Magic and Steel: Real-Life Swords with Names


From Excalibur to Glamdring, fantasy fiction is replete with named swords. In the post-Freudian era, it is easy to see something improper in those proper names and interpret them as a personification of phalluses of male authority and privilege.1

But swords were penetrating people’s brains long before Freud ever did. Swords are pre-psychological, forged and named in the era of magic. A century after swords had any practical use, shades of their earlier meanings are still with us.

We still know the tale of Alexander slashing the Gordian knot—the sword as a magical symbol for rationality, analysis and discrimination.

We know, too, an opposite meaning of the sword: a symbol of national or tribal holism and unity, a shish kebab skewer laden with entire traditions.

These meanings linger in the cultural eddies where blades remain relevant. Athames, the ritual daggers of Wicca, continue to represent the pre-rationalist “masculine principle” of authentically ancient magic. The bottomless murk of tradition explains the strange irony of U.S. Marines launching a new Crusade in the Middle East while their officers’ dress uniforms included the sword of the Mamelukes—the Muslim warrior caste comprised of slave boys forcibly converted to Islam, who eventually battled the original Crusaders.2

Names of swords are magical as well. This is best seen in those sword names that drift from legend into modernity and settle on a real-life blade. The names of Durendal, the sword of Roland, and Tizona, the sword of El Cid, adhere today to tourist-attraction blades that, while old, cannot possibly be the originals.3 In a sort of reverse-engineered magic spell, these swords are frequently cobbled together from scraps to match the ancient symbolic names, like jerry-rigged magnets drawing rare coins from the depths.

The medieval version of designer-label knock-offs, these magically named swords frequently end up in a country’s crown jewels, their nationalist and Christian symbolism floating in a richer broth of pagan magics. Joyeuse, the legendary sword of Charlemagne, is now the name applied to the coronation sword of imperial France on display in the Louvre. Szczerbiec, the sword of Polish King Bolesław I Chrobry, is now a chimaerical blade that was smuggled out of the country to escape seizure by the Nazis, only to become a neo-fascist symbol in modern Poland.

Descriptively named, magically enhanced swords are commonplace in both real and legendary armories around the world, from the royal blade Kusanagi in Japan to Zulfiqar, the two-pronged scimitar of the Muslim Caliph Ali.

Europe’s rich tradition of named swords comes from medieval poetry that was positively obsessed with them: the legends of Arthur, the “Chanson de Roland,” “Beowulf,” the “Nibelungenlied.” So thorough was this tradition, it even retconned magical named swords into the hands of classical figures; Julius Caesar became the wielder of a mythical blade called Crocea Mors (“Yellow Death”).

These romances come from an era when swords were still doing dirty work that honed the weapons’ symbolic significance. As Christianity wormed its way into the heart of pagan Europe and went to war against Islam, the cruciform symbolism of the sword’s blade and crossguard was not lost on the zealous.4 And as the carving knife serving up the earliest taste of European nation-states, the sword was a natural signifier of emergent nationalism.

But in the legendary swords’ names—typically bizarre, their meanings often occult even in their own time—there are less obvious cultural forces at work: pagan myth and magic, and the Gnostic religion that thrived in the era of the chansons de geste. So, too, can these influences be seen in the designs of these swords, which often bore slogans or signs engraved on their blades, like talismans or charms, or even contained holy relics within their hilts, as if Rambo got religion and put it in his survival knife.

In this magical sword-as-reliquary concept, we see a microcosm of how Christianity cleverly co-opted pagan traditions as vessels for itself. Durendal, the magically unbreakable sword of Roland, is a fine example. The sword bears an inscrutable name that suggests nothing about its stature as a reliquary for various remarkable items, including a piece of the robe of Mary, mother of Jesus; its final use comes in a battle Charlemagne actually fought against internal European foes, but which is recast in the “Chanson de Roland” (c. late 1100s) as an epic clash against the Saracens. In at least one legend, Durendal is a gift from a wizard.

Myths, legends and poems typically skip over the inherent strangeness of sword-naming. Along with our tendency to view the modern substitutes of Christianity and nationalism as unmysterious, unmagical modes of thought, the whole process of naming a sword frequently goes unremarked, or dismissed with pat explanations. One respected historian suggests that sword-naming originates with the stamping of armorers’ maker’s-marks on blades.5 But sword names are often odd, certainly not reflective of common working-men names. I’ve never seen a sword called “Smith and Sons” or “British Steel.”

The magazine-publisher son of Charles Dickens once took a crack at explaining the “fairy aureole of poetry” that is a sword name, specifically addressing Durendal.6 As with most such efforts, that consisted of amateur etymology—trawling a dictionary (Celtic, in this case; Roland is identified as coming from Brittany) for homophones with meanings that seem vaguely attributable to a sword. It is, Charles Dickens Jr. told us, “natural to bestow an endearing epithet upon the weapon that saved its owner’s life.” But these legendary swords tend to come pre-named, springing forth Athena-style, fully magical and already personified. He claims that “Durendal” comes from Celtic words for “hard” and “fierce”; but Roland did not know just how hard his sword was until he attempted, and failed, to destroy it in his dying moments, according to the “Chanson de Roland.”

Among the select group of scholars who have directly pondered sword-naming, it is popular to crown Norse legendry as the fount. That proves more intriguing than enlightening.

The Norse did do a remarkably consistent job of staffing European named-sword legendry with the sword-maker Weland (Norse “Völundr,” French “Galand,” modern English “Wayland,” with many variants).7 Weland is quite possibly the Teutonic form of the more familiar Greco-Roman deities Vulcan/Hephaestus, with a name like the former and physical attributes like the latter. In any case, he was a busy and long-lived guy. In various legends and stories, he is named as the maker of Joyeuse and Durendal, Beowulf’s armor and even old Julius’s Yellow Death. The ubiquitous smith is presented as the invisible pagan hand offering magical powers to the Christian chivalric knights, like a towel-dried Lady of the Lake.

Weland appeared in the earliest known poems in the very language with which I write, passing easily from Norse mythos into Anglo-Saxon, as he would later pass into the legends of other nations.

Why the Norse? For one thing, they had a penchant for naming swords and other weapons. In “Beowulf,” that great poetic baton-passing from Norse to Anglo-Saxon, from paganism to Christianity, the titular hero wields a sword named Hrunting. (One never looks to the Vikings for euphony.)

Another Norse influence on sword-naming is the kenning. A kenning is an Old Norse poetic device in which a normal word is replaced with a metaphorical compound word describing it.8 A literally textbook example happens to be a kenning for “sword”: “wound-hoe.”

The kenning urge surely has been an influence on sword names; I suggest it might even be an inspiration for the genre, as all that distinguishes a kenning from a name is capitalization. In the Germanic legends of Dietrich von Bern we find the sword Blutgang, a kenning-like compound name roughly meaning “Blood-Bringer” (literally, “Blood-Course”).9

In Seamus Heaney’s recent Modern English translation of “Beowulf,” we see a direct example of sword-naming instinctively returning to its spawning ground in kenning. Enthusiastically flashing his poetic license, Heaney transforms one of the poem’s kennings for “sword”—“hilde-lēoman” (“light of battle,” “gleam of battle,” “battle-light”)—into an extravagant proper name: “Dazzle-the-Duel.”

Most sword names, however, lack any clever-but-clear meaning, kenning-like or otherwise. And tracking the footprints of Weland and named swords back through the northern snows to Scandinavia does not tell us what they were doing there in the first place, nor why they made it so far into other national legends.

Fifty years ago, the eminent philologists Henry and Renée Kahane pointed out the futility of examining a specific sword name on its internal evidence alone; it is something like dissecting a frog in hopes of discovering the meaning of life.10 They listed off prevailing theories about the meaning of the sword name Durendal: an anthroponym here, an onomatopoeic there, and a welter of Dickens Jr.-style attempts to break it down into a sort of badly done heraldic motto. All such approaches, the Kahanes said, are artificial and trivial, because they ignore the essential context of sword-naming: magic.

“The earliest swords specifically named belong to the cultural field of magic,” they noted. Names do not attach to the common weapons carried by city watchmen. Named swords began as supernatural swords. Sword names, therefore, are actually magical incantations.

Scandinavia, they argued, is not the ultimate source of magical sword names; it is a transformer on an electrical circuit of cultural magical influences flowing northward from Egypt, Greece, the Levant and the Arab world (much like Norse mythology was clearly influenced by southern cultures). That molten mass of multicultural magic was forged into the solid literary device of the magical sword—and eventually, actual named swords in kingly collections.

Medieval Europe is easily stereotyped as thoroughly Christian, with a dollop of invasive Muslims and a dash of ethno-religious minorities. But outside the well-tended gardens of state religions were the usual riotous wildflower fields of magic, superstition, new religions and hybrid cults. (A major Crusade was fought within Europe against Gnostic Christians.)

In the ancient symbolism of magic, the Kahanes found swords everywhere, as “the magician’s wand” and “a metaphor for the efficiency and irresistibility of his magic charms.” Spells were sometimes inscribed on scrolls cut into the shape of a sword—a possible inspiration for the idea of an actual sword marked with magical sigils, the Kahanes suggest.

The sword name Durendal, the Kahanes speculated, could be a corruption of Dardanus (one of several variant spellings), the name of a magician of dubious materiality who is cited as author and authority regularly in ancient Greek and Coptic magical writings. Among the surviving spells of the era is one called the “Sword of Dardanos.” (As it happens, it’s a love spell.)11 By way of Arabic magical tracts, the wizard’s name might have transferred and generalized to mean any magical sword.

The Kahanes’ speculations were more intuitive than documentary; I find some of them as unconvincing and fragmentary as the run-of-the-mill pop etymology attempts the Kahanes were criticizing. But their general argument of a magical vector is persuasive. It is easy to see named (i.e., ensorcelled) swords as wands of battle-magic, with Weland as the wizard behind the throne.

That pagan or interreligious magics would become vehicles of Christian propaganda—for all of the heroes of medieval romances and epics were Christian—is no surprise. Christianity’s success was rooted in its willingness to adapt itself to the traditions of other belief systems. Why spread Christianity by the sword if you could spread it by the symbol of a sword?

Chivalric legends not only used the formulations and symbols of magic, but occupied a similar literary position: in chorus with dominant belief systems, but speaking in a lower register and a secular voice. The Bible is full of its own weapon-swinging adventurers; the stars of knightly romances battled on with the same sense of progressivist spiritual warfare, just running beneath and parallel to official church literature. Jesus said he went among us wielding a metaphorical sword; the heroes of the chansons followed suit.12

The Christianity-romance influence was not a one-way street. In medieval illustrated Bibles, such religious heroes as David are sometimes depicted wielding swords from contemporary romances, such as Joyeuse, with the sword name helpfully written right on the blade in editorial-cartoon fashion.13 Sprinkling in stage dressing from modern adventures made the Biblical ones more digestible, familiar and exciting for the common folk. (The most stunning surviving example is the so-called Morgan Picture Bible from the 1250s, a lurid comic-book version with Hebrews in chainmail, intestines spilling from wounds, and living-color renderings of such charming Biblical events as a frog plague and a tent-peg murder.14) For a similar effect today, such a Bible might show David blowing away Goliath with an Uzi.

As the quotidian sword became an arcane symbol in the legends of that tumultuous era, it seems only natural that the process reversed—another example of the transformative function of magic—to produce real-life named swords in a more settled time.

Typically, this meant applying the name of a legendary, supernatural sword to a modern, useless sword, a ceremonial royal object whose supposed identity with a sword of legend was meant to legitimize the current rulers by linking them with the mytho-historic past. Far from magical blades that hew through invaders, these weapons typically ended up seized by enemies or smuggled away from them in the night. Any sense of magic to them has faded—or has been replaced with the more pedestrian irrationalism of nationalism.

Familiarity kills magic. In the late medieval period, we can already see sword names being taken for granted. Scholars already had forgotten their magical nature and speculated rationally on etymologies for these nonsense words; artists and commoners clearly considered the names mere fungible exoticisms, as evidenced by their cartoonish use in the illustrated Bibles.

This banalization is complete in today’s real-life named swords, their weird monikers either ignored or dismissed with some pat, quickie explanation, treated the way one might a Band-Aid worn by necessity on an unfortunately conspicuous spot. I have just read scores of references to Joyeuse; the vast majority simply repeated the name without noting the remarkable oddity, not to say sadism, of a weapon called “Joyous” (the English version of the French original). Absolutely none of them noted the peculiarity that the name is the feminine form of the adjective.

The Joyeuse of the chansons was a wondrous weapon that gave off an incredible prismatic gleam, and its pommel contained a fragment of another holy weapon—the spear that pierced Jesus’ side during his crucifixion.15

It is safe to assume that “Joyeuse” is a term of Christian divine magic. “Joy” is used plentifully in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a term of spiritual ecstasy; in the Christian version, it is used several times by Jesus himself, and makes a prominent appearance in the Gospel of Luke’s tale of an angel announcing Jesus’ birth as “tidings of great joy.”

However, there is textual evidence of a more specific allusion. The battle cry of Charlemagne’s troops in the chansons is “Montjoie!”, a term that has perplexed many historians. It literally means “mount joy,” again with a feminine ending.

A convincing explanation is that this is an allusion to a famous spot in Crusader legendry, Mount Joy (Latin Mons Gaudi). In those legends, Mons Gaudi is a hill near Jerusalem, reputedly the site of the tomb of the Biblical prophet Samuel, from which the invading Crusaders first saw the holy city, the goal of their conquest.16 (The use of feminine words in the French versions may reflect the Western tendency to maternalize references to cities, vehicles and favored objects.17)

As Charlemagne battled Muslim armies in both fact and fiction, “Montjoie!” is a fitting battle cry and the probable root of his sword’s name.18 But that also means that the battle cry and the sword name cannot be truly historical. The Crusades began centuries after Charlemagne’s death. It is the romantic chansons about Charlemagne that coincide with the Crusades.

Whatever the origin of the name, Charlemagne certainly did not call his sword “Joyeuse.” He did not speak French. An ancient Frank, he spoke a Germanic dialect in a time when French as we know it did not exist. Indeed, while there is no doubt Charlemagne owned a sword, there is no historical evidence that he called it anything.

While the chansons are the source of the romantic image of Charlemagne, he passed into legend much earlier—quite notably, in a tale involving a magical sword. The “Visio Karoli Magni,” dating to c. A.D. 860, recounts a supposed dream of Charlemagne’s in which a mysterious apparition gave him a sword, its blade marked with four cryptic (i.e., magical) words.19 Decoded, these words proved to prophesy the future of his kingdom. As historian Patrick Geary noted, this tale situates Charlemagne amid some prime currents of magical-sword lore: the sword as an inherently magical item produced by otherworldly entities; and the sword as a transferrable symbol of imperial authority, whether that means their being handed off in coronation ceremonies or being plundered from royal graves, a tactic known even in medieval times.

Charlemagne essentially founded both Germany and France, which then divided up his lore the way a library triages literature into fact and fiction. Germany got the fact—Charlemagne’s chapel and tomb at Aachen. France got the fiction—the chansons of the chivalric king and his heroic paladins—which is always the more powerful option; that’s why English-speakers refer to him by the French version of his name.

The French invented Joyeuse, so they got that, too. A century or so after the “Chanson de Roland” began circulating, the symbolic sword used in coronating the French kings was rebranded as Joyeuse. Thus, contemporary romantic legend became the magic-symbolic vehicle for legitimizing imperial power by connecting it to the historical Charlemagne.

The Joyeuse in the Louvre (known there as La Joyeuse and l’épée de Charlemagne) is certainly a French coronation sword; possibly even the same one used in the first known reference to Joyeuse as a coronation ritual item in 1270. But it is of far too late a date to have belonged to the actual Charlemagne, despite the Louvre’s website’s misleading claim that it is the sword “already celebrated in the early medieval chansons de geste.”20

The sword is relatively attractive and suitably magical-looking, its white grip crosshatched with a net-like pattern, its golden crossguard decorated with dragon heads, its golden pommel engraved with bird designs. The blade does not gleam with rainbow hues, but you can’t have everything.

While symbolizing the whole of imperial France, the sword itself lacks inherent integrity. The museum dates the pommel to the 10th or 11th centuries; the crossguard to the 12th; the grip to the 13th or 14th. Its bejeweled scabbard is a 19th century invention.21 (No date is offered for the actual blade, but it is unlikely to have any connection to the historical Charlemagne, who died in 814.)

Joyeuse outlived the French monarchy, and thus its own meaning. Its magic dispelled by the French Revolution, it became an inert museum piece.

This may seem a modern fate for magical swords—rationalism and humanism wringing the last pitiful drops of enchantment from coronation weapons already scraping by on supernatural name-dropping. In truth, the banalizing of named swords was already happening in national legendry of the later Middle Ages, particularly tales that aped the richer French and German legends to produce a simpler, more directly politicized message.

Enter Szczerbiec. The national sword of Poland is typologically similar to the likes of Joyeuse: a named weapon used in heroic deeds of medieval lore, now identified with an antique but inauthentic coronation sword turned museum piece. But there was never really magic to it. It was always a straightforward piece of nationalist symbolism—less Excalibur and more Liberty Bell.22

The Liberty Bell comparison is apt for more than one reason. “Szczerbiec” looks like a wildly exotic name to an English-speaker. But in Polish, it’s a normal word meaning “notched” or “dented.”23 In turn, that refers unmysteriously and directly to a medieval legend of the sword being damaged in a great national victory.

Szczerbiec does share one magical property with Joyeuse—the invisibility of the oddity of its name to authors and researchers. Virtually any source that mentions Szczerbiec translates the name. So I was astonished to see that the sword, at least as it appears in official photographs, is obviously not dented or notched. Even more remarkably, I have found no sources that mention this amazing fact, nor have experts been able (or willing) to explain it.24

The sword obviously does not live up to its obvious name, yet no one sees it. Szczerbiec is not szczerbiec. The emperor wears no dents.

The story of Szczerbiec comes not from a romantic adventure, but from a proto-historical chronicle written in the late 1200s, the “Kronika Wielkopolska.”25 In recounting the achievements of Bolesław, the “Kronika” gilds the lily, but is otherwise historically recognizable.

Bolesław (c. 966-1025) was the first, self-declared king of Poland, later favored by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Otto was part of the early dynasty of German kings who ruled after Charlemagne. Symbolic legends tie Otto to Charlemagne, and, by the transitive property, Bolesław to Charlemagne. In the most fantastic legend, Otto supposedly opened Charlemagne’s tomb, finding the king’s corpse seated on an ivory throne, surrounded by various regalia, including Joyeuse. Further legendry claims that Otto gave this throne to Bolesław, an incredible tale that nonetheless reflects the Polish king’s historical relationship to the Empire.26

Bolesław might have preferred to receive Joyeuse. But he wound up with a famous sword of his own, as described simply in the “Kronika.” Following his successful 1018 campaign against the Rus—a historical fact—Bolesław supposedly banged his sword against the famous Golden Gate of Kiev as a sign of triumph, putting a dent in the blade and making it known as “Szczerbiec.”

The glaring problem with this tale is that the Golden Gate did not exist yet in 1018. Bolesław’s victory was also a short-lived one, with his territorial gains lost within about 15 years. But it was all true enough for the “Kronika’s” ulterior motive—stumping for Polish nationalism.

It worked beautifully. Within a few decades, we find an actual sword, identified as Szczerbiec, being used in the coronation of a Polish king (Wládisláw “Elbow-High,” who may have been too short to wield the two-handed sword). This is apparently the same Szczerbiec that exists today, on display in the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow.

The sword dates to the early 1200s, though, like all of its kind, it was assembled from parts of different swords. Its entire hilt is covered in Christian decoration, including images of the saints and angels, and Latin inscriptions invoking God’s protection and judicial authority. Affixed to the blade near the hilt is a small version of the heraldic shield of the Piasts, the first Polish royal dynasty. Between the tiny shield and the hilt, an odd slit pierces the center of the blade—perhaps a symbolic nod to the otherwise missing notch, or perhaps just a way to affix the Piast shield.27

It’s tough being the nationalist symbol of a nation that has spent most of its history struggling to exist. Szczerbiec has rarely been in one place for long, its movements tracing Polish upheavals like a seismograph needle.

The Prussians took it as loot in 1796, transporting it to Berlin. The sword was in private hands for nearly a century before turning up in the Hermitage. Russia gave the sword back in 1928, but Poland was, obviously, not a safe place for long.

As the Nazis invaded in 1939, with their infamous “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style hunger for strange relics, Polish officials began a remarkable rescue operation of the country’s cultural treasures. That’s how Szczerbiec ended up spending the war on a farm in Ottawa with a teenager giving its blade rubdowns with 3-In-One Oil.28

An array of treasures was smuggled out of Poland—medieval chronicles, a Gutenberg Bible, a collection of Chopin manuscripts, a trove of Flemish tapestries. Szczerbiec is arguably the most curious item among them—a weapon of war turned into a refugee victim of the cultural displacement that war always causes. And when the treasure was aboard a convoy on the Atlantic, under what seemed to be a doomsday Nazi attack, curators from Wawel chose Szczerbiec as the one item to take with them on lifeboats if they could.

Starting out on a river barge that at one point was camouflaged with reeds to look like an island, Szczerbiec traced an escape course that would thrill any Crusader-themed adventurer of the chansons: down the Vistula, past Istanbul, around the Levant, across the Mediterranean, touching on Italy, then across France, Britain, the ocean and half of Canada. The farther away the national sword got, the less Poland existed, literally and symbolically.29

Szczerbiec and other treasures found a secret safe haven on Ottawa’s Experimental Farm, a government agricultural facility. At the war’s end, with the Soviet takeover of Poland, the allegiances of the rescuers divided, and Szczberiec became just another pawn in the Cold War chess game. Moved into a vault at an Ottawa branch of the Bank of Montreal, it remained there until 1959 while various agents played cat-and-mouse with Poland’s cultural treasures.

Szczerbiec escaped the fascists literally, but has been captured by them symbolically. In a sad irony, Szczerbiec is now a commonly co-opted symbol of Poland’s far right.30 The word shows up in the names of political parties, even as the name of a white power band. Perhaps the most prominent evil example today is by National Rebirth of Poland, a neo-fascist party that publishes a magazine called “Szczerbiec” and whose logo is a stylized arm holding a sword.31 (Demonstrating that Freudianism is still relevant to sword discussions, this phallus-loving party is, among other hatreds, virulently homophobic.)

Szczerbiec was never as inherently magical as the named swords of classic legends. Yet it may be the only one that remains symbolically alive as a real-life blade. That it does so for mostly wrong reasons exemplifies how sword-naming has sunk to utilitarian, propagandist lows. Szczerbiec’s fraudulent name works a kind of inverse magic, one that lends the name no meaning at all. The Wawel museum calls it a gladius iustitiae, but it’s more like a tabula rasa. As a native of scam-loving America, I’m amazed that nobody has just whacked the thing against a wall and put a dent in it. But why bother, when you can pull the smoother Orwellian trick of calling it what it is not, while a public increasingly warming to right-wing extremism lets the nationalists define it?

Swords are still rich cultural symbols, but their names are not. The form, if not the function, of Szczerbeic-style naming continues in the named swords of contemporary fantasy fiction, our post-industrial, mass-market chansons. The names tend toward tin-eared, macho-cool mash-ups of obvious meaning, akin to the monikers of metal bands and snowboard manufacturers. Very commonly, they use the compound-word formula of a kenning, but with none of the poetic sense, much like the American plague of pop haiku.

“Dungeons & Dragons,” the highly influential pseudomedieval roleplaying game and fount of spin-off fantasy fiction, is full of pedestrian sword names. Its popular “Forgotten Realms” fantasy world includes such blah compound names as Magebane (a sword that kills wizards) and Icingdeath (a sword that is magically cold—not used to cut birthday cakes).32 As a postmodern systematization of fantasy fiction, “D&D” literally formulizes the naming of magical swords. “Nine Lives Stealer” and “Life-Drinker” might sound like obvious yet potent names for unique swords, but in “D&D” they are genera, not species—umbrella terms for magical properties that any number of swords may have.33 (However, as a highly creative game, “D&D” does not prevent its players from inventing their own magical swords and naming them whatever they like.)

Today, fantasy fans can go online and buy “Lord of the Rings” swords—the bourgeois version of a king slapping a legendary name on an inauthentic weapon. But it could be that the massive popularization of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy world will lead our culture back to truly magical naming. Tolkein was a gifted linguist and literary expert with a thorough understanding of sword-naming. (In perhaps his greatest achievement, he personally rescued “Beowulf” from literary derision.) His works are replete with magical named swords, physically marked with arcane runes, metaphorically laden with cultural significance.

In poetic terms, his sword names are a mixed bag (and even at their best, still tended toward decipherable cultural meanings rather than truly magical complexity; like the “D&D” gaming he inspired, he was always a literary mechanic at heart). One “LOTR” sword is Gúthwinë, which translates in his fictional lingo as “Battle-Friend”—an actual Old English kenning for “sword.” Andúril, a significant magical sword in “LOTR,” is translated as “Flame of the West” in Tolkein’s artificial Elvish language (where it literally means “brilliant sunset.”)

On the other hand, Tolkein could offer faux kennings like “Foe-Hammer” (the translation of the prominent sword Glamdring) and such outright obviousness as the dagger Sting.34

Excalibur, the most famous named sword of legend, arguably is such largely because no one really knows what the name means. Perhaps some future minstrel will once again dub a sword with a name that circumlocutes rather than allocutes, that evokes rather than translates, that sings through history as a thing of magic rather than of steel.

                 1 Inevitably, “Excalibur” became the name of a brand of condoms.

            2 U.S. Marine Corps Web site at

            3 “‘Tizona’ es falsa,” 20 Minutos, May 25, 2007, at

            4 “The Emperor Charlemagne” by Russell Chamberlin.

            5 “The Image of Aristocracy in Britain, 1000-1300” by David Crouch, via Google Books.

            6 “Swords of Celtic Chivalry” by Charles Dickens Jr. in “All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal,” Vol. XXII, March 8, 1879, via Google Books/New York Public Library. More perspicaciously, Dickens praised what he saw as the modern lack of named weapons: “To be fond of implements and emblems of slaughter, and to talk of them affectionately, is to be fond of using them, and it is, as far as it goes, a hopeful sign that the weapons of modern warfare are not considered to have any romance or poetry about them….”

            7 “On the Legend of Weland the Smith” by Thomas Wright, “Archaeologia: Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity,” Vol. XXXII, 1847, via Google Books/Ashmolean Library, Oxford. In a strange coincidence, 1800s Belgium produced an actual weaponsmith named Galand—Charles-François Galand, a gunmaker whose inventions included the “Velo-Dog,” a cheap pistol that bicyclists could use to blow away offending dogs. (See the Eibar Museum of the Arms Industry, Eibar, Spain, Web site at

            8“Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia” (third ed.), Carol Cohen, ed.

            9 As cited in “Legends of the Middle Ages” by Hélène Adeline Guerber, via Google Books/Harvard University; translation of “Blutgang” provided by Sean Scheiderer, comparative literature expert, Columbus, Ohio (personal communication).

            10 All of the following material citing the Kahanes’ theories is from “Magic and Gnosticism in the ‘Chanson de Roland’” by Henry and Renée Kahane, “Romance Philology,” Vol. 12, Aug. 1958.

            11 “Ancient Greek Love Magic” by Christopher A. Faraone, via Google Books; and faculty site of Georgetown University Provost James O’Donnell at

            12 Christian Bible, Matthew 10:34.

            13 “Gothic Manuscript Illustration: The Case of France” by Anne D. Hedeman, in “A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe,” Conrad Rudolph, ed., via Google Books.

            14 Online at the Morgan Library & Museum site at

            15 It is possible the magical gleam has a root in reality, as Frankish swords were known in their time to be high-quality and possessing a mirror finish, probably due to polishing with the then-unusual natural resource of kieselguhr. (Chamberlin, op. cit.) The holy spear—somehow intact once again—itself became a later real-life object of Germanic imperial power, with various supposedly “real” versions appearing in various national treasuries.

            16 “Legends of Palestine” by Zev Vilnay, via Google Books; and “The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades,” Jonathan Riley-Smith, ed., via Google Books. Mount Gaudi also appears in at least one Gnostic treatise of the era, according to the Kahanes (Kahane, op. cit.).

            17 Indeed, “Joyeuse” is also the name of a town in France—which claims to have been founded by Charlemagne—and is a personal surname as well, as illustrated in literature by the name of a character in Alexandre Dumas’ “The Forty-Five Guardsmen,” who, as it happens, was a master of the longsword. (See the Joyeuse town Web site at

            18 “Joyeuse” and “Joyous” are perpetuated as the names of castles in other legends of Charlemagne and later Arthurian legend likely influenced by them. (“Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Chivalry and Legends of Charlemagne,” Thomas Bulfinch, ed.)

            19 “Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages” by Patrick J. Geary, via Google Books.

            20 The Louvre Web site at

            21 Ibid.

            22 The Liberty Bell comparison was made to me by Prof. Brian Porter-Szűcs, a specialist in modern Polish history at the University of Michigan (personal communication). “Even I have a letter opener that looks like a mini-Szczerbiec, which I picked up years ago at some tourist shop in Poland,” he said.

            23 Like “Joyeuse,” “Szczerbiec” even can be a surname; thus in the records of World War II, we see a Polish “Captain Szczerbiec” among the troops battling the Axis. (“Polish Review,” Polish Information Center, Vol. 4, 1944, via Google Books/University of Michigan.)

            24 The Wawel Royal Castle museum in Krakow, where Szczerbiec now resides, did not respond to my e-mail questions. Porter-Szűcs told me he has seen the sword in the museum, but cannot recall whether it was dented. He added: “I called a friend in Poland who is a historical trivia buff, and she insists that [the notch] is visible, but like you I can’t see it in any pictures.” There is no doubt that the sword long has been conceived as literally dented. John Kulczycki, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted to me that Szczcerbiec is depicted as dented in a painting of Bolesław I by Marcello Bacciarelli (1731-1818); he also could not remember what the sword looked like when he last saw it.

            25“Historical Dictionary of Poland, 966-1945” by George J. Lerski, Jerzy Jan Lerski, Piotr Wróbel and Richard J. Kozicki, via Google Books.

            26 “Christianization and the Rise of the Christian Monarchy: Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900-1200” by Nora Berend, via Google Books; and “Legends of the Rhine” by Hélène Adeline Guerber, via Google Books.

                27 As seen on the Web site of the Wawel Royal Castle museum at

                28 All of the following details of Szczerbiec’s remarkable wartime voyage come from “The Strange Odyssey of Poland’s National Treasures, 1939-1961” by Gordon Swoger.

            29 There is an interesting historical and symbolic dynamic between swords such as Szczerbiec, decorated with its knightly heraldic crest, and Polish commercial trademarks. In Poland, trademarks were originally inspired by the “armorial bearings and emblems” of medieval knights. During post-invasion times when the country did not exist (or did exist fully), familiar commercial trademarks were one way the Polish identity persisted—much in the way the medieval insignias from which they sprung perpetuated the prophetic myths of Polish unification. (“American and Polish Trademarks: The Culture and Ethics Behind Them” by Agnieszka Ratajczyk-Zwierko, in “Business Students Focus on Ethics: Praxiology: The International Annual of Practical Philosophy and Methodology,” Vol. 8, Leo V. Ryan, Wojciech W. Gasparski and Georges Enderle, eds., via Google Books.)

            30 Porter-Szűcs notes that Szczerbiec retains “mainstream cultural resonance,” but also has been “appropriated by the radical right to symbolize an imagined past characterized by national might, social cohesion, and domination over all of Poland’s ‘enemies’….” He also notes that the “‘mainstream right’ and ‘far right’ are becoming difficult to distinguish in Poland” with the rise of extremism, but that the distinction is symbolically maintained by whether parties use such iconography as Szczerbiec. The sword was also an old-school fascist symbol in pre-Nazi-invasion Poland, where we find a fascist-party magazine of the 1930s called “Szczerbiec.” (“Why Didn’t the Press Shout?: American & International Journalism During the Holocaust” by Robert Moses Shapiro, via Google Books.)

            31 National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski) Web site at

            32 See the “D&D” game books “City of Splendors: Waterdeep” by Eric L. Boyd and “Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting” by Ed Greenwood, Sean K. Reynolds, Skip Williams and Robert Heinsoo.

            33 “Dungeon Master’s Guide: Core Rulebook II v. 3.5,” Wizards of the Coast. (“D&D” has since moved on to a fourth edition with a different game system, but generically similar content.)

            34 The main source for Tolkein sword etymologies is “The Thain’s Book: An Encyclopedia of of Middle-Earth and Numenor” Web site at



Significant sources not cited in the text or footnotes include: “The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry” by R. Ewart Oakeshott; “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” (classic edition), E. Cobham Brewer, ed.*; “Le Chanson de Roland,” Theodore Müller and J. Geddes, trans.; “Charlemagne and France: A Thousand Years of Mythology” by Robert Morrissey, Catherine Tihanyi, trans.*; “The Columbia Encyclopedia” (fifth ed.), Barbara A. Chernow and George Vallasi, eds.*;“Ethnologia Polona,” Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 15-19, 1991; “Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report” by Kevin Boyle and Juliet Sheen; “Frithjof, The Viking of Norway and Roland, The Paladin of France” by Zénaïde Alexeïeuna Ragozin and Esais Tegnér; “God’s Playground: The Origins to 1795” by Norman Davies; “The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation” by Jonathan Rose; “The Holy Bible” (King James Version), World Publishing*; “Master Thaddeus; or, The Last Foray in Lithuania” by Adam Mickiewicz, M.A. Briggs, trans.; “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, And Instruction,” Vol. 17, 1831 (uncredited review of the book “History of Poland”); “National History as Cultural Process: A Survey of the Interpretations of Ukraine’s Past in Polish, Russian, And Ukranian Historical Writing from the Earliest Times to 1914” by Stephen Velychenko; “New Jerusalem Bible” (Reader’s Edition), Henry Wansbrough, ed.*; “Polish Arms: Side-Arms” by Andrzej Nadolski, Maria Abramowiczowa, trans.; “Polish Culture: An Historical Introduction” by Leszek Kolek; “The Song of Roland,” John O’Hagan, trans., in “Epic and Saga,” Charles W. Eliot, ed.; “White Noise: Inside the International Nazi Skinhead Scene” by Nick Lowes and Steve Silver; (Canadian government Web site featuring the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Canada). (All books/journals via Google Books unless otherwise noted with an asterisk.) Many thanks to Prof. Kulczycki and Prof. Porter-Szűcs for extraordinary assistance.


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