My son and I had a swordfight yesterday. It was our first duel. He is 10 months old. The swords were foam. We were in the toy aisle at Walgreens. And it was less a fight than me handing him a foam sword and then gently hitting it with my foam sword while he giggled in his stroller. Still, it was the first time in his life my son wielded a sword, and as a fantasy nerd, that seems almost as important to this father as first words and first steps.
When I was a kid–older than my son, but still too young for critical thinking–I desperately wanted a sword. Some kids make their parents promise to buy them a car on their 16th birthdays (my sister opted for a horse), but I asked for a katana. Specifically, a katana sold in the kitschy knife store at the mall. I daydreamed that the day I picked up my katana, I would start my path on the journey to becoming a legendary ninja warrior like the Leonardo the Turtle, or any one of the Three Ninjas. Because, of course, nothing says “legendary ninja warrior” quite like wielding a sword bought by your parents at a shop next to the Orange Julius at the mall.
Like most little nerds, I wanted a sword because of their epic promise. Swords will never be cool, but they have Old World romance, adventure, and glory folded into their steel. If I had a sword, I believed I could be a knight–even a Jedi knight–or a samurai, or a ninja, or a barbarian warrior-king out of my favorite fantasy novels, comics, and movies. Like Obi-Wan said of the lightsaber, the sword seemed to me to be an “elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
So I fantasized about cutting my way through swaths of bad guys, and conveniently failed to imagine what cutting one’s way through people actually does to those people.
Swords are terrifying weapons. They’re designed to kill other people, and horribly, too. They’re designed to stab, slice, and cut through human flesh, muscle, organs, and bone. Swords are messy. Disgusting. Horrific. It is honestly sort of disturbing that we’ve taken a weapon designed specifically to inflict agonizing death on other human beings and turned it into, functionally, a toy and a signifier of lighthearted adventure. And while I loved my son’s giggles there in the toy aisle at Walgreens, it struck me later as strange that I got so much innocent joy out of pretending to fight my infant son to the death.
And I wondered, as he gets older, if the sword will hold the same mystique it did for me. After all, fantasy is a lot grittier and more violent these days. Game of Thrones, at least, depicts its swordfights in gory, visceral detail. On the show, swords aren’t elegant weapons for a more civilized age, but brutal weapons from a more savage age.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to enjoy pretend-swordfighting my son, and I hope it sparks his imagination and gets him daydreaming about historically inaccurate swashbuckling and daring-do. I’m just going to feel weird about it.
Oh, and if you’re curious, my own parents didn’t buy me a sword for my 16th birthday. Though I got one of my own after doing Iaido (the art of drawing the sword) for a year in Japan. It’s a beautiful katana, custom-made for my hands and arm-length (and, fortunately for me, unsharpened). When I unsheath it, I still get that romantic, heroic rush I did all those years ago looking at swords in the mall. Then I remember how crap I was at Iaido, and how quickly I’d be horribly killed were I ever in an actual swordfight, and I thank my lucky stars that some dreams never do come true.