Heart and Steel

man with a sword

“If that’s true, then answer this priest, why are we in these pits, hiding from some animal?” Conan asked “Someday, when all your civilization and science are likewise swept away, your kind will pray for a man with a sword.”

— Robert E. Howard, Rogues in the House (1934)

This quote was on my mind this morning after a particularly brutal longsword training session with Connor. He’s thirteen and a half now and beginning to be more than a handful. I’m still stronger and more experienced, but his endurance and speed are becoming a thing to be reckoned with.

A sword is an extension of one’s self, as much a part of you as the flesh and bone of your body, to be sure, but also of your will, spirit, and intelligence.

If all were to be swept away, and we were sword armed against the rising horde, I can think of no one I’d rather have at my side than Conn.

Longsword v Katana

I had a discussion with a young man yesterday about which sword was superior — the European Longsword or Japanese Katana. It’s a common topic among sword aficionados. Both weapons have their pros and cons, but I certainly have a preference.


I began my foray into sword study with multiple bokkens and a shinai practice sword, graduating to a couple of inexpensive katanas and a ninja-to. I was a child of the 70s and 80s after all. Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies were on steady rotation and I devoured books on various martial arts and Japanese Swordsmanship. Then Highlander came along and cemented the deal… Like everyone else, I believed in the superiority of the katana. Books, movies, and television hammered the point home often enough and I bought into the hype.




Despite all that, I was still enamored with the European Longsword and in the early 90s had the opportunity, by pure accident, to watch a demonstration by early Historical Armed Combat Association enthusiasts. This led me into a more thorough examination of the weapon, studying historical fighting manuals and, eventually, crafting my own longsword and training with wasters. I spent a bit of time as a longsword instructor, teaching modified Liechtenauer techniques to friends.

Now that my son is older he has taken up the longsword as well and after many years away from serious study, it’s felt good to be back to training.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on these two weapons. These are just my opinions, but having studied and trained with both weapons, I think they have merit.

Cutting: Katana

The katana gets the edge here due to the curvature of the blade. I believe both swords generate plenty of cutting power, but the design of the katana favors cutting.

Thrusting: Longsword

Again, it’s all about design. The longsword, being a double edged weapon can thrust much deeper than what the single edged katana can.

Speed: Katana

This is a tricky one, but I think the smaller design in conjunction with the sword’s scabbard and in unison with the overall emphasis on quick draw and definitive single strike maneuvers, this is the katanas wheelhouse.

Guard and Defense: Longsword

No contest. The longsword’s crossguard is far superior to the katana’s tsuba. All things being equal, the longsword’s superior reach is also a crucial factor.

Versatility: Longsword

Again, the longsword is the clear champion here. The katana has a singular purpose, with its single hard and sharp edge being a clear and present danger with its cutting prowess. The longsword is the ultimate multitasker, with its double-edged assault, being both a cutting and thrusting dynamo, and the ability for half-swording.

Verdict: Longsword

Two equal opponents facing off, one with a katana, the other with a longsword, the clear winner is the longsword. The katana is typically 24-28 inches in length while the longsword ranges from 36-44 inches. I can tell you from experience, even as little as a 6 inch difference in sword lengths is a critical advantage.



Tonight is the first official meeting of The Bordermen Society, a somewhat newly formed Academy for the Study of Historical Northern European Martial Arts.

While I am, admittedly, a tad rusty, I am looking forward to getting back in the saddle, so to speak. I was heavily involved in HACA (Historical Armed Combat Association) in the mid-90s and I have been a lifelong sword enthusiast.

I am blessed to have two eager students and a great training facility where we’ll be able to cross swords earnestly.

Our primary focus will be the longsword, but over time I hope to incorporate knife fighting,  sword and shield, sword and axe, and Florentine-inspired sword and dagger/short sword.

“There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today’.”

Glamdring the Foehammer



The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming. Glamdring glittered white in answer. There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then stood still.

“You cannot pass!” he said.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

In the Trollshaws of Eriador, found alongside Orcrist and the short sword later to be named Sting, Gandalf the Grey claimed a remarkable sword for himself. Covered in blood, it would later be examined by Elrond, in Rivendell, and identified as one of the most heralded and feared blades in the history of Middle Earth — Glamdring, the Foehammer.

Glamdring was the sword of Turgon, King of Gondolin, who wielded it with great strength and valour during The Fall of Gondolin. The orcs so feared the weapon, naming it Beater in their vile tongue, that it was still woefully remembered some six thousand years later.

This fabled sword was put to good use by Gandalf the Grey and it served him for nearly a century. He used it to slay the Great Goblin and wielded it during The Battle of Five Armies. The wizard bore it in the Battle of the Chamber of Mazarbul and faced Durin’s Bane, the dread Balrog, at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, with it held firmly in hand. It was ever-present throughout the War of the Ring, a deadly companion to the great wizard during those dark and troubling times.


The sword itself is given but minute description by the author. In The Hobbit, Tolkien referred to Glamdring as having a beautiful scabbard and jeweled hilt, while in Unfinished Tales Turgon’s Blade is described as white and gold, sheathed in a ruel-bone scabbard.

The movie version of the sword depicted in the Peter Jackson film series, being three Hobbit films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a thing of beauty. Wielded by Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf, Glamdring is an elegant long sword designed by Ben Wootten and forged by Master Swordsmith Peter Lyon.

With a blade nearly thirty-seven inches and an overall length of just over four feet, Glamdring is a formidable weapon. And, as it weighs just a tad under four pounds, it is comfortable to bear for an extended melee.

“Peter Lyon made weapons that were so exquisite and so rich in culture and subtlety of use that the actors grew to find it a complete delight using these weapons.”

— Richard Taylor, The Lord of the Rings Special Effects Specialist


While in The Hobbit it is said that Elrond translates the rune inscription on the blade, said by Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts to be, most likely, Gondolin Runes (which makes sense), it is only the sword’s name and previous owner past on.

The guard of the Wootten/Lyon sword is inscribed with a Sindarin phrase in cirth runes which translate as:

“Turgon aran Gondolin tortha gar a matha i vegil Glamdring gûd daedheloth, dam an Glamhoth”, or in the common tongue as “Turgon, king of Gondolin, wields, has, and holds the sword Glamdring, Foe of Morgoth’s realm, Hammer of the Orcs”

To be honest, this is troublesome for Tolkien purists as the movie sword not only presents a different rune type than would be expected, but also the runes depict Sindarin words as opposed to Quenya, which was the language of Gondolin. Regardless, it is a masterful sword and an impressive work of art, and though it varies from the published description on several points, its essence is true to form.

Glamdring has long been one of my favorite fantasy weapons. The true power of a sword, even a magical one, lies in who wields it and its greatness is measured by the adversaries it has faced. In that, Glamdring surely deserves any and all accolades showered upon it.

Whether in the hands of Turgon or Gandalf, Glamdring served its bearer well and true, facing the cruel and sinister forces of both Morgoth and Sauron, while never wavering.

Glamdring is a sword that should forever be remembered alongside the great swords of fantasy literature — Excalibur, Stormbringer, Durendal, and so many others.