Analysis: Heroes Prefer Swords

In many works of medieval historical fiction, medieval fantasy, or ancient historical fiction, the hero uses a sword as a primary weapon. This is regardless of whether a warrior of the culture in question would actually be likely to carry a sword at all.

There are strong cultural reasons for this trope. In Western culture, especially Northern and Central Europe, the sword is seen as the symbol of chivalry, justice, and power. The straight-bladed Middle Ages knightly sword with a simple hilt and crossguard also strongly resembles The Cross, adding religious significance to the weapon.

In Japan, the samurai is considered to be one with his katana, actually imbuing a portion of his spirit into the blade through use and sometimes manufacture. The katana symbolizes the samurai code more than any of the other weapons he could choose. Like the sword in Europe, the katana in Japan is also a weapon of the nobility. Ashigaru, the common-born soldiers, could use yari spears, naginata polearms, or bows, but almost never katana.

Historically, spears were vastly more common weapons than swords. In many ancient and medieval European cultures, spears were the primary weapons of most warriors. Ancient Greece and the Saxons are two notable examples. Axes were also quite common. Both spears and axes were cheaper to make than swords, requiring less metal, and were also extremely effective in skilled hands. As armor and warfare continued to develop, maces, polearms and warhammers became more and more common.

Another reason not to use a sword is that they were often prohibitively expensive throughout history. As mentioned, any Blade on a Stick or axe-type weapon was far cheaper. So when the Hero is a Farm Boy, it's extremely unlikely that he'd have the money to buy a sword or for his relatives to pass one down to him. Of course, he might have received one for a host of reasons, all boiling down to the fact that he's The Hero, so he'd better have a sword.

On the other hand, it is possible to exaggerate how rare and valuable swords were, when in fact this varied quite a bit over time and geography. In early times when the metal and technology to make swords was rare, such as in Migration Era Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, only aristocrats could afford them and they were often made with pattern welded blades or jeweled hilts. As technology and production capacity improved, however, they became much more widely available in a variety of different qualities. In the late middle ages or Renaissance a finely made and decorated sword for a king might cost more than a commoner's house, but there were also plain mass-produced swords and cheap old ones that a poor person could acquire for a couple of pence. To give a comparison, there is no one price for buying a car in the year 2016, because it depends what kind you're getting. You can buy a new Lamborghini for $200,000 if you're super rich, but there are also $20,000 cars for the less wealthy, and you could get one with a lot of miles and no warranty for $2,000. Compare that with 1907, when there was no mass production of cars and only the obscenely rich could afford a car at all. It is not unrealistic for a poor person to have a sword if it's appropriate for their level of wealth in the context of the setting, but you have to do your research.

For the purposes of medieval and pseudo-medieval fantasy, if rarity is ignored, there's some degree of logic for having swords being iconic of the Warrior and/or Soldier, even if other weapons are much more commonly used: They are (realistically speaking) probably the best close quarters weapon available until repeating pistols show upnote . Historically, almost nobody used a sword as their primary weaponnote , but just about everybody who had access to swords had some training in swordfighting and carried one as a backup weapon; they also carried swords in places where their primary weapon would be unacceptable (such as when they were far from the battlefield).