Swords, Saints and Cursed Rings
We are so lucky to have so many energetic and enthusiastic people here in Orkney, such as for example Tom Muir and the others in The Orcadian Story Trust who have given us yet another successful and very enjoyable Storytelling Festival. Listening to those stories, it made me think about how stories always change and how one person’s version is always different from another’s. Stories are alive! I amused myself by thinking of how motifs from stories transform through the ages, as they are used over and over again.
A striking motif which illustrates such transformations is The Sword In The Stone. My boys and I were watching the 2015 film Minions by Universal Pictures, where there’s a sudden plot twist: Without any aspiration or desire for power, a tiny, yellow “minion” named Bob happens to pull the legendary sword Excalibur out of its stone, causing him to be immediately crowned as King of England. Despite it being a children’s film, the viewers are expected to recognise this sword as that appearing in the legend of King Arthur. Two generations ago, the same motif entered the consciousness of granny and grandad when they were young, through the 1963 Disney film The Sword in the Stone, where it is explained that “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone, is right wise King born of all England”. This film was based on the medieval tradition on the young Arthur and his mentor, the wizard Merlin. Arthur grew up with foster parents who did not treat him very well, and as a child he did not seem particularly extraordinary or promising. His true heritage and right to rule was only revealed when he succeeded in pulling the said sword out of its stone at Westminster, set as a test by Merlin.
Does this sound familiar? Oh yes, because we have read it in Harry Potter – and seen the films, too. Little Harry grows up in the Cupboard Under The Stairs with his horrible aunt and uncle as his foster parents, who are trying their hardest to keep his true identity and magical abilities a secret. However, Harry’s Merlin – the wise wizard Albus Dumbledore – arranges his removal to Hogwarts where he is trained, and sets him off on his path to his true destiny as saviour of wizard-kind.
The Harry Potter series contains not just one, but three Sword In The Stone moments. The first occurs in book two, where Harry is fighting a giant snake known as a Basilisk (a monster known from medieval legend) down in the hidden Chamber of Secrets deep within the Hogwarts dungeons. As he is a hair’s breadth from death, the old Sorting Hat appears, and in a truly Arthurian move Harry pulls Gryffindor’s Sword out of the hat and uses it to kill the Basilisk. This proves Harry’s identity as Heir of Gryffindor and a modern-day Arthur. It’s therefore not a surprise when we later, in the epilogue to book seven, see him married to Ginny (Ginevra) Weasley, as Arthur’s wife was also Guinevere.
The other two Sword In The Stone moments involve Harry’s friends Ron and Neville, who also prove themselves as heirs of Gryffindor in the sense that they show extraordinary courage. In the final escalation of the war against Lord Voldemort, Dumbledore (acting through Severus Snape) places Gryffindor’s Sword in a frozen lake for Harry to retrieve. However, it is Ron who actually retrieves it in a sudden comeback, showing himself as a loyal and brave friend after all. The third time occurs in the final Battle of Hogwarts, when Gryffindor’s Sword lets itself be pulled out of the Sorting Hat again, this time by the previously timid Neville Longbottom, who uses it to kill another giant snake: Voldemort’s familiar Nagini. The message seems to be that anyone can find their Inner Arthur if they just look deeply enough.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Old Norse literature also has its Sword In The Stone – or, rather, this sword is in a tree, and again there is a connection with giant snakes. In the mythological Volsunga Saga, the god Odin – who is also a wise wandering wizard figure in disguise – thrusts a sword into a tree trunk, with a challenge as to who can pull it out. As it turns out, only young Sigmund can do it, and the sword thereafter has a long life story in the Volsung dynasty. Like Erendil’s sword from The Lord of the Rings, Odin’s sword at one point gets re-forged as Sigurd the Dragonslayer’s sword Gram. Sigurd uses the sword to kill the dragon Fáfnir, who is not a flying dragon as we know them, but rather like a giant snake who slithers along the ground. Like Bilbo from The Hobbit and his sword Sting, Sigurd goes for the dragon’s soft underbelly.
Here, a cursed ring enters the story. We could do a similarly long chain of stories containing the motif of the Cursed Ring. In Sigurd the Dragonslayer, the ring is named Andvaranaut and is dwarf-made, but captured by the dragon. Sigurd gains it as part of the dragon’s treasure, but it and the treasure continue to cause trouble and deaths throughout the story, corrupting its owner’s mind.
Andvaranaut is just one out of several magical or cursed rings in Old Norse literature. I was interested to read Gunnhild Røthe’s PhD thesis on the medieval hagiographical portrayals of St Olaf. One of the things she points out is that St Olaf gets some of his power transferred to him from an earlier, dead, king named Olaf the Elf of Geirstad. He was buried in a mound and revered as a deity, and his presence was considered to bring good harvests. Olaf the Elf of Geirstad’s harvest-luck and indeed his very existence gets transferred onto the later Olaf through naming baby Olaf after him, and through presenting him with a belt, sword and indeed ring taken from the Elf of Geirstad’s burial mound.
A ring in itself can be read as a symbol of rulership, along with other regalia such as a sword – expressed in The Lord of the Rings as the Rings of Power, governed by the “One Ring to Rule Them All”: Symbols of rulership, but at the same time carrying a corrupting curse.
Harry Potter has its cursed ring, too: Dumbledore uses Gryffindor’s Sword to destroy a ring which has been cursed by the evil Lord Voldemort and used to contain one of his soul-pieces, known as a Horcrux, assuring Lord Voldemort continued power despite multiple attempts to kill him. But it’s too late for Dumbledore: The curse of the ring is ultimately unstoppable.
Now, there’s this whole thing about going through death and coming out at the other side as something better. We can see it in the legends of medieval saints. Having died is of course a prerequisite for sainthood – it’s only after their deaths that the political “losers” Olaf Haraldsson (St Olaf) and Magnus Erlendsson (St Magnus) come into their full power and glory.
However, it’s not only saints that come into their full power via an encounter with death. In the Old Norse poem Hávamál, Odin hangs himself on Yggdrasill, the World Tree, as a sacrifice of “himself to himself”. Through this encounter with death, he emerges with new wisdom and magical abilities. In The Lord of the Rings, the wandering wise wizard Gandalf the Grey – who looks like an identical twin to Odin, with his big hat, staff and habit of roaming – at one point falls into the seemingly bottomless Mines of Moria in combat with a fire-demon. Everyone presumes him dead. But no, a wee while later he turns up again, and this new Gandalf has somehow, through his encounter with death, reached a higher level and become Gandalf the White.
Now, I could probably write a whole Mimir’s Well column about the symbolism of the colour white, but let’s just mention that it signifies holiness. In stories of medieval saints’ lives, their whiteness or shining appearance is often mentioned, such as Saint Olaf riding a pure white horse and carrying a shining sword. This device is often used in a watered down variety in films and TV, so that light colours mark out the “goodies”. Anyway, it is Gandalf’s voyage through death which enables him to become Gandalf the White, the top-ranked wizard in Middle Earth.
Harry Potter’s mentor and Merlin-figure Dumbledore, on the other hand, is already “white”. His first name is Albus, meaning white (while his surname Dumbledore means bumblebee). Presumably he has already had his symbolic passage through death before we meet him, in his youth when he defeated Grindelwald. When he then subsequently dies a martyr’s death in book six in the series, he does not come back, although his portrait continues to speak for him and he is thus able to arrange things such as Snape’s placing of Grindelwald’s sword in the frozen lake. As Dumbledore tells Harry: “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
It is Harry who truly passes through death and comes out at the other side, transformed. During Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort, all his accumulated fears and sorrows reach an endpoint when he decides “I am ready to die”. We then get a scene set outside of time and space at a place called “King’s Cross” (let’s not miss the Christian symbolism here) where he meets Dumbledore who continues his role as mentor, before he purposefully returns to Hogwarts to finish the final battle. When he does, he is in double measure The Boy Who Lived, and only at that point has he reached maturity.
You can probably tell by now that I’m a fan of fantasy literature. I’m a fan of medieval tales and folklore, too, and I think it’s fascinating how these old stories live on in new forms and continue to entertain new generations.
By Ragnhild Ljosland. Originally published in The Orcadian, 3/12/2015, page 21.