Anglo-Saxon, Angus McBride, Bayeux Tapestry, Celts, chain-mail, hauberk, lamellae, lorica segmentata, medieval Russians, Mordor, Mycenaeans, Orcs, Renaissance irish, Republican Romans, Rohirrim, sallet, spangenhelm, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Zulus
So, dear readers, welcome, as always. In this posting, we want to finish our brief overview of orc weaponry which we began in our last.
A famous military illustrator, Angus McBride, (1931-2007)
once said in an interview that there was one thing which he hated about doing such illustrations: painting chain mail, which he said was the most tedious part of his work. Considering that he painted it on early Celts
and Renaissance Irish,
and Republican Romans
and medieval Russians,
McBride must have suffered many hours of boredom! It didn’t stop him, however, as we see in these illustrations for The Lord of the Rings,
from putting armor on Rohirrim and orcs alike.
Chain mail—or simply mail—is made by linking together a series of metal rings.
This is, as you can imagine, a very time-consuming process, especially if you have to make the rings first. (Here’s a LINK on mail manufacturing, in case you’d like to try it yourself.)
We have seen the number of rings used in a full mail hauberk to be over 20,000, so it’s also metal-consuming, as well as time-consuming. It also appears to have been expensive. We once heard an expert say something about the “same price as a two-bedroom house”, but that seems a little excessive. The always-useful Regia Anglorum website gives the price of a mail shirt in Anglo-Saxon times at 529d (that’s 529 pence), or 10,580 pounds in modern UK money ($13,785.18 US at today’s current exchange rate). Here’s a LINK to their web page to see the author’s reasoning for his equivalences.
McBride shows orcs wearing mail—does JRRT? In fact, in the first scene in which we see orcs, we read:
“…a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”
And, late in the story, when Sam and Frodo are in Mordor and Sam provides clothes for Frodo:
“There were long hairy breeches of some unclean beast-fell, and a tunic of dirty leather. He drew them on. Over the tunic went a coat of stout ring-mail, short for a full-sized orc, too long for Frodo and heavy.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)
(We can attest to the weight of such a coat, by the way, having a modern reproduction ourselves. It weighs 25 pounds or more—that’s 11.34 kilograms. When it’s on your shoulders, the weight is displaced, so it doesn’t feel quite so heavy, but, if you have it piled in a box, you really feel the heft. We would also add that, because of the cost, armor wasn’t commonly left on the battlefield. This segment of the Bayeux Tapestry shows what must normally have happened.)
McBride, in his illustrations, depicts two other types of body armor. In these first two depictions, we see the kind of armor the Romans called lorica segmentata.
This is a system based upon a series of broad, overlapping iron strips.
As far as we can tell, this is never mentioned in the text. There may be one mention of our third type:
This is armor made up of a series of small plates, called lamellae, sewn in an overlapping fashion, rather like fish scales.
There may be one mention of this:
“The orcs hindered by the mires that lay before the hills halted and poured their arrows into the defending ranks. But through them came striding up, roaring like beasts, a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth. Taller and broader than Men they were, and they were clad only in close-fitting mesh of horny scale, or maybe that was their hideous hide…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”)
But what about helmets?
McBride depicts most of his orcs in something which might be described as wild variations on the later medieval helmet called a sallet.
You can see John Mollo, a costume designer for Star Wars, having fun with this pattern, too.
In the text, in that first scene in which we see orcs, there is a mention of Aragorn’s sword, Anduril, which “came down upon [an orc’s] helm”, but nothing more specific—and that’s true for the second mention, when Aragorn examines the orcs killed by by Boromir:
“…on the front of their iron helms was set an S-rune, wrought of some white metal.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)
There is a bit more detail in this description:
“Sam brought several orc-helmets. One of them fitted Frodo well enough, a black cap with iron rim, and iron hoops covered with leather upon which the Evil Eye was painted in red above the beaklike nose-guard.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)
To us, this sounds like a kind of spangenhelm, the sort of thing the Normans wear in the Bayeux Tapestry.
To which we can add a couple of types of shields. The first we see—it’s that same “orc-chieftain”—carries “a huge hide shield” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”). There is no further description. If it’s only made of hide, this could resemble anything from a Mycenaean “figure-of-eight” shield
to a Mycenaean “tower” shield
to a Zulu shield.
The hill-trolls of Gorgoroth, mentioned above for their possible lamellar armor, are said to carry “round bucklers huge and black” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”).
A huge buckler, however, is a contradiction in terms, as bucklers are, by definition, small—more a kind of one-on-one fencing defense, as we see in this illustration.
Like their helmets, orc shields commonly carry the sign of their master, Saruman or Sauron—“Upon their shields they bore a strange device” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”). (Some of Saruman’s followers, however, seem to have unmarked shields, as the attackers of Helm’s Deep are described as “some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields”—The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”) This can also be useful if you’re the authorities and you want to catch deserters, as Sam and Frodo find out when they’re trapped by a column of orcs on the road in Mordor:
“Then suddenly one of the slave-drivers spied the two figures by the road-side…He took a step towards them, and even in the gloom he recognized the devices on their shields. ‘Deserting, eh?’ he snarled.” ( The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)
This i.d.-ing leads us towards our next posting: Heraldry and Serial Numbers, where we’ll see more of orcs and others, too.
Thanks, as always, for reading.