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[GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: The Soul-Sucking Sword

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. Her latest novel, The Heir of Night, the first of THE WALL OF NIGHT quartet, is published in the USA and internationally. Helen has twice won a Sir Julius Vogel Award, for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009 and The Heir of Night in 2011. She posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground. To read more about Helen and her writing, click here.

Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: The Soul-Sucking Sword

So over the past couple of weeks, to help get through that run-up to Christmas-New Year craziness, I’ve been having some fun with epic fantasy, first “Making the Grand Tour” (aka the quest-journey) and secondly looking at the importance of the “Band of Brothers” when embarking on that quest. And this week, with the festive holiday nearly upon us, I felt I just had to look at “elves” with soul-sucking swords.

“Go on,” I hear you protest. “Elves with soul-sucking swords aren’t an epic fantasy trope!”

“Sure they are,” I say. “I can even give you specific examples: Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer; CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine and Changeling; Steven Erikson’s Anomander Rake and Dragnipur. And although neither of Drizzt’s swords, in RA Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels may be soul-sucking, his arch-enemy Artemis Entreri possesses a distinctive, soul-sucking “jewelled dagger”, which is practically the same thing. Just a little, you know, shorter.”

“But,” you (continue to) object, “Drizzt and Artemis are the only elves–even if they are Dark–in that lot. And Elric of Melnibone is meant to be the archetypal anti-hero, not a Tolkien-style elf.”

To which I reply: “Of course they’re “elves.” Or-getting into the seasonal spirit of willingness to make concessions — “elf” archetypes. Elric, Morgaine, and Anomander Rake are all wielders or manipulators of great power; they are all distinctively inhuman looking in appearance and “remote” in disposition. And — the cinching argument — bearers of (say it with me) soul-sucking swords!”

So, perhaps not a major trope, but both the “elf” and the “soul-sucking sword” are a distinctive feature of fantastic storytelling. In combination they are readily recognizable, although I am willing (still in the spirit of seasonal magnanimity) to agree that I am also using the soul-sucking sword as a metaphor for an even more deeply entrenched element of the genre-the artifact of power.

Like the soul-sucking sword and Tolkien’s “one ring”, artifacts of power are frequently of mysterious if not downright dubious provenance, and ambivalent benefit to the wielder. The demon-imbued Stormbringer, for example, ends by achieving its long-standing goal of subsuming Elric, while even Robin McKinley’s (far) more benign Blue Sword has an ambivalent sense of humor. Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of artifacts of power is that in almost all cases they tend to possess self-will and frequently be pursuing an agenda of their own. In some cases the artifact may be essentially neutral and turned to good or evil purpose depending upon how it is used, like the “Stone” in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane. In many cases, using artifacts at all can be dangerous. In all cases, it is unwise to depend on them-as with the three elven rings in The Lord of the Rings: although made and used for good, their ultimate subservience to the One Ring meant that when it was destroyed everything brought about through the elven rings’ agency would also pass away.

Objectively, I suspect that the artifact of power in epic reflects a mistrust of both human motivation and technology, a counterpart to the dystopian tradition that exists in science fiction. Like swords, soul-sucking or otherwise, artifacts of power always come with a double edge. But subjectively–spending time with them, from Stormbringer to the Blue Sword, sure can be a lot of fun!

6 Comments on [GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: The Soul-Sucking Sword

  1. The protagonist of Walter Jon Williams’ Implied Spaces also is inhuman (to the world he is in) and carries a sword very similar to Changeling…

  2. Paul, I haven’t read “Implied Spaces” yet but I mean to–I’ve heard it’s a really fun mix of fantasy and scifi.:)

  3. Brust’s Dragaerians with their morganti blades…

  4. Plus Brandon Sandersons Shard Blades in way of Kings. Kill anything they touch – blackened burnt out eyes of victims. Soul sucking if ever i saw it…


    But lest we forget we are talking “Elves with soul sucking swords” here, and to my mind Elric has to be the archetype. Some might argue that as a “Melnibonean” he does not qualify as an elf. But I am sorry, pointy ears, CHECK. And referring to the Human realms as “The Young Kingdoms”…


    I smell ELF.

  5. Plus Brandon Sandersons Shard Blades in way of Kings. Kill anything they touch – blackened burnt out eyes of victims. Soul sucking if ever i saw it…Such nice views………

  6. @TW: Yes indeed–a great example!


    @Andrew: I agree re the shard blades—and you are quite right about the pointy ears: an unanswerable argument! 😉

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