Talk is for lovers, Merlin. I need the sword to be king.
—Uther, in Excalibur
Wednesday night in Hobart. I shave with a Wilkinson Sword razor, then say goodbye to my daughter. She’s on a beanbag watching Suicide Squad, which features a possessed samurai sword in a supporting role. My son and I take an Uber, and hanging from the Hyundai’s rear-vision mirror is a Sikh symbol: a double-edged straight sword, or khanda, alongside two smaller curved swords. Not long after, we arrive at St James Hall, named for James the Apostle, executed by King Herod: ‘and he killed James the brother of John with the sword’. Then I buckle up my padded cotton gambeson, pull on my helmet, and pick up my equipment for the class: a basket-hilted backsword.
Some 5000 years after the earliest known swords were forged in Arslantepe, Turkey, we’re still celebrating this weapon. In my ordinary Tasmanian evening are nods to blades from classical Judaea, Gupta India, Muromachi Japan, Georgian England. Media franchises showcase swords: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean. Megatron from the original Transformers is a sentient Walther pistol—he still has a sword. Modern superheroes and supervillains fight with katana: Batman, Deadpool, Wolverine, Deathstroke. This is to say nothing of historical or pseudo-historical characters such as the musketeers, samurai and ninja, Robin Hood, Conan the Barbarian. And manga or video games? Blades, everywhere.
Many of these stories do not merely portray swords—they celebrate them. Swords are pulled sensually from scabbards, the camera focusing on etched steel and filigree hilts. They pause in the light to gleam or drip blood; they make sensual sounds as they cut air or flesh (‘ssssssshing’, ‘ssssssshck’). The swords are often fetishised, too: given magical powers, or personalities of their own. Frodo’s Sting knows when goblins are near, the sword of Gryffindor helps those in its house, Katana’s Soultaker in Suicide Squad speaks to her. So swords are a thing. Still.
We live in an age of anti-aircraft lasers, electromagnetic railguns, rifle sights with ballistic computers. American drone pilots in New Mexico kill children more than 11,000 kilometres away, in Afghanistan. Swords have almost no place on the modern battlefield—even bayonets are becoming rare. Meanwhile, gentlemen no longer wear the épée de cour. The sword is basically obsolete, yet it continues to engross and enchant moderns. Why?
Importantly, my question is not about fencing as a hobby or sport. Olympic fencing is often more a game than a sword fight, what philosopher and épée fencer Christopher Lawrence calls ‘calisthenics rather than martial arts’. And full-contact sparring is even less majestic. One of the few realistic cinematic depictions of sword fighting, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, is steadfastly prosaic. While gorgeous cinematically, it rightly shows the duel as frightening, exhausting, clumsy—and often petty. My question is this: why is the sword still such a captivating symbol and prop?
One obvious answer: nostalgia. We look back to a canon stacked with swords, over which each generation has left a thick patina of veneration. The oldest long poem in English literature, Beowulf, features the magical sword Hrunting. The Norse sagas have Sigurd slaying the dragon Fafnir with Gram, a gift from Odin. The Arthurian romances include the sword in the stone, and the sword of the lake (sometimes the same sword). Lu Dongbin, one of the eight Daoist immortals of China, carried a demon-slaying sword (which also became a dragon or a maiden). As legend has it, a tachi forged by Japanese smith Masamune avoided needless violence: when held in a stream, it refused to cut floating leaves.
Faiths and holy texts also venerate swords. In Genesis, the Lord keeps Adam and Eve from Eden with an angel and ‘a flaming sword which turned every way’. Revelations shows Christ’s spirit thus: ‘out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations’. For many Shi’ite Muslims, Ali’s mystical sword Zulfiqar, a gift from Mohammed, was proof that Ali was the rightful caliph (‘There is no sword but dhu’l-faqār and no hero but Ali’). The Buddhist bodhisattva Manjushri is famously portrayed holding a flaming sword: with it, he smites ignorance.
In short, our ancient traditions praised swords, and it makes sense that we do too. Even as they vanish from war and wardrobes, swords retain their polish. Geographer David Harvey argues that one response to the turbulence of globalised capital is a heightened longing for the local, for ‘a stable mythology’. With their highly nationalistic iconography, swords certainly provide this: one does not merely have a sword, one has an Anglo-Saxon sweord, an Italian schiavona, a Chinese jian. In an era anxious about the ethereal digital, swords also suggest manual heft: palpable metals, physical cuts and thrusts.
The problem with this explanation is that it shows that something endured, but not why. Why did these civilisations praise the sword at all? In The Book of the Sword, Victorian polymath Richard Burton argued that the sword is prized because it makes history, and transcends quotidian pettiness. ‘War’, he writes, ‘benefits society by raising its tone above the ineffable littleness and meanness which characterise the every-day life of the many.’
Burton is right that swords have been used for conquest, but his claim is typical hyperbole. There’s nothing transcendent about slaughter. For every bout of righteous, knightly combat there were thousands of razed villages and massacred families. Anonymous commoners murdered in the name of Burton’s ‘Great Destroyer’; Byzantine children blinded or castrated to prevent them becoming usurpers—there is nothing high-minded here.
Even if Burton were correct, this would not reveal why so many peoples and their poets revered the sword and not the dagger, pike, crossbow or ballista. For much of premodern history, spears were far more decisive than swords: they were cheaper, easier to use, and offered greater defensive and offensive range. They were also more suited to tactical formation: lines of pikes ward off cavalry, not lines of swords. In his Paradoxes of Defence, published at the very end of the sixteenth century, English fencing master George Silver noted that the Welsh hook, a kind of halberd, ‘has advantage against all manner of weapons whatsoever’.
In this light, swords were special, not because of their ubiquity, but because of their rarity. They were used in combat for more than four millennia, but by the wealthy and powerful. My point is not that the allure of swordplay is its aristocratic atmosphere, its mood of snooty prestige. This might be so for Anglophone nations, but, as Christopher Lawrence notes, fencing is more democratic in France, Italy and eastern Europe. Instead, my point is that the admiration and sanctification of swords is not simply a question of use, but of use by whom. In feudal Europe and Asia, the rank and file often used farm tools. The knightly longsword and samurai katana, like the cavalry sabre—these were the weapons and accoutrements of an elite. Thrones were often won with polearms, but kings were enthroned with swords.
This focus on class sheds some light on the romance of the sword, then and now. But it obscures the very thing: the big shiny blade. To understand more of its curious allure, we ought to illuminate the sword itself.
The sword is intimate. Whereas a javelin, bow or rifle kills from a distance, my backsword asks for proximity. I have to get uneasily close to my opponent. Even wearing armour, this is frightening—I cannot even fathom confronting sharp steel in just a medieval gambeson, or a Regency dueller’s shirt. In this way, the sword suggests courage. It is a well-known fact, Burton wrote with his typical swagger, that ‘the shorter the weapon the braver the wielder’. This is a clumsy generalisation, but the gist is right: against armed enemies, swords put us in danger, and so signify bravery.
Why are daggers not revered so widely as magical talismans or divine signs? Because they are less visible. Knives ask for talent and valour, but they can also be used sneakily. Swords are daylight weapons, whereas dirks thrive in the gloom—they are for assassins and thieves. In short, daggers are less ethically venerable. They are also aesthetically modest. They can be worn, of course, but they have little of the sword’s presence: on the hip or waist, hilt and scabbard on display. And polearms cannot be worn at all. So the sword is seen to be not only brave but also personal, an obvious sign of special identity. The knight with a great sword, the samurai with a huge odachi, the Napoleonic hussar with a sabre—these are emblematic personas.
So swords are a thing partly because they were a thing; because they were dangerous and prestigious, and the past lends them authority. But they are especially charismatic symbols because they advertise martial virtues—however mistakenly—and make this advertisement peacockishly public.
My bruising Wednesday nights have little of this romance—but what took me there in the first place? •
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. He’s working on a nonfiction book and two children’s novels for a 2020 release. Visit <www.damonyoung.com.au>.