Firstly: I had a nice interview with Dan Hitt over at Deepmagik, you can read my answers to his questions here. He has a nice collection of writing advice and interviews. Good stuff!
Now on to glory!
Magic weapons have been a part of fantasy since its earliest forms. This likely began with the association of tools as symbols with particular gods in ancient pantheons. Thor has his hammer, Zeus has his lightning bolts, Ares has his spear and so on. In fact all of these Gods have a small constellation of weapons and tools associated with them. What began with Gods quickly transferred over to epic heroes, and then to fantasy literature.
In some Fantasy works a weapon acts as a more complex metaphor. The sword of power acts as a tool to identify the chosen hero in many pastoral works, while the same sword of power acts as a metaphor for the implication of violence that underlies all power in other, darker works.
In many societies and sub-cultures weapons achieve a status beyond that of a simple tool. A weapon is a powerful scared object, used to destroy one’s enemies. A good weapon is revered because it is a tool of life and death. It is no wonder that to this day people often treat their weapons (and other familiar tools) as living things, naming them, and ascribing special qualities to them. Weapon fetishization is particularly prevalent in warrior cults and warrior nobility, where superiors weapons are a symbol of power. Blessings, runes, and personalization are all common as each warrior tries to outdo the others in quality and implied power. A superior smith whose secret knowledge is almost magical in pre-industrial societies becomes almost saintly. I explore this kind of fetishization a bit In Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, where each Gladiator chooses their weapons and continually improves them throughout, often naming them after important deeds. The weapon also serves as an indication of character. Sadira uses curved blades used of obsidian coloured metal, swift and elegant, while her harsh tempered friend Karmal prefer a massive war-cleaver, a fearsome, but unwieldy weapon.
This fetishization can lead to weapons that are works of art. The most obvious example would be the Katana, wondrous swords that can only be made properly by master craftsman, almost a lost art. Others abound, the Great Rapiers made in Italy during the renaissance, Swords of Damascus steel, The incredible horn composite bows of the Mongols, and so on. Some of these weapons transcend their use in war and become more ceremonial and decadent, almost emulating the nobility who used them.
Often magical weapons are the only thing that can harm certain creatures in Fantasy, becoming the object of a quest. This can be highly metaphorical like a sword that shows the villain his true self, or more gamist like a the only sword that can cut the head from the Jabberwocky.
Here are a few famous magic weapons from myth and Fantasy.
Mjolnir: Thor’s mighty hammer. So heavy that only he can wield it properly (this varies), Thor’s hammer is his primary symbol as a god. It is thought that the Hammer has some significance to thunder, which relates to his role as a storm god. It is also a less refined weapon than the spear or sword, which are symbols of more remote gods in the Nordic Pantheons. The Hammer is part weapon, but also part tool, which is appropriate since Thor was a popular, everyman’s god. Mjolnir is fantastically deadly, especially against giants, and was crafted by those most secret of smiths: the Dwarves. Mjolnir is a good example of a weapon that is a divine symbol. The only person who wields it with any success, or can even lift it in some cases, other than Thor is his son. Mjolnir is associated with Thor and always works for him.
Gae Bulg: Cu Chullain’s spear. Gae Bolg is a gift to the great Celtci warrior from his teacher, the mighty Scathach. After she teaches Cu Chullain, she gifts him with this crazy weapon. It is thrown with the foot and is covered with some many deadly barbs that it has to be cut out of anyone who it his before it can be used again. Gae Bulg is a good example of a weapon that is an affirmation of a warrior’s skill. It is so complex that it requires special training to master and use. Only Scathach and Cu Chullain can use it properly, and when they do it gains special powers.
Excalibur: The quintessential sword of power. Excalibur is King Arthur’s sword, his symbol of office as King, given to him by the lady of the lake (or reforged by her when it is the sword in the stone). Excalibur is the most potent weapon in the land, able to cut through armour and break other weapons. In many ways it is to Arthur as Mjolnir is to Thor, a symbol of his office. However, since Arthur’s office is partly based on moral strength, it seems that his weapons weaken when he is in the wrong. This represents a significant departure from a God’s weapon. Excalibur comes with strings attached: the sword of power might pass to another, more worthy hero should the current wielder fail.
Stormbringer: Stormbringer is the Elric’s Sword. It is a powerful weapon able to eat the souls those it strikes, provide Elric with strength and energy, and can cut through just about anything. Stormbringer is in fact, a living creature with a will and desires of its own, which has no master. Stormbringer is a good example of a magical weapon for an age where war is no longer seen as righteous or adventurous, it a metaphor for the hidden, ugly nature of power and force. It may make you strong, but it is ultimately your worst enemy.
Sting: While the ring of power serves as Tolkien’s version of Stormbringer (yeah, I went there), Frodo’s sword sting presents a simpler form of magic weapon. While powerful it is still a tool, and more interesting because it has a story. Its power’s, other than quality, seem fairly trivial but its enemies fear it nonetheless. Like most of Tolkien, Sting is more complex than first Glance. The sword lights up at the approach of orcs, which warns the wielder but also makes it hard to hide, forcing confrontation. It is a good example of a more mortal magic weapon, far less mighty than any of the others, but with a nice history and some minor powers.
Magic weapons cycle in and out of fashion in Fantasy fiction. Powerful named weapons with unique appearances are especially popular as prestige items in computer games. I suspect with the rise of geek chic and the modern tendency towards gear fetishization in some circles we will see more of them appearing in Fantasy novels as well. The role of the magic weapon can simply be window dressing, but it can also act as a unique and interesting metaphor in the hands of a clever writer.