The knights of Carbondale

By Gus Bode

In the tranquil fields of Pleasant Ridge Park, less than five minutes away from the SIUC campus, the Middle Ages live.

Fighters dressed in everything from SIU sweatshirts to homemade, authentic Medival attire duke it out with foam weapons in a game called Dagorhir.

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“We are Dungeons and Dragons for the guy or gal that is tired of sitting around a table chucking dice and swapping lies,” said Bill “Ginsu Hac Tao” McNelly, a Carbondale resident who has fought for more than five years.

For many of the players, Dagorhir is more than a game, it’s a way of life.

“Coming out here and participating with us is very, very easy,” Steven Jones said, a Carbondale resident who has been fighting under the pseudonym “Simon Blackfell” for 12 years – so long that even his mother calls him Simon. “All you have to do is sign a waiver.”

Joining the local realm, as a regional group of fighters is called, is as simple as showing up. Anywhere from 20 to 30 people meet in the park every Wednesday and Sunday when Carbondale’s realm Byzantium meets. House weapons are provided, but a simple sword can cost a beginner roughly $10. There are also many people who provide weapons building workshops.

The rules are simple. Kill your opponent.

Dagorhir fighters battle with everything from swords and axes, which sometimes measure twice as tall as the fighter, to javelins and arrows. The weapons are used to score the ever-crucial torso shot.

Although the weapons are made of foam, all are put through safety tests each month. If a weapon hits too hard or has any sharp points, it will not be used. Weapons cannot leave marks or fit into an eye socket. Some weapons may pass a safety test one month but degenerate and fail the next.

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One hit to either the chest or back means death, but other hits make the battle interesting. A hit to the arm means that limb can no longer be used. A hit to the leg means a fighter loses that leg and must drop to one knee. Throughout the course of a battle, one may see just as many fighters on two feet as fighters rolling around on the ground.

Although a fighter must be 18 to participate, someone as young as 16 can come out if a parent accompanies. Sometimes certain groups will allow even younger children if they are deemed fit for battle, Jones said, but he stressed that no matter the age, battle rules call for safety.

“Please keep in mind that when we hit you,” Jones said to new recruits. “We could be hitting you a lot harder.”

The more experienced fighters emphasized that although head and crotch shots happen, as was shown the following Sunday when one of the above new recruits spent about 10 minutes writhing in pain after a hit to the groin, those hits are not encouraged. When such a strike happens, they said, it is best to take a deep breath and walk it off.

Ultimately, Dagorhir is about having fun

“The best day is the day where she kills me or I kill her, and we walk off laughing and hand each other food and drinks,” said C.J. “Twinkle” Jasinski of her friend Jodie “Magdalene Rose” James.

And for the pacifists out there, there are a myriad possibilities within Dagorhir.

“A person has the opportunity to learn how to sew, make armor, make weapons, cook in the medieval style, and make numerous arts and crafts,” McNelly said, who recently started his own Carbondale-based group: Bloodhorde.

Yet, despite the weapons and food, the group contends that the friendships make the whole thing worthwhile. “Simon” met “Twinkle” on the battlefield. Now they are engaged.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie that goes along with this,” Jones said, “especially when you go to national events.”

Ragnarok: the definitive event.

After becoming an annual gathering in 1986, the 21st Ragnarok held last June played host to almost 1,250 fighters, 600 of which took the battlefield at once.

“After seeing or being in the middle of 300 people smashing into 300 other people you will never watch Braveheart the same way again,” said McNelly, who attended his first Ragnarok June 2006. “Just the thunder of them all colliding is unforgettable.”

Jones mentioned the numerous strangers that his camp fed and housed during events. That kind of generosity and companionship keep the Dagorhir community so close.

“Remember, 16-year-old girls do this and so do 50-year-old men,” McNelly said. “Everyone fights together. Everyone dies together.”

Like the countless people who play video games, golf on the weekends or just get lost in a book, Dagorhir is another way to constructively release aggression from the everyday anxieties of life.

“I wouldn’t be the man I am today if I didn’t beat my friends with foam sticks,” said Will “King Shatterhaze” Mason. “It’s a great stress relief.”

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