High Fantasy at Work

ENTERTAINMENT - A couple of months ago the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York introduced the stick to its walls. According to Christopher Bensch, the museum's curator:

"It's very open-ended, all-natural, the perfect price -- there aren't any rules or instructions for its use. It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight's sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot with a rubber band. ... No snowman is complete without a couple of stick arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows.

"This toy is so fantastic that it's not just for humans anymore. You can find otters, chimps and dogs -- especially dogs -- playing with it."

The stick is essentially a toy for the imagination. Its not long before its being wielded as a gun or a sword, which is the basis for today's post.

For children and travelers no one was without their trusty walking stick, that weapon and tool that defied breaking (because they had repeatedly smashed stick against stick until they had the strongest one left).

Human warfare evolved from the stick. It was our spears and our clubs, the very concept of which went onto the making of maces and swords, and even arrows for our bows and bolts for our crossbows. Even the basic shape of the crossbow and the stick is part of modern rifles, positioned to be an extension of our arms rather than our eyes which we aim with.

Even our flagpoles are representational of the flags that once hung from spears and lances.

In addition to weapons our folklore, legends and mythology evolved with it:

  • Zeus with his lightning javelins.
  • Poseidon with his trident.
  • Lancelot with his lance.
  • Beowulf, Siegfriend/Sigurd, King Arthur, Conan, knights, samurai, pirates, adventurers of all stripes with their swords.
  • Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader with their lightsabers.

    Even James Bond wields a sword in "Die Another Day", the last installment with Pierce Brosnan as Bond. Our modern entertainment is full of examples of sword bearing vigilantes (Christian Bale in Batman Begins, Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Gerard Butler in 300, Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy)...

    Yes, sword and sorcery is indeed alive and strong in our modern mythos.

    There is even rumours of a new Conan movie to come out in either 2010 or 2011, possibly starring Hugh Jackman as the original swordbuckling adventurer created by Robert E. Howard (as opposed to the dim-witted, sometimes drunk version by director/writer John Milius from the 1982 film). The original Conan stories depict a Cimmerian warrior who was never sold into slavery, but chose a life of travel and adventure, leaving his home to find work as a mercenary and a thief, eventually becoming a warlord, a leader, an usurper and a king.

    True, Conan was tall and muscular in the stories, but Arnold Schwarzenegger took it to new extremes (Lets face it, Arnie is huge!). The new film will be gritty like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, bringing the character back to his beginnings and this time to be true to Howard's Conan stories rather than the bastardized Milius version.

    I digress.

    The point of all this is how symbolic fantasy swordplay is both in terms of modern entertainment, and also in terms of part of our collective cultural mythology. As a boy I played with swords almost EVERY day. I grew up with quite a collection of sticks which were my swords at the time, swordfighting with my best friend or my sister was one of my favourite activities even well into my teen years. At the age of 12 I was writing stories about pirates and by the age of 15 I was writing full length high fantasy novels set in an alternate world with minotaurs / etc. Even now I still write stories regularly (see and I've developed a fairly large collection of real swords, preferring the more practical or historical swords vs the grotesque fantasy swords. (If anyone has a saber from the American Civil War, I am looking to buy one.)

    Lets stop and define what high fantasy is:

    High Fantasy: Alternate World where magic and/or monsters exist. ie. The Forgotten Realms, Krynn, Hyborean Earth, Middle Earth, Narnia or even the sub-world of Harry Potter. The plot is often something epic and huge, like a war between the evil dragons and the good dragons (the plot of Dragonlance).

    Low Fantasy: Takes place on Earth, but with fantasy elements introduced. ie. Clash of the Titans, Beowulf, Siegfried/Sigurd, King Arthur, etc. Even Star Wars counts as low fantasy because it supposedly takes place in our universe, uses a fantasy tagline (a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away), it has magic (the Force) and the heroes wield "magical" swords (lightsabers). Star Wars is not actually Science Fiction because there is no attempt to explain how lightsabers or hyperspace travel actually works. The plot of Low Fantasy can be either epic or it can be more personal.

    Sword and Sorcery: Fast paced, character driven plot, often between the swordbuckling adventurer and some evil wizard, monster or demon as the central villain. Samurai Jack is an excellent example, wherein he must defeat the oni demon Aku. Conan is the original "Sword and Sorcery" hero, wherein the term was coined shortly after the introduction of the character is the pulp magazine "Weird Tales".


    Anyone who is into Freudian psychology will of course point out that swords are phallic symbols and a manifestation of the male ego. Well duh! LOTS of things are phallic shaped simply because its an universal geometric shape, but that is not the be-all-end-all of their meaning. Swords are also cultural symbols, often worn these days for ceremony as opposed to actual use. Maces too, especially in parliamentary proceedings, have ceremonial purposes.

    If you go over to South Korea, Japan or various other Asian countries you might also see guards standing outside embassies carrying katanas (and sometimes wakizashis too) instead of rifles, and in this case they're actually meant to be used. So depending where you go swords still have a practical purpose because its considered a less lethal way of defending a building (and unlike guns you don't have to worry about running out of bullets).

    And if you go to various Middle Eastern countries there are places that still have public beheadings with swords. Saudi Arabia (allies with the United States) still has public executions using swords.

    Saddam Hussein (before he was captured and eventually hanged obviously) once owned quite a collection of swords, had various public sculptures of swords made and even wrote a low fantasy novel called "Zabibah and the King". The book was so popular in pre-invasion Iraq that a 20 episode TV series was based off the book (although one can be certain Hussein ordered the TV series made, knowing Iraq's adult literacy rate was approx. 70%).

    Not that Saddam Hussein is alone in this. George W. Bush also has a collection of swords. They are after all both men who were war leaders.

    Where would warfare be without swords? True, we don't use swords in actual war any more. Nor do we use spears, lances or bows (despite the latest Rambo flick). Its certainly a far cry from Napoleon's era when swords still had a place alongside rifles, bayonets and canons because warfare was often close combat.

    Again I digress.

    Now to my final point, the difference between men and women. Women, generally speaking, are a bit bored by the whole swords, bows and spears obsession men have. As such there isn't a lot of women lining up to read fantasy books, watch fantasy movies... likely because fantasy typically caters to the macho male ideal (big muscular men rescuing damsels in distress).

    There really is a short list of commonly known female heroines who wield swords: Atalanta (Greek myth), Joan of Arc (Catholic Saint), Xena Warrior Princess, Laurana (Dragonlance), The Bride/Beatrix in 'Kill Bill', Arwen (The Lord of the Rings) and Elizabeth Swann (Pirates of the Caribbean). You might be able to think of others, but suffice to say the list is short.

    Part of this might not be the culture already present, but also a question of parenting. Some parents choose to send their daughters to ballet, figure skating, teaching them to sew, cook or things we consider to be more domestic or feminine. (Teehee, Conan the Ballet Dancer.)

    Lastly there's also the fact fantasy is identified typically as being either European, Arabic or Asian, despite ample myths and legends to be found in Africa or the Americas which could be used as the base for a new genre of fantasy fiction.

    Conclusions: With the rise of online games/MMORPGs like Dungeons & Dragons Online, Conan: The Hyborean Age or World of Warcraft there is no doubt fantasy is going to be growing in popularity in the years to come, but it also needs to grow by expanding the genre so its more accessible to other cultures and women.

    Remember Zula (the character played by Grace Jones in "Conan the Destroyer")? That was a deliberate attempt by the writers to create a character that more people could identify with. Admittedly it was tokenism, but the idea was there at least.

    My advice? Don't see fantasy as being androcentric or Eurocentric, think of it as an opportunity to create something new.

    Or alternatively there's no shortage of myths about women that could be reintroduced to the modern mythos by making a new version of them. All it takes is a little research and then you can rewrite the old stories, or make up new stories to fill in the gaps.
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