Tolkien Tuesday: The Sharpness of the Broken Sword
Tolkien Tuesdays explore the themes, characterization, and storytelling elements implemented by the professor of fantasy himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. Let's wander the paths of geekiness because not all who wander are lost.
There is nothing like a legendary weapon. We, as human beings, are obsessed with our tales of magical swords and shiny shields. Every culture seems to have some kind of mystical object or destined sword to hold back the darkness. A warrior who will someday rise to carry it into the battle against the evilest of enemies.
There's something hopeful about the idea. As long as the item exists, the free peoples of Fantasytropeville will always have a plan B. It also implies that destiny is on the side of good. Never falter in your quest against temptation and darkness because fate will reward good choices.
J.R.R. Tolkien knew this well with his extensive knowledge of Old English and Scandinavian folklore. Legendary tales and items were right in his wheelhouse. It only makes sense that Tolkien would include them in the Lord of the Rings, both in the story of the Ring and sprinkled in the deep lore. I mean, he even has a name for a legendary chain, Angainor, that's how much this guy loved his legendary loot.
Let's face it, we eat this up as an audience. How many pop culture stories involve epic weapons that we wish we could get our hands on? Whether that's the famous Skywalker lightsaber, Valyrian steel, or the Master Sword, geeks like myself have dreamt of being the one to pull the sword of destiny from the stone.
And that's just it, many times these legendary items are lost or hidden away somehow. They are forgotten to time, woven into old wives tales, or stuck in solid granite. Tolkien dove headfirst into these cultural tropes and created Anduril, the Flame of the West. It's badass, represents a whole hell of a lot of lore, and looks mighty fine in Viggo Mortensen's hands (phrasing).
It's such a vital part of the Lord of the Rings that, even in the movie, when it is forged far later than in the books, it gets a theme of its own. A signifier that the ancient strength of goodness is still active in the world. I wrote all about the story that Howard Shore's music tells in a previous article.
What interests me today, though, is where it came from. What if your famous, legendary sword's claim to fame, is its brokenness? Suddenly, I'm not so sure destiny is swirling around it anymore. The epic stories revolve around a shattered weapon, dashed upon stone, dormant for thousands of years. If I found that in my next D&D campaign, I wouldn't be fighting over it with the gang.
Then you realize that Tolkien has a story about that, as great writers often do. Anduril is made from the shards of Narsil, the sword of Kings. Aragorn's great-great (add a few more) grandfather Elendil carried it into Mordor (probably by walking) and fought big bad Sauron face to face. Elendil was defeated, because there is a lot of sad storylines in the background of Tolkien's work, and the sword broke under the dead King as he fell.
At this moment, all seemed lost. There was no defeating Sauron after the greatest King of Men, and earlier the great King of the Elves, were unable to survive the battle. Tolkien loves these moments in storytelling. Everything hinging on a dark moment. The characters’ hope fades as the world seems to come to the brink. All of their efforts to stop the spread of darkness now meaningless.
Then Elendil's son took up his father's broken sword.
There is something so symbolic about a son using his father's broken weapon. I won't go full geek on you, I'll just graze the surface. The race of Men in Tolkien's lore isn't always the best. They are easy to corrupt, and as great as their deeds can be, they are capable of equal terribleness. Isildur, Elendil's son, takes this brokenness literally into his hands. All of the bad decisions that led to the rise of Sauron, the spread of darkness, the forging of the Rings of Power, are somehow all hanging on this moment. All the heroism, all the cowardice, the perfection, and imperfection, are gripped in the hands of the heir of Elendil, son of a dead king holding onto broken hope.
It is with the broken sword that he cuts the Ring from the hand of Sauron. In Tolkien's terms, the Eucatastrophe. When all is dark in the long night, the daylight comes. Brokenness is the thing that wins the day. Even when things aren't perfect, even when plans fail, when all comes crumbling down, not only is there still hope, but the things that we thought were useless are the things we need.
What a fantastic theme to weave into a sword that would later be reforged to remind all that fight for good that brokenness isn’t the end of the story. Never forget, though, even in the broken things of the world, there are the tools we can use to achieve victory.
A reminder to myself, both as I write to encourage myself, and to include into my stories. I am not a perfect writer. I am an amateur at best, there is much to learn, but the broken bits teach best. The failures help me learn the most. The terrible sentence structure that is pointed out by editors are the marks that make me better.
My characters are the same. Their plans will fall through, the tension will rise around what they lack, the problems will come in their brokenness. That fragility could be just the thing that wins the day though. Imperfect characters are what makes great stories great. The hero that can do anything is pretty boring and unrelatable. Want to know why it's hard to write a good Superman script? When you have someone who is virtually unbeatable and incorruptible, it's hard to make compelling, relatable conflict.
When a character has flaws, when the rise to destiny is marred by stumbles and failures, the audience can connect to something deeper. We all have something broken. We all have times we have failed ourselves and others. We hone in on that characterization because we see a bit of ourselves. When we see a character rise from the shards, we see ourselves overcoming what hinders us. That's when a story means more.
Fantasy is more than just cool swords and fancy languages. There's a reason we can't get away from some of the tropes that are used in the genre time and time again. Dragons, orcs, fairies, and the nobody who rises to immeasurable fame. All of these things have the deeper connotations of humanity planted within.
We connect to fantasy because we can escape our real world for a moment, but we return feeling like we can do anything.