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Tolkien’s “Errantry”: Chalcedony


…a sword he made of emerald,
and terrible his rivalry
with all the knights of Aerie
and Faerie and Thellamie.
Of crystal was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony…

– “Errantry,” J. R. R. Tolkien

Well, our hero is on his way, wearing a short, sleeveless habergeon made of quartz crystals that may be clear, smoky brown-gray, purple, or golden orange.

His emerald sword rests in a scabbard made of cryptocrystalline quartz – for scansion, Tolkien calls it chalcedony.

And rightly so, for emerald crystals do grow in quartz.
A good place for such a sword, as emerald crystals do grow in quartz. Mmlynczak

Chalcedony is a general name for all the varieties of quartz whose crystals are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Technically, the crystals are parallel, i.e., “fibrous,” and some of them may not have quartz’s typical six-sided shape.

Unlike the large and clear quartz crystals we considered last week, chalcedony’s “hidden crystals” make it beautifully translucent, as well as prone to collecting various elements that give it a variety of colors and sometimes even banding.

White chalcedony on yellow apatite crystals.  Source
White chalcedony on yellow apatite crystals. Source

Gem chalcedony is usually milky white or blue. It has other names, too, depending on its color, the presence of impurities, and whether there is banding. Some of these are:

  • Agate: This is concentrically banded chalcedony. Ancient Greeks named it in the third and fourth centuries BC, and there are hundreds of different names for its various types. Onyx has black and white banding, while in sardonyx the black is changed to red. Agate is often found in geodes and is mostly associated with volcanic rocks. It would make an absolutely fabulous sheath for an emerald sword!
    Banding in agate.  Morguefile/pippalou
    This isn’t the planet Jupiter – it’s sardonyx agate. Morguefile/pippalou
  • Bloodstone: This stone is actually green. Its name comes from the red sprinkles scattered through it. It reminded medieval Christians of the blood of Jesus, and so they called it the martyr’s stone. An ancient name for it was heliotrope. Bloodstone is the traditional birthstone for March, but I can’t see Tolkien using it as a scabbard for two reasons: (1) The grim association with blood wouldn’t fit the light-hearted Errantry; (2) “Heliotrope” is such a wonderfully archaic word, the poet would certainly have fit it in somehow.
  • Carnelian: This is a reddish-brown to orange variety of chalcedony that gets its color from iron oxide. The traditional birthstone for July, carnelian’s heavy coloring might clash with the “merry messenger’s” glittering habergeon and clear green sword. On the other hand, this works quite well:
    If our hero's habergeon were studded with golden citrine, then yes, carnelian would be terrific!  Source
    If our hero’s habergeon were studded with golden citrine, then yes, carnelian would be terrific! Source
  • Chrysoprase: Not a troll (we’re in Middle-earth today, not on the Discworld). This beautiful green – usually apple green – form of chalcedony is the traditional birthstone for May. Sadly, it would probably be too much green with an emerald sword.
    However, this image by Chip Clark of a chrysoprase snuff box in the Smithsonian is one of my all-time favorite images of jewelry.
    However, this image by Chip Clark of a chrysoprase snuff box in the Smithsonian is one of my all-time favorite images of jewelry.

The wonderful thing about J. R. R. Tolkien’s writing is that he intentionally made it just vague enough so that readers could imagine their own vision of the story. This is something no movie can capture, since perforce we must see the story through the director’s eye.

In my original vision of Errantry, the hero is wearing a white shirt with a habergeon of rock crystal shining in the sun. His emerald sword is sheathed in white chalcedony.

Now, having looked a little deeper, perhaps he is wearing glistening smoky-gray crystalline armor and has a black onyx scabbard for his emerald sword. That golden citrine/carnelian/emerald combination is also beautiful. Y’know, light green chrysoprase might actually suit dark emerald perfectly…

What a world of wonder!

Next week, we’ll complete do the third installment of our four-part gemological tour of Errantry with a look at the messenger’s javelins of “malachite and stalactite.” Following that, we’ll wrap things up with a look at the poem’s specified biological treasures – coral and ivory.

J. R. R. Tolkien during his World War I service.  Source
J. R. R. Tolkien during his World War I service. Source


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Front page image by Duncan Hill.

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About BJ Deming

After getting an associate's degree in forestry, I studied geology as an undergraduate back in the 1980s but went into medical transcription instead. It just worked out better for me. The Internet renewed my interest in geoscience as a hobby, and when I retired in 2014, I decided to write a book about cat evolution. That started a new career for me (enormous fun but not self-supporting yet). Right now, besides blogging I am finishing up the first two books in a self-published ebook series about the cat family and its history. Thanks for your interest!

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