When you want an idiom that quickly communicates the value of reason over violence, you can’t do much better than “the pen is mightier than the sword.” The written word has toppled corrupt politicians, outed criminals, and shed light on malfeasance of all kinds. It can certainly be more destructive and potent than any weapon.
So who actually put pen to paper and came up with the phrase?
Unlike a lot of common metaphorical wisdom, history has a pretty good idea of the responsible party. In 1839, playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton debuted Richelieu: Or, The Conspiracy, a play about the minister to King Louis XIII. After discovering a plot to attack the royal, Cardinal Richelieu ponders what he can do in the absence of being able to physically engage with the court’s enemies. He soon exclaims that “the pen is mightier than the sword…take away the sword [and] states can be saved without it!”
Richelieu did not prove to be a particularly enduring work, but that sentiment grabbed the attention of the general public and became a shorthand for more pragmatic means of conflict resolution or societal advance.
While he deserves credit for coining the phrase, it’s certainly possible Bulwer-Lytton was inspired by earlier, similar sentiments. As Oxford Dictionary of Quotations associate editor Susan Ratcliffe told the BBC, author Robert Burton expressed in the 17th century that “A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword.” Other, earlier quotes, like one attributed to Napoleon (“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than 1000 bayonets”) may not have actually been uttered, but that may not have stopped others from being inspired by them.
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Incredibly, “the pen is mightier than the sword” may not even be Bulwer-Lytton’s most popular contribution to literature. He’s also credited with popularizing the often-maligned cliché “It was a dark and stormy night,” which opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The exact sentence reads:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
In Bulwer-Lytton’s defense, “a dark and stormy night” was already a cliché, having appeared in the 1655 poem “To His Mistress For Her True Picture” as well as scores of other works. He was probably inspired by the gloomy weather of Victorian England when he repurposed the phrase. Today, most people know it as the beginning of Snoopy’s many generic fiction attempts in Peanuts, which were usually composed in haste while typing on top of his dog house.
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz seemed to favor Bulwer-Lytton, though perhaps not consciously. In 1939, while in his junior year in high school, the future comic strip artist signed a classmate’s yearbook with a familiar declaration: “the pen is mightier than the sword.”