For most college students, Saturdays are spent with friends, partaking in various shenanigans and potentially drinking. For Boise State students Sylvia Fortner, Shayne Delavan and Dane Johns, this Saturday was no different, but most students wouldn’t be dressed up in (mostly) historically accurate medieval garb, brandishing foam-padded weapons and beating up their peers at the Battle for Teutoberg Wald in the park.
“Weapons up,” bellowed a shirtless man in a straw-cone hat and loose cloth pants.
Grips tightened on sword handles, and a goblin nocked an arrow on the string of her bow. Fighters stood, shields in front of their torsos, legs square in sparring stance.
Respective sides charged, shouting commands and several expletives as the fwap, fwap of foam on foam echoed throughout the park.
“Don’t fold the line!”
“Nice kill! Nice death!”
Welcome to the world of Belegarth, which, from the outside, looks like a glorified Game of Thrones dress-up session. But it’s more than just a game; it’s medieval combat reenactment.
Within seconds, half of the group is “dead” on the ground, struck by an arrow, a javelin or a flail. Some are grumbling, some laughing and joking around.
“Once you’re dead, go get some water!” yelled Dane Johns, also known as Sir Par Ohmsford, a 13th century Crusader knight. Johns is the king of the realm.
WHAT IS BELEGARTH?
Johns, a returning senior history major (he has already earned undergraduate degrees in communication and philosophy), has been participating in medieval combat reenactment for ten years.
“I grew up interested in knights and swordfighting,” Johns said. “My mom is a semi-professional genealogist and she found links to several really important historical figures like Robert the Bruce and Richard the Lionheart–I started realizing I was related to these kings and knights and it really got me focused.”
Upon joining Belegarth, new fighters are required to choose a character and name. Because it is a medieval simulation, historical names are preferred.
Characters, weapons and costumes are not simply restricted to historical accuracy; there is an element of fantasy, which incorporates elements from folklore and popular culture such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
Characters may include anything from a “pinkie” (human-based, such a knight or a Viking) to a goblin to an Orc to an elf.
If you’ve seen the movie Role Models, you’ve seen a form of combat roleplay. Live action roleplay, also known as LARP, is parallel to Belegarth in some ways, such as taking on a character, but is a completely separate form of roleplay. Other forms of roleplay include Darkon, Dagorhir and Amptgard.
In Belegarth, roleplay is not a necessity, though it is encouraged. LARP is more of an improvisational theater role-play, whereas Belegarth is competitive, non-staged combat.
“Our name really says what we are, we’re a combat society,” said Johns. “We focus on the actual fighting, we don’t have any magic. We do have as much roleplay as you want, but none of it is required.”
The world of Belegarth is split up into realms, which are then split up into units. For example, the Rath Realm consists of Boise and surrounding areas. It includes several units, such as the Brotherhood of the Falcon, the Horde and God Squad.
Confused yet? Think of it in terms of football. If the National Football League (NFL) were the realm, then the respective teams would be the units. Units are distinguished by particular colors, much like team uniforms.
Johns was one of the original creators of the Rath realm. It began in 2005 with two people in Johns’ backyard. The group is now at least 30 members strong.
Belegarth players use foam weapons to simulate violence without the fear of death. But don’t let the word ‘foam’ fool you; weapons are made with solid cores, and covered in hard foam. Blows aren’t soft; after all, it’s combat, not a pillow fight.
“My first day I played, I got my first black eye,” said Shayne Delavan, a senior illustration major who goes by Renu on the field. “I got a javelin thrown at my face and then I got speared in the groin. But I came back the next day grinning.”
Bruises, broken limbs and bloody noses aren’t uncommon in Belegarth. Heatstroke is another issue. At large events, there are medics on site in case of emergency.
Weapons are organized into colors based on how hard they hit, the damage they do and whether or not the real thing could probably kill you in real life.
Blue weapons include shortswords and clubs, and do one point of damage. Red weapons, such as great swords, can break through armor and do two points. White weapons, such as rocks, have special properties; they kill you if they hit your head.
Safety is a large part of participating in Belegarth; to avoid injuries, several rules are in place. For example, imagine yourself in a muscle shirt and a pair of tighty-whitey underwear. The area covered is your torso. If you’re struck, you’re dead. Your neck and head are off limits, with the exception of a rock, arrow or javelin. If an arm or leg is hit, it is as if it had been cut off. Any combination of two hit limbs results in death, as if you had bled out.
“Death” and injuries work on an honor system: if someone is hit, they admit it.
“You’ll see people communicating,” said Colin Corley, who is known as Meladoness on the field. “It’s because we take our hits, we don’t tell people we hit them. You can imagine the social aspect. We’re not teenagers, we’re adults. And we fight like adults.”
To keep things interesting, fighters partake in a variety of different battle scenarios.
One such scenario is Valhalla, which stems from an Old Norse legend. The myth states that the god Odin rules Valhalla, an old hall in mythological Asgard. When men would die in combat, half would be sent to the goddess Freyja, and half would be sent to Valhalla to aid Odin in war.
In Belegarth there is typically a tree or monument that represents the hall of Valhalla, where combatants can go to re-spawn or regenerate if killed in battle.
Other battles include bridge battles, which are essentially reverse tug-of-war where one side tries to knock the other side off the bridge, and castle battles, where one team is trying to claim a particular landmark or fort. There are also line battles, where opposing teams line up on opposite sides of the battlefield and charge, and zombie style fighting, where the dead must join the opposing team.
The sport has a regular group of dedicated players, many of whom have been participating for years.
“We’re all similar. We’re the “nerds”, but in the best way, because we have a group where we can be together,” said Sylvia Fortner, who is double majoring in History and Philosophy. “We get each other…we make a lot of jokes about World of Warcraft, Pokemon—you know, nerd-esque culture.”
Part of the reenactment is using tools and materials to make their own equipment.
Most players make their own garb—the term for garments. Many simple practice tunics and pants are made from bed sheets, whereas others, such as armor, begin to get more complicated. Feastware, banners and weapons are also hand-made. There are several people who specialize in leatherwork, sewing and weaponry.
“It’s just amazing the creativity that comes into a sport like this,” said Delavan. “I try to really appreciate the people who take time and dedication to making good garb or armor or things like that…you know, it fills my artsy-fartsy nerdy with my nerdy-and-need-to-fight-stuff side.”
Belegarth is a lot more than fighting; the tight-knit community and common interest continuously brings people back.
“I was a nerd in school,” said Corley. “I was pudgy, I had long hair, I played a lot of video games and was like, ‘Yay, Star Wars!’ Everyone else was like whatever. I was always kind of good at sports, but I was never really accepted in them. I came here and suddenly it’s nerd. It’s a sport for nerds. Everyone here is a nerd in some capacity.”
Nerd pride is prominent on the battlefield, and camaraderie stems from having like interests and hanging out on a regular basis.
“I know that they’ve got my back, and I’ve got theirs,” said Fortner. “It’s a really great sense of community, and a sense of belonging that makes all the difference when you’re struggling in life.”
For involved students, juggling combat, schoolwork and a job isn’t easy, but it’s manageable.
“It’s just a matter of time management and balance. It’s not as difficult as you would think, but it has its moments,” said Fortner, who goes by the palindromic name Airia.
Benefits range beyond a good cardio workout, wielding a sword and keeping a tight social circle. Johns has honed skills such as leadership, conflict resolution and managing interpersonal relationships.
“It’s a group that challenges people to reevaluate what they know about themselves. I’ve seen so many people really grow up after having come out and being a part of swordfighting,” said Johns. “I’m a good example of that. I really started to understand not just what the swordfighting world was about, but what the greater world beyond was going to be like for me when I graduated from school.”
Johns has been king of the realm since 2007. Rath is a voting realm, which gives the members of the realm a chance to choose their war council officers. Positions include king, vice president, secretary, and chief marshall. Marshalls are essentially referees, and are well versed in the rules of the game.
Chaos Wars, an annual weeklong battle held in July in Hailey, Id., is a chance for realms across the west to come and compete with each other to win titles and championships. Competitors camp in tents and fight in a variety of scenario battles. Activities included an outdoor dubstep concert, beer appreciation night, storytelling and gladiator pits.
“The fighting at Chaos Wars is intense,” said Vincent Smith, who fights with the Elite Blood Falcon unit under the name Lykos. “You pretty much wake up around nine, do a weapons check…after that, it’s pretty much all day fighting. We’ll break for lunch, and then back out to fighting. It’s basically 12 hours of fighting every day.”
Last year, nearly 400 participants attended the Chaos Wars. The festivities were capped with an end-of-week feast, featuring handmade feastware, fancy garb and lots of beer for those of drinking age.
“We’re pretty realistic when it comes to the social life of medieval people,” said Corley. “We get drunk, we feast, and we talk about fighting.”
The realm of Rath is quite easy to join, and requires no experience. There are qualified people on site who are ready to explain the rules and stick a sword and shield in a newcomer’s hand.
“I would always suggest for people to at least come out and try it,” said Delavan. “If they don’t like it, they don’t have to come back. But this is a place where people are more than happy to help you.”