The Black Sword

There is the subtle but fascinating fantasy motif I have been dwelling on for quite some time, I recently decided to put my thoughts together on the subject. As you know I am big fantasy fan. It was recently when I was re-reading the Silmarillion and playing Skyrim that I realised there was such a concept as the idea of “the Black Sword”, and that got me thinking where I could find that reference and what it meant. So that is what today’s post will be about.

It all begun with the realisation that my swords in Skyrim had a predilection to be Ebony or Daedric – and not just because they are stronger, but because they look “cool”. The black edge, the lack of shiny steel, it makes the blade look otherworldly. And as it happens, these swords I made would 99.9% of the time be enchanted in such a way that they either increase my stamina/health, or absorb my opponents power/health/soul, whatever you want to call it. I know many of you may think this seems logical – but there are many swords and materials in Skyrim and other RPGs/Action videogames, and certainly more spells than just those. Perhaps it is just a visual aesthetic thing. I noticed this was also my preference when playing Soul Calibur. I never liked Soul Calibur, it looked too neat. But Soul Edge was, once again, cool; it had a presence.

And so I was thinking about this, Turin Turambar comes into play. And if you know anything about Middle-earth, then you will know that (one of) Turin’s nick name was Mormegil – Black Sword – which he earns for his dark blade Gurthang, forged originally by Eol under the name Anglachel. Eol was a mastersmith and created these two magnificent swords: the above named and Anguirel, which he made out of a meteor. The swords were of mysterious nature, and were able to cut through even iron. Anglachel was also believed to be sentient. Given to King Thingol as a gift to leave Eol be, Melian spoke to her King and told him that the sword was, in short, evil. How did the sword end up with Turin? Well, his friend Beleg Strongbow was part of Thingol’s retinue, one of his best men, and when Turin went missing, captured by the orcs, Thingol allowed Beleg to take this mighty sword to aid him in his quest. But ill fate met Beleg, for when he found Turin captive during a rainy night, the sword slipped, and Turin thinking himself in danger from the orcs again, seized the weapon and killed his best friend…After that the sword was never quite the same, and so it was reforged into Gurthang, with which Turin kills the great dragon Glaurung…And you know how the story goes kids: the blood of Glaurung gets Turin incapacitated and seemingly dead, Nienor gets to the scene to find the dragon dying, who then proceeds to return her memories and made her realise due to ill-fate, Turin and Nienor were now in an incestuous relationship. She then casts herself on to the waters of Careb-en-Aras. When some time later Turin regains conscience and finds everything out, he kills himself with his own sword…

…Melian’s wisdom, as always, was correct to the core. The sword was imbued with a malice, unknown to the bearers. Ill-fated. Cursed. Yet…so powerful. Of course, Turin was a great warrior without Gurthang…But he was so much better with it: I mean, how else could he have killed Glaurung otherwise? Not with a simple iron blade, that’s for sure.

Keep all of this in mind, whilst I introduce you to perhaps, the most famous dark blade of all fantasy literature. You know it? Of course, I can only be talking of Stormbringer. An agent of Chaos in the universe created by Michael Moorcock, Stormbringer is a huge black sword with runes carved on the blade. It is also known to be sentient, having thoughts of its own, and to have the ability to drink one’s soul, as well as granting its bearer unnatural strength. Just like in the case of Turin, the sword ends up with a man of renown; Elric, Emperor of Melnibone. Elric is albino, and of ill-health, but he is a very powerful sorcerer. His might is different of Turin’s but he is still great. But very much like in the previous case, and despite Elric’s good intentions, the sword comes to haunt him time and time again, making him kill everyone he ever loved, and eventually himself. We must remember that, there were more than one black sword in Elric’s world, but Stormbringer drove the narrative, and knowing the story, the rest of the swords came a great deal later – probably as macguffins anyway.

Now, it would be mad to think Tolkien and Moorcock (despite the latter’s insistence  is not borrowing from the former at any point), just came up with this concept on their own. Well, the stories were their own, but their fantasy fed from myth – and both authors recognised at some point of their careers that the tales behind Turin and Elric, were heavily inspired by the Kalevala: the Finnish national epic. And the figure on which they are based is Kullervo, whose entire story arch is based on his ill-fated life, that ends with him in a rampageous murder towards his family’s killer, and eventual suicide by his magic sword called Ukko. Kullervo asks Ukko to take his life, once he realises the damage done and that all good that was ever there was now gone. Ukko, magic thunder sentient sword created by the Finnish god of the same name, tells Kullervo that it will gladly take his life, for as a weapon it has little care who bares him or dies under its blade. Similarly, we find a story in Old Norse mythology of the magic sword Tyrfing. It was created by the dwarves Dvalinn and Durin (…) who were trapped by Svafrlami, king of Garðaríki (medieval Kievan Rus). Svafrlami then made the dwarves make him a magical sword, which they did, but in return the cursed the sword so every time the blade would be unsheathed it would take a life, including that of the king. Svafrlami asked the dwarves to make the sword cut through iron, never rust, and never miss a stroke. And in the end, the sword took the king’s life, and that of every other barer after him.

So…By now I am sure you may have noticed a pattern here, right? Magic sword, black blade, providing the barer with supreme abilities, harder and shaper than anything else, and taking a life with every blow, with malice, regardless of the actual intentions of its owner, to the point of taking said owners life…But let me point out to something else, which is, I feel, crucial to understanding the nature of the Black Sword. In worlds of legend and fantasy, where many races inhabit the Earth, these ill-fated swords are always – Always – in the possession of men. And I mean that in a racial way, not in a sex/gender manner (Tyrfing ended for a while belonging to Hervor, who was a woman). Yet, the items were never crafted by men, but by other powers: elves, dwarves, gods, daemons…Except in one case, of course. Which is that of the Sword of Khaine, Widowmaker, Godslayer, whatever you want to call it.

In the universe of Warhammer Fantasy, the elven god of War, Khaine, created this weapon that manifests not always in the shape of a sword but an edged weapon in any case. The sword incites the warrior that keeps it to violence and murder, and it is supposed to also have a mind of its own, and is always of a darkened material, as it is always dripping blood. In the latest interpretation of this weapon, it is Maleus Darkblade, the dark elf champion, who obtains the weapon under the name Warpsword of Khaine, in his quest to become essentially a bigger badass than he already was and reach his aspirations of becoming the Scourge, instead of Malekith, the Witch-king. But even though the Warpsword was as described before like the other black swords, Maleus isn’t just a man. And more importantly, Maleus discovers that the sword is actually older than Khaine. Maleus, however does not succumb to the power of the sword, but rather becomes pretty much immortal and untouchable. But the truth is that Maleus did not rely on the sword the whole time, and only used it occasionally when extremely necessary.

Ultimately, what becomes transparent from this is that there is such a thing as fate for this characters, but fate is only the result of their own actions. The Black Sword symbolises vulnerability but also potential and inner desire; duality in its very existence. It is a signifier of human nature – which is probably the reason why the effects on the elven kind are different, because they are not human. It is almost a path of enlightenment and self-improvement that the elf must follow to control the artefact, and it could so by the human, if their nature was simply different. Personally, I would love to see how the story would pan out if the bearer of the Black Sword would be a dwarf or a halflin…But perhaps there is a reason, a sense of narrative why that shall not be…After all, the myth was already written in its own ancient context, it had a purpose, and so it has passed on and coded into our own reality and conventions.

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