4. Elementary Psychokinetic Materials Science
"Yes, nails. Why? Is this task beneath you, Sámaril?" The Istyar's tone is drenched with condescension.
"No, not at all. I just thought..."
"You must start with simple work. Your knowledge is impressive, especially for such a young man, but there's a huge difference between acquiring theory as opposed to applying it."
So nails it is.
Dejected, I melt the common iron ore, cast the banality that is a nail, and proceed with its shaping. I assumed that I would begin work on more technical projects, such as an elementary machine with gears, or perhaps something decorative like an arm cuff or a torc, or even a knife blade, but no. Nails. I, Sámaril, one of the most knowledgeable of the junior apprentices in the House of the Mírëtanor, am crafting nails. I spend a month working on them.
The Istyar examines them not only for strength but also aesthetics. He holds the latest iron nail between his thumb and forefinger, turns it over and over, and hands it to back to me, his frown transmitting unambiguous dissatisfaction with my work.
"You are Noldorin, Sámaril. If you wish to join the Guild of Smiths, you must aim toward both solid function and graceful form. Even the most mundane tools must have a pleasing quality. My cat could do a better job than this."
Disciplining myself to focus on my work in spite of my discouragement, I worry that the other apprentices will surpass me as I linger on such trivial hunks of iron. After weeks of effort, I create a series of well-formed and functional nails that I present to my teacher for his review.
After examining each nail, he hands the last to me.
"These are adequate. You may advance to crafting hoe blades."
"Hoe blades?" After my master pins me with a silver-gimlet glare, I agree heartily. "Yes, yes, of course, hoe blades. I will get started right away, sir."
Another mundane tool. I am convinced I will never make anything truly great, nothing of real meaning that will contribute to our world. Yet that afternoon, I hammer out the iron on an anvil.
The Istyar assures me, in no uncertain terms, that hoes are important.
"Gardens grow better without weeds, and so our gardeners need these. You must draw out the edge a bit more there."
I repeat the same process with the hoe blades as the nails: multiple attempts followed by assessments and rejection by my mentor. From his comments, I conclude that his cat must be a talented smith. Finally, a hoe blade, subjected to his keen scrutiny, is deemed "adequate." I am eager to begin work on something exciting, like intricate machine gears or gold finery. The Istyar informs me I will next forge ploughshares.
"Our food has to come from somewhere, Sámaril. You are civilized. You dine on bread from our wheat, and you do not break your teeth on acorns like the barbaric Silvans. Your ploughshares should be balanced and graceful like a golden torc that circles a Noldorin lord's neck."
I sigh with resignation. Yet another rustic tool. He catches my thoughts.
"Well, Sámaril, if the path to becoming a master smith is too much for you, I am sure I can find someone who is eager to take your place."
Suddenly motivated, I devote myself to crafting any implement, no matter how mundane and hammer out ploughshares of carbon steel. This time, it only takes a few attempts before he deems the ploughshares "adequate."
Toward the end of my first stage as the Istyar's apprentice, I am expectant. Since I have almost mastered the basics that a young smith must learn, I am eager to move on, and I wonder what the Istyar might have in mind for me. During the second stage of training, the apprentice begins work on a specific project. When completed, he demonstrates the capabilities of his artefacts and defends the methodology used in crafting these. If this passes the scrutiny of the masters' committee, the apprentice advances to journeyman and is given another major project to tackle. The journeyman's project is considerably more complex and innovative approaches count for a lot. Then the journeyman must pass the rigorous and dreadful initiation rites to join the Otornassë Mírëtanoron, a ritual that every journeyman fears.
On a late spring morning, the Istyar beckons to Axocáro -- an apprentice who has been part of the Istyar's group for some time -- and me.
"Time for a field trip, lads!"
It's a fine day with a clear blue sky and a light breeze from the southwest. Axocáro and I are both on the tall side for boys our age, but we have to almost trot to keep up with the Istyar's purposeful strides as we walk down the city's main street. All recognize the Istyar, who waves and greets fellow citizens with his radiant smile. I'm proud to be seen with him as one of his apprentices.
We walk outside the city gates, follow the road for about a kilometer and turn off onto a dirt path that leads to the patchwork of garden plots. A number of women are picking spring vegetables and hoeing weeds out of the earth. Again, the Istyar is greeted with smiles. Most of the women allow their gazes to linger on him, which is not surprising since he is a handsome man whose work in the forges has contributed to a muscular and notably masculine shape. I find this is an unexpected benefit of the work: after a year as an apprentice, my sister says I am no longer so skinny since my muscles have filled out. I am pleasantly surprised to note that some of the appreciative glances are directed toward me.
I push that thought to the side. I have no time for girls just now. My studies take up far too much of my time, my mind and my energy, and I have accepted that I will live a chaste life for some time to come. In spite of that conviction, when a pretty girl working with her mother in a nearby plot smiles at me, I cannot help but return the smile.
The Istyar leads us to an unoccupied plot well removed from the others. Tendrils of peas climb up stakes, and the rhizomes of strawberry plants spread across the dirt. Spinach and lettuce form bright green leafy mounds. This is a less tended plot with weeds that sprout among the cultivars. I catch a fleeting look of revulsion on the Istyar's face when he surveys the disorderliness of the small garden. He sits down cross-legged on some straw by the plot and tells us to do the same.
"Look at this garden carefully, lads. I want you to choose a plant and memorize it: every leaf and every stem to the best of your ability." He gives us a few minutes, then says, "Now close your eyes and visualize your plant. Don't be alarmed at what happens next, because I am going to help guide you in fully examining the specimen that you have chosen."
Closing my eyes, I visualize a strawberry plant clearly. There are two fat berries on it, still partially green. I don't really understand what the Istyar intends, but I open my mind and completely focus on the image of the strawberry plant.
I then hear, or rather perceive, a string of strange multi-syllabic words ringing deep inside the chambers of my mind; the sensation of the foreign language is grating, like a knife scraped slowly across smooth slate. Rattled by the sensation, a knot of fear forms in my gut. I cling to the image of the strawberry plant to keep myself focused and calm.
Suddenly I am sucked through a green tunnel and thrown into a swift verdant river. My limbs are paralyzed, useless as I tumble through the coursing fluid, flipping over and over while my entire being vibrates. I wriggle into a small hole. More constrained, I do not tumble and flip so much. As I move along, I observe that the green color is not static, but flares and sparks from the light on the outer side of the emerald walls. Deep in a chamber, long strings form from globules that open to grasp small blocks and then attach these to the rope-like forms. I come to rest against what looks like some kind of machinery, but it is not metallic like the tools and machines I know. The pulsating machine is abstract yet organic, and it looks like nothing on this earth. While I watch, pieces of the machine unfurl, and floating spheroids are captured by amorphous globules slithering along what looks like two chains unwinding from a twisted configuration.
The bizarre words whirl in my head as I watch the organic machine. Although I cannot translate them, I comprehend their intent. The words encourage me to Move that one, now try splicing this out. Yes, good, good! Then I am rushed into another tube, through another hole and into another chamber with an organic machine.
I have no conception of how long I do this. Time has no meaning in this alien place, but at last, I am pulled out of the sparkling greenness. The light is now pink from the blood in my closed eyelids. The rapid cadence of my heartbeat and the warmth of the sun on my back reassure me that I have returned to a reality that I comprehend.
"You may open your eyes now," the Istyar says.
I do so. Lightheaded, I am on the verge of fainting. In spite of the heat, I shake as if I had plunged into ice water. My breath comes shallow and fast, but I recover from whatever it was that happened to me. I inhale deeply a few times, pushing my lungs' air out with deliberation. With each measured breath, my heart rate slows and my head clears. Then I notice Axocáro.
He is absolutely white. He crawls away on all fours and vomits. The Istyar rolls his eyes and mutters, "Hopeless. Just hopeless." Then he turns to me and puts his hand on my shoulder.
"Sámaril? Are you well?"
"A little shaky, sir, but better than Axocáro. What just happened?"
"Look at your plant. What do you notice about it?"
I scan the garden plot for my strawberry plant. When I see it, I feel faint and disoriented again. There is another berry on it: a large fruit, but totally green unlike the other half-ripened pair I noted before. Did I miss it previously? That must be it.
"No, you saw correctly the first time, Sámaril. I carried you with me into the organism, and you watched me construct the berry from inside the plant's cells. You even assisted."
I am stunned. My thoughts race as I try to comprehend just how this was accomplished. I look at my mentor. His expression is unreadable, his mithril eyes opaque. This is not something to which I am accustomed to since he is more often than not a man of open mood. Axocáro is still retching with dry heaves.
"What about Axocáro? What happened to his plant?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. He had too much fear, too much resistance. He could not accompany me. You, on the other hand, performed far better than I expected for a first timer. Your knowledge of biology is going to come in handy, lad. Good job."
He unfolds his legs and stands, tall against the sun, which is near its zenith. He offers me his hand and pulls me to my feet. I am still woozy, but I find that I can walk well enough. And he said "good job" to me. That is high praise indeed because the Istyar rarely offers such accolades, particularly to novices like myself.
The Istyar turns to see that Axocáro is standing but is bent in spasms. He calls to the hapless apprentice:
"Yavanna's great dugs, Axocáro! Pull yourself together and let's go."
My fellow student tries to straighten without success. The Istyar returns to him, puts his hand on his back and quietly speaks to him. Axocáro unfolds himself and wobbles along with the Istyar. I feel badly for him so let him lean on me as we walk.
The Istyar shakes his head; his hair catches the sun, and reflects shining steel. "You're truly hopeless, Axocáro." Within the week, this young man transfers to another master's group.
Encouraged by that first successful lesson, the Istyar takes me back to the garden plot again and again, where he guides me and helps me to absorb deep knowledge of the plants, cultivars and weeds alike. I hear the strange language deep in my brain. It is always unpleasant but necessary for the tasks at hand so I endure it. After a couple of weeks of this, he gives me an assignment in the forge.
"I want you to make another hoe."
Once again, I must discipline my body from revealing my dejection. I stand straight, and maintain what I think must be confident eye contact with my teacher. Inwardly, I am crestfallen. I seemed to be doing so well, but this is a regression in my path forward. What am I doing wrong?
"You are not in error. In fact, you are making significant progress, Sámaril." He has perceived my thoughts. "When you craft the blade, I want you to focus on the essence of the weeds and the vegetables and fruit that you have studied. Cast your thought into the blade. Protect the cultivars from the weeds."
My disappointment transforms to enthusiasm with the Istyar's encouraging words. I throw myself into the assignment. It is just a hoe blade, but maybe it will be a special blade if I do as he asks. I devote more time and effort to this blade than I did to the others.
While I pound out the alloy, drawing the hot metal into a graceful shape, I compare the properties of the vegetables and fruits with the weeds. I think of the spheroids and the long chains twisting around one another, the bright green sparks in the leaves, the sparks that the voice in my head names photosynthesis. The Istyar translates the odd term into a concept that he explains with the strange language, its harsh, glittering syllables reaching deep within my brain to make me understand: light is captured as nutrient.
I attach the completed blade to a beechwood handle that I made in the wood wright's shop. The hoe is a simple rustic implement but carries the graceful lines of Noldorin craftsmanship. Whether my experiment with alloying my thoughts into the blade will amount to much is anyone's guess. More importantly, will it meet my master's high expectations?
The Istyar takes the hoe, strokes the smooth wood handle, and balances the entire tool on the palm of his right hand. Next, he scrutinizes the blade, frowning as he runs his index finger along the edges and across the surface.
I fidget while he continues his exacting assessment. What will he say? The last thing I want is to be sent back to pounding out ordinary ploughshares or worse, nails.
He hands the hoe back to me. With a shrug and a slight lift of his brow, he makes his pronouncement.
"I suppose it's adequate, Sámaril."
I audibly exhale with relief.
When I return to the workshop, carrying my prized hoe, I mull over the Istyar's assessment of my work. Adequate. That's all? Granted, that's praise from the Istyar, who has notoriously high standards and rarely offers outright praise to his apprentices and journeymen. Yet, it is not enough for me. I compare my work to the others, and I know I deserve more. I heard "good job" from him once before. I want to hear it from him again. And yet again.
We take my new hoe out to the plots the next morning. The girl who smiled at me a few weeks ago hacks away with her hoe at a stubborn dandelion in her family's garden plot.
"Give it to her." I look at the Istyar's eyes, which are again opaque, but as if a curtain has been pulled aside, they warm with the gruff affection and wisdom with which we are all familiar. He nods, and I go to her.
Her dark brown hair is pulled back into a long braid, but strands have come loose and are sticking to her face and neck. She stops and regards me with her periwinkle-blue eyes.
"Here. Try this." I am not charming. I am just a student who wishes to become a master craftsman. I am not a poet. I extend my newly-crafted hoe to her.
She sets her implement aside and takes the hoe from my hand, hefts it slightly to get a feel for its balance, and raises it to chop at the dandelion's deep central root. With a single flick of the hoe, the entire root system is unearthed and exposed to the bright sun. She chops at another weed, rending it from the soil just like the dandelion. Within minutes, all the weeds in her family's small plot are gone, and there is perfection. There is order.
She turns to me, wonder in her eyes, and then she looks past me at the Istyar who stands a ways behind me. Her eyes, floral blue eyes, widen further, and she bows her head, not to me, but toward him.
"I am most grateful, Master Annatar. A magic hoe! My mother will be thrilled."
"Do not thank me, young lady. Thank Sámaril, my apprentice, for he made it."
She turns her admiration toward me. "You made this?"
My face burns as blood rushes into my cheeks. I fervently hope that the sun's bronzing on my face covers any pink color.
"Yes. I made it."
She laughs, the silver trill of a fast-flowing stream. Then she stands on tiptoe and kisses my cheek. Her lips are impossibly soft. It is not a dry peck; she boldly allows her lips to tug at my skin for a brief sensual moment. She presses her cheek against mine and then steps back and smiles at me. I fall into those periwinkle blossoms. The sensation of recognition, that I will one day know much more of those lips and eyes, courses through my body. My face is now scorching, and I am relieved to be wearing a long loose shirt over my breeches.
"Thank you, master..."
"Please. I am no 'master.' I am just an apprentice...Sámaril Orondion."
"The master stonemason's son. Yes, my father knows yours. Thank you again! I am Nierellë. My father is one of the master vintners."
"Perfect!" the Istyar, who has obviously overheard the conversation, declares. "Now you have access to the best wine in Eriador, my boy! My apologies, young lady, but my apprentice has much more work ahead of him so I must take him back to the House of the Mirëtanor." He nods to her with courtesy. She smiles and flushes as the Istyar casts a crumb of his considerable charm and charisma toward her, but she also graces me with a look that beckons me to seek her company again.
"Sámaril, that was a successful result for your experiment. I want you to write this up in your notebook as soon as we get back to the House. I'd say that was a successful encounter with the young lady as well."
I feel my face grow hot again since the master has noticed my interest in the young woman. I worry just how obvious my interest was.
"Oh, for Manwë's sake, Sámaril! There's no need to be embarrassed. I'll be blunt. You will lead the life of an ascetic for some time to come as my apprentice and my journeyman, but what you feel is part of the natural order of the world, and thus should be honored. It is one of the most beautiful refrains of the Song."
My breath catches when I hear him say "my journeyman." Has he already decided on my course of studies? Maybe all those "adequates" actually meant something! He must think I am worthy of further study with him. It also means that as I progress, my academic knowledge and increasingly difficult projects must meet his expectations. Yet that slip, "journeyman," does not imply I can take anything for granted with my mentor. I have seen many leave his rigorous tutelage for less demanding masters.
I try to match his stride as we walk back to the city. I think about the weeds flying from the dirt and how Nierellë barely needed to put effort into chopping them out of the soil. That hoe was more than just a sharp blade. It was as if the steel disassembled the very structure of the weeds themselves. It was uncanny. It was...
"Istyar? What specifically did I do to the blade to give it that keenness? The materials are not different than any of my other hoes. Did you help me give it magic?"
"Magic?" He laughs outright, apparently thinking my query is quite the joke. He recovers, and says, "No, it's not magic. Remind me to tell you about a great loremaster's third law sometime."
The Istyar has once again said something far beyond my ken. I am learning not to overanalyze his baffling terminology and the non-sequiturs that he occasionally blurts out in strange languages. He continues, "Do you think the materials are exactly the same? Did you truly replicate your previous samples?"
"Not exactly. I concentrated my thoughts, my lessons from you in the gardens, into the steel while I hammered and drew it out."
"Then you have answered your own question. The materials are not identical."
So my education continues. The Istyar takes me to the wheat fields, all stubble after the harvest, and we meditate on the composition of the soil, noting its sub-structure and microcrystalline forms as well as the rocks lying beneath the surface. Then I craft a ploughshare which slices through the tough soil like a hot knife through butter.
We ride northwest to a stream that rushes into the Gwathló. He takes me tumbling and swirling inside the pink capillaries of salmon that are migrating upstream to spawn. I return to the House of the Mírëtanor where I craft a slim spear point, and attach it to an ash wood shaft. We return to the stream where the salmon practically throw themselves onto the spear. We rush back to the city, where the Istyar grills the fish over fragrant fruitwoods at his home, feeding his perpetually hungry apprentices and journeymen. We all guzzle liters of the serce valaron as usual.
The Istyar raises his glass, gives me a backhanded compliment or two, but makes clear the point that it was my skill in crafting the spear that garnered our dinner. The other apprentices show twinges of envy that I receive this recognition from the Istyar; the journeymen, who have learned similar techniques from our mentor, show me new respect. And the Istyar? His response to my accomplishments is a considered "Not bad, Sámaril. Not bad at all."
Re: Sámaril's perception of "a string of strange multi-syllabic words ringing deep inside the chambers of my mind; the sensation of the foreign language is grating, like a knife scraped slowly across smooth slate."
From The History of Middle-earth, vol XI, "Quendi and Eldar, p. 398, Rúmil's account of the language of the Valar notes that "their words are mostly long and rapid, like the glitter of swords, like the rush of leaves in a great wind or the fall of stones in the mountains." However, Pengolodh was less entranced with Valarin: "Plainly the effect of Valarin upon Elvish ears was not pleasing."
Presumably what Sámaril "hears" in his mind is Valarin or some permutation thereof.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.