Monday, November 7, 2011

Pattern Patination

One of the things I enjoyed in researching was learning about those things I will never - can never even hope to - have.  Among these things is the beauty and fascinating craftsmanship of swords.  I can't really qualify as a full on medieval geek with Ren Faire cred, but I'm enough of a history nerd, and enough of an admirer of genuine technical mastery of the making of ... almost anything ... that pattern welding stays with me as a standard of beauty.  And, yeah, I remember that line in "Highlander" where Brenda goes breathless about "the steel in the blade folded two hundred times!"  Heh.

X had to endure my gushing about a PBS special about two years ago, exhorting him to watch the show about pattern welded steel in Japanese katanas.  The katana is of course a modern treasure, almost mystical in its appeal to Japanophiles, but it is also a living example of an art which has lost none of its power in a millennium and a half.

Even ancient and physically degraded pattern welding asserts both its artistry and the sweat and pride of its makers in a way few artifacts can demonstrate.  It is astoundingly beautiful:

Moreover, it is one of those pieces of human handiwork in which the work is minutely, manifestly visible.

The passion it takes to bend steel to your vision is nothing trivial in 2011 - but thinking back a thousand years, fifteen hundred - the mastery asserts itself almost as much *because* of any erosion caused by time as because of the will and the skill which wrought this blade ...

And, oddly enough, a part of the joy of this magnificence is its absolute unattainability.  Yes, steel is still manipulated in this manner.  But the magic of Clovis' blade, the glow of the material, the weeks, the months, the years that go into something this beautiful are something I can never possess, and I find that wondrous.  I can't hold time in my hands any more than I can really say I captured a king in my words, but the joy is in admiring the work almost because it is impossible for me to grasp.  I can't grasp the work itself, I have earned to right to grasp a hilt.  But I adore the artifacts.


Pattern welding steel is a process beginning in the depths of the Earth itself, where those who understand it best know how to find the purest metals for their work.  It takes a long time to purify and prepare the steel, and before a blade can even be begun, the work has been going on for ages.

The fold is made ... the steel is tempered - with sensitivity to cooling differentials, with an intense eye to where the work will end, what the watery waves, the undulating sinuous lines of solidity will become.  Evoking both the hardest, keenest weapon -and yet looking like fluid, smoke, rippling oil, a pattern welded sword is a thing of ultimate human accomplishment.  I will never in my life produce anything so marvelous.  Lord, I love admiring the work of those who can ... DO.  Something so profound.  Concrete - yet never so simple as "basic".  Elemental, but inspired.

The finished thing is an emblem of beauty, even power - but the power lies in those who can make something like this.

Hands which bring food out of the ground.

Hands which can carve the image of life out of wood.

Hands which paint pictures or bring from imagination unimagined visions of beauty or truth.

I am endlessly intrigued, and awed, by genuine creation like this.  I can write, and am proud of that - there are those, I know, who find wonder in literature.  But nothing I can ever do is so amazing as actually making something.  Choosing a font, turning a phrase - inconsequential next to the Lathe of Heaven.  Heh.  Or the lathe of human hand-making.

I studied everything from ancient breeds of horses, to brick making, to textiles and all manner of design, to rebuild the world of Clovis.  Goldsmithing, pottery, decoration - stone, wood, personal adornment, spiritual artifacts.  Childeric's bees ...

Still, pattern welded steel glows, in my mind, as something almost inconceivably special.  So find "the" special if you can.  Immerse yourself in something unattainable.

No comments: