More sharp pointy things

More about stories and swords. Most of the time the hero is the one wielding the blade. There is a story, however, in which the sword ends up taking the lead role.

Lord Dunsany’s 1908 fantasy tale, “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” is an odd story in many ways, a mish-mash of elevated heroic narrative and downright silliness. Sometimes the writing soars, and sometimes it lands (on purpose?) with an undignified comic thump, as in this passage describing a magician’s spell:

… It was a verse of forty lines in many languages, both living and dead, and had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for "wasp".

As the story opens, the peaceful village of Allathurion is threatened by some nameless evil that darkens people’s dreams. The village wise man discovers that the source of the evil is Gaznak, “the greatest magician among the spaces of the stars,” who comes to earth every two hundred and thirty years, builds himself a “vast, invincible fortress” and sets to work bringing evil dreams to the minds of men. Why Gaznak goes to all of this trouble every couple hundred years, the story doesn’t say, but the village wise man reports that the only way to slay Gaznak is with the sword Sacnoth.

Without a moment’s hesitation, a heroic young man named Leothric sets out to find the sword, which is hidden inside the body of the terrible dragon-crocodile Tharagavverug. After a long struggle, Leothric defeats Tharagavverug (in fact, defeating the dragon-crocodile turns out to be a tougher challenge for Leothric than taking down Gaznak, as we’ll see), obtains the sword Sacnoth, then sets off for The Land Where No Man Goeth, where lies Gaznak’s fortress.

From this point on it’s Sacnoth that makes most of the decisions about where to go and what to do next, since, as we’re told, “the sword nudged Leothric to the right or pulled him to the left away from the dangerous places, and so brought him safely to the fortress walls.” Leothric isn’t very deep or complex as heroes go, so it seems to make sense for the magic sword to take charge.

Accordingly, the sword arrives at Gaznak’s mighty fortress with Leothric in tow. The place is pretty formidable, for sure: it has walls like precipices of steel studded with boulders of iron. No getting in there, one would think. However, the evil magician is thoughtful enough to post a sign above his doors that reads, in letters of brass: “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth.” A good thing Leothric’s brought Sacnoth with him, then.

From here things proceed pretty much as has already been spelled out by the village wise man and by Gaznak’s helpful sign. We readers of a more ironic era look forward to some kind of plot twist or surprise ending to trip up our expectations, but no, the sword lives up to its billing as the only thing that can defeat Gaznak. Still, there’s an entertaining cavalcade of hapless warriors and monsters (I really like the spider with hands) who try unsuccessfully to bar Leothric’s way through the fortress, and all of this jolly good fun makes up for the mechanical inevitability of the plot. The bad guy is defeated, the fortress crumbles away, and Leothric returns home to a hero’s welcome. Yay.

But what of Sacnoth, the real hero of the tale? The story doesn’t tell us. Once Gaznak’s head has been lopped off, the sword isn’t mentioned again. Maybe, with the magician and his fortress destroyed, Sacnoth instantly became superfluous, unnecessary, and it just crumbled away, too.

I don’t think so. I like to think Sacnoth is still out there somewhere, that the sword has adapted to find a place for itself in a world without unvanquishable fortresses. After all, it’s really a very intelligent sword. And anyhow, Gaznak will be returning from the spaces of the stars in a couple hundred years, so there will be work for Sacnoth again someday…

Sharp pointy things

The worlds of Story contain an amazing number and variety of swords and knives and other weapons of a cutting and stabbing nature.

Most of these are generic, serviceable blades that simply do the job they are meant to do in the story, which is usually to kill someone.

But every so often one of these run of the mill swords takes on greater importance because it is the means by which a character becomes a hero.

Lost in Mirkwood, Bilbo Baggins uses the nameless “knife in a leather sheath” he took from the trollhoard to slay a giant spider. Something changes in Bilbo at that moment, and it is in fact the turning point of his story: the “poor little hobbit” is no longer merely an unhappy, reluctant participant in the dwarves’ quest. From this point on he often takes charge when difficulties arise, and makes decisions while the dwarves quarrel and wonder what to do. He is, in other words, becoming the hero of his own tale.

He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.
“I will give you a name,” he said to it, “and I shall call you Sting.

Bilbo marks this important moment in his life by giving his knife (now referred to as a sword) a name. To give something a name is to invest it with importance, individuality, magic. The worlds of Story contain plenty of other famous swords with names. Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword, is probably the most famous of the famed, at least in the Western world. Some other legendary swords include:

Durendal, the sword of the eponymous hero of the French epic The Song of Roland.

Gram: the sword of Sigurd the Volsung, slayer of Fafnir the dragon in Norse and Germanic mythology.

The Vorpal Sword: in Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky.

Kusanagi, sometimes referred to as the Excalibur of Japan. 

[to be continued]