The meaning of the sword in Dark Age cultures

“The pen is mightier than the sword,” said the comedian Marty Feldman. “And considerably easier to write with.” He was joking, of course. And wrong. A quill is only more powerful than a blade in a literate society. In Europe, the time in which The Loki Sword is set used to be called the Dark Ages* because there is a great lack of illuminating literature. Few people were writing; many more were wielding swords.

An early medieval sword is not just a weapon. It is a multifaceted symbol, too. An icon of freedom, authority and justice – as well as spiritual power. It often wasn’t even a very good weapon. On a battlefield the sword was never a warrior’s first choice for either defence or attack. A long spear beats a shorter blade any day because you can strike your opponent from further away. You can kill him before he kills you. A mounted knight would use a lance; a foot soldier a spear. Bows and arrows meant you could drop a sword-wielder from the other side of the battlefield. The sword was just a back-up weapon, a side-arm, like the pistol carried by modern troops. It was portable and not so unwieldy as a pole arm.

Despite this lack of efficacy as a battlefield tool, a sword was very special. It was the emblem of just war, of the righteous use of force – “Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand!” runs the stirring line in the hymn Jerusalem. The weapon confers high status on the wielder, marks him out as a free man, a nobleman, even a king. Or, at the least, a successful warrior. In the Norse world most first-time raiders would have gone a-viking with perhaps only a wood-axe and shield, or a seax (fighting knife) and a simple spear. If they were lucky enough to survive the first few bloody clashes they might claim a sword as booty.

Viking swords from Bergen Museum

The best swords in Viking scabbards were taken from enemies such as the Christian Franks. Frankish blades were made from fine, pattern-welded steel, which made them flexible, lighter and with a sharper edge; while the home-forged blades were often little more than crude bludgeons. The hero Beowulf from the eponymous 10th-century poem has a “waegsweord” – the “waeg” or wave describing the rippling patterns on the steel that come from sophisticated techniques of pattern-welding. Frankish swords would have been expensive, too. Charlemagne, the 8th-century King of the Franks, set the price of a sword at seven gold solidi, the equivalent of $1,300 in today’s money.

So it is no surprise that swords were prized. A fine sword would be handed down from father to son as an heirloom. A famous sword would even have its own name: Arthur had Excalibur; Charlemagne’s blade was called Joyeuse; the Frankish hero Roland called his sword Durandal. In a way, during this era, a sword was a kind of person, with an identity. When Roland dies tragically in the famous poem he says goodbye to his sword before he expires, as if it were a friend or lover. Sometimes the sword’s name described its character. King Magnus Barefoot of Norway possessed a sword called “Leg-biter”, Ferdinand III of Castile owned a sword called Lobera or “Wolf-slayer”. A sword might also have its own unique qualities: the sword of Nuada Silver-hand, legendary King of Ireland, was impossible to fight off; Viking god Freyr had a sword that could fight all by itself; Excalibur could not be blunted and its scabbard healed wounds. 

In short, swords are often filled with magic – or other supernatural power. The holy cruciform shape of the arming swords used by European knights in the crusades (see the replica sword pictured below) made the use of lethal force righteous. These swords could also be held up by devout knights and used as makeshift crucifixes to aid prayer. But the sword’s innate spiritual power reaches back long before the crusades. The village blacksmith who forged iron (and made swords) has been seen a quasi-magical figure since antiquity, someone who possesses a secret wisdom. The European fairytale The Smith and the Devil, of which there are many variations, tells of how an iron-worker outwits Satan himself to obtain his knowledge of smelting metal. Today in Kenya, the honoured blacksmith in some local tribes lives on the periphery of society and performs a role in healing people and guarding the community from evil. 

Iron is filled with magic – the first iron ore coming from the stars (as meteors) and so swords made of iron or steel will always contain a little of this heavenly essence. And it was the mystical power of these iconic weapons that inspired me to write The Loki Sword, (below) a Dark Age quest-story about a band of Vikings who go deep into mainland Europe in search of a “magical” blade said to have been owned by the trickster god Loki, and cursed by the dwarves who forged it. There are many Norse stories about magical swords but I based my novel on a particular legend about a sword named Tyrfingr, which was wielded by the doomed King of the Goths in ancient times. 

One might well believe, in the 21st century, that swords belong solely to ancient times. But the power of this symbolic item is well and truly alive. One of the biggest movie franchises of today has a very futuristic sword – the lightsaber – at the heart of its iconography. The Jedi are knights and so must have swords – indeed a Jedi is defined by his possession of a lightsaber; and their foes, the Sith, therefore must also wield a similar weapon. So there is a sword duel at the climax almost every Star Wars movie. 

The sword might not be mightier than the pen in our literate times. But the people who create stories – from Star Wars screenwriters to historical fiction authors like me – are unlikely ever to be released from the powerful spell that swords, ancient and modern, cast over their imaginations. 

The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) is available as an eBook or paperback from Amazon. Click on the link to buy The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) and The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2). If you are feeling generous, and want to help out an impoverished writer in these difficult times, you can buy me a coffee at Ko-fi/angusdonald

*The Dark Ages are now called the Early Medieval Period because they are no longer seen as quite so benighted. Western European culture between 5th and 11th centuries was, in fact, very sophisticated.

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