Of Sting and Others

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[page 10] OF STING AND OTHERS J.P. STRANG "Hail, sword of Carrol! OFt hast thou been in the great woof of war, Oft giving battle, beheadin high princes." --The Song of Carrol's Sword In man's long history of warfare, no weapon has as much significance as the sword. In our language, the sword is not only a weapon of war, it is the _symbol_ of war. We speak of perishing by the sword, smiting with the edge of the sword (both Biblical), and rattling the sabre. With the exception of the spear, the bow, the sling, and the knobbeldy stick, the sword is one of our oldest weapons, surviving even into the Atomic Age in less "civilized" parts of the world. And it was not so many years ago that we "sophisticated" nations of the west finally abandoned the sword! Fact! I myself used to own a pair of U. S. Navy cutlasses, Model of 1917 (now what use is a cutlass aboard an armored dreadnought?); and, I have it on the authority of R. Ewart Oakeshott, a great expert on the lore of weapons, that the British Army included sabre drill in their curricula well into the late 1930's. Since _Lord of the Rings_ is a tale of battles and great deeds in the tradition (some say, surpassing the tradition) of _Beowulf_, the _Volsunga Saga_ and the _Ulster Cycle_, it seems logical that the sword should play a big part. As it does--for we find therein a number of heroic blades: Gandalf's Glamdring, the foe-hammer; Anduril, the Flame of the West; and Sting. Not to mention the barrow-blades of [page 11] Pippin and Merry, and Orcrist, the mate to Glamdring, which has resided beneath the Lonely Mountain ever since Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain, fell defending the gates of his hall at the Battle of Five Armies. What goes into the making of a hero's sword? Well, it should be an ancient heirloom, not something whacked up by the local smith, or purchased from the booth of an itinerant peddlar. Indeed, only a lout or an orc would dream of _buying_ his sword. A hero must inherit it, as Aragorn did, or receive it as a reward for some great deed, or (best of all) make the obtaining of the sword a great deed in itself. This brings us to the topic of tomb-breaking, troll-taming, and dragon-slaying. The legends and sagas all agree that a sword worthy of a hero is likely to have an unpleasant guardian, either hostile spirit or live monster, who must be defeated or over-awed before the hero can claim his prize. So it was in the Third Age of Middle Earth. Orcrist, Glamdring, and Sting all came out of the jumble of bones and cast-off clothing in the lair of the three trolls, Tom, Bert, and Bill. Pippin and Merry only obtained their swords as a result of a deadlier struggle with a barrow-wight. The sword of a hero should also have its own personality, and (usually) a name, and tying in with that personality one often finds special attributes or abilities that can be lumped under the heading of "magic." This "magic," it should be noted, is a far, far cry from the sort in the Brothers Grimm or the Shirley Temple Story Hour. Names are obvious, and reflect the personality of the blade or the wielder, or both. Sting is a good example. Sting, as you doubtless remember, was named by Bilbo after the killing of a large spider (Sting seemed to have a special antipathy for spiders) "all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else." That that event marks a change in Bilbo's character cannot be doubted, for soon after he rescues his companions from danger (more spiders), and becomes the head. of the expedition through the imprisonment of the dwarves in the Elvenking's halls, he thinks up the escape plan, and certainly does not fade back into obseurity even after the dwarves reach Erebor and Thorin begins to assert himself. He is no longer "the little fellow bobbing on the mat," but Bilbo the Burglar, barrel-rider, oonverser with dragons, finder of the Arkenstone. The personality of elven-blades is also manifested by a cold, flame-like flickering whenever the creatures of the Enemy are about. In _The Hobbit_, again, Tolkien compares this to the hatred of the elves for Orcs and all the other works of Sauron. Elf-swords and other blades of ancient days also may have on them runes and spells for the ruination of Mordor. (You will recall how Ugluk threw away the swords of Pippin and Merry, "as if they burned him.") And that raises another question. Earlier I made a distinction between "magic" swords, as the term is used in fairy tales, and [page 12] "attributes" of the heroic sword. I make the distinction because in the garden-variety fairy story, there is at least a suggestion that the sword is the main thing, and that anyone can use it, that the mere ownership of a particular piece of weaponry will make a 90-pound weakling into an invincible warrior. Obviously, that could not have been the case with Sting, Glamdring and Ororist, or they would never have ended up in a troll's lair. True, the sword is important, in some cases, such as Merry's slaying of the leader of the Nine, or Sam's battle with Shelob. But I am more impressed with the courage of Merry aiding the Lady Eowyn, of Sam desperately trying to save his master. So the personality of the owner also has an effect on the sword. Is that why Narsil was re-named Anduril after the smiths of Rivendell had repaired it? Aragorn was certainly a different sort than Isildur, and perhaps the new name signified the determination of Isildur's Heir to undo the evil that Isildur did when he cut the Ring from Sauron's finger and kept it for his own. Also, Narsil was known as the Sword That Was Broken, and perhaps it was hoped that a re-naming would prevent _that_ connection. But there may have been another reason. To our ancestors the forge was a place of power, the smith a magician, the objects he turned out seeming to take on a life of their own under his hands, in a sense they were _born_ in the forge. So it may have been in Middle Earth. Thus there had been a sword called Narsil, which had broken beneath Elendil when he fell fighting Sauron at the last. The sword, in a sense, had died, and when it had been born again in Rivendell it had needed a new name. The _Kalevala_, Finnish collection of tales of the Land of Heroes, states that iron was discovered by Illimarnen the Master Smith, forger of the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars. Illimarnen hoped that iron would benefit man, but in a weak moment he took the advice of the Evil One and quenched iron in a bath of vinegar and acid. Consequently, iron sprang hissing from the vat, bitter and biting in nature, eager to injure and cause pain. In Japan, swordsmiths go through en elaborate ritual of purification before touching their tools, because they recognize the forging process as most critical to the formation of the sword's character. Every forge has a shrine to the patron diety, and prayers are offered before the work starts, and while it is in progress. The final result of the Japanese swordsmith's labors looks nothing at all like a pattern-welded sword of Europe's Heroic Age, but the construction is remarkably similar. Pattern-welding is the process whereby a blade is built up of many strips and bits of iron, hammered together, twisted, folded, and hammered out again. The final result is a work of art, a blade with an intricate pattern, usually like the scales of a snake, literally woven into the blade. Such pattern-welding becomes uncommon in new swords after about AD 950. But the blades were still highly praised and sought after, which perhaps explains some of the prestige attached to a sword from ancient days.[page 13] In closing I must say a word about swordplay, if only to clear up some common misconceptions. Considering our own heroic age, I doubt if there was very much klak-klakking of sword against sword in Middle Earth. The typical sword of our heroic age was a straight, double-edged weapon, designed to make an effective slash, and at the same time be capable of a respectable thrust. Protection for the hand was confined to a simple cross-guard. Modern fencers usually condemn such a weapon as "barbaric." It certainly can't be used as a fencing foil is, or an epee; or even the modern sabre. Those weapons may be more scientific, but I am not convinced that they are better. Warfare in ancient days was a matter of shock, and the soldier usually had a shield and some armor, even if it was only an iron cap or a quilted leather jacket. That and his agility provided defense against his enemy's weapons, not parrying with his sword. The modern fencing tool is derived from the rapier and the small-sword, and those weapons served more as badges of rank for the gentleman than serious tools of war. (Duelling, in my opinion, is not warfare but a foppish, idiotic game.) Such weapons came in after the invention of gunpowder, when warfare was changing over from shock (close combat with physical weapons) to projectile weapons (muskets, cannon and the like--right up to our modern rifles, ICBM'S, and machine guns). I have, in short, a distinct feeling that a rapier would have been completely out of place in the hurley-burley at Helm's Deep, just as out of place as a naval cutlass on the steel deck of a modern guided-missle criuser. And there you have it. Vast volumes have been written on the subject of weaponry, vaster volumes than I ever hope to write. Indeed, I suspect that I have been vast enough for one time, and so will say FINIS

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