Go to Article Home PageThe Sword and Myth
Three Archetypes of Self-Mastery
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For over five thousand years the sword has been part of the human experience. In that time, it has become a powerful symbol in the mind of man. Today much of the lore of the sword is hidden, but its presence can still be felt in our myths and rituals.
In my years as a fencing instructor and swordcutler, I've seen the effect the sword has on people many times. The first time someone draws a sword you can see a physical change come over them. It's as if the sword has awakened some ancient spirit within the individual.
What is the sword that it has such an influence on us? There are many answers to this question. To some the sword is a symbol of the masculine element, to others it is the soul of the warrior and to still others it is a symbol of personal honor. All these views are correct and can be linked together if we look at the sword as a symbol of self-mastery.
Our myths reflect this concept. All myths, whether they involve the sword or not, follow the same pattern, what Joseph Campbell called "The Hero's Journey." The Hero's Journey begins with a call to adventure and the Hero's separation from his day to day life. The Journey continues with the Hero's trials and initiation into the mysteries of life and death. The Hero's Journey concludes with the Hero's return to bestow boons on his fellow man. At all stages of the Journey the sword shows the nature of the Hero's self-mastery.
Of Swords Found, Broken and Remade
In its mythic setting the sword is symbolic of a legacy from the past. It is this legacy that the Hero must come to terms with in the course of his Journey. The act of finding a sword is a call to adventure and signals the beginning of the Hero's Journey, as can be seen in the tale of Arthur and the sword in the stone, Excalibur. The land of the Britons had been without a true king for many years. Nobles from all over the land fought and argued to gain the throne. On Christmas Eve, a stone appeared outside the great church. Atop the stone was an anvil and piercing the anvil into the heart of the stone was a sword. On the sword was written the words, "I am Excalibur. He who draws me from the stone is the true King of the Britons." Many knights and nobles tried to draw Excalibur, but none were able to draw it so much as an inch. So stood Excalibur until the spring of the year when a great tournament was held.
Arthur was fifteen years of age when he rode to tournament as squire to his foster brother Sir Kay. Young Arthur wanted nothing more from his life than to someday become a knight like his brother. Sir Kay fought well and with great valor in the lists, but due to a misfortune his sword was lost. He bid Arthur to bring him a new sword. Arthur searched high and low but found none, until he saw the great church with the sword in the stone before it. Seeing no one about, he grasped Excalibur by the hilt and drew it with ease from the stone and anvil. Arthur brought the sword to his brother. Sir Kay recognized Excalibur at once and thought to claim it as his own, but with honor he could not. As the people gathered, to prove Arthur's claim the sword was replaced in the stone. Again many tried to draw Excalibur from the stone, but it would not yield to them. For a second time, Excalibur was drawn from the stone by the hand of Arthur the King.
In the story, Arthur's finding Excalibur is his call to adventure and his drawing it from the stone is the point at which he is separated from his day to day life. Excalibur is his legacy, symbol of his kingship. Ironically, Arthur is unaware of the ramifications of his own actions; he alone in all of Britain is unaware that the one who draws Excalibur is destined to be king. This too is part of the Hero's Journey: the Hero is unaware of the forces that mold his destiny. This is true in myth as well as life.
In the course of his Journey the Hero faces many trials and sacrifices, through which he gains insights into the mysteries of life and death. In myths of the sword these trials often result in the Hero's sword being lost or broken. This is a symbolic loss of self-mastery, a sacrifice of the spirit from which the Hero must recover to progress in his journey. We see this in the modern myth of Star Wars.
It begins "long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away." Luke Skywalker, a young Jedi knight, is training with the Jedi master Yoda. In the course of his training Luke becomes aware that his friends, Princess Leia and Han Solo, are in terrible danger. He must rescue them, but Yoda warns his student that he has not finished his training and is still vulnerable to the dark side of the Force. Regardless of the danger, Luke leaves his teacher vowing to return to finish his training.
In the Cloud City on the planet Bespin, Princess Leia and Han have been captured by Imperial forces led by the evil Darth Vader. They are the bait in a trap set for young Skywalker. With Luke's arrival on the Cloud City the trap is sprung; due to his Jedi training he narrowly escapes being frozen in carbonite and taken prisoner. Luke draws his father's light saber and confronts Lord Vader. Luke is quick and the Force is strong in him, but he is no match for Darth Vader and the dark side of the Force. In a desperate action Luke is able to wound his adversary, but this does not stop Lord Vader. Luke is backed to the brink of the city's main service shaft when Vader strikes off the hand holding the weapon. Luke's hand and light saber tumble into the abyss of the shaft. Luke is defenseless; Darth Vader in front of him and the void of the service shaft at his back, he awaits his fate. Vader pauses and says, "Luke...I am your father. Join with me and together we can rule the galaxy." Luke yells in defiance and drops into shaft.
In the Star Wars myth, the loss of his father's light saber and his hand are Luke's sacrifice of self a casting off of the past. His trial is to choose between an uncertain future, the death like void of the service shaft or to literally follow in his father's footsteps and turn to the dark side of the Force. Having endured his sacrifices and trials, The Hero is initiated into the mysteries of life and death. He recovers his self-mastery and regains his sword: if lost it is found, if broken it is remade. So we see in the Alexander Dumas's novel The Three Musketeers.
A young Gascon named D'Artagnan is given his grandfather's rapier by his father. On the road to Paris to become one of the King's Musketeers, he encounters an agent of Cardinal Richelieu. During the ensuing fight D'Artagnan's rapier is broken and he is knocked unconscious. Continuing his journey, D'Artagnan enter Paris poorer but wiser. The next day he goes to the armorer's quay and has a new blade fitted to his rapier. This scene takes place early in the novel and Dumas chose not to dwell on it, but it shows the sword as a symbol of experience and wisdom. As a result of his trial, D'Artagnan's grandfather's sword is broken. It is remade upon his arrival in Paris, the old hilt fitted with a new blade, old wisdom from his past fitted with new practical experience. As a result of this marriage of wisdom and experience the sword becomes uniquely D'Artagnan's.
At Journey's End
As the Hero's Journey comes to an end, he returns to his fellow man to bestow boons gained during his Journey. What of the Hero's sword at Journey's end? No longer needed by the Hero, the sword is made ready for the future. We end where we began, with Arthur.
Arthur lay mortally wounded after slaying Mordred, the usurper in battle. Arthur summons Sir Bedivere, one of his brave and loyal knights, and tells him "Take Excalibur and go to the waterside and while there throw my sword in the waters. Then return to me and tell me what you have seen," Sir Bedivere took Excalibur and rode to the waterside, but he could not bring himself to throw the sword into the water. Sir Bedivere hid Excalibur under a tree and returned to his king. The dying king asked Sir Bedivere what he saw at the water's edge. "Nothing, my Lord," he answers. "You have not done as I bid. Please go and cast Excalibur into the deep," Arthur insists. Sir Bedivere goes to where Excalibur is hidden but once more he is unable to throw the sword into the waters. Upon his return, Arthur again asks Sir Bedivere what he saw there. "The waters deep and the wan of the waves, my Lord" the knight's answer. "Once again you have not done as I bid. Go as my loyal knight and throw Excalibur in the waters," Arthur orders. Once again Sir Bedivere goes to the swords hiding place, but this time he takes Excalibur to the water side and casts it in. Sir Bedivere returns to the dying Arthur, who again asks what he saw at the water's edge. "Sire, I saw a wondrous sight," he answered. "As I cast Excalibur into the waters a hand and arm of a beautiful lady arose from the deep to meet it. Her hand grasped Excalibur by the hilt and drew the sword beneath the waves." And so Excalibur was returned to the keeping of the Lady of Lake.
In the tale, Arthur's time is drawing to a close. His boons given to his fellow man are hope and the promise of a return to a golden age. His Journey ends. Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake to hold for future Heroes on their own Journeys. As a result, Sir Bedivere is sent on his own Hero's Journey, a myth within a myth. One journey ends and another begins. Again life is reflected in myth.
The sword is an ancient and powerful symbol whose meaning has been obscured in our modern age. As can be seen in our myths, the sword is symbolic of many things: a legacy from the past, an expression of personal experience and wisdom, a promise for the future. All these things are connected to the individual and the Hero's Journey as a path to self-mastery. In understanding the symbolism of the sword our myth and rituals become richer in meaning. As we gain insight into our mythic heritage, we gain insight into our culture and ourselves.
© Copyright 2014 Will Christy, All Rights Reserved.