When I was young,
I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet Sing it with such airs
That one believed he had a sword upstairs…
WB Yeats “All Things Can Tempt Me” from Responsibilities and Other Poems (1916)
Welcome, dear readers, as always. In this posting, we want to think out loud about swords—actually, about one in particular, as named by Bilbo Baggins in Chapter Eight of The Hobbit (“Flies and Spiders”), when having killed a giant spider, he says to it “I will give you a name…and I shall call you Sting.” As it appears in The Hobbit, and then in The Lord of the Rings, we wondered whether we might see its use or abandonment as somehow symbolic of stages of growth in the lives of its owners, defining or redefining those who wield it.
From his childhood and beyond, Tolkien would have been familiar with swords, as they appear in virtually every fairy tale and heroic story he had ever read: what heroic character would be without one?
There’s the sword “made by giants” which Beowulf pulls down from a wall in Grendel’s lair to put an end to Grendel’s mother.
There’s the sword which Arthur pulled out of a stone/anvil and the very pulling of which proved his right to rule England.
(See here TH White’s wonderful 1938 novel about the young Arthur, The Sword in the Stone,
which, adapted, would later form part of his longer volume The Once and Future King (1958). There’s also a Disney animated feature based upon the book, but we’ve never found it so good as the book itself.)
And there’s the second Arthurian sword, Excalibur, which comes from a lake and must be returned at Arthur’s death.
(For another view of Arthur’s heritage and power, revealed by his sword, see this LINK, in which characters from another version of the Arthur story have something to say: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2c-X8HiBng )
Then there is the sword Gram, which appears in the story of Sigurd and the dragon, Fafnir, a story which Tolkien probably first encountered in Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890), which we know that he read as a child.
You can have your own copy of this book—from which Tolkien may also have unconsciously gotten the name “Moria”, as well—at this LINK: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/540/540-h/540-h.htm.
As a medievalist, Tolkien could hardly have escaped the story of Tristan and Isolde, in which Tristan wounds an Irish knight and is identified later in the story by the fact that a piece of Tristan’s blade has remained in the knight.
(There are a number of early versions of the Tristan and Isolde story, but a familiar one would be that in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Volume I, Book VIII. Here’s a LINK: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1251/1251-h/1251-h.htm)
Even into the age of gunpowder, there are still swords everywhere in literature—in Shakespeare (this is from Romeo and Juliet, c.1595)
and in 19th-century fiction, like The Three Musketeers (1844-45).
and Kidnapped (1886).
Although they were by then antiquated (and then prohibited by regulation from the battlefield), even British Army officers were still required to purchase them in the Great War—this is the model 1897 with which Tolkien in 1916
would have had to outfit himself
so that he would have looked like these officers.
Bilbo’s Sting was acquired in a much more casual way. After the trolls had been tricked by Gandalf to expose themselves to sunlight and therefore were turned to stone,
Gandalf prodded the dwarves into locating the trolls’ hideout. Inside, among other things, they found:
“…several swords of various makes, shapes, and sizes…Gandalf and Thorin each took one of these, and Bilbo took a knife in a leather sheath. It would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Two, “Roast Mutton”)
There is more to this knife, as Bilbo discovers when, after being left behind in the hollows under the mountains, he draws it:
“It shone pale and dim before his eyes. ‘So it is an elvish blade, too,’ he thought.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)
As the story continues, Bilbo finds more uses for it—to keep Gollum at a distance
and to deal with the giant spiders of Mirkwood,
and it’s here that we see Bilbo at his boldest physically—which makes it an appropriate moment to give his little sword a fierce little name.
Bilbo has an heroic moment with his weapon in his struggle with the spiders, rescuing the dwarves, but it’s clear that, although heroes in literature traditionally have swords, swords do not make heroes. In the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo makes a disappearance, rather than an appearance, and we hear no more of Sting in The Hobbit until, in the last chapter of the book, we learn that, finally returning to Bag End, “His sword he hung over the mantelpiece.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Nineteen, “The Last Stage”)
This is not the end of the story of Sting, however, which will have a second—really third life, as it appears to have been made in Gondolin for the Goblin Wars many years before, since it is associated with Thorin’s (and Gandalf’s) sword, which “had killed hundreds of goblins in its time, when the fair elves of Gondolin hunted them in the hills or did battle before their walls.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Four, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)
(Gondolin by Kenneth Sofia)
This third life, in the hands of Frodo, parallels, to a degree, Bilbo’s experience, but the little sword’s ultimate fate is more complex than the act of simply being hung up at the story’s end.
It begins this life, however, with its previous owner, Bilbo, about to depart from the Shire after his notorious birthday party vanishing act:
“Then he put on quickly some old untidy garments, and fastened round his waist a worn leather belt On it he hung a short sword in a battered black-leather scabbard.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter One, “A Long-Expected Party”)
Sting, then, will travel to Rivendell with Bilbo, but not remain there. As the new Fellowship is about to leave Rivendell years later, Bilbo:
“…took from the box a small sword in an old shabby leathern scabbard. Then he drew it, and its polished and well-tended blade glittered suddenly, cold and bright. ‘This is Sting,’ he said, and thrust it with little effort deep into a wooden beam. ‘Take it, if you like. I shan’t want it again, I expect.’
Frodo accepted it gratefully.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)
Although he has gladly accepted it, Frodo, like Bilbo before him, will not be a very active fighter with Sting. He will stab a goblin in the foot (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”), but, otherwise, it will be Sam who will employ it, temporarily defeating and driving off Shelob with it, (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”) then wounding an orc named Snaga, who falls through an open trapdoor to his death. (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)
Sam continues to carry Sting all the way to Mt Doom, but something has happened to Frodo during that long journey and it reveals itself in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the next-to-last chapter in the story. Things in the Shire have not gone well in the year Frodo and his friends have been away. It has been taken over by what Pippin calls “half-orcs and ruffians”, who owe allegiance to someone they call “Sharkey” and all seem bent on turning the place into a miniature fascist state. And yet, when Pippin says that they’ll have to be fought, Frodo replies:
“Fight?…Well, I suppose it may come to that. But remember: there is to be no slaying of hobbits, not even if they have gone over to the other side. Really gone over, I mean; not just obeying ruffians’ orders because they are frightened. No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire, and it is not to begin now. And nobody is to be killed at all, if it can be helped.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
Frodo persists in this approach to violence even after “Sharkey” turns out to be Saruman, who then attempts to knife Frodo. Saruman is thrown to the ground and Sam, drawing his sword (perhaps Sting? it never appears that he returns it to Frodo), seems to be about to stop him from trying again when Frodo says:
“No, Sam!…Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”
We have seen a progression in the life of Sting, from its initial finding by the timid Bilbo, who then becomes the battler of spiders, even if later, involved in an actual battle, he chooses to be less a participant than an observer. He passes the sword on to Frodo, who uses it aggressively only once, before it comes into the hands of Sam for the rest of the story. And we can understand that, even offered it, Frodo will never touch it again. Instead, he will be as Saruman then says:
“You have grown, Halfling…Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise—” but Saruman goes on to add “and cruel” and this shows how little Saruman himself has grown. “You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!”
Saruman’s bitterness is not long-lasting, however, as, a moment later, his now-lackey, Grima Wormtongue, uses another blade to cut his throat, dying a moment later himself, pierced by several hobbit arrows.
From what we can tell, at this final stage, unless it’s in Sam’s hands—and even if it is–Sting has completely disappeared from the story. Considering how Frodo has changed into the wiser, non-violent, person whom Saruman recognizes, we suppose that it’s not surprising that it has. And, with Sauron—and his Ring– gone and the King reestablishing control over much of western Middle-earth, we expect that there will no longer be any need for such weapons.
Then again, Sauron has been defeated before and returned…
Thanks, as always, for reading and