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Cutting edge: drawing the sword from the stone

Stuart Nathan

Features editor

Stuart muses on the meanings hidden in mythology and gets his hands dirty in East London

Last weekend I decided to connect with the ancient myth that connects British culture with engineering by taking part in a bladeforging class in East London.

Many readers may be surprised at that statement. What’s engineering got to do with mythology and British culture, you may ask. The answer is a phrase which everyone knows, but has been consistently misinterpreted: “He that draws the sword from the stone shall be king.”

Stuart's hand-forged carving knife
Stuart's hand-forged carving knife

It’s the prophecy that kicks off the legend of King Arthur, of course. And the image that it conjures up, whether it’s from Norse sagas, 12th century poetry, the 1938 novel by TH White, the Disney animated film, the 1981 John Boorman film Excalibur, or the more recent BBC series Merlin, is of a massive boulder with a perfect sword embedded in it. Brawny knights labour and strain to tug it free,to no avail; until an unlikely scrawny lad gives it a pull, staggers away with the shining blade and embarks on his ill-fated destiny as an ancient king. Cue Green Knight, betrayal, Holy Grail, final battle, the Lady of the Lake and Monty Python.

But scholars of folklore like the novelist Alan Garner tell us that the phrase has a very different meaning. Forget about the sword for a minute and think about the stone.

What the Arthurian prophecy is referring to is not geology as much as minerology. The stone in question is iron ore, and ‘drawing the sword from the stone’ is an allusion to refining the pure metal from the ore. If you can make take a lump of stone and extract and work this useful substance from which can be crafted weapons and tools, you have the ‘right stuff’ to rule.

This has rather profound implications. In the version of the myth we are used to, warriors compete for the right to recover a weapon that’s been magically rendered useless, and if they can, it proves their right to lead (Arthur's successful drawing of the sword is put down to more magic). Kingship belongs in the hands of the strong and mighty, it implies. The alternative is somewhat different. Kingship belongs to the wise and crafty; those who understand the laws of nature and how to turn them to humanity’s advantage; those who have learned skills; those who know secrets. While we still retain a vestige of the last of these in our current government (it’s why the heads of government departments are called ‘Secretaries’: they are in charge of secrets), it’s fair to say that the wisdom that those who can manipulate nature are those who should run the country is not a view that dominates modern politics (more’s the pity, some would say).

But the making of tools from metal is an ancient craft that has always intrigued me, so the chance to try my hand at bladesmithing was one that I wouldn’t pass up.

Metal smelting was not part of the class (though it’s still on my list to try), so my day was less drawing the sword from the stone than drawing the wood-carving knife from the bar of high-carbon steel. Guided by Welsh master-smith Nic Westermann at the slightly unlikely location of Stepney City Farm (although of course, farms would have been an important workplace for smiths), myself and my seven fellow students of varying ages, degrees of hirsuiteness and number of tattoos were guided through the various steps of drawing out the tang (the metal rod that runs from the blade through the handle of the knife, flattening and broadening the blade with a ‘fuller’ (a blunt wedge-shaped tool that forms grooves in the hot metal), making the angled bevels and distal narrowing shape of the blade; grinding the spine and the blade shape, hardening and tempering the metal by temperature treatment (the latter, pleasingly though non-traditionally, by heating it to 195°C in a deep-fat fryer), carving the handle from a chunk of elm, weaving a sheath from wet bark, and finally grinding out the edge on a wet stone wheel, ‘burning in’ the heated tang to the drilled handle and riveting it in place.

It’s highly physical work, and in close proximity to an open-sided blazing gas forge on one of the hottest days of the year not always comfortable. My slight disability to my left arm which prevents me from performing coordinated tasks with both hands didn’t hold me back, although had to ‘take strike’ in the early stages; wielding a short-handled sledgehammer rather than holding the workpiece steady with tong in my left hand while hitting it with a light hammer in the right; this denied me a little control in the shaping of tang and blade but still allowed me to hit red-hot metal very hard with a big hammer, which is hard on the lower back but extremely satisfying.

Long-time readers might recall that I’m not actually a trained engineer; I have a degree in chemistry. This meant that I had some understanding of how I was changing the properties of the metal-carbon mixture by heating it, hitting it and so on. But it isn’t an understanding that smiths would have shared, back through the millennia; they wouldn’t have known that the scale of slag that formed on the cooling metal and the sparks flying of were carbon coming out of the slid solution of the steel, or that the carbon forms a carbide complex with the iron as it hardens; or about the crystalline structures that form as it tempers. It wouldn’t have mattered; their skills, acquired through years of practice, and the secrets handed on during their long apprenticeships would have guided them.

So at the end of the day, with a sore back from swinging the sledge, a couple of minor nicks and only one slight burn, I took home my very own handcrafted tool, its blade pocked and cratered like the surface of the moon up to the end of the silvery ground bevel and razor-sharp edge. It might not mean I’ll be king, but I’ll be able to whittle a mean spatula.

Stuart paid for his own course at The Green Wood Guild in Stepney. Nic Westermann also teaches axe-forging, and forges his own blades which can be bought through his website.