Monday, 30 July 2012

The Mythforger: An Interview with a Modern Swordsmith


While most boys try to impress the opposite sex with fast cars and guitar ballads, a seventeen year-old Jake Powning found himself brandishing a hammer before an anvil while his female friends looked on. Unfortunately for Jake, this peacocking act resulted in a red hot piece of steel lodged in his nostril after hitting a glowing hook with far too much force.

Fast forward seventeen years and that pride-injured adolescent has become a master swordsmith, crafting blades with impossible accuracy and beautiful precision: “I’ve been obsessed with mythology for as long as I can remember,” says Powning, whose neck-length locks and grizzly beard gives him the resemblance of a certain god of thunder, “My mum is a huge Tolkien fan and she read the Lord of the Rings to me as bedtime reading before I could speak, so I think that may have shaped my young mind. Some of my earliest memories are imagining the goblins coming out of the cave in the misty mountains that Bilbo and the dwarves were sleeping in.”

From a very young age, the image of a grizzled blacksmith visiting his rural Canadian village stayed with him: “ When I was about eight or ten a new blacksmith came to shoe my mother’s horses. He had intelligent quick brown eyes, long hair and a long black beard. He was short and wide and wore a leather apron. His name was Bear and after he was done shoeing the horses he sang us songs in Scots-Gaelic and told stories of the blacksmith and the devil.” The young boy followed Bear around like a shadow until one day the blacksmith taught him how to forge a rough iron sword.

Powning began reading a variety of fantasy novels, like Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle and Diana L Paxton's The Wolf and The Raven, but his imagination was really fired upon seeing a knife by Donn Fogg in Blade Magazine, a smith who would eventually become Powning's friend and mentor.

However, fantasy is only a small part of Powning's love affair with swords. For him, it's about history and traditional beliefs: “One of the main reasons that I make swords is because they are power objects in the Indo-European tradition. This is the wellspring that most modern fantasy draws from- it is essentially the worldview and cosmology of the Iron Age peoples of Europe.
“Like other tribal people around the world they were Animists, they believed that people and animals and some inanimate objects had intentions and reasons for doing things. So to the ancient Celts or the Vikings, a sword was a companion-- it was a person with its own destiny separate from its owner. In order to represent this and also to help guide the audience into the story of each sword.”

"If I use one word to describe myself , I would say I'm a storyteller"

This animistic tradition is echoed in Powning's routine of naming his swords: “Naming a thing gives it power and defines its power. Swords are powerful things, both as dangerous weapons and as symbolic objects and naming them is a way of respecting this.”

While his creations may be deadly weapons, they are also extraordinary works of art that are steeped in mythological tales: “If I use one word to describe myself though, I would say I’m a storyteller. I make objects that imply the story I am telling. In order for the story to be authentic, it’s important that the objects are real. Understanding balance, geometry, and the metallurgy of hardening and tempering so the swords are hard and sharp and can cut is an important part of what I do-- the swords have no power if they aren’t real.”

But Powning explains that crafting a sword is a delicate and difficult feat, forcing the smith to consider an almost impossible number of aspects in order to create the perfect weapon: “The secret to making a good sword is to learn all the things that are necessary for a sword—it has to be hard, but flexible; sharp but strong. It must be balanced so that it wants to move, but can change direction quickly,” says the smith, “It must be balanced so that it wants to move, but can change direction quickly. It has to be built with an understanding of its use and a knowledge of the history and shape of the form. The smith must be aware of the story implied by the sword’s existence and know what part they play in that story. It has to be crafted with respect and diligence and patience.

“The secret is to balance all these things, so that no one thing overpowers the others.”

Yet, in order to craft something so beautiful, a smith must draw his inspiration from somewhere, and with Powning it's deep within the medieval history that he loves so much: “I have a lot of history books about swords, but I have also had the opportunity to examine old swords at museums in Britain, and really, until I handled original swords I was only imagining what a sword was.

"There is a sense of lethal restrained force when you hold a balanced sword"

“A real sword can only be understood by holding it and feeling how it wants to move in your hand. There is a sense of lethal restrained force when you hold a balanced sword and the sense that you could easily cut yourself with it. It connects to some essential part of you.”

Even though history is his muse, Powning admits that his favourite blade won't be found in the history books, but does capture the 'connection' that he talks about: “Michael Moorcock’s black sword ‘Stormbringer’ captures the idea of a living object wonderfully.”

Although the practise of swordsmithing is centuries old, Powning is eager to pass on his knowledge to inspire a new generation to strike a hammer on an anvil: “There are more resources for learning about bladesmithing now than there have been for several centuries, a revival of the western swordsmithing tradition is underway and with resources like the Bladesmith’s Forum (http://forums.dfoggknives.com/index.php? ) as well as Owen Bush’s excellent courses at Bush Fire Forge In London UK (http://owenbush.co.uk/school-of-smithing/) a young smith can learn the basics that will allow him or her to build a forge and start making blades. I also have tutorials on my website at  http://www.powning.com/jake/home/j_homepg.shtml .”