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An Article from the November 2002 JOM: A Hypertext-Enhanced Article

The author of this article is managing editor of JOM.
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Feature: The Arts

Fabricating the Weapons and Armor of The Lord of the Rings

Maureen Byko


Figure 1

Figure 1. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood) receives the sword known as Sting from his cousin Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm). (©NLP, Inc.™ Tolkien Ent. lic. to New Line.)

For sword smith Peter Lyon, work on The Lord of the Rings movies came naturally, almost as if his life was preparing him for this role. At 38, he makes his living selling handcrafted weapons, mostly to people who participate in historical re-enactments. In his free time, he teaches combat techniques to fellow members of the Wellington Medieval Guild and practices jousting with the Order of the Boar, both in his native New Zealand.

“Even when I was a kid, I was always interested in ancient history and prehistory —especially where there isn’t a fair bit of knowledge about it,” Lyon said. “It leaves a lot of room for imagination.”

The Lord of the Rings is an exercise in imagined history. It revolves around the One Ring, forged by the evil Sauron to control a land called Middle-earth. The gold band granted its bearer powers, such as invisibility and immortality, but also was evil in its own right and corrupted its owner. The ring fell into the hands of Frodo Baggins, who came from a people known as hobbits—short creatures dedicated to peace and simple pleasure (Figure 1). The Lord of the Rings centers on Frodo’s quest to return the ring to the fires where it was forged, which is the only way its power can be destroyed. Along the way, he gathers allies from other denizens of Middle-earth such as dwarves and elves, and he confronts villains in frightening forms.

Those imaginings of J.R.R. Tolkien were to come to life less than a kilometer from Lyon’s forge near Wellington, New Zealand. In the late 1990s, New Zealand native Peter Jackson began preparations for his own quest: filming the three books of The Lord of the Rings as three movies simultaneously. He hired special effects specialist Richard Taylor, also of New Zealand, to oversee the props and effects. When Taylor began assembling artisans at his Weta Workshop, he invited Lyon to make the movie’s swords. Lyon accepted, unaware of the magnitude of the job he was about to undertake.

“In the early days, I thought ‘It’s wonderful. I’m going to have steady work for a while,’ ” Lyon said. “It was only when I learned about the fan responses that I realized what I was getting into. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings mean so much to so many people.”

Published first in the 1950s, the books have a following of fans passionate in their loyalty to Tolkien’s vision. Before the first movie, The Fellowship of the Rings, was released, they were vocal in their opposition. To ensure that the movies remained true to the written version, the Weta Workshop was equipped as an artisan studio of the fifteenth or sixteenth century, which closely paralleled the era described in Tolkien’s novel. Taylor hired crafts-people—most of whom never worked in television or movies—to apply their skills in blacksmithing, sword-making, lost-wax bronze casting, leather-working, jewelry-making, and other arts, to The Lord of the Rings movies.

“Fundamentally, when I started on the film, I knew the last thing we wanted to do was have a movie that looks as though it came from a 1990s art department,” Taylor said. “The Lord of the Rings, and the world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, has at all times got to replicate or in some ways even be a heightened reality. It’s a cultural statement for a world that Tolkien imagined to be totally real.”

Tolkien’s plots revolve around good and evil, and weapons are integral to the story. The integrity of the weapons, especially the swords, was essential to remain true to the book, Taylor said. The starring swords, with names of their own and lengthy histories, were treated in Tolkien’s writing almost as characters in their own right, lasting through the ages longer than the hobbits, elves, and humans who possessed them.

Figure 2a
Figure 2b

Figure 2. Years of battle were reflected in the rough finish on the swords of (a-left) the evil Ringwraiths and (b-right) Strider (Viggo Mortensen). (©NLP, Inc.™ Tolkien Ent. lic. to New Line.)

So for four years, in an on-site foundry, Lyon focused his skills on Middle-earth weaponry. From artists’ drawings he crafted swords that were designed to reflect their own histories. Those that had seen many battles were forged, then aged by applying acid and other chemicals to create a pitted, corroded effect (Figures 2a and 2b). The damaged surfaces were cleaned to give the appearance of an old blade that was still cared for. Swords used by elves were elegant and curved to represent their more evolved culture (Figure 3). Orcs who were barbaric fighting creatures, carried crude, chunky weapons.



Figure 3
Figure 4a
Figure 4b

Figure 3. Weapons of the elf culture were known for their curves and decorative details. (© New Line Productions. All rights reserved.)

Figure 4. (a-top) A fragment of the sword Narsil after it was broken in an ancient battle. (b-bottom) King Elendil (played by Peter McKenzie), carries Narsil into its final battle before it is shattered. (©NLP, Inc.Tolkien Ent. lic. to New Line.)


Lyon made two types of each sword: hero swords, which were for close-up filming only, and stunt swords, to be used in battle scenes and shot from a distance. He made at least two of each hero sword, and about five of each stunt sword. The hero swords, like real swords, were made of spring steel and heat-tempered for a hard edge.

“I followed very much the same process I use for re-enactors,” Lyon said. The swords were made with a tang that extends into the handle for better durability. The blade was balanced just as it would be for fighting. The steel for the hero swords was simple, Lyon said, because stainless and highly alloyed steels do not offer adequate strength, hardness, or toughness.

The largest of the swords were Narsil (Figures 4a and 4b) and Glamdring (Figure 5), each weighing between 1.8 kilograms and 2.4 kilograms with a length of 1.2 meters to 1.4 meters. The shorter swords, such as Sting, (Figure 6) weighed about 1.3 kilograms and were 1 meter long.


Figure 5
Figure 6

Figure 5. Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) and his sword, Glamdring. (©NLP, Inc.Tolkien Ent. lic. to New Line.)

Figure 6. Frodo’s sword Sting was engraved with Elven script. (©NLP, Inc.Tolkien Ent. lic. to New Line.)


When making the hero swords, Lyon had to keep in mind that actors might be holding them for long periods of time, shooting and re-shooting close-up scenes. Just as in medieval times, swords needed to be light to be most effective.


MORE PRECIOUS THAN GOLD
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing, Mithril is a metal more valuable than gold. Gandalf the Grey, in The Fellowship of the Rings, said Mithril “could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass; and the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel. Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of Mithril did not tarnish or grow dim.”1

In Peter Jackson’s movies, Mithril, in the form of a chain-mail vest worn by Frodo Baggins, was not so mysterious.

“The Mithril vest is a big cheat,” said Richard Taylor, who directed the physical effects and costumes in The Lord of the Rings movies.

“We did consider it, we did ponder it, and we were stumped by it,” Taylor said. “This is the first publication where I’ve admitted how tragically we failed to do something special. Just from a fan base, we wanted to be able to tell a neat story in the future about how cool the materials were that we investigated. We were hoping that we could somehow weave titanium twine or something like that. But it was not to be.”

In the end, the Mithril was made of lightweight, stainless-steel chain mail used for butchers’ gloves. That mail was finer than the movie’s craftsmen would have been able to produce, Taylor said, and looked appropriate when sprayed with a pearlescent paint.
 

Even lighter were the stunt swords. Made of soft aluminum with plastic handles, those swords weighed about half of their hero-sword counterparts. Stunt swords were used in active battle scenes, where actors could freely and forcefully swing them and damage was likely. Artistic details were incorporated even if the stunt swords were only going to be seen as a blur in an action sequence. If the hero sword had a design etched on its surface, the stunt sword bore the same design. If the hero sword was scuffed from action, the stunt sword was identically scuffed.

“The whole design philosophy of the film was everything had to be as real as possible, there’s nothing that can be distracting,” Lyon said.

Tolkien’s descriptive storytelling set the standard for the film, Taylor said.

“There’s no doubt that the world, due to the incredible visual writings of Tolkien, has a preconceived vision of what Middle-earth should look like,” Taylor said. “So, to some degree, we had to capture that notion, and Tolkien’s vision as well, of course, of what these weapons looked like.”

Possibly the only way to truly appreciate the work of the craftsmen at the Weta Workshop—on a conscious level—is with a DVD and a remote control. Freeze on a scene in the elf land of Rivendell and appreciate the bronze detailing of Legolas’s quiver, crafted with the lost-wax process. Pause in an Orc battle scene and notice the varieties of helmets, some representing a family’s standing within the Orcan culture, others illustrating that Orcs were scavengers who gathered armor and weapons that were dropped on battlefields. Stop on a close-up of a dwarf and observe the belt buckles with squarish, angular designs that reflect dwarvan architecture.

Such details—the metalsmiths hand-forged more than 10,000 buckles for the Orcs alone—pass by so quickly they are nearly impossible for the average viewer to notice.

“Unfortunately, so much of it isn’t actually seen in the film, and so people would argue, why do it then? Why on earth would you go to that trouble?” Taylor said. “Because the real world has a level of subliminal detail that supports a cultural inheritance through graphic design that gives you the feeling that what you are looking at in the present is predated by a huge cultural influence that goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years. . .Therefore, every single actor, every single character, had a different buckling system, a different belting system, a different level of cultural integrity built into the variety of detailing on the armoring, to emulate the feeling of this process.”

In this atmosphere, Taylor said, the actors more easily slipped into their roles. “As they dressed in the armor, as the layers and layers of detail went on, they felt as though the culture of those characters was being invested in their acting performance.”

Authentic swords added realism to the performances, Taylor said. The actors were not experienced with swords, and so the better their balance, the more comfortable they felt in the hand, the more realistic the scene being played. Lyon excelled, Taylor said, in providing the quality of sword required.

“Peter Lyon made weapons that were so exquisite and so rich in culture and subtlety of use that the actors grew to find it a complete delight using these weapons,” he said

For the next two Decembers, fans of The Lord of the Rings will be treated to the continuation of the on-screen saga. Taylor was not about to predict the movies’ critical success—the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, received 13 Academy Award nominations and won four. The second installment of the trilogy, The Two Towers, opens in theaters in December. In that movie, Taylor promised that fans of swords and armor would be treated to “possibly some of the largest battle scenes ever seen on the screen.” The final film of the trilogy, The Return of the King, will be in theaters in December 2003.

When all the filming is done, the elegant swords and frightful armor crafted by Peter Lyon and others will still belong to New Line Productions, which produced the movies. Taylor hopes the items can be preserved in New Zealand as a tribute to the artists who created them. “I believe that the props in their own rights are beautiful enough items that they’re worthy of a permanent exhibition,” he said.

As for the movies themselves, Taylor expects that they will be watched for years to come. By striving so diligently to satisfy existing Tolkien fans and to live up to the Tolkien legacy, the movies have been produced with a timeless, enduring quality.

Probably the best indication of the first film’s success is the fan response. Well before The Fellowship of the Ring’s opening on movie screens, the production company was deluged with angry letters from fans of the literary version, Taylor said. All opposition was quelled, though, after those fans had the opportunity to digest the epic film.

“The hate mail ceased completely since the film was released,” Taylor said.


ART IMITATING ART

Figure A

Figure A. With an eye for detail, reproductions of the sword Sting were designed from drawings and are sold to the general public. © 2002 United Cutlery Corp.

Figure B

Figure B. The sword of the Witch-king, leader of the Ringwraiths, posed reproduction problems because of its ancient, worn appearance. © 2002 United Cutlery Corp.

After Peter Lyon faced the challenge of forging realistic swords from artists’ designs for The Lord of the Rings, Kit Rae began designing realistic copies of Lyon’s work for sale to the general public.

Rae is art director for United Cutlery Brands, a Tennessee company licensed by New Line Productions to mass-produce the swords of The Lord of the Rings. He is also a lifelong fan of the epic fantasy.

“I have probably read The Lord of the Rings a dozen times, so I always had my own vision of what each sword looked like,” Rae said. “When I saw the designs they were not what I expected, but they were incredible. They each appeared to have come from the unique and different histories of each of the Middle-earth races. There are historical elements from real swords with a twist of fictional design thrown in that makes each one very interesting.”

The process of making The Lord of the Rings swords began, for Rae, with photos of the actual props. From those photos, Rae and a team of artists began design work, creating drawings for each part, and then carvings from those drawings (Figure A). Eventually, the company received copies of props to check measurements and shapes. When the design was perfected, steel prototypes were made for the final product. Specifications for the swords were then sent to outside vendors, who manufacture them in large quantities. The most popular sword so far has been Sting, the sword of Frodo Baggins, said Jessica Hall, sales and marketing manager for United Cutlery. As of mid-October, the company had five swords available: Sting; Glamdring, the sword of Gandalf the wizard; Narsil, the sword of Aragorn; the sword of the Witchking; and the sword of the Ringwraiths. Five new items are scheduled for release in coming months.

Particularly challenging in reproducing the movie props, Rae said, was perfecting the finish on the swords.

“The props were very detailed with weathering and distressing to make them look used and really fit into the world of Middle-earth,” Rae said. “We had to experiment with different platings, clear coating, and paint wash processes to get similar looks.” The Witchking and Ringwraith blades, which were supposed to be 3,000 years old, appeared especially damaged, he said—“corroded, pitted, and very ancient looking” (Figure B). The company typically uses stainless steel for collectors’ swords because it maintains its appearance for long periods of time. Rae considered using carbon steel instead, processing it to “force” corrosion, but decided the metal would then be prone to rust. That effect might be too realistic for customers paying $150 or more for a sword.

“In the end, we used a random acid etch process that achieved a similar look in stainless,” he said.

Also challenging to reproduce were fullers, or hollow grooves known as “blood channels,” Rae said. The grooves, which run down the center of both sides of the blade, were used often in sword-making to reduce weight while retaining the full strength of the steel thickness. At United Cutlery, no swords had ever been made with those grooves and the company had to devise a special milling machine for that purpose, Rae said.

When the swords are completed, they may differ from the original somewhat by being lighter in weight and possibly smaller, to be more “retail friendly,” Hall said. The weapons, with blunted blades, are mounted on plaques and sold either on the Internet or in retail outlets, such as hobby stores and book stores.

References

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 2nd ed., (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), p. 309.


Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 2002

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