By John Ruch
On Sunday afternoons, Brookhaven’s Blackburn Park magically transforms into a fantasy battlefield straight out of “The Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones.”
Amid the Frisbee-tossers and dog-walkers in the park, armored knights cross swords, swashbucklers fence with foes, and Japanese anime heroes battle gladiators for ownership of magic shields.
These fantasy warriors come from two separate groups: the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which meets at noon, and Dagorhir Battle Games, which gathers at 3 p.m.
Members of the society lean toward historical re-enactment, its members clad in metal armor and able to sing medieval church choral music on cue. Participants in Dagorhir engage in a more freewheeling sport, something like paintball with foam swords.
But both groups share a love of full-contact fantasy combat and real camaraderie. And both have used Blackburn for years due to its easy access for metro Atlanta members and its large population of locals who are welcome to watch and even join in.
On a recent Sunday, the heroes and heroines of this alternative universe gathered at places where the park becomes the SCA’s Barony of South Downs and Dagorhir’s Realm of High Spires.
Armor and shields
Ben Coffee is standing in a Blackburn parking lot, strapping on a 40-pound suit of armor made of overlapping metal plates.
He’s going to need it, because his friends are about to whack him with wooden swords. But, he’s quick to note, combat is only one part of SCA medieval activities.
“The music is fantastic,” he says, breaking into a tuneful and dramatic “war song.”
Founded in California in 1966, the Society for Creative Anachronism is a worldwide organization whose members play out an idealized version of medieval life with some historical research and educational programs. That includes not only martial arts, but also music, dance, calligraphy, clothing-making and more.
Still, swordplay is a key ingredient, especially since members of the society determine their “king” and “queen” by combat in tournaments. There are several “kingdoms,” or regional chapters, around the country; Atlanta falls under the Kingdom of Meridies, and the local chapter is known as the Barony of South Downs.
Members sometime hold combat demonstrations, but they say spectacle is not the point.
“We’re not Medieval Times,” member Dave Lopez said. “We’re not putting on the big show…We’re an education group.”
Regardless, it’s remarkable to see guys in armor and shields going at it in the park. They use swords painted like steel but made of rattan, a wood that turns to soft pulp rather than sharp splinters after impact.
Other members, including Lopez, skip the heavy armor and engage in light-footed fencing with a thin sword called a rapier. In this case, the swords are real, their tips blunted with padding. Lopez also carries a dagger and a miniature shield, explaining that fencers use them in their off-hand to deflect blows.
The amount of expertise and fancy equipment on display might look daunting to someone interested in joining the group. And in fact, it does take extensive training and certification before members can fight. But no one is expected to show up on Day One in a suit of armor. Coffee says the membership requirements are few, including only a basic attempt to dress in medieval fashion.
“For years, I went to [SCA] events in pajama pants,” he confesses.
In addition to the Sunday events, the society holds fencing practices in Blackburn on Tuesday evenings, and will stage a 20-person regional war game event there on July 14.
“It’s like playing a video game in real life,” says Sean Huff as he explains the Dagorhir games about to unfold.
Soon, about 20 players attacked one another with foam swords. The action was nonstop. When players “died” from sword strikes—which they did constantly—they simply walked to a “respawn” spot and returned to battle. While it had the format of medieval combat, Dagorhir had the speed and good-natured laughter of a pick-up soccer game.
Dagorhir was invented in 1977 in Washington, D.C. Its name means “battle lords” as translated into the Elven language of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” but there’s no requirement that players pretend to be living in a hobbit-filled Middle Earth. They’re welcome to imagine themselves as vampires, ninjas—“whatever floats your boat,” as Huff puts it.
At last Sunday’s game, some players wore T-shirts and shorts while others were clad in medieval-style jerkins or light leather armor. One couple, inspired by Japanese fantasy fiction, had fox-style tails clipped on their pants.
The players were diverse in more than fashion, too. There was a mix of genders, race and ages—from teens to mid-thirties—rare for most games or sports.
“The diversity of people is out of this world,” said Jesse Hardin, a 24-year-old who said he’s been playing Dagorhir since he was 9. The group’s post-game dinner together is part of the fun, he said.
Passers-by are welcome to borrow a sword and join in after a quick tutorial.
Dagorhir is easy to learn and play: Get smacked on a limb, it’s crippled; get smacked in the body, you’re dead. The tag-like format means that players “die” constantly and there’s no final championship victory. Huff said that’s another big attraction.
“There’s no way to win. You win by having fun,” he says. “It really reduces ego. There’s no LeBron James out here carrying the team.”
For more information, see atlantasca.org or facebook.com/highspires.