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Cyangmou's avatar

Fantasy Armor vs. Gothic Armor

I am someone who is really into the technical and historical side of armor and also happen to design and draw a lot of personal stuff.
I also try to understand why designs are looking the way they do.
With this I tried to stay neutral and show the different approach of a historical and pop-cultural direction

If you want to join this discussion I invite you to leave a comment.

Imagery used:

Horus Guardian:

Gothic Armor:

Heart Shapes:
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© 2019 - 2021 Cyangmou
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freeslimey's avatar

I've always liked Miura's approach to armor design, that being taking historical examples to their absolute limits, while still being fairly practical.

The trouble with "fantasy armor" isn't that it breaks the rules: it's that it breaks the rules in uniform, tried ways. The work of historical armorers could get very impractical or fanciful, but it was always in a new, interesting way.

It’s always really cool to see fantasy that actually roots their weapon design in feasibility and history. I’m not very experienced but from what I’ve read the dark souls and lord of the rings series are both good at this.

Cyangmou's avatar

Yes it's cool.

It's usually just a matter of direction and what is the goal.

Lord of the Rings generally has quite believable fantasy designs (aside the morning star of the witch king which is a meme for that reason) and Dark Souls has some weapons and armors which are very believable, but on the other hand also some which are completely ridiculous - there it needs to be considered on a case by case basis. Witcher III also is more on the realistic side, hitting the same direction.

I also like it when fantasy designs look fantastical, but also are usable.

Are you telling me the set of thorns wasnt actually used in warfare?

Cyangmou's avatar

Rather on a heavy metal stage.

MadetGheist's avatar

I always return to this picture when pondering armor designs. Not that i ever actually draw them, but it helps to think.

What i like the most about this work is that there is no unnecesary vitriol towards fictional armor here. No judgements of value about the alleged stupidity of fictional designs, no harsh words for either fans or designers. A clear and factical explanation.

idislikecake's avatar

I like this a lot. Actually shows the reasoning for both designs in the context of what their intended purpose was. So many fucking armchair historians shit on designs because they don't seem to understand that artistic fundamentals are drastically different than those used when designing actual, functioning weapons and armor.

Your sense of neutrality is a very respectable quality that I believe more should follow.

Cyangmou's avatar

Well the sad thing about it is that you could marry both approaches in a quite successful way - some designs even showcase it.

It's very hard but also in the realm of possibility. Just a lot of work which requires a lot of prior background in both disciplines.

Spider-Bat700's avatar
You know, reading this I have to say I appreciate how non-judgmental in tone this sounds. I often find that when people critique depictions of armor, weapons, fighting styles and the like they often do it with a very obnoxious, sneering, condescending tone where they make anything that isn't 100% ultra-realistic or possessing perfect historical accuracy out to be garbage that only a moron would come up with. You see this regularly in YouTube channels featuring self-proclaimed "experts" on this stuff. That this piece instead compares and contrasts in a much more neutral sounding way is something that feels incredibly refreshing. I got nothing against historically accurate plate armor, but I do think that people sometimes forget that fiction (especially fiction that doesn't require a live actor wearing a costume), doesn't have to be totally realistic or grounded, and so I think there is way too much emphasis these days on criticizing so-called "impractical" design choices. 

Some questions though:

1) About visors/eye-slits, it seems to me that the helmet in the sample Fantasy armor still has a fairly narrow visor, with everything that isn't metal appearing a shadowy void. That doesn't seem like it's exposing much of the actor's face to be seen. Also, didn't earlier Medieval helmets that lacked clamp-down visors expose more of the face?

2) What would you say to helmets like this one:…

One thing about Fantasy armors that I notice is that many helmets tend to be more decorative or have various animal motifs and the like. But so long as the warrior can still see in such a helmet, are they really so impractical? If, for instance, a knight helmet looks like a standard knight helmet but the clamp-down visor has dragon wing decorations on the side to make the helmet more of a "dragon helmet", such as what you see here:…

...would that really hinder a knight realistically? I would think it is still possible to fight with such a helmet on, since the eyes aren't obscured and so the warrior can still see. I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

3. Although the armors in the Lord of the Rings movies are obviously more elaborate then the standard set of Gothic plate armor, John Howe went to great lengths to stress that the armors must still work properly, and so were designed so that the actors could still move and fight in them, even Sauron's super-spiky armor. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Anyway, once again, thanks for this analysis. As I said, I like the very analytical, not-snide tone of this piece. Good work. :)
Cyangmou's avatar

I am also not a real expert on the topic ;)

More of a very interested person. Glad you like this. The Self-proclaimed experts as you call it mostly come down to the entertainment side of things and entertaining in a snarky way seems to work for watcher counts I believe. I rather like sources which are more credible, like the real historians, doctors and academics who put out the books.

1) We have to ask ourselfes what is the main feature of a closed helmet. It's for a battlefield helmet always deflecting arrows and other sharp objects. Now if an unlucky arrow hits the eyeslit, it ideally still shouldn't pierce through. In most fantasy armors or most reenactment suits straight flying arrows are not at all a problem (rain of arrows or no arrows at all) so they don't consider that the widest opening should be thin enough to catch an arrow, or even thin enough to catch a wider blade.

Open helmets are mostly soldiers helmets. This means helmets which are worn at any occassion, which still allow you to speak, shout, breath and hear. But knights who are only getting geared up for serious business also had serious gear specifically designed for that occassion and optimal for the short time necessary.

2) The hounds helm idea is generally cool, because many real armors had helmets in animal shapes or in an alla-antica style which emulated classical locks etc. The movie prop here is not really well made, because it would really hamper your vision and add a lot of weight in a cumbersome way. The idea however gets applause, but then again in the book all of the main characters have unique helmets (which also was like that in medieval times - and grr martin is a big medievalist, and most initial fans of the first three or so seasons of GoT are more from the history, than from the pop culture audience)

The dragon wing decorations exist in real helmets - mostly from eastern Hussaria

The fantasy helmet of the book cover is kinda without purpose, because you easily could hit in with a blade cleaving the skull of the wearer for no real reason. I am not sure why they would like to show the eyes/faces of the warriors here with closed helmets, instead of just going with half open helmets.

3) Lord of the Rings had very good designed props. Some of it goes over the top (Sauron, Witch King etc. is a bit more comical in proportion and look), but generally it was incredibly well made and most props would be very effective.

Glad you enjoyed it =)

Spider-Bat700's avatar
1. Fair enough

2. How would the skull be cleaved with a plate mail helmet? Shouldn't the helmet protect the head? Or are you referring to the open space being an easy target? Would a knight helmet with a thinner visor and no obvious weak spot but still having the same dragon decorations as the ones on the book cover work?

3. Agreed. Though again, even Sauron's armor was designed to be fairly practical.
Cyangmou's avatar

2. Referring to the wide open Eyeslit which levas place on the sides for a clean cut. Open helmets usually have a nasal protection or bar to prevent this scenario.

With decorations it's always the question if it's a cavalry or an infantry helmet. In infantry battle you simply do not want to give your enemy any opportunity for easily grabbing parts of your armor or even worse, let them push momentum through your armor on you. That's why those winged helmets are usually for riders, who are out of reach of hands.

Spider-Bat700's avatar
Ah, thought so. And yeah, good point about the distinction between rider and "on foot". In fairness to Rhaegar, to whom the helmet belongs, he almost always fought on horseback. Of course, one of my own OCs wears the same kind of helmet and usually fights on foot. But then, when you're faster and stronger then a RL human, it tends to make you less vulnerable. 

Thanks for the info :)
blizzardblast101's avatar
Imm'a just keep this for reference if that's alright...
KalibratedKaos's avatar
I would just like to add - Looking at these, which one are you more intimidated by? The "fantasy" armor on the left with it's in depth depiction of artistic design, or, the "gothic" armor on the right with it's purely practical application in real world skirmishes?

Both, I would say, serve a purpose.

To me, personally, I would stay faaaaar away from the guy wearing the Fantasy armor (left) if I ever met one on the battlefield, since in my mind - No B-grade peasant will be wearing armor of such a high quality design into battle. Secondly, the design featuring as it does, would tell me, the blacksmith (or smiths) that worked on that armor piece, are definitely not from your local corner blacksmith shop down at market square.

The practicality of the Gothic armor (right) I would say, not only revolves around the armor pieces protecting the wearer as they do, but a lot around the fact that armors like those, are far easier to replicate and mass produce for a group of knights, than it's counterpart fantasy armor. The more detail that goes into metal work, the higher the costs (resources and time both), which in a time of war, are valuable.

Great work though! I enjoyed every bit of it!
Cyangmou's avatar
Sure both of them serve a completely different purpose.
Fantasy armor of course is made for the looks.
Sometimes however I think research was not properly done by the artists coming up with the fantasy designs, or fantasy designs are their own evolution of style, with copying what's shown in the most famous pieces of media.
I think it's possible to have fantasy armor with details like the one on the left, without compromising on functionalaity though.

Full suites of plate, which were meant to be a set (usually as created for the knights and nobles) usually were tailored to their measurements.
Later on in the late renaissance and early baroque armor generally became more mass produced, especially to equip mercenary armies.
However since at that time, guns already were fairly common on the battlefield the amount of armor worn by individuals also went back to half-armors (without legwear) and later to just a helmet & cuirass.
Nobles still would wear cuirasses well up to 1700 (at least if you look at portraits) as fashion statement and/or to show them as warriors or with knightly ideals.

In terms of the design however, real armor, even in their most fancy and expensive form stayed true to the practical design.
And the fantasy armor in comparison looks rather simplistic.

In most fantsies one could also argue, that magic probably can influence the metalwork and therefore might not be comparable to having a realistic work pipeline.

But yeah, sharing ideas like this around is important, at least it gets a discussion on it's way and probably is inspirational =)
KalibratedKaos's avatar
Oh man! Look at that set though! The one you posted in the link. That's some crazy work by it's maker! Very awesome stuff! Just have a look at the details on this…

(Now, i will say, i have no idea how to post a short link on here, excuse my lack of comprehension)

Armor seems to have been modeled like everything else we design lol We first create a concept, until it catches on. It becomes HUGE (literally and figuratively) and once we master it's usage and manufacturing processes, it becomes ever smaller and more efficient. In the realms of armor, i mean, look at what Kevlar has become -> (If you are into stuff like this, read it, it's actually pretty interesting what the invention of Kevlar has allowed)
Cyangmou's avatar
yes there is quite some progress in terms of armor development, also the shapes go with the fashion at the time.
Therefore it's quite easy to roughly tell when a specific suit was made and of course technology improved.

Today innovations just happen a lot quicker, the kevlar example indeed is a good one =)
Thanks for sharing.
ThorinWolfson's avatar
I love it.
I love fantasy stuff, but are annoyed if it's too fantastic. Realism and fantastic stuff should be balanced, so it looks fantastic and fits the fantasy setting, but still could be used effectivly in the real world.
And let's be honest: There are enough weapons and armor in the real world that look like they just came out of fantasy.
Cyangmou's avatar
Yeah there are tons of really ridiculous real world examples which would look quite ridiculous in fantasy scenarios.
ThorinWolfson's avatar
Ever heard of/seen the sawfish sword that is displayed in an museum in Bavaria? (Don't know which museum though. I were never there and couldn't find it in the internet, just heard of it being there)
Now someone say again that Dragonbone Weapons are ridiculous. They mounted a sawfishblade on a swordhilt, and it even looks awesome. That's how ridiculous it can get.
Cyangmou's avatar
I saw one of those in the Wawel in Krakow (Poland).
I also did some digging on the one you mentioned, and it seems to be displayed in the DHM (Detusch Historiscches Museum / German Historical museum)
The official museum database:
another photograph of the same blade, which looks more impressive:

There is an odd fascination going on with putting natural stuff in weapons in the Renaissance, in Vienna in the armory they have a coral-hilted saber (Kordelatsch):
I saw another one of those in Tyrol in castle Ambras from the 2nd half of the 16th century, but the database on this one is down and I just found an image on instagram:…

In Vienna in the treasure chamber, there is a unicorn horn (Einkhürn) which is the teeth of a narwhale.
They didn't put that in a weapon, but it's one of the greatest treasures of the Habsburg family.
ThorinWolfson's avatar
Wow, thank you for the links. I thought about visiting the German Historical Museum for a while now, since a friend told me about it. But he said it's way to big to see everything in just one day.
When I first read your mentions of these coral-hilted sabers, I thought, like coral "gems" for ornaments, that's nothing new, but actually taking a whole coral branch for it... That was something new to me.
But knowing how fragile and vulnerable a coral is, this can't be used for much except decoration.

Is it really called Einkhürn? I knew they took narwhale teeth or (prehistoric wool-)rhino horns for Unicorn horns. But I didn't knew of a place that own one.
They also took Wisent (european bison) horns and thought it were Griffin Talons, and a goblet made of such "Griffin Talons" would protect from being poisoned when drinking out of it.

Don't know if you're interested, but I just remembered a little anecdote from when my family and I visited a castle, that now is kind of a museum, a few years ago.
One of the displayed items was a blued armor, solely made for the wedding of a knight, with helmet and everything.
The Guide told us following story: Since the armor is too heavy, the Knight told his squire to hold the helmets visor open at a tournament, so the opponents could see each others face before fighting.
He did so by telling his Squire "Halt die Klappe"(I think the right translation would be "Hold the Lid" or "Hold the Flap", but I'm not sure. I don't know what the right english term for this german phrase in this context would be, but today "Halt die Klappe" in general has the meaning of "Shut up", but back then it meant to hold the visor open.)
So, I told you, that armor was ceremonial, solely for that wedding. Now picture following scene.
The Bridegroom in his impressive, shinig blue armor, stands next to the Bride in front of the altar and the priest.
Priest: "So do you, Bride, want to take this man as your husband?"
Bride: "Yes, I do"
Priest: "And do you, Knight, want to take this woman as your wife?"
Knight: "Yes, I do"
Priest: "So now you are Husband and wife. You may now kiss the Bride"
So the Knight tells his Squire to open the visor. The whole group was unable to stop laughing while imagining this.
(If the joke is lost to my terrible translation skills, the Knights response to "Sie dürfen die Braut jetzt küssen"("You may now kiss the Bride"), would be (to his squire, of course, to hold his visor) "Halt die Klappe"("Shut up"). Maybe the joke just works in german. If so, I'm terribly sorry)
Cyangmou's avatar
Nice anecdote.
I am from Austria and German happens to be my native language =)

And yeah they describd it as "Einkhürn" - which is like the word how it was written back then.
It's in the Habsburg treasury, which is next to the Habsburg armory the 2 places you should visit in Vienna.

I never saw the Bison horns in any museum, but I think I heard about it before.
However I don't have any sources specifically on that at hand.
Do you have some site or some other source?
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