This is the sixth and final part of a six part series taking a military historian’s look at the Siege of Gondor in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Return of the King. You can find the other parts linked here (I, II, III, IV and V). This time, we are going to look at how the battle ends, contrasting the important of cohesion and morale in Tolkien’s narrative with Jackson’s emphasis on weapons and weapon-systems. But first, we’ve got to talk about some boats.
The Corsairs of Umbar
The films are quite vague as to how exactly the corsairs fit into Sauron’s overall strategy. Gandalf presents the corsairs as simply one more cog in Sauron’s war-machine, “mercenaries from the coast,” heading to Minas Tirith. Gandalf solemnly intones, “our enemy is ready, his full strength gathered.” This is quite the departure from the books, where the speeding of events (the discovery of the ring and the appearance of Aragorn) have forced Sauron to act before he was ready, which is perhaps the only thing that saves the heroes.
But he gives little sense of what they are for, though we see them sailing on front of what may be burning homesteads in the background. We see them again, burning more towns, from Aragorn’s perspective as he leaves the Paths of the Dead. While the towns are burning, the ships are still sailing in the river; we don’t see any ships docked or disembarking troops. So it seems that while the corsairs are doing some raiding, they are mainly focused on getting to the main battle at Minas Tirith. Any broader strategic purpose is not made clear.
Book Note: It is made clear in the books. When Aragorn and the Grey Company (along with the army of the dead) emerge from the Paths of the Dead, they find the local armies of Lamedon trying to hold the crossing at Linhir against a large force of Umbar and Haradrim soldiers (RotK, 166). We later find that these troops had disembarked from the main fleet, which had seized the port of Pelargir on the Anduin and remained anchored there, supporting a large Haradrim and Umbar force which was raiding deeper into Lebennin (RotK, 167).
This fleet was not, in fact, moving to be part of the siege at Minas Tirith (at least, not right away). Aragorn perceives that the siege had already begun before the Grey Company even comes within sight of Pelargir, meaning that the Corsairs were making no effort to advance even at that late point (RotK 166-7).
This is because participating in the siege was not the point: tying up Gondor’s armies was. While in the films, pretty much all we see of Gondor is Minas Tirith, in the books we are told enough to know that Gondor is a large country and that gathering its armies for battle takes time. The purpose of the Umbar fleet was to create a threat to the south which would prevent those forces from moving up to fight at Minas Tirith. At this, the fleet is initially successful, as the men of the city rue (RotK, 46).
The Corsair fleet is also much larger – Legolas counts fifty ‘great ships’ and countless smaller ones and the Haradrim had ‘a great army still’ even after losing the initial exchange (RotK, 167).
Dead Men Tell No Tales
If you were hoping for one last logistics section, for old-times sake, I will have to disappoint. Sailing ships – like the ones shown in the film – can manage incredible operational endurance, because they can store a lot of cargo for each individual crewman or marine. And the army of the dead appears to require no food, or water, or baggage, or roads, making it quite possibly the only army to ever have a logistics or operational mobility advantage over the Mongols.
There’s not much to do here, with either the capture of the ships or the arrival of the fleet to Minas Tirith. The oathbreakers are able to move through solid objects sometimes, yet seem to be able to strike with their weapons as well. I suspect that the oddity of how this would look is why Jackson largely does not show up the dead fighting up close – instead they tend to swarm in the background. Though they are also able to swarm down elephants in a way that suggests they can have mass when they want to.
What I do want to note is that this sequence in particular loses track, a bit, of where things are on the battlefield. In particular, it makes little sense for Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli to be running past (on foot!) the place where Eowyn is and Théoden fell. Keeping an eye on the map of the Pelennor above, you can track where the armies are coming from and likely to be. The orc army arrives moving down the road from Osgiliath and encircles Minas Tirith – the main body of the army of the Haradrim is still on the road behind it (so to the East-North-East of it).
The Rohirrim arrive through the Rammas at the northern end, thus striking the orcish army on the flank. In the film, they seem to come from the east, with the rising sun at their back, and strike the orcs in the rear, positioning which looks amazing but makes little sense. The Rohirrim then turn to meet the Haradrim cavalry (presumably trying to catch them in the flank). Théoden falls relatively close to the city’s gate – his body is retrieved by the Men of the City while the battle is still ongoing. The films deviate a bit by having Théoden charge out to the Haradrim, rather than the other way around, putting him even further east.
But Aragorn and his fleet arrive at Harlond, which is at the far south-western end of the battlefield. When he arrives at the port, we clearly see the orcs there are not yet fighting, so the battle raging on the field is still well to the north of them. In the following scenes, the CGI team still knows where Aragorn is – the shots of Minas Tirith from his perspective always show its south face (you can tell because the spur of Mount Mindolluin that dominates the center of the city faces East), but Jackson does not. For Aragorn to have crossed over Eowyn’s path would require him to be somewhat to the North-East of the city, when he is shown to be well south of it (in the books, Aragorn does meet Eomer, who has recklessly charged south, while it is the Gondorian cavalry under Prince Imrahil which moves east along the road).
By far, however, Jackson’s biggest change is to bring the army of the dead to the city at all. Since none of the orcs or Haradrim seem to be able to actually harm them, the dead serve as the ultimate trump card, rendering much of the less of the battle apparently inconsequential. Had the Rohirrim not arrived, had Eowyn not defeated the Witch King, nevertheless Aragorn would have arrived with his unstoppable army of the dead and won the battle. I’ve always assumed this change was to avoid the apparent (but not real) plot hole of ‘why release the army of the dead after merely taking the fleet’ but this just reintroduces the problem – lampshaded by Gimli – at a later point. The question has the same answer in either case: because it is the honorable thing to do, and Aragorn is an honorable man.
This change also transforms the battle and its outcome in ways that become more obvious if we look at the same sequence through the eyes of the books.
Logistics of the Grey Company
Book Note: First, because this is me, we have to discuss logistics, one last time. In the books, Aragorn’s job is much more complex. The dead inflict supernatural terror on everyone and very few can resist it (Gimli only barely manages, RotK, 165-6). Bringing such an army to Minas Tirith might rout both friend and foe. In any case, the deal Aragorn strikes with the oathbreakers covers clearing “this land” (Lebennin and Lamedon) of enemies, not all of Gondor (RotK, 68).
Moreover, since the purpose of the corsairs was not to aid the siege, but to prevent aid from coming to the siege, if all Aragorn does is destroy the fleet, the corsairs will have already accomplished their objective by preventing the men of Lamedon, Ethir and Lebennin from coming to the aid of Minas Tirith. So Aragorn must not only defeat the corsairs, he must do it rapidly enough to load their ships with reinforcements and then reach Minas Tirith before the battle is lost. A tall order indeed.
Aragorn’s own force – the Grey Company consisting of himself, Gimli, Legolas, the sons of Elrond and the rangers of the North – is on horseback and moving over fairly familiar country. Aragorn departs the black stone of Erech on the morning of the 8th, arriving at Pelargir on the 13th, departing on the 14th and arriving in Minas Tirith on the 15th, late in the day.
The sailing time is more than reasonable, but the riding time is one of the few army movements that seems properly legendary (though it is carried out by a troupe of legendary heroes and an army of tireless undead). The road from Erech to Pelargir is not straight and probably close to 300 miles (it is more than 200 as the crow flies). Aragorn has to make 60 miles or more per day in that ride (Gimli notes that it was exhausting, even for him). The Mongols sometimes managed that kind of pace, but the Dunedain are not Mongols. Still, with some allowance for this being a troupe of legendary heroes, it is possible, if not likely (assuming they brought spare horses or acquired new ones as they went).
One consequence both of Aragorn’s speed and the supernatural terror of his allies is that the forces he meets initially cannot move with him. Aragorn first meets a Gondorian army trying to hold the fords at Linhir against the Haradrim. Rather than slowing down to incorporate them, he instructed their leader, Angbor (the local Lord) to follow behind him, gathering what forces he could and moving overland to Minas Tirith (RotK, 166). Given Aragorn’s blistering pace, it’s no wonder that he left this force behind. Angbor’s cavalry catches up to Aragorn at Pelargir, but his infantry does not. Aragorn has Angbor gather that force while he takes the fleet, leaving Angbor to follow behind overland. Angbor’s army becomes operationally important after the siege is over, because it allows Aragorn to pull much of the remaining forces defending Minas Tirith for his assault on the Black Gate, knowing that another army is drawing up behind him.
Is the Battle in Our Fields or In Our Heads?
From a narrative perspective, what is more striking his how differently these decisions (between Tolkien and Jackson) frame the battle and its outcome. For Jackson, the siege of Minas Tirith and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is in many ways an alternating contest of tactics, machines and weapon systems. Orcs, towers and catapults against men, walls and different, better catapults. Like a game of rock-paper-scissors, orcs beat Minas Tirith, but the Rohirrim beat orcs and elephants beat the Rohirrim, before Aragorn finally cheats, calls out ‘dynamite’ which (as we all know from being kids) beats everything and wins the game. The army of the dead is simply a superior weapon-system.
This is a very modern and very mechanistic view of war and I cannot say that there is no sense to it. Petain’s dictum – le feu tue (“fire kills” – uttered in response to French officers claiming before WWI that French elan would carry the field in the face of machine-gun-fire) has merit, especially in modern warfare where the ‘spirit’ of an army might mean little in the face of overwhelming firepower. At the same time, will in conflict still matters a great deal. We see this almost daily as overwhelming firepower fails to end conflicts with laughably under-equipped but remarkably determined foes.
Tolkien’s vision of war is more nuanced, shaped by personal experience. War machines matter, but chiefly as a means of degrading the will of the enemy. The great contest is not between engines or weapons, but between the dread of Mordor and the courage of men. Catapults, towers and rams are merely the means that Mordor uses to deliver its terror. I have tried to flag instances of this in the book notes throughout this series, how close attention Tolkien pays to despair, dread and fear on both sides. The power of the Witch King’s catapults was that “the valour of the City was beaten down” (RotK, 108). But Jackson shows us not the despair of the soldiers but the shattering of buildings. When the Rohirrim arrive, the key thing we are told is that “the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them” (RotK, 124). By contrast, Jackson opts to show us not the wailing of orcs, but the impact of horses.
This same contrast comes out with Aragorn’s arrival at the Harlond with the black-sailed fleet. In the film, we see the ships pull up, unheralded and unannounced and Aragorn’s presence is only revealed at the very last minute. The decisive moment is Aragorn deploying his unstoppable superweapon: the army of the dead. What is relevant to Peter Jackson is the overwhelming lethality of these deathless soldiers. This is a touch ironic, because in the books, even Legolas is unsure if the army of the dead can kill anyone, much less that they actually did. What he says is, “Pale swords were drawn; but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead no longer needed any weapon but fear” (RotK, 167-8).
Instead, Aragorn’s triumph is not about the killing power of the dead, but the courage of the living. Aragorn’s ships – when he reaches the Harlond – are not filled with the dead, but living men, most of them former captives of the Corsairs, along with tired fighting men from Lebennin and Lamedon. His first task is to stir their courage and motivation, because he needs them to row through the night (the wind only changes in his favor in the morning, RotK 168-9) to make it to the city.
Then Aragorn’s arrival produces a series of sudden rapid swings in the battle which are all almost entirely dependent on morale. At first, the watchmen of the city catch sight of the fleet closing in and nearly panic, trying desperately and without success to call the army in the field back to the walls (Rotk, 133). The armies of Mordor, on their last legs but a moment before, “were enheartened, and filled with a new lust and fury they came yelling to the onset” (RotK, 134). Meanwhile, Eomer and the Rohirrim prepare for a desperate, doomed last stand, halting their assault and trying to form one last shieldwall. At this point, the balance of men and weapons on the field has not changed at all – this sudden reversal comes only from the news.
Battles often turn on such shifts in morale or sudden terrors. The Battle of Delium (424 BC), between Athens and the Boeotians provides one of the more dramatic examples. The Athenian right wing was initially victorious, smashing the Boeotian left – it looked as though Athens would carry the battle. But as the Athenians struggled to reform to sweep the Boeotian center, a relatively small Boeotian cavalry detachment, which had been hidden behind a hill, rode up. It was not so large a force the Athenians could not have defeated it, but the Athenian soldiers thought it a fresh army (not realizing it was just part of the army they were already fighting) and panicked. The victorious Athenian right disintegrated into a rout almost instantly and Athens lost the battle on the very cusp of victory. Morale effects often outweigh physical ones.
The weapon with which Aragorn again shifts the battle is one incapable of killing anyone: a flag. His banner unfurls and instantly the battle shifts, as the forces of Mordor panic at the sight of new foes and the Free Peoples redouble their attack. Before the first man is disembarked from the ship, “the hosts of Mordor were seized with bewilderment…and a black dead fell on them, knowing that the tides of fate had turned against them and their doom was at hand” (RotK, 135). Even before Aragorn is able to disembark his ships, the forces of the city and the Rohirrim are sweeping East and South, carrying all before them. Aragorn’s forces essentially arrive to mop up.
The sudden shifting of emotions always recalls to me Thucydides’ famous description of the naval battle in the Great Harbor of Syracuse (413) between Athens and Syracuse (wow – Athens really signed up for a beating this week). Both armies sat on the shore on opposite ends of the harbor, watching the fate of the campaign decided at sea. Thucydides describes the scene, “Close to the scene of action and not all looking at the same point at once, some saw their friends victorious and took courage…while others who had their eyes turned upon those who were losing, wailed and cried aloud, and, although spectators, were more overcome than the actual combatants…there was every sound to be heard at once, shrieks, cheers, “we win!” “we lose!” and all the other manifold exclamations that a great host would necessarily utter in great peril” (Thuc. 7.71.3-4).
That focus on morale gets to a truth about warfare: the winner of a battle is not the one that kills the most, but the one who makes the enemy run away. And the winner of a war is not the side which kills the most, but the side which can break the will of the enemy to fight. In the film, Gondor triumphs because Aragorn shows up with the Middle Earth equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction; they win by having the best weapons. But in the Tolkien’s universe, Gondor and Rohan triumph because their armies hold together even as the battle shifts around them. Indeed, at no point in the battle do the Free Peoples have superiority of arms – they are badly outnumbered from beginning to end. But they hold together against the fear and despair of battle, whereas the armies of Mordor (motivated only by the fear of their master), fall apart when things go wrong. In technical terms, the good guys remain more cohesive under the fears and pressures of battle.
Cohesion in Tolkien
Book Note: Tolkien’s view of cohesion is fascinating. Modern studies of unit cohesion tend to focus on the bonds between small groups of individual soldiers at ‘ground level,’ as it were. This is the ‘primary group’ model of cohesion, first advanced by Marshall’s Men Against Fire (1947) – soldiers fight for the other soldiers in their unit. There is almost certainly a lot of historical contingency to this view; there is something to Ardant du Picq’s suggestion in Battle Studies (1870) that the shift to shorter wars in the 1800s had fundamentally changed the nature of securing unit cohesion (what he calls “the Moral Elements in Battle”).
Tolkien reflects a much older tradition of unit cohesion: the unit coheres around the heroic leader. The decisive factor in maintaining cohesion in the armies of the Free Peoples are the conspicuous actions of their leaders. Of Gandalf in Minas Tirith we are told, “wherever he came men’s hearts would lift again and the winged shadows pass from memory…and yet – when they had gone, the shadows closed on men again, and their hearts went cold, and the valour of Gondor withered into ash” (RotK, 107).
Likewise, the critical moment for the Rohirrim before their charge is expressed as a crisis of leadership for Théoden: “Merry himself felt as if a great weight of horror and doubt had settled on him…Perhaps Théoden would quail, bow his old head, turn, slink away to hide in the hills” (RotK, 123). Théoden does not quail, but instead “sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again…” (RotK, 123). It is how Théoden seems, which matters, because we are still seeing him in this scene with Merry’s eyes (and thus the eyes of the Rohirrim) as he calls to his men, blows his horn and leads the charge, “ever before” the knights of his house.
Aragorn has the same effect. Gimli confesses that amidst the terror of the dead, “I was held to the road only by the will of Aragorn” (RotK, 165). Aragorn and the Dunedain, finding captives aboard the corsair ships, “bade them put aside fear and be free” (RotK, 168).
This model of cohesion based on leadership has its own historical tradition, but it is pre-modern, arising from literary accounts of war, rather than theoretical military treatises (although the ancient world has those too, and this theory of cohesion appears in them). Ancient accounts of battles often focus sharply on the actions of commanders and pre-battle speeches. Good generals not only need good tactics, they have to give sharp speeches, call to their soldiers by name and stir their courage through acts of personal valor (somewhat ironically, one of the best examples of this paradigm in classical literature is the arch-villain, Catiline – see Sallust, Catiline, 57.4-61.4).
A major part of this emphasis has to do with how the literature of the time was shaped: namely that it was written for elites, by elites. As a result, books on war (and military aristocrats tended to find war was the best topic for books, second only to religion) emphasized the role of the commander above all. Partly, this was sensible teaching: the literate reader of a history by Thucydides or Sallust was more likely, by dint of his social status, to find himself in command than as a foot-soldier. Even if the battle didn’t depend on his sterling example of moral courage and leadership, it nevertheless behooved society to tell him it did, since that, after all, was his job.
But there is also an element of discourse here (I am borrowing this framework for J. A. Lynn’s “Discourse, Reality and the Culture of Combat” (2005)). Elites in societies tend to value the kind of fighting elites do, even if that sort of fighting may not be the sort that wins the battle. As a result, they create a discourse about that kind of fighting – or in this case, leading – which emphasizes their role. In pre-modern societies, where only the elites are literate, this can create a self-reinforcing feedback loop, where warfare comes to resemble the discourse as elites shape their own armies to better fit the mold of the books elites like themselves have written about war. The actual experience of the common soldier remained invisible (both at the time and to us), because the commoners could not write to write them down.
Roman military literature is interesting in this regard, because every so often the facade of elite discourse breaks and it becomes increasingly clear that the leadership that held Roman armies together was not that of the elite aristocrat-general, but instead the leadership of the experienced (but often decidedly non-elite) centurion (roughly the equivalent of a modern senior sergeant).
Tolkien, of course, was enmeshed in this tradition by way of his academic specialty as well as the classical focus that British schooling at the turn of the century had. But I think his viewpoint is also reflective of the view of the British – and especially the British middle and upper classes – of his day. British soldiers’ memoirs from as late as the Second World War often emphasized the power of a cool and collected commander to improve unit cohesion and instill courage (Lindybeige has handily collected a number of examples you can listen to here).
Listening to those memoir vignettes, it is worth remembering that Tolkien himself was one of those junior offices (a Lieutenant in the Lanchashire Fusilliers), perhaps being himself chastened not to duck. While a good part of his narrative borrows from the feats of legendary Anglo-Saxon heroes like Beowulf, it also borrows from his own war experience, as he indignantly reminds the reader in the preface to his second edition of Lord of the Rings (FotR, 11).
Modern historians have often been dismissive about the impact of this kind of leadership, but I think these accounts should caution us. In a modern battlefield, all a soldier is likely to see is his unit, but pre-modern battlefields were much less spread out. It was possible to see if your king or general was brave or not – you might well be able to see his banner. Tolkien places a lot of importance on the king’s banner among the Rohirrim (first Theoden’s and then Eomer’s). Interestingly, in late medieval Britain, the right to bear a banner (to be a ‘knight banneret’) was something confirmed by the king. Roman centurions wore a distinctive crest on their helmets for easy identification for much the same reason.
One thing we can be quite sure of is that the ancient and medieval authors who write accounts replete with examples of personal leadership in battle is that these men were themselves almost all veterans of combat. Sallust and Thucydides, who I’ve mentioned, both commanded in war (though both unsuccessfully). Indeed, the very fact that this kind of discourse is created by military aristocrats talking to each other underlines the fact that it is military aristocrats doing the talking. As historians we absolutely ought to question the framing of this discourse, but at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the authors we read likely know more about what battle was like before the advent of gunpowder than we do.
And now, at last, we are to our ending. Elephants slain, orcs routed, kings returned. What have we learned?
We’ve talked about logistics, sieges, cavalry, the physics of the battlefield and the role of motivation and cohesion, among other things. Also, logistics.
I worry that the temptation will be to reduce my analysis to “book good, movie bad.” But I actually think that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings must stand as both one of the most difficult and one of the most successful adaptations in film history. Many of the film’s shortcomings in portraying a sense of battlefield realism have more to do with the constrains of the medium. Film is an incredible powerful medium, after all, but also a very limited one. Time is very limited and everything in a film must be compressed. Given those limitations, Jackson’s effort is nothing short of marvelous, even if it doesn’t always capture the depth and nuance of the books. Peter Jackson lacks Tolkien’s first hand experience of war, but he cannot be said to have been insensitive to it – just look at the craftsmanship and care that went into his They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) – which is now on streaming services and go watch it.
Instead, the note I want to end on is an awareness of the way popular culture – the discourse I mentioned above – shapes our view of wars, both past and present. When I teach that Lynn article, I find my students are readily able to accept that discourse has a deeply distorting effect on how people in the past viewed war, but somewhat slower to accept that they, themselves are inextricably enmeshed in a discourse.
Consider: how many action movies or video games end with the enemy running away? In most video games, victory is had when the enemy is completely destroyed – surrender or retreat is rarely an option for the AI (yes, Total War and Paradox Studios fans, I see you – there are exceptions). Indeed, most popular culture shows battles being won by wiping the enemy out completely, usually with advanced firepower (Avengers: Endgame comes to mind).
But real wars are not won this way – and the failure to think about how to turn superior firepower into a way to break the will of the enemy has sat at the core of recent military failures. One thing Peter Jackson keeps from Tolkien is how battles end. At the end of the Battle of Helms Deep, the Uruk-Hai are not slain to the last by the Rohirrim, they flee. At the end of the Siege of Gondor, we see the last elephants and orcs fleeing, as Aragorn realizes the battle has run past him. And at the end of the film, even as the ground collapses under them, we see armies of Mordor quail and then flee (though one also wonders how much influence the common trope of the ‘Load Bearing Boss‘ has had on decapitation strategies…).
As humans, we understand our society through past societies and war through past wars, simply because we can record the past but cannot see the future. But that memory, so important for our own decision-making, is transmitted primarily through popular culture. Popular culture is not bad (nor would an elite culture of the sort preserved from the pre-modern period necessarily be better), but it does distort our vision. I would hazard that for most folks, fantasy fiction like the Lord of the Rings remains the primary lens through which they interact with the pre-modern past. That alone makes it worthwhile to ask how much ‘truth’ there is in these representations, and what that means.
And with that, my speechifying is done. Next week: something different.
(And for those just joining now to finish out the Siege of Gondor series who want more looks at how popular culture shapes our view of the medieval past, might I recommend my three-part treatment of Game of Thrones, “How It Wasn’t”? You can start it here).