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Middle-earth Arms and Armour

November 27, 2000 at 4:17 pm by Calisuri  - 

During the last few months quite a few images of armour & weaponry from the LOTR movies have been posted on™ and the Web in general. What I aim to do with this article is to examine those images to see how they compare with the descriptions in the writings of JRR Tolkien. I realize that every person who reads Tolkien’s works forms their own personal imagery of what they see in the stories, which is as it should be. Accordingly, the purpose of this article is to offer some academic discussion, and not to discount anyone’s interpretation of what is shown in Tolkien’s books.


To start, I’d like to give a bit of background on the armour & equipment used in Middle Earth. Tolkien was profoundly influenced by the poem Beowulf and by the various Norse Epic Tales. As a result, the armour and weapons of Middle Earth are quite similar to those used when Beowulf and the Norse epics were written: The Dark Ages (part of which is often called the Viking Age). There are also similarities to armour and weapons from the Ancient Period. The prominent form of body armour in Middle Earth is mail, usually made of interlocked rings. There are also a few references to “fishes mail”, a colorful term for scale armour. Plate armour is virtually non-existent in Tolkien’s writings of Middle Earth (as it was during the Dark Ages). For example, the word “breastplate” is never encountered even once in all of the Middle Earth writings (this includes the vast amount of material published after Tolkien’s death). In contrast, “Mail” is encountered many, many times. There are also equivalent terms used for mail on numerous occasions: hauberk, corselet, byrnie, habergeon, and harness. One of the few references that comes somewhat close to mentioning plate body armour is the corselet of overlapping bronze plates worn by the Haradrim warrior who dies in front of Sam in Ithilien. This armour actually sounds like a variant type of scale armour, or perhaps strip armour like that worn by the Romans. There are references to a variety of helmets. Some are entirely of metal, some of metal and leather. These helmets are sometimes referred to as being high in profile (as Tolkien even drew a few pictures of such), while other types sound lower & rounder in profile.

Tolkien was quite aware that weapons (mostly of the non-magical variety) were not indestructible; he wrote of a number of incidents where blades were notched or broken in combat. As a result, Tolkien usually equipped warrior’s with shields to absorb the punishment of battle. Sometimes additional protection could be offered through mail coverings or greaves for the legs, and vambraces for the forearms.

A variety of swords, spears, axes, daggers, hammers, and maces were used in conjunction with the shield, though some of these could be wielded in two hands as well. Bows of varying length, power, and construction were in use for shooting arrows.

The Pictures

I. The Riders of Rohan

This first batch of pictures shows various shots of the Riders of Rohan and their equipment. Overall, they show a very high degree of accuracy with regards to the written descriptions.

\[ spangenhelm \]
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Here are a couple views of Rohirrim helmets. The first two helmet tops are of “spangenhelm” construction (plates and strips of metal overlapped and riveted together). The two helmets modeled by the Members of Parliament have their tops apparently made in one piece and decorated with a nice hand-hammered texture. Three of the helmets have crests: One consisting of a white horsetail (probably marking it Eomer’s helmet), the other two having stylized “horsehead” crests (these may actually be holders for mounting on horsetails). The lower regions of the helmets have metal cheekpieces, leather tails for the back of the head and either simple nasal guards, or eye-and-nasal guards. I am betting that Eowyn will be wearing of the “eye and nasal guard” helmets when she is disguised as Dernhelm. Originally Tolkien was going to disguise Eowyn with the name of “Grimhelm”. A grimhelm is a type of masked helmet used in Northern Europe during the early Dark Ages; grimhelms are mentioned in Beowulf a few times. Tolkien didn’t go with the “Grimhelm” concept, probably because the name was too close to Grima Wormtongue’s name, and perhaps because he did not want to cover Eowyn’s face completely with a mask. Merry needed to be able to see “The face one who goes seeking death”. So Eowyn became Dernhelm, “Helm of Secrecy”. The Type of helmet shown here would be perfect to conceal her identity while only partially covering her face.

\[ Rohirrim shield \]\[ Rohirrim shield \]
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The item shown here is a beautiful rendition of a Rohirrim shield. While it seems to be made of synthetic material, it is very nicely done and quite convincing. It is of classic Dark Age round-shield design: wood rimmed with iron, and having a center grip protected by a boss. The boss has nice motifs molded into it.

\[ mail hauberks \]
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Way back when Peter Jackson was doing 20 Question sessions with Ain’t It Cool News, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him how the WETA Workshop would be making armour and weapons for the movies. He noted that mail for the heroes would be made of metal rings in India, and that string-mail for the bulk of the armies was being knitted by a Wellington knitting club. The above picture shows one of the Rohirrim apparently wearing one of these string mail hauberks. It very effectively simulates mail on film.

\[ Eorlingas \]
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In this shot you can see the host of the Eorlingas wearing all of the above detailed items together. Most of their helms have black horsetail crests attached to horsehead crest holders. Their horses have chamfrons (facial armour) of a design similar to that which the Roman cavalry used. The resulting effect is quite impressive and highly accurate to Tolkien’s descriptions.

\[ Gandalf on Shadowfax \]
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Here we can see a picture of a warrior standing next to Gandalf on Shadowfax. I am quite certain that the warrior is Theoden (Bernard Hill or his double). His sleeveless mail shirt is in accordance with the description given in a recent on-the-set E! Online report.

II. Gimli

\[ Gimli 1  \]\[ <a HREF=
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Here we see some shots of Gimli. In the LOTR Gimli is equipped with a short shirt of mail and broad bladed axe from the Lonely Mountain; he later on receives an iron and leather helmet and round shield at Edoras. During a recent interview, John Rhys Davies talked about how heavy his armour and equipment were, which probably means it is made of real metal and wood, since synthetic equipment would be pretty light. As a result, I am guessing that these pictures are early test shots since the mail and helmet look synthetic. Also, the mail looks like a kind of vest, while an early E! Online report referred to a short-sleeved shirt of mail. So, I am guessing that Gimli’s armour may have changed to some degree since these pictures were taken. One of the E! Online reports mentioned Gimli having his helmet as the Fellowship were arriving at Lothlorien. This would mean that the scene where Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas receive their helms, mail coats, and shields at Edoras has probably been cut or greatly abbreviated. The helmet Gimli is wearing does not appear to be the simple leather and iron helmet he receives in the book. I would guess that in the movies he will have a helm of Dwarf make from the Lonely Mountain, wearing it from the time that he leaves Rivendell. The helmet in the picture is beautifully crafted and quite appropriate for Dwarf work. It has some nice Celtic-style knotwork on the cheekpieces.

III. Soldiers of Gondor

\[ Gondorian soldiers in Mordor \]
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The above picture shows a unit of Gondorian soldiers in Mordor. These are very nicely done with a good deal of accuracy to the books. Their helmets are based on those worn by the Citadel Guard of Minas Tirith, whose helmets are made to a design virtually the same as the Crown of Gondor. That crown was derived from the form of a Numenorean war-helm. It was said to originally be the war-helm of Isildur, until a more magnificent version was made later on in history. Tolkien even made some sketches of this “crown-helmet” which you can see in “The Letters of JRR Tolkien”. Like the Citadel Guard, these warriors have mail coats, over which they wear black surcoats showing the device of the Heirs of Elendil. This device is also on their shields. They wear vambraces and greaves on their forearms and shins. Greaves and vambraces are mentioned in “The Fall of Gondolin”, and Price Imrahil wears vambraces in conjunction with his bright mail coat during the War of the Ring. They hold spears in their hands and wear longswords at their belts.

IV. Elves & Orcs

\[ Elven Warrior  \]\[ Orcs and Elves \]
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Above we see a couple of images showing some orcs and an Elven Warrior at some of the Mordor filming. First we’ll look at the Elven Warrior. He appears to have a mail shirt with long sleeves worn beneath some sections of overlapping plates on his upper arms and thighs. He is armed with a polearm having a curved blade and a ribbed, curved grip. In addition, he has a long cloak with dyed varying shades of green. This armour and weaponry is very beautiful and nicely crafted, but not very accurate with Tolkien’s descriptions. The mail shirt is fine, but the segmented plates are additions by the filmmakers. The curved polearm goes against a concept that Tolkien established early in his writings on Middle Earth’s history. From the start Tolkien made curved swords (scimitars) the trademark weapon of the orcs. In contrast, the trademark weapon of the Elves were straight blades. Tolkien even goes to the trouble of pointing this out in The Fall of Gondolin, noting that only one elf among all the Noldor bore a bent sword. One of the staff at™ came up with the theory that the moviemakers were trying to show that the orcs were descended from Elves by giving them a similar trademark hairline, in addition to both races having pointed ears. It’s my theory that the moviemakers are trying to carry on this concept by giving them both curved blades to use. These curved blades have been noted in other pictures, such as this one:

\[ Orcs in the Mordor \]
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Looking at the Orcs in the Mordor pictures, they are armored in a rag-tag assortment of hide. This is fine, since Tolkien did make some references to leather and hide being used as protective equipment. Perhaps this group represents a unit of lesser orcs who were not as well equipped with metal armour. The orc facing off with the Elven Warrior is also armed with a trademark orc-scimitar.

\[ Uruk-Hai from Isengard\? \]
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In the above picture we see some orcs from the Internet Preview. Whether or not these are the fighting Uruk-Hai from Isengard (Orcs of the White Hand) is difficult to tell. The Uruk-Hai from Isengard are supposedly going to be covered in some kind of controversial plate armour attached to them at the time of their creation (which may just be a rumor of course). These orcs are covered with a foundation of accurate mail shirts. There are bits of what appear to be hide or carapace added on to the mail shirts, which isn’t a huge deviation from the book’s descriptions. They have some spiky helmets, which may symbolize the tower of Orthanc, possibly making them Orcs of Isengard. By the same token there are no White Hand or S-Rune symbols on their helms or armour (that can be seen anyway), which Isengarders should have. They appear to be carrying one or two, straight, broad bladed short swords, the trademark weapon of the Isengarders. However, they carry short bows, not the longbows that the Orcs of Isengard used. Overall, these orcs are very nicely done, with a pretty good amount of accuracy; what type of Orc they are is difficult to tell at this point. An early E! Online report described a group of Orcs from Moria pursuing the Fellowship to Lorien that were equipped in a fashion apparently similar to what is shown here. As a result, I’d bet that these are Moria/Misty Mountain Orcs.

V. Various Images

\[ Elven Warrior  \]\[ Orcs and Elves \]\[ Orcs and Elves \]
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In Tolkien’s essay, “On Translating Beowulf”, he gives the advice that a translator should use the terms “Knights, esquires, courts, and princes” to describe certain people in the Beowulf poem, even though there is a risk of bringing up inappropriate images of the Arthurian world. He probably would’ve said the same for “The Lord of the Rings”. The three images above show a selection of warriors that Tolkien might’ve called a bit too King-Arthurish (referring not to the historical Arthur, but to the fanciful Arthurian legends written long after the real Arthur passed into mythology). The armour and equipment shown is beautifully crafted and very artistic, but it doesn’t match up well with the descriptions in the books. Perhaps they are based on a very free interpretation of the Haradrim armor of bronze overlapping plates. The high conical helmets shown in the first two pictures are an accurate exception, since such helms are mentioned in a number of places. The report that came along with the first picture posted on TORN described he riders as Gondorians; indeed their standard seems to show a White Tree on a black background. However, it is strange that two of the riders are wearing scarlet cloaks, scarlet being a very popular color with the Haradrim. This would cause confusion on the battlefield, and also be confusing for a movie audience if both Gondorians and Haradrim were clad in scarlet. The warriors in the second picture look very much like the riders in the first picture, so perhaps they are all warriors of Gondor. I wonder though, if they all are perhaps Haradrim. Their plate armour would contrast to the armour worn by the Gondorian soldiers shown in Mordor above, making for easier screen recognition. There is also the curious figure to the left of the second picture bearing a longbow; he is also hooded and masked. I believe this person to be Ranger of Ithilien, since he is clad and armed as they were described in LOTR. Perhaps the second photo shows a break in the filming of the battle scene in Ithilien between Faramir‘s Rangers and the Haradrim. The third image shows an orc host on the march, probably during the invasion of the Pelennor fields. Most of the orcs wear a variety of bits of plate armour over hide. A Red Eye can be faintly discerned on the shield in the center of the photo. I also believe that the black banner at the top has a Red Eye on it too, though it is billowing in the wind and hard to tell.

A Note on Weight:

I’ve seen a number of reports on the web giving weights on the shields, armour, and weapons used in the LOTR movies. They have all been far beyond what would be needed in a real battle, let alone for movie props. Tehanu has theorized that somewhere in the reporting process, kilograms and pounds get mixed up causing the weights to become exaggerated. This is probably the case. For example, the Rohan helmets that the PM’s modeled are reported as weighing 5 kilos (about 11 pounds). In reality such helmets should weigh about 5 pounds (or even a little less).

Well, that’s all for now. Whether you are a by-the-book purist or someone who favors freer interpretations, these movies should have something in the way of arms & armour that will make you happy.

The author, Joe Piela, is a metalsmith specializing in weapons and armour. He is also the owner of Lonely Mountain Forges. Please visit and support our guest authors.

Posted in Old Special Reports on November 27, 2000 by

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