The Pen is Mightier than The Sword. We’re told.
Posted by Dirck on 25 March, 2010
For some reason, this popular phrase has been drifting through my head today, and I hope a little maundering aloud will make it stop.
I have, in my life, had a chance to use pens and swords, so I feel I might make an informed comparison. The latter has been in the non-exsanguinary, slightly simulated form, but one gets a sense of it all the same. If I am stupidly literal, which frequently happens in the examination of this phrase, I will of course say that it’s utter tripe. A pen is useless for parrying, puts the user at a serious reach disadvantage, and is very limited in possible target areas where a successful blow will even slightly inconvenience an opponent.
I will not be stupidly literal, but I will digress briefly, as I remind myself of a story of Pope Boniface VIII’s 1302 bull Unam Sanctam, which spoke of the church weilding both spiritual and temporal swords– an ambassador from one of the kings apparently waved his own sword around, shouting, “Here’s mine, let’s see either of yours.” Stupid literality about swords was a fairly easy stance to take in the Middle Ages.
The phrase refers to the potential power of the tools, of course. Given time and refreshments, the right guy with a sword can do a fair amount of damage. A pen, on the other hand, can enact laws and promulgate ideas, something history shows us can lead to an amazing pile of consequences. I don’t think that H.L. Mencken’s experience of edged weapons went much beyond a steak knife, nor Karl Marx’s, yet they could both be considered rather more dangerous (depending on who’s doing the considering) than a stack of Conans the Barbarian.
Having brought Howard’s hero into the picture, I suppose one could in the Pen v. Sword contest consider the former as being similar to a magician’s wand– given time to do its thing, an implement of vast potential power, but not to be relied upon in a close encounter in a dark alley.
There is some folly in thinking of one tool as better than an other, when their functions are quite different. A drill-press is a poor choice for making coffee, a screwdriver and a spoon have only a little overlap, and a pen and a sword really can’t do the same job. Having tried both, I have to say that except in a hewing emergency, I prefer the pen. Mistakes made with a pen are far easier to undo, to the point that they might go completely unnoticed. Sword mistakes, even when a good doctor is on hand, tend to leave a permanent mark. Pens also have a chance at making constructive efforts, recording plans, jotting apologies, or recording poetry, while swords are pretty much limited to taking things apart. In daily use, the pen may or may not be mightier than the sword, but it’s certainly more convenient.
Alas, there will never be a scene in a movie involving pens with one part in a thousand the coolness of the duel between Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts.
Today’s implement of very limited powers of destruction: Hero 330
Today’s spurting internal fluid: Skrip blue-black