3/20/14: I have updated this page with new images and information (including where to order replicas), and will continue to do so as more is revealed. (New info near the bottom of the page).
It is ironic that Thorin Oakenshield’s famous sword was not forged by dwarves at all, but by elves of the First Age, and was originally made for the warriors of Gondolin. It was called Orcrist, or Orc-cleaver, and though it had fallen into obscurity by the time Thorin found it, the fear it could strike into the hearts of goblins had not waned with age. They named it Biter, and hated its new owner all the more for bringing it back to the light.
- The Great Goblin, by John Howe
It was discovered, along with two other Gondolin blades, in a troll hoard (the owners having been turned to stone by the cunning of Gandalf). Gandalf and Thorin were attracted to the weapons “because of their beautiful scabbards and jeweled hilts.” But neither knew the long pedigree which their swords possessed. Only Elrond was able to identify them with certainty:
“They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the West, my kin. They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars. They must have come from a dragon’s hoard or goblin plunder, for dragons and goblins destroyed that city many ages ago. This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin; it was a famous blade. This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore. Keep them well!” (Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
With its history partially revealed, Thorin said of Orcrist, “I will keep this sword in honor. May it soon cleave goblins once again!”
Bilbo also claimed a smaller blade out of the troll’s cache, but not being as flashy as the two swords, it escaped the attentions of all but the hobbit. Later he would learn that it shared the same properties as Glamdring and Orcrist, in that it glowed with blue fire when enemies were near.
Orcrist would again taste the blood of goblins, though the sword was fated to return to elven hands before beginning its eternal duty protecting the Kingdom under the Mountain.
There is little description given of Orcrist, aside from having a jeweled hilt, being etched with runes, and gleaming “in the dark if foes approached.” Though not readily apparent, the film version of Orcrist has jewels on the pommel, but much like film Glamdring, it requires a close-up view to see them. Images of the United Cutlery version reveals the pommel has four stones, both honoring and adding to the book’s description, since these gems are part of the heraldry of Ecthelion of the Fountain [as mentioned in the description of the UC sword further down]. This is in keeping with some educated guesses on who the early owner of Orcrist might have been.
The film version also has runes on the guard which spell O R KH R I S T in Elvish, according to Gwaith-i-Phethdain.
For the overall shape, the designers have chosen a literal interpretation of the name “cleaver”, and styled the blade to reflect this in form and function. David Stokes explains how a conversation with Weta swordsmith Peter Lyon revealed, “…they went single edged because its the Goblin CLEAVER… so they took that as meaning single edged….”
The average kitchen cleaver has a thick blade with a tough edge, and it relies more on momentum of the cut rather than sharpness, thus reducing possibility of fracture. Of course, film Orcrist is far more attractive than a butcher’s blade, but it is as cleaver-like as a sword can be while still retaining an elven aesthetic.
The design is unique, and I have not found an exact real-world match for it yet, but it shares elements of European falchions, and Chinese dao, both of which are single-edged and broad bladed. There is a wide variety of form even within these weapon groups, but the ones pictured below are the closest I came to the Orcrist shape.
- The Conyers Falchion
- A Chinese Dao
Like Orcrist, the grip of the dao is often curved (though not in the same direction).
These types of single-edged swords, with a wide distal end, function rather like axes and machetes. While their curving edge makes them good at slashing like a sabre, the acute angle of the blade allows a strike to cut deeper into the target without having to draw the blade across it. Most falchions and dao do have a slight curve to the spine (the falchion pictured above is one of the few surviving examples which does not), while Orcrist is straight along the spine. Continue reading