Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Roses Are Red; Violets Are Purple...

...Sugar is Sweet…and so is Maple Syrple

So recited my brother and I with much laughter in our early attempts at rhyming couplets. Turns out we were a pair of burgeoning literary geniuses. One might not think it, but the use of “syrple” as a combination of “purple” and “syrup” could be construed as a (very poor) portmanteau.

Very poor, says I, because I am nowhere near the king of the portmanteau, nor even the nonsense poem. That distinction belongs to Lewis Carroll for his much esteemed Jabberwocky with its “frumious” (fuming + furious), “slithy” (lithe + slimy), and “chortle” (snort + chuckle)…the last of which has become a fairly common word of the English language, first introduced in Carroll’s work.

Of course, D&D freakazoids remember Jabberwocky for the introduction of the “vorpal sword” to the fantasy lexicon. In the poem it is used to kill the Jabberwock. Somehow, this has been translated into a “magic weapon that beheads its opponent.” However, the reasoning behind this is quite thin. Certainly the hero of the poem slays the beast with his blade, the weapon going “through and through” the beast, after which he “leaves it dead and with its head” goes “galumphing” (triumphant + galloping) home to see his father.

But does that mean the sword itself beheads the thing? From my read, it seems more that the kid collected himself a trophy…much as did the young David with his slain foe, Goliath…or the Predator alien with any number of Arnold’s buddies.

I don’t know where or when the vorpal sword first appeared in the D&D game system (my first encounter was in my 1st edition DMG, but perhaps it was in one of the OD&D supplements??), but the term “vorpal” has since become eponymous with “auto-kill;” and not infrequently with decapitation. In fact it is so ubiquitous in D&D that I feel myself pressed to include it in my B/X Companion (right now, I find myself dreading and completely intimidated at the thought of creating a new magic items section…ugh! And I thought spells would be tough!).

But dammit! Isn’t “vorpal” probably just another portmanteau? Even though Carroll himself states he wasn’t sure what vorpal meant, I’m guessing it was more a descriptive…as in “color:”

- Violet + orange + purple
- Violent + purple
- Very + orange + purple

Something like that. The hero uses a “very orange and purple” (i.e. “vorpal”) sword to kill the beast of the poem. Long time gamers may turn up their nose at such a suggestion (because the vorpal sword is so “wicked-awesome”) but I find it much more succinct a definition in light of the whimsical nature of the original poem.

But, hey…just my thoughts.

[oh…and if anyone who reads this DOES know the first appearance of the vorpal weapon, please give me a shout on the comments string. Where it first appears WILL affect my inclusion of said weapon. Thanks!]


  1. Looks like OD&D Supplement I: Greyhawk is the first. It's called 'Vorpal Blade'.

  2. Thanks of the few TSR products pre-1985 that I do NOT own.

    Hmm…perhaps not as bad as I first imagined (there’re several things from the 1st supplements that are NOT going to get included).

    BTW: Can you tell me if the hammer of thunderbolts makes its first appearance in Supplement I?

    Thanks again!

  3. D&D freakazoids Guilty as charged. I read Jabberwocky for the first time after learning D&D (or at least my mind recognized the term vorpal after reading it again post-D&D). It's one of those iconic D&D Magic Items, to be sure. Don't forget, the blade went "snicker-snack!" as well. Sounds like it was very sharp.

    Good post. I'm a fan of Carroll's linguistic blends. The term portmanteau (or more properly, a portmanteau word) is itself a linguistic blend, and Carroll invented the term inadvertantly when using the word as an analogy in Alice in Wonderland.

    No Hammer of Thunderbolts in Greyhawk, btw.

  4. I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the D&D rules for the vorpal sword are any sort of interpretation of it's (fictional) capabilities. There doesn't seem to be much - if any - evidence to support it.

  5. If not, then why call it a “vorpal” sword? Why not call it a sword of beheading (as opposed to the sword of slicing)?

    But you may be right…I may be crazy!