Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Boys and Their Toys: The Impact of Arthur and Caliburn on Pop Culture Storytelling

The legacies of King Arthur and his sword, Caliburn (or Excalibur), have become intertwined so much that they're basically a buddy cop duo at this point.  Most people with a cursory knowledge of Arthurian legend will be able to tell you the name of the sword Arthur used, and Caliburn itself endures as one of the most famous weapons in all of popular culture.  Even in a new world of modernized weaponry, the public at large still remembers that one really cool sword that King Arthur had.  

Looks even cooler mounted on the wall above the desktop computer in my stepmom's basement.

  But when did our heroes become so linked with the weapons they used?  The literary device of giving a character an "ace in the hole" accessory has been popular since stories were first being told, and remains a stalwart device to this day.  We know the name of Beowulf's sword (Hrunting), Hercules' sword (Anaklusmos), and I'm sure that non-famous characters within oral tradition and mythology have names for their accessories as well.  Even today it's not uncommon.  As a culture, we cherish some of our own objects to the point of characterization, and this blatant material worship will continue until we collectively stop thinking that cars and guns and children are cool enough to warrant a name and personality.


"This is Rosie.  She's fast as hell and antisemitic." 

Giving a hero or villain a legendary weapon makes sense within the genre of science-fiction and fantasy because characters within these genres are often given impossible tasks that can only be completed if they're gifted an item that imbues them with larger-than-life qualities.  Video games, especially role-playing games, make item collecting a central component of gameplay, and most games will include at least one one of a kind weapon that gives the player a significant leg up on their enemies.  It's the closest that modern man will come to feeling what Arthur felt when he slayed thousands of Saxons without trying very hard.

Pictured: Man murdering vicariously through virtual man

There are multitudes of characters within popular culture that possess a legendary weapon, and the legacies behind these weapons are sometimes as in-depth or more in-depth than the characters' themselves.  The most sterling example of this phenomenon is present in the game Doom.  The game's protagonist is an unnamed space marine that no one really knows anything about (a tradition that remains throughout the entire series), but one of his guns, the BFG (or Big Fucking Gun), has become one of the most well-known weapons in popular gaming culture.

Looks even better on the bookshelf in my bedroom where I get laid a bunch.

One of the most popular game series of all time, The Legend of Zelda, has made finding a powerful sword a central component of every one of its titles.  Sure, the plot of every Zelda may differ, but since the first entry on the Super Nintendo console (A Link to the Past) was released, every subsequent Zelda game has revolved around the main character (Link) trying to attain the Master Sword to defeat whatever antagonist he's currently being threatened by.  The Master Sword itself is an homage to Excalibur and Arthurian myth, because Link usually finds it within a stone pedestal and spends a significant portion of the game figuring out how to remove it.


Master Sword with natural spotlight

The materialism present in our culture could explain why the trend of legendary objects in media persists to this day, but this may be too cynical of a viewpoint.  Legendary objects have become an almost unbreakable trope in modern science-fiction and fantasy storytelling, and I don't see the trope stopping anytime soon.  The escapist/wish-fulfillment element of genre storytelling will keep legendary objects present for as long as these genres are popular, because everyone who reads/views/plays these stories would really like to find a glowing mace in their backyard.  If the people like it, and it ain't broke, there's not really a reason to fix it. 


Pictured: A contemporary epic hero



  1. You make many interesting connections with the “naming the weapon” trope in this post. Not only is this presented in books, movies, and video games, but in comic books as well. The thunder god Thor carries his hammer Mjolnir, a weapon that can only be controlled by him. Only Thor is worthy. This is another example of the common sword in the stone mythos. Why do writers continue to fall back on this convention? While you bring up the concept of materialism and its relation on our society, I think it has more to do with lazy character development. Associating a hero with his weapon’s back story is a much easier task than building a character’s own back story. Especially when the primary characteristics of the character include using violence with the named weapon.

  2. I wonder if the focus on a male character's weapons is due to weapons such as swords and guns being phallic symbols and representing how masculine the character is. It doesn't even have to be a sword or gun either, from what I've read, anything vaguely phallic, like a cannon, can be used too. Circular weapons, on the other hand, are yonic symbols. I remember watching a documentary that tracked the size of guns yielded by male protagonists in American movies and tv, and the documentary found a correlation between how large the gun was and how violent and overly masculine the character was. For example, Humphrey Bogart used mostly handguns in his movies, but in later movies, characters like the Terminator and Rambo use much larger guns and are more overtly violent. Maybe the obsession with weapons to the point of naming them is an obsession with emphasizing the masculinity of certain characters, especially with heroic ones like Beowulf, Arthur, and Hercules.