Everything Wrong with the Master Sword

FeaturedEverything Wrong with the Master Sword

Let me just get this out of the way: I love The Legend of Zelda, and the Master Sword is an icon of much more value than its ability to murder monsters. I get that.

Regardless, today I want to look at the Master Sword as an object, outside of its place in the Zelda lore, or even outside of its place as an icon in the minds of its fans. I would like to inspect each of its parts, compare it to swords from real life, and critique it as a piece of steel created with the purpose of defending the life of its wielder and murdering scary things.

Here’s a handy reference of the different designs of the Master Sword throughout the ages. Obviously each game has a different take on the weapon, but I’m going to be looking at the Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild designs, because they are all very similar (and relatively recent).

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The kind of sword that the Master Sword is based off from has three basic parts: the blade, the guard, and the grip. Each of these parts should be designed in a way to compliment the function and purpose of the sword. Let’s take a look at how real life medieval swords have accomplished these goals, and then compare it with the master sword.

First, let’s start with the blade. The blade is (obviously) the most important part of the sword, as it is the backbone which the rest of the components are mounted on to. Many different blade types have existed across time and geography, but the Master Sword has a few specific characteristics. It has two edges, which are basically parallel, that come to a triangular, reinforced point. The cross section is mostly hexagonal, but it has a rectangular ricasso. It’s rather broad, thick, has no fuller, and there is a small amount of decorative etching or engraving. Lastly, it doesn’t seem to be extremely long, probably about as long as what is often called an arming sword today ( 30-33″ or so).

I don’t know of any blade in real life that has all of these characteristics at once (if you know of a blade that does, feel free to share), however all of those characteristics exist in different combinations on different European swords from the European Medieval period and early Renaissance, so I think it’s entirely possible that this blade could have existed, although, I think there are some other things about it that might make it less than ideal.

My first critique of the blade is that it looks quite heavy. It’s very broad and thick. Normally, a trade off must be made between a sword’s broadness and its thickness. A thick, narrow, stiff sword is specialized more toward thrusting with the point, where as a broad, flatter sword is better for cutting. The Master Sword doesn’t seem to have made that compromise, resulting in a very heavy looking blade. The width and thickness of the blade doesn’t seem to taper at all from its base to its point. The edges and the flats of European swords taper along the length of the sword. Said another way, both the edges and the flats of the blade near the point are closer together than at the base. A fuller was also often placed in the blade to reduce its weight while keeping the edges of the blade stiff and sturdy. By adding these features in, the sword creator can control how the weight of the blade is distributed and reduce mass. The Master Sword has none of these features, so its blade is going to be very hefty.

Next let’s talk about the grip. The master sword has a narrow, cylindrical grip which is encased in some kind of blue material which is then embellished with some kind of green stuff. The grip is fairly long, which allows for the user to hold it in two hands. I assume that the tang goes fully through the grip and pommel, and is peened* at the end to hold the pommel in place.

A grip of this length on a blade of this length is not unheard of. There are many examples of “hand and a half” or “bastard” swords that still exist today, although they frequently have a “scent-stopper” or teardrop shaped pommel. The benefit of combining this pommel with this kind of grip/blade configuration is that it allowed the pommel to act as an extension of the grip when holding it in two hands. However, I don’t think the Master Sword needs to look like it can be used in two hands. Link always uses it in one hand, and, it is always used with a shield.

Given the huge size of the blade, the grip looks a little undersized to me. The end of the grip is used to offset and counter balance the blade. This can be accomplished either by lengthening the grip or by adding a heavy pommel, however, even with the longer grip and a reasonable sized pommel the huge blade of the Master Sword makes the grip look off balance.

My biggest critique of the grip, however, is that it is cylindrical and narrow. The narrowness is part of what makes it look unbalanced, and it would probably be uncomfortable to hold. The shape of a cylindrical grip is itself quite problematic. Straight, two edged swords, almost always have a grip with a rectangular, oval, or octagonal cross section. What this allows you to do is sense in your hand where the edge of the blade is at all times, just by the way the grip feels. Using a grip with a round cross section, it’s impossible to determine edge alignment without looking at your sword, and it’s easy for the sword to spin in your hand.

Lastly, there’s the guard. Honestly, the Master Sword’s guard looks completely ridiculous. Not only is huge and bulky, which, once again, messes up the weight distribution and total mass of the sword, but it actively blocks the wielder from using the weapon effectively. The round cone shaped thing beneath the cross keeps the fingers away from the cross guard, further preventing the wielder from knowing which direction the edge is pointing. Additionally, the round disk above the wielder’s hand prevents putting the thumb up on the flat of the blade, or wrapping their finger around the guard, two things which can be extremely useful.

Larger, heavier guards do exist in real life. They were invented at about the same time that people stopped using shields with their swords, and they are designed to protect the sword hand. Before the invention of protective complex guards, the shield was used to protect the hand. Swords that are meant to be used with a shield have smaller or almost non-existent guards (for example, notice that most “Viking” era swords have minimal guards). As noted above, Link always uses a shield with the Master Sword, so it would be reasonable to assume that the sword would have a light, reasonable guard to accompany it.

To summarize my points, the blade is too heavy. It is very thick and very broad; it should be one or the other, but not both. The guard is unpractical, being both heavy without providing extra protection for the hand, doesn’t help with edge alignment, and prevents the wielder from holding the sword in useful ways. The grip is the wrong shape–the user cannot feel the edge alignment in their hand, and the sword can easily spin in the hand–as well as too long and narrow for a sword that is used the way that the Master Sword is used. Overall, the sword looks too heavy. Medieval swords weigh about 2.5-3.5 lbs. The Master Sword looks like it would weigh about double that.

Thinking about how the Master Sword could be designed as a practical weapon, I came up with this:

Master Sword mk3 Cleanup-small

The blade is an Oakeshott type XVI**, which shares some similarities with the Master Sword blade. This blade is designed to give good point performance in the thrust with a minimum sacrifice to cutting ability. It’s a good generalist type of blade that would be the exact kind of thing an adventurer like Link would want. Like the Master Sword blade, it’s double edged, and comes to a diamond section, reinforced point. It’s different from the Master Sword in that the tip is longer and narrower, and the blade tapers, reducing mass toward the tip. Additionally, the blade has a fuller running through the majority of it which reduces the overall weight while reinforcing the cutting edges. In contrast to the bulky look of the Master Sword blade, this blade profile conveys the idea of a lively and dangerously swift weapon in the hand.

I kept the ricasso and decorative space near the base of the blade. While I have never seen a blade of this type with these elements, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to me to consider that somebody somewhere could have decided that they wanted to make a sword this way. By modifying the ricasso, the sword maker could manipulate the mass near the hand, and the decorative section were the Triforce is etched/engraved shouldn’t really effect the handling characteristics of the weapon at all. Additionally, the part of a blade near the guard is used almost exclusively in defensive actions, so making it more robust and removing a delicate edge actually makes a certain kind of sense.

The guard has been drastically reduced to a simple bar with upturned tips that imply the  wings on the Master Sword. This has the benefit of further lightening the look of the sword, and increasing its wieldiness. Additionally, this guard allows the hand to be in contact with the quillons, so the wielder can orient the edge of the blade more easily. Lastly, because the guard is so much smaller, it would be much easier to wrap a finger around the guard, or move the hand into many other useful positions near the guard. The simpler guard also matches better with the fact that the Master Sword is always paired with a shield.

The “gem” in the middle of the guard is there mostly just to make the sword more recognizable as an incarnation of the Master Sword, and it is made out of the same piece of steel as the rest of the guard. These kinds of embellishments are not unheard of on surviving medieval swords (although they were usually a quite a bit smaller). If I were to do another pass at this redesign, I would probably focus on that part of the guard specifically.

I’ve modified the grip by shortening it, improving its geometry, and adding a proper pommel. The shorter grip makes sense given the length of the weapon and the intended usage (with a shield). Rather than a straight cylindrical grip, it tapers from guard to pommel, following the shape of the tang which it encloses. Additionally, the grip is shaded to give an impression of having an oval cross section which would allow anyone holding the sword to immediately know which direction the edges are pointed at all times.

Last thing of note is that I replaced the Master Sword’s rather forgettable pommel with a striking wheel pommel. The pommel needed to be heavier due to the reduced grip length, and a wheel pommel is hefty while having a classic martial austerity that lends the design an implication of action and danger.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with the redesign. I feel that it keeps most of what makes the Master Sword unique and recognizable, while suggesting a practical weapon that looks like it could be used effectively in the defense of a Hylian hero’s life. Looking at the Master Sword artwork, I see a clunky, unwieldy object, but with just a little creativity and knowledge of European swords, the Master Sword can be reincarnated as something beautiful, iconic, and deadly.

 

* Basically, when constructing the grip, the tang is placed through a hole drilled through the pommel and it sticks out of the pommel a little bit. Then the sword maker expands the tang into the pommel by heating it up and hammering it into the pommel.

** Specifically, I based my drawing’s blade off the Squire and the Prince from Albion SwordsNext Generation line. Oakeshott typology is a system for classifying medieval European sword blades, and can be handy to know if you’re into that kind of thing.

“Fantasy”: A Useless Label

I had an interesting discussion with a friend today, and I figured I’d share the basic point of it.

Basically, I have a bugbear when people act like all the things we call “fantasy” are directly comparable. They are not. Saying that all things that use invented settings are similar is, at best, a useless classification. I could easily argue that ALL fiction takes place in an invented setting, because authors are themselves interpreters of the world they see, and the outward expressions of their observations are each unique inventions. If such an ambiguous thing is the defining feature for a set, it’s not a very useful defining feature.

There are many different kinds of stories that are lumped under the term “fantasy.” Some of them are genre stories that could happen in any setting, but because they tap all the fantasy genre boxes, they are called fantasy. Some have completely unique, invented worlds where the author has created a setting that is streamlined toward expressing deep emotional truths about the way they experience reality. Some are basically just normal drama stories, but they have a single werewolf so they’re suddenly “fantasy.”

And in this pile of things which we mark with the basically meaningless label of “fantasy” there is some high art. The most obvious of these is anything by Tolkien (whom I greatly admire/worship). You can argue whether or not your preferred piece of literature is high art if you so desire.

Now, I want to clarify some things. Almost every time I start talking about “high art” or “pop art” or the like, people start thinking that I’m making a value judgement. That is not the case. All art is created with purpose and is intended to be considered, understood, and possibly loved by its audience. The difference between “high art” and others is that with high art, the artwork is intentionally derived from and adds to an existing cultural heritage* and metanarrative.** There are loads of excellent art pieces that don’t do this. Pieces that are created to be experienced as is–to communicate on their own without the need for a deep understanding of the tradition that it sprang from. My personal favorite art pieces can do both at the same time.

So basically, what’s been bugging me is when people compare Tolkien to something like, let’s say, Terry Brooks’ Shannara . Tolkien obviously influenced the ideas in the Shannara stories, but they are created with a completely different purpose, and based on completely different literary traditions. Shannara is rooted more in thrillers and mystery novels than in the myths and fairy stories that inspired Tolkien. Shannara doesn’t make strides in exploring the literary sources from which it sprang. It just tells you the same ideas that existed before in an entertaining and amusing way. The art of Shannara isn’t the art of invention–it uses the inventions of other people. Its art is the art of story telling, the ability to display these ideas in such a way that people will happily spend their time considering them.

Shannara and Tolkien are not the same things. They were created for different reasons, and with different goals. A superficial similarity in that they both include dwarves, elves, and swords is insufficient to say that they are “the same kind of thing.” Comparisons can be made between them, but those comparisons must take into account these inherent differences, and acknowledge the fact that these are wildly different art pieces. The most fascinating thing about comparing them shouldn’t be their similarities, but that we see any similarity at all.

When we stop doing these meaningless groupings, we can start talking about things that actually ARE similar and actually start having some useful discussions. If nothing else, I’ll get better automated book and film recommendations on Amazon and Netflix.

 

* In much of art, “high art” is relegated to a SPECIFIC heritage and metanarrative that has been selected by boring rich people in order to mark themselves as separate from the “lower class” (aka poor people), but I won’t get into that here.

** That makes me wonder (and I’m very literally just pondering out loud now), what would a new story that explores and advances the tradition that Tolkien spent his life working on look like? I think it would have to experiment with and question the very core ideas of the tradition itself. It would have to experiment with the concept of “secondary worlds,” explore the relationship between mankind and divinity, and ask questions about things like magic and what that word really even means. To qualify as “high art,” these stories would need to intentionally address these ideas (and others, this is not an exhaustive list by any means), and attempt to add to the conversation. Simply repeating the arguments would not be enough.