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Sword, Stave, and Wand-Magic in Warfare: Wayback Wednesday

The dwarven brothers Sindri and Brokkr forging Mjölnir and Gungnir
The dwarven brothers Sindri and Brokkr forging Mjölnir and Gungnir

Warfare is a constant of human history. Rarely, if ever, has there not been some armed conflict going on somewhere in the world. Most of the history of warfare has involved weapons powered by muscle. Sinew and plant fibers helped increase the range the muscle power could send objects when used in bows, but the weapon was still limited by the muscle strength of the user.

Siege weaponry used additional leveraging to make the projectiles go further. For the first time, pure muscle power wasn’t the primary limit for the weapon. Ballistas and catapults relied on mechanical properties to hurl their ammunition. For centuries, these were the pinnacle of damage-dealing devices.

Then came the introduction of gunpowder, a method that relied on chemical reactions rather than mechanical ones to perform force multiplication. Gunpowder weapons improved and replaced all mechanical siege weaponry. However, the battlefields continued to be dominated by muscle-powered weapons for several more centuries. Guns would eventually take the top spot on the battlefield, but there were several advances in metallurgy and manufacturing systems that had to be discovered before this could happen.

“What does this have to do with fantasy though?” you may be asking. Great question. It is interesting to note that until very recently, fantasy armies were portrayed as being equipped with three basic weapon systems. First are muscle-powered weapons for the foot and horse soldiers: edged (swords, knives, daggers, pikes, and axes), blunt (maces, staves, and clubs), and projectile (bows, slings, and spears). Second is the siege weaponry for taking down fortified defenses. These are regularly the catapult and ilk. Finally, the third system is magic. Many stories and books have powerful spell casters on the battlefield, but there are often only a handful at most of these. Sometimes only a single one will be present.

The magic is portrayed as being personal. It wasn’t something that could be added to other weapons easily. Yes, artifacts such as Sting from The Hobbit, Excalibur from Arthurian legends, Gungnir and Mjölnir in Norse mythology, and Ruyi Jingu Bang from Journey to the West exist in fantasy. But they are single weapons. They aren’t available to the mass of fighting men on the battlefield.

The science of mechanized and gunpowder warfare took individuality away from war. No longer could a single hero realistically be expected to turn the tide of battle. Gone were the two combatants locked in a struggle to decide which side won. Magic in fantasy doesn’t translate to everyone. It is a special bit, something so unique it cannot be replicated.

At its heart, magic is about doing things that are outside the realm of possible for most people in a society. It is very hard to make magic magical if everyone can use it. This means that fantasy tends to dwell in worlds that do not have science or mass production. Fantasy worlds will often be limited to pre-industrial processes and the weapons that were available during those times. It appears authors have trouble effectively mixing modern mass production processes with magic.

Fantasy battles with magic tend to fall into either the occasional use of wizards and sorcerers on the battlefield or a pair of magic users in combat off from the main fight. Massive armies clash in a display of muscle-backed strength with flashing swords, piercing arrows, and horse charges. Sword and stave rule the day. The only mighty damage comes from the spell slingers. Magic may make a huge impact on the battle, but its very uniqueness makes it stand out in the story.

That’s harder to write effectively when every soldier on the battlefield can perform the equivalent of spellwork with their rifles, grenades, and missiles. Gone are the direct clashes of armies covering the land. Now it’s a few hundred men and women at most. Even two hundred years ago, the amount of direct destructive power those soldiers command wasn’t dreamed of outside of fantasy.

When reality and fantasy look the same, the fantastic goes away. Arthur C. Clarke stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, 1962). He made a strong point, one that has often been shown to be true. Writing warfare with firearms makes the magical seem less amazing. Since one of the major draws of fantasy is magic, it is hard to write a compelling and interesting magical fantasy when everyone has tech that mimics spellcasting.

Chapter XIII


All soldiers love to fight; so when the army of Ix learned that they were to go to war, they rejoiced exceedingly over the news.

They polished up their swords and battle-axes, and sewed all the missing buttons on their uniforms, and mended their socks, and had their hair cut, and were ready to march as soon as the queen was ready to have them start.

King Bud of Noland had an army of seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven men, besides a general ten feet high; but the Queen of Ix had an army more than twice as big, and she decided to lead it in person, so that when she had conquered the city of Nole she herself could seize the precious magic cloak which she so greatly coveted.

Therefore Queen Zixi rode out at the head of her army, clad in a suit of mail, with a glittering helmet upon her head that was surmounted by a flowing white plume. And all the soldiers cheered their queen and had no doubt at all that she would win a glorious victory.

Quavo the minstrel, who wandered constantly about, was on his way to Noland again; and while Queen Zixi’s army was cutting a path through the forest and making a bridge to cross the river, he came speedily by a little-known path to the city of Nole, where he told Tullydub, the lord high counselor, what was threatening his king.

So, trembling with terror, Tullydub hastened to the palace and called a meeting of the five high counselors in the king’s antechamber.

When all were assembled, together with Bud and Fluff, the old man told his news and cried:

“We shall all be slaughtered and our kingdom sacked and destroyed, for the army of Ix is twice as big as our own—yes, twice as big!”

“Oh, pooh! What of that?” said Tollydob, scornfully; “have they a general as tall as I am?”

“Certainly not,” said the chief counselor. “Who ever saw a man as tall as you are?”

“Then I’ll fight and conquer them!” declared Tollydob, rising and walking about the room, so that all might see where his head just grazed the ceiling.

“But you can’t, general; you can’t fight an army by yourself!” remonstrated Tullydub, excitedly. “And being so big, you are a better mark for their arrows and axes.”

At this the general sat down rather suddenly and grew pale.

“Perhaps we can buy them off,” remarked the lord high purse-bearer, jingling the purse that now never became empty.

“No, I’m afraid not,” sighed Tullydub. “Quavo the minstrel said they were bent upon conquest, and were resolved upon a battle.”

“And their queen is a witch,” added Tallydab, nervously. “We must not forget that.”

“A witch!” exclaimed Princess Fluff, with sudden interest. “What does she look like?”

But all shook their heads at the question, and Tullydub explained:

“None of us has ever seen her, for we have never been friendly with the people of Ix. But from all reports, Queen Zixi is both young and beautiful.”

“Maybe it’s the one who wanted to teach me witchcraft in order to steal my magic cloak!” said Fluff, with sudden excitement. “And when she found she couldn’t steal it, she went back after her army.”

“What magic cloak do you refer to?” asked Tullydub.

“Why, the one the fairies gave me,” replied Fluff.

“Is it of gorgeous colors with golden threads running through it?” asked the lord high general, now thoroughly interested.

“Yes,” said the princess, “the very same.”

“And what peculiar powers does it possess?”

“Why, it grants its wearer the fulfillment of one wish,” she answered.

All the high counselors regarded her earnestly.

“Then that was the cloak I wore when I wished to be ten feet high!” said Tollydob.

“And I wore it when I wished I could reach the apple,” said Tellydeb.

“And I wore it when I wished that my dog Ruffles could speak,” said Tallydab.

“And I wore it when I wished the royal purse would always remain full,” said Tillydib.

“I did not know that,” remarked Fluff, thoughtfully. “But I’ll never forget that I lent it to Aunt Rivette, and that was the time she wished she could fly!”

“Why, it’s wonderful!” cried old Tullydub. “Has it granted you, also, a wish?”

“Yes,” said Fluff, brightly. “And I’ve been happy ever since.”

“And has your brother, the king, had a wish?” Tullydub inquired eagerly.

“No,” said Bud. “I can still have mine.”

“Then why doesn’t your Majesty wear the cloak and wish that your army shall conquer the Queen of Ix’s?” asked the lord high counselor.

“I’m saving my wish,” answered Bud, “and it won’t be that, either.”

“But unless something is done we shall all be destroyed,” protested Tullydub.

“Then wear the cloak yourself,” said Bud. “You haven’t had a wish yet.”

“Good!” cried the four other counselors; and the lord high general added: “That will surely save us from any further worry.”

“I’ll fetch the cloak at once,” said Fluff, and she ran quickly from the room to get it.

“Supposing,” Tullydub remarked hesitatingly, “the magic power shouldn’t work?”

“Oh, but it will!” answered the general.

“I’m sure it will,” said the steward.

“I know it will,” declared the purse-bearer.

“It cannot fail,” affirmed the executioner; “remember what it has already done for us!”

Then Fluff arrived with the cloak; and, after considering carefully how he would speak his wish, the lord high counselor drew the cloak over his shoulders and said solemnly:

“I wish that we shall be able to defeat our enemies, and drive them all from the kingdom of Noland.”

“Didn’t you make two wishes instead of one?” asked the princess, anxiously.

“Never mind,” said the general; “if we defeat them it will be easy enough to drive them from our kingdom.”

The lord high counselor removed the cloak and carefully refolded it.

“If it grants my wish,” said he, thoughtfully, “it will indeed be lucky for our country that the Princess Fluff came to live in the palace of the king.”

The queen formed her men into a line of battle facing the army of Nole, and they were so numerous in comparison with their enemies that even the more timorous soldiers gained confidence, and stood up straight and threw out their chests as if to show how brave they were.

Then Queen Zixi, clad in her flashing mail and mounted upon her magnificent white charger, rode slowly along the ranks, her white plume nodding gracefully with the motion of the horse.

And when she reached the center of the line she halted, and addressed her army in a voice that sounded clear as the tones of a bell and reached to every listening ear.

“Soldiers of the land of Ix,” she began, “we are about to engage in a great battle for conquest and glory. Before you lies the rich city of Nole, and when you have defeated yonder army and gained the gates you may divide among yourselves all the plunder of gold and silver and jewels and precious stones that the place contains.”

Hearing this, a great shout of joy arose from the soldiers, which Zixi quickly silenced with a wave of her white hand.

“For myself,” she continued, “I desire nothing more than a cloak that is owned by the Princess Fluff. All else shall be given to my brave army.”

“But—supposed we do not win the battle?” asked one of her generals, anxiously. “What then do we gain?”

“Nothing but disgrace,” answered the queen, haughtily. “But how can we fail to win when I myself lead the assault? Queen Zixi of Ix has fought a hundred battles and never yet met with defeat!”

There was more cheering at this, for Zixi’s words were quite true. Nevertheless, her soldiers did not like the look of that silent army of Nole standing so steadfastly before the gates and facing the invaders with calm determination.

Zixi herself was somewhat disturbed at this sight, for she could not guess what powers the magic cloak had given to the Nolanders. But in a loud and undaunted voice she shouted the command to advance; and while trumpets blared and drums rolled, the great army of Ix awoke to action and marched steadily upon the men of Nole.

Bud, who could not bear to remain shut up in his palace while all this excitement was occurring outside the city gates, had slipped away from Fluff and joined his gigantic general, Tollydob. He was, of course, unused to war, and when he beheld the vast array of Zixi’s army he grew fearful that the magic cloak might not be able to save his city from conquest.

Yet the five high counselors, who were all present, seemed not to worry the least bit.

“They’re very pretty soldiers to look at,” remarked old Tollydob, complacently. “I’m really sorry to defeat them, they march so beautifully.”

“But do not let your kind-hearted admiration for the enemy interfere with our plans,” said the lord high executioner, who was standing by with his hands in his pockets.

“Oh, I won’t!” answered the big general, with a laugh which was succeeded by a frown. “Yet I can never resist admiring a fine soldier, whether he fights for or against me. For instance, just look at that handsome officer riding beside Queen Zixi—her chief general, I think. Isn’t he sweet? He looks just like an apple, he is so round and wears such a tight-fitting red jacket. Can’t you pick him for me, friend Tellydeb?”

“I’ll try.” And the lord high executioner suddenly stretched out his long arm, and reached the far-away general of Ix, and pulled him from the back of his horse.

Then, amid the terrified cries that came from the opposing army, Tellydeb dragged his victim swiftly over the ground until he was seized by the men of Nole and firmly bound with cords.

“Thank you, my friend,” said the general, again laughing and then frowning. “Now get for me that pretty queen, if you please.”

Once more the long arm of the lord high executioner shot out toward the army of Ix. But Zixi’s keen eyes saw it coming, and instantly she disappeared, her magical arts giving her power to become invisible.

Tellydeb, puzzled to find the queen gone, seized another officer instead of her and dragged him quickly over the intervening space to his own side, where he was bound by the Nolanders and placed beside his fellow-captive.

Another cry of horror came from the army of Ix, and with one accord the soldiers stopped short in their advance. Queen Zixi, appearing again in their midst, called upon her wavering soldiers to charge quickly upon the foe.

But the men, bewildered and terrified, were deaf to her appeals. They fled swiftly back, over the brow of the hill, and concealed themselves in the wooded valley until the sun set. And it was far into the night before Queen Zixi succeeded in restoring her line of battle.

Chapter XIV


The next day was a busy one in the city of Nole. The ten-foot lord high general marched his seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven men out of the city gates and formed them in line of battle on the brow of a hill. Then he asked Aunt Rivette to fly over the top of the mountain and see where the enemy was located.

The old woman gladly undertook the mission. She had by this time become an expert flier, and, being proud to resemble a bird, she dressed herself in flowing robes of as many colors as a poll-parrot could boast. When she mounted into the air, streamers of green and yellow silk floated behind her in quite a beautiful and interesting fashion, and she was admired by all beholders.

Aunt Rivette flew high above the mountain-top, and there she saw the great army of Queen Zixi climbing up the slope on the other side. The army also saw her, and stopped short in amazement at seeing a woman fly like a bird. They had before this thought their queen sure of victory, because she was a witch and possessed many wonderful arts; but now they saw that the people of Noland could also do wonderful things, and it speedily disheartened them.

Zixi ordered them to shoot a thousand arrows at Aunt Rivette, but quickly countermanded the order, as the old woman was too high to be injured, and the arrows would have been wasted.

When the army of Ix had climbed the mountain and was marching down again toward Nole, the lord high steward sent his dog Ruffles to them to make more mischief. Ruffles trotted soberly among the soldiers of Ix, and once in a while he would pause and say in a loud voice:

“The army of Noland will conquer you.”

Then all the soldiers would look around to see who had spoken these fearful words, but could see nothing but a little dog; and Ruffles would pretend to be scratching his nose with his left hind foot, and would look so innocent that they never for a moment suspected he could speak.

“We are surrounded by invisible foes!” cried the soldiers; and they would have fled even then had not Queen Zixi called them cowards and stubbornly declared that they only fancied they had heard the voices speak. Some of them believed her, and some did not; but they decided to remain and fight, since they had come so far to do so.

Then they formed in line of battle again and marched boldly toward the army of Noland.

While they were still a good way off, and the generals were riding in front of their soldiers, the lord high executioner suddenly stretched out his long arm and pulled another general of Ix from his horse, as he had done the day before, dragging him swiftly over the ground between the opposing armies until he was seized by the men of Nole and tightly bound with cords.

The soldiers of Ix uttered murmurs of horror at this sight, and stopped again.

Immediately the long arm shot out, and pulled another general from their ranks, and made him prisoner.

Queen Zixi raved and stormed with anger; but the lord high executioner, who was enjoying himself immensely, continued to grab officer after officer and make them prisoners: and so far there had been no sign of battle; not an arrow had been fired nor an ax swung.

Then, to complete the amazement of the enemy, the gigantic ten-foot general of the army of Nole stepped in front of his men and waved around his head a flashing sword six feet in length, while he shouted in a voice like a roar of thunder, that made the army of Ix tremble:

“Forward, soldiers of Noland—forward! Destroy the enemy, and let none escape!”

It was more than the army of Ix could bear. Filled with terror, the soldiers threw down their arms and fled in a great panic, racing over the mountain-top and down the other side and then scattering in every direction, each man for himself and as if he feared the entire army of Noland was at his heels.

But it wasn’t. Not a soldier of Nole had moved in pursuit. Every one was delighted at the easy victory, and King Bud was so amused at the sight of the flying foe that he rolled on the ground in laughter, and even the fierce-looking General Tollydob grinned in sympathy.

Then, with bands playing and banners flying, the entire army marched back into the city, and the war between Noland and Ix was over.


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