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Legolas: The Boy with the Bow
Archery Props in The Lord of the Rings Films
Welcome to the extended edition of my popular "Legolas: The Boy with the Bow" article, covering the archery stunts and props in The Lord of the Rings.
First, we'll take a look at the marvelous archery props and gear in the movies -- not only Legolas' bows and arrows, but also everyone else's. Then comes a humorous review of Legolas' stunts. If you're not thrilled by gorgeous props and just want the play-by-play, jump to Part II: Legolas' Stunt Archery in FOTR.
Disclaimer: This is a movie review through the eyes of a traditional archery enthusiast. These are off-the-glove opinions based on my own experience as an archer and close observation of the films. However, I'm an amateur, not an expert!
Archery Props and Gear: Bows - Weapons of Middle-Earth
(Legolas after a raid on Archer's Depot in Lothlórien)
The Lord of the Rings bows are mostly bent and shaped wood, crafted and refined using traditional bowyer techniques. Bows are under such tremendous pressure that any flaw or crack may cause them to snap when drawn, sometimes failing catastrophically and sending wooden shards flying like a shatter grenade. (This also may happen when a bow is "dry-fired" without an arrow, a major concern since many arrows were added in CGI). The craftsmanship of these props is therefore not mere window dressing; it is vital for the actors' safety. (See the Glossary of Archery Terms below for explanations of the different kinds of bows).
Legolas' Mirkwood bow: An elegant 60" recurve of dark wood, possibly hickory, painted with gilded ivy leaves and tendrils around the handgrip and tips. The string is black. Apart from the gilding, everything about the Mirkwood gear is somber earth tones, to reflect the place it came from, and perhaps as camouflage. Possibly over 100# draw,* although as a stage prop it would've been closer to 15 to avoid arm fatigue and wobble.
*Details marked with a star from alleycat's notes on Legolas' gear gleaned from Casa Loma exhibition; I can't be sure of these.
"To Legolas she gave a bow such as the Galadhrim used, longer and stouter than the bows of Mirkwood, and strung with a string of elf-hair. With it went a quiver of arrows." (Farewell to Lóren, FOTR)
Legolas' Lórien bow: It's worth renting the extended version of the DVD just to see the delight in his eyes when he's examining it, and the amusement of Galadriel watching him with a smile that seems to say, "Aww, the puppy likes his new toy."
The bow is a longbow with recurve tips, with a stunning scalloped profile and decorations carved in high relief. For safety reasons mentioned above, this bow is actually injection molded rubber* as opposed to traditional wood. Like all the elves' possessions and architecture, it is embellished with organic, graceful patterns reminiscent of roots and leaves. Is it any better than the Mirkwood bow? Well, he certainly shoots faster with it! There's a ton of photos of the detailing here.
Aragorn's and Faramir's bows: Aragorn's is a short self bow suitable for hunting, compact enough to keep it from getting in the way while he's swordfighting. All Aragorn's archery gear is utilitarian and looks like he made it himself. It looks like a scaled-down version of the Gondorian longbow, which first appears in the prologue of FOTR, and is used by Faramir and his company in the later films.
Galadhrim bows: Haldir & friends' exotic double recurves are reminiscent of South Indian bows, and stained dusty gold like autumn leaves. Like the pommels of the Galadrim's two-handed swords, the limbs of these bows are tightly wrapped in thin flat metal spirals shaped like vines or tendrils; I've never seen anything like that before. The Galadrim bows also have an unusual crest on top. The bowstring is simply looped or tied rather than hooked over a notch; this is an older style of stringing a bow.
Orc bows: They are ugly, stiff composite bows that may be made partly of metal. The goblins of Moria use thick recurves that have a crudely-wrapped handgrip. The formidable bow of Boromir's Least Favorite Orc has metal chunks sticking out on either side of the grip, and its shape is similar to Mongolian bows. Other orcs use short wooden recurves. All are plain apart from occasional wrappings.
Misc. bows: The armies of the Last Alliance give you a taste of archery during the opening scene: early elves used longbows with minimal but typically elvish dribbles on them. The men of Gondor in that battle and in the Third Age have powerful longbows strong enough to punch through armor at long distances (below). The Rohirrim have small composite horsebows. It's hard to tell whether it's just riders/actors gripping the bows off-center by accident, but these horsebows may be asymmetrical, a special adaptation of some real-world horse bows which maximizes power while minimizing the risk of hitting the saddle.
The Corsairs of Umbar (on the Black Ships) have a crossbow they don't get a chance to use thanks to Aragorn's undead army. The Mumakîl riders have some truly bizarre bows-- some are recurves, while others have odd rings on the limbs which are either exotic decorations or meant to be the ridges on some kind of animal's horn.
Reality check: Modern bows look like they are made by Klingons! Pulleys are only the most blatant change that makes them an entirely different weapon. For comparison, here's a modern archery website.
Glossary of Traditional Archery Terms
Types of Bows, Arrows and Medieval Weapons
- Power (weight): Bows are rated by the poundage of pull. That is, it takes a certain amount of force to draw back the string, equivalent to lifting a weight (except horizontally). The stronger the poundage, the harder it is to draw, hold, and release the arrow steadily, but the more range, speed and punching-power the arrow will have. The bow's materials, and the amount by which it is bent out of its unstrung shape, determine the power. The bows in the movies are almost certainly lightweight, I'm guessing around 15#-20#, because archery uses a strange set of muscles, and they can fatigue and start twitching/shaking uncontrollably very quickly.
- Kinds of bow: Bows are classified by shape and style, which vary widely between cultures and time periods. Styles determine to some extent a bow's accuracy, rate of fire, power, and suitability for certain specialized environments (e.g. riding, mail-piercing). The more complicated shapes are, of course, harder to manufacture.
- Recurve- The tips of the bow are bent in the opposite direction from the draw, adding to its power once drawn, providing a slight kick to the bow's release. The bow may only be curved at the tips when unstrung, or it may actually be curved dramatically in a C-shape which must be bent back into a D when strung. This provides a lot of power.
- Double recurve- It adds another curve, contributing still more kick.
- Self bow- A bow made of one single piece of material or two joined at the grip.
- Backed bow- A self bow backed with a thin layer of wood, rawhide, silk or sinew that (sometimes) helps keep it straight.
- Longbow- A powerful self bow or backed bow developed by the Welsh and English. The wood is straight or only slightly curved when unstrung, so full draw puts a lot of pressure on it.
- Composite- A bow made of laminated layers glued and bound together, using different types of wood, horn, and/or sinew. This was done either to compensate for limited materials or to exploit the materials' physical properties for various parts of the bow (e.g. the backing helps the bow maintain its shape; the front part tends to determine draw power).
- Take-down bow- A more modern innovation, although some medieval cultures invented modular bows that could be disassembled and reassembled.
- Crossbow- A bow with an added crosspiece where the arrow rests; the string of the bow is drawn back along this stock and anchored on some sort of latch or trigger. Early crossbows had to be drawn by hand; later ones had cranks. The advantage of a crossbow is that it can have much higher power, since the archer merely has to draw the string, not hold it steady while shooting.
- Materials: Traditional bows were originally made of wood, but horn, sinew, and even metal and fabrics were used in bow construction. Modern bows use fiberglass, metal, carbon, rubber and plastics.
- Bowstrings: Hemp, sinew, or silk, twisted or braided. Beeswax helps prevent fraying and provides waterproofing. There was usually a loop on at least one end, but the other was originally tied with a "bowline knot". Later bowyers invented ways of twisting loops into the ends of the strings. Modern bows use dacron or other synthetics.
- Nock point: A knot, bead, or other device placed on the string; it allows the archer to feel when the arrow is in the correct position (exactly 90Â° to the string) without having to look down and check. It's usually a guide, not a support, and is often set above where the arrow nocks. Legolas' LÃ³rien bow has a beaded nock-point, a vital aid when speed-shooting.
- Things these bows lack: The bows in the films are ancient and traditional styles lacking many later innovations that help steady the arrow or bow, aid in aiming, tell the archer when arm and arrow position are correct, and support some of the bow's draw weight during draw and/or aiming. These include balancers and stabilizers on the bow, clickers, various forms of bowsights, levels, arrow rests, and pulleys. The film's bows also lack shaped handgrips, which help ease the strain on the bow-hand and give a guide to consistent hand placement. In lieu of such modern conveniences, which many archers can't imagine doing without, the actors must master a great deal more to hold and shoot these weapons in a way that looks plausible.
Archery Props and Gear: Arrows - Forget the Elf; This Is Why I Drool
The exquisite handiwork of the arrows is what made me start paying closer attention to details throughout the films. These are handmade arrows -- thousands of them. Some are lathe-turned and straightened; others seem to have been whittled. The heavier and stiffer the arrow, the stronger a bow is required to get it moving; lightweight arrows wobble and lose momentum faster. Painted or varnished shafts help waterproof and protect arrows against warping.
I'm still debating about the nocks (the notches in the back). One archer who's seen them assures me they are self-nocks, cut by hand and reinforced with bindings to fight splitting, but I keep seeing what looks like caps on the back of the arrows. Alleycat reports that at least some are bone nocks.
The fletchings show a diligence and dedication to detail that made me sit up in my seat and stare. While everyone else was getting their first glimpse of heartthrob Haldir, I was thinking, "Good gods, thread bindings!" That means someone had to take thread (usually boiled sinew) and carefully wrap each and every feather, keeping the feathers 60 degrees apart and trying not to separate the "vanes" of each feather lest they create drag.
Legolas often uses arrows with two colors of feather: one for the pair of feathers that are roughly up-and-down when the arrow's nocked, almost parallel to the string, another color for the feather that's 90 degrees to the string. This is a common practice that helps one nock the arrow right side up; upside down that sideways feather will be on the archer's side of the string and will brush the bow on the way out, creating slight drag or wobble.
Many arrows have custom-forged metal heads. I'm not sure whether any rubber-tipped arrows were used for action, or whether all the in-flight arrows are actually a unique and special arrow developed just for this film: the magical CGI arrow composed entirely of pixels.
The arrows in these films vary greatly: each race has its own style of point, its own fletchings. Even the way the feathers are cut says something about the characters: graceful curves for the Elves, straight and traditional for Men, bristly and messy for orcs.
Gallery of Sharp Pointy Things
Mirkwood Arrow: dark and well-camouflaged. You'd need elf-eyes to find them after shooting 'em. 30" shafts* with "bodkin" tips. Alley Cat says the flights (feathers) are green, but I'm seeing brown and autumn orange.
Legolas' Lórien Arrows: lean, mallorn leaf-shaped points of steel or bronze with a socket-style sleeve. Turkey feathers cut and colored to resemble winter or summer leaves, mostly 2-yellow 1-green batch, some a pale green. Bindings of gold thread. Alleycat costuming says the nocks are bone, which avoids the "plastic caps" issue. I hope the orcs appreciated being slain by works of art.
In Two Towers, when the Three Hunters are nosing around the eaves of Mirkwood and Legolas almost shoots Gandalf, there's a lovely close-up of his hand as he's nocking an arrow, and you can plainly see he's got a metal bead on his bowstring. Hee. Most of us use one, never rest the arrow on top of it), but it's still amusing to see Legolas having to use an aid to find his nockpoint without looking (he correctly brings the nock up to it; resting the arrow on it may mess with smooth release). Gamling sure needed one!
Arrows of the Galadhrim: Haldir and friends have arrows with strange flanges on the tips and lovely long white feathers that seem too big for goose or turkey feathers. My theory is that they're supposed to be swan-feathers, since there's a lot of swan imagery in LÃ³rien and among Elves in general.
Orc-Arrows: Some are what I call "feather dusters of doom," which remind me of the fuzzy feathers on spears thrown by Australian atlatls. Others are even uglier, with bristly, sticky, oily-looking feathers that must have a lot of pounds of force behind them to fight drag. In Moria, the "goblins" (scrawny orcs) use arrows tipped with a black metal tip that looks like a mini harpoon; they've got one barb which would make them horrible to pull out. Orc-arrows in ROTK look more businesslike, tipped with hammered metal broadheads that look iron (they're rusty) and are attached with a teensy nail.
Aragorn, predictably, has scraggly dark arrows. I can't see the tips.
Faramir and the Green Company have brown-fletched arrows (undyed turkey feathers?) with blue-green click nocks (snap onto string and tend not to slip). They sure look like plastic to me, though not a standard shape. Scalloped indentations on the sides might help them get a more precise feel and grip through archer's glove.
Rohirrim-arrows have similar brown fletchings but have very strange tips, like flat circles with points stuck through them. (Same shape as the hilt of Théoden's sword). Shafts appear to be tapered.
The Guards of the City have long arrows with rectangular white fletchings, very minimalist and geometric-looking in contrast to the Elves' fanciful swooshes.
In the gallery that follows, keep an eye out for the Southron arrow with a flint (?) tip. It's definitely some kind of chipped stone bound on with sinew and resin, something I've seen in Native American arrows.
Finally, in many scenes, we have the magical Elvish arrow made of pure light! (Most in-flight arrows were added with CGI.)
Out in the real world, a Legolas mural on a nearby building seems to have shot a giant arrow into a Wellington, NZ pub.
cú» ~ bow
i gú» ~ the bow
pilinn ~ arrow(s)
leithio i philinn! ~ Release the arrows!
Props and Gear: Quivers
A quiver is just a spot to stick things; it doesn't need to be much more than a stiff cardboard tube with strapping tape on the bottom (which works great for kids' costumes, by the way). Any detailing beyond a secure and stable form of attachment is gratuitous. Straps are tricky; it's hard to make a quiver that doesn't flop all over the place. These quivers often have places to tuck bows, knives, even bedrolls.
Most are back quivers. That seems obvious, since we're all familiar with Robin Hood flicks, but in fact, many archers use belt quivers which hang down like a sword's sheath (e.g. Boromir's Least Favorite Orc), or shin quivers. Modern bows often have built-in racks. The back quiver is more stable, but the straps across the chest tend to create a tripartite breast effect. Add a cloak, and you've got fabric bunching up and catching on the arrows. It took a clever bit of tailoring (and some strategic holes) to get Legolas' back quiver and cloak to work together.
Legolas didn't get a cloak until Lórien, however. His Mirkwood quiver is stained wood* oiled to give it a rich shine, decorated with bronze tendrils using a lost wax process like that perfected in ancient Greece (in fact, the decoration reminds me of an ornamental chariot). Built-in sheaths hold knives, and there's some kind of strap/holder for his bow. Evidently magical Elven bows don't warp or lose power like human ones do when left strung for long periods of time!
As usual, Galadriel's gifts make everything else look drab. The detailing on Legolas' second elegantly-shaped leather quiver is beautiful. Again, custom knife-sheaths keep knife-handles and arrows within easy reach, so Legolas can quickly switch between distance and hand-to-hand combat. There's a sleeve to hold the strung bow (see slideshow below) so that it will be ready to shoot at a moment's notice. Someone had a sense of humor, decorating this accessory for Middle-Earth's best-dressed archer with a large golden peacock!
Aragorn has a scrappy-looking black leather quiver, hard-sided on the bottom, with a soft leather inner sleeve that's usually pulled up as a rain cover. His bow can be hung on the outside in an emergency or unstrung with the string spiraling around it and tucked into the arrow-case.
Faramir and the Green Company (his Ithilien Rangers) have greenish-grey leather quivers similar to Aragorn's, with inner/outer leather sleeves. A tiny detail on these is a triangular buckle that's a stylized representation of the seven circles of Minas Tirith -- see sketch and notes on Gryphonsmith's Faramir costume page.
The Rohirrim have a simple back quiver (looks like undyed leather, but they never hold still long enough to see it). The MÃ»makil-Riders (aka Southrons, Haradrim) have arrow baskets within easy reach on their mobile platform. Lurtz the Uruk-hai has that belt quiver, but most orc archers have back quivers.
That's it for the toys. Now it's time to look at the so-called (by envious cast members) archer-god's form. Go to:
Middle Earth Archery Props Links
- Alley Cat Scratch Lord of the Rings Costume Site
Reams of info and photos collated by obsessive costumers on nearly all the clothes, props and gear of the Lord of the Rings films.
- Fabricating the Weapons and Armor of Middle-Earth
Article in Journal of Minerals, Metals and Materials, with comments by the prop designers.
- Photo: bows and arrows from films
Photo from an exhibition. Quiz time! How many can you identify with their owners?
- Building Wooden Arrows
In-depth articles about arrow-making on popular 3 Rivers Archery website. (Also bowmaking articles on this site.)
- Primitive Ways' Traditional Archery Articles
TONS of articles on how to make bows, arrows, and master just about every other "primitive technology" from weaving to making fire.
Got feedback? Comments? Do you know more about archery than I do, and would you like to offer some critique? Go ahead! I don't aim as well as Legolas does, so you should be quite safe!