What’s the deal with dykes and swords? From beloved ’90s franchises such as Revolutionary Girl Utena and Xena to She-Ra today, sapphic swordswomen aren’t exactly over-represented, but they show up just often enough that if you’re a certain kind of queer nerd, you’re familiar with the trope. The hashtag #swordlesbian has over 9 million views on TikTok, 2019 gave us viral bisexual sword wives, and last year the independent roleplaying game Thirsty Sword Lesbians raised almost $300,000 on Kickstarter, beating its initial goal fifteen times over.
More than that, Sword Lesbians seem to be having a moment in SFF literature right now. In the last few years books such as Gideon the Ninth, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, and The Unspoken Name have established a subgenre of speculative fiction all about codependent women with swords. These aren’t just stories about swords, they’re stories about queer relationships, kink, the roles we play for one another, and the ways we negotiate them. They’re stories about chivalry.
Historically, chivalry was a code of conduct, a way to ensure that men with power, horses, and swords don’t just go around being real dicks about it. European knights heading off to ruin people’s lives in the Crusades would have to swear an oath to be brave and defend the (white and Christian) oppressed. This concept became the basis of–you guessed it–Chivalric Romance! Righteous dudes with swords have been saving pure maidens from dragons in these stories for centuries, with certain recognizable tropes: the protagonist as paragon of virtue (like Sir Galahad, a guy so pure he straight up evaporated), fantastical elements (check out that dragon in Spenser’s Faerie Queene), the importance of honor (Sir Gawain is just gonna LET the Green Knight behead him because he promised!), and the recounting of hellacious and honorable deeds (who could forget Roland dying heroically from blowing his trumpet so hard for reinforcements in battle that his actual head exploded?).
While these tropes are widespread across this emerging subgenre, they are on full display in book one of The Locked Tomb series, Gideon the Ninth (if you’ve somehow missed it up until now, Charles Stross’ blurb on the front cover reads “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!”) In a futuristic feudal society built on the symbiotic relationship between a swordfighter (cavalier) and death-wizard (necromancer), Gideon is a bratty sword butch forced to play bodyguard to her childhood nemesis, the necromancer princess Harrow. The two start out as enemies but have to work together in a series of supernatural trials, during which they relentlessly antagonize each other and fall in love. What takes the book from spooky teen drama into the realm of chivalric romance and kink is that in addition to simply falling in love, they negotiate a complex power exchange as cavalier and necromancer, learning to submit and command respectively. In the midst of treachery, trauma, and giant bone monsters with sword arms, they find their path to victory lies in the power of love and a healthy dom/sub relationship.
The secret sauce, and a key to understanding why this genre is undergoing a queer rennaissance, is Courtly Love, a medieval concept and playbook for romance. Imagine if you will: a seeking Lover yearns HARD for a beautiful and unattainable Beloved (ah yes, the two genders). These two players engage in a highly ritualized courtship, with the Lover sighing and weeping a lot, performing extravagant gestures of devotion, and living on the merest suggestions of favor from the Beloved. They get busy with the exchanging of favors, the setting of trials to prove love, perhaps a passionate fit of insanity or two. They endlessly delay actually banging, but instead enjoy an exquisite drawn out flirtation that is made all the more delectable by its forbidden nature. At the end of the day, everyone gets what they want—the Beloved gets adored and served, and the Lover gets to serve a hot person and experience character development as they strive for their Beloved. If this sounds like some kinky business to you, you might be onto something, you clever reader you. For a closer look at this phenomenon, let’s examine the crown jewel of chivalric lovers, our boy Lancelot.
In Chretien’s famously horny Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart, our rough and tumble Lancelot is on a mission to rescue Queen Guinevere (who he is VERY into), fighting bad dudes and proving his mettle all across the land, at one point agreeing to ride in a criminal transport wagon in exchange for information on the queen’s whereabouts. This essentially strips him of his honor, but he bucks up and does it to save Guinevere. However, when he finally finds her, she utterly blows him off because as he faced down that profound humiliation, he hesitated a few steps before hopping in.
Lancelot’s love for Guinevere is what drives him to endure this trial, to agree to throw fights, to perform heroic feats of asskicking, and to learn to become the kind of man who would not hesitate that single step on behalf of his Lady, no matter the cost, all for the hope of being told he has pleased her. And I mean, being punished by your Lady for hesitating to be publicly humiliated in her name? Two people who are into each other but mostly are never in the same room, instead giving and following orders, giving and receiving punishment, living for a brief, incendiary moment of contact fueled by months of voluntary hardship? Lancelot surrenders a portion of his power to his Lady, receiving conviction and power in return. In order to prove himself and please her he has to show that he can endure hardship and humiliation, and more than that, that he is willing and eager to do so, knowing that they can never be married and that Guinevere may never even glance his way. Lancelot’s defining moment of failure as he hesitates is not a failure of strength of courage or even virtue—his failure is in incomplete submission to his Lady.
Now, while this is all deliciously elaborate and steamy, it’s important to see that this intricate power exchange in which a man submits to an idealized woman simultaneously reins in and reinforces the worst aspects of patriarchy. A man having the hots for an unattainable woman is at much less risk for repercussions than a woman found to have a secret lover, and while Lancelot is able to romp around having adventures Guinevere mainly gets kidnapped and has to wait around in towers. And that’s not to speak of the issue of consent (despite what some might think it’s important for a sub to make sure their domme actually wants to be responsible for them), and the pesky concept that women owe men attention and favor if they’ve earned it by killing monsters and not raping anyone. At its best, Chivalry is about recognizing that with privilege comes a responsibility to use it on behalf of those without. At its worst it exemplifies “benevolent sexism” which offers women protection- so long as they conform to their assigned social roles. A knight can and will do anything for his lady. All she has to be in return is perfect.
Which brings us back to our goth space lesbians, Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, going through the paces of chivalric courtship and struggle and negotiating a kink dynamic that finally allows them to be their best selves for each other. Imagine if you will: A buff lady with a sword and a spooky princess, yearning for each other in a ritualized relationship as Cavalier and Necromancer (a relationship which, not coincidentally, makes it taboo to be in love), undergoing trials and doing crazy deeds together, learning to serve and accept service respectively, driving each other to be better, and never ONCE kissing because honestly that’s not even the point. Oh, to be a pair of special people entangled in a heated struggle of power exchange, pain and humiliation, deprivation and reward. Sound familiar? Let’s dive in and see.
The book begins with Gideon attempting to escape the feudalistic cult planet they both call home. Childhood rivals, the two have grown up tormenting each other, and Gideon dreams of running away and winning glory in the legions. When Harrow confronts her, Gideon spells out her feelings, saying “I completely fucking hate you, because you are a hideous witch from hell. No offence.” It’s a line Harrow throws back at her when, with a particularly nasty trick involving skeletons, she thwarts Gideon’s dreams, unable or unwilling to just let her nemesis go.
However, even when they can’t stand each other, Gideon is spurred on to her sword training by thoughts of Harrow hearing that Gideon had “won a bunch of medals [in] a battle in which she was both outstanding and very hot,” and Harrow finds Gideon “an object of tormentable fascination” and is constantly thwarting her many attempts to run away to the army. Mostly though, as the plot develops and eight pairs of cavs and necros race around a crumbling mansion, competing to discover its secrets and earn the favor of the Necrolord Prime, Gideon and Harrow remain apart, Gideon being seduced by the flirtatious Duchess Dulcinea and Harrow working on her own and driving herself to collapse.
Things take a turn for the chivalric when Harrow, unable to pass a trial on her own, deigns to allow Gideon to assist her. Before they descend into the bowels of the house to battle unknown murderous horrors, Harrow tells Gideon, “I need to know that you are going to act as though giving me devotion is your new favorite pastime, even though it galls us both senseless.” Essentially what Harrow is asking for here is fealty, something which Gideon has balked at her whole life (as her sword teacher says, “you couldn’t spell obligation if I shoved the letters up your ass”), and which is the first stone of chivalry—the oath of loyalty, faith, and service given to a lord or king, or in the subversive world of Courtly Love, to the Beloved. This is a consensual and ritual exchange of power, and in proposing it Harrow acknowledges that neither of them is capable of a true loving relationship at this point, but also opens the door for their relationship to begin to change, to allow Gideon the chance to serve her. This is especially important since, as mentioned before, a lot of traditional chivalric stories either ignore the question of consent entirely or demonize the uninterested Beloved who refuses to play her part in the Lover’s drama (sometimes literally killing him, oh no). Gideon and Harrow can only begin to be closer to each other when they have an actual conversation, laying out the terms of a potential relationship and power exchange.
What Harrow doesn’t foresee is that, having been asked in a respectful manner, Gideon is suddenly willing to stand at her side, saying only, “Surprise, my tenebrous overlord!…Ghosts and you might die is my middle name!” Turns out that Gideon had just been waiting for her Lady to ask her for service, rather than trying to bully her into it—now, respectfully offered a choice, Gideon submits delightedly, and goes to fight a completely bonkers monster on behalf of her Lady. At last an exchange of power has been successfully negotiated, and their relationship can move forward with the assurance of informed and rather enthusiastic consent.
Down in the haunted basement, Gideon proceeds to whale on the monster without being able to kill it, until they figure out how to combine sword violence and magic and smash the thing to bits as a team (which involves Gideon letting Harrow magically enter her nervous system and tell her what to do, but like just as friends!). Once they’ve won, Harrow compliments Gideon on her swordwork, at which unprecedented act “the blood all drained away from Gideon’s cheeks…the world spun off its axis. Bright spots danced in her vision.” The slightest praise, truly earned in service to her Lady, strikes Gideon to her core—anyone who has had a blistering teenage crush will recognize the feeling. All that danger and violence, and at last Gideon has earned what she really wants—or her Goth Princess to tell her she’s a Good Girl. Keep in mind that Gideon doesn’t expect or even necessarily want any carnal favors from Harrow—she signed up for this because she wanted to hit things with her sword and gain Harrow’s favor and attention, and with both of these objectives achieved she is almost knocked unconscious by the gratification. Just like Lancelot fighting for Guinevere, just like any sub who pleased their Mistress, Gideon has discovered that a word of praise from Harrow is worth any torment or trial.
And it’s not just Gideon who finds what she really wants in the relationship—Harrow has to get over her profound lack of self worth in order to properly take charge, to accept the fact that Gideon doesn’t hate her and might in fact think highly of her. She is constantly baffled by Gideon’s loyalty and service to her, and in a climactic moment in a swimming pool she gets to unleash her rage and shame, to tell Gideon how unworthy she is of her compassion and forgiveness. She openly admits to her past abuse of Gideon, and tells her, “I took you to this killing field as my slave…I’ve lived my whole wretched life at your mercy, yours alone, and God knows I deserve to die at your hand.” Although she has been able to ask Gideon for service, she doesn’t feel worthy of it until this moment, when she lets herself be entirely vulnerable to her self-loathing and shame is met with the most terrifying possible reaction—a hug. Harrow is finally able to accept love, to take charge from a place of trust and love rather than of fear and resentment, to let go of her terror of being seen. Here, finally, with all the walls down between them, they are able to swear the Cavalier/Necromancer vow to one another: “One flesh, one end, bitch.”
In both cases the conclusion is inescapable: Chivalry is BDSM. The heart of the whole dynamic is a warrior’s submission to the feminine power of an idealized woman (D/S), tested and developed by their capacity to endure pain and humiliation for love (S/M). More than that, this is presented as a path out of vice towards self improvement (discipline). The dynamic also heavily involves cuckold and chastity play (which dovetails nicely with the famous lesbian penchant for yearning) and a heavy emphasis on the fetishization of each other as ideals, and of representative tokens (favors). Also, people get tied up a lot.
When Lancelot, the Noble Knight, lowers himself to the level of a common criminal he surrenders everything that makes him what he is, for the sake of Guinevere, the ideal Courtly Lady. This is a supreme act of submission. When Gideon, the Rebellious Sword Brat, lets Harrow use her soul as a battery, enduring excruciating pain so her Depressive Pixie Nightmare Girl can push through a magic barrier (which incidentally burns all of her clothes off in the process) she’s pretty much doing the same thing. In keeping with chivalric tradition, her reward for this trial is not the physical consummation of sex, but a vision of her Lady, who she briefly sees fully naked before passing out.
Setting these centuries-old tropes in a queer dynamic changes and expands them. Gideon, at its core, is the story of a top and a bottom working it out. Lancelot and Guinivere, by contrast, live in a highly regimented society in which their roles are clearly laid out for them. Queen, Knight, woman, man, passive, active, Beloved, Lover. Their relationship may exist beyond the bounds of conventional society, and Lancelot may be representative of a new kind of masculinity, but at the end of the day Lance is the one with the truer power, the one who can walk away, the one whose desire and development matter more. While the dynamic of male submission might seem subversive on the surface, and the idea of male improvement to be worthy of female attention alluring, we cannot erase the reality of patriarchy from the equation. Women, or Beloveds in this context are often little more than a prop for men’s desire, perfect and pure, with no needs or emotional complexity beyond what is relevant to the Lover’s experience. No one was writing best-selling handbooks on how to be a good Chivalric Love Object, because there wasn’t all that much for women to do in this dynamic except be hot and unattainable but also pay attention to the guy crying outside your bedroom window playing a lute because if you don’t he might literally die. And if you are into starting up a romance, the role a woman must play in order to enjoy it is so passive and restrictive that it actually reinforces patriarchy- as it was created to do.
While queerness does not absolve a story or relationship of patriarchal badness, it does open some interesting realms to explore new ways to imagine them. In our default position as social deviants queer people must actively negotiate such exchanges. Denied access to these social scripts we must write and rewrite them for ourselves, and while it would be silly to think we can fully escape the conditioning of a heteronormative society, one of the great pleasures of being queer is the freedom we enjoy to do so. Similarly, while the original chivalry was created to serve state power, queers must challenge the societies we are born into if we are to hope to make space for ourselves.
It’s not just Gideon the Ninth breaking this ground either—other modern works of sword lesbianism continue this exploration, such as The Unspoken Name, which examines these dynamics in the context of chosen family and the ways it can be weaponized, and The Traitor Baru Cormorant which explores them in the context of colonialism. And while they might not be exact genre matches, recent works of epic SFF centered on queer characters like A Memory Called Empire, Empress of Forever, and Empress of Salt and Fortune feature a lot of these tropes. It’s not just coded anymore (we’re looking at you, Berserk). This flush of gay sword sci fi books points to a growing interest in exploring what chivalric stories can offer queer readers, and a readiness to talk about queer love in more complex ways. Science fiction has always been the literature of the future, a way to envision a world that could be, and explore what the heroes of that world might be like. So what future are these books letting us imagine?
In the same way that the early chivalric texts reinvented love and created a new paradigm of manhood, one driven by virtue, service, honor and love without the promise of sexual possession, queer chivalry offers us a vision of what could be. Marginalized people loving and defending each other, even when their togetherness threatens the powers that be. Queer love presented as messy, obsessive, toxic, controlling. Queer love presented as elevating, heroic, sexy and spiritual. Queer lovers having adventures, achieving greatness, flourishing and triumphing, grappling with the tension between the hierarchical, patriarchal, colonial world they live in and perhaps serve, and the calling to love and protect each other. What could be more righteous?