to shoot them with my bow or just stab them with an arrow, I would use the arrow. I mean, hypothetically. In real life, I would cower because I have no combat training.
Wes: Cowering is a very appropriate tactic.
Oren: But if I was thinking rationally, that’s how I would do it.
Wes: But I think you’re right too, because Legolas and Gimli, I mean, we talk about the fantasy weapons that the characters wield and how that defines them. Gimli wouldn’t be caught dead using a dagger, even though he definitely could have made good use of that. Just getting like knocked on his ass a lot and just whip a dagger out and stab somebody with it because it’s faster than your two-handed axe. Variety’s the spice of life, so carry all the weapons on you all the time. There’s no carry limits! [laughs]
Oren: Again, I do think, and I wrote about this in an article of mine, I do think that authors could benefit and get some extra novelty out of having their characters use different weapons for different situations, because you have to think about the size of the weapon and the space that it takes up and whether or not you can actually carry one indoors for that matter. Some of these weapons are in excess of 10 feet long and have like a giant metal axehead on one end. And that’s going to be hard to carry through doors, let alone use inside a small room, right?
Chris: So when would you use a flail?
Oren: Um, well, [laughs] there is a, there is discourse about flails. I love it. I have no idea who is right, but there is a lot of argument among online medieval weapon enthusiasts, about to what extent the flail is even real as a weapon. And I have no idea who is correct. I haven’t consulted any primary sources. But even the flail’s diehard adherents acknowledge that it’s probably a pretty rare weapon. Cause it’s hard to use and kind of awkward. It has a good chance of hitting someone who’s next to you.
Wes: It seems like one that would be good for like one swing and then he’d just be like, “Oh man, behave! Like, why won’t it behave? It keeps hitting everything I don’t want it to hit.”
Oren: Yeah, the answer to when you would use a flail seems to be, when you want to show off, if you’re a real showboat, then you would use a flail. It’s a very attention grabbing weapon.
Chris: That’s one of the things that, again, even if people are writing and fantasy and have resigned themselves to historical weapons, there’s always a flail in there. At least in visual media where you have a bunch of dudes, and one of them has a flail because people just want to give them variety.
Oren: I also feel like slings are underused. I think that the sling has a lot of potential. For one thing, you can roll a sling up and hide it in an inner pocket. It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to a concealed weapon in a fantasy setting. And you can absolutely ruin someone’s day with a sling. I mean, it doesn’t have the power of a longbow or a crossbow, but you know, if you’re not fighting heavily armored opponents, it doesn’t have to. And so I think that having characters who use slings other than just like, kids with a toy could be neat. Especially if you have like an assassin type character who needs a ranged weapon that isn’t obvious. I think the sling is a perfect option.
Wes: You can hide it so well. Or you could wear it as an eyepatch. [laughter] It’s very discreet. Speaking of flails being inconvenient, one take I remember watching a YouTube video years ago on was the effectiveness of two-handed swords and full plate armor. And it was basically advocating for this idea that fights between heavily armored knights were more like wielding two-handed staves against each other, where you would hold the sword by the hand, and you’d have the other end of the sword in your other hand, and you would kind of like, two hand fight each other with the goal being to get the sharp edge of your sword between the plating and the armor. So it’s a lot more like wrestling-oriented. And I thought that was quite an interesting take. There’s clearly some historian who’s like, ”No, you guys, it was definitely this way”, but that different approach to combat was very compelling to me. It was like, okay, they don’t just whack each other with these weapons. There’s maybe some precision involved or a different type of martial art aesthetic to it that you can bring to your story.
Oren: Well, there’s also a lot of discourse on exactly how common big two-handed swords actually were and to what extent they were just display pieces. But it is certainly true, and basically everyone agrees with this, is that if you’re wearing what is generally considered plate mail, or maybe even less advanced armor, the chances of a sword cutting or stabbing through it are very low. So you’re going to have to come up with some creative solutions if you have a sword and your opponent is wearing basically an articulated coating of metal. Your sword is not cutting through that.
Chris: That’s when you use the flail! [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, or a mace. Or even a spear, a spear has a better chance of being able to punch through cause you’re focusing more of the energy on a single point. That’s actually what the half swording technique is for, which is this cool thing where you take a two-handed sword and you hold part of it by the actual blade, and then you put your other hand on the handle and you just kind of stab with it. And it looks awkward as heck, and it is, [Wes laughs] but it’s a cool idea. And again, it’s hard to say how often this was actually used because data on the use of big two-handed swords is pretty sparse, but it would be a cool thing to do. If you have your two knights fighting each other and one of them starts half swording, that’s going to be like, most readers won’t have seen that. Now you’ll have to describe it by the same token, cause they won’t be familiar with it, but they would have a lot of novelty value, is all I’m saying.
Wes: Cause you brought up flails a few times and we brought up maces, I want to talk about associations because when you brought up the flail, I was reminded of when the Nazgul King dismounts and drops that flail and starts whipping it around at Eowyn. And more often than not, I think bludgeoning weapons like that are associated with villains. My hot take is because villains are ungraceful brutes. And swords are for refined protagonists, heroes use bladed weapons, at least in certain fantasy stories.
Chris: I do think that bludgeoning weapons definitely have association with like, big hulking figures that are more about brute force than precision. I mean, the question is how many of these are villains and what kind of villains? I would almost suspect that they’re more likely to be minions or, you know, like ogres and trolls. Because oftentimes a big bad still has a level of precision.
Oren: You also see the same thing with the axe. Like axes are a barbarian weapon. Someone decided at some point, and like, I don’t really know why, but that is the association that we have. It’s kind of odd, but it exists for sure.
Wes: Yeah, I just think those associations are kind of fascinating. Like swords are just so, like, bog standard, and so the appearance of something else draws attention to it, but how they choose to bring attention to it seems to matter more if it’s an “unusual” weapon, the presence of like, a hammer shouldn’t be novel, but it ends up being novel. I think, was it in the second, yeah, Eldest, Eragon and then Eldest, it’s his, Roran, right, his cousin, has a war hammer. And I remember being like, “What? Why doesn’t he have a sword? Everybody has swords.” But that somehow like, defined him with the hammer and he gripped the hammer and he would angst about his hammer and I was like, okay. So he’s not a weirdly Elvish, cultured Eragon. He’s more practical, brute, and he has the hammer to back it up.
Chris: I think villains are associated with spikes, serration, and also for some reason, daggers that are wavy. [laughter]
Wes: Wavy daggers!
Oren: Yeah, the snakey daggers!
Chris: The wavy sacrificial daggers! The sacrificial dagger’s gotta be like weirdly wavy for some reason.
Oren: Villains do really like their serrated swords, which are not really a thing, kind of uncommon. If it’s a serrated edge, it’s almost certainly for like a tool rather than for killing. You use that for cutting rope and stuff. It’s not really a very practical fighting weapon, but I get it, you know, it looks mean so bad guys will use it for sure. Bad guys also love spiked armor. I mean, not only bad guys, sometimes good guys have spiked armor too, but it’s more common on bad guys and it’s like, okay, how are you, like, walking around with that on? [laughter] What if you and your friend bump into each other? Oops, going to be a bit of a problem.
Chris: I do think it’s funny that they establish in The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones, that their explanation for Harrison Ford’s scar on his chin is that he actually does that to himself with his whip. [laughter] Like, first time trying a whip. It’s like, that’s great, let’s be realistic about the dangers of using weapons.
Wes: Yeah. The whip as a weapon is hilarious. I mean like, D&D threads like to talk about getting whip proficiency and the reach that it gives you, but all I can think about is just like, you’ve got a whip and someone else is like, I’ve got a spear, you’re dead.
Oren: The whip is definitely not a real weapon. I mean, like, you could definitely use it to hurt somebody, but it’s not really designed as an efficient means to kill another person. Hot take.
Wes: [jokingly] How dare you Oren. I just tie a dagger to the end of the whip. And then it’s a whippy dagger.
Oren: A whip-flail! [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, a whip-flail!
Oren: There you go! I mean, Indiana Jones even, doesn’t actually use the whip to kill people. He uses it to like, grab objects and hit levers, which I’m also a bit skeptical that he could do that, but it’s a, you know, a more believable use of it than like, if he was building a whip sneak attack build.
Chris: Yeah, It’s basically his rope, right? But it can do extra things.
Oren: It’s a danger rope. [laughs]
Chris: [laughs] It’s his danger rope!
Wes: It probably is very much a magical weapon though. The way it just like, attaches and then he can swing and then like, magically unattach it and disarm people.
Oren: How does the whip know it’s time to unattach? [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, I refuse to believe that like a little wrist flick is enough to make the whip say “Oh, okay. I’ll untie myself.”
Oren: And if it is, then that’s not a very safe thing to put your weight on, right? [laughter]
Chris: So we can also talk about weapons that aren’t slashy, stabby or smashy.
Oren: Can we though? Hmmm…
Chris: See, I think a poison ring should count as a weapon.
Oren: Oh man, getting spicy over here!
Chris: Wikipedia tells me that these were actually used, tells me they’re real, people actually had poison rings they used to poison people.
Wes: So like, covertly open your ring over somebody’s drink?
Chris: Yes, in fact, according to Wikipedia, which maybe is true, in Italy today still, if you pour a drink while holding the bottle so that the back of your hand is facing down, so that you could like, open a ring and poison somebody, it’s still offensive! Cause that’s the position your hand would need to be in if you were to poison somebody!
Wes: Ohh, that’s great, oh man.
Oren: Poison is definitely a weapon and it can be very neat. Not very common for someone to poison the king and then be like, “Tell him it was me, I want him to know!” It’s like, usually you don’t want them to know, but yeah, sometimes you gotta brag. I get it, I get it.
Chris: One thing that’s often not included is that they used to poison clothes too, so you could have tactile poisons. We don’t think about that, we always think about darts.
Wes: It’s tough too, cause like, those all sound like very effective weapons, but you’re hard pressed to find your protagonists using them because poison is bad.
Chris: [jokingly] Poison’s the coward’s weapon.
Oren: I mean, unless you’re reading a story that’s heavily RPG influenced and then everyone is like always adding poison to their weapons for an extra d6 of damage. [laughter] It’s like, that’s not really how poisoned weapons work.
Wes: Yeah, that just adds damage and that’s kind of abstract, but like, we brought up this serrated weapons and the pointy weapons of the villains. There’s like a visual pain quotient associated with certain types of weaponry. And if you are an antagonist, you probably are wielding weapons that have a higher pain association. Whereas the sword is supposed to be maybe like, a clean kill. We’ve seen enough shows and read enough stories now where like one stab instantly kills somebody. So it’s almost like a mercy.
Chris: Unless one stab means they just like, walk it off. [laughs] Only two settings, the walk it off setting and the instant kill setting [Wes laughs]. Those are our options.
Wes: I mean, even, just think about how they dressed up the Uruk-hai, his bow and the black arrows to take out Boromir in the movie. Legolas has a bow, but like, that’s clean and nice. And it’s like, okay, we have to really make this look like everything hurts.
Oren: This is an evil bow. This bow is not nice!
Wes: Yeah, this bow is so evil! [laughs]
Chris: But you made a good point about poison because usually it’s just villains that poison their blades.
Wes: Well, you got to add threat because a normal stab and the hero’s just going to walk it off.
Chris: Especially if your hero is supposed to be badass that they like, never lose a duel ever. So then you create threat by being like, “Oh, but the villain poisoned their blade, so now all they have to do is nick you, so you could die even if you win the fight!”
Wes: That’s everybody’s stealing Hamlet. [laughter]
Chris: Yep, basically.
Oren: The end of Dune tried to do that where it was like, they were like, okay, we want Paul to fight, what’s his name? Feyd-Rautha. And we want Paul to fight him. And that’s our climax for Dune. And obviously this is a really one-sided fight because Paul is basically a god at this point and Feyd-Rautha is just some guy who is like, okay at fighting, we established. Not great, but like, okay at it. And so it had like a desperate attempt to add some tension, we had Feyd-Rautha poison his weapon, and it’s like, man, that is not enough, especially since we sort of established earlier that Paul is maybe just immune to poisons now. [laughter] But like, even if we hadn’t established that, it’s like this guy is not even going to touch Paul, he’s such a badass by that point at the end of the story.
Chris: One thing I want to know, is there any reason Buffy shouldn’t be using a longbow? Since she has super strength and longbows take lots of strength, is a crossbow better in some way, or is it just smaller and more convenient?
Oren: Well, if you will allow me to nerd a bit, longbows are real big and physically tall. And obviously Buffy is super strong so she can use whatever longbow she feels like, but they can be kind of hard to maneuver in tight quarters in comparison to this fairly short crossbow and crossbows also have the advantage of they’re much easier to aim. Longbows take, or any bow really, takes a lot longer to learn to aim a target. You go down to the ren faire and you can try out bows and crossbows and, you know, with a crossbow, you can generally hit the target pretty quickly. Cause it’s just a point and click, whereas with a longbow or, you won’t be using a longbow, if you go down to the ren faire to try a bow, [laughter] but with a bow, you will be lucky if you are hitting the target by the end of your first shooting lesson. So there are reasons why Buffy might still prefer a crossbow. Also contrary to popular belief, crossbows are not super easy to load either. Especially the old-timey ones that she’s using. Modern ones are super easy to load, but you still have to be pretty strong to pull the crossbow back. That’s why some crossbows have that weird stirrup on the front, because you’re actually supposed to put your foot in that and hold the crossbow down so you can pull the cord back, which drives me up the wall when crossbows have that stirrup in movies and stuff, but then they don’t use it for that. And it’s like, why do you have the stirrup if you’re not going to use it? [laughter]
Chris: I guess if she was in alleys all the time in close quarters, she would need the crossbow, but she could just be on the rooftop with a longbow and just wait for the vampires to come and shoot them from above.
Oren: Yeah, there are definitely a lot of instances where the longbow would be a superior weapon for someone like Buffy. The main thing is that we’ve already sort of established that Buffy kind of doesn’t like training. And it’s kind of a pain to get her to train already. So I’m imagining Giles is like, yeah, anything I can do to cut down on the amount of training time, that’s what I’m going with. [laughter]
Wes: I mean, really, if I were Giles, I would have just like, soaked a roll of quarters and holy water and put it in her pocket. [laughter] You like punching things, do ya? Okay, here you go.
Oren: I mean, real question is why they aren’t all just carrying around pockets full of small crosses and just like, throw those at the vampires. [laughter]
Chris: That’s a good point about fantasy weapons. That is a conventional fantasy weapon against vampires, the crosses.
Oren: This is the problem: if your fantasy creature can be defeated by something that is easily made, maybe give it a different weakness. It’s not hard to make crosses. Supernatural had the same problem with its devil traps. Supernatural at one point had the gall to put devil traps on a bullet and it was like, okay, great. I’m gonna have to pretend they’d never figured out how to do this next episode. [laughter]
One more note while we’re here, because we’re getting close to the end. I say this a lot, but just to remind everybody: weapons are much lighter than you think. Like even big swords don’t usually weigh more than four or five pounds, that’s very heavy for a sword. Most one-handed swords are in the one to two pound range, and if it’s a fencing weapon, it often weighs less than a pound. So they’re not that heavy. It is strenuous work to use them because you are making repetitive, swinging motions for long periods of time, but the actual weapon weight is not what’s causing the problem here. You get characters all the time who were like, “I could barely lift the sword!” and I’m like, what, is it like a giant’s sword? Is it a replica novelty anime sword that you’re having trouble lifting? They’re not that heavy.
Chris: Look, the sword is too heavy for the female characters, so we’ll give her a longbow instead. [laughter]
Oren: Oh yeah, that’s right!
Wes: That’s practical.
Oren: That’s my absolute favorite, is that at some point, the bow became a girl weapon by this weird logic of like, well, girls are more delicate, so they need to be kept out of melee. So let’s give them a weapon that requires the most upper body strength of any weapon you could think of. And to be clear, women can absolutely use bows, I’m not saying they can’t, I’m just saying if your logic is that they are delicate and weak, the bow is the wrong weapon to give them. I guess, this is an admonition to not be sexist with your weapons, which is fortunately less of a problem nowadays, I can’t think of a time recently where I cracked open a book and it was like, “The woman couldn’t hold the sword, it was too heavy.” So I haven’t seen that problem for a while, so hopefully we’re done with that, but you know, always bears repeating.
Now I think we’re going to go ahead and call this podcast to a close. Before we do, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber (thefantasywarrior.com). He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
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