I was just enough of a precocious little ass, when I first read The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven, to grasp that Tolkien had reached into the murky history of England for the riders of Rohan, the horsemen who rose to alliterative verse when deeds called for great speech. In the Dark Ages, Frisia and Jutland and Denmark gave England the Saxons, whether she wanted them or not, and the Saxons had a fighting nature so they did — oddly blended with a hypnotic verse style and a zeal for beautiful things.
I took an excursion today to visit some of them, while most of the town was snaffling Cheetos and Budweiser at Super Bowl parties. Bleh.
The bits in the video just barely put across the delicacy, the intricacy, the thousands of man (or, I suspect, woman-) hours invested in creating a treasure trove composed almost entirely of artifacts of war: pommels, hilt-guards, helmet adornments. The gold came from everywhere — Roman and Byzantine coins, traded plunder — the garnets from distant parts of Europe that would one day be called Slavic, the workmanship from god knows who. A little film loop at the exhibit discussed what it might have taken, in an era without magnifying glasses, to produce filigree designs made of gold wire less than a millimetre thick. “Myopia?” wondered one curator, without much assurance. Yes you pommy bastard, I thought, myopia, I can count the veins on a fly’s wing close up if you can get the goddam fly to hold still and have done since I was four, I think you’re onto something.
Gorgeous things, and nearly all of them contrived as rewards of deeds in battle: ornaments of slaughter, most of them designed to bedeck the sword, the one pre-industrial weapon designed for killing other people, rather than parlayed implements of agriculture or the hunt.
Toward the end a small exhibit, mostly aimed at children, from the look of it, invited visitors to heft a replica sword (carefully caged so that it couldn’t be swung about) and a targe shield, to help one understand what a warrior of that past age had to do.
The shield-grip and the sword hilt seemed to embrace my hand, rather than the other way round, so that I really longed to get the whole sword free of the little enclosure that let me feel nothing more than its weight, and tested the quickness of the shield: how fast could I swing it from my side overhead, if a horseman were riding down on me, or in front of me again to parry a foe on foot?
It was giddy, the phony museum hilt in my hand like the jewel in the lotus, the image of those garnet-slathered pommels still radiant in my head, a current coming up from my heels to my hand saying do not fuck with me. It’s all too easy to understand why generations have ridden or flown or sailed off to war, and I actually kind of pitied the people who have to do it with computer gidgys and planes and so forth. And I am a bleeping vegetarian who won’t even eat a scallop.
“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”
I don’t think I actually said it out loud. Tolkien got into my head earlier and more surely than the Beowulf poet: so sue me.