Words by Julia Comnes Photos by Kaylee Domzalski
It’s a familiar scene on the Knight Library field this Sunday: On one end of the field, two men in cargo shorts lazily toss a baseball back and forth. Students are scattered on the grass, supine on beach towels and yoga mats, reading textbooks or napping. One woman lies on a blanket, tanning in a bikini and typing into a laptop. She barely looks up when two men in medieval outfits striking at each other with foam swords nearly charge into her.
Most University of Oregon students have seen them before: men and women fighting with foam weaponry, wearing tunics and puffy pants and wielding shields. Many shrug them off as LARPers — live-action role players — or see them as run-of-the-mill Eugene eccentrics.
But members of Tir na nOg, Eugene’s realm of the Belegarth Medieval Combat Society, play a full-contact sport. The garb in which fighters outfit themselves is a large part of the game’s culture, but hardly its centerpiece. While many of the players have fighting names and may adopt a battling persona, most aren’t roleplaying a character. They’re there to fight.
“We just want to go on the field and beat each other up,” says Realm Leader Ethan Schlesinger.
There are a countless gameplays in Belegarth, but the basics are always more or less the same. If someone gets hit in the torso — an area that, as Schlesinger says, includes anything that would be covered by a 60s bathing suit — the player dies. They either fall to the ground, shout “dead,” or pat themselves on the head.
Getting hit on a limb doesn’t result in death, but it means that the player can no longer use that limb. When you’re, say, hit on the knee, you’ll drop down to that knee as if it your leg were cut off, dragging their good leg behind them. Arms that have been struck will swing limply, out of commission. If they get hit at a second limb, they’re dead. Strikes at the head by a sword are forbidden, but allowed if the fighter is using a bow and arrow, a javelin, or a rock (essentially, a cloth-covered Nerf ball).
Outside of the basic rules, there’s flexibility. Fighters learn what styles and weapons work best for them. Often, Schlesinger says, players learn to use what might be perceived as a weakness as a strength.
Schlesinger is left-handed, and when he started out with Belegarth would often get teased about it by other players. Most shields didn’t work for him because they were designed for right-handed players. “That kind of limited me, but that kind of allowed me to be a little bit more creative with how I fight,” he says.
He’s gotten good at fighting with his pike, a small foam knife that he’s decorated with a floral handle. Since most players aren’t used to fighting with a left-handed person, he uses it to his advantage.
One aspect that distinguishes Belegarth from fencing and many LARP games is its requirement of sufficient force. A mere tap with a sword won’t result in injury in Belegarth.
Casey Burke, who’s been in Tir na nOg on and off for a couple of years, was surprised when he started out by the amount of force used in Belegarth. Towering at over six feet tall, he grew up wrestling and playing football. He had a friend in high school who played with foam weaponry who encouraged Burke to join, but Burke thought it would be too easy for him.
“I don’t wanna just beat up a bunch of nerds,” he says.
Burke left for a small college in Iowa on a football scholarship but came back home to Eugene after he got injured and his grandparents were having health issues. He was working full-time, taking 18 credits and taking care of his grandparents. “I was losing my mind,” he says.
His friend told him that he knew the exact thing that would relieve his stress. His friend told him to meet at a nearby field, where Burke was greeted by a pile of foam swords. Burke’s friend struck him with one of the swords, hard. “That’s minimum force,” Burke’s friend told him. “Anything less than that doesn’t count.”
They began fighting, and Burke was hooked.
Another important aspect of Belegarth is the garb, or costuming. Schlesinger says that more or less, anything that would have been worn pre-gunpowder is allowed. Basically, no jeans or modern prints.
“No camouflage under any circumstances,” says Schlesinger.
The basic garb that Schlesigner recommends for beginners is a rolled-up pair of pajama pants and a thermal shirt. Modern footwear is allowed. He says that most beginners can find their basic garb for less than $10 at Goodwill.
Many fighters choose to go beyond the basic garb, though. Burke crafts his own leather armor. Many members sew or buy hoods, capes, and kilts. Recently, Schlesinger bought a floppy black women’s sun hat that was on sale at Fred Meyer. He folded up the brim on one side, attached it with a button, and added a feather, transforming it into a hat that would look at home on a musketeer.
For many of the members of Tir na nOg, the community is just as important as the fighting. Schlesinger discovered the group his freshman year at UO, and found himself immediately welcomed by the group.
Schlesinger is half black, half Jewish, and says that as a multicultural student, he didn’t feel welcomed by a lot of other groups on campus. “It was the first place where I felt like I kind of belonged,” he says of Tir na nOg.
“We’ve already been accepting people who say they’re goblins and people who walk around saying they’re fire elves,” says Schlesinger.
That open-minded nature allows for people of all communities to join in.
Burke says that outside of Belegarth, he’d probably just be thought of as a typical red neck. He’s fairly conservative, but one of his best friends in Belegarth is a self-described “debauched libertine.” “We all come together to hit each other with sticks and you have people from all different walks of life, and people who otherwise, outside of the sport might not get along,” he says.
“Sure, we kinda dress funny and sure we may shout some funny things at each other,” Schlesinger says. “But in the end, we’re a big family.”