Sunday, 18 October 2020

The breaking of Frodo's Barrow Down's sword and the Morgul Knife

When Frodo was fleeing the Nine Black Riders and had crossed the Ford of Bruinen onto the Rivendell bank - with The Nine still on the opposite bank - there is a scene when Frodo draws his sword and shouts defiance (rather feebly). But the Witch King merely gloats, raises his hand, casts a spell, and the sword breaks in Frodo's hand.

This broken sword is one of four apparently identical weapons that Tom Bombadil gave the hobbits from the treasure horde accumulated by the Barrow Wight; after Tom had broken-open the barrow. They are described as long, 'leaf shaped' daggers for use by Men - but the right size to be swords for the hobbits. These were Numenorean blades, from the Kingdom of Arnor. 


Later, on the eve of The Fellowship setting out on their quest to destroy the One Ring; Bilbo apologises that he forgot to have Frodo's broken sword mended; and gives him Sting instead - an Elven blade originally from Gondolin. This is a symbolic gesture of handing-on responsibility; and has important repercussions later - for example this type of Gondolin magical blade was made for use against giant spiders (as we learn in The Hobbit), and Sting was able to cut through Shelob's massively-thick web - when Sam's Numenorean blade could not. 


But why was the Witch King able to break Frodo's Numenorean blade when, as we discover later, these were magical blades specifically forged to destroy the Nazgul Chief himself? (When he was known as the Witch King of Angmar, and was attacking the northern Numenorean Kingdom of Arnor.) How could the Nazgul Chief destroy by magic, a magical anti-Nazgul weapon?

The problem arises because it was Merry's use of exactly such a blade in the Battle of Pelennor Fields, that enabled the Chief of the Nazgul to be killed - it is described as undoing the spell by which the wraith's body was kept-together; such that a follow-up thrust from the ordinary (non-magical) blade of Eowyn was able to 'finish him off'. 


The reason, I suggest, was because Frodo had been stabbed by a Morgul Knife on Weathertop - and this was a black magical weapon that had the effect of making Frodo a wraith. This wraithing process was far advanced by the time that Frodo crossed the Ford of Bruinen - Frodo was even becoming transparent, and falling under Sauron's control. 

I assume that the Morgul Knife was indeed magically forged by Sauron - a very rare - possibly unique at the time, difficult to make, sentient weapon (although one that Glorfindel recognised, so presumably not the first such weapon) - designed so that the tip would snap-off after stabbing then - under its own power and sense of direction - work its way to the heart. Once the knife tip reached the heart, the wraithing process would have been complete. 

The intent of the Witch King, according to Gandalf, was indeed to stab Frodo directly in the heart; making him immediately a wraith. The plan of the Nazgul was, apparently therefore, to capture Frodo and take him to Sauron as a new 'ringwraith' - and unable to die; where Frodo would have been tormented 'forever'.  

This explains why the Witch King did not try to kill Frodo (e.g. with a sword) when he had the chance. Sauron did not want Frodo to die, but to be kept alive for the worst and longest-lasting punishment Sauron could devise - for having taken the One Ring and kept it. 


But this wraithing had not quite happened by the time the Ford to Rivendell was reached; because Frodo had, at the last moment, resisted the Witch King's attack, and spoken the name of Elbereth - momentarily dauting and distracting the Witch king, so that the stabbing blow missed the heart by several inches - enough to delay the wraithing (in a Hobbit, which is more resistant to the corruption of evil than a Man) for several weeks. 

Nonetheless, Frodo was most of the way towards being a wraith by the time of the Ford of Bruinen, and he therefore had a 'spiritual connection' to the ringwraiths - a channel had been opened-up. Frodo could see and hear the Nazgul much more clearly than could the other Hobbits, and indeed by this time he saw the Nazgul more clearly than he saw his companions. 

Presumably, therefore, the Witch King was able, via this magical connection, to destroy even Frodo's magically-anti-Nazgul sword, by an unspoken command and a gesture. 

This breaking of the Numenorean sword then created the desired plot-opening by which Frodo needed a sword at the last minute, and provided a reason for Bilbo giving him Sting. 

Acknowledgement: To my son Billy, for the suggestions and conversation which led-up to this insight - putting to rest a long-term uncertainty.


cae said...

Wonderful post!!
Kudos to you and your son for working out such a perfect explanation for a very puzzling plot detail!

William Wildblood said...

Tolkien was a very self-aware writer as evidenced by his constant editing of what he wrote but could this be one of those many occasions in which he was so connected to inner truths that he wrote what was right without actually knowing why he did so?

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I think that is likely!

Joel said...

Hi Bruce,

I sent an earlier email to you commenting on the Eowyn story, to your @yahoo address back in August. I don't know if that email address still works.

I think that there are some literary parallels that inspired Tolkien's broken sword motif, and are somewhat active here.

1) Arthur's sword from the stone, broken in battle with King Pellinore before he could receive Excalibur. (Post-Vulgate Cycle, Mallory)

2) Sigmund's sword Gram, shattered by Odin during his battle with King Lyngvi. Reforged by Sigurd. (In the Volsunga Saga, Wagner)

3) The sword given to Percival to reforge, which will fail him in his hour of need, due to the imperfection of the reforging. (Chrétien de Troyes, Acallamh na Senórach)

The Volsunga Saga seems especially powerful on Tolkien's imagination regarding the scene at the Ford. Here is Tolkien's description of the event from Sigurd and Gudrun:

A warrior strange,
one-eyed, awful,
strode and stayed him
standing silent,
huge and hoary
and hooded darkly.
The sword of Sigmund
sang before him.

His spear he raised:
sprang asunder
the sword of Grímnir,
singing splintered.
The king is fallen
lords lie round him;
the land darkens.

The Flight to The Ford:

'By Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair,' said Frodo with a last effort, lifting up his sword, 'you shall have neither the Ring nor me!'

Then the leader, who was now half across the Ford, stood up menacing in his stirrups, and raised up his hand. Frodo was stricken dumb. He felt his tongue cleave to his mouth, and his heart labouring. His sword broke and fell out of his shaking hand. The elf-horse reared and snorted. The foremost of the black horses had almost set foot upon the shore.

The raised hand/spear and the shattering of a sword from a distance strikes me, at least, as a close parallel. But as you have recognized, I think, the impact on Frodo is more personal, almost psychological, and his sword shattering seems to be one with finding himself dumbstruck.

My own explanation would be that for Tolkien, at the Ford, Frodo's sword was not really a named sword with a history (this was not invented or planned until the Eowyn chapter). What is going on is that though valiant, Frodo finds himself unequal to this direct confrontation with evil (as he will also find himself to be in the final confrontation), and Tolkien thought that it was appropriate and dramatic for his sword to fail him here.

There is a similar (perhaps more equal) moment when Gandalf confronts the Balrog.

From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.

Glamdring glittered white in answer.

There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back, and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still....

At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand...

And here is Saruman's staff broken at the raise of a hand:

He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. 'Saruman, your staff is broken.' There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman's hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf's feet.

Gollumclone said...

Interesting, but I don’t see why any extra explanation is needed. Just because the weapon was charmed against wraiths doesn’t mean that it would be invulnerable to being snapped by a spell.

I had another explanation for why the ringwraiths ceased their attack on weathertop: the presence of a vala, perhaps elbereth herself! During the first part of fellowship, until the entrance into Moria, Frodo has clairvoyant dreams. He sees Gandalf as prisoner in orthanc. He dreams shapes are flying above him, which presages the flying nazgul later in the story. In Rivendell he dreams they were all back in Rivendell again one day, which also comes true—the quest would be a success! It’s reminiscent of the power of Galadriel mirror. In silmarillion it says that sometimes ainur hover around mortals and give them encouraging visions. Could this be what was happening? It would have to be a great ainur who could see forwards in time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - Well, it doesn't *necessarily* follow, but if the Witch King could make the special anti-Witch King swords explode by remote control, at a word, they wouldn't be much use.

Yes, it's an interesting question about Frodo's dreams. They start after he is named Elf Friend by Gildor. Verlyn Flieger discusses it a lot in A Question of Time.

BTW - this is moderated blog, so you don't need to resend comments multiple times!

Gollumclone said...

Well, I didn’t think the first comment took bc I was wrestling with my google account. I don’t think it was gildors blessing bc the dreams stop after a point. I think Tom and merrygold are valar in disguise bc Tom has the far hearing of the valar. They stay with him as far as their power extends.

It is an example of depth in Tolkien for sure. Has anyone done a post on the maiar and telepathy or mind control? Please link me with other posts on examples of Tolkien’s depth.

Geoffrey said...

Tolkien lived through WWI and had experienced its arms race, so another possibility is that Mordor or Orthanc had done some arcane R&D since the days of Númenor.

When the Númenoreans forged the blades, presumably in Arnor but perhaps even earlier, centuries (maybe millennia) before, they were tested and had an edge against the Ringwraiths... at the time.

Since that time, maybe the Nazgûls had just figured out the enchantments on the blades and devised a disenchantment spell to shatter them.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this! I wonder how much the element of surprise is important where Merry is concerned? If Frodo had not brandished, but had somehow had an opportunity to stab, or parry in a fight, might things have gone differently despite any undermining 'bewraithing'?

To add to Joel's Balrog note, there is the interesting earlier resisting at that door of what turns out to be the Balrog where both Gandalf himself and the instrumentality of magic are concerned: is this analogous with (bewraithed) Frodo and blade?


Encourage a library near you to consider ordering Sam McBride's Tolkien's Cosmology (Kent State UP, 2020), in which he discusses Maiar and telepathy and mind control, among many other interesting things!

David Llewellyn Dodds