A few weeks ago, my colleague Jon Sprunk gave us a marvelous post on the weapons of fantasy. Like Jon, the weapons were very much what attracted me to fantasy in the first place. But I loved swords and sword fighting before I ever picked up my first fantasy novel (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which, by the way, the tradition of named weapons is followed with Peter’s sword Rhindon).
I’m not sure what got Jon started off, but what attracted me to sword fighting, and prepared me for the fight scenes in my favourite genre, were movie sword fights, beginning particularly with those in Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
It was from this last movie that I also gained my life-long love of archery, and the great archer Howard Hill, who did all the trick shots for Flynn, including the iconic splitting of the arrow.
Flynn did do all his own fencing in the films, but unlike his frequent opponent and co-star, Basil Rathbone, he didn’t take it up as a sport.
The next movie to make any impression on me was the early Cyrano de Bergerac, with Jose Ferrar, followed much later by Richard Lester’s movies The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and The Return of the Musketeers. There have been quite a few Musketeer movies since then, but most of them aren’t quite as good, especially in the fencing area. Gerard Depardieu’s Cyrano is well worth seeing, however.
These are all historical movies, of course, not fantasies, but what they do have in common with the Fantasy genre is the focus placed on the sword. All of the main characters in these films, and in the stories they were based on, were swordsmen – and yes, they were all swordsmen. Like it or not, that’s historical as well.
Their talent with a sword was not only part of their characters, part of what made them who they were, but a necessary element in the plot. Like Iñigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, or Count Rugen for that matter, they are all great swordsmen. Though Count Rugen should remind us that being great with a sword didn’t always make you a hero. Some of the great villains of film and literature alike have been famous swordsmen.
More recently, we’ve seen actual Fantasy movies involving swordplay, some of it similar to what attracted me in the first place, and some quite different. In many ways, the swordplay in movies like LOTR, Pirates of the Caribbean, Game of Thrones, and so on, is more accurate. At least, there seems to be some understanding that at one time in history, there were broadswords.
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge an actor who bridges the gap between the historical and the fantastic. I’m speaking, of course, of Christopher Lee, who plays the villain Rochfort in The Three Musketeers and the villain Saruman in LOTR. Like Basil Rathbone (who also played the villains), Lee was another actor who became an accomplished fencer in real life.
Ironically, what’s probably done more for the popularity of swords and fencing among genre fans is the light saber. When Obi Wan said “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age,” he could have been talking about the sword. In watching Luke train with it, we’re reminded that using a sword takes long training, and using it well takes great skill. It’s a personal weapon, and as such is well suited to storytelling, where the focus is on character and plot. We’re telling the stories of individuals who fight – and kill – with their own hands.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website: www.violettemalan.com