Simanaitis Says

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NOT THAT ANYONE has asked lately, but here are swordplay tidbits collected from a variety of sources, some even overlapping with others. In Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, we’ll encounter Odin, Sigmund/Siegmund, Signy/Sieglinde, and Sigurd/Siegfried; Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib; Merlin, Arthur, and Galahad; Masamune and Tokugawa; Generals Grant and Lee; and satirist Stan Freberg.

Maybe you’d like to share your favorite swordplay?

Gram, the Völsunga Sword. A mysterious stranger (I’ll bet he has an eye patch) thrusts a sword named Gram (“Wrath”) into a tree named Barnstokkr (“Offspring-trunk”). The tree is growing in the middle of a hall, venue for a wedding feast. Signy is marrying Siggeir, whose family has massacred all of Signy’s family except for her (some say twin) brother, Sigmund.

Sigmund’s Sword,” by Johannes Gehrts, 1889.

Sigmund is the only one capable of withdrawing Gram out of Barnstokkr. Later, Sigmund and his sister Signy have a child, Sigurd.

Pause here for Freudian interpretations.

Sigmund and his sword get revenge until Odin (the guy with the eye patch) says “gnógr er gnógr, Old Norse for “enough is enough,” and breaks Gram in two. Signy saves the pieces for the kid to play with someday.

Or maybe for more serious reassembly.

A depiction of Sigurd with Gram in the Ramsund carving, a Swedish artifact dated to around 1030 A.D. Image by Bengt A. Lundberg / Riksantikvarieämbetet.

Sigurd is raised by Regin, who tries unsuccessfully to reforge Gram. Sigurd is successful and splits an anvil with it.

Sigurd Proofs the Sword Gram by Johannes Gehrts, 1901.

Later, Sigurd assays Gram’s edge by tossing a piece of wool upstream and watches as the current draws it across the sword, cleaving the wool in two.

I recall a Crusader movie years ago in which a Saracen and his scimitar do the same trick with a falling piece of silk. Which reminds me….

The Arabic Zulfiqar. Ali ibn Abi Talib, 601–661, was a cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. According to Wikipedia, his sword Zulfiqar is “historically frequently depicted as a scissor-like double bladed sword on Muslim flags….”

An early 19th-century Ottoman Zulfiqar flag. Image by User:FA2010.

Wikipedia says, “The meaning of faqār (فَقَار) means ‘splitter, differentiatior.’ ” I say this syntax is redundant, and wonder if the word is really “differentiator.”

Wikipedia also cites “authorities preferring faqār and rejecting fiqār as ‘vulgar,’ but the vocalization fiqār still sees the more widespread use.”

Well, you know how some people are when you try to correct them. And, in case you’re wondering, tālib (طالب) is Arabic for “student.” Tālibān (طالبان ) is Arabic for “two students.”

Back to Gram aka Nothung. Sigurd uses Gram to kill the dragon Fafnir, which suggests where Richard Wagner got the idea for the Ring Cycle. Just think Sigmund/Siegmund, his sister Signy/Sieglinde, their kid Sigurd/Siegfried, Regin/Mime, and the sword Gram/Nothung.

Arthur’s Sword Excalibur. According to one tale (there are many variations), the fifth-century wizard Merlin set the magical sword Excalibur into a stone. It could be withdrawn only by the true king.

Sound familiar?

This kid named Arthur, son of King Uther Pendragon, easily pulls it out and the rest is Arthurian Legend.

Image of Arthur extracting the sword from the stone, as depicted in Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall’s Our Island Story, 1906. My imagined caption has the courtier saying, “Kid, it’s time you learn to dress like the rest of us.”

In other versions of the tale, Excalibur and the one in the stone are two different swords. Indeed, in one story, King Arthur asks the Lady of the Lake for Excalibur. In another, it’s Sir Galahad who withdraws the sword from a floating stone.

How come these swords keep getting lodged into things? I guess it’s to provide a deus ex machina for identifying heroes.

Above,”The gift of the sword Excalibur from Lady of the Lake,” illustration for George Melville Baker’s Ballads of Bravery, 1877. Below, “How Galahad drew out the sword from the floating stone at Camelot.” Image by Arthur Rackham in Alfred W. Pollard’s The Romance of King Arthur, 1917.

By 1136 A.D., when Geoffrey of Monmouth got around to writing all this down, he called it Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), and so the legend has evolved. Sort of like our Washington cutting down the apple tree, skipping a coin across the Potomac, and other nonsense.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll encounter documented history of a Japanese sword and a U.S. tale of two others, as satirized by Stan Freberg. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. sabresoftware
    July 22, 2020

    How about the sword fights in Princess Bride!

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