September 12, 2017

Magic Swords

        A classic motif in mythology and fantasy is the magical sword.  This is hardly surprising, given the importance of swords to so many cultures, and the incredible skill required to craft a good sword.  Any high-quality blade must have seemed pretty magical in the early days of metallurgy, and when might makes right it is not unusual for that might to be given mythologies to justify it further.  Magic swords sometimes have magic powers of their own, sometimes confer magic powers on those who wield them, and sometimes have sentience so that they almost wield their warriors.  In many cases the swords have names to further enhance their special identity.  Let’s take a look at a few of the world’s famous magic swords.

Excalibur - In some versions of Arthurian legend, Excalibur is both the Sword in the Stone and the sword given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake, while in other versions these are two different swords.  In any case, Excalibur itself didn’t have any remarkable magical power except being unbreakable, but its scabbard granted protection.  Unless you look into the present, wherein it can fight independently and fly to its wielder.  (“The Librarian” movies and TV series) 

Tyrfing - In Norse mythology this sword would never rust, never miss a stroke, cut through iron and stone, and shine like fire.  It was also cursed so that it would kill a man every time it was unsheathed, and cause three great evils.  Similar Norse swords Dáinslief gave wounds that never healed, but had the same sort of curse, and Mistilteinn that could never be blunted.

Hrunting - Beowulf’s sword was annealed in blood and was said never to fail a blow.  Of course, it did fail when Beowulf confronted Grendel, much to everyone’s surprise (except possibly Unferth, the sword’s previous owner.  Some scholars contend that he gave it to Beowulf knowing it would fail.)  In any case, I guess that doesn’t leave Hrunting looking very magical after all.

Asi - In the Mahabharata, Asi was created by Brahma for the destruction of evil.  He made first a terrible monster, deep-blue, tall and skinny, with sharp teeth and incredible energy and power.  That creature then assumed the form of a blazing sword.

Nandaka - Vishnu’s sword is a flaming sword of knowledge, destroyer of ignorance.

Durendal - Roland’s sword, which contained a variety of saintly relics worked into it, was the sharpest sword in existence, could cut through boulders, and could single-bladedly hold off an army of a hundred thousand Saracens.  It was also indestructible, which turned out to be a problem when Roland wanted to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.  In the end he threw it into a cliff in Rocamadour, France, which it sliced right into, leaving it poking out of the rock to this day.

Kusanagi - In Japanese legend, Kusanagi was found in the tail of an eight-headed monster, and turned out to have the ability to control wind.  It is officially part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, although it has not been seen since about the fourteenth century, except by some priests in the Edo period (1603-1868) who all subsequently died of strange diseases, except one who  survived to tell the tale.

Tizona - One of El Cid’s two magical swords, Tizona was said to have a personality, though what sort of personality I don’t know.  On the other hand, its strength varied according to who wielded it, which seems to me the very opposite of magical.  After all, isn’t the most ordinary kitchen knife more powerful in the hands of a more powerful warrior?

Thuận Thiên - The sword of Vietnamese King Lê Lợi made him grow super tall and gave him the strength of a thousand men.  Lê Lợi was leading a guerrilla campaign against occupying Chinese rule when he saw first the blade and later the hilt glowing from the locations where they had long been hidden, thus justifying his right to reunite the sword and rule Vietnam.  After he became king, he encountered a giant golden turtle who told him to return the sword, which had only been lent to him.  He threw it to the turtle, who caught it in its mouth and sank back beneath the water.  (Could the Lady of the Lake really be a turtle?)

Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegar - In Persian legend this sword originally belonged to King Solomon.  It was later in the possession of a horned demon named Falud-zereh partly because wearing it was a charm against magic, partly because a wound from its blade could be cured only by a special, complicated potion, and partly because Falud-zereh’s witch mother had charmed him so that he was invulnerable to all weapons except this one.  Presumably this is a case of keeping your enemies close.  It sounds a little chancy to me, and I don’t know exactly how the story ends, but I can only assume Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegar did its job.

Glamdring of Gandalf and Frodo’s Sting glowed blue when orcs were nearby.  Aragorn’s Narsil/Andúril was of great significance, but I’m not sure that symbolism of the right of kingship really counts as a magical power.  (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)

Singing Sword - The comic strip Prince Valiant’s sword made its wielder unconquerable - but only if he was fighting for a righteous cause.  (Hal Foster, Prince Valiant)

Gonturan - The eponymous Blue Sword intensified magic, had a will of its own, and could be wielded only by a woman.  (Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword)

Sword of Shannara - This blade revealed the truth of anyone who wielded it, or was touched by it.  Whether or not someone could handle the truth of themselves determined whether they could wield it.  (Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara)

Sword of Gryffindor - Made by goblin artisans, the Sword of Gryffindor could apparently teleport or magically appear to one who had need, and could absorb into itself deadly basilisk venom.  (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)

Video games include a vast array of magical swords, which are so common as to be taken for granted by every player at every level.  Some of the more famous in their respective mythologies, however, include “The Legend of Zelda”s Blade of Evil’s Bane which had all sorts of powers, “Prince of Persia”s Dagger of Time which had a variety of timey-wimey powers, “Ultima”s Black Sword which contained the power of a demon, and “World of Warcraft”s Frostmourne which could steal souls.

        While it’s easy to see why long ago the weapons of special heroes were credited with special powers,  we clearly continue to have a fascination with magical swords, long past the days of practical sword use.  (You’ll note that there are far fewer named, magical firearms in our modern mythologies.)  I think it’s because the trope allows us to explore ideas of where power comes from and how we can choose to use it - or be used by it, what it might be like to have supernatural abilities and the implications thereof, and, ultimately, what makes a hero a hero.  What powers would you most like to see in your vorpal blade?  What kind of sword would you wield?  Would you use it for slaughter, or give it other magical abilities instead?  Personally I’m pretty intrigued by the possibilities of the power to slice through ignorance.

[Pictures: Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, illustration by Alfred Kappes from The Boy’s King Arthur by Sidney Lanier, 1880 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Kabuki Actors, wood block print by Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1806-7 (Image from the British Museum);
On Single Combat, wood block print from Book 5, Chapter 25 of Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from avrosys.nu).]

2 comments:

  1. First illustration is definitely NOT Wyeth. Lanier's Boy's King Arthur with Wyeth's illustrations was published in 1917. Here is Wyeth's illustration of that scene:

    https://i.pinimg.com/736x/f4/82/43/f482436437683db3317ccc5438a52cc8--the-boy-king-nc-wyeth.jpg

    Apparently that 1880 illustration is by Alfred Kappes.

    See: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/publication/lanier-boys-king-arthur-1880

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    1. Cool! Thanks. I've fixed the info in the credits.

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