Feature: The Arts
Fabricating the Weapons and Armor of The Lord of the Rings
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).
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
“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
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
). 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
, 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 Ring
s, 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
“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
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.
Years of battle were reflected in the rough finish on the swords of
(a-left) the evil Ringwraiths and (b-right) Strider (Viggo Mortensen).
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
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. 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,
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
) and Glamdring
), 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
) weighed about 1.3 kilograms and were 1 meter long.
Figure 5. Gandalf the wizard (Ian
McKellen) and his sword, Glamdring. (©NLP,
Ent. lic. to New Line.)
Figure 6. Frodo’s sword Sting
was engraved with Elven script. (©NLP,
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
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
Tolkien’s descriptive storytelling set the standard for the film, Taylor
“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
, 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
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,”
ART IMITATING ART
Figure A. With an eye for
detail, reproductions of the sword Sting were designed
from drawings and are sold to the general public. © 2002
Figure B. The sword of the Witch-king, leader of the Ringwraiths,
posed reproduction problems because of its ancient, worn appearance.
© 2002 United
- 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
“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
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
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.