Context and definition
Carroll published Through the Looking-Glass in 1871. Near the beginning, Alice discovers and reads "Jabberwocky". The word "vorpal" appears twice in the poem, which describes a young boy's quest to slay a monster called the Jabberwock:
- He took his vorpal sword in hand:
- One, two! One, two! And through and through
- The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
- He left it dead, and with its head
- He went galumphing back.
As with much of the rest of the poem's vocabulary, the reader is left to guess at the meaning of "vorpal" from the context. It is commonly assumed to mean "deadly" or "sharp", words often used to describe swords, but some readers have imagined other properties the word could describe. Alexander L. Taylor points out in his Carroll biography The White Knight that "vorpal" can be formed by taking letters alternately from "verbal" and "gospel".
Carroll himself once wrote, "I am afraid I can't explain 'vorpal blade' for you—nor yet 'tulgey wood.'"
In popular culture
"Vorpal swords" exist fictionally in various works, especially in role-playing games and video games, where they are generally based on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game's concept of the vorpal sword. It appeared in the fantasy role-playing game Baldur's Gate II as a blade that came from the astral plane and could cut the silver cord of its victims in one swing, resulting in their instant deaths. It is also used in the game Heroes of Might and Magic 5 as a sword used by Pit Lords (Demons) which guarantees to kill at least one unit of the enemy unit. More so, in the later editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the Vorpal Sword description pays even more homage to the original, as the sword is capable, under the correct circumstances, of severing its victim's head in one blow. In Nethack, the Vorpal Blade is a neutral artifact sword granting a small chance of beheading an enemy with each blow and guaranteed to kill Jabberwocks in one hit.
In the 2010 Tim Burton film Alice in Wonderland, Alice returns to Underland (mistakenly dubbed "Wonderland" by Alice as a child) thirteen years after her adventures there as a child to find that she is the subject of a prophecy that states that she, Alice, would be the champion of the White Queen to use the Vorpal Sword to slay the Jabberwocky and wrest control of Underland away from the tyrannical Red Queen.