Stefan Maeder gives us a fascinating insight into the swords of HBO’s epic retelling of George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”.
Swords and symbolism
Having become obsolete as a weapon of war, the sword even today maintains its significance as a potent symbol. In the bible it epitomises the word of God, as well as being a synonym for justice, punishment, and violence in general. Already in the Old Testament the popular quote of ‘turning swords into ploughshares’, has a less popular counterpart by the plea to ‘turn ploughshares into swords’. Jesus himself points out once that he has ‘not come to bring peace, but the sword’.
In the European Early Middle Ages, swords were often regarded as animated beings with varying characters, and were named accordingly. Later, the distinction between secular and ecclesiastical power was symbolized by the concept of a ‘worldly sword’ and a ‘spiritual sword’. Most of us are still familiar with the sword as a living symbol for weaponry in general, violence, justice, honour, but also for ambiguity, e.g. when referring to a problem as ‘a double-edged sword’. Thus, it is not surprising to encounter this ‘weapon of weapons’ in popular game-culture, fantasy-literature and motion pictures. The most influential among the latter presently being ‘A Game of Thrones’, the better-known title of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire' by George R.R. Martin.
Swords in ‘A Game of Thrones’
George R.R. Martin’s historically inspired fantasy-novels have become an iconic constituent of Western pop culture. This observation holds true even more perhaps for their adaptions into the epic HBO television series. Both at present influence and shape popular concepts of what still today is vaguely termed as ‘the Middle Ages’.
As we gradually approach the final stages of a gripping game of thrones, the odds for a diplomatic settlement of claims for the iron throne and a romantic happy-end seem unlikely. Let’s just hope a befitting end is not sacrificed to pyrotechnical megalomania. The technically tempting perspective of indulging in excessive applications of dragon or wildfire would be too reminiscent of a Wagnerian twilight of the gods.
Compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings' with its easy to grasp outlook on good and evil, Martin is exploring the virtues and abysses of his central characters quite exhaustively. They literally come alive, being stricken even with basic human urges. It is a more than rare instance that heroes and heroines of literary fiction follow the call of nature and even can get killed while doing so. In this respect – as well as in the choice of weapon – the ballistic patricide executed by Tyrion on Tywin Lannister is a memorable feat; indeed a Freudian implementation of the not exactly poetic German invocation “may lightning strike you while utilising the closet” (polite version). Apart from crossbows, we encounter in ‘A Game of Thrones’ a near complete arsenal of mostly medieval-inspired arms, armour and even artillery. While it would be pointless to postulate historical accuracy with respect to the plot or material culture described in a piece of fiction, George R.R. Martin reintroduces an aspect of history that is mostly lacking from the written historical sources: the perspective of the vanquished, as it was referred to e.g. in the prologue to ‘Braveheart' (Mel Gibson, 1995).
As is the case in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ or Michael Moorcock’s cycle of novels around ‘Elric of Melniboné', the sword is the most prestigious of weapons in GoT. But what would its historical counterparts look like? From Martin’s descriptions it is obvious, that he had medieval European swords in mind for the swords of Westeros (the Arakh of the Dothraki being inspired possibly by the Egyptian Khopesh' a ‘sickle-sword’ dating back to the later 3rd and 2nd millenia B.C.). The mention of bastard-swords, one- and two-handed swords together with leather- mail- and plate armour reminds one of the battle-scenes in lavishly illustrated European manuscripts from the 13th to 15th century. An exceptional type of sword, primarily designed to ‘stick ’em with the pointy end’ is Arya Stark’s ‘Needle’, the blade of which may correspond to an early type of thrusting sword, an Estoc' appearing in the 15th century.
In the TV-series however ‘Needle’s’ design was apparently inspired by 17th/18th century smallswords rather than by earlier thrusting-types. Interestingly enough, there were “needle”-like smallswords made for boys of noble or otherwise privileged descent in the 18th century. These were by no means toys and often displayed a needle-sharp point.
Trying to establish a typology of famous fantasy-swords is not very likely to yield exciting results as the descriptions of the literary prototypes leave much room for interpretation. Already by now the notions of GoT swords like ‘Ice’, ‘Longclaw’, ‘Heartsbane’, ‘Lady Forlorn’, ‘Widow´s Wail’ and ‘Oathkeeper’ or Jaime Lannister’s sword have been influenced by the design of the TV-series’ props. Still, apart from Stannis Baratheon’s ‘Lightbringer’, George R.R. Martin has managed to add a magical dimension to the ‘sword-lore’ in GoT by inventing ‘Valyrian Steel’. The first instance where this ‘magical high-tech material’ enters the game is the scene when Lord Eddard Stark has to behead Will (resp. Gared in the novel), the deserter from the Night’s Watch. ‘Ice’ the hereditary great-sword of the Stark-Clan calls to mind a late 14th to early 16th battle-sword (‘Schlachtschwert’) and is assimilated to a mid-15th century type in the TV-series:
‘Ice,’ that sword was called. It was as wide across as a man’s hand, and taller even than Rob. The blade was Valyrian steel, spell-forged and dark as smoke. Nothing held an edge like Valyrian steel. (A Game of Thrones, Bran 1).
In ‘A Clash of Kings’, Chapter 55, Catelyn refers to ‘Ice’ again, after it had been used by Ilyn Payn to behead her husband, Eddard Stark:
Robb will avenge his brothers. Ice can kill as dead as fire. Ice was Ned’s greatsword. Valyrian steel, marked with the ripples of a thousand foldings, so sharp I feared to touch it. Robb’s blade is dull as a cudgel compared to Ice.
Turning ‘Ice’ into a shining example for economic recycling, Tywin Lannister ordered two blades to be forged from it, a process which resulted in ‘Widow’s Wail’, the sword given to King Joffrey on the occasion of his wedding with Margaery Tyrell, and ‘Oathkeeper’, the sword given by Jaime Lannister to Brienne of Tarth. A shorter weapon with a Valyrian steel blade we encounter in the novel and the TV-series, is the dagger with which Bran is attacked by a paid assassin. John Snow’s ‘Longclaw’, being bestowed upon him by Jeor Mormont, the ‘Old Bear’ and commander of the Night’s Watch, is a hereditary bastard-sword of house Mormont, also sporting a blade of Valyrian steel. Jon’s remark on the fitting irony of a bastard being equipped with a bastard-sword is another example for the author’s admirable capability of ‘changing skins’.
The symbolism of the hilt
Another aspect of swords raised in Martin’s novel is the symbolism transported by the design of sword-hilts. It is probably not too far from historical realities that ‘Longclaw’s’ pommel in the shape of a bear’s head, the heraldic emblem of house Mormont, was changed to a direwolf’s head, associated with house Stark to which Jon belongs — and doesn’t belong at the same time. The custom of designing weapon-parts, especially sword pommels in the shape of animal and/or human heads can be traced back to a time-range between about 1200—800 B.C. in what is now Iran and Eastern Turkey. On Roman swords animal-head-shaped pommels occur, compare e.g. the eagle head sword-hilts on the so-called tetrarch-relief (4th century AD) on a corner of St. Marc’s Basilica in Venice'
Stylised animal-heads sometimes still occur on early medieval sword-pommels up to the later Viking-period (10th/11th century), then largely disappear until their revival/renaissance from the 16th to the 19th century (mainly lions, eagles and bears). There is much more left to find out about the construction, use and symbolism of the medieval sword than can even be hinted at here.
So, should you decide to follow the challenging but rewarding path towards a deeper understanding of facts and myths concerning medieval swords, one principle is given away already at this stage: when a swordfight became a matter of life and death, it was hardly ever the ‘better’ weapon deciding the outcome, but the better fencer. Thus direct comparisons of the merits of Japanese swords in relation to European ones are largely futile as they were developed for different styles of fighting and adapted for use against different kinds of armour. Interesting examples for successful inclusion of edged-weapons and fencing research into historically inspired movies are ‘The Duelists’ (Ridley Scott, 1977) and ‘Rob Roy’ (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995).
Should you decide to get more than a glimpse at the real thing: visit Leeds, explore the Royal Armouries and come face to face with arms and armour involved in many a ‘game of thrones and power’.