When it comes to duels, two weapons rule them all: the sword and the gun. For all Legolas did for the bow, for as much stick-fighting as there was in Pacific Rim, and no matter how many fireballs Goku conjures from his hands, nothing will ever beat these two weapons in terms of ‘cool.’ Also, interestingly enough, they seem to be somehow opposed to one another. Guns and swords do not mix, nor do their aficionados. Nowhere is this more clear than in the contest for Luke’s affections in Star Wars. Obi Wan decries blasters (guns) as clumsy and random; Han points out that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” It is as though these two means of dispensing death were somehow at odds with one another, at least thematically. Why is that?
We can perhaps take some of our cues from Star Wars itself. The sword is the weapon of the Jedi – an “elegant weapon from a more civilized age.” It is used by the forces of good to defeat evil and for the forces of wisdom and order to impose peace in realms of chaos and madness. It is metaphorically significant that the Jedi reflect back the blaster bolts of their foes: they turn the violence of their enemies back upon them. Their defense is sufficient to destroy their enemies, since it is their enemies’ aggression (the Dark Side) that ultimately consumes itself. The sword is a symbol of control over oneself, of a kind of spiritual unity between the body and the physical world that combines to become a perfect weapon.
This metaphor is borne through a lot of heroic movies and literature. It can be seen that Inigo Montoya cannot defeat Count Rugen until and unless he can control his rage and focus on his swordsmanship – his initial chase of Rugen and frantic attempts to catch him almost kill him. It is only when he achieves a kind of spiritual peace in the form of resignation (“I am sorry, Father. I failed you.”), that he again regains control. Likewise, the blade of Isildur, Narsil, is not re-forged until the race of Men is once again ready to take control of themselves (in the form of Aragorn) and restore order to their fractured kingdoms. In the reverse, we see Conan bound by his obsession to regain his father’s sword and learn the riddle of steel. It is only when he realizes that the sword is no more important than the spirit that wields it (i.e. when he gains control of himself and marshals his rage to serve his purposes) that he can use the Atlantean blade to defeat Thulsa Doom.
The sword is an implement of separation, in a certain literal sense. In this vein, it is the tool by which the hero chooses and categorizes the world around him. It is power, but the power to control both oneself and others. It is defense and offense balanced and necessarily shackled to the will of the wielder. It is personal. This is even recognized in cultures as ancient as that of Japan, where the concepts of zanshin and kokoro paint a picture of a way of combat and swordsmanship that center less on the sword and more on one’s ability to control and be aware of the world and themselves in it.
The gun, meanwhile, is something different. The gun represents not control but power, raw and unfiltered. It is, furthermore, power that is not tied to the wielder, but to forces outside the wielder’s scope of influence. In literal fact, guns harness the powers of physics and chemistry – the forces of nature itself – to destroy the enemy. To be sure, physical skill is required to use the gun well, but not to the level of the sword. Guns are loud, destructive, indiscriminate, and volatile. They are not defensive in nature – they do not protect except if used preemptively to destroy. If the sword symbolizes civilization and order, the gun symbolizes chaos and barbarism. This is not to say the gun is morally inferior – I’m not necessarily ascribing to Obi Wan’s distaste for firearms – but it is an indication of their symbolic purpose. The gun is nature – a forest fire, a storm, the raging sea. All that chaos and destructive disorder is harnessed so that it may be used by humanity to destroy its enemies. The gun is black sorcery; it is the ultimate power trip.
Again, such a use for the gun can be clearly witnessed in so many stories and, indeed, in historical attitudes towards them. In westerns, for example, the gun is a fearful tool. It takes skill to wield, but the true challenge is not so much in the wielding as it is in how fast one may choose to deploy it. In this sense, the gun is only the tool and the real conflict is a moral one - to destroy or not to destroy, and how soon. It is not accidental that the Matrix films used guns to destroy the nobodies yet opted for martial arts to face the true foes. There is no moral challenge in gunning down the unnamed cogs of a soulless machine network, but to face Ultimate Evil, one must master themselves and therefore hand-t0-hand combat (the realm of the sword) is more dramatically appropriate.
In instances where the gun is used as the final arbiter of the conflict, there is a fatalism and suddenness to the exchange. When William Munny faces down Little Bill in Unforgiven, the true action is in the dialogue preceding the end, not in the series of explosions that follow. Why? Well, the gun lacks the physical language of the sword to express the combatants’ experience of the conflict, for lack of a better description. When in a gunfight, it is not so much the fight itself that matters, as the weapons employed are not extensions of themselves but rather representations of elemental forces.
It is part of this that once tarnished the gun when it first became common in any given society. The sword was a weapon of honor, requiring devotion and control to master, wheras the gun was (and is) a kind of power that could be distributed evenly to everyone, controlled or otherwise. The democratization of deadly power was resisted by those who wished to maintain control (if any fool with money could equip the peasantry with firearms, what would become of the Samurai or Knight or Cavalier?), as they saw in the gun an opposing viewpoint to their understanding of warfare. It was no longer one-on-one, skill against skill alone. It was a free-for-all, decided by fate as often as skill. The wisdom of the gun is not how to fight, but whether to do so at all and when. Violence was no longer a gentleman’s game.
Now, as to which I prefer, I am torn. I feel both have great symbolic weight, and I find myself drifting between the two. In the end, it is important also to remember another kind of metaphor they both symbolize: that of the male phallus, and the corresponding ’male’ desire to dominate his surroundings. Whether shooting or stabbing, Dr. Freud still has the last word, I’m afraid.
The dragon is pretty much the grand poobah of mythical monsters. Nothing else gets as much press, nothing commands as much respect, and nothing quite measures up to a 50-ton winged lizard that can breathe fire. They’ve been the classic fantasy villain ever since Beowulf went toe-to-toe with one in the 7th century or so. No hero throws around as much clout as one who says he hunted and killed a dragon. There is a pretty good reason for that, too: it would be practically impossible for your standard medieval hero to do so.
For starters, lets leave out all discussions of magic for the moment. As soon as we throw magic in the mix, anything is possible, so there’s little point in discussing it. If you like, we can say the dragon’s magic cancels out the hero’s magic and leave it at that. What we’re looking at here is whether and how a person with access to the standard armory of the pan-medieval fantasy world could kill a dragon.
The Dragon’s Defenses
Okay, so let’s size up the opposition. Dragons are reputed to have the following capabilities:
- Massive Size: Dragons are usually said to be 20 feet long or longer, putting them on par with dinosaurs or whales–10 tons at the low end, maybe even 100 at the high end.
- Armored Scales: Dragon scales are thick, flame resistant, cover the majority of the body, and are hard to get through. Some places they are described as ‘hard as steel’, though we can presume this is a bit of an exaggeration.
- Flight: Dragons have wings and can fly. This is a major advantage, obviously.
- Intelligence: Dragons are fairly smart. In some cases they are shown to be as smart as people, while in others they are simply very cunning predators of standard animalian intelligence.
- Fire Breath: Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the dragon is its capacity to breathe fire. Any attempt to slay a dragon needs to take into account some way to survive a blast of flaming breath (which, we can presume, operates more like acid or napalm than simple fire, as those are more plausible explanations).
- Teeth, Claws, etc.: To top all that off, the dragon still has the standard array of deadly claws, fangs, horns, and so on that should be sufficient to pulp anybody who messes with it, anyway.
Given this, no sane individual (or team of individuals) would go after a dragon. Just give it the virgins, already, and move on with your lives. Points 4 and 5 alone are sufficient to guarantee that any idiot wanting to kill a dragon will be dead long before he’s finished challenging it in the name of St. George. They don’t make stuff in the middle ages that can take a soaking in napalm and let the user walk away. Nevertheless, if the dragon needs killing, folks are going to try anyway. Let’s consider their weapons.
Don’t be an idiot. Even provided you do make it past the flaming breath and it happens to stay on the ground and you don’t get crushed by giant claws or gobbled up by a giant fang-rimmed mouth, you’ve still got the scales to get through. Even if you do that, what makes you think the sword will actually kill it? If it’s a sufficiently huge dragon (like, Brontosaurus sized) it’s going to take you a long, long time to hack it to death with a sword. It would be like trying to kill a person with a dessert fork–you could do it, sure, but the person pretty much has to be tied up and you need plenty of time and/or a keen grasp of human anatomy. Try hunting a dragon with a sword and kiss your butt goodbye.
Better, certainly. The weapon is larger and longer, meaning you have a chance of puncturing something vital with a
strike. This is how they kill whales, after all, and so it’s not entirely without merit. It can still fly away, though, and can still melt you with fire, and it’s still armored in a way that whales aren’t. Furthermore, the way they actually managed to kill the whale with the lance was to harpoon it, exhaust it, then move in and kill it. Given flaming breath, flight, and all that, it seems unlikely you could pull this off with a dragon. If you were to do it, you’d need a big team of people (like a series of whaleboats, except on the ground) working in coordination and you’d need a dragon to be no smarter than your average whale. As a lone dragonslayer? Forget it.
Let me put it this way: Bard got stupidly lucky with Smaug. Skilled hunters do use bows to hunt large game like Cape Buffalo, but a Cape Buffalo is tiny compared to a dragon. Furthermore, such hunters today are using modern bows and modern arrows that maximize the kinetic energy needed to kill (read this article for more on the physics of hunting large game with bows). Granted the bow keeps the dragon from being able to fly away as easily, bypasses some of the dangers from flaming breath and the teeth/claws, but it is going to have a hell of a time penetrating the dragon’s hide by enough to wound it in any mortal capacity. You’d need dozens and dozens of skilled archers with the most powerful bows and sophisticated arrows in the world, and even then they’ve got fair odds of being roasted.
Essentially, the lone dragonslayer thing is extremely unlikely to the point of being implausible without the use of the idiot ball in some way. You’d need a team of dedicated professionals using things like siege engines, laying traps, and, most importantly, using dirty tricks. Poison its water supply, collapse its cave on top of itself, or, of course, some kind of magic. Beyond that, you are fresh out of luck.
Now, much of modern fantasy lore is well aware of this. George RR Martin points some of this stuff out in A Song of Ice and Fire, and, in one of my personal favorites, Barbra Hambly explores just how impossible a task this is in her 1985 novel Dragonsbane (which I recommend, though I haven’t read it since high school and my memory of it may make it seem better than it is). It should be noted, even, that Beowulf himself died in his struggle with the dragon (though he killed it with a dagger) and had help from his friend, Wiglaf. In any event, I feel it is important to give dragons their due when trying to take them down–the frontal assault isn’t going to work, guys, and you’re going to need help.
Death would come in the form of a thousand screaming Kalsaari slave-soldiers. They were close enough now that Ortega could see them through the clouds of dust kicked up by their march–short men, wiry like cats, their brass helmets and brass shields made dull and orange by the dirt and grime of a hundred league march.
They charged at the open gate with a kind of breathless urgency that meant they expected archers to be manning the walls. There had been, but they had all fled that night when they saw the cookfires of the enemy, counted the columns on their fingers and toes, and then eyed the flimsy arrows in their quivers. Ortega had not been surprised to find them gone. Levies were seldom reliable. Had Ortega a mind for irony or politics, he might have snorted at the idea that men would fight less fiercely to keep their freedom than those who had never tasted it.
Ortega, though, was born for war. It was all that occupied his thoughts as he waited for his killers, standing calmly in the open gate of Porto Nessum, his mageglass longsword point down, his gauntleted hands resting on the pommel. Feather light and sharp as broken glass, he knew the sword would serve him well today. He would not die alone.
The shields were what would do it, eventually. The leather jerkins they wore would barely slow down Ortega’s sword; their sabers were not equal to the plate-and-mail he wore as easily as a tunic and hose. The shields, though–it only took for his blade to get stuck once, and it would be over. Then he would be knocked off his feet, tackled to the earth, and their blades would find the places where he could be cut–his groin, his armpits, his face, his elbows, his knees. It would be a grisly death, slow and bloody. Part of Ortega relished it, wanted it to come. He knew suddenly that he had been waiting for this day for a long time, though it was seldom spoken of among the paladins of Rhond. He thanked the Great Shepherd, Hann, for bringing him to this place, this time. For bringing him this death.
Ortega did not know how many remained in the little town behind him. Many or most had fled with the levies the night before, despite his warnings. They would soon be run down by Kalsaari outriders, trussed up like cattle, and dragged back as slaves for market. None of them would get more than five leagues and the nearest fort was twenty distant. The Kalsaaris would not want word to spread of their attack, and they would see to it that it would not.
Not long now–perhaps two hundred yards. Ortega could hear them, shrieking in their foreign tongue. They could see him now for certain, and no arrows were falling from the wall. Some of the slave-soldiers slowed their pace, perhaps expecting a trap, perhaps willing to let their fellows get the first crack at the knight in the gleaming mail that stood blocking their way. The gate, barely wide enough to admit two carts side-by-side, would mean Ortega would face them no more than four or five at a time, anyway. There was no rush; they had all day to wear him down.
One hundred yards. Ortega took several long, deep breaths. The world narrowed into a sliver–himself, the gate, his sword, his enemies. The hot, dry air and the slow, idling breeze was like a balm to his racing heart. Was this fear? He had expected to be afriad at this moment. Most men would be afraid.
Fifty yards. It was not fear, it was excitement. Ortega assumed a ready position, his legs spread just beyond shoulder width, sinking into a half-couch. The sharply-tapered blade of his sword snapped up, pointing towards the first of the slave-soldiers. His hands wrapped around the hilt, holding it loosely enough to give him flexibility, but tightly enough that it could not be slapped from his hand. He took another breath.
Ten yards. The first man he would kill was no more than seventeen, a whispy beard clinging to his cheeks like moss. His dark eyes were wide; he saw his freedom in Ortega’s death. Such was the reward for good soldiers in the Kalsaari army. Ortega let the thought of it fill him with hate. A cold, dark feeling sank to the bottom of his stomach. He was ready.
A cut in fourth position, the boy’s saber held out too far, his shield away from his body–sloppy. Step left a half pace, beat the blade away, return stroke up along the same line as the boy’s arm to his neck. Ortega barely felt his sword pass through the boy’s neck. He heard the head hit the flagstones beneath his feet with a ‘clop’.
There are two of them now. Efficiency of movement–this is not a sprint. Ortega lets the one on the left strike down at his sword arm and merely pivots to let the blade glance off his shoulder pauldron. The second strikes low, a cut in eighth position, aimed at the shin. Ortega pulls his leg back, retreating a half pace. The second man is over-extended, but the first is ready to take another strike. A half-lunge and a short kick to man number two, right in the knee; he stumbles back. Hard cut at number one in sixth position. The shield comes up to block–the mageglass cuts through it like a down pillow. Severs the man’s arm–more blood. Ortega doesn’t hear the scream. Man number two holds his shield up as Ortega feints a high cut, but then swings low. His stomach is cut open, practically to the spine. His innards spill out.
Neither man dead, but neither left fighting. They fall back, dying in the dirt just before the gate. Three more replace them. How many seconds has it been? Five? Eight? Two? The three men advance as one, shields out (the damned shields!), sabers held at the ready. Ortega’s move, or he is boxed in. He advances, throws his shoulder into one shield–the man tries to meet him, but falls back. The other two strike at him–one, two, three blows. All hit his pauldron or breastplate. Their flurry of blows makes them sloppy with the shield again–it’s held out too low or too high. Step within the first man’s reach, bring the hilt into his face. The quillion takes him in the cheek, breaking bone and shattering teeth. Bring the sword down through the shield arm, backswing towards the second man–he retreats, but collides with his fellows. Men fall, swear, curse.
Ortega whirls, slashing out at another man, cutting his throat through, but not taking his whole head. Blood in his eyes. The world smells like blood.
They are on him now, too many to count. Ortega is a machine, every step and every cut an extension of his years of training. He hears his old master, Bolto, known as ‘Molto Bolto’, barking in his ear. Advance, cut, retreat, pivot, guard, again! Blade up! Watch the shields! Watch the damned shields, boy!
It is difficult work, slaughtering men. Ortega is sweating beneath his armor, his heart pounds like a marching drum. He hears the horns of the troopmasters now. The whip is cracking at his enemy’s rear. Step within guard, strike to instep with forward foot, cut in four, guard in six, pivot, retreat, beat in eight, return in five. The shields, boy!
Molto Bolto had one eye, lost in a crusade in some war Ortega could not now remember. It did not seem to have dulled his senses, though–he sparred without reserve or remose. The heavy wooden practice blades rained on Ortega’s hands and head and body for hours on end. Pain is the path to greatness, boy. No one ever became great in comfort.
Another head cut free from its moorings. The bodies have become and obstacle to his foes. They trip over the dead, they are clutched at by the wounded and dying. Some try to flee from him, and Ortega lets them. It is chaos at the gate. He keeps them to his front and flanks as much as possible, but still men get behind him. He whirls and cuts, keeping himself in control, but he is frantic. The bloody shields! His grip in the hilt is sticky with blood and sweat. His armor is dented, spattered crimson. Not long now. Guard in four, short kick, pommel to brow, pivot, advance, cut to three, watch behind you!
Would they build a statue to him? Ortega didn’t know. These things were decided by priests and merchants, not paladins. Anyway, he wouldn’t be there to see it. Watch behind! Your cape, boy! Keep it on! It guards your back, makes the enemy uncertain where to strike. Drop it now and it will tangle your legs. Guard in six, riposte to four, pivot, pommel to brow, repeat! Again!
The first wound is to his calf–a weak cut, not deep enough to sever tendons, but painful. The hot blood runs down into his boot. Footing is already slick. The man who struck it dies with Ortega’s sword thrust through his spine. A man from behind siezes his cape–Ortega slips the clasp and lets it go. The man who took it lost his shield–he dies easily. More blows rain on him; they are pressed in close now, corps-a-corps. Not long now.
The slave who tackles him is a giant of a man, a full foot and at least sixty pounds heavier than Ortega. The paladin’s helmet strikes the flagstones hard enough to make his teeth sing. The big slave, though, is already dead–Ortega’s sword thrust through him to the hilt. Stuck. Gone. It was almost over.
Ortega rolled, remembering the wrestling lessons Molto Bolto had given him. He had hated wrestling. Bite, gouge, spit, pinch, twist–there is no honor in wrestling, so have none. No, boy! Make it hurt! THIS is how you bite! THIS is how you gouge!
The helmet spared the slaves his bites, but his gauntleted thumbs gouged the eyes out of some as he rolled and kicked. He did not scream or swear–he hadn’t the breath. He needed to fight, to keep fighting. He reached for his dagger–his arm was pinned. A blade cut into his elbow, slipped beneath his ribs. The pain was weirdly dull beneath the pounding of blood in his head and the stampede of his heart.
He thought of his sister. He hadn’t expected to, and it stunned him. Would she be married to a good man? Who would pay her dowry now? Would his death ruin her? He had never thought of that. The last moments of his life, and these were his thoughts? He tried to think of Hann as a snarling Kalsaari slave shoved a dagger through his helmet, cutting his cheek open. Blood filled his mouth–he put his fingers in the slave’s eyes and squeezed. They screamed together.
Hann’s face did not appear. There was only his sister, sitting beneath the olive tree in the garden, smiling at him beneath a wide, white hat. He could hear her laughing, see her opening her arms to embrace him, but there was Molto Bolto, hissing in his ear. Bite, gouge, roll, kick, spit, use the blood in your mouth to blind them boy! Make a name for yourself! Growl your last breath!
Ortega pushed him away. He instead spread his arms for his sister’s embrace. “I’m sorry.” he said through bloodstained teeth. ”This was selfish of me.”
The Death came, in the form of a dagger through the eye.
I wrote this a few years ago, after reading an awful lot of Howard’s stuff. Given that a new movie’s being released about the big Cimmerian, I figure it’s appropriate to bring this one back:
ME: So, you are an evil wizard thinking of going toe-to-toe with Conan the Cimmerian, eh? Well, first off, let me say that I don’t recommend it.
WIZ: I care not for your paltry warnings, mortal! Tell me more of this ‘Conan.’
ME: Okay, if you are thinking of taking on the big C, there are three basic rules you must remember.
WIZ: Yes! Tell me these secrets!
ME: Rule the First: CONAN HAS A SWORD! If you are dealing with Conan, you have to remember that he is going to cut you apart with a sword. It is pretty much guaranteed.
WIZ: Bah! I shall simply deprive him of his foolish weapon, and…
ME: You misunderstood. Let me repeat the rule: CONAN HAS A SWORD! That’s it. He has a sword. He has one now, he’ll have one later, etc.. If you break his sword, he will kill you with the blunt end. If you steal his sword, he will get another one. Conan has a sword—accept it.
WIZ: Hmph! I fear no piece of steel. I have lived these thousands of years in slumber, only now to awake and rain my vengeance upon the world. This Conan may strike off my head, if it please him, and I shall not die.
ME: And just how effective a wizard will you be after Conan punts your head down the gullet of the nearest crocodile?
WIZ: Errrrr…touché. The next rule?
ME: Ah, yes—a very important one: CONAN HAS CAT-LIKE REFLEXES! He stalks like a panther, he moves like a tiger, he runs like a cheetah, he fights like a lion, etc.
WIZ: I am unimpressed, but for now let us continue to the third rule.
ME: Rule the third: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: What the hell is that supposed to mean?
ME: It’s pretty self-explanatory. If you think you will kill Conan with a snake, it won’t work. The guy has out-wrestled pythons, struck faster than cobras, hell, he can even rattle better than a sidewinder.
WIZ: But I have no mere snake! This cursed beast hath spawned in my black dungeons for lo these…
ME: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES! I don’t care if you’ve got a snake the size of the Acella Train with the cunning of Irwin Rommel and venom that could kill the population of India in an afternoon, Conan will kill it. Remember: CONAN HAS A SWORD and will, therefore, cut it in half.
WIZ: What if I take away his swor…
ME: CONAN HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: Right, right—forgot. Well, what if he fell into a pit…
ME: CONAN HAS CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: Dammit. Well, say I teleported him into a room filled with asps and…
ME: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: Fine, fine! I will simply cast bolts of unearthly destruction at him and…
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: He can’t dodge them all day, your know. Sooner or later he will…
ME: HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: Don’t follow.
ME: He’ll stab you.
WIZ: Right. But you forget that I have several swordsmen of my own.
ME: How many?
WIZ: Ten of the mightiest warriors ever to walk…
ME: Are their names Conan?
ME: Congratulations, you have earned yourself a whole ten seconds before Conan kills you.
WIZ: But these men are strong…
ME: CONAN HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: There are ten of them, though, so…
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: And then I make it rain poison snakes.
ME: IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: Then I dash away with the princess.
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES
WIZ: Motherfucker! Well, what would you do?
ME: Obvious, really—don’t fuck with Conan.