©07 The Media Desk
Part of the Desk Mystery Series
[NOTE: The Desk is not saying whether any of the fantastic blades mentioned below ever existed in the real world or not. It is simply examining the World Wide phenomenon of 'flaming swords' and other such like weapons ranging from ancient tales all the way through the one used by Darth Vader who was himself an archetype equal to his weapon. thank you ]
Most people know the story about how Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise by an angelic being with a really bad attitude and a flaming sword.
So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.Warning: Brief detour into reality.
Genesis 3:23-24 (NIV)
Some descriptions of famous swords, like Excalibur of Arthurian fame, make it seem that that shining sword was almost alight with a mystical fire. Same with Kusanagi in the Japanese stories from the fifth and sixth centuries and the stories of Lu Dongbin with his magic blade from China somewhat later. Or the sword Gram in Norse mythology or the Sword of Theseus, the King of Athens in the classic Greek tales.
These weapons may have been magical in and of themselves. Or were created through a process that invoked special powers. Either way, they were worthy of a name and honor even over and above what was bestowed to the owner of the blade.
Some swords were bestowed by various gods or other powers. Gram had belonged to the god Odin who had impaled it into a log from which only a truly noble warrior could remove it. Excalibur came to Camelot from the Lady in the Lake. Theseus got his by way of the daughter of a king who had an in with the Olympian gods.
In Buddhist traditions the images of the deity Mahakala show him holding a flaming sword with which to protect monasteries from those that would mean them harm. The sword is explained as the weapon of transcendental enlightenment and wisdom as much as an actual threat of violence by the non-violent monks.
Many would never dull or were able to distinguish friend from foe. Gram would cut stone and armor as easily as it rent flesh and cloth without loosing its edge. Excalibur's sheath would protect the wearer from harm as well.
In the world of popular fiction there are all sorts of Flaming Swords and their kin.
Wagner mentioned several of the weapons and other magical objects of Northern European mythology in his four operas which make up the epic work "The Ring of Nibelung". One of which was the sword Gram under the name of Northung for the opera.
Of course elsewhere in fiction you had a laundry list of fabulous weapons in JRR Tolkien's works, including several swords that would glow if enemies were around and Rings of Power (also used in the aforementioned opera).
Which brings us to the Movies and TV... well, we'll come back to them in a minute.
And now the first point of this article: Usually a Flaming Sword, or if you couldn't light your cigar with it... just a magic sword would do equally nicely, was usually used as a force for Good.
We expect the hero, the prince, the Vigilante of the Gods in whatever guise to use their weapon with all the Righteousness and Nobility they can muster for Truth and Justice!
And when its not, we tend to boo.
In the intro we mentioned Darth Vader and his light saber. For those that don't know, the light saber of the "Star Wars" saga invented by George Lucas is what appears to be a stream of plasma energy about a meter long generated by a hand held device about the size and shape of a flashlight. The blade of the weapon is able to slice through almost anything except, most notably, the blade of another saber.
Vader, as the embodiment of absolute evil, is an archetypical bad guy, and his wielding the ultimate logical extension of the weapon which is usually associated with 'good' is doubly powerful. Then to find out that Vader had once been a good guy only to turn to "the Dark Side" and we react with gut instincts that go back all the way to the Garden of Eden.
Yes, a sword is a tool. It has no conscious, in most cases anyway, and it will cut whatever it is set to whether it be a watermelon, a dragon, or anything or anybody else... good or bad.
It is our expectations that give us that chill when the Sith Lord appears to do battle with 'the hero'.
Actual flaming swords appear in folklore other than heroic tales both Mythical and Fictional.
Besides nose art on World War Two bombers for example, several different styles of Tarot cards use an icon of a flaming sword, or a sword whose blade appears to be formed of lightning. Many use it for a symbol of Truth or Justice, a few make it out to be bringing retribution either Divine or otherwise. Some more traditional decks have an entire suit of Swords and some of them show the Ace in Flames.
Occasionally a journalist will wield their pen like a flaming sword in the pursuit of one cause or another. A somewhat spectacular example of this is the Investigative Journalism that resulted in the Watergate mess involving President Nixon which led to his resignation in the early 1970's.
Besides "Star Wars" and various other 'sword and sorcery' movies on the big screen there are innumerable TV uses of magical swords.
One of the best examples is the use of the Excalibur legend as the source for the main characters weapon (and in one episode, Excalibur itself) in the cartoon series "Thundercats". In the series the "Sword of Omens" could imbue various heroes with various powers to overcome evil, as long as they possessed the noble characteristics that would be familiar to the Knights of the Round Table.... Justice. Truth. Honor. Loyalty.
Other TV shows replaced the Flaming Sword with various other weapons and symbols denoting the pure motives of their owners. The most notable being the white hat and silver bullets used by the "Lone Ranger" and dozens of other 'cowboy heroes' and various other good guys in the ubiquitous white hat that told everybody that they were the Good Guys.
As another example, in the original Star Trek series the good guys used phasers, the bad guys had disruptors. The design team intentionally made the phaser small with clean lines and simple controls while the weapons of the bad guys were usually large, angular, and bulky to appear menacing and intimidating. A scheme that was followed with the various uniforms and ships as well. It became something of a theme that still holds some forty years later in Science Fiction.
For the sake of this article will we skip the flaming swords in older role playing games like "Dungeons and Dragons" and various video games since, for the most part, those were drawn from older sources such as Wagner's Ring Cycle and other legends.
So what is it that is speaking to us when we see the white robed Gandalf with his glowing sword standing firm against an onslaught of evil or the dark robed Vader with his version of the same thing?
Are we reacting on some instinctual level that goes back to that cherub with its sword?
Sidenote: Biblical Cherubs have NOTHING to do with winged naked babies.
Traditionally the Cherubim are described as beings with four faces, usually a man, a bull, an eagle, and a lion. They had two sets of wings and instead of feet, they had hooves.
Give something like that a flaming sword and nobody is going to even think about trying to sneak back into the Garden... right?
In most of these stories the dividing line between good and evil is as stark and broad as it is between black and white. It is not by accident that in the "Lord of the Rings" Gandalf starts out as Gandalf the Gray and is promoted to 'the White' to become the primary leader in the battle between good and evil. Nor is it by accident that Darth Vader is a huge and imposing figure in stark black with an expressionless mask resembling a skull.
In the old legends that both characters are based on there are no ambiguous heroes. Good is Good and Evil is Evil and that's that. Yes the bad guys can be redeemed and yes the good guys might fall into temptation and join the 'dark side', but if either happens, it is part of a larger morality tale. If a good guy has a flaw it is there to prove a point (Arthur's weakness for the fairer sex for example). If a bad guy had some redeeming quality it is also there for a point (the same fondness for the ladies applies to several notable villains as well). And yes, there are exceptions, but we're painting with broad lightsabers here.
It goes deep into the realm of Metaphysics but we'll try to make this brief and painless.
When you are dealing with the grand archetypes we have pulled out to represent Good and Evil... Gandalf and Darth Vader... you are working at almost a primordial level. Literally gut instinct. Foreign audiences did not need subtitles to know to boo when Vader made his first appearance on the big screen in 1977. His very demeanor said in huge capital letters "BAD GUY!" with no translation required.
The same holds true for the flaming sword metaphor. Those things are supposed to be used by good guys. The handsome prince on the white horse is supposed to pull it out to slay the dragon and save the kingdom. When Vader cuts down the resident 'good knight' with it we feel somehow betrayed. To find out that he used to be a good guy and is now using their powers and weapons against them only confirms it. It would be like seeing the Lone Ranger rob a bank. This is 'in your face' evil and it must be vanquished in the end.
The same power is at work with Batman only reversed. The Caped Crusader is at once using symbols usually associated with Evil- bats, a black mask, a deep dark cave, the huge silent menacing figure he himself is, as a force for good. We feel the same nearly physical revulsion at the figure of the Batman as we do Vader, but we take comfort when we learn that his persona is meant to scare the living bejesus out of the bad guys.
All 'Bats' needs is a flaming sword and he'd be all set.
The fact that he seldom, if ever, uses any weapons at all besides the odd 'batarang' reinforces the idea that he is a Really Good Guy.
And at least in the movies and comic book, it worked. (For this piece we are ignoring the high camp sendup of the original "ker-POW!" 1960's TV Show starring Adam West.)
Back to swords.
A sword has always been a somewhat phallic symbol of power and authority, worn by kings and knights and warriors as a representation that they do hold the power of life and death. Today a pistol on the hip of a police officer on a city street or a rifle in the hands of a security guard at an airport. It implies at once power and restraint. Yes the officer could shoot the place up, but most of the time they don't do it.
There was power in being a knight of the realm, but there was also great responsibility.
In some cases the sword was a badge of office, such as with the French Musketeers in service of the king. There is no record of any of their swords bursting into flame, but to the peasants of the time fancy sword-work might have seemed... well... flamboyant.
So if a sword was a symbol of power and authority then a flaming sword would be one step up from that.
Ultimate Power and Authority. Perhaps even given by the Divine.
Which, of course, brings us back to that roadblock on the way to the Garden of Eden, doesn't it?
Links and Sources (in no particular order really)
Outside links will open in new window.
For the sake of space and simplicity we are only linking one resource site per topic.
Tarot information at www.aeclectic.net
Thundercats, created by Ted Wolf, Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. first aired in 1985. www.thundercatsillustrated.net
The Lone Ranger's webpage at http://members.tripod.com
The Musketeers http://www.hoboes.com/html/FireBlade/Dumas/History/
Star Wars, property of Lucasfilm starwars.com The Official Site
Star Trek, as created by Gene Roddenberry The Official Site at www.startrek.com
www.goldenagebatman.com Batman from DC Comics as created circa 1939
All things related to JRR Tolkien - http://www.tolkiensociety.org/
Related Desk Pages
More about King Arthur and Excalibur with resource links
More Non-Fiction and Mystery Series Articles
[NOTE: All listed properties, and their swords, are owned by other entities. No disparagement or disrespect is intended.
The Desk is solely responsible for the analysis and conclusions hereby presented. If the reader has any issues with anything in the article they may contact the Desk through the usual channels.
Back to the Desk's Main page