I’m still working off a theme of Kingsnorth, and language, and storytelling. I might be compensating for our loss of Jim Harrison, which was a hammer blow for those of us who have devoured his work, much in the way he devoured life.
So. Kingsnorth. The Wake is a rare book in that its originality–not in the story, necessarily, but in the manner of telling it–stays on, long after the book has been read and put up. Buccmaster won’t leave me alone. Perhaps it is because I have written a bad novel and know where the bar is set for a good one, that the book lingers, tauntingly. It’s hard to say, precisely, but one thing leads to another in these studies and because I am a language nerd, and spent 20 years in martial pursuits, I have stumbled again on the Ulfberht, which combines two or three obsessions in one glorious place. Perhaps you know of it. I had known of the +Ulberh+t once, but it faded into memory until Buccmaster, that bastard, drove me into some research and I picked up the trail again.
Ulfberht was a brand name. A trademark. A symbol of quality and wealth. It’s a Frankish word, inlaid on the finest swords of the Viking era–high carbon, crucible steel, forged at incredible temperatures, nearly without defect. There is no absolute proof, but present theories place the manufacture of the swords somewhere in the Frankish empire. About one hundred or so of the swords have survived the centuries, and they have been found in the Baltic, Norway, and Germany, among other places. Here’s the kicker: the steel could not have been produced during the Viking era in Europe. European steel at the time was far behind, riddled with slag, which weakened the steel and produced an inferior product. Scholars believe the steel was probably from India, Persia, or somewhere in central Asia. This would have been possible, as the Rus were known to travel across the Baltic, through various rivers and ultimately down the Volga to the Caspian, and to maintain an active trade network there.
Because the swords were so expensive, so lightweight, versatile, and flexible, nearly shatterproof, they would have been highly desirable weapons, and it is most likely that the Vikings who acquired one did so by killing its original owner. The early Vikings were quite poorly armed, it turns out, and contemporary chroniclers, witness to Viking raids, describe them as being “almost without arms,” instead carrying clubs and brittle axes, or tossing back spears hurled at them, until they could plunder the arms they desired.
This video, which will require a sit down and a beverage due to its length, tells a remarkable tale of the swords, and Richard Furrer’s attempt to make one in the modern era. If you’ve seen it you are lucky, if you have not, please take the time to enjoy…
Ulfberht, which seems most likely to have been an enterprise, given the tremendous amount of work that went into building the sword, made swords for nearly three hundred years. And, not surprisingly, there were copycats. Far inferior swords, bearing a derivation of +ULFBERH+T, have been discovered, but due to their inferior manufacturer they would have been prone to shattering–a problem not associated with the real McCoy.
A word–McCoy–son of Coy–which leads to another item I’d like to share, given the Norse raiding and occupation and the long tentacles reaching back to Buccmaster, and much beyond, and his obsessions, and my own, sitting here on the bridge of our flagship in the Oregon Cascades, my own sword–A Marine NCO sword–close at hand. The Norse contribution to our language is quite stunning, if mostly invisible to us. We are familiar with the French and Romance language contributions to the language we speak, but most often we don’t think about the shadows left behind by Norsemen, who appeared suddenly in fast ships, and by noon and had sacked and plundered and fired, or when they meant to stay, built lasting communities ruled by Danelaw.
So here’s something to ponder. This little gem was originally produced by Professor Roberta Frank, of Yale, and reproduced in Anders Winroth’s “The Age of the Vikings.” It is a narrative in which every word is arguably derived from Old Norse. It is Buccmaster approved, so enjoy:
The odd Norse loans seem an awesome window onto a gang of ungainly, rugged, angry fellows, bands of low rotten crooks winging it at the stern’s wake, sly, flawed “guests” who, craving geld, flung off their byres, thrusting and clipping calves and scalps with clubs. But for their hundreds of kids, the same thefts, ransacking, and harsh slaughter, the wronging of husbands, the bagging and sale of thralls, the same hitting on skirts and scoring with fillies, the lifting of whoredom aloft, the scaring up and raking in of fitting gifts, seemed flat and cloying, and got to be a drag. They shifted gears, balked at gusts, billows, rafts, and drowning, and took to dwelling under gables, rooted in their booths and seats on fells beneath the sky. Dozing happily on dirty eiderdowns, legs akimbo, they hugged their ragged, nagging slatterns, bound to birth and raise a gaggle of wall-eyed freckled goslings–ugly, scabby, wheezing, bawling, wailing tykes in kilts. Though our thrifty swains throve in their bleak hustings, wanting not for eggs or steak, bread or cake, they gasped and carped at both by-laws and in-laws and–egged on by the frothy blended dregs of the keg–got tight, crawling, staggering, swaying, loose-gaited athwart much and mire and scree.