“Come, trusty sword…” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.335)

by Scott

 

I’ve written before about using archetypes to help my students make connections between various stories and films.  One of the most common archetypal devices storytellers use is the notion of linking a particular object to a hero.  This association often occurs early in a story, and it is a process Christopher Vogler refers to as “seizing the sword.”  Sometimes the object is literally a sword.  For example, the young Arthur Pendragon must successfully draw a sword from a stone and anvil in order to become “King of all England by right of birth.”  Later, he is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, and with it, a magical scabbard.  Likewise, Beowulf uses his ancestral sword Hrunting to defeat various monsters, and when this sword breaks during the fight with the dragon, it signals the hero’s impending death and the eventual demise of his society. 

 

In Greek mythology, the fourteen year old Theseus lifts a giant boulder to find a sword and a pair of sandals that had been left there for him by his father.  This discovery sets the young hero on a quest to defeat the murderous monsters Sinis, Procrustes, and the Minotaur.  In the same vein, Luke Skywalker’s journey toward his destiny begins when he receives his own father’s “sword”—a futuristic light saber. 

 

While there are plenty of other examples of heroes seizing sharp, pointy weapons to fulfill their quests, storytellers sometimes use other objects to convey the same idea.  The God of the Israelites gives Moses a staff which helps to defeat the Egyptians and lead his people to the Promised Land.  Gandalf also has a staff which proves useful on numerous occasions in The Lord of the Rings saga.  In the film The Natural, Roy Hobbs carves a baseball bat (an interesting variation on both the sword and the staff ideas) from a tree that had been struck by lightning.  This bat would go on to serve Hobbs faithfully on his path to Major League greatness.  When Josey Wales finds a lone, wooden-handled pistol in the smoldering debris of his family’s cabin, he teaches himself to shoot and becomes the killing scourge of the fallen Confederacy.  And of course, what would Indiana Jones be without his Fedora and bullwhip?

 

I find it intriguing that so many storytellers down through the ages have relied on such simple concepts to bring their heroes to life.  Yet as simple as this archetype may be, the range of personalities associated with these swords and sticks is as wide as the human spectrum itself.  So while weapons and technologies may have changed, the basic motivators of human behavior have not, which is certain to make for countless more archetypal heroes in the centuries to come.                       

About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.

Comments

  1. How much of this do you think has some Freudian implications? It is a right of manhood, taking the place of the father, and swords and sticks have been sexual metaphors for probably as long as mankind has had both.

  2. If there are Freudian implications, I think it has to do with power. The objects, whether they are swords, sticks, pistols, or bull whips, are weapons that enable the heroes to overcome their foes. Freud would likely claim that these symbols are phallic, but personally, I think a knife is just a knife. Of course, what implications do the objects associated with heroines say about them? Since Athena uses a spear, does this express some sort of penis envy?

  3. It’s hard to tell the item from the symbol sometimes. Your point about Athena is an interesting one, but I think any psychologist who could get the Greek Gods onto the analyst couch would have their work cut out for them.

  4. Eric Bahle says:

    As with all Myth you can go pretty deep if you want to. For now I’ll stick to Arthur and Excalibur. The sword is phallic and Freudian but most people focus on the sword forgetting where he got it. The lake is a very feminine symbol and it is a Lady after all who bestows the weapon. As powerful as the sword was it’s main purpose was to kill. The scabbard protected the wearer from harm and Merlin felt the scabbard was the more important part of the gift. He warned Arthur never to lose it. The feminine aspect of the scabbard should be as obvious as the masculine aspect of the sword. Arthur of course does lose the scabbard and it is women that have the biggest (and ultimately most dire) effects on his kingdom.

  5. hello there… i was rummaging over your site and found it very interesting… like you, i am so into literature as well… anyway, let me hit the gist… i was wondering if you have any idea on how to critic a poem using the archetypal approach… i am making my critical paper on european literature and i wanted to use archetypal approach but i do not know how to apply it on poetry… hope you can help… thanks!

  6. Hi, Jekris. I would approach an archetypal analysis of poetry the same as I do prose. Look for interesting images, symbols, or motifs, and then connect them to the larger ideas associated with those features. Take William Carlos Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheel Barrow,” for example. What connotations are often associated with the color red (i.e., blood, violence, lust)? What about the color white (i.e., purity, holiness, chastity)? How might these connotations influence your reading of the poem? This is a strategy I teach my students, and it often opens up some interesting readings of both poetry and prose.