Why Fantasy Avoids Gunpowder
In Tolkien’s mythos, the good guys never use gunpowder, or anything even remotely resembling explosives of any kind. This might have had to do with him having experienced the horrors of industrialized warfare first-hand. It was gunpowder which opened the ways to the industrialized, mass warfare, and significantly reduced the importance of training and skill in the interpersonal combat. Emergence of gunpowder artillery at the same time made siege warfare into science, instead of an art.
Tolkien, thus, gave explosives (“blasting fire”) to his bad guys, to goblins and orcs who represent the emerging forces of industrialization. Saruman’s army uses it at Helm’s Deep, and Sauron’s forces use it to blast apart the Rammas Echor. Good guys meanwhile rely on old-fashioned torsion siege engines.
Further, Tolkien’s work is based in old legends: Arthurian stories, Beowulf, Eddas, Greek and Roman mythology… all of which long predate the introduction of gunpowder. These legends have all the ideas of the classical fantasy: magic, magic swords, knights, heroic adventurers, monsters, prophecies, wizards and witches, fae, dwarves…
Since modern high fantasy owes a lot to Tolkien, many authors – even accidentally – copy this lack of gunpowder weapons. This includes even authors who had moved the technological level from 9th – 11th century Europe (as in Middle-Earth) to 14th – 15th century Europe (as in Westeros).
With pre-gunpowder weapons, ranged weapons are not so lethal as to prevent the hand-to-hand combat. In fact, hand-to-hand combat was decisive. But after gunpowder weapons developed, field artillery became the decisive arm of the army, and infantry-to-infantry combat happened primarily through volleys of (innacurate) musket fire. Bayonet charge could still be decisive, but it happened far less frequently than the hand-to-hand combat of the previous eras.
This has the overall effect of depersonalizing the soldiers. Individual skill no longer matters (with few exceptions such as light infantry units) while numbers become decisive, and troops are unlikely to fight at close range. But the fantasy is an inherently heroic genre, and this depersonalization is in deep conflict with the fundamental nature of fantasy as a genre. With a bow, or even a crossbow, skill and personal investment requirements are significant; by contrast, musket drill could be learned in weeks. And unlike muskets, bows and crossbows never were a primary weapon. For medieval soldiers, main weapons were spears, axes, maces and warhammers. And this led to significant face-to-face combat.
Importance of personal combat can be seen from science fantasy settings, most of which involve heavy focus on hand-to-hand combat. In Star Wars, the Force-using Jedi utilize lighsabres to fight opponents. In Warhammer 40 000, the Space Marines, Orcs, and even the normal humans of the Imperial Guard, prefer to get into each others’ faces to sort out things at a civilized (chopping) distance.
By contrast, firearms are inherently very modern, inhumane and uncivilized. Fighting with spears and swords has a long tradition, from prehistory to almost 18th century. Guns have a paltry six centuries of history behind them at most.
Fantasy is heavily influenced by Romanticism. Much like Progressivism imagines an idyllic future, Romanticism imagines an idyllic past. Romanticism itself is a direct response to the dehumanizing forces of industrialization and modernity, and thus seeks to portray a more naturalistic past.
Presence of guns foretells the forces of industrialization, and thus directly contradicts the romanticist ideals of fantasy. Their presence thus has to be somehow justified, and that is difficult to do. More importantly, guns – even matchlocks – are a direct connection to the modern world. This is a massive problem – fantasy is supposed to be escapist, and the last thing it needs are modern-day troubles invading it, even in the shape of a lethal pipe-thing. And guns do precisely that: they forcibly insert modern world into an escapist setting.
Guns also signal the start of, usually, more rapid technological advancement – and perhaps more importantly, more obvious one. There is no real functional difference between Roman spatha, Viking / Carolingian sword, and a 15th century arming sword. Likewise, short bow, long bow and crossbow are tactically extremely similar. But technological and more importantly tactical differences between a matchlock smoothbore, flintlock smoothbore, flintlock rifle, breech-loading musket or rifle, and bolt-action rifle, are massive.
Gunpowder means chemistry, and chemistry means science. This essentially sticks an expiration date onto magic, and thus fantasy. Of course, this idea is not actually correct – science fantasy is a thing. But science fantasy still has the aesthetics of the science fiction, which is why it generally gets lumped into science fiction rather than fantasy. For traditional fantasy, science is indeed a limiter.
Lastly, both melee weapons and tension-powered missile weapons are essentially extension of the user: their performance is a direct result of the user inputting work into the weapon itself. With gunpowder weapons, only thing which user does is pulling a trigger, but the actual work of killing is done by a chemical reaction.
Fantasy stories are typically set in the premodern periods, and gunpowder is heavily tied to the advent of modernity – the fall of feudalism and the rise of the modern central government, at least in the West. This allowed the appearance of massive centrally-organized armies, which do not lend themselves as easily to individual heroics as premodern armies do.
In general, magic is elitist while guns are egalitarian. A knight takes years to train with arms, and training starts in early childhood. Fully fledged combat wizard might spend decades learning spells. Archers also take years if not decades to be fully trained. And all of these professions have preferred body types which might make an individual more effective. But it takes only a couple of weeks to turn a bunch of peasants into a squad of effective musketeers, regardless of the intellect, lineage or physique. Professional musketeers might take up to two years, but even this is much faster than training a knight. And luck plays much more obvious role with guns than with swords, especially once guns get powerful enough to defeat armour. Guns relatively easily kill people, and even a wound that does not look immediately lethal can turn out to be such (though the same is true for swords).
Fantasy tends to be elitist (even when it pretends not to be), and as such guns are fundamentally incompatible with its themes. Egalitarianism is bad in many ways, but it is especially bad for a good story. If everybody matters equally, then nobody matters, and there is nobody for a reader to relate to – or to hate. Egalitarianism undermines excellence, achievment, honour, bravery, strength, talent, intelligence and uniqueness. It introduces blandness and repetition. A story about a hero is relatable; a story about one of hundreds of musketeers in an army is not.
Gunpowder has a very problematic relationship with magic. If the two coexist, then gunpowder makes magic less magical, as many of the things (tossing fireballs, instantly smiting people) which made a wizard unique can now be done by normal infantryman. This, in essence, increases the availability of magic to a degree that it now becomes ubiqutous.
Further, as technology becomes more complex and advanced, so do the possibilities for magical enhancement and interaction, which can be difficult to write. Magic could potentially push evolution of more complex technology down an entirely different path, or make some aspects of technology useless.
Fantasy might also make gunpowder weapons less attractive for other reasons. With giant spiders being ubiqutous, spider silk might be used as body armour – and spider silk is excellent against bullets. If water magic is available, it could easily render firearms ineffective by rendering gunpowder wet.
Gunpowder makes warfare much less diverse. In pre-gunpowder setting, one country may be famous for light infantry, one for light cavalry, one for heavy infantry, one for heavy cavalry… and then there are also elements such as crossbowmen, longbowmen, mounted archers, lancers, horse archers. But as gunpowder weapons become more sophisticated, the possibilities and the regional variation – both functional and aesthetic – is gradually lost. Transitional periods – such as Hussite wars or later pike-and-shot era – do have more options, but they are very difficult to understand, explain and balance. And once the things stabilize in the gunpowder era, there is essentially light and heavy cavalry, light and line infantry, and artillery. And all of them use basically one type of weapon, with a second type as a backup.
Most people know guns as flintlocs and later periods, and thus have the idea that the first faction that fields guns would conquer the world. But in reality, early cannons were inferior to trebuchets, while early hand cannons were also in many ways inferior to crossbows. Literally the only advantage they offered was simplicity and ease of use: a cannon (siege or hand one) was a metal tube that one just pointed at the target. While using a siege cannon was more difficult, it was still far easier to use and aim than a trebuchet. Metallurgical limitations that precluded production of guns before 13th century, and effective guns to well after that, are also not well understood.