Last Updated September 7, 2023.
"The Shape of the Sword" by Jorge Luis Borges is a short story, first published in 1942, that explores themes of betrayal, courage, and identity against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War. Although he was born Argentinean, Borges was fascinated by Irish history and culture. Consequently, a number of his stories have direct and indirect Irish influences.
Set in the small town of La Colorada, Uruguay, the story opens with Borges as the narrator taking refuge from bad weather at the home of a mysterious man known as the Englishman who is, in reality, Irish. The Englishman's stern demeanor and mysterious behavior set the tone for the unfolding narrative.
Intrigued by the gruesome scar that disfigures the Englishman's head and face, Borges finally broaches the subject after an evening of drinking, prompting his host to share his life's dark tale. The Englishman agrees to tell his story on the condition
that no contempt or condemnation be withheld, no mitigation for any iniquity be pleaded.
In other words, he will share the story only if he receives no forgiveness or sympathy for his past actions. The reason for this stipulation becomes clear at the story's end.
The Englishman's narrative takes readers back to the Irish Civil War in 1922, a period characterized by intense nationalism and violent political turmoil. Here, he meets John Vincent Moon, a dedicated communist whose unwavering commitment to his beliefs captivates the Englishman despite his skepticism about Moon's ideology.
Their journey through the chaos of the war brings them to the house of an absent general, where the Englishman has been secretly residing. Prompting questions of how committed zealots truly are to their cause, Moon's behavior changes after they narrowly escape a street battle, causing his comrade to label him a coward. Moon's presence in the house becomes increasingly troubling, as he regularly criticizes the revolutionaries' plans and suspiciously inquires about their finances.
In a climactic turn of events, the Englishman overhears Moon betraying him to the enemy over the phone. A pursuit ensues, leading to a violent confrontation in which the Englishman, before being arrested, leaves Moon scarred for life with a sword wound to the head and face.
The story's final revelation adds a layer of complexity as the Englishman confesses to Borges that he is, in fact, Vincent Moon. Just as in many of his other stories, Borges inverts reality to play with his readers' expectations. Here, Moon says he had hidden his true identity and told the story in this manner to ensure that Borges would listen and not dismiss him out of hand. In doing so, he acknowledges his guilt and betrayal, leaving himself open to the contempt and scorn he had asked for before telling the story.
It was I who betrayed the man who saved me and gave me shelter— it is I who am Vincent Moon. Now, despise me.
Throughout "The Shape of the Sword," Borges intricately weaves together themes of deception, moral ambiguity, and the consequences of one's actions. The story explores the blurred boundaries between loyalty and betrayal and the ever-elusive nature of identity, all set against the tumultuous historical context of civil war and the Irish struggle for self-determination.
However, even though the context is specific, readers of any time and place can identify with its messages. In this way, this story serves as a thought-provoking exploration of human nature and the complexities of personal and political allegiances in a world marked by conflict and duplicity.