As Gideon The Ninth takes the book world by storm, author Tamsyn Muir talks exclusively to SciFiNow about our love of swords, and the heroes and dickheads that wield them…
The sword is humanity’s favourite weapon, and sword-fighters tend to be some of our favourite characters. Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur, has some claim to be the most famous weapon in the world. When George Lucas designed his order of pure-hearted monastic wizards, even though they live in a world of laser guns and spaceships, he still had to find a way of giving them swords. Swords and heroism go hand-in-hand.
The relationship can be a complicated one, though. In Arthur’s case, traditionally, his heroic status and the power of his sword essentially feed into and reinforce each other. If he weren’t innately a true king, he wouldn’t be able to use Excalibur; because he can use Excalibur, he’s clearly the true king. It’s not that he gets his power from the sword – he’d still be a hero if he somehow forgot Excalibur when he left the house one morning – but nor is Excalibur just any old bit of metal that could be easily replaced. The hero and the sword both have to be of the highest possible quality to deserve each other.
Sometimes that balance gets thrown off. One of my favourite cinematic fight scenes is the duel between Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shu Lien is in every way the better fighter: she’s more experienced, more skilful, more resourceful. But Jen is wielding the exceptional Green Destiny sword. Throughout the fight, Michelle Yeoh does an incredible job of showing Shu Lien’s mounting frustration at the way the Green Destiny gives the younger and more callow Jen an undeserved advantage (partly because it literally destroys every single weapon Shu Lien tries to use). A truly heroic sword is being exploited by a warrior who doesn’t really have the heroism to back it up.
Although swords are characteristic of heroes, they’re also kind of characteristic of, well, dickheads. Superb sword skills can be a mark of someone who’s just a bit too pleased with their own abilities. Jaime Lannister, in A Song of Ice and Fire, starts out as both a peerless swordsman and a complete prick, and the combination is not an accident: it’s telling that one of the major events on Jaime’s journey to possible redemption is the loss of his sword hand, forcing him to start learning all over again from scratch. It’s as if he needs to lose his sword skills before he can start becoming a decent person. On the flip side, it’s no coincidence that Captain America – consistently written as a humble, down-to-earth hero characterised by genuine altruism – has a shield as his signature weapon. Okay, he generally uses it by hurling it extremely hard at people’s heads, which is not friendly, but the shield suggests defence and guardianship where a sword would have suggested aggression and perhaps self-absorption.
Even the type of sword a character uses can tell us important things about them. Rapiers mean extreme skill but also a certain flamboyance, a concern for style over substance, and in the worst cases can imply a lack of toughness or grit. Sabres, due to their association with cavalry and formal display, often mean nobility and military dignity. Cutlasses mean pirates. Gideon Nav, the sword-wielding heroine of my novel Gideon the Ninth, is forced to use a rapier for much of the book because of social expectations – she’s a cavalier primary, a kind of very important bodyguard, and cavaliers use rapiers to conduct formal duels. But the sword she’s trained with all her life, and that she really loves, is a two-handed longsword.
I made her a longsword user for a couple of reasons. It’s a very straightforward weapon – like Gideon herself, no unnecessary twiddles, just steel shaped to do a specific job. It’s also a weapon that requires prodigious skill to use properly – you’ll see longswords in movies being swung around like baseball bats, but historically it was regarded as a highly technical weapon which needed a lot of careful training and practice. And it’s a knight’s weapon, emblematic of duty, fealty, and service to something greater than oneself. Duty is not necessarily a concept Gideon has much time for, and her choice of sword is one way I raise the question of just what it is she really cares about.
Gideon the Ninth is out now from tordotcom. Get all the latest fantasy news with every issue of SciFiNow.