HomeLiterature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 The Form Of The Sword Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, The Form of the Sword : Artifices | Summary

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Summary

The narrator recalls his encounter with "the Englishman of La Colorada," a man with a scar on his face. While the narrator travels "in the Northern provinces," a flood forces him to spend the night at the Englishman's villa. The Englishman turns out to be Irish. The narrator and his host eat supper together and then have drinks. Drunk, the narrator asks him about the scar, and the host tells the story.

Now the first-person narrator, the Irishman says in 1922 he was in Connaught, in northwestern Ireland. He and other Catholics and Republicans (those seeking a free Irish republic) "were conspiring for independence" One night John Vincent Moon, "a comrade from Munster," Ireland, joined them. Moon was 20 years old, "thin and soft at the same time" and reminded the Irishman of an invertebrate. He was a dedicated communist who read a lot and enjoyed arguing. The Irishman found him narrow-minded, for "he reduced universal history to a sordid economic conflict."

Moon and the Irishman went out in the night, arguing about communism. Passing some British soldiers, Moon became "fascinated and eternalized ... by terror" of the soldiers and paralyzed by fear. The Irishman had to turn back and yank Moon out of the way. The soldiers fired at them, and hit Moon. At the narrator's temporary lodgings, a manor house belonging to General Berkeley, the Irishman dressed Moon's superficially wounded shoulder. The next day Moon was back to his old ways, reading and arguing. When the Irishman told him their colleagues to the south were expecting them to help in battle, Moon said he felt "a shoulder spasm." The Irishman saw Moon's "irreparable" cowardice.

For the next nine days the narrator engaged in battle by day and returned to the house at night. Moon remained there, playing the invalid and offering opinions about military strategy. On the 10th day the narrator's side lost. The unnamed city fell to "the Black and Tans," the British in the Royal Irish Constabulary. (The Black and Tans fought against the Irish Republican Army to keep Ireland under English rule.) Returning home the narrator overheard Moon talking on the telephone, betraying his host in return for "certain guarantees of personal safety."

The narrator says at this point his story grows confused. He chased Moon through the house. With a cutlass shaped like "a stellar half-moon" the Irishman cut Moon's face, marking it. Then the Irishman says the first narrator's name, Borges. He breaks off the story, but Borges asks him for more. He says Moon fled to Brazil with his "Judas money" and then asks, "Don't you see the mark of infamy written on my face?" He says he told the story from the other man's perspective so Borges would listen. But he himself is John Vincent Moon.

Analysis

The story is set in Ireland in 1922. On December 6, 1921, Ireland signed a treaty with the United Kingdom, establishing an Irish Free State and supposedly bringing the Anglo-Irish war to an end. However, Irish republicans were dissatisfied with the terms of the treaty. For one thing, the treaty required an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Therefore, the strife did not come to an end. On December 6, 1922, the Irish Free State established by the treaty came into existence. So the bitter fighting the "Irishman" in the story remembers takes place in the year between the signing of the treaty and its implementation.

Moon comes in for more criticism from Borges than does any other character in Ficciones. He is a coward and an ardent communist. His cowardice gives the lie to his communistic ideals of brotherhood and equality. He also uses his efforts as a communist intellectual to evade the hard work of fighting. He stays home and formulates scientific Marxist opinions on how the battle should be waged, while keeping himself well out of danger. None of the other traitors, heretics, and even murderers in Ficciones show themselves so contemptible as Moon. Although many of Borges's stories in Ficciones champion the philosophy of idealism, political idealists appear to be another matter altogether for Borges.

It seems as though a personal dislike, or deeply felt anti-communism, animates Borges's depiction of this character. In fact, Borges was anti-communist. When Moon speaks confidently of the coming revolution's assured victory, the story's other Irishman reproves him: "Only lost causes can interest a gentleman." It is hard not to hear Borges the aristocrat in these words. "The Form of the Sword" bears the date 1942. The following year a military coup brought Juan Perón to power in Argentina. In 1946 Perón would fire Borges from his library post for having supported the Allies during World War II. If he had read "The Form of the Sword," Perón the populist might have fired him for that too.

Borges himself once criticized "The Form of the Sword" as being nothing but a "trick story." Its complicated form of double narration does indeed seem to exist to do only two things: pillory communists and set up the surprise ending. Knowing the "Englishman of La Colorada" is really Moon, readers can determine whether Moon has somehow changed. He pitches in tirelessly, shoulder to shoulder with the laborers on his land: "the Englishman worked alongside his peones." In that way he is still the old Moon, friend of the working man. But he is also a wealthy landowner. At night the peon goes to his hut and Moon to his hacienda. He has perhaps abandoned the communist ideals of his youth. But in being a hypocrite he is still the same Moon who sold out his fellow fighter in 1922.

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