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Old 05-23-2020, 10:45 AM   #1
whswhs
 
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Default cold iron

There's a belief held by some fantasy readers that "cold iron" is some special form of iron with extraordinary magical properties (I have the impression the qualities of meteoric iron in Dungeon Fantasy may allude to this, for example). I don't think this is well founded in the sources. Kipling's ballad "Cold Iron," for example, describes the nails used on Jesus at the Crucifixion as "cold iron"—and I don't think Kipling was suggesting that the Romans used some rare magical alloy to nail up a common felon. Poetically, the adjective "cold" is used to fit the meter of a line, and as an intensifier that evokes a striking property of the thing described, the feeling of coolness that comes from its thermal conductivity, the way "red gold" evokes the vivid color of gold.

But I just thought of a couple of interesting possible implications of this:

1. The specific nails used at the Crucifixion took on magical (or anti-magical) powers from contact with Jesus's blood, and are now potent relics.

2. That contact granted special powers not just to those particular pieces of iron, but to the metaphysical essence of iron. Since then, iron has had that potency—but if you lived in or travelled to the past, before then, iron had no special magic. Nor would it have such magic in an alternate timeline where Jesus never lived, or wasn't put to death, or was put to death in some other way, assuming such timelines are possible.
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Old 05-23-2020, 12:07 PM   #2
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Default Re: cold iron

I thought the reference was to "cold wrought iron" -- that is, to iron worked by hammering, without heating. That this was used to work meteoritic iron before the invention of forges probably cements the connection.
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Old 05-23-2020, 01:47 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by thrash View Post
I thought the reference was to "cold wrought iron" -- that is, to iron worked by hammering, without heating. That this was used to work meteoritic iron before the invention of forges probably cements the connection.
I've seen that interpretation, and it might be right.

Another common interpretation is that 'cold' is used in the same sense as 'cold reality' or 'cold facts', a reference to iron's unyielding strength, its non-negotiability. The Fae are all about illusion, imagination, emotion, iron is harsh, strict, unyielding, the antithesis of Faerie. Sometimes gold is associated with the Fae in opposition to iron, gold is beautiful but soft, flexible, desirable. Iron is ugly, strong, 'cold', not associated with fantasy or desire, but iron is stronger than gold.
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Old 05-23-2020, 02:17 PM   #4
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Default Re: cold iron

Cold iron could be used as a more dignified label for pig iron, which is to say iron with a higher than 2% proportion of carbon (since less than 2% makes it steel.) After all it takes more heat to purify iron that much. One interesting possibility is to have "cold iron" be "iron that hasn't been melted for a very long time" Thus the way to deal with those pesky elves is to only use swords that are family heirlooms. Cold iron is old iron.
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Old 05-23-2020, 02:44 PM   #5
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Default Re: cold iron

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Originally Posted by whswhs View Post
...
But I just thought of a couple of interesting possible implications of this:

1. The specific nails used at the Crucifixion took on magical (or anti-magical) powers from contact with Jesus's blood, and are now potent relics.

2. That contact granted special powers not just to those particular pieces of iron, but to the metaphysical essence of iron. Since then, iron has had that potency—but if you lived in or travelled to the past, before then, iron had no special magic. Nor would it have such magic in an alternate timeline where Jesus never lived, or wasn't put to death, or was put to death in some other way, assuming such timelines are possible.
That sounds like a great way to introduce a Fey faction in a world jumping setting. Initially, characters may assume The Cabal for some other magical reason.
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Old 05-23-2020, 04:03 PM   #6
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Default Re: cold iron

I always assumed that, when the Baron said "cold iron", he meant essentially the same thing as "cold steel" (only with a lower carbon content, obviously)- a blade or, by extension, naked force-, with the king/Jesus offering a more literal interpretation of the words as a sort of counter.

In fact, I think that interpretation can work fairly well mythically- when one says that the fey are vulnerable to cold iron, one can mean that, while they are immune to sickness and aging, sufficient violence can kill them as dead as the next man.
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Old 05-23-2020, 04:21 PM   #7
Anaraxes
 
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1. The specific nails used at the Crucifixion took on magical (or anti-magical) powers from contact with Jesus's blood
Also the Spear of Longinus, while you're at it.
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Old 05-23-2020, 06:32 PM   #8
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I thought the reference was to "cold wrought iron" -- that is, to iron worked by hammering, without heating. That this was used to work meteoritic iron before the invention of forges probably cements the connection.
I have seen that interpretation more than once, but I think it's an urban legend of fandom, invented by people who don't know the relevant literary history.

The principal source for the phrase in recent literature is the ballad "Cold Iron," by Rudyard Kipling; virtually all the authors who created fantasy as a genre had read his work. But in that ballad, "cold iron" is the material of the nails that pierced Jesus' hands and feet at the Crucifixion. I don't believe that the Romans used exotic meteoric iron to nail up convicted felons, and I don't suppose that Kipling believed it either. I'd also note that the medieval ballads that Kipling was imitating, and with which at least some fantasy writers such as Howard and Anderson were familiar, frequently used adjectives in the way I'm describing, to make a description of a common substance more vivid—cold iron, red blood, red gold, blood red wine, and so on.

All of those explanations of "what very specific sort of iron is 'cold'" seem to me to be after the fact, and not justified by historical usage.

I also note that in this (so far) short thread we have already seen two incompatible theories of what special material "cold iron" refers to, which makes the whole thing seem more dubious.
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Old 05-23-2020, 06:32 PM   #9
whswhs
 
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Also the Spear of Longinus, while you're at it.
Perfectly fair.
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Old 05-23-2020, 09:56 PM   #10
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Default Re: cold iron

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The principal source for the phrase in recent literature is the ballad "Cold Iron," by Rudyard Kipling; virtually all the authors who created fantasy as a genre had read his work. But in that ballad, "cold iron" is the material of the nails that pierced Jesus' hands and feet at the Crucifixion.
Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined "cold iron" as "A sword, or any other weapon for cutting or stabbing. I gave him two inches of cold iron into his beef."

So that supports the "hot lead" version of the origin, and places it at least a century before Kipling. It seems to me that Kipling also uses the phrase in that sense for the first several stanzas, before switching to allude to the nails on the Cross at the end.

Defining "cold iron" as a distinct material usually occurs in the context of urban fantasy, where it's necessary to preclude every bit of iron or steel in the modern world from having an equally detrimental effect on the Fair Folk.
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