Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Is That A Quiver On Your Back, Or Are You Just Excited To See Me?

I'm sorry.  I can't hear you over the sound of
how AWESOME I am!

I love Hollywood.  I love the spectacle and the glitter.  I love the experience of awesome that Hollywood can create.

Most of all, I love the license they take.  Hollywood looks at an old legend, say William Tell, and thinks, “Ooo, what if instead of one crossbow, he had two?  And what if they shot flaming arrows?  And what if, instead of his son he had to save a busty, scantily clad and mostly mute damsel in distress?  Now there’s a movie.  Get me a director!”

It is most likely thanks for Hollywood (and Professor Tolkien) that I developed a love-affair with archers and archery.  Errol Flynn was my first introduction to the fable of Robin Hood, and it couldn’t have been better.  The Adventures of Robin Hood is classic, iconic Hollywood in all its glorious Technicolor.  It’s the epitome of dashing heroes, beautiful heroines, dastardly villains and sword-waving, arrow-shooting awesomeness.

You call that archery?
Of course, three decades of reading and writing and obsessing about archery have given me some insights into the many splendid anachronisms and failures that Hollywood has created, latched onto and never, ever let go.

Let’s look at just one example that you might not think about much: the archer’s quiver.

Because we’re talking Hollywood, and because most Hollywood archers tend to hail from Medieval Europe or a European-based cognate, I’m only going to focus on that.

Now, the quiver is a pretty simple and straight-forward device.  You’re an archer, you need to carry your arrows about, and holding them your hand is both awkward and leaves sweat stains on the shaft.  Not at all the kind of thing that a scantily-blad, buxom beauty would find appealing in her hero.  What’s a brazen archer to do?  Put then in a “holder”.  Leather is traditional, but quivers have also been made of wood and cloth.

Now, you’ve got your quiver, but you’re still carrying it around.  Sure, the arrow shafts aren’t all nasty with sweat, but it’s still cutting down on your ability to swing from chandeliers.  Solution: wear the quiver.

Well, I am an Elf.
Here’s where Hollywood gets it all kinds of wrong.  A quiver slung on the back isn’t unheard of (Native Americans, African tribes, and the Japanese use back quivers), but for Europeans this just flies in the face of historical accuracy.  A quiver on the back does look cool, but if you’ve ever tried this (and I have) you immediately find a host of problems.  Just reaching the arrows over your shoulder by touch only seems to be a super-power in itself.   
Almost all European iconography (tapestries, paintings and illustrations) show that archers wore their quivers on their hip.
Archers from the Bayeux Tapestry.
Even this is a bit misleading, because the tapestries and whatnot are just general representations.  They aren’t a photograph.  We know from contemporary historians and piles of evidence that archers often used an arrow bag, like a giant quiver.  This allowed for them to be very effective in mass-fire techniques, shooting about ten to twelve arrows every minute.

So, while I’m a big fan of Legolas, Hawkeye, Green Arrow, and, of course Robin Hood in all his incarnations, it should be generally assumed that these are not overly accurate depictions of real-life archers.  They are Hollywood archers, which means they’re bigger, better, faster, stronger, more accurate, and able to shoot a Nazgul on a flying steed, out of the sky, at night, with a single, thin shaft.

True story.


  1. See, now, I am thinking of all the fantasy movies I have seen and where they carried their arrows. I think it's just part of the fantasy--quiver on the back gets them out of the way, so it looks better,

    1. Absolutely correct! A quiver on the back becomes part of the costume, so that actor/actress can carry it around the whole film. But in reality, you would only put on a quiver if you planned on shooting your bow: practice, hunting, or on the battlefield. Looking good generally took a backseat to survival. :D

  2. The Bayeux Tapestry was made in France. Do you really want them telling you how to fight?

    1. Really!? Damn. I thought it was made in Louisiana!

      Well, the French do know how to lose, and they know what they lost too. They kept really good records on those things. Plus, archers are cool!

  3. The Bayeux Tapestry has some really closely observed details. The crossbows are fascinating... I'd definitely take it as a decent (if not necessarily correct in perspective) record of what was going on.

    1. Exactly Nicky. Bayuex is a pretty impressive "source document" when looking at arms, armor, clothing, etc. Extent iconography backs up it's depictions as incredibly accurate.