Arms and armour in Middle Earth

[While this blog is meant to be dedicated to RPGs, I will from time to time comment on other, loosely related topics. ]

It is not terribly surprising that in the last couple of years, when I happened to develop a renewed interest in RPGs, I have also started feeling the desire to reopen my old Tolkien books. I had read (Italian translations of) them in the early Nineties, a time when Jackson’s trilogy had not make them mainstream yet. In fact, reading Tolkien was very much a niche thing, made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that in Italy he was popularly associated with neo-fascists (long story, don’t ask). I was of course immensely impressed by them , and they surely left a mark on my RPG imagery (at least, in the Fantasy genre).

If and when I will have found the time to re-read the books, I will write something about how I did not like Jackson’s adaptation very much. Now I would like to limit myself to a (comparatively harmless) background issue that some people might have missed: the military technology of the movies is entirely different from the one implied in the books. As exemplified by this interesting encyclopedia entry,  in Tolkien’s Middle Earth armour reduces to chain mail and helms, much like what you see on the Bayeux tapestry.  As for melee weapons, spears, swords and axes are most often mentioned in the books, and all of them were wielded one handed and coupled with shields. The movies “modernize” the armament quite a bit, showing men-at-arms in plate armour which brandish longswords with two hands.  In the books, it also seems to be the case that (at least when it comes to fighting) men and elves are culturally homogeneous: not the case in the movies, where elves are given distinctly exotic armour and curved single-edged swords.

Interestingly, good old MERP was tempted in the same direction: while many illustrations were roughly “correct”, the game did include stats for plate armour and two handed weapons, and many key characters (including Morgoth) were given (often magical) plate armour as their armour of choice.

Even more interestingly, the two legendary illustrators who were consultants for Jackson, Alan Lee and John Howe, differed noticeably when it came to armour. Alan Lee offered a very faithful rendition, depicting men and others in mail armour very much like those in the tapestry. Howe, on the other, could not resist the appeal of polished metal, and gave us a some gorgeous warriors in full plate.

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