Trope Review: The Fantasy Weapon
As a storyteller, I come across tropes and clichés a lot of the time. Eventually, I decided to break some down and see why we like it or why we don’t. The “Trope Review” was born, and first up is the “mystical weapon.”
It seems that in every fantasy novel (or sci-fi blockbuster) there’s at least one Sword of Destiny or a magical weapon with a unique property. It is bestowed upon the "Farmboy of Destiny" by the wizened old wizard with the words "This was your father's, he wanted you to have it when you were older." Of course, when Luke received his father’s lightsabre in A New Hope, he immediately pointed it at his face.
But what is it about magical weapons that attracts us so, so much it is a near staple of the fantasy novel or movie? There are obviously a few reasons for this that are in favour of the fantasy weapon in storytelling.
Firstly, a unique hero or villain must have a unique weapon.
Now, this weapon may have a great lineage, like a sword of kings, such as Narsil and therefore Anduril in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The blade that was broken was reforged into something new, and Aragorn would use this in his quest to become King of Gondor.
Whilst Anduril's power is its lineage and rich history, others have powers that can reflect the powers of the wielder. In the novel Fireborn by David Daglish which I just thoroughly enjoyed, Kael is given a magical shield which reacts with his light element, and it reacts to his unique power.
On the other hand, a villain's weapon is often much more twisted. A typical one-dimensional villain instead has something shadowy, perhaps a massive broadsword or a staff ‘twisted with evil.’
However, we must consider whether this trope could devolve into a cliché, where it becomes overused and boring. And in this writer’s opinion, it already has. However, that doesn’t mean it is dead. The trick with it is to give it some uniqueness.
If you make your weapon a typical Anglo-Saxon sword then it is far more likely to develop these issues. By contrast, it is harder to make a cliché with a fantasy bow or axe since they are far less frequent.
Furthermore, by naming something with the generic fantasy template [Weapon name] of [Adjective] you are fulfilling a major cliché. It is not overly difficult to create your own name for a weapon. Many weapons have their own names, such as Damaris and Goldryn from Sarah J Maas's Throne of Glass. Damaris is the “Sword of Truth,” arguably one of the most cliché titles one can give. Yet it doesn't feel like a cliché. Why is this?
Perhaps because it is earned rather than simply given.
The best stories involving a magical weapon, particularly if it is used as a MacGuffin (object which everyone wants) do not have a weapon that is given. Rather, it is one that is earned or taken for themselves. Celaena Sardothien took Damaris herself. In Tolkien's books, (though not the Peter Jackson movies) Aragorn chose to have Anduril reforged because he had accepted the mantle of king. Even Arthur took Excalibur from the stone. It was not simply handed to him by the wizard and he immediately pointed at his face to see how it worked.
Overall, does a magical weapon detract from a story?
I would have to say no. Magical weapons are a unique part of the fantasy storytelling process and not only create world-building they can develop into a very powerful part of the culture.
In fact, it is rare to have a magical weapon created recently.
My novel Tales of the Marked: Torchbearer, now available here in paperback and ebook, uses several magical items. Most, if not all my magical items are heirlooms of the rulers. It ties into the ancestry of their kingdoms, but the fact that some have been lost portrays the tragedy of the fallen nations.
A fantasy weapon is always recommended, and a unique one can bring a surprising amount of depth to a story, but also an insight into the world. Done well, it can be a powerful tool. Done poorly can damage a story completely.
If you have a trope you’d like to see analysed, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org