Three Things Fantasy Can’t Get Right with Combat
This may come as a shock, but I don’t think any of us read fantasy for realism. In fact, we usually read it to escape from the real world and thus are very willing to let a whole lot of crazy stuff pass so long as it is cool and adds something to the story. Bilbo’s sword starts to glow when goblins and orcs are nearby? Won’t question it. Living luggage that follows a guy around and occasionally eats people? We can dig it. Heck, put a wizard on a zombie T-Rex running through Chicago and I will proclaim it the best urban fantasy series out there.
But there is an area where fantasy novels could stand to be far more realistic. In fact, it is an area that is so central to so many novels that it is amazing that they can base so much of their work on such blatant misinformation. I am talking, of course, about combat. Specifically, the “sword” part of “sword and sorcery” type fantasy.
Hold on tight, folks. I’m about to go full sword-nerd on you.
Our hero, Chet MacGuffin, peasant farmboy extraordinaire, has just learned a shocking truth about himself. He is not just a poor boy from a poor family. He is in fact the Chosen One, described by Prophesy and ordained by Destiny along with other things that require capital letters in this case. As such, he must lead the rebellion against the evil king/wizard/his long lost father. To do that, he must learn to fight, something his time on the farm has done very little to prepare him for. Good thing that he has Wise Oldman to guide him. The next few weeks see him go from scrawny weakling to skilled combatant due to the careful advice of his mentor and a little luck because this is western fantasy and training is something that can take place over the course of a long holiday.
Look, I know why authors brush over training in their stories. It’s the same reason that training montages are so prevalent in films. They are boring as heck to watch/read. I get that, but they have created this idea that fighting with a sword is a simple affair when it really couldn’t be further from the truth. People studied their whole lives to master these weapons. Not just swords. Spears. Daggers. Poleaxes. Quarterstaffs.
In fact, go do a quick google of a site called Wicktenheur at some point and be amazed at how many people wrote book after book about how to fight with European weapons. People still do it today because fantasy fans are nothing if not eager to learn to fight each other with swords. The point is that this is as much a martial art as anything from a kung fu movie and poor Chet, without proper training and the time needed to let that training become second nature to him, is going to be a very short lived Chosen One. Even with the capital letters.
Chet, his magical sword in hand, has come across a servant of the Enemy. They stand in his path and threaten to halt him in his quest to overthrow the tyrant. And this masked man (because they are always masked) is wielding a spear and blocking the way toward the villain’s lair. The weapon’s reach causes problems for Chet, but using his sword to block the initial thrust, he manages to slip inside the spear’s reach, rendering it useless. It becomes the evil slave’s undoing and Chet manages to cut him down in mere moments. The unlikely band of adventurers can continue on their way!
I want you to do me a favour. Punch at the air three feet away from you. Now punch at something one foot away from you. Notice how you were able to do that, despite the fact that your arm is longer than one foot? Yeah, you can do that with a weapon too. With swords, we call it half-swording (because martial artists are not always creative with naming) but you can do it with any weapon if you end up too close to your enemy. In this case, you would call it half-spearing, and it works remarkably well against someone who is charging at you with a sword, but it isn’t even the most effective defense against an attack like this.
The best thing to do is just to hit someone with the big chuck of wood that makes up most of a spear. You can cut as well as thrust with a polearm, partly because the edges of the blade at the end are very sharp but also because getting hit by a big stick is still very painful.
So yeah. This one doesn’t end well for Chet either.
Chet MacGuffin comes face to face with his mortal enemy/the evil wizard/his long lost father and sees that he has one more obstacle to overcome before saving the world: a hulking figure in heavy armour. His initial attacks do nothing. The blows bounce off the steel no matter how much power he puts into it and Chet, for a moment, despairs. However, he soon realises that his lack of armour gives him an advantage! Speed and quickness will win most any fight, after all, and Chet, in his battle against the villain he has been chasing his whole life, uses this to avoid the slow, broadcasted strikes of the evil tyrant and manages to find the one weak point in the insurmountable defences, ridding the land of evil and fulfilling his destiny as a MacGuffin at last!
Armour is a funny one. It is true that it is heavy as all hell and certainly if you tried to carry it you would find it very difficult, but there are two points you need to remember. The first is that, should you be wealthy enough to own a suit of armour, the weight of it would be distributed across your entire body, making it seem far lighter than it actually is. This is the same principle that means that your heavy coat might be weighty when you try to pick it up but is actually very warm and snuggly when you put it on. Distribution of weight is key here. The second thing to remember, and this is key, is that every suit of armour would be made for that specific person in mind. It’s the difference between a personally tailored suit and something off the shelf. They might weigh the same but I promise you will move a lot easier in one than in the other. In fact, there are plenty of videos online of people doing cartwheels and jumping jacks in full plate mail because these things were designed to allow people to fight in them.
So yeah. Poor Chet, with his lack of training, poor understanding of the principles of reach, and a general lack of awareness of how armour works, is going to be the worst Chosen One ever. He will get killed over and over and over again because prophesy is great and all but it is probably better that you get a proper hero to save the world next time.