For as long as there have been warriors in our stories, there have been magical weapons for them to wield, and the sword is the most typical of these. Swords themselves are important symbols even without magic.
They are one of the few weapons in the world which were not developed for any other reason: axes, daggers, spears, bows, guns, these all have other purposes and applications, but the sword – it can only kill men. It is useless for hunting or cutting down trees or slicing meat for a feast.
In addition, the sword was once a very difficult craft, requiring the master swordsmiths to dedicate their entire lives to crafting even moderate quality blades. These things make the sword a foremost choice for the heroes of stories. Adding magic to that blade makes the greatest heroes nobler, and the most terrible foes viler. This series of features is covering some of the most important magic swords in literature and mythology.
Today we’re looking at Hrunting and Nægling.
Hrunting was Beowulfs first magic sword in the Old English epic poem detailing the hero’s exploits. Hrunting had been crafted of the finest iron in times beyond the memory of Beowulf’s people.
Its magic came from ‘ill-boding’ designs carved into the blade, and the fact that when crafted, it had been tempered in blood, possibly even by pushing the heated blade through the heart of a virgin girl, which was a not uncommon way to depict the origin of magic swords in the Germanic tales upon which most of Beowulf was based, though such specifics are not given in the poem.
The sword’s power was to remain sharp without ever needing to be honed, and to never break. This seems like it isn’t a very strong power, but the stories were written for warriors, and anyone using a sword regularly would wish for one which hones itself, surely, and the breaking of a sword mid-combat is a sure way to die in the field.
The sword did its job against the monster, Grendel, allowing Beowulf to wound the creature grievously. When Beowulf reached Grendel’s mother however – the real villain of the story, as it was she who was setting Grendel upon the settlement – it wasn’t good enough. It stuck to its powers sure enough. It remained sharp and unbroken, but wasn’t strong enough to kill the beast, and after Beowulf tossed it away in anger, the sword was never seen again.
Beowulf had received the sword from Unferth, a vassal of the lord of the realm, and Beowulf’s direct superior. Unferth did not like Beowulf, however, and makes it clear. Some interpretations of the poem put forth that Unferth gave the sword to Beowulf knowing that it would fail him because he wanted Beowulf to fail, and that Beowulf’s success against Grendel’s Mother despite that betrayal, and even his continued loyalty to Unferth is a display of the strength and honor of the character.
Others claim that it’s symbolic of the fallibility of man, and the infallibility of gods, as the sword described as the best man could possibly craft, the pinnacle of human weaponry was not strong enough, it was only when the gods lent Beowulf their power in the form of a temporary sword forged of the energy of the gods (I always visualize a light saber with a crusader’s hilt, but I doubt that’s what the original poets had in mind).
Nægling was Hrunting’s replacement. After the episode with Grendel’s mother was over, Beowulf was left with no magic sword, and so during a war between his people and the Geats (modern southern Sweden), he took Nægling from the battlefield as his spoils.
No specific power is ever stated for Nægling, but it seems similar to Hrunting in its power if not in design – it just looked like an old sword. It doesn’t turn out to be unbreakable, however. After using it to slay many enemies, it finally breaks in the final scene of the epic when Beowulf faces down the vile dragon, a enemy more terrible than even Grendel’s Mother.
The story is very clear: it’s not the weakness of the sword or the strength of the dragon which breaks it. Rather, the sword breaks because Beowulf’s “hand is too strong,” showing that Beowulf himself has surpassed the power of what men can create. His arms are now stronger than forged iron, and so no longer has need of swords. With the help of one of his reluctant warriors (the rest ran away) he defeats the dragon without the sword, but dies of his wounds afterward.
Come back for the next article in the series which will feature the Master Sword. If there is a magic sword which you would like to see featured in this series, let us know in the comments.