Posts tagged ‘The Hobbit’

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Herewith another selection of links to interesting fantasy-related articles I’ve read this week.

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Monday Masterclass: Top Ten Fantasy Swords

Having looked at the history of swords and King Arthur’s Excalibur in previous weeks, this instalment of Monday Masterclass lists some of the more interesting swords in modern fantasy literature. Most of these weapons are magical – which, naturally, makes them a cut above (pun intended) their mundane counterparts. The non-magical blades have special significance that sets them apart from many other named swords in fantasy fiction. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Callandor

Callandor is one of the key magical artefacts from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. It is also known as The Sword That Cannot Be Touched or The Sword That Is Not a Sword, both soubriquets giving hints as to the sword’s nature. Although it appears to be a crystal sword, it is not a sword, but rather a type of magical object called a sa’angreal, which allows a channeller to wield huge amounts of magical power.

In the distant past, Callandor was placed in a fortress and surrounded by magical wards that prevented anyone except the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of a great leader, claiming it. Rand al’Thor, the hero of the The Wheel of Time takes Callandor thus proving to many people – including himself – that he is the Dragon Reborn. Later, he uses it to single-handedly destroy armies, and prophesies indicate that it will be needed in the forthcoming apocalyptic Last Battle.

Dragnipur

This sword is from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. In appearance it has a black, light-absorbing blade that is six and a half feet long, and a silver hilt with a dragon skull pommel. It was created by an Elder God called Draconus and is wielded by one of the series’ most popular characters, Anomander Rake.

This is another weapon that is far more than it appears – it contains a gate to the Realm of Darkness. Whenever a being is killed by Dragnipur, their soul is transported into the world within the sword, where they find themselves chained to a massive cart, which is being pulled through darkness by all the blade’s victims. The cart contains the gateway to the Realm of Darkness; it is being followed by a terrible storm of Chaos, a storm which is eventually confronted by the sword’s inhabitants.

Inigo Montoya’s Sword

Inigo Montoya is a character from William Goldman’s satirical fairy tale The Princess Bride. He is the son of a master bladesmith who is commissioned by a six-fingered man to make him the perfect rapier. A year later, the six-fingered man returns to pick up his weapon but refuses to pay what Montoya senior asks – and kills him and scars young Inigo on his face, and leaves without his rapier.

Inigo spends the rest of his life training with various master swordsmen, constantly improving his skill – using the rapier made for the six-fingered man. He seek across Europe for the man who killed his father – until the events of the novel finally present him with the chance for vengeance – and the chance to utter the famous line, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’

Narsil/Andúril

These swords are from J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the extended history of Middle Earth. Narsil was created in the First Age of the world by a dwarf called Telchar. Its name means ‘fire-white light’, referring to the light of the sun and moon. It was wielded by the Man Elendil, who used it to defeat Sauron, but it broke when Elendil fell. Elendil’s son, Isildur, used it to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand.

The shards of the sword became an heirloom of Isildur’s family, until they were reforged to create Andúril, which means ‘Flame of the West’. Its blade is etched with seven stars, the sun and moon and various runes. It glows with the light of the sun and moon. Aragorn wielded Andúril, and, like Rand al’Thor with Callandor, used it to prove his identity as the king of Arnor and Gondor (which nations were thus similarly reforged into a single whole).

Possible Sword

The Possibility Sword is a weapon that appears in China Miéville’s novel The Scar. It is wielded by by Uther Doul (who, of course, shares a name with King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon) and it is a kind of quantum weapon – has the ability to make every possible strike when used. The more likely a particular strike is, the harder the blow delivered. Opponents are therefore cut to ribbons by a single attack.

Sting

Another weapon from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and also from The Hobbit – Sting is actually an elven knife, but is used by the Hobbits Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins as a short sword. It was named Sting by the spiders of Mirkwood Forest, which Bilbo fought, and was found by Bilbo in a Troll-hoard. It glows blue when Orcs are near. It was finally given by Frodo to Samwise Gamgee.

Stormbinger

Stormbringer is the weapon of Erlic of Melniboné, a character featuring in many stories by Michael Moorcock. It is has a black blade carved with runes and was created by the forces of Chaos. It is, in fact, a demon that consumes the soul of – and thus kills – anyone who is injured by it, even slightly. Stormbringer imbues the frail, albino Elric with great strength, but also fills him with great bloodlust, for which reason Elric hates Stormbringer.

Elric and Stormbringer seem to have been a model for Anomander Rake and Dragnipur, mentioned above.

Sword of Gryffindor

The Sword of Gryffindor features in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It was made by a goblin called Ragnuk the First for Godric Gryffindor, one of the founders of Hogwarts. Upon Godric’s death, the goblins believed it should have been returned to them, so from then on they considered it to have been stolen. It has the power to show up whenever it is needed and can absorb things that make it stronger. Thus, when Harry uses it to kill a basilisk, it become impregnated with basilisk venom and gains the power to destroy a horcrux.

Sword of Shannara

The Sword of Shannara features in Terry Brooks’s Shannara novels, including the first, Sword of Shannara. The weapon was made Urprox Screl and incorporated druidic magic and the druidic medallion, Eilt Druin, was forged into the hilt. The sword has the power to reveal the truth of anything. The druid Bremen gave the sword to the elf king, Jerle Shannara, and it subsequently became an heirloom of the royal family. It was used by Jerle to defeat the Warlock Lord by revealing to him the falsity of his belief in his immortality.

Vorpal Sword

The vorpal sword appears indirectly in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the book, Alice finds and reads the poem, ‘Jabberwocky’:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The word ‘vorpal’ has been interpreted to mean ‘sharp’ or ‘deadly’, or even to be a compound of ‘verbal’ and ‘gospel’. In more recent times, vorpal swords have appeared in various fantasy games, where they have the power to kill an opponent outright, sometimes by beheading.

Conclusion

Swords are the sexiest of fantasy weapons, and its no surprise that authors feature them in their stories. Some are special because of their innate qualities, some because of the stories of their wielders. This list is far from exhaustive, but I think it’s an interesting selection of fantasy sword, showing some common themes and some fascinating innovations.

What other swords from fantasy literature would you add to this list? Post your favourites in the comments.

Sources: Top 10 Badass Swords, Getasword.comWheel of Time Wikia, Encyclopedia Malazica, The Lord of the Rings Wikia, Harry Potter Wikia, Shannara Wikia, Wikipedia.

Monday Masterclass: Dragons

Dragons have come to be one of the most enduring and evocative tropes of fantasy fiction. In this post I will take a look at the history of the dragon and give some examples of how it’s been used in fantasy literature.

Definition and Etymology

Dragons are generally accepted to be large reptilian creatures, usually with four legs – although some may have none, two or more than four legs – wings (in European tradition) or no wings (in Asian tradition), long tails and necks. They are often portrayed as fire-breathing, but this is not a vital dragon characteristic. European dragons are usually represented as malign and destructive, while Asian ones are wise and benevolent.

Dragons may be thought of as either the classic western or eastern dragons from mythology, but the term can be used more broadly for creatures such as wyverns, worms (great legless, wingless serpents), hydras, leviathans, krakens and so on. In biology, the Komodo dragon, an Indonesian monitor lizard, is the largest lizard in the world and has a fearsome, toxic bite; Draco is the genus name of the flying lizard.

The origins of the dragon myth may be in creatures like the Komodo dragon. The spitting cobra has been cited as a possible inspiration. Another theory is that early discoveries of dinosaur fossils led people to believe in monstrous creatures and to create stories about them.

The English word ‘dragon’ comes, ultimately from the Greek drákōn, ‘dragon, large serpent, water snake’, which in turn is likely to derive from drakeîn, meaning ‘to see clearly’.

Dragons in Mythology

The earliest dragon story may be that of the Aboriginal Australian Rainbow Serpent, which may go as far back as 10,000 BCE. This creature lives in waterholes and controls the water. It can be seen as benevolent, unpredictable, or malevolent, and is intimately tied up in the environment, causing monsoons, droughts and volcanic eruptions.

Dragons of various sorts abound in Greek mythology, although in ancient Greece and in the West up until the 18th century, the word dragon was a synonym for serpent. The Colchian dragon guarded the Golden Fleece from Jason; the Hesperian dragon had a hundred heads and was defeated by Heracles, as was the Hydra, a nine-headed water dragon; the Ethiopian Cetus, or sea-dragon, was the beast slain by Perseus and from which he saved Andromeda; a chimera was a fire-breathing, three-headed, lion-goat hybrid with a serpent’s tail; a dracaena or she-dragon was a creature with the upper body of a beautiful nymph and the lower body of a serpent, the most famous example of which being the Scylla. In addition, the Greeks believed that distant lands such as Africa and India were inhabited by dragons, the African ones being thought to prey on elephants.

The tale of Perseus and Andromeda and the fire-breathing aspects of the chimera were the origins of the most famous dragon story: St George and the dragon. George was a Palestinian soldier who lived in the late third and early fourth centuries CE. It was during the crusades of the Middle Ages, though, that the story of him fighting a dragon evolved. One version of the legend is that near a Libyan city called Silene, a dragon lived in a pond. In order to appease the dragon, the people gave it two sheep every day, and when there weren’t enough sheep, they would have a lottery to choose a child to give the dragon instead. One day, the king’s daughter, Sabra, lost the lottery. On this day, Saint George happened by the lake and charged the dragon with his lance, seriously injuring it; he then used Sabra’s girdle to leash the dragon, whereupon it became tame. He took the princess and dragon back to Silene, where thousands converted to Christianity in exchange for George killing the dragon with his sword, Ascalon.

In counterpoint to their voracious, malignant occidental relatives, Chinese or eastern dragons are traditionally portrayed as wise and benevolent. They are also a little different in form, being longer, more serpentine, and lacking wings (although this doesn’t mean they can’t fly); they are often depicted with a pearl, which may represent the sun or the moon. The number nine is important to Chinese dragons: they have a number of scales that is a multiple of nine and the are said to have the characteristics of nine different animals: a camel’s head, a deer’s horns, a hare’s eyes, a bull’s ears, an iguana’s neck, a frog’s belly, a carp’s scales, a tiger’s paws and an eagle’s claws.

In China, a five-toed dragon was a symbol of the emperor, while three- and four-dragons were for the commoners; Korean dragons have four claws, while Japanese have three. One story tells of the four dragons, the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon, each of which lived in one of the four seas, defied the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, by bringing water from the seas to a drought-parched land. When the Jade Emperor discovered this, he had the dragons imprisoned in four mountains, from which the dragons escaped by transforming themselves into rivers; hence, the Long River (aka Yangtze, the world’s third longest), the Yellow River, the Black River and the Pearl River.

India has the nāga, a type of cobra deity. England has the Lambton Worm. Wales has Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon. Scandinavia has the greedy dwarf Fáfnir who turns into a dragon to guard his treasure – a major inspiration for Tolkien. Judaism has the Leviathan in the story of Job. Central/South America has the Quetzalcoatl. Egypt has Apep, the serpent that tried to swallow Ra’s solar barque every day. To go into the many dragon and dragon-like myths from around the world would be far beyond the scope of this essay, but there are some links below for interested readers.

It’s interesting to note that, while most people would probably associate dragons with the element of fire, in European tradition they are actually connected to earth by virtue of often living in underground lairs or caves; eastern dragons, are associated with water, living in seas and rivers and controlling the weather.

There is a common belief that medieval maps were annotated on their peripheries with ‘here be dragons’, representing unknown regions. However, this only appears on one historical map, the Hunt-Lenox Globe of the early 16th century, which has the Latin ‘HC SVNT DRACONES‘ (‘hic sunt dracones‘) on the east coast of Asia. Many maps were, though, decorated with sea monsters.

Dragons in Fantasy Literature

In addition to retellings of myths such as that of Saint George and the Dragon, dragons and similar beasts have cropped up in fantasy works for hundreds of years. There are dragons in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Geothe’s Doctor Faustus, as well as in fairy tales by d’Aulnoy and the Brothers Grimm, and Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’. The Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote a story (‘Dragon: the Old Potter’s Tale’, 1919) in which a monk sets up a practical joke, advertising the coming ascension of a dragon into heaven; the joke then appears to come true.

One of the earliest original dragon stories of modern times is Kenneth Grahame’s 1898 children’s story ‘The Reluctant Dragon‘; possibly the first story in European tradition to portray the dragon as a sympathetic character. Other children’s authors wrote about dragons, including E Nesbit (‘The Last of the Dragons’ is about a dragon that drinks petrol and is transformed into an aeroplane) and C S Lewis (in The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

Then, of course, we come to J R R Tolkien and Smaug in The Hobbit, and Glaurung, Ancalagon and Scatha in the earlier history of Middle Earth. As noted above, Tolkien’s dragons are firmly in the European tradition, specifically inspired by Norse mythology. Smaug’s avarice resemble’s Fáfnir’s; Glaurung’s death, mortally wounded from below by Túrin as he hid in a river gorge, is also based on Fáfnir – Sigurd dug a pit to hide in and from which to strike the dragon from below.

Dating from the 1960s – about the time of the great surge of interest in The Lord of the Rings – Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea stories feature dragons that have both positive and negative qualities; rather than being malign, they are powerful creatures that are simply ambivalent towards humans. In Gordon R Dickson’s Dragon Knight series (from 1976 to 2001), the main character is translated into a fantasy and into the body of a dragon called Gorbash; the dragons of this world call humans ‘georges’ because of their experience with Saint George.

Since the 60s and 70s with the great rise in popularity of fantasy, there have been scores of novels involving dragons. Robin Hobb’s books have dragons that start out as sea serpents that cocoon themselves on land to hatch out as dragons; after dragons died out, humans carved statues of them out of living stone. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Swamp Dragons are the size of dogs and are bred like dogs or horses, although they tend to spontaneously explode. In Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, the hero is known as the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of an ancient hero called the Dragon; apart from the oriental-style representation on the Dragon Banner, there are no actual dragons in the books. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind has a herbivorous dragon that is addicted to narcotic trees.

Laura and Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weisman’s Dragonlance universe contains evil chromatic dragons and good metallic dragons, as well as Draconians, reptilian humanoids created by corrupting a dragon’s egg. The details of the Dragonlance setting are closely linked to the various Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games, in which there is a huge range of dragon types, each with specific qualities and abilities. Gem dragons, for instance, are neutral in alignment and include amethyst, crystal, emerald, sapphire and topaz dragons, whose breath weapons are, respectively, force, blinding light, wind, ‘panicking sound’ and dehydration.

Dragons, while being essentially magical creatures, have also become a mainstay of science fiction. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, films like Reign of Fire and arguably anything with dinosaurs in it, Animal Planet’s fascinating fictional documentary The Last Dragon, are examples of dragons in sf.

Conclusion

From myths and fairy tales, to novels, movies and games, to toys and tattoos, dragons are one of the human race’s most pervasive and powerful images. They are a personification of the danger and majesty of nature. They are dangerous and beguiling; they make terrifying antagonists or thrilling vehicles for sheer escapism. Although their depiction in many fantasy settings may go little beyond the usual clichés, in the hands of imaginative of skilful and imaginative storytellers they are portrayed with authenticity and are constantly being reframed and reinvented.

Dragons are a key trope upon which fantasy writers can call, but the aspiring teller of a dragon tale should take care to consider all the possible ways of showing dragons. Good or evil – or neutral? Sentient and wise or bestial and naturalistic? Eastern-style or western-style? Lizard-like, worm-like, dinosaur-like? Even bird-like, or mammal-like, or something completely different? Magical or explicable by the laws of science? Rare or widespread? Misunderstood or exactly as they seem? And what about the ecosystem into which they fit? How much food does a dragon need to survive? How does it get it? What dangers do dragons face? What is their life cycle? Do they form monogamous pairs or do they have alpha males and harems? Do they live in groups? How do they interact with each other? Can they crossbreed with other races? Can their body parts be used for magic? How do they affect human economies?

What are your thoughts on dragons in fantasy? What are your favourite dragon stories? What are the most interesting interpretations of dragons you’ve read or seen? All comments welcome.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Dragon Stone, Draconian.com, Theoi Greek Mythology, Crystal Links.