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Use of Weapons: The Armoury of Epic Fantasy

When embarking on a High Epic tale like THE GATHERING OF THE LOST (UK|ANZ), with its diversity of heavily armed societies, making an inventory of the epic armoury becomes a priority. Any good armoury, after all, should comprise an array of weapons – some magical, some mythic, some even real – that may, depending on circumstances, save the day for one’s protagonists.

The Gathering of the Lost paperback is released today!

The Soul-Sucking Sword

A favoured contender for any self-respecting High Epic tale has to be The Soul-Sucking Sword. After all, they do abound within the annals of the epic literature we love: from Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer, to CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine with Changeling, and Steven Erikson’s Anomander Rake and Dragnipur. Even Robin McKinley’s (far) more benign Blue Sword has an ambivalent sense of humour. When the chips are down, a soul-sucking sword – or one that can drop whole mountain ranges, like the Blue Sword – has to be handy to any protagonist with worlds to save and a destiny to fulfil.

There may not precisely be soul-sucking swords in THE GATHERING OF THE LOST, but there is reference to black blades:

“Fool!” the old woman spoke with asperity despite her cut and bruised mouth. “She’s carrying black blades—that’s how she defeated the siren worm five years ago. That’s where all your power is going now, too, unless I much mistake the matter.”

 “Black blades—fables for children!” Boras said, but Garan noticed they had all taken a step back.”

There is also a frost-fire sword with a liking for geasas—but to say any more than that might be a spoiler.

The Spear of Power

Spears of power are almost as popular in the epic armoury as soul-sucking swords. Tolkien’s Gil-galad carried Aiglos, which “none could withstand”, into battle against Sauron at the end of the Second Age, while the Irish hero, Cuchulain, possessed the Gáe Bolg, the spear of mortal pain. Whether the spear of power is quite as effective as a soul-sucking sword remains moot however. Tamora Pierce’s heroine, Keladry, may wield the glaive to good effect in the “Protector of the Small” series, but proficiency with a spear does not preserve Oberyn Martell in George RR Martin’s “A Son of Ice and Fire.” Nor does it appear to have done Kaladin a great deal of good, so far, in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.

Perhaps this is why the spear-based action in THE GATHERING OF THE LOSTin the absence of weapons of power – focuses on the Keladry-style glaive, with its advantage of reach, which is known colloquially as the “ladyspike” in Emer:

“The defender waited until the assailants were close enough to block the aim of any enemy archers, before stepping clear of the entrance. He was holding a ladyspike in a businesslike fashion and wearing one of the bestial helms – a contradiction Kalan was still trying to work out when the ladyspike severed one opponent’s head, the return cut taking the next assailant at the knees.”

Taking Care of Business: the Axe

Axe me a question, I dare you…

Probably the most famous axe in the epic armoury would have to be Druss the Legend’s Snaga, from the David Gemmell classic, LEGEND (UK|ANZ) – and of course the dwarf Gimli, in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, is an axeman. The axe of the Goddess, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Fionavar” trilogy may be a weapon of power, but otherwise the axes of Fantasy tend to be non-magical, even everyday weapons: the epitome of their functional brutality being John Aversin in Barbara Hambly’s DRAGONSBANE, who first drugs his dragons, then butchers them with an axe.

THE GATHERING OF THE LOST keeps faith with this epic tradition, with the main reference to the axe centering on another of its functionally brutal uses:

“Already the eight knew enough to conceal this truth, for any reversals of the Goddess-ordained order were called abominations in Jhaine, and fire, hot irons, and the headsman’s axe were how the hierarchy dealt with such offenses to Imuln.”

The Giant-Killing Bow

From Paris slaying Achilles from the walls of Troy, through Robin Hood righting wrongs, to the archers of England versus the might of French chivalry at Agincourt, the longbow has always been the weapon that evens unequal odds, whether in legend or history. Legolas is probably the most famous single archer of current Fantasy, but it is Bard of Dale’s black arrow that slays the dragon Smaug in THE HOBBIT. Bands of archers also feature throughout the genre, with notable examples being those that join the defence of Dros Delnoch (LEGEND) and Ritgers Gap (THE BLUE SWORD.)

Like axes, the bows that appear in Epic Fantasy are largely non-magical, a tradition I have respected, while sneaking in just a hint of that giant-killing element of legend and history:

“Ser Raven gave no obvious signal, but at his last words a circle of archers emerged from between the tents. Ser Alric was with them, an arrow notched to the longbow he carried, with more bowmen from Wymark on either side—but Kalan could see the badges of Bonamark, Allerion and Tenneward as well, and several of the tall, quiet men from Aralorn. He could not see the Darksworns’ faces, but a look at Orth convinced him that it was only the archers that had stopped him. The giant warrior did not look like he cared a clipped coin for any truce, even the Derai’s, if it did not suit his purpose.”

Soul-sucking swords, spears of power, the businesslike axe, or giant-killing bow—these are all just a sample of the Fantasy armoury’s inventory. But on your quest to fulfil your destiny and save the world, which Fantastic weapon would you choose? Tell us in the comments!

about the author

Helen Lowe

All Orbit books by Helen Lowe

  1. Elspeth Cooper

    February 21, 2013
    at 5:16 am

    No surprises from me Helen: sword! Portable, easily maintained in the field, and if it has a personality we would tell each other jokes to pass the time on a long quest…

    • Helen Lowe

      February 21, 2013
      at 2:19 pm

      I knew you would go for sword, Ellie! Mind you, in terms of swords with personality, there *is* Elric’s Stormbringer, which is the kind of conversation one might not care for. ;-)

  2. Paul (@princejvstin)

    February 21, 2013
    at 6:31 am

    One of my favorite scenes in L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Prospero’s Daughter series is set in the family vault. Being pursued by demons, Miranda has a choice and starts rattling off ideas on *which* of the many famous weapons they have might be a good idea against the demon…

    I have a soft spot for some of the swords in the Book of Swords series by Fred Saberhagen, myself.

    • Helen Lowe

      February 21, 2013
      at 2:21 pm

      “Prospero’s Daughter” is fun in that respect. :) I tried to think of a gladius or spatha with a personality, but I suspect the Romans were too brutally practical–all their swords were purely functional.

  3. Betsy Dornbusch

    February 21, 2013
    at 12:24 pm

    Yeah, I love the sword. Got one of my own in EXILE. But I’m also partial to Jeff Salyard’s mace in Scourge of the Betrayer.

    • Paul (@princejvstin)

      February 21, 2013
      at 12:34 pm

      Bloodsounder (a flail,not a mace, I think) is distinctly different in not being a typical magic sword, absolutely.

    • Helen Lowe

      February 21, 2013
      at 2:27 pm

      A mace is definitely a weapon to be reckoned with, as is a morningstar, but I do have a fondness for the glaive myself–a weapon with considerable reach–which is why I “had’ to work it into “The Gathering Of The Lost!” ;-)

  4. Andrew

    February 21, 2013
    at 10:35 pm

    Am I allowed to say “Wizards Staff”?

    Not only is a staff a practical sort of weapon (unless you are fighting armoured opponents), it also speaks of nameless powers and awesome forces (take your pick!).

    Plus Wizards do tend to be surrounded by actual warriors to do the actual fighting – and that is definitely my preferred approach to world saving quests.

  5. Helen Lowe

    February 22, 2013
    at 5:52 am

    You are! Staves & staffs are definitely part of the epic armoury, & staves with magic earn ‘extry’ bonus points: I suspect those that come with warrior armies for added protection are as good as a “get home free” card. ;-)

    • Paul (@princejvstin)

      February 22, 2013
      at 8:27 am

      “I *told you* to take the Wizard’s Staff!” –Grima Wormtongue

      • Helen Lowe

        February 23, 2013
        at 5:24 am

        You’re right: I think that particular omission probably *does* count as a “get home free card.” ;-)

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