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Or ancient weapons as status symbols in fiction and mythology. The short answer is that Asskicking equals Authority but there a bit more to it, of course. I’ll talk about a few of these weapons, their history and how they can apply to your next work of speculative fiction.

1. Swords:

From Excalibur to Lightsabers, swords rule supreme in fantasy and science fiction. Part of it comes from the strange mixing of anime, D&D and Star Wars, but these sources simply barrow from earlier mythology. Almost every mythic arc known to man has at least one sword of legend Roland had Durandal, Japanese Hero Emperor’s had Kusanagi, the Persians had Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegar and so on.

Swords appeared in the bronze age as the first true weapons. It has always been associated with elite warriors for multiple reasons. The first is cost. Other weapons do not require as much metal, time or expertise to craft. The second is skill. While other weapons cost less  swords are wasted on anyone not properly trained to use them.

Their status grew  (ironically enough) as firearms made them obsolete on the battlefield. Calvary men (successors to the mounted knight) still used them until the onset of WW1 as did the Samurai (who traded their mounts and composite bows for katanas) until the Meiji/Restoration period.  Swords also became linked to dueling in Europe and Japan as well as symbols of authority. Only noblemen/gentlemen could afford to carry and train in the use of the rapier family of swords and in Japan only Samurais could carry the two blades as a symbol of their authority. Which such a rich history connecting swords to figures of authority is no wonder that they remain the number one weapon of choice in speculative fiction

2. Spears

While the sword goes hand in hand with nobility and authority, the spear predates it by several thousand years and it reaffirmed itself over on the battlefield even as guns broke the back of  the sword. Spears were popular for a variety of reasons. Made mostly of wood they were cheap to make. Almost anyone could wield one (pointy end toward enemy) and it served as  a melee weapon as well as a projectile.  Plus it doubled (and it some cases) tripled the reach of the wielder.  As an added bonus they could be set against a mounted charge. Horses maybe animals but they don’t like to rush into obstacles (thanks to their I’m-not-that-stupid gene), they must be trained to do so.

Several mythic figures have favored the spear above the mighty sword, among them the Celtic hero Cú Cuchulain (the foot launched gut wrenching Gaé Bulg),  Odin (Gungnir), and the Spear of Destiny (or Holy Lance/Spear of Longinus).

War being the ultimate social Darwinian experiment (with ever predictable results) that while the spear started as an adaptation of a primitive hunting tool it dominated the battlefield in the hands of elite warriors such as the Spartans (of 300/Thermopylae fame) and the Swiss mercenaries (who still survive as the famed Swiss Guard of Rome).  The sword may be the weapon of nobility but the humble spear was the weapon of choice for the hardened combat veteran.

3. Axes, Clubs, Daggers and Hammers:

I put these three distinct weapons together because they have one thing in common,weapons that double as tools.  Stone axes and clubs separated the  hairless apes from their ancestors. Not only could they wield multipurpose tools but manufacture them as well.

Axes were the first tool created to shape the landscape which also served as a handy weapon in case of an emergency. Feeling trees gave man a source of fuel, arable land and building materials. Didn’t take much to time or energy to master an axe and it’s combination of weight and broad blade meant that while not as precise as sword where ever it hits it would hurt.  Minoan priest’s used the double headed axe (labrys) as a religious symbol.  You can thank the Vikings and the Saxons for the image of the axe wielding barbarian.

Clubs maybe have being the first improvised weapon, but gave way to a wide variety of blunt instruments from the basic polished bone to the modern police baton. Heracles was famed for carrying a club which he used to slay the Nemean Lion. Smaller clubs were easy to use and pack quiet a punch due to the relative speed of impact. They can also ignore armor, as the concussive force transmits directly from the armor surface to the body withing (with perhaps the added bonus of metal plate armor breaking and slashing the skin beneath, ouch).

Daggers are the direct ancestors of the sword and are still in use.  A good all around tool for skinning, eating and killing. Although seen as the preferred choice of the assassin due to it’s small size, it has also served as a back up weapon for soldiers since the dawn of time. Knights would pummel their opponents with swords and then deliver the killing blow with a swift knife thrust to the eye or neck. The lowly dagger did what the gun could not by putting the spear out of business as a practical weapon of war and turning the musket into the Swiss army knife of the battlefield (short spear with the bayonet, plus firearm and club).

Hammers are close cousins of both the club and the axe. Another entrenching tool that served as a weapon on the battlefield. Thor swore by mighty Mjolnir. Although not as glamorous as the sword or feared as the dagger or axe it still proved a potent weapon in its own right.  Due to their construction they could deliver even more force than a club/mace and with a pick like back drag an armored opponent to the ground and serve as a dagger to attack weak points.

As you can see there more to weapons than just the slash and hack of a blade. Next time you’re thinking about arming fantasy army think beyond the sword.

What is a transitional scene?

A transitional scene is one that helps the reader with the process of suspension of disbelief. By that I mean it is a scene (or scenes) that moves the focus from the familiar to the fantastic.

It is easy for an author to believe that his audience will accept his words at face value, especially if he writes for an audience accustomed to dragons,spaceships and vampires. But that does not mean that the readers will accept anything that is thrown at them. The key is to earn their trust by easing them into the more implausible aspects of your work.

Therefore a transitional scene must have the following characteristics:

  1. The scene must be grounded in the familiar.
  2. It must offer a logical transition from the familiar to the absurd.
  3. Must show a principal character (although not the main character).
  4. It must occur early on, although it does not have to be the opening scene (I prefer to open with them, btw).

Lets look at a two examples, both taken from the Harry Potter series. All of the books in the series share two scenes (with some variations), one in the Dursley’s home and the other at King Cross station. Each one shows exactly what a transitional scene is all about.

Each story starts inside the Dursley’s suburban home in Little Wiggin, Surrey (UK). While you may never have seen a British suburban home (they look more like long apartment tracks than their more widely spaced North American counterparts) you will recognize the exterior of carefully manicured lawns (or gardens as they like to call it), an interior full of modern apliances, etc.

It is mundane, every day stuff. It is the realm of the familiar. Of course things don’t stay that way for long. Somebody (or something) sets things in motion that reveal that there is more to this little average home. A house elf might pop up, or owls carriying strange missive might fly through the window, even the fake electric fireplace might exploded all of the sudden.

The second scene starts off at King Crossing in London. Every year Harry takes the train from London to Hogwarts. Along the way chocolate frogs come alive, wizards walk out of their picture’s and spells are cast. By the time the scarlet train reaches the Hogsmeade station, the reader knows that they are not longer in Kansas (yep, that is another great transitional scene).

Both of these scenes place the reader in familiar territory, a place that does not require any effort by him (or her) to accept as it is. But as the scene develops the reader receives an introduction to more fantastical elements of the story.  The character or characters observe these changes along side the reader.

There are two ways of doing this. The first one may have the character(s) static while the scenery changes around them, as it often happens in the Dursley home or they can travel from Point A (the mundane location) to Point B (the fantastic location). Either way, once the reader accepts the premise of the mundane it is easy to then introduce the more fantastic elements. This can be done all at once, but a more careful aproach is prefered, as it allows the the reader to digest the changes and extend their supension of disbelief without snapping it.

The introduction of these fantastical elements must follow a sense of internal logic. In fact, one of the things that transitional scenes do is set up the rules for the narrative. Done well and the reader will have no problem accepting them.

The transitional should be centered around a principal character, if not the main character, for no other reason that readers care about people (or their equivalents) not things. It also creates a connection in the readers mind with the character. If the character reacts in a way that the readers expects to the situation, then it makes it easier to create that bond.

Finally the transitional scene has to happen in the first act (if you follow the three act structure that is). It doesn’t have to be the FIRST scene, although I try to start off with it, but it must come early enough that allows the reader to create the bridge between the world they know and the world the writer has created for them. At some point the writer must “ground” his story in the familiar before sailing off to lands unknown.

Here is an example of a great transitional scene, this time from The Matrix: