Are Samurai Swords Elf Magic?
I was watching a Nova story about how Samurai swords were/are made, and -- What? You don't see how watching Nova could create a Tolkien moment?
Anyway, it seems that the swordsmiths who made the swords for medieval Samurai did so with a steel so strong and "tough" (i.e., can withstand force without breaking) that it amazed modern metallurgists when they analyzed it. The Samurai swordsmiths discovered steel without scientifically understanding it, but they weren't unique in that: there were other peoples who made steel for centuries before carbon (which has to be added to iron to make steel) was known as an element. The Japanese learned to forge iron specifically in a charcoal fire, which would provide purer carbon than a regular wood fire. The iron melts into the fire and "cooks" within it, in an earthen enclosure that has its side broken open to release the steel when it's ready. This was first done in medieval times, but it's still being done by masters of the art in Japan - the Nova program let us watch bits of the process.
So how did these medieval masters learn to make steel that was superior to all other steel being made at the time - and to almost all of the steel being made today? Did they determine exactly what needed to be done through scientific trials and then teach the precise process to the next generation? No, at least not in the way we'd normally think of it. It's done intuitively. The program compared it to cooking with "a bit of this" and "a pinch of that," but that's a poor parallel (as the voiceover admitted).
Above all else, it's done as a spiritual activity. The voiceover said that, in the Shinto religion, gods are found in all aspects of nature. In what I suspect is still a very limited parallel, the sword master learns to understand the gods of the iron and the fire. By watching and listening he knows what needs to be done when. The breaking open of the enclosure is a moment of truth: not all steel made this way will be worthy of becoming a Samurai sword. But if the master has correctly interpreted the gods, he will have made steel unlike any other.
A spiritual process demands a spiritual attitude. As with the writing of an icon (a true icon isn't "painted" but "written"), the master of steelmaking needs to be spiritually prepared beforehand and then remain in a state of spiritual awareness throughout the process in order to understand the divine communication being received. The master we watched on Nova went without sleep for 36 hours, constantly tending, watching, and listening to the fire. Toward the end of the process, we saw him sitting against the earthen enclosure, eyes closed, a very slight smile coming to his face as he heard the completion drawing near.
There was one sentence that I finished (out loud) for the narrator, although he ended it differently than I did. He said that if someone believes an activity is spiritual, he will give his best efforts to it. I said that if someone believes an activity is spiritual - it is. Any limitation there is on communication with the divine occurs on our end, not on God's; in order to reach us, God can take any path we open. I believe this traditional steel-making process is something Tolkien would have included within his understanding of "splintered light" as he talks about it in his poem "Mythopoeia": that myths and legends carry an element of truth, even though it may be a very limited understanding of truth. They show the light of the divine - even if it is splintered light.
Tolkien wasn't a polytheist or a pantheist. He didn't believe in many gods, but in The One. His belief wasn't that God exists within nature, but that nature exists within God. The very fact that nature's existence is held by God, though, makes it one path that can be taken by the divine communication God longs to have with us. I don't know that God particularly cares about the strength of Samurai swords, but I'm convinced God cares deeply about the man I saw beginning to smile after 36 hours of constant centering in an attempt to understand divine communication.
Tolkien's Elves are people to whom The One has given an innate ability to interact with nature in a way that mortals can't. The way the master of Samurai steelmaking can act in such close concert with the natural elements of iron and carbon reminds me of being able to guide a horse with a word, or capture light within the water of a fountain, or weave fabric that blends in with any natural background. Maybe we mortals have the potential to be a lot more "Elvish" than we think.
Copyright 2009 by Trudy G. Shaw
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The background on this page is made from a reduced image of the gateway at Omaha's botanical gardens that was a gift from our sister city in Japan. Passing through the gateway is considered a spiritual act.