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The Quintessential Blade
Doing the Gallery Thing
The Quintessential BladeMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Blades are a strong presence in human history. From flint scraping knives of the Stone Age, to ancient Chinese ritual axes and meso-American obsidian knives, to the Roman gladium, Viking axe, table knives, Indian kriss, Bowie knife… the list is endless. But in the world of fantasy (and really science fiction too) one single family of blades truly is under the spotlight: the swords.
From The Sword of Shannara to Robert Jordan’s Callandor (the sword that isn’t a sword); from the many retelling of the Arthurian legend with the sword in the stone and Excalibur (yes, the two aren’t originally one and the same) to Elendil’s Narsil that, re-forged for Aragorn as Anduril, bears witness to his right as legitimate heir to the kingdom of Gondor, to the Jedis' signature laser blades, swords in fantasy and SF have an archetypal role as important as that of any of the ‘speaking characters’. From where does this emphasis come?
Quite simply, from history and ancient literature.
Thanks to movies and other media, we all have at least a passing familiarity with the traditions pertaining the main sword of the samurai, the katana (1), although it became the signature samurai weapon only as late as the 15th-16th century. What is possibly less widely known is that the sword has at least as much tradition and symbolism in ancient Europe.
The historian Jordanes, in his De origine actibusque Getarum (On the Origin and the Deeds of Goths) written in 551, quotes the 5th century historian Priscus about a chance finding that very likely was a pivotal point in history:
"When a certain shepherd beheld one heifer of his flock limping and could find no cause for this wound, he anxiously followed the trail of blood and at length came to a sword it had unwittingly trampled while nibbling the grass. He dug it up and took it straight to Attila. He rejoiced at this gift and, being ambitious, thought he had been appointed ruler of the whole world, and that through the sword of Mars supremacy in all wars was assured to him.” (2)
The attribution to Mars, of course, is due to the Roman habit of identifying local deities with the names of their Roman counterparts. Here already the sword has a double aspect as an actual weapon and a tangible sign of divine favour.
The Hungarian burial sites of another barbaric nation, the Lombards (or Longobards) offer interesting elements at this regard. In the necropolis that have been found and studied, only the harimann (free man who had been assigned land in exchange for military duties) was buried with the full complement of weapons: sword, spear and shield (and often with his horse as well, much in the fashion of the literary Rohirrim). The free man (faramann) was buried with his spear, whereas the semi-free (haldii) were supporting troops, buried with bow and arrows. It is curious to note that a distinctive implement of the wife of an harimann was the so called ‘weaver’s blade’ or ‘weaver’s sword’: a blunt blade (usually 50 to 55 centimetres in length) used in weaving to press the newly laid weft against the fabric already made, much like a reed does in our looms.
So, quite early we find traces of the sword as a special weapon, the trademark of the professional warrior, so to speak. In a short while the sword also became one of the main emblems of royalty, visibly marking the king as the foremost warrior and defender of the land, and stressing, as symbol of justice, the right and duty of the king to provide justice to his subjects.
The apex in the symbolic history of the sword, though, was the Age of Chivalry. Even though in warfare the main weapon of the knight was the spear, the sword acquired an even stronger symbolic value. In the literature of the Middle Ages, we find swords that are given names and seem to possess a will of their own; swords that, infixed with stones or anvils or tree-trunks, can be extracted and wielded only by a designated hero; swords that shatter when used against right and justice, thus condemning their owner; shattered swords that can be re-forged only for their legitimate heir; and swords that resist their wielder’s attempt to break them, even for the best of reasons, as happens with Durendal in the ‘Song of Roland’:
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the European sword acquired its distinctive cross shape. It was not rare then to have relics enclosed in the pommel or the hilt; and often the sword, when there was need, could be infixed in the ground as substitute of a ritual cross. With the birth of the Christian knightly ideal, all elements pertaining to the knight (armour, weapon and clothing) acquired a strong symbolic meaning. So, for instance the two cutting edges of the European sword are meant, one, to strike in defence of the faith, and the other in protection of the poor and defenceless, while the sword itself, strong but not brittle, requiring constant care to keep its edge and its polish, became the symbol of the knight’s soul.
In the Montesiepi Chapel in Tuscany, a real Sword in the Stone can still be seen: the sword of Saint Galgano. (4)
Tradition has it that Galgano Guidotti (1148-1181) was a knight, and wasted his youth in revels and prideful acts of force. At one point, disillusioned and disgusted by the emptiness of his life, he decided to retire to the hill of Montesiepi, living as an hermit. As a sign of penitence and renunciation to violence, he took his sword and infixed it in a rock near his dwelling, were it can be seen to this day.
The sword was broken by a vandal in the ’60s and damaged again in 1991. Restoration works originated the rumor that it was a fake. In 2001, though, the sword was inspected with the help of the University of Siena and some fragments were analyzed in the laboratories of the Universities of Padua and Pavia. The results said that the metal showed no traces of modern alloys, and the composition is compatible with metal from the Middle Ages. The weapon is in a style used in the 12th century ( X.a of the Oakenscott classification). There is a blade embedded in the rock and the edges of the broken off part combine perfectly with the part of the blade that remains inside the stone, excluding the possibility of substitution of the broken off piece. It is a matter of speculation among historians of literature and medievalists if the sword of Montesiepi could be the real-life model for the Arthurian Sword in the Stone, first mentioned in the works of Robert de Boron, in all likelihood written after 1191, more than 10 years after Galgano’s death.
(1) it is interesting to note that the kanji for ‘katana’ is 刀 a character that in Chinese means simply ‘blade’ and refers to any kind of bladed weapon except the sword, for which is used the specific character 劍 (jian).
(2) Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths ch. XXXV quoted from http://www.boudicca.de/jordanes3-e.htm
(3) Song of Roland quoted from http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/391
(4) The Montesiepi Chapel is part of the Abbey of Saint Galgano. For photos and info: http://www.sangalgano.org/ENG/index.htm
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