Monday, May 27, 2019

The Case for Spears in Fantasy Fiction

(Originally posted on Jan 10, 2018)

This article came about after consulting a HEMA instructor on facebook about what weapons and armor, were best for a (gunless) fantasy party. The results were surprising, to say the least, and certainly not what's usually depicted in fantasy games, books and movies.
For starters, heavy plate armor is kind of a no-no. Mobility is key for a questing/adventuring scenario, and thus, cloth armor like a gambeson is best suited for the task. But most surprising of all was the preference for spears and long weapons. The short swords and legendary blades often depicted in fantasy media were apparently unrealistic in most common scenarios (specifically adventuring). A quick Youtube search revealed that instructor I consulted wasn't the only HEMA expert who shared that opinion, and that really intrigued me. So I thought I'd delve a bit deeper into this subject and do some more research on why this is the case. Are spears really the best weapon for adventuring? And if so, why are they so lacking in fantasy media?


Before I go any further here, I want to point something out. When I say "fantasy story," I generally mean the adventuring, questing, dungeon-delving type. If your fantasy story is about courtly intrigue or wizards opening a chain hamburger restaurant, then feel free to disregard all this and do your own thing.
But when it comes to questing -- specifically hunting things whose bodily fluids may or may not turn you into a zombie/vampire/werewolf/obsidian horror, distance is key. If werewolves were real, you would want a weapon that keeps them as far the heck away from you as humanly possible. This is one major advantage a good spear has that even a legendary Excalibur-esque magical blade commonly depicted in media simply doesn't.
Spears are also incredibly easy to use, and don't normally require a lot of training or finesse to be able to use adequately. Sure, there are some polearm martial skills you can learn to better wield such weapons, but the base mode of use for a spear is simple. You point and thrust. Given that many fantasy adventure questing-stories revolve around young and/or inexperienced protagonists with little fighting prowess, this is an ideal starter weapon for them.
But all this is of course, speculation. I mean, it's not like there's real-world monsters that we can look at historically to see if this is all accurate, right?


There are in fact, some real-world animals we can look at for inspiration when it comes to monster-hunting or questing in fantasy fiction. A real-world monster that's so cunning, intelligent and dangerous, they strike fear even in the hearts of seasoned, fully-armed hunters in the real world.


On a whim, I decided to use the same principle applied fictional fantasy monster-hunting and see if there's any real-world equivalent. And sure enough, when I type in "boar hunting art medieval" on Google Image Search, a good majority of the images overwhelmingly depict spears being used.


And let me be real here. I wasn't kidding when I said boars were basically monsters. They are. In fact, here's an excerpt from a hunting site I found that says as much.
Experienced hunters say that wild boar can be even more dangerous to hunt than a bear. Equipped with thick, razor-sharp tusks, and a razor-sharp mind (hogs are the 4th most intelligent animal in the world) a wild boar can weigh a staggering 660 lbs and exhibit extremely aggressive and unpredictable behavior.
Hunters be warned! After wounding a boar, give the animal plenty of time before you follow it in to the bush. Otherwise, you’ll go from being the hunter to the hunted. Boars will circle a human adversary, charge rampantly and attack from behind.
So just to recap, the big pigs are worse than grizzly bears. Add a surprising amount of intelligence to that, and we basically have a good stand-in for a fantasy monster. And the historical evidence (and logic) overwhelmingly suggests that spears (and arbalests) are the best option here.
Logically speaking though, it makes sense, right? Whether it's chittering skeletons with rusty swords, or some warlock muttering arcane curses at the back of a battlefield, spears are a great primary option for taking them out. They can be thrown, thrusted, used as polearms or even as a magic staff for more martially-minded wizardly types.
Popular culture though, keeps depicting the use of swords in adventuring parties, as well as a host of other inaccuracies, such as leather armor and the dreaded "fantasy weapons/armor." You know, the ones that look like the protagonists got them from Alibaba, but people somehow still insist look cool?

With all that established then...


Well there's no real concrete theory as to why this is, and it's all speculation on my part. But I do have a few ideas...

First off, there's iconography. People just kind of take for granted that swords are they way to go, because swords are cool, right? He-Man had one, Luke Skywalker had one, the friggin' Beastmaster had one (and a tiger)'s just kind of embedded in our psyche that swords are bad-ass while spears are just kind of that other thing. I mean, maybe Dave has one, but is Dave He-Man? Does he have the power? Probably not.

This is probably because throughout history, great heroes are generally depicted as bearing swords in particular. From St. George and the Dragon, to Perseus, to King Arthur, cool swords were what heroes and kings used, while common hunters and peons in the front lines used boring old spears. One kills dragons, the other kills...boars.

Another reason why spears might not be as popular is because they're pretty basic. You just kind of point them at the thing you want to kill and push forward. There's no mystique or allure in terms of martial arts or sword-craft associated with them usually. They're just kind of plain and boring at first glance. And they aren't often very cool-looking. They're usually wooden sticks with a simple, pointy thing at the end. Practical? Absolutely. But plain? Well, yeah. Not exactly Excalibur in the aesthetics department.

So let's say you're an aspiring fantasy writer (or aspiring to make a different fantasy novel). You want to do something different and more historically accurate than the typical "guy/gal with sword" story. And so you wanna go the spear route. But you also don't want to be boring. So how do we make a spear as bad-ass and iconic as Excalibur or Luke's lightsaber?

In terms of Iconography, you can always reference or model your character's spear after legendary weapons like Gungir and Green Dragon Sabre. There also is an Odinic connotation of spears with old men and wizardry. So if your main character is say, going to become a wizard, a spear thematically works for him/her because it doubles as a magic staff. Guan Yu, the Chinese figure of legend, was also seen as a great warrior with sage-like, almost Paladin-esque qualities. If you're going for a wuxia (Chinese fantasy) theme, the Guan Dao (sword-spear) is an iconic and powerful weapon evoking honor, virtue and godliness, especially when paired with the color green. And of course, if you want something a bit more fun, you can have a character in a western fantasy setting pick up a Guan Dao from a foreign merchant, or work it into their culture. They are pretty bad-ass weapons, and stand out more than the standard knife-on-stick look. And there's a whole suite of martial arts associated with it, so boom! There's an easy fix for the innate boring-ness of spears.

Archetypally speaking though, the spear as a weapon projects confidence, fatherhood, authority, utility, magic, and war. The Guan Dao projects all this as well  -- plus it's basically the Chinese version of a Paladin's mace if you wanna go that route. And of course, seeing how the basic standard-issue spear was used frequently in big game hunting, it can work thematically for a hunter character as well.

Alternatively though, if you're going for a more realistic fantasy story, you could forgo a lot of the legendary stuff and focus a more on the prep time and tactics of monster-hunting and fighting. In reality, fights are pretty short and deadly, and rarely involve karate-flipping Matrix action. But they do require tactics, foresight and planning, and thus a Rainbow Six-esque fantasy setup with realistic arms, armor and quick, bloody skirmishes would be a neat spin on the questing formula. Spears of course, are a must for this. You'll need them, plus a couple arbalest wielders, and a wizard or healer if your setting allows it.  But even if it doesn't, a fantasy story about a ragtag group of spear-wielding adventurers braving a world of horrible monsters with tactics and tenacity could be pretty gripping (and potentially grimdark).

Off the top of my head too, the practical nature of the spear itself could be used as a theme. Maybe you can flip a trope on its head and make the all-powerful magic sword essentially useless against enemies with longer range, and make the hero rely on a boring old spear to get the job done. Maybe a stereotypical group of adventurers sets out with nothing but "enchanted weapons" and gets their asses kicked by warriors wearing practical arms and armor? That could be fun. Or silver spears used to dispatch werewolves sin nil-biting conflicts where one simple scratch makes you a goner? Honestly, there's a lot of cool stuff you can do with spears. And given how lacking they are in many fantasy settings, it's a simple addition you can use to spice up your story and add some realism.

But hey, that's just my 2 cents. Know any fantasy books with bad-ass spears? Got thoughts on the subject? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to hear more thoughts on this!

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