Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fantasy Cliché #4 – The Magic Weapon

As an element of fantasy fiction, the Magic Weapon is so often used it’s either the most cliché item on my Top 5 list or it’s an essential ingredient of such stories. Now, we know the latter’s not true as we’ve all read great works of fantasy fiction that lacked any emphasis on magic weapons. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones jumps quickly to mind.

So we’re stuck with cliché. And given the horde of magic weapons stuffed throughout fantasy fiction over the past 50 years it’s hard to argue that they haven’t become a bit overdone. Starting with Tolkien and going back to The Hobbit we had the swords Sting, Orcrist and Glamdring, only to be followed by Narsil in The Lord of the Rings. The series that came after Tolkien brought us the Sword of Shannara, Callandor, and the Sword of Truth, while Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels gave us an array of weapons in Stormbringer, the Runestaff, and the Sword of the Dawn. More recently, J.K. Rowling gave us the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, and let’s not forget the three Deathly Hallows.

This has to be one of my all-time favorite magic weapons!
As with our Orcs and Wise Wizard, the Magic Weapon was popular long before Tolkien penned his first tale. By the end of the early Middle Ages, Arthur had pulled Excalibur from the stone, Roland fought bravely with his sword Durendal, and El Cid had routed many an enemy with his blade, Tizona. But even these gentlemen were following in the footsteps of far more ancient heroes and their magic weapons, such as Cúchulainn and his spear, Gáe Bulg, and Perseus with his sword, shield, and helm from the gods. Magic weapons are as old as mythology itself, but what purpose do they serve?

Cúchulainn looks like he has an arsenal of magic weapons!
Joseph Campbell, who wrote about universal myths in his famous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, notes that almost every culture has stories of heroes obtaining a magic item from some old crone, fairy godmother, or other benign or godlike being. Campbell believes these events and gifts symbolize the protecting power of destiny; the supernatural guardian has given the hero a tool to aid him on his quest. This same concept may explain the lure of the magic weapon in more recent fiction as it becomes the device that gives the hero a chance to defeat the much more powerful antagonist (more on him next week). This arguably is appealing to readers who like the idea of a weapon that can be used to bring down the bad guys, something that makes the hero a little extraordinary, evening the odds a bit against the greater evil he or she must face.

The Magic Weapon has appealed to listeners or readers of stories since ancient times. It’s no wonder then that something so longstanding now seems so overdone. Yet I, for one, don’t mind seeing these in a story provided they fulfill an essential purpose. After all, isn’t this one of the reasons we read fantasy fiction in the first place? Once all the magic is gone, we’re left with nothing more than what the average work of historical fiction already gives us. But I think readers of fantasy fiction are looking for a little bit more.


Leslie said...

I usually appreciate a good magic weapon, myself--for exactly the reasons you stated. It's an archetype, not a cliche! Joseph Campbell points out meaning in our lives as well as meaning in literature.

However, I do agree that the magic weapon in question should have a specific purpose, and not be wedged into the story. And if it doesn't show up, I'm not disappointed. Like you said, there's no magic weapon in Game of Thrones, and I actually appreciated that more. It kept things harsh and human, and didn't offer a cure-all solution for tough situations.

Nice post!

Joseph Finley said...

Leslie, thanks for the comment! I'd been looking for a way to inject Joseph Campbell into my discussions on archetypes, and this seemed like the perfect time. I'm glad you liked the post!