From Excalibur to lightsabers – the enduring magic of swords

The pen is mightier than the sword, they say. But try telling that to a Christian monk in a Dark Age scriptorium when a big, hairy Viking kicks down the front door looking for slaves and plunder. I make my living with a pen – well, a keyboard – but, even as a modern-day cleric, most of the time I am writing about people who wield swords. I even own one myself, a replica of the sword used in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which was given to me by a fan of my Robin Hood books. Swords are special, sword are iconic, swords are powerful, and swords are, indeed, magical . . .

A replica of the sword wielded on set by Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

My new Viking adventure, The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3), below, which comes out on 11 August 2022 is about a quest for a legendary blade forged by the dwarves in the mythological past, which my heroes Bjarki and Tor believe may have magical qualities. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t – magic is not real, at least not in historical fiction. But real people in the Dark Ages absolutely believed that magic swords, horns and rings and so on existed and there are a great many Norse tales about epic quests for these fantastical objects.

The magic sword in my novel is based in a “real” magical sword called Tyrfingr, which is the central object in a cycle of epic legends. Like my fictional Loki Sword, Tyrfingr was made by dwarves and owned, by among others, the King of the Goths, a man called Angantyr. The dwarf magic ensured that it never rusted and could cut through iron and stone as easily as clothes. But the dwarves also cursed the sword and by their cunning they ensured it would kill every time it was drawn, and it would be the cause of evil.

Here is an extract from The Loki Sword about the forging of my version of Tyrfingr: “The Dwarf-Master and his sons sweated over the forge all that day and long into the black winter night, heating the iron, hammering and quenching, again, and again, polishing and sharpening it with all their skill, and at last, just before dawn, the new blade was finally made. So they summoned the god Loki to view his prize and to pay for the beautiful weapon that Dwalin and his sons had forged. And Loki, who had once again been wrenched from his slumbers by the crowing of Vithnofnir the giant cockerel, accepted into his hand this finest of all swords – which was indeed magnificent, with a broad shining steel blade, engraved in with magical runes, the hilt wrapped in fine silver, with a great blue jewel set in the pommel. It was sheathed in tooled leather. He named the sword Tyrfingr and promised the Dwarf-Master payment in full by nightfall.”

The sword holds a special place in Viking lore – and indeed was revered during the whole of the Middle Ages. It was a symbol of kingship. Arthur had Excalibur, the sword he either drew from a stone (or anvil) to establish his right to rule England, or was given to him by the mysterious Lady of the Lake. Dark Ages swords are regularly recovered from lakes or rivers. It seems that they were often thrown in water as a sacrifice to the gods. And it was no small sacrifice: not only were swords sacred and symbolic of regal authority, they were also expensive. During the reign of Charlemagne (the period in which my Fire Born series is set) the price of a sword was seven soldi – the equivalent of about £1,100 in today’s money.

Statue by Rubin Eynon of King Arthur holding Excalibur at Tintagel, Cornwall

But more than their monetary value, the Dark Ages sword is imbued with a spiritual power. The crusader knights used a cruciform sword which could be held up as a holy symbol of the Cross on which Jesus sacrificed his life. The sword represented the Power of God. Viking swords (at least in the legends) were often enchanted or possessed magical qualities, such as Tyrfingr’s ability to cut through iron or stone. Even the lightsaber, weapon of the Jedi knights in Star Wars, uses the Force to give it power and colour.

The sword is in a class apart from every other medieval tool of war – you do get magical shields, Captain America’s buckler springs to mind, and enchanted horns, such as Olyphaunt, the instrument Roland blew at Roncevalles, but these are all exceptions. The sword is spiritually powerful in its own right, freighted with mystic symbolism and portent. Possession of a sword made you a Viking warrior of high renown – less successful pagan raiders would have only had axes and spears. The sword would have been named – battle flame, say, or leg-biter – and passed from generation to generation, as a family heirloom. In the Christian world, a sword bestowed knighthood on a warrior, by the ceremony of dubbing. In Tolkien’s world, Aragorn’s sword Anduril is broken, which implies his right to the throne of Gondor is unmade.

In The Loki Sword, it is possession of the “magical” blade that give the wielder the right to claim a throne . . . but now I run the risk of giving you a major spoiler. It you want to know more about Bjarki and Tor’s quest to find a sword once owned by a god, you will have to read the novel, which you can order here.

And to buy the first two novels in the Fire Born series click on the link here for The Last Berserker and here for The Saxon Wolf. The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) will be published by Canelo on August 11th, 2022.

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