Monday, December 5, 2011

Scabbard, Snow, Lichen Stone

I rise before the sun, the scratchy radio voices catalog what bad things have happened in the world while I slept.  But the world tells a different story-- out the old farmhouse window the dawn blooms impossible colours against the somnabulant landscape.

Two ravens sit warily in the orchard on the lower slopes of the hill, the world is pink as the ravens talk to each other and fly off.

Under the front porch two feral buck cats vie for territory, sleek and well fed, there are few mice to be found around the old farm.

In the shop I am working on a pattern welded viking sword with carvings in the Mammen Style. This is a type of ornamentation from 10th century Denmark which combines gripping beasts with spiral hips and wings which loop and intertwine with decorative dots.

 This is the second sword I will finish from the batch of pattern welding which I have cataloged on this blog since last winter.
 Here you can see the pattern in the steel created by the process of pattern welding. The edge is seven hundred layers of folded steel and the center is constructed from two bars of nine layer steel which have been twisted to mirror each other.

Before constructing the hilt and scabbard I start by drawing a full scale concept design of the sword and work out the details of how it will be suspended from the belt and what design motifs I will explore.

 the grip is carved from black wood in a series of vertebrate like rings with spaces for ferrules where it meets the upper and lower guards
 The scabbard is shaped and fit to the blade with a sheep skin lining, and now I draw the pattern I have designed onto it.  This pattern is inspired by a stone which I photographed at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.
 I begin to carve by cutting the pattern in with a scew chisel, shaped like a sharp triangle with an acute point; I cut the lines in for a touch-mark on the back of the scabbard.

 I carve the background out and begin to round the lines of the spirals and cords. slowly the pattern emerges over eight days of carving.

Finally I rub it with warm linseed oil and the figure in the beautiful rock maple jumps into relief adding an extra dimension to the carving which shimmers and changes when moved in the light.

I walk up the old hill behind the farm. The landscape is skewbald with snow, a white and brown patchwork, dusk already in the afternoon. Winters smell hangs on the air, crisp, bittersweet.

Dead branches form mouth-like winter dens in the undergrowth.

Tangled spruce, saplings and brambles, black red grey, bone white.
Lichen moss and snow are the stones winter clothes.

The beech trees hold their leaves all winter, they rattle in the wind.  Yellow grass against the dark forest. The hillside is full of grim beauty. Now it is time to light a fire in the kitchen, cast bronze in the foundry and write winter stories in the dim light.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dagfinnr - Day finder

He goes to the ancient stones on the wild hilltop under the cold starlight and sits in silent contemplation over his sword, to ready his mind and prepare to travel into the other lands where the dragon hoards its power.  The sword is long; long enough to pass through the thick body of the immense wyrm.  The blade is wrought in the ancient way when smiths would weave the magic of serpent and blood and river into their patterned steel blades.  No one knows the significance or meaning of the writhing pattern or why the light glints in ripples along the many-layered edge, but he can feel the ancient power in it as it rests on his hand. Sharp enough to slice the callused skin, it rings with a soft high note when he runs his palm along the blade and lifts it into the air.

  The grip and hilt are marked with strange symbols and runes. He looks upon them as he thinks of the coming battle. The letters are strange -- like, yet unlike the runes he is familiar with.  All travellers know the common rune letters; they write notes to one another on stones or wood when they are far away from their own lands and need to communicate to someone following days behind on the trail or current.  But these letters are different, they have strange dots and some of them are unfamiliar, and they seem to be written backwards.  This is the way the ancient ones, the old runeworkers, used to write warnings to the spirits and ancestors. He knows this -- some of the ward stones under the dark jagged mountains to the west are written with backwards runes, so that they have power in the other world, the world that can be glimpsed peering out from puddles and tarns in the deep woods sometimes.
These words written on the hilt, then, are not for him to read, but to protect him when he passes into the dragon's realm.  The smith has looked deeply into the old stories, and found the names of the first things from before men walked the earth, when there was only a gap of nothing bordered by ice and fire. Sparks melted the ice and a yeasty rime yielded the first life, then the olden gods gave it breath and the world began. These first things are written in the ancient language on the guard of the sword - Ice, fire, yeast, breath - isa, brisingr, jouster, orindi.

He runs his thumb over the grip ferule. There is written in the same hidden text the kenning of the first dragon and his slayer. Just below the pommel, the smith has carved a finding spell that will take the slayer to the dragon's world - Nidr ok nordr liggr helvegr.
The grip of the sword is carved of hard unyielding wood, black and smooth. It is whispered that the smith traded a great many fine things to acquire it from a forest stunted by dragon fire so that the wood grew black from the venom. The touch of this wood protects the warrior from the same venom and will give him a slim advantage when facing the beast.

Carved into the grip are the same symbols that adorn the guard and pommel, and which run over the scabbard. Looping under and over and twisting around into three lobes, the dragon slayer knows these well. They represent the sacred goal of every dragon slayer - the dragon's heart.

For more information about this sword visit its page on my website -Dagfinnr - Day Finder

Friday, October 28, 2011

Questing under the moon

The Year wanes; leaves wither and go dancing off into the land of moldering and glimmering bone colours.  Work is coming together after the many distractions and events of short summer.

Since I was a young boy, I have drawn dragons.


 There is something alluring about an inhuman intelligence, capable of human emotion and foibles, manifest in a powerful form, representing ancient human fears of the forgotten predator.
Over the last several years my perpetual study of Celtic and Germanic mythology has strayed into the strange land of mythological fear.  We are afraid of death, the unknown and also some things that we can't articulate. It seems like we have ancient memories of being prey and we weave this into our stories and our myths. In order to create a great hero one must create a truly frightening enemy;  and this is where our wonderous and malevolent western dragon comes in. The gate keeper of the western mysteries, greedy horder of gold, whose heart contains the secrets of the natural world and arcane knowledge.  In the story of Sigurd and Fafnir, when Sigurd the dragon slayer cooks the heart of the slain Fafnir and accidentally tastes the juices of the heart on his finger, he can suddenly understand the language of birds.  This is similar to several other stories about hero initiations from Celtic mythology - Finn who gains all the wisdom in the world from tasting the cooked juices of a magic salmon and Taliesin who finds prophetic poetic wisdom when he accidentally tastes three drops from the magic cauldron of Ceridwen.  
The story of the dragon slayer is about overcoming fear in order to gain wisdom.  It is also a compelling story of a lesser power overcoming a seemingly indomitable power through strength and intent.

The dragon slayer must have a magic sword forged in a secret manner in the forest, which can bring the mysteries of earth and fire to help him in his quest, and he must have a brave steed as a companion. Then he must undertake the perilous journey, which inevitably leads him through the backwards lands, into the chancy country of myth and symbol where our fears become manifest.

 The tribal northern Europeans loved dragons. These are my interpretations of two images from ceremonial jewellery from the early Viking Age. The twisting almost human creatures may be one of the ways the early Scandinavians represented dragons and trolls, those frightening changeling creatures that haunt the edge of dreams and the places between the settled reality of cot and farm and the uncertain wilderness of robber, wolf and ghoul.
 Our hero must confer with the spirits of his ancestors and petition the land spirits for help before he sets out on his quest.   He goes to the ancient stones on the wild hilltop under the cold starlight and sits in silent contemplation over his sword, to ready his mind and prepare to travel into the other lands where the dragon hoards its power. 

Then he sets out, leaving his helpers behind: all but one, his magic sword; until he is on foot in a wild rocky country of stunted trees and twisted stone.

Even the bravest may not succeed in their quest, or may find they are not equal to the task. Having travelled through the barren lands and found the lair, it may be that they have only brought the Wyrm a morsel of fresh hope -- to devour, shaken and broken like a cat-caught song bird, their quest and intent heaped on the hoard with the dragon's other playthings.

The stout-hearted hero, who travels through the land of dream without faltering or becoming distracted by phantasm or falling prey to the many pitfalls in the land beyond the bramble hedge, may brave through and capture the dragon's heart.  But remember, some dragons were once men, whose greed changed them until they became horrible and violent, and hoarded their knowledge like gold on the heath mound.

Monday, May 30, 2011

wandering at the edge of fear and beauty

 This morning, I walked into the woods.

 past the remains of human industry, moldering in the fresh shoots, turning brown and grey,
 across the stepping stone ford into the realm of the forest, where the primal imagination is at home and feels its roots.
 Tree roots twist in suggestive shapes; as a boy I believed a dragon lived up here; not a friendly wise dragon, but a black venomous dragon, wet and malevolent, deep in its crevasse, sleeping, but likely to wake.
 Walking through the edge forest, great spruce trees with many arms stand like strange beings with their own reasons for stillness.
 An old maple has been felled by the harsh winter, one half of it's trunk lies over the brook in a small forest meadow.
 I find myself walking up the path towards the ravine, I am in search of dragons and fantastical beasts today and where better to look than the place that a small boy knew to be enchanted, dangerous and wonderful.  Ferns lay on moss, the fresh green is like a tonic after so much darkness and cold. 
 As I come into the deeper woods they become darker, pools reflect black branches, and I can imagine the world the ancient Europeans believed lay beneath them, dark and chancy, uncertain, frightening, beautiful. A world where writing is backwards.
 Higher in the hills blight beech grow, smooth bark broken by the blight sores.
 The brook that I am following runs by in a white spring rush, on startling green moss.
 Coniferous branches twist and snarl in curling tangled patterns.
 Natural meadows open every once in a while, stone, grass, water, light.
 I am close now to the ravine, an ancient yellow birch tree has died but given birth to several of its children out of it's trunk so they are twisted and rooty, over a pool filled with tree debris
 This tree has always fascinated me, many of the trees up here give the impression of frozen or stilled motion.
 Obscured by undergrowth a space of darkness, breathing cold breath and rushing water.  The smells of earth and wet moss fill the air.
 As I brush branches aside I come to the mouth of the ravine, this is as far as I dared come as a ten year old boy for fear of the dragon, but I came this far often.  Now I climb over fallen trees and follow the rocky bottom up through the stony gash into the hill.
 Water is loud over the stone floor and conglomerate sides of the two hundred foot deep ravine.
deep in the hill a water shoot slashes white into a pool.
 Looking back down the crevasse, mist obscures branches at its top.
 Fallen tree opens it's mouth but says nothing.
 Back down the path by the river, moss and tree roots, my imagination filling, never full, the more I feed it the bigger it grows.
 Erect green shoots breathe in morning mist. I look up to find that I am being observed, old hill father says not a word, but I smile at him.
 Back in the forge, I have been working polishing and hardening sword blades.
 I make sure they are strait, before heating them up and quenching them in hot oil, to make the steel hard.
 After they are quenched, the pattern in the steel emerges starkly, twists and swirls like rivers and tree branches, the vikings called them blood edies, these are the patterns that make the swords more than simple weapons and turn them into chancy mythological objects, perhaps there is meaning in the patterns, maybe the rivers gurgle hides a chuckle.

 Plunging an orange hued sword blade into the burbling vegetable oil.
 Once the swords have been hardened and I have tempered them,  I grind in the final edge geometry and begin to sharpen the edges.
 Then it is time for the laborious process of polishing, rubbing the blade with stones and abrasives, until it is smooth and ready to be etched to bring out the pattern that I have created in the steel.

 This blade has been polished enough to give it a rough etch to see the pattern, now I am ready to design the hilt and scabbard. After having visited a dragon lair I am ready to do this, this sword will be a mythical dragon slayer... blade writhen to the task, hilt marked with magical signs to protect the hero when they pass into the reflected world, to confront the writhing darkness.