Saturday, 15 February 2014

Swords of Lineage

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Tolkien's named swords in Lord of the Rings have brought the concept of swords with lineage and personality into common consciousness. Swords such as Bilbo's Sting and Elendir's Narsil which is reforged for Aragorn as Anduril (Flame of the West) are known to Lord of the Rings fans everywhere.
Tolkien took his inspiration for this - like so much else - from the Norse sagas. His people of Rohan, in particular, were based on Viking peoples and society.
There are a number of named swords recorded in the Viking sagas and elsewhere. All the names are intended to glorify the wielder or the gods and to intimidate the enemy. The sword of Laxdaela Saga is Leg Biter, another recorded name is Foot Biter. Others are Fierce, Head Biter, Hole Maker, and Sword Breaker.
Viking swords (courtesy of Wikipedia)
There was also a sword known as Odin's Flame.
All these swords were almost certainly the valuable Ulfberht swords which were forged with sharp steel edges in Germany or Russia, using hotter forges and more advanced techniques than the Vikings had themselves. They were highly prized and often worth more than everything else a man owned. It was centuries before such quality could be reproduced again.
When one considers these swords were pitted against Viking-forged iron swords which had a habit of bending in combat and needing to be straightened underfoot, it becomes clear why they were so prized.
There were also Viking battle axes with murderous names: Skull Splitter and Head Crusher are two I've come across and I wouldn't feel inclined to face either in battle. And of course the most famous Norse named weapon is the hammer of Thor himself - Mjolnir.
Viking named swords were passed down through families or were occasionally buried with their owner. Rarely, they were stolen from the burial mounds by men who were brave enough to face the grave ghost. 
Both these traditions (if they can be called that) are also used by Tolkien. Sting is found in a troll hoard by Bilbo and later passed to his nephew Frodo. And in the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and his hobbit companions are trapped in a barrow by a barrow-wight, sent by Angmar the Witch King to haunt the downs. They manage to defeat the wight and escape, taking the valuable swords with them from the barrow, thus echoing the ancient Norse tales in many ways.
Tolkien borrowed freely and I love discovering the links.


Celia Rees said...

I do, too, Marie- Louise, and have just seen the latest hobbit movie where Sting is wielded to great effect. Like you, I'm fascinated by forging techniques and weaponry, ancient and modern. Who said women were only interested in frock and jewellery (although I like those, too.) Thanks for this. Fascinating!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I haven't seen the second Hobbit film yet. I will look forward to Sting's action scenes when I do!

Petrea Burchard said...

You make me wonder when Excalibur was first mentioned in literature.

Arnold_Bax said...

There is a display at the Leeds Armouries that - in hasty view while being ushered out at closing time - seemed to be the actual swords and other items used in filming the hobbit story.

Arnold_Bax said...

Neal Stephenson constructed one of his historical threads around a Janissary sword. In his three-volume historical epic The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) he recounts the journey of a quick-witted English soldier who, during the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, rescues the princess and grabs this remarkable sword. Jack Shaftoe, the soldier, swashes and buckles his way around the Northern Hemisphere through the times of Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, the capitalisation that led to the development of steam power, the cladding of hulls to prevent shipworm, smuggling, muslim pirates lifting dozens from the Cornish coast for the white slave trade and to power the oars of their galleys and the invention of banking and credit. Apart from the astonishingly successful steel of the sword there is Newton's (probably fictional) search for isotopes (as we would now call them) of gold; alternative rare versions of gold that are heavier and denser. Rarity makes the gold far more valuable than common gold. Newton's search for it involves his network of associates going all over England weighing gold coins on the pretext of assaying for the royal mint. Coins that are suspiciously heavier are brough to the mint for melting down, refining out the heavy gold and reminting from the boring residue. Oh, and on the way Stephenson recounts the invention of renal surgery and information processing. Jack Shaftoe and his sword wend in and out of these engaging and credible stories. If Neal Stephenson was a female, he would definitely have to be a history girl.

Celia Rees said...

Was it the Janissary sword a yatagan?