“How Some Things are Done”

If you’re a writer, then you know that sometimes the most paralyzing thing is the lack of a “good first line.” And it’s true, when you have that “Eureka!” moment and you think of a perfect opening line to …whatever, then the heady feeling can carry you through multiple paragraphs.

Conversely, lacking a starting point can make it seem like an even bigger pain to begin. Especially if you try to write through it! (< Not every case.) But anyway, that’s not the point today, I just wanted to show that my opening line problem today turned into its own explanation. It really can be that easy!

As a storyteller, even a bad one, I have a deep, maybe pathological desire to understand everything and then find the connection. The “connection” can mean anything, for me, personally, it’s usually some way to connect myself to the story or the lesson, or to add it to my “person” so that I’m changed in some way… forever! (As well as connected to everything all that understanding is also connected to.)

For instance, in order to learn a little about how steel was forged, I researched the most legendary steel in the world (that I knew of at the time) – Damascene (from Damascus, est. ~2nd millennium BC). And I learned some important things, namely the techniques used to create the stuff are lost to time and that the Iron Age began in “the near/middle/far East” (Africa + Asia) well before the Europeans. Maybe by its own millennium.

As interesting as it was to learn that some of my ancestors remained barbaric for as long as possible (that’s not what that really means), it gave me the opportunity to learn more! So, I learned that steel is essentially heating iron hot enough that the impurities melt away (and/or bind to some other thing) so that more carbon can bind to the iron. And iron is heated (smelting [and without electricity, though not necessarily without machinery]) in a fire and fed by bellows.

In a the nuttiest of shells, the bellows forces oxygen into the fire, causing it to burn hotter; charcoal is made in an oxygen-less process which means it’s just a stick-shaped piece of carbon (and some other things). Plus, stuff like limestone and sand help with the whole “impurity binding” thing. And somehow, before I ever learned all this, aside from the bellows-part, I moved the focus of my research to India, specifically South India, land of the Tamils. I don’t know how I arrived there, but it’s entirely possible that idea came from legends.

Now, you know what a legend is and you may even know without knowing that every legend is based on someone surviving, against all odds. … Or, in some cases, not surviving, but to be remembered as something far greater – an example.

Ok, so with a little knowledge about how ancient steel might be made (heat + charcoal + air + iron), which comes with some ideas about blacksmithing too, we can remember that not all craftsman are created equal. There’s bound to be better blacksmiths, especially those in a family-type guild-setting, who figure out how to make their fire hotter (but not too hot!), who use limestone, who forge in windy weather, any kind of “artistic variable” (+/- oil, belief, etc.) that creates a better weapon.

And some of these weapons live on in story! Mostly because the people who have these “special,” if not accidental, weapons of greatness live to tell about them. How their sword “sang” when it clashed with others’, how it shattered the blades of skilled opponents, causing them to turn cowardly. Why, I alone gained some thirty-three followers for my own house by granting mercy after heroics thirty-three times!

And it’s true – a well-tempered piece of steel will have a nice, musical ring. Try it with a fancy fork! A well-forged sword of a goodly length would vibrate a long time after struck or pulled from a scabbard. It would be much more noticeable over iron’s dull tone.

As a better piece of iron, it would be shinier! More flexible, so it would be hammered thinner, would stay sharper longer… A blade like this could become an heirloom! Worthy of its own name! Which it got and we carry on the naming tradition to this day. (see naming cars, trees, weapons, nouns, etc.) And since some of these pieces are produced quite by accident, they’d be rare.

So, surrounded by foes, a “hero” draws his sword, a brighter metal that catches the light and sings. He attacks wildly, outnumbered, swinging strong and wide. His enemies use their own dull, heavy weapons as defense only to have them chip or bend. Some of the unluckiest ones have their blades broken completely. Unbalanced, cheaply (or hurriedly) made.

Well, anyway, that’s how a legend is born. A heavy amount of exaggeration saves the storyteller from embarrassment if their own life’s story can’t compete.

My research, plus the odd way that I stumble into the correct answer, puts me now in Tamil country, South India. This is a land that’s divided between three ruling groups: the Cheras, the Cholas, and the Pandyas (and some lesser kings/chieftains that were somewhat independent).

South India is home to the Western Ghats mountain range, which has a few historic and legendary sites of its own, and is also separated from Northern India by the Deccan Plateau, I guess. South India (and her peoples) were never conquered by outsiders (until the Muslims of ~700AD?), most of their constant warring was from within. For that reason, it was easy enough to find turbulent times to research further, specifically in the Western Ghats there, a natural border that separated the Cheras and the Pandyas for a time.

What’s really special about those mountains is that they’re the first to be exposed to the SW monsoon winds. Which solved one of my first problems, how to get a fire to burn hot enough to smelt iron properly (in the ancient sense).

And naturally, this is the mountains, a land of mudbrick housing, which means they had access to clay, which means insulation for retaining and growing heat, like an oven or kiln. And anyone can dig, so… Seems like if you dig into a mountain-side and create a chamber there, you can insulate it with oven-baked mudbrick, dig some “wind-catching” pits that lead into that insulated chamber and fill it full of charcoal, some of which has been soaked with fat (bulls are important, bears symbol of strength, ghee already sacred, etc.). When the monsoons arrive, put your iron-sand in there, (maybe in a limestone mold), set the whole thing ablaze, seal up your entrance.

The monsoon winds act as their own bellows, blowing fast and strong and constantly. With the “wind pits” dug, uphill of course, the wind pressure increases as it’s forced uphill. (Helps keep water out, too?) Pinching the tunnel exit into the chamber will allow for the wind to create enough force that loss of pressure should be minimal, which means the heat will grow and grow as more charcoal catches fire.

The wind increases the temperature, the insulating mudbricks increase the temperature, the oil-soaked charcoal increases the temperature (and a slower-burning for that bit), and so on. It might take a few tries to get completely correct, but the smelted iron, once removed and worked would be a pretty decent step above what you’d get by gently heating iron over a somewhat closed fire, using a little bladder to pump a little compressed air to make it a little hotter. Ah. And yes, heating iron too hot makes it brittle. It’s a trial-and-error process, but even a failure would still yield “storied” results.

Plus, the dedication to trying something like this would mean its own set of rules. A huge discipline, no doubt helped in its zealotry by adding some level of spirituality to it. Especially if the end results created a metal that was better than… well, metal.

The Pandyans, the Cholas, the Cheras were always fighting. So it was easy enough to find a time period with its own legends and lo! The discovery of King Nedunj Cheliyan III, aka Talaialanganathu Seruvendra Pandyan. He got that last illustrious name by surviving his own legendary battle against five Chola (including some other) chieftains and their armies who attacked him at the battle of Talaialanganathu, named after the town in the area.

The good king Pandyan was young and fresh in the kingship, probably, and he pursued his attackers back into their own countries and won even more land for the Pandyans. So, a popular guy, easy to follow. Plus, a “child-king,” hooray! Finding him in history puts me in ~300-200BC, Pandya, South India, which seems somewhat likely for the “birth” of steel. I mean, all the conditions are right, it’s just as good as anywhere else.

And you really only need two things in abundance, other than imagination and faith, and that’s charcoal and mudbricks. As interesting as clay is, it’s the fire I think that ancient man would pay most attention to (see every ancient culture’s “Fire God/dess”), which means charcoal, hence the creation of my “Charcoal People.”

And they’d have to live in the Western Ghats so they could build their monsoon forge. And then, after I decided this, completely by accident, I stumbled upon an article about the discovery of a monsoon-wind forge found in Northern Sri Lanka, dating somewhere in the 100s BC. The article doesn’t go into any detail about the nature of the forge, but it’s all I needed to know that what I was scheming was possible… if not completely, eerily so.

But that’s proof that steel was available in some form pretty early, which is plenty of time to spread, and certainly to form legends. Since most of this complicated piece is devoted to theoretical ancient engineering, it’s easy to see how difficult it might be to get that process right, even then. It creates rare weapons offering survivability and thus, legendary steel pieces… especially if a group of people figure it out completely. And never divulge their secret!

Also proof that blacksmithing (because iron is black) is a product of a lot, if not all, earth sciences. It’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be a deep, if not outright built-in, spirituality associated with it. Even more so if the weapons do have some peculiar quality, like being too sharp, strong, thin, or musical.

I like this idea and I’d love to think, that despite blacksmithing’s obvious use as a producer of weapons, early blacksmithing shows religion and science in harmony, perhaps creating a better result because of it. There probably isn’t even the worry about a “true” understanding, or whatever we would refer to our modern day idea of the particular subject at hand. It reasons out a …reason to be utterly devoted to a long, consuming lifetime of learning and producing. It would also help explain why … even though you’re supposed to be making a sword, you’d rather make something beautiful, or “art.” Would art exist without religion? Probably, but religion led to its development pretty speedily, I’d bet.

It would’ve been the reason for art. But you still have to make a sword, so why not the most beautiful sword? Or knife? Or ploughshare? A steel ploughshare would be worth a fortune in early times! Perhaps the fact that none have been unearthed is simply because of the scariest reason, none were made.

It’s the same world the ancients lived on, but it isn’t the same world they lived in. Some things haven’t changed, though. The better weapon is still successful. And the world needs new, better weapons every day because for some weird reason we’d rather believe in owning something instead of sharing.

-j.

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