by Aaron Einhorn
Since the dawn of time, mankind has come up with a lot of different tools to hurt one another with. We’ve created blades, bashing weapons, projectiles, countless unarmed fighting styles – you name it. But for some reason, as geeks, we keep coming back to swords when we want a cool weapon. What did King Arthur, Lion-O, He-Man, She-Ra, Thundarr the Barbarian and Luke Skywalker all have in common? A kick-ass sword. And that doesn’t even touch the hundreds of fantasy and science fiction characters who used mundane swords for great effect. Swords are just cool. And a magical sword? That’s awesome.
So, today, we’re going to take a look at ten of the coolest swords in geekdom. Each of these swords was cool beyond simply the ability of its wielder to use it, and so we’ll examine that aspect of each weapon as well.
10) Any Hatori Hanzo blade (The Bride, Bill, Budd – Kill Bill)
When you absolutely, positively, have to make sure that the leader of the assassin troupe you used to belong to, before you decided to quit so you could have a baby and he then attempted to kill you but actually just put you into a coma, then you want a Hatori Hanzo sword.
Featured in both of the Kill Bill films, Hatori Hanzo is renowned as the finest maker of swords who has ever lived. And when the Bride begins her roaring rampage of revenge, she realizes that she needs a Hanzo sword to take on Bill, since apparently the only thing that is capable of stopping one Hanzo sword is another Hanzo sword. Despite being retired, Hatori Hanzo crafts the finest blade he has ever made to enable the Bride to kill Bill.
We actually see three Hanzo swords in the film. Bill and his brother Bud each have one, and we get to see the blade used both in the Bride’s fight against O-Ren Ishsi and her Crazy 88’s, and then used against Bud’s sword in the battle between Ellie and the Bride. Bill and the Bride don’t really get a sword-duel in the film, which is regrettable, but the sequence is so dang cool that it’s hard to care that it’s so short.
As awesome as the Hanzo blade is meant to be, we don’t really see any special properties out of the weapons. But the respect that the weapons command is palpable, and for a group of assassins who are highly proficient with guns, it’s astonishing how much time swords and other forms of close combat see in these movies.
9) Your father’s lightsaber (Luke Skywalker, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)
By the time we reached the end of the prequel trilogy, lightsabers have become almost commonplace. In the original trilogy, after all, we only see four lightsabers (Luke’s, Anakin’s, Obi-Wan’s and Vaders), and only three people capable of using them – and this group doesn’t change through the course of all three films! (Ok, yes, we know Yoda and Palpatine are both capable of it, but it would take the prequels to ever see that).
Because of that, it’s hard to say that the lightsaber – in and of itself – is all that amazing, at least to modern audiences. But the sheer magic of the moment when Obi-Wan first hands Luke his father’s sword in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is the first time that we knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we were in for more than just another space opera movie. Lightsabers were the first clue that the universe of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was one where magic could happen, and a young boy from Tattoine could overthrow an Evil Galactic Empire. It isn’t that the other lightsabers in the six films and subsequent spin-offs aren’t cool. They are. Any time you have an energy blade capable of deflecting blasters and cutting through anything, you’re dealing with a cool weapon. But receiving “your father’s lightsaber” was a special moment, both for Luke Skywalker and for the audiences who first saw it in 1977.
8) The Vorpal Sword (Alice Kingsley, Alice in Wonderland)
For the relatively minor part that Lewis Carrol’s Jaberwocky plays in the tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s astonishing how large of an effect it has. Used to slay the titular creature in the poem, the vorpal sword’s abilities are largely undefined in the poem, although the image of the monster’s head going snicker-snack is impossible to forget.
Enter Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons. Looking to fill the chests of loot that murderous thieves heroic adventurers would steal acquire as they performed home invasions and murder to get wealth and profit fought evil creatures and saved the world, a host of magical devices and inventions were needed. And none was cooler than the Vorpal Sword, which on the right roll, could instantly decapitate any foe it went up against.
In turn, the Vorpal Sword was reimported to the Alice in Wonderland mythology, especially in later incarnations where Alice’s adventures took her against the Jaberwocky. This played out especially well in the 2010 Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton, where the climax of the film involves Alice (Mia Wasikowska) using the Vorpal Sword against a very scary Jaberwocky, voiced by the esteemed Christopher Lee. The Jaberwocky makes it clear that while Alice may be the only one capable of using the sword in this time and place, it is the sword itself which is deadly. And he’s not wrong.
7) The Swords of the Cross – Amoracchius, Fidelacchius and Esperacchius (Michael Carpenter, Karrin Murphy, Shinto and others, Grave Peril and others by Jim Butcher)
According to most versions of the crucifixion, three nails were used to affix Jesus to the cross for his execution. Among the relics found in tales about the Christian Church, each of these nails is highly revered. So, in the world of Jim Butcher’s Dresden File, it makes sense that these nails would become highly potent weapons against evil forces.
And so it came to pass that there would be three different Swords forged, each one with one of the nails embedded in the hilt of the blade, and that the three Knights of the Cross would be among the most potent defenders of humanity.
One of these warriors, Michael Carpenter, is introduced in the third novel in the Dresden Files. He and the other Knights make appearances throughout the novels from that point on, and each time the swords are used, evil takes notice. We’ve actually met, and lost, several Knights of the Order, and while the precise supernatural effect that the swords and the users possess is often kept vague, it is unmistakably real.
Ironically, Harry had not one but two of the swords in his possession as of his death in Changes. Since that time, the swords are presumably being kept by Karrin Murphy, who may yet end up taking Amoracchius up. The truly impressive part about these swords is that the world of The Dresden Files is actually full of sword users and enchanted swords. But it is only the three Knights of the Cross who are defined by them.
6) The Ebony Blade (Dane Whitman, the Black Knight The Avengers)
In a world of superheroes and supervillains, having a sword that can cut through anything is awfully handy. If that sword is also capable of disrupting magic, deflecting energy beams and absorbing energy, it seems like it would be the perfect weapon to use in a career as a superhero.
And it would, if it weren’t for that darn Blood Curse…
The sword of Sir Percy, one of Arthur’s Knights, the Ebony Blade is made from a meteor and was enchanted by Merlin. Passed from generation to generation, it ended up in the hands of Dane Whitman, who used the sword to become the Black Knight. Although the sword carries a curse – namely that each time it is used to draw blood, it drives its’ user towards madness – Whitman became a member of the Avengers, and a highly respected (although often overlooked) hero.
Whitman has used and discarded the blade several times. After all, a curse that makes you a murderous madman is a real liability for a superhero. But despite trading it out for other magical weapons, photonic swords, and even other magic swords, the Ebony Blade seems to manage to keep winding up in Dane’s hands. And that is precisely where it belongs.
5) The Sword of Gryffindor (Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and others by J.K. Rowling)
One would think that with all the magic floating around Harry Potter’s England that one wouldn’t need to include a sword in the list of potent magical artifacts. And, indeed, the three Deathly Hallows which fill the role of plot device/McGuffin in the final book (and film) of the series are a wand, a cloak and a stone. But that doesn’t change the fact that a magical sword is key to the series, beginning with the very first novel and film, and remaining important through the final chapter of the saga.
That sword belonged to Godric Gryffindor, and is described as being Goblin Forged, indestructible, and capable of absorbing anything which would make it stronger, up to and including basilisk venom.
Of special note, this sword is one of the key objects belonging to the four founders of Hogwarts – and is the only one of the four not to be transformed into a Horcrux by Lord Voldemort. Instead, the sword plays a role in destroying several of the Horcruxes, shattering two and decapitating the third.
It just goes to show you that, even in a world where everyone in the party is playing a mage, they still want to be the guy who uses the magic sword.
4) Stormbringer (Elric, The Dreaming City and others by Michael Moorcock)
I have to make a dirty confession here. For all of the other blades listed on this page I have firsthand exposure to the source material. I’ve watched the shows and movies, and I’ve read the books. I have never actually read a novel by Michael Moorcock, and I know very little about Elric of Melnibone.
So, why does his sword Stormbringer still make it on to my list, and why does it rank all the way up to number four?
Because despite my limited knowledge of the character, I still know about this sword. As a teenager who was in to fantasy, comic books and role-playing games, it was impossible to remain completely ignorant of Elric – and more importantly, Stormbringer. Part of that was due to the striking appearance of the albino swordsman and sorcerer, which makes him possibly one of the most recognizable figures in fantasy artwork. Part of it is due to the fact that Elric and his blade made it in to the first edition of the AD&D Deities and Demigods, and then transferred into Chaosium’s Stormbringer roleplaying game. And part of it is because the abilities of the sword are legendary.
Most of the blades featured in this article are indestructible by anything other than a plot device. They’re all capable of cutting through just about anything other than another plot device. And several of them provide additional abilities beyond that, such as fighting prowess, healing abilities, enhanced strength and the like. But Stormbringer stands alone in having a truly terrifying source.
The enchanted sword must be fed souls – namely the souls of those it slays. And if the sword’s master is reluctant to feed it, then it has several tools it can use to force that user to feed it, up to and including taking the sword owner’s own soul. The sword is actually a demon, and it can communicate with its master, and create a bloodlust in that person. And all it takes to be able to drink the soul from someone is the slightest scratch with the blade.
This is absolutely a case of the curse outweighing the power of the sword, but to a depressed teenager who was obsessed with fantasy, this was an awesome idea. I never got around to reading the novels, but as I write this article, I find myself considering finding them at the library.
3) The Sword of Omens (Lion-O, ThunderCats)
Say it with me…
Thunder… Thunder… Thunder… ThunderCats… Ho!
Ok, got that out of my system. Who among us doesn’t know and love the Sword of Omens? As the symbol of the Lord of the ThunderCats, the Sword of Omens has several cool properties. First, at least in the classic version of the cartoon, the sword’s blade had the ability to grown and shrink. This enabled it to become a full-size sword, but also let it be carried around in the claw-shield that Lion-O wore on his left hand. A minor issue, to be sure, but as someone who has walked around Renaissance Faires with a sword banging against his leg all day, this is a not insignificant consideration.
Secondly, the sword is possessed of the “standard suite” of abilities – nigh unbreakable, can cut through almost anything, etc.
Third, the sword holds within it the Eye of Thunderra. This is the source of the sword’s truly awesome powers. Thanks to the Eye, the Sword is capable of projecting energy blasts (handy in a cartoon where it really isn’t acceptable to cut people with the three-foot long blade), and serves as a beacon for all of the other ThunderCats. When activated by the stock-footage catchphrase, the Sword projects the ThunderCats emblem into the sky, and makes all of the other ThunderCats know that their Lord requires them.
Finally, and perhaps coolest of all, the Eye of Thundera had extrasensory abilities that gave Lion-O “sight beyond sight.” Used mostly to locate missing ThunderCats or their allies, the clairvoyant abilities of the sword were always just enough to help an adventure, or to start one, but never enough to actually solve a plot. Which is exactly the way it should have been used.
2) The Swords of Power and Protection (He-Man and She-Ra, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra, Princess of Power)
He-Man’s Power Sword has a delightfully inconsistent backstory. In the early illustrated stories that accompanied the action figures, He-Man and Skeletor each had one-half of the Power Sword. Only when combined could the swords open up Castle Greyskull – which of course gave Skeletor ample reason to try to take He-Man’s sword. By the time the cartoon was released, the split sword was abandoned, and has remained absent in all subsequent versions of the story.
He-Man’s sword is able to cut through most anything, and can deflect energy bolts. It is also said to be indestructible. But, of course, the most potent power of the sword is how it can transform Prince Adam into the Most Powerful Man in the Universe. While the length of time the transformation takes (and the volume of the transformation) is often ignored, the one consistent element in most versions of the story is that the sword is absolutely integral for the transformation – although unlike Thor’s hammer, He-Man does not revert to Prince Adam if he loses the sword. While the sword is clearly tied to the magic of Castle Greyskull, the idea that it is the key to the castle is gone – although He-Man’s job of keeping Skeletor out of the castle remains.
After the first season of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, He-Man was revealed to have a sister, Adora. Adora possesses the Sword of Protection, which has abilities similar to He-Man’s Power Sword. By holding the sword aloft and saying “For the Honor of Greyskull, I am She-Ra” Adora undergoes a similar transformation to the one Adam experiences, and becomes She-Ra, the Princess of Power. But unlike He-Man’s sword which is largely restricted to acting like a sword and a McGuffin, She-Ra’s sword does all sorts of cool transformation tricks, becoming a rope, a pole, a shield or whatever else the animators require. The stone in the center of She-Ra’s sword has also been known to project beams of energy.
1) Excalibur (Arthur, King of the Britons)
There were other enchanted swords before the myth of King Arthur, but there are none that have resonated as strongly as the tale of Arthur and his two enchanted swords.
Yes, two. People tend to forget that Excalibur was not the sword that Arthur drew from the stone in order to become the King of the Britons. That sword was named Clarent, and in Mallory’s stories was destroyed in battle, prompting Merlin to take Arthur to the Lady of the Lake. The Lady of the Lake is the one who bequeaths Excalibur on Arthur.
In the traditional myths, Excalibur’s powers are limited compared to the other swords on this page. It is never described as being particularly unbreakable on able to cut through anything (although it is a fierce weapon, especially in the hands of the King). It doesn’t fly through the air, shoot blasts of magical energy or transform into other shapes, although in some stories it is described as being able to blind people.
Of course, this also doesn’t change the fact that as Excalibur has shown up in comics, films and television ever since the original tales, the powers attributed to the blade have grown… and grown… and grown. In fact, I’m fairly sure there is at least one tale of Arthur growing to giant size and wielding Excalibur to fight kaiju (and if there wasn’t before, I’m sure there will be one now.)
(Now, the scabbard is consistently described as having protective powers that keep the wielder from shedding blood, a downright potent ability.)
But Excalibur’s significance is more as a symbol of Arthur’s right to rule. After all, when a magical lady presents a legendary weapon to you, that shows that you’re pretty darn important – Monty Python jokes about watery tarts aside. And the stories of Excalibur have resonated through myth and fantasy ever since. I doubt there is a creator in the Western World who designs a sword for their main character who doesn’t compare it to Excalibur in his head. I know that whenever a new sword of power is introduced in fantasy, I certainly compare it to Excalibur. And I think that’s the way it should be.
This only scratches the surface of the cool swords in the worlds of geekdom. Which ones are your favorites? Which ones should I have included? Sound off in the comments!