Salvador Solis’ life is like any other college student’s: he’s an English major and complains about readings – there are always things he’d rather spend his time on. He has a girlfriend who posts hearts on his Facebook. He’s also an athlete. Before practices he loads his gear into his car, showers, deodorizes, dons a medieval tabard and assumes the role of Darth Cheeseheart, Lord of the Sith–
Sal is the president of Sword @ UCI, the Medieval Combat Society at UC Irvine. The club is part of a larger organization known as Belegarth, an association that spans across the country and includes dozens of similar groups. Just as Sal is known as Darth Cheeseheart in the realm of Belegarth, Sword @ UCI is known as Anduril and is one of many realms that comprise the organization.
Ever seen that documentary about kids running around screaming, casting spells at each other and making up rules?
That’s not Belegarth. Though they fight with foam swords, the combat is all too real for the fighters of Anduril. It may look silly from the outside, but it isn’t make-believe for guys like Sal.
Meeting Darth Cheeseheart
The first time I speak with Sal, we agree to meet in Aldrich Park an hour before their regular Friday practice. At the time, the only picture I have of Sal features him in full body armor. His face is also partially obscured by his helmet, so I go in with almost no knowledge of his physical appearance. I sit on a bench and wait for him to show up, scrutinizing every passerby for possible features hidden under that armor. I sheepishly ask a man in khaki shorts and a white polo, glasses and tennis shoes if he is Sal, but to no avail – the man smiles, politely says no and walks away. When I finally do see Sal, there is no mistaking his identity. Though not in the full armor of the picture, Sal immediately makes his presence known. He struts into the park wearing no less than black leather greaves, combat boots and a medieval tabard onto which is printed what I would soon learn is the emblem of the Sith.
Dark Lords of the Sith
The Sith are a unit within Belegarth; units are different from realms and can span across the nation. Realms are geographic locations, while a unit is an actual affiliation. The Sith is one such group, a gathering of fighters under the leadership of Darth Cheeseheart. The group was controversial at first; the name is a reference to the famed Star Wars villains, dark jedi who some believe have no place in Medieval Combat.
“There were a lot of people I got ridiculed by in visiting groups and our online forums when we went out to see other groups and participate in their events. ‘That’s not medieval at all. What are you doing? You’re ruining my medieval experience,’ is what they’d say,” Sal tells me as he paces between a park bench and the weapons we had just carried from his car. “In the end, after all the ridicule and criticism, I decided, ‘No. I’m Darth Cheeseheart. I’m going to build my persona upon that.’” Sal’s self-righteous declaration of Star Wars geekdom attracted some to his cause, as eight other Belegrim (the official term for Belegarth folk) have now joined the ranks of the Sith. They aren’t confined to the realm of Anduril, either; among the further reaches of the Sith is Malek (“…Which is awesome because that’s his actual name, but it’s a really good fighting name – there’s an actual Sith lord in Star Wars named Darth Malek,” Sal says enthusiastically), fighting in Salamandastron. Or as non-Belegarth folk know it, UC Santa Cruz.
“That’s what a unit is –the people who you fight with, train with – not only fight with but socialize with outside the field, and hang out,” Sal tells me. “It’s definitely an opportunity to create brotherhood. The Sith is a brotherhood of fighters.”
Other units are much larger, like the Uruk-Hai. Their numbers reach a hundred or so and though their bonds aren’t as strong as the tight friendship shared by the Sith (the highest ranking member of the Uruk-Hai, Forkbeard, once stated that the unit “exists only to fight at events,”), their numbers and elaborate history have a wide appeal.
“I know a guy – Camel – who practices out in Ventura. He’s an Uruk-Hai,” Sal says. “There are no hard feelings.”
As the interview progresses, it becomes all too clear that there is an aspect of this sport I can’t quite capture by talking about it. Sal says only half-jokingly that if I’m going to be writing about them, I have to participate in the club. “If you truly wish to get any kind of understanding of what we do,” he says.
“I’d be more than happy,” I say in return, not entirely sure of what I just signed myself up for.
Getting on the Field, Part I
Though I spent the first practice in close observation of the group – their tactics, aesthetic, demeanor, trying to get a feel for the sport – Sal was undoubtedly correct. To really know what this was about, I would indeed have to try my hand at combat.
As soon as I get out on the field, my heart is racing and my mind is lost in adrenaline. We stand in odd groups of different numbers, loose arrangements of veterans and newbies.
“Weapons up!” Sal shouts from the sidelines; he’s sick and thus not participating, but still acting as herald (referee, umpire) and in full garb. Everyone ceremoniously holds their weapons above their heads, still staring down the opposing team across the forty-foot no-man’s-land before us.
Looking around, people pass by our field in the park and smile. Some laugh and point, others just stare as they walk by. Some actually stop and observe, and I can’t help but long for that time when I was one of those observers.
I hesitantly hold my shield and sword above my head, suddenly unsure of the ritual despite having observed countless scrimmages. This is not the same as watching on the sidelines, and in a moment I would realize why they want people to be on the field instead of passing by and snickering. For a second, though, time seems to stand still as I wait for the call that defines Belegarth’s battle commencement. Frozen in time, I try hard to remember all of the rules I had spent so long reading and memorizing in preparation – mere words that in the anticipation of battle I have completely forgotten.
Foam Instruments: the Sword & Shield
Weapons are divided into five classes, which are noted by colored bands that mark how a weapon can be used and how it affects someone it hits. Weapons with blue bands, or Class 1 weapons (commonly referred to as “Blues”) are one-handed swinging weapons. In other words, a sword or a club. They are generally used in conjunction with another sword or a shield. Class 2 entails (coincidentally enough) two-handed weapons. These are marked by red bands (and are commonly referred to as “Reds” – you get the idea). These more powerful weapons are slower, but can bust through shields with two hits. Class 3 weapons, so-called Greens, are piercing weapons. Green bands can be added to Blues and Reds to make more versatile weapons. One hit to an unarmored torso by any of these weapons results in death; hits to unarmored limbs result in loss of that limb. Lost limbs can’t hold weapons or shields anymore (duh), and armor gives one hit of protection. Simple stuff.
Class 4 and 5 weapons are projectiles; Class 4 includes arrows and javelins, Class 5 are pretty much only rocks. Projectiles are the only weapons that can legally hit the head. All other hits to the head aren’t counted (but they still hurt).
“Are they real rocks?” I ask Sal, nervously.
“No, of course not,” he says, pulling a fist-sized chunk of foam out of the weapons bag. “What’s wrong with you?”
Safety is an important part of the tradition. Ana Nagel (fighting name: Anastasia of Chamonix), one of the founding members of the club, frequently demonstrates the proper use of weapons to newcomers. She takes special care to mention the hazards of the arrows.
“They have a soft end and a pointy end,” she says. “If an arrow comes at you, don’t swing at it. You can block it with a shield, but if you swing at it, the arrow could turn around and kill you.” She demonstrates by flipping an arrow around so the side that makes contact with the bow, a necessarily sharp plastic prong, is angled toward her face. “Not pretend kill you, I mean you will actually die.”
Though I’m certain her point was exaggerated, it seems unavoidable. I couldn’t help but think of the old idiom – it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Though this is still fun for the club officers, they also have to constantly be aware of injuries on the field. Everyone plays under the command of one word: Hold. If someone shouts hold, everyone freezes. Hold means someone is seriously hurt.
Ana and Sal take lead in inspecting other weapons for safety, under Belegarth’s strict standards. Weapons frequently fall into disrepair, and it’s up to the club officers to fix the club’s stock weapons, so-called Company Weapons.
“There’s a lot of maintenance that’s involved. And it takes a certain amount of generosity to bring out this stuff for other people to use, and destroy. The stuff breaks down over time. It really sucks when one of your own things breaks down, especially if you think back and you didn’t even do it, someone else did it – that’s why we have this big bag of weapons that are specifically designated for new people,” Sal explains.
Sword-Smithing: Pride in the Craft
I had a chance to attend a weapons workshop held by Sword@ UCI, an informal gathering during which the more experienced members (Sal, Ana, other club officers) helped newer members build their own weapons and shields.
Chasen Ranger, the vice president of the club (fighting name: Platypus), explains the building procedure for us less experienced folk. Materials include foams of various names and densities – most commonly used are “Wal-Mart” and “REI” (can you guess where these were purchased?). Foam is placed around a core, usually a rod of fiberglass or PVC tubing. The heavier duty weapons have a flagpole core, which basically makes them indestructible.
Chasen demonstrates how to properly draw lines and cut the foam. There’s a closeness to the material that I hadn’t expected; all of the lines have to be perfectly straight and the cuts have to be precise. “This one is really poorly cut, so don’t actually use this one. Ever,” he says in explanation after discarding a hastily cut out strip for another workshop attendee. To build a weapon, you first have to “box” the core in foam before creating outer layers that will serve as extra padding. “See, we can’t use this,” he says to me, after I try my hand at cutting strips of foam. “It’s crooked. You should have cut on the other side of the line.” He looks disapprovingly as I try to correct it, eager to get on my way to boxing my core.
Oh yes. I built a sword.
“People want to rush, but you have to really take your time,” Chasen says as he trims off the rest of my mistake before letting me try again. I get it right this time, but I have Ana cut for me. She’s made and repaired countless weapons and has the technique down pat.
“I feel bad,” she says as she makes what I see as a perfectly straight incision. “People think I’m cutting perfect lines, but in my head I’m cringing because these are really terrible by my standards. I’m rushing; if I weren’t, these would be perfect. I take my time with my personal weapons.”
Still, my sword turned out pretty well. Just like any other craft, there was pride in having made something (despite the veterans having done most of the work for me). I could see why people are attracted to making their own materials. Built from the ground up, the sword becomes an extension of the self; making your own swords, armor, shield and garb all contribute to that same feeling of closeness with the sport.
Getting on the Field, Part II
“LAY ON!” Sal declares, and the fight commences. Unsure of what to do, I break formation and charge forward. Not a good idea. In the flurry of foam swords and shields, I hadn’t remembered to look and see who was on my team. I see somebody open and attack viciously. It was invigorating, empowering – and I feel great about my first kill on the field, until-
“Dude. I’m on your team.”
My teammates sigh and shake their heads. Something to the effect of “Team-killing fucktard!” echoes in the distance, but the most resounding failure is the silent disappointment ringing through my own head. I am stunned by my own stupidity – and someone from the other team promptly takes advantage of my surprise. I am stabbed through the chest, both morally and literally. As I sit on the field with the end of my sword on my head, the universal Belegarth sign for death, I realize that I truly am the novice – the guy who forgets to tag a base and loses the run on a technicality, the guy who forgets to dribble the basketball. I had scored a goal for the opposite team, so to speak. The rookie in every sense of the word.
Round Two. I stick to one of the faster and seemingly deadlier members of the group, a quick fighter who wields two swords and no shield. He is small but fit, and his stature and speed give him a distinct tactical advantage – he's damn hard to kill. His name is Shadoe (which isn't just his fighting name – his real, legal name is Shadoe Lane), and I would later find out that he’s joining the army. He intends to use me because I have a shield, and I’m okay with that. I start to understand the tactic – shields stand in front of guys like Shadoe or teammates with longer weapons in order to block attacks. And I feel great about my newfound comprehension, until Shadoe dies.
My purpose lost once more, I run wildly in the other direction. I am surrounded, surely being followed, and I run faster, frantically. And then I hear something crack. And then I’m on the ground. Clutching my ankle, I am down. I let my weapons fall. Somebody runs up and hits me square in the chest, a formality at this point.
“Don’t worry,” Ana says to me as I examine my ankle. “I used to sprain my ankle all the time. Now it just doesn’t happen anymore. You’ll be fine.”
Despite my yearning for the sidelines before the fight, being relegated there by an injury is perhaps the most crushing defeat. Still, the sprained ankle put me out of commission for that day.
“This is a sport, in every sense.” Sal tells me after the practice. “That’s the key to understanding it.”
“This is real,” I say, astounded by the staggering truth of the statement as I limp alongside him.
Sal, like most of the club members, is ardently passionate about his involvement. As Chasen puts it, almost all of the dedicated Belegrim make their own swords and design their own garb. Guys like Sal get the emblem of the Sith tattooed on their arm.
“It’s fucking real,” Sal says.
A week of passes of limping and nursing my ankle before the Werewolf Treasure Hunt, the annual Halloween event held by Sword @ UCI. The game takes place after dark in Aldrich Park and plays out a well-rehearsed story:
A group of hunters from a local village were hunting a pack of werewolves that had been terrorizing the villagers; Sal, one of the hunters, comes back wounded and says they desperately need reinforcements. Brave villagers (the rest of us) go forth to help them, only to find that all of the hunters had been bitten and turned into werewolves (including Sal). It’s now up to us to battle the werewolves and follow clues to find the Silver Dagger, the only weapon that can kill the werewolves for good. Sounds easy.
Oh, but did I mention that all of the werewolves are club veterans? Not so easy.
Villagers travel under the guidance of Chasen and Ana, only to panic and scatter every time the werewolves attack. This is pretty often.
The werewolves themselves do an excellent job of creating a haunting aesthetic. Stalking us in the dark, they seem to appear out of nowhere and just as soon disappear from view. They don’t have weapons like the villagers; instead, they use gloves that act as werewolf claws. Even when we fend them off, they make their presence known – sporadic howling erupts in bursts from the darkness that surrounds us.
I depart with a scouting party to find more clues, a party that includes the villagers’ only healer. She’s the only one who can bring people back from the dead (she’s also Sal’s girlfriend, the Dark Lady of the Sith. Her real name is Sarah), and bringing her along with us is probably the worst mistake we could have made. We retrieve a clue, but return to a howling mess of converted werewolves. Without the healer, all of the villagers died and became the monsters we worked so hard to defeat.
“We’re all going to die,” I say. We do. The wolves win.
“The game was designed to let the villagers win,” Ana says, shaking her head and laughing. Even despite our obvious faults at supernatural monster hunting, everyone admits tohaving fun. After the hunt ends, Sal declares a free for all, and all hell breaks loose once more. Foam flies in all directions – there are no teams, just blind release.
“That was fun. I wish we did something like that a little more often,” Chasen admits afterward. And they probably would, if they could guarantee attendance.
Though the Werewolf Treasure Hunt was a success in the club's eyes, it all builds up to the third annual Battle for the Ring, set to take place in winter quarter. This all-day event is a battle of truly epic proportions. “This past year, we pulled 150 people – that got written down. There very well could have been more,” Sal says. “We’re hoping to pull something like 175 people this year.” Like I said, epic.
A Sordid Past and a Promising Future
Sal admits somewhat bashfully that their intensity can scare people off, and caused the club problems in the past. “What ended up happening was, the people who were really dedicated and hardcore and wanted to get better were the only ones who ever won, so the people who were more casual about the game lost all the time,” Sal takes a regretful tone as he describes the great rift and eventual departure of those more casual members. “At that time, we didn’t really see what we were doing. As is always the case; you never see what you’re doing until you see the aftereffects. So in hindsight, we should have toned it down a bit. We would have kept some of our more casual people.”
Since then, the club veterans have taken an active role in trying to get more new people to come out and get really involved in the club. “We need new people to take on leadership positions,” he tells me. “Chasen is graduating the same time as I am.” Sal speaks with gravity about the future of the club, because he takes these things seriously. It’s not all fun and foam swinging, after all. He’s the president. “I’ll tone it down, Ana will tone it down. All of the veterans are, for the sake of not frustrating some of the newer people,” he says. “Really though, I just want to help people and make sure they come back.”
Their efforts seem to be starting to bear fruit. After a year or so of slumping activity, the club is receiving a surge in attendance. “Since this quarter started, we’ve had 20 or 25 new people on the field. Plus our veterans, which will number anywhere 6-10,” he says, cheerfully. He looks optimistically at these numbers as a continuation for the club, even after he’s graduated. “My obligations and responsibilities are already set in stone, it doesn’t matter who’s president. I know my job here.”
Later on, he makes clear just how dedicated he is to the club. “I intend to have a life-long involvement in the sport,” he says. “Once I have kids, they’re going to do this too.”
Self-Image and the Stigma
“We’re geeks, man!” Sal eloquently states, regarding people’s apprehension about joining the club. “Think about it. We dress up in costumes. We play with foam sticks. Especially in Orange County, it’s just not what people do out here. As much as people might be interested in the swordplay, it’s looked down upon and it’s considered really geeky and nerdy. That stops people from showing up sometimes, and it stops them from continuing to come out.”
Despite that stigma, people still try their hand at fighting and usually enjoy themselves. It’s truly fun for them to try, even if just for one round of fighting. Once they get past the image, they see Sword @ UCI for what it really is – a gathering of people who want to have fun running around with their friends. Isn’t that all a sport is, after all?
For people like Sal, Ana, Chasen and Shadoe, it doesn’t matter what the people outside think of them. What matters is that they’re dedicated to the sport of Medieval Combat, to the craft of making swords and garb. They’re proud of that commitment.
Debriefing at In-N-Out after the Werewolf Hunt, we discuss the night’s events and laugh about what went down. We stuff ourselves with burgers after a night of fending off supernatural baddies, our swords leaned against the wall; Chasen is still wearing his garb, a blue and yellow tabard with a large platypus emblem on his chest. People gawk and giggle in the same way they do in the park.
I lean towards Shadoe and ask, “What do you think of all of that? Does it ever get to you how people stare?”
He shrugs and continues eating. He deserves the food; after all, he was the guy who found the silver dagger that night, the last man standing against the werewolves.
“You know what?” he says, “Sucks for them.”
Battle for the Ring is going to be held Saturday, January 8th at 9 AM in Aldrich Park. Garb is optional; weapons will be provided for those who haven’t any.
-3-hour extended interview with club president Sal Solis
-Numerous casual talks with club members and officers, including Ana Nagel, Chasen Ranger and Shadoe Lane
-Attended practices, participated in scrimmage fight
-Attended Werewolf Treasure Hunt, Sword @ UCI’s Halloween event
-Attended and participated in club weapons workshop, built a Class 1 weapon.
-Belegarth Website (http://www.belegarth.com/index.php)
-Belegarth Wiki (http://geddon.org/index.php/Main_Page)
-Belegarth Forum post by Uruk-Hai member Forkbeard (http://board.belegarth.com/viewtopic.php?t=36562&sid=27c3de39788933df5e5bc01d0b2932f5)
-Sword @ UCI website (http://clubs.uci.edu/sword/pages.php?page=Home)