“The Sword-that-was-Broken Shall Be Reforged”. The Heir of Isildur Prepares For War.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-272

It was almost certainly Bilbo who composed the rhyme that begins with the words “All that is gold does not glitter”, words that Gandalf quoted in the ill fated letter that he left at The Prancing Pony to be taken to Frodo and which Barliman Butterbur forgot. And it is this poem that contains the line, “Renewed shall be blade that was broken: The crownless again shall be king”. Bilbo dismisses his own verse as “not very good” but what he is able to do is to make things memorable and so Gandalf uses it to introduce Aragorn to Frodo and his companions.

Bilbo is not a prophet but he is a great collector and reteller of stories and so he gathers together all the ancient stories of how the king would return. It is something that Bilbo longs for because he has befriended Aragorn. The verse that Gandalf uses contains more than a little of Bilbo’s desire but is accurate nonetheless. It is in Rivendell that the ancient memories of the King are kept alive and the belief that one day he would be restored to his throne; and central to that belief is that The Sword-that-was-Broken would be reforged before the restoration came.

The forging of Andúril, Flame of the West

The Sword-that-was-Broken is Narsil, the great sword of Elendil that was broken beneath his body when he was struck down by Sauron at the great battle that concluded the Second Age. And it was the broken blade that Isildur seized when he was attacked in his turn by the Dark Lord and with which he cut the Ring from Sauron’s finger.

Isildur resists the Dark Lord with the broken blade of his father.

Narsil remained a broken blade throughout the Third Age until it was “forged anew by Elvish smiths”. Tolkien tells of how a “device of seven stars was set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor”. This is one of the occasions in which Tolkien abandons a modern narrative style of writing and adopts the style of an Old English storyteller.

“Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly on it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.” There is a particular reason why Tolkien adopts this style and it is because he is moving away from the telling of a history to the telling of myth. Tolkien deliberately moves between the historical and the mythological in The Lord of the Rings thus inviting his readers to view all history as mythology. Some, for example, have noted that the events of 1940 have become a new founding myth of England, the year in which England (and please note that I deliberately say England and not Great Britain!) “stood alone” against the might of Nazi Germany. One approach to such myth-making is to demythologise but I rather think that this misses the point. Surely the right question is to ask what story do the myth makers seek to tell and why has it become so important at this point in history?

Some readers of The Lord of the Rings might try to apply a modern form of historicism to the reforging of Narsil. How has Aragorn survived all these years in the wild carrying a useless blade? Why had the same Elvish smiths who reforged Narsil in Rivendell not done so at some other moment in the Third Age? To try to answer these questions we must try to get away from trying to read Tolkien as literal history that just happens to take place in a fantasy world. Tolkien is writing mythology just as Homer did or the tellers of the Volsunga saga. He just did it in the world of the modernist novel.

I do not know if Tolkien drew upon the scene at the end of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried when the hero takes his father’s broken sword to reforge it. He names the sword, Notung. It is the sword that he needs. The dwarf Mime, who has fostered Siegfried for his own selfish purposes has tried over and over again to reforge the blade but has always failed but now when the hero needs it the task is simple. Aragorn son of Arathorn is going to war upon the marches of Mordor and he needs the sword of his mighty ancestor. It is at this moment of necessity that the deed can be done.

Notung, Neidlisches Schwert from Wagner’s Siegfried.
Wagner, Richard Komponist 1813–1883. Werke: Siegfried (1871). “Siegfried schmiedet das Schwert Notung”. Gemälde von Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1923).