Q is one of the letters that gives pause, when it comes to the AtoZ challenge. I for one quail at this point and, fears about not being able to complete the full 26 posts, quiescent in the early stages, rear their ugly heads. I had quelled these fears, to some extent, with an idea for a post that felt like a little bit of a cheat, which I called ‘Queen Victoria and the age of milled brass’ – I thought I could do something to look at the world of steampunk, and perhaps to look at ‘Stoke Mandeville: Astronaut and Gentleman’. And then I realised that I’d intended to something on silver, but used up my intended slot: loathe to miss out on that particular opportunity, I came up with the cunning pun of ‘Quick! Silver!’. But then that made start thinking about Quicksilver and I remembered an example which would actually be quite good…Never fear, I have found another slot for the post on silver, and you can see how apropos my contrived pun was.
It would be entirely possible, if one were so inclined, to sound like a Wikipedia ‘disambiguation’ page at this point and go into all sorts of details about books, films, superheroes and all the rest. I will avoid doing so, skipping to the important details and the important digression, and getting to the point quickly – I can at least try. Quicksilver is the slightly poetical name for mercury, called hydragyrum in latin, which gives us its elemental symbol of Hg. It is an odd element, being a metal that is liquid at room temperature. It was used extensively for thermometers and barometers and such like scientific instruments for a long time (to the extent that one measure of pressure is in mm Hg), although these days is only really seen in antiques. It is highly poisonous and accumulations (usually from broken thermometers) have been found under the floorboards of old laboratories – before health and safety started cracking down, it was not uncommon for schoolchildren and researchers to have great fun with the little balls that are formed by the liquid trying to reduce its surface tension. (Or at least to pretend that nothing had ever happened by sweeping it between the floorboards…).
Mercury is most commonly extracted from a mineral called cinnabar; this is a very red stone that is essentially baked and the liquid metal is collected at the bottom of the furnace. Supposedly the first Emperor of China, he of the Terracotta Warriors, had a pool of Mercury in his tomb that was supposed to reflect the celestial firmament recreated on the ceiling of the tomb. The mercury would have dissipated by now, but some thought has been given to testing the area to see if there is an elevated level of mercury in the soil. Unfortunately, whilst the Chinese government is willing to show off the Warriors and the pits where they were buried, the Tomb itself is considered a cultural emblem and therefore archaeology and other similar activities are verboten in this area, with a capital KEEP OUT.
But we are interested in the oddities of materials in fiction, and I brought you here today to show you Tempest Est, the sword of Severian the Torturer from the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. What was amusing, during my research on this, was coming across a discussion board where someone had queried this sword. The posts alternated between explaining why it is a terrible sword – coming from people who know all about swords, but nothing about the book – and explanations about the book, and why the sword might serve in this way. So without further ado: whilst Severian is, bluntly, a torturer, his role is, in effect, that of a civil servant, albeit a little more hands on than most. The Book of the New Sun is one of those odd blends of fantasy and science fiction, where a once mighty and knowledgeable civilisation has started to, and indeed progressed through much, decay. The Guild to which Severian is apprenticed is tasked with “Seeking Truth and Justice” i.e. inflicting pain in order to extract information or to punish, both as directed by the government. Jumping a little bit, because whilst Severian is an interesting character, and not at all what you would expect of a torturer, the sword Terminus Est is a Sword of Justice. Such swords were, at one time very popular, but today are to be seen only in the more baroque and old-fashioned entourages of Kings, Queens, Mayors and the like. When execution by beheading become a thing, to begin with an old sword would do, but as it became more entrenched, special square-ended swords were used – these were not for common fighting, but only for ritual execution. (Historians, will recall that Henry VIII famously sent for a French Executioner with a sword, rather than the traditional English axe-man – although if any historians are reading this, I do know that I am trying to sum up a tricky point in a nutshell).
Terminus Est, so called because it is “the line of division” (although other interpretations are equally fitting), is unusual on two accounts, beyond it being a Sword of Justice. Firstly it is highly ornamented sword, almost objet d’art, made by a long dead Master. This causes Severian some problems when ne’er-do-wells recognise it’s value as an antique. The second, which you’ll be pleased to note brings us back to the point, is that the sword has an internal channel partially filled with mercury. When described, most people with more than a passing interest in swords immediately point out that this would be a weakness for a true sword – a partially filled hollow inside the blade is not likely to be conducive to longevity in a fight. But the sword is not really meant for fighting, which is the point that most gladiophiles overlook in their haste to comment. The theory is that that mercury, which is much denser than steel, would bring the centre of mass closer to the blade when it is lifted and closer to the ‘tip’ when swung, which should make the execution faster and less painful. When people do get into the mechanics of how the sword would work, much use is made of dead-blow hammers as a simile.
Another example of this sort of action being used in a weapon is the rare ‘ Seven Stars Staff. Here a stick of a particular type of bamboo is partially filled with mercury. One of the objections, beyond the introduction of a weakness, to the use of the mercury channel is that it would make the sword behave in a very unpredictable manner in a fight. Again, the sword is not intended for this purpose, but it is possible that it might work better than might be expected.
A final thought, again prompted by the discussion, was that mercury is very good at forming amalgams. This is true – silver-mercury once being a stalwart of dentistry and gold-mercury being one route to the extraction of gold ore – but interestingly iron is one of the few metals that does not easily form alloys with mercury.
On this basis then, whilst a bit fanciful, Terminus Est might just work beyond, being a literary device – although I for one am not going to put the effort into to trying to recreate this sword exactly.