“In the hilt is fame”: resonances of medieval swords and sword-lore in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
By K.S. Whetter and R.Andrew McDonald
Mythlore, Vol. 25 Issue 1-2 (2006)
As part of the powerful and evocative scene in which the Company of the Nine embarks from Rivendell on the quest to return the One Ring to Mount Doom, J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings provides a detailed description of the war gear borne by each member of the Fellowship:
The Company took little gear of war, for their hope was in secrecy not in battle. Aragorn had Anduril but no other weapon […]. Boromir had a long sword, in fashion like Anduril but of less lineage, and he bore also a shield and his war-horn. […] Gimli the dwarf alone wore openly a short shirt of steel-rings […] and in his belt was a broad-bladed axe. Legolas had a bow and a quiver, and at his belt a long white knife. The younger hobbits wore the swords that they had taken from the barrow; but Frodo took only Sting […]. Gandalf bore his staff, but girt at his side was the elven-sword Glamdring, the mate of Orcrist that lay now upon the breast of Thorin under the Lonely Mountain. (II.iii.292-3)
Gimli’s axe and Legolas’s bow notwithstanding, the place of honor among the weapons carried by the Company is reserved for swords: swords with names, swords with lineages, swords with magical properties, and swords that herald (as Aragorn’s does) the closing of the Third Age. Clearly, then, in Middle-earth as in medieval Europe, the sword possesses what its most distinguished modern commentator, Ewart Oakeshott, describes as “a potent mystique which sets it above any other man-made object”. Considering that Tolkien’s professional life was spent immersed in Germanic, Norse, Celtic, and English medieval literature and mythology, including texts rich in swords and sword-lore, it is scarcely surprising that the characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are provided with weapons whose names, descriptions, acquisition, characteristics and lore echo those of what Tolkien called the “northern mythological imagination”, or as one recent critic has put it, the “real Middle-earth”: Northwestern Europe in the early and central middle ages. This paper seeks to illuminate resonances of medieval swords and sword-lore in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where swords and the lore associated with them play important, if largely neglected, roles. It will be argued that the blades of Middle-earth as presented in these works display the influence of famous literary, mythological, and historical weapons from northern Europe in the middle ages, highlighting Middle-earth’s well-established inheritance of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Norse and later medieval literature and mythology. Moreover, because of the association of specific weapons with particular heroes in this literature, such a study also bears on the nature of heroism in Tolkien’s work.
The principal blades of Middle-earth will need little explication. Several are introduced early in The Hobbit, when the swords Glamdring and Orcrist, as well as Bilbo’s initially unnamed blade, are taken from the lair of the trolls (2.50-51). Two of these blades, Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, and Bilbo’s weapon, later named Sting and eventually passed to Frodo, also figure in The Lord of the Rings. Early in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam are similarly equipped with their own swords when Tom Bombadil rescues both blades and hobbits from the cavern of the Barrow-wight. Later, at Rivendell, Bilbo presents Frodo with Sting as well as his coat of mithril. It is also at Rivendell, at the Council of Elrond, that we are introduced to another important sword of Middle-earth, namely, the Sword of Elendil, Narsil-Anduril, also known as the Sword that was Broken. Tolkien makes it clear almost from the moment that the swords are introduced that they are no ordinary weapons. Most (as we shall see) are ancient; and Narsil-Anduril has been handed down from generation to generation within the kindred of Elendil, lending it a similar mystique. Apart from being ancient, the blades are imbued with magical properties. Sting, Glamdring and Anduril all glow, while Merry’s Westernesse blade melts after striking the Nazgul at the battle of Pelennor Fields. These swords, replete with names, runes, histories, and magical properties, make their presence felt at crucial moments in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; indeed, they are celebrated as living personalities in Middle-earth, just as the historical and literary weapons of the “real Middle-earth” on which they were modeled were also celebrated by poets, bards, and writers of the middle ages.