Inspire: Sword Metallurgy

So the gun has fired, and the race is on. National Novel Writing Month is since officially in full swing, and yours truly has thus been able able to keep up. I won’t get into many details about my story here, as that is not the purpose of this blog, but I will tell you that something integral to the plot is the creation of a weapon.

As it happened, this last weekend I went to visit family (and still managed to not fall behind in my NaNoWriMo word count!) and was pleasantly surprised to view a documentary relevant to my story – and general interest, for that matter. In this 50-minute piece, we learn of the Ulfberht, the name ascribed to a line of Viking swords forged between the years 800 and 1,000 AD. These were weapons vastly superior to the rest of Europe, and even – against all pop culture references – would give Japanese swordsmithing a run for its money.


You can find the documentary here. It is well worth the hour, whether you are an aspiring blacksmith or a fantasy writer.

Clear as day.

While watching this, I was inspired. I’d already mentioned that it was relevant to the piece of writing I’m endeavoring to accomplish for this month. What I haven’t mentioned is that I attempted to take up amateur blacksmithing back in the day – unsuccessfully, I might add – but for a teenager with no money and almost no help, the setup I had was pretty nifty. If for no other reason than to heat up railroad spikes and scrap steel to misshapen uselessness.

But that’s besides the point. The documentary covered numerous things, one of which I wanted to talk about today: the importance placed on the weapons of the vikings. Axes were effective, spears were cheap, but to own a sword was as much a symbol of wealth as it was a genuine honor to one’s ancestors. There were those (I can’t say all, but apparently enough for the lore to survive) who believed wielding a sword, such as the Ulfberht, endowed them with the power of their ancestors, or perhaps something else; a bear, a mountain, any number of those burlymanly type things. But it wasn’t so simple as to just have one of these things made and say “Yes, Olaf! This blade I hitherto name after my granpappy!”

To understand this, it’s necessary to have some grasp of the crafting of these materials. The Ulfberhts were made of superior steel of the age. Steel is an alloy of iron, found in its rawest form as just ore in the ground, and carbon, which was added to the iron usually in the form of coal. But these vikings did not use any old iron or any old carbon.

Iron, as well as forging techniques, were learned and found as far as Damascus, and carbon was acquired from the burning of bones at times. Imagine the symbolism of of having the carbon (who knows what they called coal) acquired from a certain special mountain? Or from the bones of a bear a warrior hunted?

Or the bones of his grandfather? Added to the iron, to make steel that not only rang of excellent metallurgical properties, but that of symbolic purpose as well.

We’re talking serious weaponry here, the kind that would cut through the blades of enemy defenders, powered by the strong arm of a Norseman who truly believed that his ancestors fought alongside him – or perhaps through him.

The intersection of mind (the belief behind the arm) as well as matter (the metal as well as the arm itself) really is something to be reckoned with.

I think their legacy speaks for itself.


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