Tough Travelling: Swords
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re looking at SWORDS. Diana Wynne Jones had absolutely loads to say about swords (five pages worth) so I’ll cut it down…
Swords. You are advised to choose your Sword with great care and, if possible, have it thoroughly checked by a jobbing MAGICIAN before undertaking ownership. Swords are dangerous. This does not simply mean that you can stab yourself in the foot with one without due care (though some Swords do that too, if crossed): it means that all Swords in Fantasyland are dangerously magical in some way.
[DWJ then lists the TEN hazards you should look out for, we recommend checking the source material.]
We would advise against buying or using a Sword, except that in Fantasyland this would make you look as if you were walking in traffic with no clothes on.
A big thank you to Nils, Theo, Beth, Jonathan, Gray, and Asha for their recommendations…
Whenever I think of fantasy swords the first one which always pops into my head is Nightblood from Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson. This is the first sentient sword I’ve come across, well not only is it sentient but it’s kinda bloodthirsty too – quite apt for a sword I guess! Nightblood speaks to whoever owns it, the sword’s voice whispers inside their head, encouraging them to kill evil. The only problem is Nightblood thinks everyone is evil, even the person who wields the sword.
Secondly I had to pick Andúril, the sword that was broken, from The Lord of the Rings. This is the sword that was reforged in Rivendell and claimed by Aragorn which he then uses throughout the trilogy. In Lothlorien Galadriel gives Aragorn a scabbard and enchants it so that any blade drawn from it can never be broken. I absolutely loved that.
More recently after finishing Shannon Chakraborty’s The Daevabad trilogy I’d love to see more zulfiqar swords in fantasy books. When I was reading the trilogy I did a bit of research into this weapon and found that it’s a curved sword with a double edge and in Arabic zulfiqar means “cleaver of spine”. Throughout the trilogy Alizayd uses a magical flaming zulfiqar to defeat his enemies.
I read Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock a long time ago and was fascinated by Elric’s chaotic evil sword Stormbringer. It wasn’t just sharp and dangerous. It was empathically, broodingly sentient. It sucked the souls out of the people it killed, thus condemning them to a special kind of oblivion beyond death at the same time as using their life force to rejuvenate its weak and frail albino master. I mean lovely as other swords are – and Tolkien makes much of the power of Anduril (I prefer to call it Narsil!),Tolkien is a bit vague about what makes his weapons so powerful and inspirational. Yes there is the helpful “glow in the presence of orcs” kind of foe-radar, but I like to know why a particular great weapon is such a powerful and fearsome thing. Stormbringer certainly brings that to the table.
However, I do remember thinking of parallels between Moorcock’s doomed anti-hero Elric, and Tolkien’s Turin Turambar (first mentioned in the Silmarillion, Nils) (I shall read it one day Theo 😂). Besides the ways both men were entrapped by capricious fate, both wielded a black blade of immense power. Turin’s sword began as Anglachel but, used in an accident of rage to slay one master, Turin had it reforged as Gurthang (reforging and renaming swords seems to be a theme with Tolkien). It played a key part in Turambar’s many ultimately doomed adventures and – at the end the sword even got to speak a line! (Really?! You have my interest!!)
And while we’re on reforged swords, that ultimately prove unlucky for their masters, what about Eddard Stark’s magnificent blade of Valyrian steel, Ice, in a G.R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. A sword too great and special to be used by just one man after its master’s demise, it ended up being reforged as not just one but two blades – Oathkeeper and Widow’s Wail. Of course the existence of a sword named Ice, implies the existence of a sword named Fire, though I must have missed that one in the hundreds of pages of as yet incomplete ASOFAI
And finally, to stretch the semantics, what about the eponymous “Sword of Kaigen” by M.L.Wang? Not a simple single blade, but a spit of land thrust out into the sea, peopled by ferocious samurai style warriors who have wielded their weapons to defend the empire against all comers. It is at once not a sword and yet many swords – I feel there’s a riddle to be set in there somewhere.
Theo mentioned Stormbringer above and it reminded me very much of Dragnipur, Anomander Rake’s sword which chains the souls of those it kills. An utterly dread weapon, that turns blood to ash. The sword is a warren that contains a wagon, and within the wagon is the Gate of Darkness. The souls of those killed by Dragnipur are chained to the wagon and draw it, chased by the forces of chaos. And who says Malazan is too grim and dramatic??
Let’s lighten the mood again with a trip to the Discworld, in fact, the very first instalment of that series The Colour of Magic, which is very much DJW’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland in fiction novel format. When Rincewind finds himself in a demonic temple (nat) he meets Hrun the Barbarian, who of course has a magical talking sword, Kring. The two bicker like an old couple, with Kring in particular being very much Done With This Shit.
Of those books already mentioned, my favourite blade in the Lord of the Rings is Gandalf’s Glamdring, an elven blade forged for a king of Gondor but now wielded by Gandalf. I also wanted to mention Longclaw, Jon Snow’s blade given to him by Lord Jeor Mormont. I always found it touching that the man who couldn’t pass his blade on to his own son, gave it to the man who didn’t have a father to inherit a sword from.
A fun variation of this trope is found in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. Fafhrd’s swords are called Graywand and Heartseaker, the Gray Mouser’s are called Scalpel and Cat’s Claw. Except they both lose their weapons all the time and just keep the same names for whatever sword they are using at the time.
Similarly, in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, tegeus-Cromis, who believes himself a better poet than a swordsman, has a sword simply referred to as “the unnamed blade of tegeus-Cromis”.
In Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, Severian has Terminus Est, an exquisite executioner’s blade. Though surely the most triumphant example of this trope is Elric’s Stormbringer, and its twin Mournblade, swords so badass they have multiple metal bands and songs named after them!
The originator of so much of the magic sword stuff must be Excalibur of the Arthurian Myth cycle. While the sword itself was basically just a good sword (the name translates to something like Steel-Cutter) it seemed to acquire more and more magical powers as the various translations went on. My personal favourite interpretation was that the sword itself was simply a sword, but the scabbard was enchanted so that whoever wore it would win any battle they sought. Like a Spear of Destiny in leather form. Please note, this was not the Sword in the Stone. That was… yet again… just a sword. Excalibur was the one he got from the Lady of the Lake. Cueing up the Monty Python joke about good systems of governance.
In fantasy fiction proper, I have a soft spot for the mythic Tyrfing, from Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, a weapon so fearsome it could strike the roots of the world tree and end all of existence, broken before our story of changelings, heroes and accidental incest could even begin to prevent such an occurrence and reforged to aid the elves in their war with the trolls, ultimately dooming the world. It’s a book with a lot of doom.
I also feel obliged to mention the sword of Martin the Warrior, later named Ratdeath, after it was used to slay Cluny the Scourge in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. For a mouse-sized weapon, the fact it was forged from meteorite to be indestructible is weirdly impressive.
Oh, and I can’t let this opportunity to talk about Berserk by the late, great Kentaro Miura, pass. Our heroic-ish protagonist Guts wields a gigantic greatsword too big for most people to even lift, and while it started out as mundane as mundane can be, it has actually become a demon-slaying sword by virtue of having been used to kill so many of them. As far as magical systems work, the idea of repeatedly bathing a sword in the blood of a specific enemy making it better at killing that enemy is kind of fun to toy with.
I was so happy this topic came up, because I just finished reading Swordheart by Ursula Vernon (T. Kingfisher) and I haven’t had a chance to shout about it yet! The main character, Halla, is a woman in her mid-thirties who unwittingly inherits a magic sword – one that happens to contain an immortal swordsman, Sarkis. Drawing the sword lets him take human form (confusingly for everyone involved, wielding a sword of his own); sheathing it sends him back into a sort of stasis – and there are some absolutely hilarious moments where this is explored and experimented with. This is exactly the sweet, cosy, funny fantasy romance between a widow and her magic sword that you’ve always wanted. (Also, the author’s note states it was inspired by imagining Stormbringer’s reaction to being stuck with Elric!)
Next month, to celebrate the festive season, we’ll be looking at our FOOD in fantasy.
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