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“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

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”. . . .

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