Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Watson Report: Magic Swords and Their Makers

by I.A. Watson

Magic weapons are a staple of many fantasy stories because they’re a staple from many myths and legends. They’re engrained into our storytelling DNA – with good reason.

Go back three and a half thousand years or more. In England and Northern Europe, wandering hunter/gatherer tribes are transitioning to herder/farmers. Population has grown so there’s competition for territory. Conflict is inevitable. There is a place for strong warriors. There is a place for powerful weapons.

The best weapon available is the bronze sword; this is the Bronze Age, after all. Bronze is the best technology. A dagger of bronze is more effective and keeps its edge better than a dagger of flint. New techniques are becoming available to increase the reach of those bronze blades, combining the reach of a spear with the versatility of a knife. The first two-foot long bronze swords appeared around 1600 BC. A man with such a weapon had a significant combat advantage. A man with such a weapon could be king.

Then came the discovery: fallen stars contain iron. Not the polluted, difficult to work stuff that could be grubbed from the ground, but pure, elemental stuff given by the gods. Meteor iron could be smelted just like bronze, and it made blades that were slightly stronger and lighter. And then the secret, passed down in guilds from smith father to smith son, making their line so important that their descendants cover the Earth today, making Smith the most common Western name: add a pinch of carbon to the molten iron and it becomes steel!

A thousand years BC where the bronze blade was formerly the pinnacle of technology, iron was the magic metal. A steel sword could slice through even those amazing bronze weapons. A steel sword could pierce boiled leather armour like it wasn’t there.

We know quite a bit about these swords. We’ve still got a lot of them, for a very odd reason.

In Northern Europe you can’t throw an axe-head without hitting archaeology. So we’ve got plenty of evidence of the social and economic phases in the long millennia between the last ice age and the “start of history”. One of the more distinctive emphases was ritual behaviour with rivers.

The oldest names in Britain are the names of the rivers, presumed to be the names of the gods and goddesses to whom each watercourse was sacred. In England, the Don and the Sheaf, the Mersey and the Ouse, the Cam and the Thames all give us a glimpse back to a time when rivers were not only the safest highways but the vital resource for a struggling population: food, transport, security, industry and status all began with a good river location.

It is perhaps not surprising then that there was ritual activity at these rivers. Again and again archaeologists discover deposits of valuable items tossed into the waters, buried in the mud. In some places hundreds of finds have been discovered, with post-holes where wooden walkway platforms were raised over the flood to reach the appropriate sacrifice spot.

Archaeologists love wetlands. For good scientific reasons we won’t go into here, wooden and metal artefacts buried in the right kind of river mud don’t oxidise or rot. We know what the weather was like in England in 3500 BC because we’ve got the tree-ring growth patterns from wood preserved from that era in wetland deposits. And we’ve got hundreds of broken swords from those same deposits.

Hold on, though. Broken magic swords? How magic could they be if they broke in battle? But they didn’t. Nearly all the river sacrifice items are broken; many show signs of deliberate destruction. The swords have been snapped in half. Its tempting to speculate that “killing” these treasures was meant to send them to the afterlife, for the use of gods or ancestors; but our forebears left no instruction on their motives.

Hold on again! Iron weapons were valuable. The Iron Age is named after them but in Northern Europe they were rare right up to the coming of the Roman conquerors. Surely a warrior who broke a coveted near-impossible-to-find magic sword was the most pious of men to offer such a sacrifice?

Well, yes and no. Yes, it showed a massive devotion to the gods. Yes, it showed his generosity and power off to the world. But there’s probably a more pragmatic reason as well: One man can only hold one sword. If you fight an enemy and kill him and take his magic sword as well, then you have two. If you give it to an ally, even a son, then two of you have miracle blades; you have a potential challenger. But if you break the weapon and send it to the gods, you have credit, fame, and a less itchy pair of shoulder-blades.


At least that’s the way the archaeologists and historians like to spin it.

Dipping into myth for a moment, remember that King Arthur received Excalibur after the sword he’d drawn from the stone snapped in battle. Merlin brought him to a river and the Lady of the Lake caused a hand to rise from the water bearing the enchanted weapon. At the end of Arthur’s life, he had his oldest friend Bedevere hurl Excalibur back into a river, whereupon it was caught by that same hand, waved thrice, then taken under the waves again until it was required in a different age.

But what of the men who forged the magic swords? Where did they come from? How did they learn their craft? What became of them after?

The most famous smith in Northern legend is Weyland, (proto-Germanic for “battle-brave”), also called Volundr in the Norse, under which name he stars in the Völundarkviða, one of the poems of the Prose Edda. He also features in Þiðrekssaga, the saga of Theoderic the Great, and in the Old English sagas of Deor, Waldere and Beowulf. His legend is depicted on the Franks Casket and on Ardre image stone VIII. All of these sources are twelfth century AD or later, of course, but they seem to distil the surviving lore of smiths and smithies from an earlier time.

There are a couple of variants about how Weyland got started. In the most prevalent story, he and his two brothers spy upon three bathing swan-maidens. It’s well known that if you catch such a damsel and steal her clothes then she has to stay with you as your wife, and that’s what the three brothers did. Their valkyrie lovers taught them strange lore – including possibly what to do with the big iron missiles that Odin cast down from the heavens on occasion.

After nine years, the women returned to their own lands. Weyland’s brothers went with their wives, but Weyland remained behind with his son. His departing lover, Hervör Alvitr (strange, all-wise creature) leaves him a ring to remember her by. Weyland forged himself a magic sword and became a renowned warrior and smith.

Weyland is credited with casting many magic blades. These include Gram, Sigmund’s sword which Odin broke and was later reforged for Sigurd Sigmundson to slay the dragon Fafnir (Völsunga saga); Ogier the Dane’s Curtana and Roland’s Durandil (Karlamagnus Saga); Mimung, which Weyland forged to fight rival smith Amilias (Thidrekssaga); Hatheloke, the sword of Torrent of Portyngale, (Torrent of Portyngale); and a good number of others. He also created the magic ring of Thorstein Vikingson in the saga of that name. His claim to forging Excalibur/Caliburn is of relatively recent origin.

Enter the villain: King Niðhad in Nerike struck by night, capturing Weyland in his sleep. He had Weyland hamstrung so he could not escape, then imprisoned him on the island of Sævarstöð where he would forge weapons that would make Niðhad unstoppable. Niðhad took Weyland’s sword and wore it as his own. Hervör’s ring was given to the king’s daughter Bodvild.
As all storywriters will know, it is a capital mistake for the bad guy to lock the main character up in a workshop, especially then that main character is the greatest smith of legend, and a man with a grudge.

King Niðhad had two sons. Weyland worked on their enthusiasm and ambition, eventually winning their loyalty against their father. Then he murdered them in his workshop. He converted their skulls into goblets for their unsuspecting father and transformed their eyes into jewels and their teeth into a brooch for their unsuspecting mother. He burned the other remains in his forge as he crafted wings to escape to freedom.

Weyland had also made friends with Princess Bodvild, who visited him often to see the wonders of his workshop. Before he fled he drugged her, raped her, and retrieved his wife’s ring, leaving her pregnant with the child who would later become the hero Viðga.

For the Scandinavians this was a pretty good ending to a revenge saga, and showed Niðhad that he’d messed with the wrong smith.

Of note in our present discussion, however, are the traits that Weyland was attributed in the legend. First off, he was lame. There’s physical evidence – in the form of skeletons – that occasionally Iron Age folks had half their foot deliberately chopped off, including a few folks who, judging by what their bones can tell us about their diet and health, were otherwise of high status. This might simply be a way of non-lethally removing a competing family member from a leadership contest, but there are sufficient traditions about lame smiths (c.f. Hephaestus) for us to at least suspect it was a traditional means of ensuring that a valuable and dangerous resource could be controlled and contained.

Second, we have the idea that smithlore was secret. Niðhad’s sons were fascinated with it, lured in by hopes of learning the mystery through hidden initiation. It seems likely that there were craft secrets passed down by family or guild. After all, the ability to make magic weapons is a sure ticket to as good portion of the hunt-meat.

Third, the smith’s work was art as well as craft. Weyland made rings and jewellery as well as weapons of war. He made tools as well as killing devices. A man who can make a magic sword of star-metal can forge a cunning finger-band of fairy gold.

And fourth, we learn that smiths were dark and dangerous men to cross.

The lore of swords and their makers have come down to us today via many generations of storytelling. Every magical tool, every SF miracle-weapon for that matter, comes from Weyland’s workshop and from those ancient kings breaking their enemies power over their knee before casting it to the gods. Every cunning scientist or technologist who solves the problem and overcomes the brutal adversary by using brains over brawn is a smith at heart.

Now go throw something in a river.