Throughout history, swords played an important role in defending life and livelihood. Over the years, they evolved in form and the techniques used to wield them, but they remained favored weapons of war through many centuries. In time, they came to symbolize liberty, strength, and honor. Scripture even refers to swords as symbolic of the Word of God. Given all their positive associations, it’s only natural that they would take a prominent place in folklore and fantasy, enhanced with larger-than-life traits.
The epic Beowulf attests to this veneration in the following passage:
Hrunting they named the hilted sword.
Of old-time heirlooms, it was easily best;
iron was its edge, all etched with poison,
and with battle-blood hardened.
Never had it faltered at fight
in the hero’s hand that held it.
Similar swords of lore and legend abound–Excalibur, Andúril, and countless others occupy places of honor in well-known tales. Though numerous legendary swords exist, endued with a vast range of powers, they often share similar traits that can be broken down into categories.
- Swords of supernatural origin. These swords not only have some supernatural origin, they almost always possess some supernatural trait, as with Fragarach of Irish legend, which placed the wind at the bearer’s command and dealt out only fatal wounds.
- Swords with power that responds to the bearer. In a way, these blades seem more living entities than inanimate objects, for they respond to the nature of the man or woman that attempts to wield them. In Welsh Mythology, Drynwyn blazed with fire, a fire that would aid the cause of a righteous man but injure any unworthy individual that tried to use it.
- Swords involved in fulfillment of prophesy. Often these swords serve as a mark of the bearer’s true identity. Andúril in the Lord of the Rings in part served as a evidence of the Aragorn’s identity as heir to the throne, as the oracle proclaimed, “from the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken: the crownless again shall be king.”
- Swords crafted to injure or defeat a specific foe. These swords make their finest showing when used against the foe they were created to destroy. The enemy may be a specific race, as with Glamdring and Orcrist, elven swords which held especial terror for orcs and goblins, or it may be a single opponent. Either way, these blades are a great threat to their enemies.
Yet the swords of fantasy fame don’t always possess positive attributes. Sometimes they’re more bane than boon, as seen here:
- Swords that fall short at a pivotal moment. These swords fail the hero when he most needs them, usually in the midst of a desperate battle. Hrunting, a sword that accomplished many mighty deeds, proved ineffective when Beowulf attempted to slay Grendel’s mother. Fortunately for Beowulf, he laid hold of another weapon, yet the consequences could have been dire.
- Swords under a curse. Tyrfing of Norse lore was cursed to cause three great evils and to kill a man every time it was drawn, as well as lead to the slaughter of the one who forced it to be forged.
Whether cast in a positive or negative light, swords have a role to play in many a tale. Sometimes a sword is just a sword, but sometimes it’s more–a symbol of hope or of promise fulfilled, a temptation or an obstacle, or the test of what’s in the heart of man. These weapons have a long and rich tradition for a reason, and the pages of lore reflected the realities experienced through much of history, where a good blade might make the difference between life or death.