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The Story of a Sword

Most Tolkien fanatics know about Glamdring, the ancient sword wielded by Gandalf during the War of the Ring and seen by most of us in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, but only the real devotees would know that the sword originally came from the Hidden City of the Elves, Gondolin, over 6,000 years earlier in the chronicles of Middle Earth, or that its history, like most things in Tolkien’s world, is worth pursuing.

'Glamdring' is an Elvish name meaning 'Foe-hammer'. The first element is 'glam'. This word has a long history in Tolkien's mind, but always had something to do with evil. In its earliest appearances, it meant 'fierce hate' later becoming 'shouting, confused noise'. The second element is 'dring', said to mean 'hammer'. It’s interesting to relate the word to what the sword actually does throughout its history, which of course is very much how Tolkien worked imaginatively. Keep in mind the idea of a weapon which 'hammers those who display fierce hate or confused noise' as we explore the sword’s story.

Born in the furnaces of the elven forges of the Hidden City, its existence is first hinted at in The Silmarillion when Turgon, Elvish King of Gondolin, 'hewed his way to the side of his brother' in the great battle called Nirnaeth Arnoediad (the Battle of Unnumbered Tears) where the sword would have first encountered the evil Balrogs, demons of the ancient world. The 'sword of Turgon' (not specifically identified as Glamdring) had 'a white and gold sword in a ruel-bone (ivory) sheath’. Turgon would have had at least one face-to-face encounter with one of these creatures at that time, possibly Gothmog, the High Captain of Angband, who is specifically mentioned in the story of the battle.

When Turgon perished under the Tower of the King, the sword was lost and pure speculation takes over. We don’t meet the blade again until it is found and claimed by Gandalf in the troll’s hoard as he accompanies the dwarves on their way to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit. Here it is imagined that the sword has been found and hoarded by many through the centuries, over 6,500 years in fact, until it has wound up in a hillside cave in the Trollshaws of Eriador, many miles further east from Gondolin. Gandalf is appropriately amazed by its appearance; its heritage as an enemy of Balrogs in particular is going to be of great significance for him.

The noble elf Elrond is able to confirm for them that 'This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore.' Its first victim in Gandalf’s hands, appropriately, is the Great Goblin (who shouts fierce hate a lot). Other Orcs fled as they recognized the sword as 'Beater', which means that either some of the Orcs were at the Fall of Gondolin thousands of years before, or that they had legends about two glowing swords - Beater and Biter - which had been passed down through the ages.

Gandalf probably wielded Glamdring again during the Battle of the Five Armies and certainly had it by his side when he left Rivendell with the Fellowship of the Ring (which means he may have used it in his earlier encounter with the Nazgul on Weathertop, though this is not stated anywhere). He used the blade during the Battle of the Chamber of Mazarbul in Moria, and a short time later the sword once again meets one of its old foes, a Balrog, where the wizard and the demon both fall, landing in a subterranean lake. The flames of the Balrog's body go out but it remains 'a thing of slime, stronger than a strangling snake' and they fight in the water, with the Balrog clutching at Gandalf to strangle him, and Gandalf hewing the Balrog with Glamdring -a battle somewhat reminiscent of Beowulf’s legendary confrontation with Grendel beneath a cold lake, with which Tolkien was very familiar- until finally the Balrog flees into ancient tunnels of unknown origin.

The wizard pursues the creature for eight days, until they climb to the peak of Zirakzigil. The Balrog erupts into new flame and they fight on the mountaintop for two days and nights. It’s not clear what role Glamdring plays in this final conflict, but in the end, the Balrog is defeated and cast down, breaking the mountainside where it fell 'in ruin'.

Gandalf continues to bear Glamdring throughout the War of the Ring, at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and later at the Black Gate. He carries it at his side when he, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin arrive at the Prancing Pony in Bree after the War is over.

On September 29, Third Age 3021, Gandalf leaves Middle-earth and sails into the West, but whether he takes Glamdring with him is not clear. At that point he had been carrying the sword for over 80 years and it had fulfilled its name as the hammer of things which generated noise and hatred.

Though we have traced the sword’s story from the beginning to the end, in Tolkien’s imagination it went the other way -from the discovery of a sword in the trolls’ cave in The Hobbit, to an imagined derivation and history which went right back into the First Age of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and made sense, staying true to its derivation and central meaning throughout. The whole history of Middle Earth is like that: woven around words and their meanings.


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