THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – 04 – The Sword

Temps de lecture : 3 minutes >

Many an earl of Beowulf brandished
His ancient iron to guard is lord

Beowulf, l. 753-4

Then lifted his arm the Lord of the Geats
And smote the worm with his ancient sword
But the brown edge failed as it fell on bone
And cut less deep than the king had need
In his sore distress…

idem, l. 2431-5

Who so pulleth out this swerd of this stone
and anuyld is rightwys kinge borne of all England

Morte d’Arthur

Sir, there is here bynethe at the river a grete
stone whiche I sawe flete above the water
And therin I sawe stycking a swerd
The kynge sayde I wille see that merveill
Soo all the knyghtes went with him


And as for this swerd there shalle never
man begrype
Hym at the handels but one
But he shalle passe alle other


He took his vorpal sword in hand
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack !


These many quotations from English heroic texts – “Jabberwocky” can be considered as a kind of mock-heroic poem – suggest that Philippe Sellier’s comment on the importance of the sword in the French medieval literature can be extended to the English medieval literature. He writes : “Au Moyen-Age c’est surtout l’épée qui compte : de l’Excalibor du roi Arthur, de la Joyeuse de Charlemagne à l’épée de Jeanne d’Arc“. Moreover he himself establishes that sword and heroism are not a feature limited to the Middle Ages but common to all heroic literatures of all times – this implies naturally texts involving the use of swords ; one can not imagine Buffalo Bill hunting with a sword. Sellier illustrates his definition of heroism with texts as old as an account of Cyrus’ life by Herodotus (Vth cy b.C.) and as recent as a poem by St John Perse (XXth cy).

Nevertheless, since I have chosen to concentrate on English medieval literature, I shall use the word “heroic” in a more restricted meaning : “heroic” will be opposed to “romantic” (i.e. to all that is connected with the medieval romances and not at all with the 19th cy romantic revival). In a nutshell, heroic literature includes mainly the old English epic poetry from Beowulf to the Battle of Maldon, whereas the romantic literature I shall refer to, includes the middle English romances from the various “matters” up to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (XVth cy).

I shall try to expose in this chapter how the sword – which appears in both heroic and romantic literatures (4) is used in a different way by the Beowulf poet and by Malory. I shall also comment on the various characteristics of the swords in these texts and finally try to explore Tolkien’s swords in the Lord of the Rinqs and other texts.

Mimming, Naegling, Excalibur, Durandal, Joyeuse, Hauteclaire, (5) all  “great” swords are given a name and their name is forever connected with the name of the corresponding hero. To be submitted to such a process of individualization is in fact a privilege which objects are seldom enjoying. Moreover it is a privilege limited to certain swords. In Beowulf one of the hero’s swords is sometimes called Naegling (not so often, the poet often prefers to call it “brown edge” – meaning “bright edge” or “ancient iron”, etc.) :

Then the king once more was mindful of glory,
Swung his great sword-blade with all his might
And drove it home on the dragon’s head.
But Neagling broke, it failed in the battle,
The blade of Beowulf, ancient and grey. (OAEL, 1. 253I to L. 2535)

Naegling and the other heroic swords are associated with the hero’s strength, his courage; battles are won thanks to the “ancient blade” but since the sword is considered as a separate being, it can “fail in the battle” and cause the hero’s defeat when it is “not his lot that edges of iron could help him in battle” (1. 2535-6).

The other characters in the poem probably have weapons too but since they have not the status of heroes, their daggers, axes, spears and swords are mentioned but not individualized :

Many an earl of Beowulf brandished his
ancient iron to guard his lord. (OAEL, 1. 733-4)

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[INFOS QUALITE] statut : en constructon | mode d’édition : rédaction et iconographie | sources : mémoire de fin d’études ULg | auteur : Patrick Thonart | crédits illustrations : en en-tête, une scène du film de Peter Jackson : l’épée Anduril brandie par Aragorn © New Line Cinema.

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