Friday, June 3, 2016

Swords and Weapons in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings

Prompt from the Tolkien Society: Carefully read the book you want to work from if you have not already done this. Note down and think about the many weapons that are used in the story. Why do characters use weapons in the story? Do the weapons have names? If so, why do you think this is? Does the naming of swords remind you of any other stories where swords are named? What other kinds of weapons are there? How are they described? How are they used?

Why do characters use weapons in the story?
There are various reasons for the different weapons used in the story.  Our first instances are in The Silmarillion when Feanor and and the Noldor begin the smithying of swords:
"And when Melkor saw that these lies were smouldering, and that pride and anger were awake among the Noldor, he spoke to them concerning weapons; and in that time the Noldor began the smithying of swords and axes and spears...and Feanor made a secret forge, of which not even Melkor was aware; and there he tempered fell swords for himself and for his sons, and made tall helms with plumes of red.  Bitterly did Mahtan rue the day when he taught to the husband of Nerdanel all the lore of metalwork he had learned of Aule." (Silmarillion 69)
Considering Melkor was the first person to introduce the art of weapon-making, it would seem like the weapons are all together evil.  We do see, however, that these weapons are used for good things such as the conquest of Melkor by the hosts of the Vanyar in the War of Wrath, and the defense of the defenseless by many heroes.  This does not, however, mean that the weapons themselves are good--though they are made to work for good ends, they are not necessarily intrinsically benevolent.

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The following is a list of specific weapons used in The Silmarillion:

  • Aeglos - "snow point", the spear of Gil-galad
  • Anglachel - the sword made from meteoric iron that Thingol received from Eol and which he gave to Beleg; after its reforging for Turin named Gurthang
  • Angrist - 'Iron-cleaver', the knife made by Telchar of Nogrod, taken from Curufin by Beren and used by him to cut the Silmaril from Morgoth's crown 
  • Anguirel - Eol's sword, made of the same metal as Anglachel
  • Aranruth - 'King's Ire', the name of Thingol's sword.  Aranruth survived the ruin of Doriath and was possessed by the Kings of Numenor
  • Belthronding - The bow of Beleg Cuthalion, which was buried with him
  • Grond - The great mace of Morgoth, with which he fought Fingolfin; called the Hammer of the Underworld.  The battering-ram used against the Gate of Minas Tirith was named after it
  • Gurthang - 'Iron of Death', name of Beleg's sword Anglachel after it was reforged for Turin in Nargothrond, and from which he was named Mormegil
  • Narsil - The sword of Elendil, made by Telchar of Nogrod, that was broken when Elendil died in combat with Sauron; from the shards it was reforged for Aragorn and named Anduril
The following are the weapons above used for good purposes or by good characters (at least once): Aeglos, Anglachel, Angrist, Anguirel, Anruth, Belthronding, Gurthang, Narsil.  The only weapon not on this list is Grond, the mace used only by Morgoth.

In summary, there are a lot of reasons that characters use weapons that are very noble and respectable, though not all weapons are used in such ways.


As for The Hobbit, there are a few major weapons: Sting, Glamdring, and Orcrist.  All three of these were taken by the Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin respectively from the troll hoard of plunder.  Elrond reveals that these are all three from Gondolin:
"'These are not troll-make.  They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the West, my kin.  They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars.  They must have come from a dragon's hard or goblin plunder, for dragons and goblins destroyed that city many ages ago.  This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin; it was a famous blade.  This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foehammer that the king of Gondolin once wore.  Keep them well!'" (The Hobbit 52)
Bilbo uses his new sword for the first time to rescue his friends from the Spiders of Mirkwood.  Gandalf utilizes Turgon's old sword for all the good things he brings to fruition, and Thorin uses his sword along the journey and then at the Battle of the Five Armies.  All three characters use their weapons for good--this indicates that there is not a bias against weapons, nor does Tolkien mean to incriminate them.  He himself was a soldier and certainly understood the need for defense and just war.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo uses Bilbo's sword which was passed down to him along the journey.  Other notable weapons include Aragorn who carries Narsil--which was the sword that cut the Ring from Sauron's finger--and actually fights with Anduril, the reforged version of Narsil.  Aragorn uses his sword for good just as Frodo does.  An example of a negatively used weapon is Grond, a battering ram used during the Battle of the Pelennor which was named after Melkor's mace.  This points out that weapons can be used for evil, of course.

To recapitulate, Tolkien shows both sides of the story: weapons can be used for good or for ill, depending on the intention of the user.  He does not take a completely passive stance or allow for evil to overtake the innocent, nor does he advocate reckless and needless warfare.  Both good and bad characters use weapons, but it is important to note why and how.


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Do the weapons have names?  If so, why do you think this is? Does the naming of swords remind you of any other stories where swords are named? 
The weapons do have names, some of which can be read above.  I think that this is to distinguish weapons and to call attention to them.  For instance, Turin Turambar is closely associated with his sword, the Mormegil, and so people oftentimes reference the Mormegil when talking about Turin.  If Turin did not have a named sword, they would be unsure what to call him (since they weren't using his real name).  Furthermore, the fact that Glamdring had its runes carved onto it makes it possible for Elrond to identify it and allow Gandalf and the others to know that it has a rich history.  Bilbo takes comfort knowing the lineage of his sword--using it helps him pretend he is a noble Elvish warrior.

The naming of swords is also another Anglo-Saxon historical element.  Many parts of the various cultures in Middle-earth is based off of Anglo-Saxon and medieval culture.  According to Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare by Richard Underwood (1999), some Anglo-Saxon swords were given names like Hrunting in Beowulf.  These swords had strong symbolism--they represented masculinity, bravery, nobleness, and valor.  Perhaps it is for these reasons that Tolkien included names of the weapons.

This tradition reminds me of the most famous sword of all, Excalibur.  People may not know much about the Arthurian legend, but they probably have heard of Excalibur.  This sword represented the strength and battle-wisdom of the legendary king and embodied all his noble traits.

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What other kinds of weapons are there? How are they described? How are they used?
There are bows used by Legolas, Bard, and Beleg (to name a few), maces (generally used by evil characters like Melkor and the Witch-King), and daggers (used by Grima--to kill Saruman, Celegorm, Bilbo, and Frodo).  I have noticed that not many characters use swords.  This could be--like I mentioned--because swords are associated with valor, something the evil characters greatly lack.  Many evil weapons are described as black, heavy, and spiky--sort of like the nature of evil itself.

To conclude, characters use weapons for all kinds of reasons both good and bad.  I think weapons were made a big deal and named because of classic emphasis and historial elements.  Finally, there are other weapons usually used by evil characters which are described much differently.

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