The Dramatic Palm-Slice: A Fantasy Trope I've Never Understood

We all know the scene: It starts when a character in a fantasy story swears an oath. And oath... in blood. He dramatically unsheathes a knife, places it across his palm, and makes a fist before running the blade through his hand.

Yowch.

If you're anything like me, that's probably your first thought every time a character executes a Dramatic Palm-Slice. Yowch.

Your second thought is probably, "Why the palm?"

I mean, seriously, why? I know it's cool-looking in the moment, but have you ever had a deep cut on your palm? It sucks. It's possibly the worst place on your entire body to sustain a deep cut. (Okay, second-worst.)

Furthermore it's just impractical. If you need to draw blood for an arcane ritual, or demonstrate to your new liege-lord that you're serious about supporting him, must you also take one of your hands out of commission for the next week or two? Not only are you running the risk of infection, you're crippling yourself at a time where it's likely super-important that you're operating at full capacity. You did just make a blood-oath, after all.

I've been re-watching Season 2 of Game of Thrones, and an early episode has got a doozy of a Dramatic Palm-Slice. The charismatic Xaro Xhoan Daxos calls out some sort of loophole to get Daenerys into Qarth, and in doing so, he cuts the shit out of his palm and shows it to the rest of The Thirteen.

I'm sure you guys in Qarth have everything you need to take care of that cut -- this is the greatest city that ever was or will be, after all. All the same, aren't you in the least bit worried about infection? Don't you need that hand? It looks so painful. Couldn't you have demonstrated your support for the Mother of Dragons in a way that was a bit less crippling?

It so happened that I saw another Dramatic Palm-Slice this weekend while replaying the middle chapter of The Witcher 2. While passing through the dwarven town of Vergen, Geralt the Witcher heads across a valley filled with a cursed fog to visit with Henselt, King of Kaedwen and leader of the opposing army. Geralt needs to get a bit of Henselt's blood to help lift the curse. (It's a bit more complicated than that, but that's the gist.)

Henselt is preparing to lead his men into battle, and is happy that the curse will be lifted, as he's itching for a fight. He agrees to give Geralt some blood. So what does he do? He slices the bejesus out of his hand in order to give Geralt the blood he needs. His right hand, too! Maybe he's a southpaw? But even then.

Dude, Geralt only said he needed some blood! He didn't say from where! You could've like, lightly cut the outside of your arm, or nicked your shoulder or something. You didn't have to take one of your entire hands out of commission the night before a huge battle. Some people don't think ahead at all.

This scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers always stuck with me, too. The camera really lingers on the leader of the Dunlendings as he painfully swears fealty to Saruman. Blood everywhere, immediately.

I'm sure that this is part of your hill-folk tradition and everything, but dude, you're the leader of your people, you might need that hand in the weeks to come. Plus, it looks like you haven't taken a shower in a year or something. You know that sucker is gonna get infected. Maybe there's a reason the people of Rohan were able to drive your people into the mountains? You sure don't seem to care much about hygiene.

This last example, from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, is one of the first times I ever saw someone perform a Dramatic Palm-Slice.

Robin swears to avenge his father's death by killing Hans Gruber, a dastardly man who is also Sheriff of Nottingham. And just so you know he's serious, he swears it by lacerating his hand. Even as a kid, when I saw this part, I remember thinking, "What the hell are you doing, Robin? It's not exactly going to be an easy fight! Maybe you could just swear it really hard, and then save your hand and have a better chance of survival? Just a thought."

I doubt the Dramatic Palm-Slice trope is going anywhere. As long as fantasy dudes and dudettes need to show their friends that they're really super serious about something, they'll probably still do so by cutting the shit out of their hands.

All the same; kings, queens, heroes and villains of the world, I beseech you: At least consider using some disinfectant on that mess. Otherwise it's gonna itch.


Comments

    Tha's a random topic... Thanks for the tips, though!

    The Dramatic Palm-Slice isn't only a fantasy. Pretty much any 'we need blood' moment in TV of film seems to use it.
    I agree of all the places you can optionally cut yourself the palm seems like the most inconvenient/worst to hell.

      Indeed. We used to watch DS9 where the Klingons would cut their arms and hands, we'd laugh and say 'Well, there goes the tendons! Why didnt they just prick their fingers or some shit?' lol Or more usefully, why not just cut your shoulder a tiny bit???

    Its in Skyrim too! When the dragonborn opens sky haven temple. Because its not like the dragonborn will need her right hand in times to come (though I guess they have healing magic so its more of a temporary inconvenience).

      Hah, I was just thinking of that.

      If I remember correctly though, wasn't the entire palm pierced?

    it's because the remaining and echoing pain reminds them of the severity of their oath and or offering, in most of the setting where it's used blood is considered important and sometimes sacred, not something you give to a cause lightly, therefore the pain you feel every time you reach for your sword or perform a task (something you often do with your hand) you are reminded of the oath or offering, you are reminded of what you gave yourself to.

    it's not practical in a medical sense, but in a spiritual and mental sense it's the most efficient way to keep your spirit aligned to a course or in remembrance of a deed.

      Hot damn, is this really an intelligent commenter on Kotaku?

      Quick, save this endangered and dying species!

    One of the main reasons it's constantly used in film and television (especially older stuff) is that it's one of the few effects that are sure to make you cringe with the thought of the pain yet requires zero actual special effects beyond a blood pack in the hand. Of course showing the wound and whatever is going to please those after the gore, but going back through the ages of film and tv this has been a classic old chestnut for maximum bang for minimum buck.

    I thought it was just something to take their mind of their syphilis/plague/chronic toothache?

    Cliches? What about close-up war cries before epic battles with unkillable, war-mongering midgets not dying in the first wave?

    Surprisingly your palm has very few pain receptors, hence the common usage - It doesn't hurt. I promise. Try it!

    Meeting someone with open arms shows to them that you are unarmed. (history is full of examples of the open arm/hand to show trust or obedience) Slicing your open hand in this example and then joining the other with this cut hand would show the trust you have of that person. Of course this is speculation, but sounds like a reasonable method to show that you are bonded to the other through blood (as they say family is blood and blood is thicker than water).
    Most oaths of "ye olden days" involved kneeling and kissing a lot of rings...ewww errr

    So what's Alan Moore swearing a blood-oath to?

    I actually remember reading something very recently that actually gave this an explanation. The slicing of the palm was a demonstration of trust. Until it healed, you were weaker than the person who you were giving the oath to, in terms of your ability to wield a weapon. So it wasnt just 'my oath + pain', the ongoing physical weakening was part of it.

    lol at Robin killing Hans Gruber to avenge his father. I always called John Rhys-Davies' character is sliders 'professor Chalenger' coz I saw him in The Lost World first. And he was a Professor.

    It all stems from Pagan Blood Rites. But that subject is too heavy to go into...

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