Posts tagged ‘swords’

Monday Masterclass: Top Ten Fantasy Swords

Having looked at the history of swords and King Arthur’s Excalibur in previous weeks, this instalment of Monday Masterclass lists some of the more interesting swords in modern fantasy literature. Most of these weapons are magical – which, naturally, makes them a cut above (pun intended) their mundane counterparts. The non-magical blades have special significance that sets them apart from many other named swords in fantasy fiction. Here they are, in alphabetical order:


Callandor is one of the key magical artefacts from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. It is also known as The Sword That Cannot Be Touched or The Sword That Is Not a Sword, both soubriquets giving hints as to the sword’s nature. Although it appears to be a crystal sword, it is not a sword, but rather a type of magical object called a sa’angreal, which allows a channeller to wield huge amounts of magical power.

In the distant past, Callandor was placed in a fortress and surrounded by magical wards that prevented anyone except the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of a great leader, claiming it. Rand al’Thor, the hero of the The Wheel of Time takes Callandor thus proving to many people – including himself – that he is the Dragon Reborn. Later, he uses it to single-handedly destroy armies, and prophesies indicate that it will be needed in the forthcoming apocalyptic Last Battle.


This sword is from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. In appearance it has a black, light-absorbing blade that is six and a half feet long, and a silver hilt with a dragon skull pommel. It was created by an Elder God called Draconus and is wielded by one of the series’ most popular characters, Anomander Rake.

This is another weapon that is far more than it appears – it contains a gate to the Realm of Darkness. Whenever a being is killed by Dragnipur, their soul is transported into the world within the sword, where they find themselves chained to a massive cart, which is being pulled through darkness by all the blade’s victims. The cart contains the gateway to the Realm of Darkness; it is being followed by a terrible storm of Chaos, a storm which is eventually confronted by the sword’s inhabitants.

Inigo Montoya’s Sword

Inigo Montoya is a character from William Goldman’s satirical fairy tale The Princess Bride. He is the son of a master bladesmith who is commissioned by a six-fingered man to make him the perfect rapier. A year later, the six-fingered man returns to pick up his weapon but refuses to pay what Montoya senior asks – and kills him and scars young Inigo on his face, and leaves without his rapier.

Inigo spends the rest of his life training with various master swordsmen, constantly improving his skill – using the rapier made for the six-fingered man. He seek across Europe for the man who killed his father – until the events of the novel finally present him with the chance for vengeance – and the chance to utter the famous line, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’


These swords are from J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the extended history of Middle Earth. Narsil was created in the First Age of the world by a dwarf called Telchar. Its name means ‘fire-white light’, referring to the light of the sun and moon. It was wielded by the Man Elendil, who used it to defeat Sauron, but it broke when Elendil fell. Elendil’s son, Isildur, used it to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand.

The shards of the sword became an heirloom of Isildur’s family, until they were reforged to create Andúril, which means ‘Flame of the West’. Its blade is etched with seven stars, the sun and moon and various runes. It glows with the light of the sun and moon. Aragorn wielded Andúril, and, like Rand al’Thor with Callandor, used it to prove his identity as the king of Arnor and Gondor (which nations were thus similarly reforged into a single whole).

Possible Sword

The Possibility Sword is a weapon that appears in China Miéville’s novel The Scar. It is wielded by by Uther Doul (who, of course, shares a name with King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon) and it is a kind of quantum weapon – has the ability to make every possible strike when used. The more likely a particular strike is, the harder the blow delivered. Opponents are therefore cut to ribbons by a single attack.


Another weapon from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and also from The Hobbit – Sting is actually an elven knife, but is used by the Hobbits Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins as a short sword. It was named Sting by the spiders of Mirkwood Forest, which Bilbo fought, and was found by Bilbo in a Troll-hoard. It glows blue when Orcs are near. It was finally given by Frodo to Samwise Gamgee.


Stormbringer is the weapon of Erlic of Melniboné, a character featuring in many stories by Michael Moorcock. It is has a black blade carved with runes and was created by the forces of Chaos. It is, in fact, a demon that consumes the soul of – and thus kills – anyone who is injured by it, even slightly. Stormbringer imbues the frail, albino Elric with great strength, but also fills him with great bloodlust, for which reason Elric hates Stormbringer.

Elric and Stormbringer seem to have been a model for Anomander Rake and Dragnipur, mentioned above.

Sword of Gryffindor

The Sword of Gryffindor features in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It was made by a goblin called Ragnuk the First for Godric Gryffindor, one of the founders of Hogwarts. Upon Godric’s death, the goblins believed it should have been returned to them, so from then on they considered it to have been stolen. It has the power to show up whenever it is needed and can absorb things that make it stronger. Thus, when Harry uses it to kill a basilisk, it become impregnated with basilisk venom and gains the power to destroy a horcrux.

Sword of Shannara

The Sword of Shannara features in Terry Brooks’s Shannara novels, including the first, Sword of Shannara. The weapon was made Urprox Screl and incorporated druidic magic and the druidic medallion, Eilt Druin, was forged into the hilt. The sword has the power to reveal the truth of anything. The druid Bremen gave the sword to the elf king, Jerle Shannara, and it subsequently became an heirloom of the royal family. It was used by Jerle to defeat the Warlock Lord by revealing to him the falsity of his belief in his immortality.

Vorpal Sword

The vorpal sword appears indirectly in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the book, Alice finds and reads the poem, ‘Jabberwocky’:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The word ‘vorpal’ has been interpreted to mean ‘sharp’ or ‘deadly’, or even to be a compound of ‘verbal’ and ‘gospel’. In more recent times, vorpal swords have appeared in various fantasy games, where they have the power to kill an opponent outright, sometimes by beheading.


Swords are the sexiest of fantasy weapons, and its no surprise that authors feature them in their stories. Some are special because of their innate qualities, some because of the stories of their wielders. This list is far from exhaustive, but I think it’s an interesting selection of fantasy sword, showing some common themes and some fascinating innovations.

What other swords from fantasy literature would you add to this list? Post your favourites in the comments.

Sources: Top 10 Badass Swords, Getasword.comWheel of Time Wikia, Encyclopedia Malazica, The Lord of the Rings Wikia, Harry Potter Wikia, Shannara Wikia, Wikipedia.

Monday Masterclass: Excalibur

I was planning to write about swords in fantasy, but any run-down of such a topic has to include at least a mention of King Arthur’s Excalibur. As I read about it, I decided to expand this theoretical mention to an entire post. Swords in modern fantasy fiction will be dealt with in future weeks, but today I’ll look at one of the most important swords in literature.


The original tale of King Arthur deals with a Celtic warrior or leader fighting against the invading Saxons. The Saxons eventually pushed the native Britons out to the fringes of the country. The earliest written stories of Arthur are therefore Welsh ones.

The original name of Excalibur appears to be Caledfwlch (a similar name to the Irish mythical sword, Caladbolg), meaning ‘battle breach’ or ‘hard cleft’. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in Latin, changed this to Caliburnus (Anglicised as Caliburn), which was influence by the Latin for ‘steel’, ‘chalybs’.

Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was very popular in Europe and French writers altered the name again to Escalibor or Excalibur. In the these later re-tellings, the sword was given a folk etymology and was said to mean ‘cut steel’.

Two Swords or One?

There are, of course, two magical swords associated with King Arthur – Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone. The Sword in the Stone was placed in a stone (or an anvil) by Merlin could only be drawn by the son of Uther Pendragon and the rightful heir to the throne. The boy Arthur drew the sword. Later, it broke in battle and had to be replaced. Merlin took Arthur to see the Lady of the Lake, who gave him Excalibur.

Excalibur was first mentioned in relation to Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who says it was a gift from the Isle of Avalon. Later, Robert de Boron introduces the story of the Sword in the Stone – which apparently was supposed to be Excalibur. Later writers like Thomas Malory give Arthur two separate swords – although Malory confusingly calls both weapons ‘Excalibur’.

As a Latin word for ‘stone’ is ‘saxo’, it could be that the whole Sword in the Stone legend is based on a spelling mistake. The original version could have had Arthur pulling the sword from the dead body of a Saxon.


As Arthur’s first sword broke, Excalibur has the highly useful quality of being unbreakable. It was made by elves, and could cut through iron. Even more usefully, its scabbard makes its wearer impervious to injury. This is a key part of the story, as when Morgan le Fay stole the sword, its scabbard was never recovered, allowing Arthur to be mortally wounded.

Various versions of the Arthur legend say that the sword has a gold hilt carved with dragons or chimeras, or that it has words engraved on either side of the blade – ‘take me up’ and ‘cast me away’, or ‘one edge to defend’ and ‘one edge to defeat’ – or that it shines with a blinding light.


The Welsh original name of Excalibur, Caledfwlch, has already been mentioned. The Celts regarded many bodies of water as places of magic and often threw swords or other weapons or items of value into them, perhaps as part of a funeral – this is reflected in part of Arthurian legend where, dying, the king tells Sir Bedivere to cast Excalibur back into the lake (Bedivere at first doesn’t do so and lies about what happened; Arthur insists, though, and finally, when Bedivere throws the sword, a hand reaches out of the water to take the sword under).

The story of the Sword in the Stone has a precursor in the Norse myth of Sigmund, who pulls a sword from the trunk of the tree Barnstokk that was placed there by Odin disguised as a one-eyed beggar.


While the swords in many stories may be incidental – granting greater powers to an already great warrior, for instance – Excalibur (and the Sword in the Stone) are integral parts of the legend of King Arthur as we know it (although this wasn’t true of the earliest versions of the tale). Arthur gains legitimacy from possessing the sword, his death is tied to his loss of the scabbard, and when he takes his leave, Excalibur must also be returned to where it came from.

Its sheer fame guarantees that Excalibur has influenced all those writers who have given their heroes magical swords. The sword is a powerful symbol – it connotes authority, justice, violence, martial prowess, chivalry, nobility, killing, execution, protection – so it’s no wonder that it plays such key part in the Matter of Britain and is a stock item of fantasy fiction.

What do you think of Excalibur? What are your favourite swords of myth, legend and fiction? Post a comment and let me know.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Legend of King Arthur, The Camelot Project, Crystal Links, Caerleon Net, Real Armor of God, Britannia History, Timeless Myths.

Monday Masterclass: a history of the sword

The sword is an iconic artefact, both in reality and in fantasy. Today’s masterclass takes a look at the development of this weapon in the real world. Unfortunately, this is a very Eurocentric history – I don’t have time today to make it globally comprehensive; also, much of the information I’ve found on the web also focuses mainly on the European tradition of sword-making and use.

Definition and Etymology

A sword is a weapon made of a long blade with a sharp point and one or two sharp edges; it is held by the hilt, which is protected by quillons or crossguard. Swords are used for slashing, hacking and thrusting (depending on the design and composition), and differ from many other basic weapon types (such as the axe and bow and arrow) in that they have no other purpose but warfare.

The word sword comes from the Old English sweord, from the (hypothetical) Proto-Germanic swerdan, and ultimately from the (also hypothetical) Proto-Indo-European swer-, meaning ‘to cut’.

Bronze Age Swords

The earliest bladed tools made by humans were made from stone, such as flint. Stone, however, is much too brittle to have been made into the long blades required for swords, so it wasn’t until people discovered how to work metal that swords were developed. Simple metalworking – hammering – goes back at least 9,000 years and likely involved the metals gold and copper. Smelting ore to create pure metals may have evolved from annealing – heating beaten metal to restore its malleability. This development led to the creation of bronze about 5,000 years ago, which is an alloy of about 90% copper and 10% tin (different combinations were also used).

Bronze was stronger than copper and allowed knives and daggers to become longer until they became swords (the difference between sword and dagger is essentially arbitrary). Bronze swords were still quite short, however – 20 to 30 inches (50 to 75 cm) in length; longer weapons would have lower tensile strength and break easily. Bronze swords were cast in clay or stone moulds and their edges were then forged to create cutting blades.

One of the earliest swords was the sappara or khopesh, a Sumerian sickle-sword. This was apparently used from the third millennium BCE until 1300 BCE and evolved from the crescent-bladed axe.

In Europe, early swords could be divided into two types: dirks (a type of dagger) and rapiers (swords designed for piercing thrusts rather than hacking and slashing). Such blades were originally cast without tangs (the part of the blade extending into the grip), and instead had hilts of horn or wood riveted to the bronze. These rapiers were broad-bladed – for extra strength – yet light.

Other types of Bronze Age sword include the leafbladed sword – one that, from the hilt, narrows, widens, then narrows again to the point – and the Naue II, a straight-edged and long-lasting design. During the second millennium BCE, the Chinese developed swords with a high tin content, which made their weapons more brittle. In India in the same period, swords were commonly made out of copper alone.

Iron Age Swords

There was actually a long overlap between the use of Bronze Age swords and that of Iron Age weapons. By the end of the Bronze Age, sword makers had reached the pinnacle of design and technology; iron working, by contrast, was still relatively primitive. Although iron would come to be a much more reliable material, in the early Iron Age, bronze and iron swords were fairly equally matched. For instance, Roman writers commented on Gaulish warriors having to pause to bend their iron swords back into shape during battles.

The major advantage iron had over bronze was the availability of the material; tin was quite a rare substance. Bronze Age swords were status items that were owned only by chieftains and the rich. With the advent of Iron Age technology, whole armies could be equipped with swords, a fact that helped the advance of the Greek empire, and later the Roman empire. Densely packed bodies of men fighting in such armies needed to be armed with short swords to avoid interfering with their neighbours (even though iron would ultimately allow for much longer weapons).

The process of creating pure iron for swords involved removing the oxygen from iron ore with a bloomery. Iron ore was heated along with charcoal; the carbon in the charcoal combined with the oxygen in the ore, thus leaving a pure iron ‘bloom’, which was then hammered to remove further impurities. The resulting metal was wrought (or worked) iron.

Iron swords spread throughout Europe during the Hallstatt perdiod – from around 1200 BCE to 600 BCE. When this culture ended, swords were briefly replaced by knives, but were revived with the advent of the La Tene culture (6th to 1st centuries BCE).

Iron Age swords include the Greek xiphos (which was originally made from bronze) and Roman gladius (which was inspired by swords of Iberian warriors; it’s also the origin of the word gladiator); the Romans later developed the gladius into the longer spatha (the word spatha is the root of spade, the playing card suit). At lengths of 24 to 34 inches (60 to 85 cm), the spatha provided a longer reach. When wielded by infantry, it had a sharp point; the cavalry version had a rounded tip to avoid riders stabbing themselves in the foot.

Medieval Swords

The spatha evolved in the late Roman era and beyond –  first into swords of the Migration Period, measuring 28 to 32 inches (71 to 81 cm) in length; then into the 8th century Viking sword. Viking swords were even longer – 37 inches (93 cm) and up to 40 inches (100 cm) in Norman times – but they remained single-handed weapons. A fuller (a groove along the flat of the blade) was used to improve the sword’s flexibility and keep its weight down.

During the late first millennium, the technique of creating swords from steel was perfected. Steel is an alloy of iron and about 1 or 2% carbon. Carbon was added to iron by a process of migration, heating the iron in a container made of a high-carbon substance so that the iron absorbed some of the carbon and thus became steel. The Chinese had another method of making steel – hammering iron and pig iron together.

And this practice of forge-welding metals of differing composition together became pattern welding, of which Damascus steel is perhaps the best known example (although no one now knows exactly how Damascus steel was made); swords made in this fashion could be made harder and tougher than blades forged from single metals. The surface of these blades retained an attractive ripple effect.

Viking swords themselves developed into arming swords – also known as knight’s or knightly swords – which were used from around 1000 to 1350 CE. These weapons measured about 36 inches in length (91 cm) and weighed about 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg). They were single-handed weapons that were used in conjunction with a shield or buckler and were worn by knight even when not in armour. The arming sword was one of  the first to sport the classic cruciform shape by incorporating a more pronounced crossguard.

As the medieval period progressed, swords changed in response to new types of armour. Swords needed to be heavier to be wielded with sufficient force to pierce mail or, later, plate armour. Nevertheless, swords were rarely the ungainly monsters of Hollywood movies. For instance, the two-handed longsword, which was used from the 14th to the 16th centuries, was 41 to 47 inches (105 to 120 cm) long and weighed 3.1 pounds (1.4 kg). The longsword was a quick and versatile weapon, the use of which was taught by schools of swordsmanship.

Renaissance and Modern Era Swords

On the other hand, some swords did become huge. The Zweihänder (literally, ‘two-hander’), also known as a greatsword, was up to 71 inches (180 cm) long and weighed as much as 7 pounds (3.2 kg). One sword, supposedly wielded by the legendary Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia, is 84 inches (213 cm) long and weighs 14.5 pounds (6.6 kg). Some Zweihänders had long ricassos (a blunt part of the blade close to the hilt) protected by flukes that allowed them to be gripped near the middle. They were used for chopping and batting aside pikes and other polearms.

The arming sword eventually (via the side-sword) evolved into the rapier of the Renaissance period. The rapier was a sword with a long, narrow blade of maybe 39 inches (1 m) and was lightweight at around 2.2 pounds (1 kg). It often had a complex basket or cup encompassing much of the hilt and the ricasso, so that the rapier wielder could grip the sword around the crossguard for better control. Some designs had sharp edges along their length, other only from the middle to the tip and still others were only sharp at the point. Rapiers were popular among civilians and many lost their lives in duels using them.

The next step in the evolution of the sword was the small sword (or dress sword or court sword), which developed from the rapier and was used in the 17th and 18th centuries – and even up to the early 20th century. The small sword was around 24 to 33 inches (60 to 85 cm) long. The sabre, a curved, single-bladed sword was used by cavalry during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Although the development of firearms has made the sword obsolete it is still used by military forces around the world, either as part of regular or dress uniform. Sword fighting in its various forms is also a popular martial art in many places.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bronze Age Craft, Bronze Age Swords, Suite 101, Rise of Civilization, 2-Clicks Swords, Iron Age Armoury, How Stuff Works, ARMA,