Blade and Mana: The Vorpal Sword

For as long as there have been warriors in our stories, there were magical weapons for them to wield, and the sword is the most typical of these. Swords themselves are important symbols even without magic. 

They are one of the few weapons in the world which were not developed for any other reason: axes, daggers, spears, bows, guns, these all have other purposes and applications, but the sword – it can only kill men. It is useless for hunting or cutting down trees or slicing meat for a feast. 

In addition, the sword was once a very difficult craft, requiring master swordsmiths to dedicate their entire lives to craft even moderate quality blades. These things make the sword a foremost choice for the heroes of stories. Adding magic to that blade makes the greatest heroes nobler, and the most terrible foes viler. This series of features is covering some of the most important magic swords in literature and mythology.

Today we’re looking at The Vorpal Sword.

The Vorpal Sword first appeared in a poem, Jabberwocky, which was part of the nonsensical fantasy novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book has reflections and opposites as a clear theme, presenting the world through the mirror in the parlor of Alice’s home as a diametrically opposed universe in many ways to the one she discovered down the rabbit hole. 

Alice discovers the poem while speaking with some chess-pieces. It’s in a whole book of poetry written backwards and in nonsense words. This is the only poem from the book the reader gets to see, as an example of how strange the language is. Of course, Carroll was a master linguist and wordsmith, so it’s not truly nonsense upon further inspection. The poem became so famous that it has been studied much more than the novel it originated in, and is much better known. It has been anthologized more times than one can count.

The text of the poem is as follows:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The nonce words seem unconnected to anything at first, but are all either onomatopoeia or based on combinations of other existing English words. Some, like Chortle, Galumph, and Whiffle have even entered common usage – and received dictionary entries. “Vorpa” may not have received that kind of treatment, but it has entered into the vocabulary of some, as many role-playing games have a Vorpal Sword somewhere in the system.

Vorpal is mentioned twice in the poem as the sword of the young man entrusted with the quest to defeat the terrible Jabberwock.

Carroll never clearly defined the meaning of Vorpal, however, so it has taken on a meaning of generally magical. Typically, the power of the sword has something to do with decapitation, reflecting the use the sword was put to in the poem. The sound of the sword is also often described, and sometimes even represented in sound effects, since that’s the most defining feature of the sword. It cuts off heads, and goes “snicker-snack.”

Mechanically, the sword is usually represented as one which has a chance to cause instant death whenever it is used. This originated as the definition used for the sword in the original Dungeons & Dragons games, and has spread in that form to other games like the Might and Magic franchise, Dynasty Warriors, Warhammer 40K, Ultima Online, League of Legends, and even the anachronistic Nethack.

Come back for the next article in the series which will feature The Sword of Omens. If there is a magic sword which you would like to see featured in this series, let us know in the comments.