Arms & Armour in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth
The works of JRR Tolkien have inspired people to study the various aspects of the world he created. One of the aspects that is of great interest to me is the armor and weapons used by the warriors and armies of Middle Earth through It’s long history. Here follows a study of this equipment.
The “flavor” that Tolkien has depicted in his books is that of an Ancient World similar in many ways to what historians call “The Dark Ages” or “The Viking Age” in Earth’s more recent history. Note that this is only a broad comparison; Middle Earth was not a “carbon copy” of those times ranging between 500-1100 AD, but was a unique creation unto itself. Since the topic at hand is armor and weapons, it can be here noted that in this matter the First to Third Ages of Middle Earth had a parallel to those later Ages. The predominant type of body armor was a coat of chain mail with a light helm (either conical or round). Vambraces and greaves could also be added, and/or a coif of chainmail to the head and hose for the legs and feet. The average warrior’s equipment was completed with a sword, axe or spear, and usually a shield.
The oldest descriptions of fighting equipment are not very detailed, but there are some clues. In the ancient days when the Elves were making their journeys west to Valinor, the Vala Orome supplied them with arms to aid in the protection of their hosts from the creatures of Morgoth. This at least means weapons, but whether armor is included is not certain. There are references to the Elves carrying weapons in Valinor (swords, spears and bows). It was written that during Melkor’s stay in Valinor during his feigned repentance, he counseled the Noldor that it was good to go about bearing armor and weapons. Since it is written in the Silmarillion that the Dwarves of Belegost were the first to contrive mail of linked rings, it is my opinion that any body armor used by the elves in Valinor would be scale armor. Tolkien uses some references to “fish’s mail”(i.e. scale armor, though this of course can also be a colorful description of chain mail) in later writings, and scale armor is one of the most ancient forms of armor. This is no doubt due to the fact that fish and reptiles are clad in it, and the idea is therefore quickly recognized and adapted by smiths. Ulmo the Vala is described as being clad in a coat close fit like the mail of a great fish, when appearing to Tuor at Nevrast.
Going further with the Dwarven smiths of both Belegost and Nogrod, it was written in the Silmarillion that they equipped the Sindarin Elves of Thingol’s realm: “…Thingol’s armouries were stored with axes and with spears and swords, and tall helms, and long coats of bright mail; for the hauberks of the Dwarves were so fashioned that they rusted not but shone ever as if they were new-burnished.” In Unfinished Tales it is also written: “Now Thingol had in Menegroth deep armouries filled with great wealth of weapons: metal wrought like fishes’ mail and shining like water in the moon; swords and axes, shields and helms, wrought by Telchar himself or by his master Gamil Zirak the old, or by elven wrights more skillful still. For some things he received in gift that came out of Valinor and were wrought by Feanor in his mastery, than whom no craftsman was greater in all the days of the world.” This establishes a picture of Elven or Dwarven warriors of the first age, clad in mail hauberks and high conical helms, bearing their deadly arms with shield, or two-handed. The smith Telchar of Nogrod is of particular note. Among his works were the Dragon Helm of Dor Lomin, the knife Angrist, and the Sword Narsil (which was later reforged by the Elves of Imladris into Anduril). In the essay Of Dwarves and Men, Tolkien notes that the Dwarves of the Elder Days and Second Age also equipped the Fathers of Men with gear of war.
With the return of the Exiled Noldor to Middle Earth came the marshalling of great force for the wars with Morgoth. The Noldor no doubt learned the craft of chainmail from the Dwarves (with whom they had some friendship, having a similar love of craft). In The Fall of Gondolin, a list of equipment made in that fair city of the Noldor is given: “…and folk were busier about the forging of all manner of swords and axes, spears and bills, and the fashioning of coats of mail, byrnies and hauberks, greaves and vambraces, helms and shields.”
Great detail is given both in The Fall of Gondolin and the later work Of Tuor and His Coming To Gondolin describing the weapons (including the bows for which elves are so famous), armor, and decorations of both borne by the warriors of Gondolin. There is also a description of the arms left for Tuor at Nevrast so that he would be recognized by the folk of Gondolin: “Then Tuor saw that on the wall behind the throne there a hung a shield and a great hauberk, and a helm and a long sword in a sheath. The hauberk shone as it were wrought of silver untarnished, and the sunbeam gilded it with sparks of gold. But the shield was a strange shape to Tuor’s eyes, for it was long and tapering; and its field was blue, but in its midst was wrought an emblem of a white swan’s wing…And he lifted down the shield and found it light and wieldy beyond his guess; for it was wrought, it seemed, of wood, but overlaid by the craft of elven-smiths with plates of metal, strong yet thin as foil, whereby it had been preserved from worm and weather.” This reference shows examples of the excellent arms forged by the Noldor. The Folk of the Noldor made their swords so that their blades gleamed with a cold light when foes were near; the brighter the light the nearer the enemy. These Elven swords were also known for their fantastic cutting ability. The three most famous of these swords were Glamdring, (forged for Turgon, then later borne by Gandalf), it’s mate Orcrist (borne for a time by Thorin Oakenshield), and of course the short sword Sting, named by Bilbo Baggins.
Some other notable references are from the Silmarillion concerning The Battle of Unnumbered Tears:
“For unsummoned and unlooked for, Turgon had opened the leaguer of Gondolin, and was come with an army ten thousand strong, with bright mail and long swords and spears like a forest.” “…and Fingon put on his white helm and sounded his trumpets, and all the host of Hithlum leapt forth from the hills in sudden onslaught. The light of the drawing of the swords of the Noldor was like a fire in a field of reeds.” “…and the Gondolindrim were strong and clad in mail, and their ranks shone like a river of steel in the sun.”
In the account of The Battle of Unnumbered Tears is one of the references to the Dwarven custom of wearing great hideous masks with their helms, which aided in fighting the dragons. More information is gleaned about such helms in the description of the Dragon-Helm of Dor Lomin written in Unfinished Tales:
“That helm was wrought of grey steel adorned with gold, and on it were graven runes of victory. A power was in it that guarded any who wore it from wound and death, for the sword that hewed it was broken, and the dart that smote it sprang aside. It was wrought by Telchar, the smith of Nogrod, whose works are renowned. It had a visor (after the manner of those that the Dwarves used in their forges for the shielding of the eyes), and the face of one that wore it struck fear into the hearts of all beholders, but was itself was guarded from dart and fire. Upon its crest was set in defiance a gilded image of Glaurung the dragon; for it had been made soon after he had issued from the gates of Morgoth…” These accounts show a good sampling of the magnificent arms worn by the warriors of Middle Earth.
A few notes should be made on the bows of the Elder Days. The Noldor of Gondolin had many fine longbowmen. The Sindarin Elves of Doriath used longbows, as shown by the example of Beleg Cuthalion. His name literally meant “Mighty Strongbow”, and he was renowned among the march wardens of Doriath for having the most powerful longbow, Belthronding. The Green Elves of Ossiriand apparently used longbows as well. They put them to great effect on the Dwarves who had sacked Menegroth and were attempting to return to the Blue Mountains. Shortbows were no doubt in use as well. There are some references to horsed archers, such as those of the Noldor who kept watch on Morgoth’s realm. When Glaurung the Father of Dragons first came forth, the horsed archers encircled him and stuck many a shaft into his young hide, which had not yet reached it’s full toughness. Since longbows are nearly impossible to use properly on horseback, it can be inferred that shorter bows were used for this purpose.
Some references are made to the equipment of the enemy. The traditional sword of the orcs was the scimitar, though they also seemed particular to broad-bladed spears, since they are noted in a few references. This of course did not rule out a wide range of other weapons, and they no doubt fought with axes, maces, and bows, since various accounts allude to this. The armor of the orcs, though lower in quality than that of the free peoples, must have had some worth. Beleg Strongbow asked Thingol for a sword of worth before setting of to find Turin, since Beleg owned no sword at that time that could easily penetrate the armor of the orcs.
With the coming of the Second Age, all of the old models of equipment continued, with some notable variations. The Men of Numenor contrived much fine gear of war, and made some interesting items. They devised powerful bows of tempered steel, for example. Tolkien drew an example of a type of Numenorean helm called a Karma. It was wrought of over- lapping plates of metal, and covered with a crest of embossed and dyed leather, which gave it the appearance of a fish. This picture is featured on the dust cover of Unfinished Tales. It perhaps can be inferred that if the Numenoreans had such cleverly wrought and decorated equipment, then the Noldor, their teachers, had equipment at least as fantastic, if not more so. A sampling of Numenorean blade-smithing is shown in the blades of the Barrow Downs, which were brought to light by Tom Bombadil in the Third Age. The blades were leaf shaped, and were decorated with intertwining damascening (probably inlay work). The sheaths of these short swords were wrought of black metal and covered with red gems. These sheaths might have had some special quality of protection for the blades within.
The coming of the Third Age marked less of an Elvish influence in Middle Earth, but there were still fine works about. The Dwarves of Durin’s house in Erebor still made some of the finest arms and armor to be found. The mithril mail shirt made for an elf-prince, but given to Bilbo is the best example. It could not be penetrated by arrows; this meant that the weave was so close as to allow no access for even the thinnest arrow head. It also meant that the mithril-steel was so strong as to prevent the rings from being bent or forced open. The shirt was studded with pearls, and had a belt of pearl and crystal that went with it. Bilbo was also given a light helm of interesting design. It was made of shaped leather, and reinforced with hoops of metal from below. Tolkien painted an excellent illustration of Smaug sitting on his treasure hoard in The Lonely Mountain. Here can be seen examples of the finest weapons and armor in the Third Age of Middle-Earth: Mail coats and conical helms; shields and spears; axes (the favorite weapon of the Dwarves)and swords. The dwarves under Thorin arrayed themselves in this harness and fought in the Battle of Five Armies so equipped. It is also noted that Thorin used a bow of horn to shoot an arrow at a messenger from Laketown. Since the Lonely Mountain was located in the East, perhaps this horn bow was a sign of some eastern influence. The men of Laketown used longbows, so this influence was apparently not from them. Perhaps it was simply a type of dwarvish bow. There is not enough information to go beyond conjecture. The Dwarvish custom from the Elder Days of wearing hideous war masks also deems to fallen out of practice, unless this custom was particular only to the dwarves of the Blue Mountains. The branch of Durin’s Folf that lived in the Iron Hills used great mattocks (usually two handed) as their primary weapons, and carried short swords and shields as a second resort. They also wore hose of a strange metal mesh; how it was made was their secret.
In the great epic of The Lord Of The Rings, many of the chief characters are noted to be equipped with the ancient model of Mail Coat, Helm, Shield, and Bladed Weapon. Here is a list:
Gimli: Mail shirt from Erebor, dwarvish hand-axe, helm made of leather and iron and shield (both from the armoury of Edoras)
Aragorn: Mail Coat, helm and shield from Edoras (all probably made in Gondor), Sword Anduril of Dwarvish and Elvish make. It is interesting that when Frodo sees Aragorn standing with Arwen in Rivendell, Aragorn seems to be clad in elf-mail
Legolas: Mail Coat, helm, and shield as Aragorn above, long knife (perhaps from Erebor?), and longbow from Lothlorien
Theoden, Eomer, Eowyn, and many (if not all) the Riders of Rohan: Mail Coat, helm, shield, spear and sword. Some riders would be armed with short bows instead of spears. Much of the equipment was supplied by Gondor.
Prince Imrahil, and many (if not all) the Swan Knights: Mail Coat, helm, vambraces, shield, spear, and sword. Using the Gondolin model above, since Imrahil wore vambraces, perhaps greaves were a possibility as well.
Citadel Guard of Minas Tirith: Mail Coats, helms of Mithril, shields, and swords.
Orc Captain in Moria: Mail from head to foot, helm, large hide shield, spear, and scimitar.
Some other references of note:
The elven guards in Caras Caldhon are said to be wearing grey mail;
The Lord of The Nazgul is wearing a mail hauberk and bearing a mace when he is fighting Eowyn and Merry. Merry got around the mail by stabbing with his Barrow-Blade up underneath the hauberk and into the back of the Nazgul’s knee;
Denethor wore a mail coat night and day beneath his robes so that he would not become soft with age.
Boromir was equipped with a shield, sword, and helm, but had no mail coat since he was travelling afar and presumably wanted less weight for greater speed. If he had reached Minas Tirith he would no doubt have been equipped as Aragorn had been.
Upon Boromir’s death, it was noted that the orcs he slew had been equipped with mail, helms, and shields. The orcs of the Misty Mountains among this group were armed with scimitars, short bows, etc. This was largely inferred by the comparison to the three Uruk-Hai from Isengard that he slew. These great orcs were armed with longbows and short, broad-bladed swords, instead of the conventional equipment. At this point it was noted that the Orcs from Isengard bore white hands on their shields, and white S-Runes on their helms, while Orcs from Mordor used the sign of the Red Eye on their equipment. It’s not clear if the Orcs of the Red Eye took part in the battle with Boromir. It seems more likely that they caught up with the other orcs a bit later on, so the comparisons in equipment seem to be made through the extensive knowledge of Aragorn. During the expedition of the mixed group of orcs across the Emyn Muil and Rohan, some notes are made referring to their hideous, jagged knives. Grishnakh, the leader of the Orcs from Mordor, bore and interesting knife whose hilt was carved in the likeness of a head with a vicious face.
In an essay in Unfinished Tales about The Battles at the Fords of Isen, some other pertinent information is gained. It is told that the Riders of Rohan were supplied with armor out of Gondor, while the men of Dunland had virtually no mail, relying on their great shields for protection. It’s written that they had only a few hauberks, plundered or stolen (At Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings it is noted that they have high helms and great shields). The orcs of Isengard made heavy and clumsy mail for their own use. In an initial cavalry advance made by Thedored, the Isengarders had taken up a defensive position, armed with pikes and located behind trenches. There is much written about the use of shield walls when the Rohanners are fighting on foot (shield walls are characteristic of the Classicial/Viking Ages of more recent history). When Theodred makes a shield wall for the defense of the eyot in the middle of the Isen river, a company of “Men or Orc-men”, clad in mail (perhaps indicating head-to-foot mail like the orc-chieftain above and not just a hauberk) and armed with great axes, assailed Theodred’s shield wall viciously. It was surmised that they had been giving the job of specifically slaying Theodred, since he was heir to the throne of Rohan. They succeeded, though Grimbold and Elfhem made them pay with their lives.
A sampling of Rohirric heraldry is given in The Lord of the Rings. A white horse on a green field was a symbol of the House of Eorl. The sun on a green field was the symbol borne on the shields of Theoden’s household warriors. Erkenbrand of Westfold is said to carry a red shield. It also seems that green gems were popular in Rohan. Green gems decorate the sword hilts of Theoden’s guards before his doors, and the sheath of his sword, Herugrim, is decorated with such gems.
The rangers of Ithilien were armed with swords, longbows, spears and shields, but it is not said if they bore armour under their green and brown clothing. Perhaps they were going for stealth and speed, and chose to go without any mail or helms. The Haradrim, with whom the rangers of Ithilien skirmished, are quite interesting. The are said to be clad in armour of over-lapping plates. This sounds like lamellar armour, or perhaps is some unique construction. It has also been suggested to me that the Haradrim armour ay have been made like the Lorica Segmentata of the Romans.
It is mentioned that Haradrim use scimitars, bows, spears, and shields during the War of the Ring.
The orcs that Frodo and Sam encounter while in Mordor are equipped with a variety of weapons within the standard model. Sam takes a mail shirt from a dead orc for Frodo to wear, since his mithril mail has been stolen. The sub-standard quality of the orc mail is referred to when Frodo and Sam run into thorn bushes, and Frodo remarks that it will take more than orc mail to stop the thorns. Perhaps the weave of the orc mail is somewhat looser than that made by the free peoples. Another detail is that at least some of their helms had beak-like nasals to protect the face.
In the battle before the gates of Mordor, the Hill Trolls of Gorgoroth are said to be either clad in a type of scale armor, or perhaps it was their own scaly hide. They were armed with hammers and bucklers.
A selection of other allies of Mordor is mentioned. Of some note are the swarthy Easterlings who have beards like dwarves and wield great axes.
Written by Joe Piela; Used with Permission