Before you read this story, abandon all your preconceived notions of the Medieval Combat Society, otherwise known as Belegarth. You may or may not have caught them in battle on a Sunday afternoon at Cherokee Park, where at first glance, nearly everyone, including myself, would see a bunch of obsessed role-playing nerds dressed in tunics, wielding foam swords and shields, taking a weird game entirely too seriously.
In fact, Louisville’s chapter (or realm, as it is officially called), Dun Abhon, isn’t that at all. Well, mostly.
As I approach the group on a recent Sunday afternoon, the five members who had shown up for practice are preparing their attire and weapons, an inspired combination of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the generally accepted garb of the Medieval time. The people are warm and welcoming. Joe Wooley, whose character is a goblin named José, begins laying out the rules for me.
“We have a one-point system,” he explains. “You have five zones, which include your torso and the interior part of your body. The head is an illegal target for projectile weapons. Then you have your arms and your legs. If you get hit in the arm, your arm goes behind your back. You get hit in the leg, you go down on your knees. If you lose any two limbs in a combination or get hit in the torso, you’re pretty much dead.”
The rules seem simple at first, but they’re elusive soon after, when I am embroiled in a heated one-on-one battle with a newer member. Andy Fischer calls himself a novice, but my staff-wielding opponent is quick and precise with his strikes. I am killed pretty much instantly during the first round, but manage to hang in for at least two minutes in the second round, before I finally give up.
It is physical work, and sometimes there are injuries. Only two weeks after he joined Belegarth, Wooley sprained his ankle while scrambling out of a battle after dying. It’s not exactly a full-contact sport, but it’s close.
For most of the members of the local chapter, though, Belegarth is just a way to get some exercise and have fun with friends — while beating the crap out of each other with foam weapons. Naturally, I got to wondering how this whole game got started and how it arrived in Louisville. Member Andy Schwartz, codename “Cailte McDonaugh,” explains that Belegarth was started in the late 1970s in Baltimore by a hardcore Tolkien fan who wanted to act out the battles he read about in the author’s vivid detail. After organizing a few friends for the first battle, the game spread throughout the country; there are now more than 200 realms in the U.S. Dun Abhon was formed here in 1996, when a Nashville transplant named David Peters, who had dabbled in other realms, decided to bring the battles to his new city. Schwartz, an English teacher at Iroquois High School, saw a flyer that Peters had posted at The Great Escape on Bardstown Road and became interested. “I’ve been doing it ever since,” he says.
In the late 1990s, Peters moved to New York, and Louisville’s realm waned until 2001, when Schwartz dragged some of the apparel and weapons he’d used for Belegarth into the classroom in an attempt to elucidate Shakespeare to his teens. Many of the students became more interested in Belegarth than Shakespeare that day, so Schwartz began organizing a new realm in Louisville, and he enlisted them.
One of the most diehard Belegarth participants I’ll meet is one of Schwartz’s former students, who has continued to play nearly six years after the classroom introduction. Brittany Anne Huber, aka “Lyric,” travels out of state on a regular basis for national Belegarth events and has generally immersed herself. “You make friends from all around the country, and people will build castles and all kinds of things specifically for Belegarth,” she says. “All of our friends are naturally inclined to try and help the sport grow, so if something is going on, the word naturally spreads.”
The majority of the Dun Abhon realm isn’t as highly engaged as Huber. Longtime member Mike Mills sums up the appeal best: “It’s kind of like an aggressive sport for the non-aggressive, those people who really don’t want to hurt somebody, and yet they can get that natural aggression out through a fun activity like this.”
However, Mills, whose character is “Redbeard,” adds that some fighters and realms in other cities can get a little too serious. “Some people will come running at you, screaming, ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ But most of the people around here, myself included, are more like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna kill you, but I’d like to have a beer afterwards,’” he says.
Mills has also brought his 9-year-old daughter Riley into the fold. “It’s really fun,” she says. “I don’t really like the one-on-one thing, but I like it when they have the really big battles.”
Dun Abhon hosts its own annual Belegarth event in late May. Appropriately, it’s called “War of the Roses.” Stock up on some good foam in advance.
Aaron Frank just received his B.S. in Communications from the University of Louisville and prefers that his music be loud.