12

At the end of the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar, as told in The Silmarillion, Túrin goes alone to the high point of Cabed-en-Aras above the river Teiglin, and there calls to his sword Gurthang.

There he drew forth his sword, that now alone remained to him of all his possessions, and he said, 'Hail Gurthang! No lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that weildeth thee. From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou therefore take Túrin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?'

And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: 'Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.'

Then Túrin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.

...

Then they lifted up Túrin, and found that Gurthang had broken asunder.

Nowhere else in the legendarium, as far as I know, does a sword speak, nor is any explanation offered for how Gurthang did so.

4
  • 1
    How did Túrin's sword speak? Very carefully.
    – ibid
    Oct 31, 2022 at 2:37
  • 2
    @ibid ... very well, thank you!
    – Möoz
    Oct 31, 2022 at 3:16
  • Probably the same way Huon the Hound of Valinor spoke: By an exception to natural law through the agency of the Valar or Eru.
    – Mark Olson
    Oct 31, 2022 at 14:00
  • 1
    . . . or the reader's imagination.
    – m4r35n357
    May 17, 2023 at 13:11

3 Answers 3

22

You have to remember the literary genre. Quenta Silmarillion is presented as a collection of legends and stories, collected many years after the events concerned. It is not a novel, and is not written as one. It is the legends and stories of the Elves, though also containing accounts of some of the notable Atani, such as Túrin. As such, only those stories known to the Elves of Middle-earth are told. For example, we are told little of what passed in Valinor after the exile of the Noldor, nor do we know the final fate of Maglor.

How then, can we know the details of the passing of Túrin and Gurthang, since they were alone at the time? We can't, of course. The detail of the sword speaking is a literary flourish, added as the story passed down the generations, because it seemed fitting. A talking sword taking the life of its owner ("master of doom by doom mastered") is properly the stuff of legends, and so it is included in this legend.

What makes this legendary is not the likelihood or otherwise of the tale, but the way it is told, the high remote language, and the overall structure of the story. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is the stuff of legends, but that novel is not itself legendary in style. The dialogue is natural; the characters are shown intimately. The reader is made to feel close to the tale. The Silmarillion has a very different feel to it. The events happened long ago, in a different Age of the world, in fact, in a world which in many ways no longer exists, for it has changed so much in the interim.

To think that Gurthang actually spoke is to make a mistake in the understanding of literary genre; the same mistake that people make when they think Genesis says the world was created in 144 hours.

12
  • 12
    "Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou!" StormBringer's final words to Elric as they usher in the new Age of Balance. Magical swords, particularly of the doom-dealing variety getting the last word is a literary trope. A way of describing and closing a chapter of a legendary event or tragic tale. Oct 6, 2012 at 21:36
  • 8
    I disagree. I think the sword did speak, however not with sound, but directly by mental communication. It is said by Melian that Eol put some of its will in the two black swords, so the sword could "speak", exactly as the One Ring did.
    – user8252
    Oct 7, 2012 at 13:43
  • 2
    @ALS. Tolkien's world includes a lot of ambiguity, enigma, and mystery. I'd forgotten about Eol's will. It's certainly a thought.
    – TRiG
    Oct 7, 2012 at 21:51
  • 4
    I've upvoted the question but downvoted this answer. There's no sources at all and you don't even really answer the question. "It's a literary flourish" - according to whom? Where are similar flourishes in other parts Tolkien's work or in similar real-world works, e.g. the eddas or sagas? Are there any statements by folklorists or historians or Tolkien that these are not to be taken literally?
    – user1030
    Oct 8, 2012 at 10:42
  • 5
    For example, if you read Norse poetry it is full of kennings, which are literary flourishes, but also to be interpreted literally. You can refer to Thor as mög-fellandi mellu and that's a literary flourish, but he also did actually kill a lot of giants.
    – user1030
    Oct 8, 2012 at 10:57
5

Tolkien's works took inspiration from many different mythologies and epics, including the Finnish epic Kalevala. Túrin's character in particular was inspired by the character Kullervo from Kalevala. Túrin and Kullervo's stories share many similarities; they're both raised at some point of their childhood by someone else than their biological parents. After either an accident or causing intentional harm, they run away from those who raised them. Eventually, after a life filled with misfortune, some of which they brought upon themselves by violent deeds, they meet a girl who is their sister whom they'd never met before. They fall in love with the girl and have sex with them. When it is revealed that they're siblings, the girl commits suicide by jumping into a river.

Then Kullervo/Túrin comes to the place where his sister jumped into the river, and chooses to commit suicide by throwing himself upon his sword. These scenes are extremely similar in Kalevala and Silmarillion. Here is a link to an English translation of Kullervo's death scene: https://glaemscrafu.jrrvf.com/english/kullervo.html I suggest you read it to see for yourself the similarities between this and Túrin's death in Silmarillion.

I cannot offer a definitive in-universe explanation as to why Gurthang speaks if that is what you were asking, but the reason Tolkien chose to make it speak in that scene was that he was basing the scene on the one in Kalevala.

4
  • 1
    Apart from drawing similarities do you have any evidence that he did in fact base the story on that one? If so could you edit that in?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Aug 17, 2020 at 20:36
  • 6
    Tolkien wrote to W.H. Auden, ""the beginning of the legendarium [...] was in an attempt to reorganize some of the Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo the hapless, into a form of my own."
    – Mary
    Aug 18, 2020 at 1:20
  • That is insightful. Thanks.
    – TRiG
    Aug 19, 2020 at 17:15
  • 1
    @TheLethalCarrot I thought it was well-known that Túrin is basically Kullervo? See eg from a 2016 review of Tolkien's Story of Kullervo: "It's long been known, for example, that the first language Tolkien created for his Elves was based on Finnish; and that Tùrin Tùrambar, the charismatic, doomed anti-hero of Tolkien's Silmarillion, was based on the equally doomed Kullervo." (npr.org/2016/04/10/471619609/…) Oct 31, 2022 at 6:46
2

Turin's sword Gurthang uses Ósanwe, the interchange of thought, which, as described in the Ósanwe-kenta, requires neither lung nor tongue -- structures biological entities use to produce audible speech and which swords don't posses -- as long as all participants involved give their consent. It's dramatized in The Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter 6 "Many Partings."

9
  • 1
    You're saying the sword was capable of Ósanwe?
    – ibid
    Oct 31, 2022 at 2:35
  • @ibid - Yes. Of the communication methods we know of, that one makes the most sense. Even had Gurthang the biological necessities to speak in airborne sound, she/he/it would have needed intention and language skills. For a sword of sky-iron to communicate in words, as the legend clearly says, would require its consciousness. Otherwise we might question, not as physical reality but as a story about how the world came to be, that Icarus flew too near the sun, his wax melted, and he fell. Whether myths are life-true or not, they might as well be within their cultures. Gurthang and Túrin counted.
    – Lesser son
    Oct 31, 2022 at 2:54
  • I interpreted this question as asking "how is an inanimate object able to have the necessary consciousness to communicate?", not "how did it physically convey the sounds?".
    – ibid
    Oct 31, 2022 at 4:55
  • 1
    @ibid -- as opposed to magic rings of domination, rope that unties itself when called, and sentient lumps of rock?
    – Lesser son
    Oct 31, 2022 at 16:25
  • 1
    @ibid -- I'm very sorry but I can't be held accountable for you feeling something is out of place. Should you post a reasoned dispute I look forward to reading it, fairly evaluating it, and either agreeing or disagreeing, for written reasons,. I'm all about defensible truth here at SE. I am not at all about feelings.
    – Lesser son
    Oct 31, 2022 at 19:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.