“Stick Them With The Pointy End!” – Swords In The Present Day

Today I had my final English 101 class, where we assembled writing portfolios of this semester’s work. Although spending six hours a week in a classroom during the summer may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I loved it. I loved the challenge of college writing. I loved having someone who wasn’t family critique my writing.

We had five major essays to write and I’m most proud of the research paper. I had never really written one – not a long one where I used parenthetical citations and followed the MLA style and all that fancy stuff. Originally, I intended to write something about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, but I felt that topic was too broad so I switched to the history of swords. As it turned out, swords’ modern-day history is the most interesting…

Swords! The very word conjures images of sweating blacksmiths pounding steel into sharp fshapes and knights in shining armor riding into battle. The sword has a long and often violent history, spanning the past five and a half thousand years. It may surprise you to learn that swords are produced and used to this very day.

Nowadays, the use of swords in warfare is almost unheard of. There’s simply no point to having them in our military. When guns became prevalent in Europe during the Late Middle Ages, there was no use in having a sword, since guns had a far greater range. Why risk getting close to your enemy when you can kill them from a distance?

And yet swords are still in production and usage today, albeit not nearly in such great amounts. The only difference now is the intended purpose of the swords. They continue to be used for fighting but now the fighting is either a game or an act.

Fencing – fighting with long, light, thin swords known as foils, sabres and épées – has gained popularity in recent years, as Patrick Hruby explains. In his article, “Refusing to be foiled”, he writes about siblings named Keeth and Erinn Smart who live in New York City. The two took up the sport in high school. They only began because their father believed The-Hobbit-Thorin-Oakenshield-300x292[1]that listing fencing as a hobby would set them apart from other students when it came time to fill out college applications. “At Brooklyn Technical High, Keeth and Erinn fenced in a cavernous auditorium before crowds that, on a good night, numbered in the high teens. Though their high school classmates wouldn’t diss fencing outright, most couldn’t grasp why the siblings favored an activity that ranked somewhere between lawn darts and competitive hot dog eating in the national sporting consciousness.” writes Hruby. Keeth adds, “”We had to deal with a lot of stupid questions […] in Brooklyn, basically everybody does the same few sports, like basketball and track. So [it] took a lot of explaining to my friends: ‘OK, we’re not really trying to kill each other. This is a sport. You won’t get injured’” (Hruby).

Fencing may be unusual but it’s hard to imagine why someone with an interest in the sport wouldn’t pursue it further: Keeth and Erinn have competed for the United States of America in not one but several Olympic Games (Hruby).

The Smarts’ swords are likely to be mass produced in factories, as are most fencing swords. However, for the motivated individual, opportunities to blacksmith – using methods that were in practice hundreds of years ago – still exist. As a teen, Tim Filmer took night courses in blacksmithing and spent months trying to find someone who would apprentice him (“60 Seconds in the 9 to 5 of a Blacksmith”). He says, “I guess I’ve always been interested in the older way of doing things and I think I saw some swordmaking or blacksmithing in a movie and thought it would be fun. I started ringing up blokes and asking if they could teach me to make a sword, and of course they all said no, which was quite disappointing […] It took me about six months to find someone. I went through the Yellow Pages ringing up blacksmiths” (“60 Seconds”).

The appeal seems to be the creative potential. Filmer goes on to explain that at first it seems impossible to change such a hard, solid piece of metal “But once you learn the skills, how to heat it properly and how to manipulate it properly it becomes like butter in the hand […] If you treat it properly you can do pretty much whatever you want with it, it’s amazing” (“60 Seconds”).

Those few remaining blacksmiths often make their living by creating swords for historical re-eneactments. One well-known organization that holds such re-enactments is the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. As Deanna Darr explains in her article entitled “Timewarp”, its members are often regarded as history obsessed nerds who still love to play dress up despite being adults.

She writes, “The clang of steel on steel rents the air, accompanied by the subtle grinding of hinged metal parts. Despite the heft of their suits of armor, augmented by layers of chain mail, the combatants move relatively easily as they aim their blows […] a couple on bicycles rides by, unabashedly staring at the sight of warriors from long ago duking it out on a hot summer evening in the middle of a public park […] In fact, [stares are] something you have to expect whenever you dress in medieval armor for a little weeknight swordplay […] SCA members laugh off criticism. They’re having fun, so go ahead and laugh. Better yet, come over and ask a few questions and learn a little about times that may no longer seem so distant.”

The SCA’s members re-enact history from the years 600 C.E. to 1600 C.E. In studying history, they learn by doing – and that includes training to use any period-appropriate sword from medieval broadswords and Roman short swords to rapiers. Darr continues, “[Craig] Waylan, who is retired from the Air Force, didn’t get involved until he was invited along on an outing after moving to Boise. He drew from his high school and college sport fencing experience to lead him to rapier fighting. [Rod] Eggleston, an Army veteran, was a fencer as well, and joined the group in 1993. He has traveled extensively, teaching fencing to eager students, and occasionally has to explain why he is carrying a bag of swords through airport security.” Just as sword enthusiasts pursue their interests through the Society for Creative Anachronism, so too can those who make their swords.

Eddard-Starks-executionIn addition to creating pieces for historical re-enactments, blacksmiths may also make a living by working on high fantasy films and television shows such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Game of Thrones.

In an article about the manufacturing of the weapons and armor of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Maureen Byko writes about one such blacksmith: Peter Lyon. In the late 1990s, Lyon was asked to make swords for the movies. He accepted, not fully realizing how important his task was: “ In the early days, I thought, ‘It’s wonderful. I’m going to have steady work for a while.’ It was only when I learned about the fan responses that I realized what I was getting into. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings mean so much to so many people” (Byko).

In order to craft accurate reproductions of swords such as Aragorn’s Narsil and Gandalf’s Glamdring, a foundry used just for work on the movies was built in New Zealand, where the filming took place. Lyon worked from artists’ drawings to create swords that reflected their histories (Byko).

And if anything, it was more difficult to manufacture those modern day swords than it was to make swords centuries ago because the idea was to make the swords not look perfect.  Byko writes, “Those that had seen many battles were forged, then aged by applying acid and other chemicals to create a pitted, corroded effect. The damaged surfaces were cleaned to give the appearance of an old blade that was still cared for.”

Additionally, every sword had to be made at least seven times – twice for the “hero sword”, used for close up filming, and five times for the stunt sword, which was seen in battle (Byko). This ensured that there would be enough swords for all the scenes. Lyon describes having to keep the actors in mind: they might be holding them for hours as scenes were shot and reshot. Although they were not used in battle, the swords still needed to weigh little or else they would be useless.

Upon learning about Olympic fencing, modern day blacksmiths, historical re-enactors, and the weapons of fantasy films, it is easy to see that swords still have their rightful place in society. Swords are not gone and not forgotten even today. They remain a part of our lives, however small, because they continue to capture our imaginations. While it may be true that only the nerd contingent loves them, there are many such enthusiasts, pounding metal and challenging opponents just as others have done in centuries past.

           Works Cited

“60 SECONDS IN THE 9To5 OF A BLACKSMITH.” Daily Telegraph, The (Sydney) (n.d.): Newspaper source. Web. 18 July 2013.

Byko, Maureen. “Fabricating the Weapons and Armor of the Lord of the Rings.” JOM           54.11 (2002): 20. ProQuest. Web. 18 July 2013.

Darr, Deanna. “Timewarp.” Boise Weekly. Boise Weekly, 19 August 2009. Web. 31 July 2013.

Patrick, Hruby. “Refusing to be foiled.” Washington Times, The (DC) n.d.: Newspaper source. Web. 29 July 2013.

Kristiansen, K. “The Tale Of The Sword – Swords And Swordfighters In Bronze Age Europe.” Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 21.4 (2002): 319-332. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 July 2013.

So what do you think? Rip apart the essay, people! Critique it! What needs improvement? What do I do well? What do you think about my choice of topic?

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About nevillegirl

Elizabeth, University of Iowa class of 2019. Double majoring in English & Creative Writing and Journalism. Twenty-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, and aspiring writer. Passionate about feminism and lesbian positivity.
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14 Responses to “Stick Them With The Pointy End!” – Swords In The Present Day

  1. Miriam Joy says:

    I’m going to join the SCA when I’m older. You have to be 18 to do armoured combat though, so I have to wait a few months. I can’t wait to get a sword in my hands.
    I wrote a whole novel about (sarcastic, lesbian) modern-day knights. It was great fun.

  2. Charley R says:

    Swooooooooooordssss! I obsess about these things to no end. If I get to York, I am joining their historical re-enactment society solely so I can get my hands on one and have a play. Don’t know if I’m strong enough to lift some of the bigger ones (i.e. broadswords – I think I could handle a rapier or scimitar of some sort), but damn me if I won’t go and drool over them anyway.

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