Sword and Phallus: What every fantasy writer needs to know about symbolism

:: Edit 2012-06-20 ::

A reader has indicated to me that the opening paragraph of the post below might easily be interpreted as an attack on feminism, especially to anyone not aware of my antecedence in this matter. Please be assured that my aim is the contrary.

:: end of edit::

It has been said that in order to accept feminist theory, you first have to reject it. It's also been suggested that feminism is like whiskey: the first taste you have is repulsive, but for some reason you keep coming back until you grow to love it. I think the latter is frankly daft.

Sigmund Freud introduced the masses to the idea of 'penis envy': that one of the root causes of women's difficulties dealing with men comes from the fundamental desire for, and lack of, a penis. During the rise of feminism in the twentieth century, that idea probably made a certain amount of sense. Certainly more than it does now. Feminist men tend (if they see it in these kinds of terms at all) tend to see the penis as a sort of consolation prize for all the cool bits women have that we don't. In all honesty, I'm none too sure where I stand on the matter. The feminist antidote to the idea of penis envy is penis extension.

Penis extension is the symbolic representation of rivalry among males and of sexual display to females, through display of exaggerated male sexual characteristics, especially when represented through objects whose shape is analogous to the penis. It is an easy accusation to make, since so many tools, devices and structures are basically cylindrical. It is also, therefore, relatively easy to refute by looking at the design specification of (for instance) a skyscraper and discovering that there is no reference in the specification to the size of nearby buildings. If, on the other hand, the client has specified that it must be the tallest one on the skyline, then clearly some sort of mine's-bigger-than-yours is going on. And since money and power are necessary to achieve tall skyscrapers, and also are strong indicators of reproductive attractiveness, showing off your money and power is de facto a sexual display. Even if what you build ends up not resembling a giant penis at all.

This sort of excessive display probably deserves mockery, and mockery seems to be one of the aims of the accusation of penis extension.

Now let's talk a little about fantasy worlds, where there's magic and swords. And let's look at two very specific examples:

This is Prince Adam, holding aloft his magic sword, on the point of saying something rather specific. With He-Man one hardly knows where to begin, so I'm going to limit this to a few obvious details. Adam is wearing a pink wraparound gilet, which vanishes along with his shirt once he is "transformed" into the rather less dressed and even more muscled He-Man. The gilet is clearly a prepuce or foreskin.

Notice also that Adam is accompanied by the weak, trembling and cowardly Cringer. Cringer often hides behind, or even between Adam's powerful legs. When Adam transforms into He-Man, Cringer becomes  Battlecat; swells to a much larger size, acquires a bulbous red helmet (with a white beard poking out underneath), and He-Man rides on him.

In short, He-Man is a giant penis who rides on a giant penis.

You're looking at the Deluxe Model Sword of Omens made by toy giants Bandai. This is from the animated series "ThunderCats". This sword starts out small, but when it is needed it grows longer. The toy has a telescopic blade. The real thing is, of course, magical. It is wielded by muscular (and imaginatively named) hero Lion-O.

What I was going to try to argue is that throughout most of human history, men have needed and used tools, and most tools have been sticks of some kind. Objects which are basically phallic. Whenever such tools have also been used as weapons, the man capable of usefully wielding the biggest one was obviously making a show of his breeding fitness, and hence sexual prowess. Big tools = big penis. This is so fundamentally unavoidable that any hand-held device, no matter how innocuous, can be interpreted as phallic if you really want to.

Consequently the writer should be extremely cautious and wary around cases like Lion-O's sword or the whole He-Man thing (shudder). If you find you've written an epic battle where the combatants keep pulling out bigger swords, then, well, I guess you already know what you're doing. I sure hope so.

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