Balin – Mace or Sword from Ancient Times?
This is the fifth part in a series highlighting the various weapons used by the dwarves in the Company of Thorin, including speculation on their form and function. The essay concentrates on the original weapons as shown in the first movie “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, and doesn’t cover additional concept weapons that were never actually used. References are drawn from the films, tie-ins and supporting materials.
Related articles are:
1. Weapons of a King – Thorin Oakenshield
2. Fili: Twice as Fierce – or – “The One-Dwarf Walking Arsenal”
3. Kili and His Weapons – Deadly At Every Range
4. Dwalin – Weapons of a Veteran
6. Glóin – His Axe Stands Ready
7. Óin – A Healer And His Staff
Balin, son of Fundin and older brother of Dwalin, is a descendant of Durin’s line – like Thorin himself, and his nephews Fili and Kili, as well as Óin and Glóin. He is Thorin’s cousin by blood and brother in arms, as is Dwalin, and together they escaped the sack of Erebor when Smaug descended in flame and fire. They fought at each other’s sides during the Battle of Azanulbizar, and Balin also accompanied Thráin on his doomed expedition to Erebor, during which his king was captured by Sauron’s henchmen and lost to his folk.
As back in the old glorious days of Erebor, Balin is still known for his eloquence, his quick wit and circumspect actions. As the elder statesman of the group, he often acts as the second in command and drafter of official contracts. But despite his advanced age, his eyes are still sharp, and he is a skilled and powerful warrior.
Balin carries “just” one primary weapon – not multiple axes like Gloin, not dozens of knives like Fili, or a gigantic warhammer, double axes and knuckle-dusters like Dwalin. Just this weapon – but it’s a unique and special one. This weapon looks like a sword, but in promotional material it’s called “Balin’s Mace”, and we will try to explore what it could be in fact.
First of all – I’m not calling it “mace”, because a mace – especially a military mace – is something entirely different. A mace intended for battle and combat usually has a massive head made of stone, bronze, iron or steel, which can even be shaped with “flanges” (protruding edges of metal) or knobs to cause severe damage. This heavy, three-dimensional head sits on a solid, wooden or metal shaft, and the whole weapon is primarily used to bludgeon opponents and deliver powerful blows. It’s a mere blunt weapon, one can’t cut with it like with a sword.
And even though the massive head of Balin’s weapon gives it a slightly mace-like profile (though the head is flat and not 3-dimensional), what is it? It’s not a pure sword either. By the broadest of definitions, in my opinion it is a hybrid or combination weapon – a weapon, which combines particular elements from different weapon types into a unique one.
But let’s have a closer look at it.
Blade and grip
First of all we can see a thick and broad blade which widens considerably towards the tip and ends in a triangular, star-shaped point. It is intricately decorated with dwarven-style line work and appears to be double-edged up to where it widens into the tip, sharpened along both sides.
The star-shaped broad tip features nasty edges and points, which seem sharp enough to snag clothing or flesh or inflict terrible wounds. It also has a hexagonal cut-out, which might serve to lighten the tip in order to prevent it being too top-heavy. But more on that later.
The grip, wrapped with leather strips which prevent it from slipping from the hand, is longer than, for example, the grip of one of Fili’s dual swords, Kili’s sword or even Thorin’s Deathless – about one third of the total length, according to promotional pictures and concept art. This also means a change in handling due to the shift of the balance point, because the weight distribution becomes more top-heavy.
The grip ends in a diamond-shaped pommel (knob at the top of the hilt), which aids to secure the grip on the hilt as well as acts as a counterweight to the thick blade, bringing the center of gravity closer to the hilt.
That pommel also gives the whole weapon more the appearance of a “herald’s staff”, a scepter or ceremonial mace. Ceremonial maces for example are highly ornamented staffs of metal or wood, intended to represent authority and usually carried before a king or other high official.
The functional parts of these ceremonial maces though, like the blade-like flanges, are degenerated into mere ornaments and show high status and power.
This could lead us to the assumption that this weapon might be intended to serve a double function – first of all, being of course a device to inflict damage or act for defense, but second, serve as a sign of Balin’s high status as Thorin’s advisor. As Balin’s actor, Ken Scott, says himself: “My character has a short sword, that is, in a sense, his badge of office as Thorin’s counselor”.
Groove/Fuller, Cross-section and Taper
A very distinctive feature is the central groove (fuller) which runs along the length of the sword blade and can be broad or narrow, shallow or deep, depending upon the sword’s design and intended mission. It is often referred to as a “blood groove” or “blood channel”, but in fact has nothing to do with that, but is intended to lighten a blade without weakening it. How can this be possible though?
To understand this, one has to realize that one of the most important requirements for a sword-blade is stiffness:
“There is no possible use of a sword in cutting, thrusting, or guarding, in which too great flexibility would not be a disadvantage. Sometimes this defect – flexibility of a blade – is assumed as the criterion of a good blade. The error arises from confounding flexibility of the blade with elasticity of the steel – the latter is necessary, the former useless and always injurious. But to resume: a blade which has been ground thin to lighten it, will frequently be too flexible and whippy. In this case by putting a groove on each side, we not only make it still lighter, but we also make it stiffer; for if we apply any force to bend a grooved blade side wise we meet with the greatest amount of resistance which any mechanical form can supply.“
(John Latham: The Shape of Sword Blades, 1862, p. 416.)
So to sum up, a fuller can add to lighten a blade, but without making it too flexible and whippy, as when the blade would just have been ground thin. On the contrary, the fuller stiffens the blade and breaks the line of force on a blow – from one edge to the other.
When striking with a sword, the impact when hit adds “stress” to the edges of the sword – rather than to its middle (due to the leverage effect) – and bends the whole sword. Removing material from this middle part (neutral axis) breaks that “power transmission” from blade edge to blade edge and therefore the sword will be stiffer and doesn’t bend that easily.
Concept Art by Frank Victoria, Weta Workshop. Click for full size.
In addition we can see, the blade has a hexagonal cross-section with double-fullers (you can only see the blade’s cross-sectional design if you were to cut a blade in half crosswise and then look at its cut end). A hexagonal cross-section simply consists of a blade with six faces. Two broad faces that make up the flat of the blade and four smaller angled faces that form the edge.
The taper of a blade describes thickness (distal taper) and width (profile taper) of a blade. Usually the thickness lessens from the base towards the tip of a blade.
When the blade is almost the same thickness base to tip (no or little distal taper) like in Balin’s weapon, it results in a weapon being heavier and more unresponsive than a comparable one with lesser thickness towards the tip.
The width of the blade though refers to the narrowing upon the edges of the flat of the blade. Blades with a more gradual profile taper are meant for cutting, slashing and chopping blows – some falchions even get wider towards the point. In contrast, blades designed mostly for thrusting will sometimes taper to a needle point.
The Point of Balance
If Balin’s weapon were a genuine mace, its chief advantage would be that it would not need to cut an opponent’s armor to be effective (unlike many edged weapons like swords). Its mass, concentrated at the end, could injure and simply stun the enemy by blunt force. An unarmored opponent might even be killed right away. But this top-heavy distribution of mass affects also the handling of the weapon, probably a little like swinging a club. Held straight out and motionless its weight is apparent, but disappears mostly when swung. All that is left is momentum, as you can see here when Balin is fighting the goblins of Goblin Town.
And though it isn’t a true mace, we can recognize some of these characteristics – the longer grip and the thick head of Balin’s hybrid weapon. Both affect the Point of Balance (PoB) and change how the weapon is wielded (The PoB can be found by balancing a weapon (or try it with a pen or long stick), lengthwise, upon your finger. It’s the point where the object is “in balance”, where the center of gravity is located. The spot that has equal mass on either side of a blade’s length).
The Point of Balance is of vital importance for the handling of every weapon. When it shifts more to the tip of the blade, the heavier that weapon feels. That means, a weapon with the PoB closer to the grip feels lighter and more movable, having more control over the point – but it also sacrifices some power from the cutting stroke. On the other hand, the further out the PoB is, the more momentum and mass in the cut, but less point control the weapon will have. So mass distribution plays a very important role as well.
To sum up, Balin’s weapon features the following characteristics:
- Elements of a military mace: A long handle and a heavy tip (lightened by the hexagonal cut-out), which have an effect on the mass distribution, the placement of the balance point and the handling, so the weight is top-heavy and aids a hacking motion. The tip though is flat, not three-dimensional and doesn’t feature blade-like flanges like a traditional mace.
- Elements of a ceremonial mace: The finishing and the decorative elements are very special for an ordinary weapon – Balin’s weapon isn’t “just” from steel, but shines coppery and is – in this – an impressive sight. It also fits his red clothing he sets out with on the journey. So it’s not just a weapon but also shows high status and quality, representing Balin’s function as Thorin’s councilor and “Vice President”.
- Elements of a sword: The blade seems to be double-edged in the middle part, but shows no real cutting edge to speak of towards the business end of the blade, though the star-shaped projections seem sharp enough to add stabbing moves. Adding to this, the blade is almost equally thick from base to tip (little distal taper) which adds even more weight in addition to the heavy tip. The little profile taper (width of the blade) suggests as well that the weapon is intended for more slashing and chopping blows than thrusting.
Concluding now that Balin’s weapon is a hybrid weapon, it can double both as a mace and a sword – weighted towards the far end to act like a bludgeon, but with a bladed edge in the middle like a more traditional sword, to be used in close quarters for hacking at legs, arms or neck. In this, the head of the weapon, having the rectangular cut-out, can be useful for bashing in orc skulls or cracking ribs at a longer, more comfortable range.
Frank Victoria from Weta Workshop, who designed Balin’s weapon, explains the initial concept they had for it:
“Actor Ken Stott told me, ‘I would like to have a weapon that is between an axe and a sword.’ That got me thinking, we’ve never seen anything like that before. Four or five sketches later we had this really unique weapon that is definitely not something human. It’s totally a Dwarf weapon. It has a silhouette, this thing we were all searching for, and it looks like it could be on a flag or a religious symbol. It was originally going to be grey, but to go with his costume they made it coppery and it looks great.” (The Hobbit, an Unexpected Journey – Chronicles, Art and Design)
Balin’s weapon might be an heirloom from ancient times, old dwarven craftsmanship from Erebor, speaking of a past glory the exiles of Erebor have yet to regain. And though age and experience might have tempered the keenness of the old warrior’s reflexes, both mind and weapon are as sharp as the day the dragon first descended upon the Dwarves’ mountain home, and Balin will not shy from drawing his star-pointed blade when foes threaten.
- Chris McNab: Swords, a Visual History. London, 2010.
- Rupert Matthews: Weapons of War: From Axes to War Hammers, Weapons from the Age of Hand-to-hand Fighting. London, 2009.
- Dorling Kindersley: Arms and Armour. London, 2011.
- Harvey J.S. Withers: The Illustrated Directory of Swords & Sabres. London, 2011.
- Ken Mondschein/J.Paul Getty Museum: The Knightly Art of Battle. Los Angeles, 2011.
- J.R.R. Tolkien: The Peoples of Middle Earth. London, 2002.
- Daniel Falconer: Chronicles: Art & Design (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), 2012.
- Brian Sibley: Official Movie Guide (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), 2012.
- Jude Fisher: Visual Companion (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), 2012.
- The Shape of Sword Blades, by Mr. John Latham, firm of Messrs Wilkinson and Son. In: Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Volume 6, By Royal United Service Institution, 1862, p. 410-322, here p. 416.