12 February 2016

Glad Would He Have Been To Know Its Fate (RK 5.vi.844)

So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dunedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will. 
(RK 5.vi.844)
We all know how Éowyn fulfilled Glorfindel's prophecy that 'not by the hand of man will [the Witch-king] fall' (RK App. A 1051), a prophecy uttered again in slightly different form by the Witch-king himself even in the hour of his reckoning: 'No living man may hinder me' (RK 5.vi.841). 

Yesterday I was having a conversation with my friend, +Paul Mitchener (distinguished Maths Lecturer at Sheffield and illustrious writer of RPGs), about Merry's experience on the Barrow-downs, and the sword mentioned in the quote above came up. Paul called it 'the final revenge of Arnor.' That was when it hit me. You see, it's obvious that Éowyn fulfills the prophecy by not being a man. Slightly less obviously, so does Merry, who is no man in a different sense (cf. RK App A 1070). Thus we can already see Tolkien playing with the word 'man' in two different ways. But with the addition of 'living' comes yet another layer of meaning, especially given the great emphasis he places on the timeless sword and its history, both here and when Bombadil gave it to Merry back on the Barrow-downs (FR 1.viii.145-46; cf. RK 5.i.756). Only now the weight is on living where before it was on different meanings of man. The smith who wrought this sword is no living man. Yet across the centuries and from out of the grave -- a grave that lies open now because the Witch-king himself once sent an evil spirit to inhabit it (RK App. A 1041) -- that smith has hindered the greatest of the servants of Sauron. 

That's a very cold revenge indeed, and very sharp play on meanings of words.

No irony in Tolkien? 


  1. The Shadow of the Past, inverted, eh?

  2. Or better, and to quote that chapter, a "light out of the past".

  3. in keeping with the vision of the King Returned that Bombadil shows them after giving them the swords on the Downs.

  4. TroelsForchhammer02 March, 2016 16:55

    This is indeed very clever, and a fine way to counter the arrogance of the Witch-king :-)

    One minor point is that the concept of ‘living’ is introduced only by the Witch-king himself. Glorfindel, according to all accounts of this, does not mention this, and only states that “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.”

    The Rohirrim appear to have given shared credit for the fall of the Witch-king to Éowyn and Meriadoc – the footnote to Éowyn's by-name (the Lady of the Shield-arm), states,
    “For her shield-arm was broken by the mace of teh Witch-king; but he was brought to nothing, and thus the words of Glorfindel long before to King Eärnur were fulfilled, that the Witch-king would not fall by the hand of man. For it is said in the songs of the Mark that in this deed Éowyn had the aid of Théoden's esquire, and that he also was not a Man but a Halfling out of a far country, though Éomer gave him honour in the Mark and the name of Holdwine. [This Holdwine was none other than Meriadoc the Magnificent who was Master of Buckland.]”

    ... I love how Tolkien manages to sneak these small details into such notes :-) (also that there is actually information hidden in the index of The Lord of the Rings that cannot be found anywhere else)

  5. Troels, thank you so much for reminding me of the passage about the Lady of the Shield-arm. I can't believe I forgot that one.

    I know exactly what you mean about the way he slips the most amazingly obscure little details in. And they lie there like the Ring at the bottom of the Anduin, waiting, just waiting.

    The longer I study Tolkien, the harder I find it to believe that anything in his works is there by chance (if chance you call it)

  6. TroelsForchhammer03 March, 2016 03:38

    Ah, that, now, is an entirely different discussion :-) I am afraid that you trigger one of my pet topics, so I'll apologise in advance (and please feel free to exact your Inklingsian revenge if I bore you :) )

    Brad Eden has a very interesting comment in his recent article in JTR about Michael Tolkien, where Eden explains that Michael was very meticulous, unlike Christopher and their father.

    My own impression is that there is actually quite a bit in Tolkien's writings that are there by accident (though not necessarily much by the standards of other authors).

    Traces of previous versions, for instance, that are left dangling because they work well in context, though the backstory that they refer to no longer exist (the most prominent example of this is probably the many references to the experiences of Trotter, the Hobbit ranger, that are still in the portrait of Aragorn, though the specific events they refer to are not part of Aragorn's history – he was, for instance, never tortured by Black Riders in Moria ...).

    Tolkien was a self-admitted niggler and would niggle away at the details in one corner, only to discover that it no longer fitted the larger context (examples of this are numerous throughout the History of Middle-earth). Going back over The Lord of the Rings and creating consistency in the time-line (including moon phases) was a huge job, and though he did manage it in the end (to a much larger degree than one would expect for such a huge story), this does not extend to every other aspect of the story (the nature of Orcs and the round world / flat world cosmogenesis are examples of questions where The Lord of the Rings is inconsistent).

    Sorry ... I do have a tendency to go on about this ...

  7. No need for apologies, Troels. I enjoy the perspective and information you offer. I was aware of the Trotter/Strider transition and the way details were left in that had no explanation given in the text.