May 13th, 2008


Now stop rattling around in my head!

A Scout has been wrestling with his British Literature research paper. He chose a whopping topic: Weapons throughout the whole history of Brit Lit. Yikes! One of the adults helping him to pare this down and make something manageable out of it was telling me of him. It got me thinking. If he'd come to me, I'd have recommended he do something like, "The Sword in British Literature." Which started the wheels turning, and immediately I was evolving an outline featuring vignettes from the whole range of Brit Lit.

I. The Sword at the Dawn of Brit Lit

A. Beowulf: the Finn episode; the surviving Danes secure Hengest's cooperation in vengeance upon Finn by laying in his lap Hildeleoma, best of swords, whose edges were renowned among the Jutes.

B. The earliest literature in English contains a set of attitudes, a Code of the North, in which the sword features prominently. J.R.R. Tolkien discusses this at length.

C. Even though Beowulf was lost, along with the whole corpus of OE poetry, the attitudes of the Anglo-Saxons continued and found their way into later English literature. As JRRT points out, the fusion of Germanic culture and Latin education gives rise to the medieval: Beowulf as proto-knight.

II. The Sword in Medieval Brit Lit

A. Excalibur, the Sword of Arthur, in the tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert de Borron.

B. The OE heroic Code has mutated into the Christian Chivalric Code, in which the sword of the king symbolizes the imposition of justice and defense of right. It is not merely an instrument of the hero's will, but an object of quasi-veneration.

III. The Sword of the Renaissance Gentleman

A. By the time of Henry VIII, the whole culture of Crusade and Tournament was a subject of nostalgia. Swords were either military tools or the status ornaments of the gentry. Dueling had replaced earlier formal contests. Fencing had become a sport for the well-born and/or well-educated.

B. The dueling scene between Hamlet and Laertes was lifted by Shakespeare from a popular fencing handbook of the day. The exchange of swords was illustrated in text and pictures between two characters called the Lieutenant and the Provost.

IV. Modern Literature and the Sword as an Instrument of Irony

A. Modern weaponry made sword-fighting archaic, an affectation. Particularly in the 20th Century, scenes of men fighting with swords or affecting to wear them would be ironic.

B. G.K. Chesterton has his priest detective, Father Brown, investigate an old injustice connected to a murdered war hero in "The Sign of the Broken Sword."

C. Layers upon layers of irony are in evidence.

1. The General with the broken sword is an archaic figure, whose popular honor conceals a corrupt personality.

2. The General breaks his sword committing a crime, then orders a suicidal attack in order to give the appearance it was broken in battle.

3. Chesterton himself, a man of much attracted to archaism, would probably have liked to honor the sword directly. This was difficult, given the 20th Century's ironic attitude toward swordplay. So he makes the General an ironic figure, then ironically turns the hero into a villain.

IV. A Partial Restoration of the Place of the Sword in Brit Lit

A. The impact of LOTR, which features, of course, Aragorn's sword Anduril.

B. The critical divide: popular approval and the spawn of a new genre of fantasy fiction vs. scorn by modernists of all sorts.

Okay, I've got that worked out of my system. Anybody who wants to can flesh out the details. I'm done with it.