Separating Fact and Fiction

You learn something new every day. It’s an old phrase we’ve probably all uttered at some point in our lives, perhaps when we learn about the latest electronic gadget, or when watching some obscure discovery channel special about the Amazon rainforest. I’ve always been a most curious sort of person, so Google and Wikipedia were rather like manna from heaven to a teenaged me. I like to think I spend more time learning than the average adult, and I consider myself mostly well informed on a wide variety of subjects.

Nevertheless, from time to time, I come across a piece of information that genuinely surprises me, not because it is new, but rather because it is old. None of us is perfect, and nobody knows everything there is to know. Even the smartest end up with gaps in our knowledge. I recently came upon one of mine.

I’m a writer of fantasy, specifically the type of fantasy that involves, wizards, faeries, demons, and knights in armor. I’ve immersed myself in such stories since youth, through books of course, but also through television, movies, and video games, other forms of storytelling. I certainly consider myself well versed on the subject, at least in fiction. I also consider myself a well grounded person who knows where the fiction ends and reality begins. I’ve never cast a spell or seen a faerie, and I don’t know anyone who as. Furthermore, I know the sword fighting we see in movies, TV, and video games is overdramatized to the point it scarcely resembles actual combat.

Reality, you see, is not that convenient. Swords are made of metal, and metal is heavy. Surely those big swords must have weighed over ten pounds, with the larger ones probably about like swinging around a small tree. We have the real world, and we have the romanticized world of storytellers.  Everything neatly packed in its corner and labeled appropriately. Reality is reality, and fiction is fiction, except when it isn’t.

Google, the undisputed authority on human knowledge and truth in this life begs to disagree. It seems that medieval swords, real ones anyway, were not actually heavy. This seems counterintuitive to me, because just about any object made of mostly metal always seems heavier than other objects. Then again, perhaps I don’t know much about metals either. Most medieval swords weighed around 2.5-3.5 lbs. with the larger ones weighing up to 5 lbs. Here’s my source so you don’t think I’m making it up.  www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm.

For the sake of comparison, I next Googled the weight of a common, everyday object, a shovel. The average shovel weighs three to six pounds. The average laptop computer weighs five pounds. Each is heavier than the average medieval sword. Each also weighs  much less than my family’s gas powered lawn appliances. The weed whacker has a shoulder strap because its so heavy, and then there’s the chainsaw, which is a chore just to carry from place to place, to say nothing of actually using it. All these years, I thought we modern folk were just wimpy, but maybe the average medieval knight would have marveled at our ability to handle such unwieldy tools on a regular basis.

I don’t know whether this comes as quite so great a revelation to my readers as it did to me, but I kind of sat here scratching my head for several minutes, wondering how I could have gotten that so wrong, for so long. I searched my memory for where I learned about how heavy swords were. I certainly remember seeing countless Robin Hood style sword fights in movies and television, where they dance around waving swords at each other pretending to fight. I can only recall one movie I ever saw, and a couple video games, that ever depicted swords as heavy. I even remember thinking ‘hey, somebody got it right for once’. Evidently not me. So why was I convinced otherwise.

I finally settled upon a rather discomforting answer. Since I’m a skeptical sort when it comes to media, I naturally distrust most of what I see on television. I don’t assume everything they say is absolutely true, even on the news, and certainly not in fiction. There are always reasons to bend the truth, or make it up entirely, and usually those reasons begin with the dollar sign. Put simply, I err on the side of cynicism in all things. Usually, that serves me pretty well. I’m not easily taken in by con men or phone scams. I don’t just parrot the political positions of the talking heads on cable news, and I certainly don’t believe anything in movies is remotely realistic. In this case, however, my cynicism actually worked against me. I suppose nobody’s perfect. No doubt Hollywood swashbuckling is still dramatized, silly, and unrealistic, but the weapons themselves are quite useful as what they are.

It certainly gave me some pause, and a dose of humility. It’s easy enough to be mistaken, even about something you have experience with. I wonder just how many misconceptions there might be in the world, for each of us as individuals, and for humanity collectively. It also makes me wonder whether the ubiquitous nature of modern media and the abundance of information available on the Internet will ultimately increase or decrease these misconceptions. It’s perhaps and unanswerable question, but perhaps it reminds us that the old phrase; ‘You learn something new every day’, might be missing a word or two. Perhaps, we should learn something new every day.


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