Modern-day gladiators go back in time, donning period costumes and playing out medieval battles.

On a warm summer’s day in the tranquil Pennsylvania countryside, elves battle crusaders, hobbits clash with knights, and archers target samurai swordsmen. And everyone lives to tell the tale.

Originally inspired by fans of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, the week-long Ragnarok sees fantasy enthusiasts donning period costumes, sliding into character and playing out medieval battles by whacking each other with padded clubs or swords.

“This event is all about fighting,” declares “General Graymael” to the legion of merry combatants who gathered late last month for the 29th edition of Ragnarok in Slippery Rock, a small town north of Pittsburgh. “Your objective is to have more fun and get in more fighting than the person on either side of you,” Graymael – who by day is 51-year-old senior civil servant David Vierling – told the gladiators. “If you do that, you have won.”

Warriors test their weapons before the beginning of a battle.

Fighters gear up in their war masks.

Ragnarok – which takes its name from the apocalypse of Nordic mythology – brings together enthusiasts from across the US who revel in heroic fantasy literature, role-playing or just plain history, according to event coordinator Matthew “Will Scarlit” Tkach.

This year, some 1,400 warriors made the trek to Slippery Rock to pitch tents and gather around open fires on what is usually a vast wooded camp-ground. For seven days, they engaged in dagorhir, a contest-cum-sport with established rules, medieval-style outfits and non-lethal weapons made with polystyrene foam.

The eccentric jamboree dates back to 1977 when it was invented by a group of friends in the state of Maryland, all fans of The Lord Of The Rings. “I am myself from 898, near Uppsala,” located in modern-day Sweden, explained a Viking chieftain who, away from Ragnarok, is a 28-year-old online salesman named William Ritchie.

A Nordic history buff, Ritchie spends his free time re-creating historic moments and fabricating costumes with fellow members of their dagorhir group in Michigan. “It’s a real passion,” he says. “Most people get caught up in living day-to-day. It’s a good release from the pressures of the mundane world.” Enthusiasts like Ritchie adhere to local chapters that stage their own events in the run-up to Ragnarok.

“It’s great to see each other once a year,” says Kyle “Jarn” Nell, a 27-year-old bank employee from Florida who schedules his vacation time around Ragnarok. Participants range from “people who are pumping gas or scooping ice cream to doctors and lawyers,” says Tkach, an Ohio police officer.

The encampment is divided into sections including a Celtic fortress and the Dominion of the Unconquered Sun. It’s also a hive of activity. “Triumphs and defeats, parades and parties, tournaments and pit fighting, belly dancers, song, friendship, bloody battles and more lead up to the final battle and celebration!” promises an event brochure.

A scene from the battle at the XXIX Dagorhir Ragnarok battle game event. The Ragnarok annual event celebrates the books of English author JRR Tolkien and the European history that inspired those works. This year’s event drew more than 1,300 medieval combat enthusiasts from all over the US.

A fighter in full combat gear waits for the game to begin.

Before the daily great battle, participants prepare their armour, shields, swords and other armaments – fashioned out of soft, safe material. The weaponry isn’t supposed to hurt, but there’s no question it’s a very physical confrontation. “This sport is akin to rugby in terms of how physically difficult it is,” says Vierling.

If your adversary hits you once on an arm or leg, you can no longer use that limb. And if you are hit twice, or hit in the torso, that’s instant death. Cheating is out of the question. “The entire game runs on honour,” explains Lyle “Sirius Trothari” Mahy. “Otherwise, the entire thing breaks down.” – AFP