The worlds of fantasy and science fiction branch into so many subgenres, you could spend an entire afternoon trying to determine exactly where the story you are reading truly fits. And each of those subgenres experiences an ebb and flow of popularity. One year cyberpunk rules the realm of book sales; in another time, steampunk holds center stage. Vampires or zombies? Gothic, urban, contemporary—or a mix of all three?
Beneath this current of shifting tastes in speculative fiction, the audience for traditional fantasy remains. You can always count on finding new books about sword-slingers, and authors can reliably count on encountering an audience for such stories. But what is it about the image of the sword in particular that endures so long beyond a time when the weapon has become little more than a collector’s item?
It’s significant that in the Bible, the sword appears from Genesis to Revelation—and I don’t think that only has to do with the audience that was living during the time of the books’ writing. After all, if the Bible is God’s inspired word, he could have chosen to inspire it at any point in history, or he could have given those who penned its words the vision to explain some sort of weapon besides a sword. We can be fairly certain Christ’s return will come at a time when ballistic weapons are part of the world’s technology, and yet, the Bible paints Christ as a wielder of a sword as his weapon of winnowing. Will it be a literal sword? Perhaps not. But why the choice of the imagery then, and what does that have to do with fantasy-lover’s innate appreciation for blade-based combat?
The way a sword requires the wielder engage his opponent has a lot to do with the fantasy reader’s fascination with them. Sword combat requires a combatant face his opponent, unflinching, and to be fully intentional about his engagement in the battle. Sword combat is highly personal. A swordsman cannot deny his clear connection to the damage he deals with his weapon.
In the same way, we know there is nothing haphazard about the way God will one day choose to defeat the enemy. No cross-fire, no collateral damage—just a series of very intentional strokes of a well-honed weapon meant for one purpose.
I believe fantasy readers long for the nobility, the bravery, the ownership of one’s actions a well-wielded sword requires. Fantasy is one of the few places in the literary world where clear delineations between good and evil get the spotlight, and in a similar way, a swordsman who fights in an underhanded way can only do so if he dares cheat within blade’s reach of the opponent he wrongs.
We love the sword because of the romanticism attached to a fighter who will stand his ground when evil is close enough to literally crush him. We resonate with the sword as a weapon that stands for truth, just as the Biblical Sword of the Spirit is God’s word—something to be wielded with skill and strength as part of our defense against our enemies, and more importantly, in the winning of a lost world. Whether the enduring appreciation of the sword is culturally generated, spiritually ingrained, or a little of both, there is no denying the subtle mystique that surrounds the weapon itself. And even more so, the one who wields it.