The Shape of the Sword

by Jorge Luis Borges
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

The frame narrator, Borges, describes a lonely, mysterious Englishman who lives at La Colorada. His appearance is notable for the vicious scar that crosses his face in an arc—from his temple on one side to his cheek on the other. Borges has heard many rumors about the Englishman of La Colorada, but no one knows exactly where he came from or how he came by his scar.

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One stormy night, the narrator finds himself unexpectedly stranded at La Colorada. After spending several hours drinking with the Englishman, he asks him about the scar. The Englishman changes color, then agrees to tell the narrator the story of the scar on the condition that he not belittle any of the infamous details of the story, nor minimize the scorn that it provokes in him.

The Englishman explains that he is actually Irish, and that in 1922, in Connaught, he belonged to a group of Republicans, Catholics, and romantics who were conspiring to help Ireland win independence from Great Britain. One evening their group was joined by a new comrade, John Vincent Moon, an arrogant, inexperienced, callow young man from Munster who talked glibly about Marxist theory. Later that evening, the Englishman and Moon were walking along the city streets, arguing about communism, when they were surprised by a sudden exchange of gunfire. A British soldier ran into the road and screamed at them to halt. The Englishman fled at first, then turned back to strike down the soldier and rescue Moon, who was not only paralyzed with fear, but who later cried when a stray bullet grazed his shoulder. The Englishman brought Moon to the strange, rambling, vacated country house where he had taken refuge, then made him tea and dressed his superficial wound. The next day, when he told Moon that their comrades expected them to join in the fighting, Moon complained of a fever and a shoulder spasm. The Englishman, realizing that Moon was an incurable coward, went on alone.

For nine days, the Englishman left the house at dawn and returned at dusk to participate in the increasingly violent battle between the Irish revolutionaries and the British army. Moon hid in the country house, nursed his wound, and read books on military strategy. On the tenth day, the Englishman returned to the house and overheard Moon on the telephone, betraying him to the British for a price. Moon suggested that the British soldiers arrest him as he crossed the garden of the country house when he returned that evening. Furious, the Englishman pursued Moon down the house’s staircases and through its labyrinthine corridors. He finally cornered Moon in the library, where he snatched down a scimitar mounted on the wall and used it to mark Moon’s face “with a half-moon of blood.”

At this point in his story, the Englishman pauses. The narrator asks him what happened to Moon. The Englishman answers that Moon turned in his comrade, took his Judas money from the British, and fled to Brazil. When the narrator, still unsatisfied, asks him to continue his story, the Englishman points to the scar on his face. Stammering, he explains that he himself is the traitorous John Vincent Moon, and he tells the narrator to despise him.

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