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The Riddle of Steel

I was doing a radio interview with Dr. Sky. We were talking about my new telescope book. And we got to talking about some other subjects including blacksmithing. And he caught me off guard with a question. He told m e a story about this old-timer he met. The man was in his eighties and a blacksmith. And he told Dr. Sky that he knew the riddle of steel.

So, Dr. Sky asked me! What is the Riddle of Steel?

You can listen to that radio interview right here.

Will Ponders The Riddle of Steel

So, let me tell you what I think it is!

First off, I believe that the whole idea of the Riddle of Steel Started with Robert E. Howard's Conan Character. In the books and in the movie Conan is faced with the riddle of power and what is truly powerful?

His father advises him that power is in steel. The sword is power.

But his nemesis (Thulsa Doom) has a different view. He advises Conan that true power is in the flesh (People). It is after all people. Controlling and using people is power. "What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?"

But, eventually Conan comes to the revelation that true power lies in Will. It is Will that drives everything. Steel rusts and breaks, People die and they rot. But will is forever. The will that drives that hand that wields the sword. That is the Riddle of steel.

Now let me give you my take on the Riddle of Steel. And this is the perspective of a blacksmith:

"How do you make something that is both hard and soft simultaneously?"

Now there is a riddle for you!

It is a contradiction, almost absurd. But with steel it can be done. And for a sword, it needs to be done. A sword needs to both be hard and soft in order to be of any use at all. It's a beautiful thing and a bit of a riddle.

Let me Explain!

You could make a sword out of glass. You could. And you could sharpen it to an extreme edge. It would be extraordinarily sharp. And would cut very well. But.... if you were to slam it against a hard object, like a bone, it would shatter.

It is very hard but not a very good sword.

And you could make a sword out of lead. And you could sharpen it. It would cut but with only a little use it would bend and dullen. Also not a very good sword.

So, a good sword is a sword that is hard. Hard enough to hold a very sharp edge and not shatter or crack with use.

And, a good sword is also soft enough to bend and flex when it is used with force against an object.

And this is where the magic and alchemy of blacksmithing happens. Steel, forged at just the right temperature, will hold both these qualities. And you have to get it just right. Too much heat and the sword is brittle. Too little heat and the sword is soft.

And this is a perfect metaphor for life, where the riddle becomes important.

In your life you have to be both hard and soft at the same time! And the only way to do this is to endure the fires of life. But... ahh... too much fire and you become brittle. Too little fire and you are soft.


Want to Make a real sword on a backyard forge? I have a step-by-step tutorial.

How to Make a Sword - I take you through the whole process of making a sword. And this one is a good sized sword! Really beefy and feels good in the hands. How to Make a sword - It also comes with a detailed step-by-step youtube video.