When looking for the origins of the sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy, today’s story is not a bad possibility. It has a hero, a sword (the titular Sacnoth), a quest, a villain in a dark lair (The Fortress Unvanquishable). Yet in some ways it has a very different feel and design, as Dunsany drew more from fairytales and mythological storytelling for his fantasy stories.
It starts with an evil magician Gaznak, who returns to Earth every two hundred and thirty years to raise an unvanquishable fortress. The only thing capable of harming him is the sword Sacnoth, and to obtain it one must find the lair of Tharagavverug. But what is he?
And the magician of Allathurion answered: ‘He is the dragon-crocodile who haunts the Northern marshes and ravages the homesteads by their marge. And the hide of his back is of steel, and his under parts are of iron; but along the midst of his back, over his spine, there lies a narrow strip of unearthly steel. This strip of steel is Sacnoth, and it may be neither cleft nor molten, and there is nothing in the world that may avail to break it, nor even leave a scratch upon its surface. It is of the length of a good sword, and of the breadth thereof. Shouldst thou prevail against Tharagavverug, his hide may be melted away from Sacnoth in a furnace; but there is only one thing that may sharpen Sacnoth’s edge, and this is one of Tharagavverug’s own steel eyes; and the other eye thou must fasten to Sacnoth’s hilt, and it will watch for thee. But it is a hard task to vanquish Tharagavverug, for no sword can pierce his hide; his back cannot be broken, and he can neither burn nor drown. In one way only can Tharagavverug die, and that is by starving.’
On a technical level, there’s something quite unconventional going on here. Gaznak can only be defeated by the sword Sacnoth (that defeats all other things as well). When the hero attains it, nothing is an impediment to him anymore, so you’d think the drama of the story would come from the quest for the sword. Yet the act of acquiring Sacnoth simply consists of the hero following the instructions given in the first two pages; nothing goes wrong, as is normally the case when a plan is described in detail at the outset. Look at it from a modern perspective, and the story should be devoid of any dramatic tension.
Yet it works, compellingly so. And, as the many times I’ve rewritten these paragraphs attest, I’m struggling to articulate why. Crucial is Dunsany’s command of language. It’s beautiful and flowing, authentically old without archaic vocabulary or obscured meaning. It demands to be recited aloud, not in a soft bedtime voice, but proclaimed across a crowded hall.
I also feel it achieves a mythic resonance. I mentioned at the outset the tropes used in this story – sword, hero, quest, fortress, mighty villain – and all of them are being played entirely straight. That the sword is the mightiest in the world is not just subtext but directly given text. That the villain is solely defeatable by the hero is in the very title. There is no subversion here, no sense that this story is commenting on other stories or reacting against prior stories in the genre. It’s just direct, and because of that it feels to me like this story is starring archetypes. Sacnoth isn’t the most powerful sword in the world, it’s every powerful sword, and every time I read this it’s like I’m seeing the epitome of all heroes smiting the epitome of all villains.
The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth by Lord Dunsany
Availability: free online, free audio, print
Word count: 6,500
First published: The Sword of Welleran and other stories, collection, 1908, George Allen & Sons
The Sword of Welleran and other stories has been reprinted as recently as 2011 by Wildside Press
The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, edited by Tom Shippey, 2003, Oxford University Press
Here Be Dragons!, edited by G.W. Thomas, 2007, RAGE Machine Books
Phantasmagorica: Tales of Fantasy and the Supernatural, edited by Jane Mobley, 1977, Anchor Books