After five millennia, why are swords still so enchanting?
I attempt to answer this question in the latest issue of Meanjin magazine, out now. To read the full essay, do buy Meanjin 77 4 in all good bookshops or newsagents, or subscribe here.
‘Talk is for lovers, Merlin. I need the sword to be king.’ – Uther, in Excalibur
Wednesday night in Hobart. I shave with a Wilkinson Sword razor, then say goodbye to my daughter. She’s on a beanbag watching Suicide Squad, which features a possessed samurai sword in a supporting role. My son and I take an Uber, and hanging from the Hyundai’s rear vision mirror is a Sikh symbol: a double-edged straight sword, or khanda, alongside two smaller curved swords.
Not long after, we arrive at St James Hall, named for James the Apostle, executed by King Herod: ‘and he killed James the brother of John with the sword’. Then I buckle up my padded cotton gambeson, pull on my helmet, and pick up my equipment for the class: a basket-hilted backsword.
Some five thousand years after the earliest known swords were forged in Arslantepe, Turkey, we’re still celebrating this weapon. In my ordinary Tasmanian evening are nods to blades from classical Judaea, Gupta India, Muromachi Japan, Georgian England. Media franchises showcase swords: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean. Megatron from the original Transformers is a sentient Walther pistol—he still has a sword. Modern superheroes and supervillains fight with katana: Batman, Deadpool, Wolverine, Deathstroke. This is to say nothing of historical or pseudo-historical characters like the musketeers, samurai and ninja, Robin Hood, Conan the Barbarian. And manga or video games? Blades, everywhere.
Many of these stories do not merely portray swords—they celebrate them. Swords are pulled sensually from scabbards, the camera focusing on etched steel and filigree hilts. They pause in the light to gleam or drip blood; they make sensual sounds as they cut air or flesh (‘ssssssshing’, ‘ssssssshck’). The swords are often fetishised, too: given magical powers, or personalities of their own. Frodo’s Sting knows when goblins are near, the sword of Gryffindor helps those in its house, Katana’s Soultaker in Suicide Squad speaks to her.
So, swords are a thing. Still.
We live in an age of anti-aircraft lasers, electromagnetic railguns, rifle sights with ballistic computers. American drone pilots in New Mexico kill children over seven thousand miles away, in Afghanistan. Swords have almost no place on the modern battlefield—even bayonets are becoming rare. Meanwhile, gentlemen no longer wear the épée de cour. The sword is basically obsolete, yet it continues to engross and enchant moderns. Why?