Broad-bladed axe and long white knife – #219

Hi Corey,

Here are some random thoughts about following passage as discussed in Session #219.

Gimli the dwarf alone wore openly a short shirt of steel-rings, for dwarves make light of burdens; and in his belt was a broad-bladed axe. Legolas had a bow and a quiver, and at his belt a long white knife. The younger hobbits wore the swords that they have taken from the barrow; but Frodo took only Sting; and his mail-coat, as Bilbo wished, remained hidden. Gandalf bore his staff, but girt at his side was the elven-sword Glamdring, the mate of Orcrist that lay now upon the breast of Thorin under the Lonely Mountain.

In modern fantasy as in medieval poems the description of armor and weapons are used as an stylistic means to flesh out the characters of the depicted heroes.
  • Gimli's equipment, as said in the session, demonstrates his prowess and sturdiness as a warrior. His axe to be 'broad-bladed' immediately invokes the impression of strength to the reader.
    [Note: It can't be a double-bladed axe. If you'd put such kind of weapon into your belt you'd run the risk of cutting your arm with every movement it makes. Also, double-bladed axes are assumed to be pure fantasy when it comes to their usage in battle. Putting a second blade to your axe serves no practical purpose, it only makes the weapon clumsier in use because it doubles the weight you've got to control. As far as I know, we don't have any archaeological findings of such kind, only some drawings on vases for example. Therefore it's the common assumption double-blade axes have been used either for ceremonial purposes only, like in sacrificing rituals, or even just invented by those artist for the sake of symmetry.
    In addition to that, historical maces and battle axes were much, much smaller than depicted in fantasy movies or pictures. It's such a huge misconception that a bigger weapon would be more effective. Looks nice on a picture but in practice it will only slow you down. Speed and control over your weapon are much more important.]
  • Legolas' equipment tells us that he prefers ranged combat with his bow but also is prepared for melee with his 'long white knife'. His knife being 'long' implies that he wants to keep his opponents at a certain distance. But why is it described as 'white'? Usually, if a colour is applied to a bladed weapon you'd think of the blade, not of the scabbard or the hilt. A 'black sword' would be a sword forged with black metal, not a black scabbard hiding the colour of the blade.
    So what is a 'white' knife supposed to tell us? The colour white is traditionally associated with purity. So I think this knife has been forged by the purest metal, light but strong, swift but endurable.
  • The Hobbit's equipments are only mentioned on the fly. Their strength obviously do not lay in their fighting skills so it would feel wrong to describe their weapons as extensive as the others.
  • Gandalf's equipment takes us on a completely other route. Of course firstly comes his staff as main role as a wizard, not a fighter. But he also has got a sword which history is mentioned to tell us he's rooted way back and surpasses all of them due to his ancient wisdom.
Hopefully those thoughts are not completely stupid but a contribution to our thought process of cracking those nuts Tolkien delivered to us.

Cheers, Spielkalb
 
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Rachel Port

Well-Known Member
I thought of Gimli wearing armour as showing his (or dwarves') endurance, at least as much as strength. The first stage of the journey is a long stretch on foot, aincluding crossing the mountrains. The company mostly dress like travellers, not warriors, and therefore travel light. And mail is not full armour. (Does anybody else think of Mark Twain's description of his Connecticul yankee putting on a suit of armor when this is talked about?) Boromir isn't in armor - his defensive weapon is a shield, much lighter and practical - on his journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, he had no idea what he was going to face, and a shield would allow him to travel relatively light and yet be prepared. I agree with Corey that the shield was part of the gear he brought with him. Frodo is also wearing a mail shirt, though it is hidden, but mithril is described as being remarkably light in weight.

And I would say that Aragorn dressing in his old Ranger clothes is dressed for the occasion - he is in travelling clothes. I think the emphasis of describing his dress as Ranger clothes is on his being a traveller, not necessarily looking like a rascal or even going incognito. He doesn't dress for battle for travel, but he arms himself from Theoden's armoury when he does go into battle. Modern equivalent - women who wear sneakers to walk to work and change into dress shoes (heels or not) when they get there. (In the days before COVID when people didn't work in their pajamas.) His clothes show his experience as a traveller, which Celeborn points out. And think of the first description we get of him at Bree, where Frodo describes his boots as of good quality leather but well-worn. I imagine his cloak is similarly of good quality, but well-worn, showing its age in the fabric fading/rusting until the color is indistinct. Even Boromir's clothes in the Council are described as showing the stains of a long journey, though they are presumably newer and richer than Aragorn's.

And I had a weird thought during this class about Legolas' long white knife. Steel and silver (and mithril) are called silver when they are described by a color rather than the metal being named - not white. I think of pearls, opals, moonstones, adamant, etc. when white gems are mentioned, diamonds are also called white. Crystal and glass are called clear, not white. So it would seem that white describes the hilt of his knife, not the blade. But I got a picture when we discussed this, of a blade carved from a single diamond, which could be called white, and would definitely be sharp and hard.
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
If the hilt of Legolas' knife is white, there are several materials from which it could be made. The most common, however, is ivory (was ivory back in the day). If ivory, then most probably the hilt of Legolas' knife is made from the tusk of an oliphaunt.
 

Lincoln Alpern

Active Member
So what is a 'white' knife supposed to tell us? The colour white is traditionally associated with purity. So I think this knife has been forged by the purest metal, light but strong, swift but endurable.
This was broadly my interpretation of Legolas' knife being described as "white," as well, and I'm sure it's no accident all of those adjectives you quote also serve quite well to describe Legolas himself and the elves of Mirkwood.
 

Forodan

Active Member
A very real possible material for a white blade is a ceramic. Most people are familiar with ceramic blades in the kitchen, I think. The problem with using such blades in combat is that they are usually more brittle than metal blades and might break. Even metal blades can break in combat, of course, but ceramic is worse. And yet, we are talking about Elves here... maybe they have advanced ceramic arts like in everything else and Legolas' blade is as durable as a metal blade?
 

Odola

Well-Known Member
A very real possible material for a white blade is a ceramic. Most people are familiar with ceramic blades in the kitchen, I think. The problem with using such blades in combat is that they are usually more brittle than metal blades and might break. Even metal blades can break in combat, of course, but ceramic is worse. And yet, we are talking about Elves here... maybe they have advanced ceramic arts like in everything else and Legolas' blade is as durable as a metal blade?
This would be an idea, regrettably we have no info about about elven ceramics at all.
 
A very real possible material for a white blade is a ceramic. Most people are familiar with ceramic blades in the kitchen, I think. The problem with using such blades in combat is that they are usually more brittle than metal blades and might break. Even metal blades can break in combat, of course, but ceramic is worse. And yet, we are talking about Elves here... maybe they have advanced ceramic arts like in everything else and Legolas' blade is as durable as a metal blade?
In my opinion ceramic as a material for weapons is highly unlikely. As you said, its problem is that it is much to brittle for a weapon. The blade would shatter at the first parry. Another big problem is you can't sharpen it if it runs blunt.

A highly polished blade made of white steel or mithril makes more sense to me.
 

Ragnelle

Member
I was thinking "bone" for white, whether that is ivory or another type of bone. If so, then the white knife could also be because the woodelves are less sophisticated than the Noldor when it comes to metalwork.

I always took the mention of Gandalf's blade to be a call-back to The Hobbit, where he got Glamdring, especially since Orcrist is mentioned at the same time. Of course that does not exclude other meanings, but he has not had the weapon for all that long, even if it is older than the rest.
 

Haerangil

Well-Known Member
Interesting idea...

now weapons and tools made of bone, even knives or ivory DO exist, they were seemingly used in the ice ages and even in some later cultures but...
These , or those i have seen, are usually quite short.They wouldn't probably last very long in actual fencing against blades of metal or other weapons.
 

Lincoln Alpern

Active Member
Perusing this discussion again, I've had a thought about why the material of the blade doesn't interest me more. Does the text show any interest in the material composition of weapons, armor, or for that matter fabrics or textiles? Not that I recall. There's Mithril, but the text doesn't dwell on its properties, beyond the basic information we need to know to understand its role in the story. We know that Tolkien wasn't exactly averse to going into extraneous details about various aspects of his worldbuilding, but unless my memory ill serves me, metal materials and the like are not included among the topics that merit this level of interest.

This is why, for the purposes of the story at least, I view the color of Legolas' knife as more likely to pertain to what it says about him symbolically than what we can deduce about the material it's made from. (Which doesn't make the composition any less fun or worthwhile to think about for those who enjoy the topic.)
 

Haerangil

Well-Known Member
He wrote on various metals and their symbolism casually, but not for most normal weapons.They seem to be commonly of various steels (noldo-steel, dwarven-steel, black steel, etc.) and thats it.
 
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