8. The Whetstone of Tudwal

The whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpened his sword on it, if he (then) drew blood from a man, he would die. If a cowardly man (sharpened his sword on it), he (his opponent) would be no worse.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

This is not
a Naniwa 5000
Shapton Glass 8000,
or DMT Diamond Hone.

Cut, sawed, planed, smoothed,
in a factory unknown
to its owner

it is not sandstone, siltstone,
gritstone, quartzite or schist.
Nobody has graded the grit –
the sharpness of the weapon
is dependent on the courage
of its wielder.

If I could sharpen my tongue
on this magical bar,

keening across its smoothness
like a sword,

would my words draw blood
from the villains everyone hates:
the bankers, the frackers, the president
even old ladies long to assassinate?

Would they fall down dead?

Or would my cowardice be proved
by the dullness of my blade
ringing in deaf ears?

~

The Whetstone of Tudwal

~

Tudwal Tudglyd, ‘defender of the people’* was a ruler of Alt Clut. His estimated date of birth is 510. His father is Clynog ap Dynfwal and he is part of the Macsen Wledig lineage. Rhydderch Hael and Morgan Mwynfawr (owners of the Sword and Chariot) are his sons. It seems possible the whetstone was passed on by Tudwal to Rhydderch to keep Dyrnwyn, the Sword, sharp. According to an eighth century poem and The Life of St Ninian Tudwal was blinded by Ninian for his rejection of Christianity then healed by the saint, presumably when he agreed to convert. Nothing else is known about him.

The need for whetstones originated with the invention of metal weapons in the Bronze Age. They were made from sandstone or gritstone. After the stone had been quarried, the slabs were sawed, cut into bars, planed, and smoothed by metal tools. Whetstones held an important place in post-Roman society: without a whetstone a warlord and his warriors could not sharpen their swords and maintain their power. A good whetstone was highly treasured for its magical capacity to sharpen a blade and passed down through generations with its stories.

The skills of a talented furbisher were also valued. This is shown in Culhwch and Olwen. Cai is allowed into the castle of Wrnach/Dyrnwch the Giant (owner of the Cauldron) because he possesses the skill of furbishing swords. Taking a ‘striped whetstone’ he asks Wrnach whether he would prefer his sword ‘white-bladed or dark blue-bladed’. The colour of a sword determines its value**. Cai’s ability to produce either result suggests that, like Tudwal’s whetstone, it is magical. It may even be the same whetstone. Wrnach allows Cai to choose how he furbishes the sword. We might assume that, like other sharp weapons in the tale, it can draw blood from the wind once Cai is done. Cai uses Wrnach’s newly sharpened sword to behead him and claims it for Culhwch in fulfilment of one of the impossible tasks.

*Rachel Bromwich explains her translation: ‘With tud cf. Ir. túath ‘tribe, people’, and the corresponding personal name Tuathal; Tutklyd ‘defender of the people’. Gwâl = ‘leader, ruler; so Tudwal ‘leader of the people’.
**In the law texts it states that a dark blue-bladed sword is worth sixteen pence and a white-bladed sword twenty-four pence. A blue blade is produced by tempering and a white blade by polishing and burnishing.

~

SOURCES

Aurélie Thiébaux, Marc Feller, Bruno Duchêne, Eric Goemaere, ‘Roman whetstone production in northern Gaul’
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Peter Nowlan, ‘The Best Sharpening Stones’
P.F. Whitehead, ‘A pictorial field guide to whetstones and related artefacts in Worcestershire during the past 4000 years’
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

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