Collections: The Siege of Gondor: Part VI: Black Sails and Gleaming Banners

(Note: Thanks to the effort of a kind reader, this post is now available in audio format! The playlist for the entire series may be found here.)

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.

Interesting, Tolkien is very clear the corsair ships have oars (Aragorn has them row up-river). I find it a bit odd that Jackson has opted to make the Umbar Corsairs so distinctively different looking (both strange ships, but also darker skin, black oily hair, etc) – Umbar was another realm of the men of Númenor, and thus kindred to the men of Gondor.

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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.

These open grasslands are supposed to be some of the most densely populated farmlands of Gondor. Also, this fleet is much smaller than the one described in the books. I guess they spent the CGI budget on the elephants (as the GoT finale has shown, the correct choice).

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.

Army of the Dead sweeping into Minas Tirith. Given how far they go, it’s clear that the Men of Gondor never attacked out of the gate in the film, as they do in the books.

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).

Map of the Pelennor Fields, with the key routes shown. Aragorn’s fleet docks at the Harlond, the port of Minas Tirith on the Anduin.

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.

It can be hard to read, but Aragorn follows the dotted line from the stone of Erech (upper left), through Lamedon, crosses the Ringlo, and then encounters the enemy at Linhir, before turning due east to head to Pelargir. From there, he sails (well, rows) up the river. This is a long route, and the country is rough.

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.

Aragorn’s banner, from the Rankin and Bass Return of the King (1980), which is entirely omitted by Jackson, but very prominent in Tolkien’s telling. It’s odd to see Jackson miss such a good opportunity for visual storytelling.

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).

Aragorn, finding that the battle has run away from him. As with every other battle in Middle Earth, the fight ends not with total annihilation, but with the enemy running away.

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…).

I love this troll. He must be the smartest troll in all of Middle Earth. Everyone else is staring in wonderment, and he’s already “f*** this s***, I’m out!”
Narrator Voice-over: This troll went on to found a community of trolls called 4chan, which he (and everyone else) regretted for the remainder of his days.

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.

“But, Mr. Frodo – what about Helm’s Deep?”
“F*** off, Sam.”

And with that, my speechifying is done. Next week: something different.

(Subsequent edit for those of you reaching the end of this series in 2020 or later: I did, in fact, write that companion series about the Battle of Helm’s Deep, in eight (yes, I know) parts: (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. VIII). So you’ve made it to the end of first Lord of the Rings Military History, but what about second Lord of the Rings Military History?)

(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).

41 thoughts on “Collections: The Siege of Gondor: Part VI: Black Sails and Gleaming Banners

  1. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog as a fan of the fantasy genre and a military history enthusiast. Keep up the excellent work!

  2. “[T]he unit coheres around the heroic leader.”

    There might be something to this. Consider WWII navy destroyers. Now, a naval crew cannot break and run like an army unit; where the captain goes, the ship goes, and so does the crew. But, at, say, the battle off Samar, destroyer captains ordered their ships to do stupidly ridiculous things and their crews pulled it off. (Another example was part of Operation Pedestal, which details I can’t remember except that destroyer crews are as barking mad as their officers.

  3. > Petain’s dictum – le fue tue

    A pedantic note on the French: The word for fire should be spelled _feu_.

  4. Very well done. I wanted to add a few reasons why Aragorn did not take the Dead with him to Minas Tirith:
    1) taking an army of Oathbreakers, who in the past refused to fight against Sauron, within close proximity of the Witch King, would be risky. We don’t know exactly how this works, but it is not hard to imagine a wraith who is the chief lieutenant of the Necromancer, who your ghost army used to worship, saying “Nice Army. Thanks for bringing it to me.”
    2) Aragorn doesn’t just want to win the battle, he wants the people of Minas Tirith to accept him as king. Showing up as the leader of an Undead Horde, even one that routs the enemy, might make them unwilling to accept him as King, especially if Denethor is arguing against it.
    3) We don’t know he had the option to even try. The banner which Arwen gave him, which she worked on a long time, was apparently powerful in some way, apparently related to the Dead (who Arwen had reminded him of in her message). I don’t know that he could have summoned the Dead without it, and been sure they would obey. He made certain not to unfurl it until it was time to summon the Dead, suggesting its effect was needed then, and might not have lasted forever. So it might have been important to dismiss them before whatever-it-is-that-banner-did wore off.

    But again, great series, very well done!

    1. it wasn’t so much a power that the banner had (in the sense of magic) so much as what the banner represented. it was the sigil of the ruling line of Numenor, the line of kings. the white tree, the stars, and the crown. it was a flag that had not flown or even been seen in those lands since the death of the last king of Gondor, over a thousand years before. it was a sign that the heir to the throne had come, to defend his people.
      to the people of Gondor, the line of kings had a mythic quality to them, and the fact that the southern line had ended but there was prophecy that the line would return only amplified that. it was their equivalent of the King Arthur mythos, effectively.

      he unfurls it at the stone of erech as a sign of who and what he is, so that he can call on the
      ancient oath of the army of the dead as the heir to the one the army swore the oath to. and he invoked the Sword he carried (made from narsil, the sword of the king) as a further sign, while standing next to the stone that had served as the sacred object the oath was sworn on. without all of these signs and connections, there was absolutely no way that the dead would have followed the oath and done what he asked. no magic to it, just the legalism of oaths.

      and after that he furls the banner again, so that he can travel to pelagir as Aragorn, captain of the rangers. he unfurls it yet again during the battle at pellenor, where yet again it is serving as a symbol that “the king is back”, to bolster the morale of the tired men on the ships, as well as give the men in the city hope, since no enemy fleet would ever fly such a banner. it serves the demoralize Sauron’s army at the same time.

      and once THAT battle is over, he puts the banner away again. the battle is over, the morale boost isn’t needed any more, and it isn’t the time to go around settling the issue of kingship yet. the banner only gets unfurled one last time, after sauron was defeated, when Aragorn officially goes through the process of claiming the kingship, where the banner is one of the symbols that establishes his claim.

    2. Very good point on #1! And that suggests a small change which could be made to the movies, which would solve the narrative problem of “The army of the dead is a trump card which renders the entire preceding battle irrelevant.” (The logistical issues obviously remain.) All we need is a very brief scene, right after the dead king tells Aragorn, “We fight.”

      Cut to the Witch-King, speaking to Gothmog: “I sense the oathbreakers. Fools are the living to trust in the dead. As they were mine in days of old, so shall they kneel to me once more.” (Or words to that effect.)

      At that point, the whole battle matters again. Without Eowyn slaying the Witch-King, the dead would have become weapons of Mordor. Without the charge of the Rohirrim, Eowyn could not have slain the Witch-King. Without the defense of the city, the Rohirrim would have come too late… et cetera.

  5. Thanks for the series, I enjoyed reading it.

    Possible Typo? “Peter Jackson lacks Tolkien’s first had experience of war” -> “Peter Jackson lacks Tolkien’s first hand experience of war”

  6. >I find it a bit odd that Jackson has opted to make the Umbar Corsairs so distinctively different looking (both strange ships, but also darker skin, black oily hair, etc) – Umbar was another realm of the men of Númenor, and thus kindred to the men of Gondor.

    It was originally a Numenorean colony not unlike Gondor but was lost and depopulated of those people over a thousand years before the events of Lord of the Rings. From Appendix A in ROTK:

    >Telumehtar [King of Gondor], … being troubled by the insolence of the Corsairs, who raided his coasts even as far as the Anfalas, gathered his forces and in 1810 took Umbar by storm. In that war the last descendants of Castamir perished, and Umbar was again held for a while by the kings. Telumehtar added to his name the title Umbardacil. But in the new evils that soon befell Gondor Umbar was again lost, and fell into the hands of the Men of the Harad.

    So the inhabitants of Umbar by the 3000s TA are essentially Haradrim with maybe some sprinkling of Numenorean ancestry. That the good Men of the West are described as fair and the bad Easterlings are described as dark and swarthy is a Tolkien thing, not Jackson.

  7. I find myself wondering when you are going to give us critiques of various battles fought between the British Army and various “native armies”, such as the ones in South Africa and New Zealand, for example Gate Pa. Ditto the ones between the US Army and various First Nations, such as at Little Bighorn.

  8. A quote that involves Gandalf, fire imagery, and morale is definitely referencing Narya, Gandalf’s ring of power whose main power was to “rekindle hearts to the valor of old”.

  9. Good read, but was disappointed there wasn’t an article covering the effects of various leaders and commanders dropping like flies or getting distract. Boromir: killed by orcs several weeks earlier; Faramir: ends up in a coma; Denethor: goes mad and commits suicide; Gandalf: gets diverted during a crucial moment of the battle by Denethor; Théoden: killed by Witch-King; Witch-King: killed by Eowyn.
    Théoden at least gets immediately replace by his nephew, Eomer, but the removal of other figures before or during the battle has effects on operations.

  10. Many parts wa-a-ay over my head, but I love this series. I don’t play the video games and did not watch Game of Thrones, but Tolkien and Jackson? Eat it up. Will there be more *after* Helm’s Deep?

    Very belated corrections on this post, if you’re still interested in such (bf text used to emphasize change):

    does not show up the dead fighting -> does not show the dead fighting (that is, delete up)
    much of the less of the battle -> much of the rest of the battle
    more striking his how differently these decisions -> more striking is how differently these decisions
    was one of those junior offices -> was one of those junior officers
    to do with the constrains of the medium -> to do with the constraints of the medium

  11. Hi, Bret,

    I found this site when an acquaintance on Charlie Stross’ blog posted a link. I’ve enjoyed reading both the Siege of Minas Tirith, and will get to finishing Helm’s Deep.

    One thing – the older version of unit coherence, based on a leader… I hate to tell you, but it’s still around. In the glossy version of the federal committee investigating Chicago in ’68 (yes, I was there in the streets), who declared it a “police riot”, they mention Daley Sr. and his Chief of Police going in to address the Pigs (riot cops, in their baby blues, not to be confused with the ordinary cops who were just trying to do their jobs), and Daley *literally* gave them a St. Crispin’s Day speech.

    Oh, and clearly, your pain threshold is much higher than mine. I saw the first movie of LotR when it came out, refused to see the other two, and still want to get Peter Jackson into a dark alley…..


  12. I’d always assumed that Tolkien’s portrayal of the Frodo/Sam dynamic was his tribute to the NCOs of his WWI experiences. I’m now thinking more in terms of Aragorn/Sam displaying the strengths of either side.

  13. The digression about leadership and sources reminds me of Polybius’ description of Pydna where the roman manipular legion is repulsed by the phalanx, but is able to reform in good order and, owing to good low level leadership, repulse the over extended pursuing phalanx.

    As opposed to Plutarch’s account which makes Paullus almost omniscient.

  14. I’m obliged to point out that the “heroic leader” remained a thing as late as WWII, albeit shifted down the chain. Junior officers (up to company level) often did personally lead their troops, and it wasn’t entirely unknown for battalion commanders to do the same. It’s attested fairly frequently that the best way to get a vacillating unit to go forward again is for some lieutenant or captain to step up and yell “follow me!”
    The downside is that this tends to cost a lot of junior officers, who tended to have significantly worse casualty rates than private soldiers.
    One of the problems of modern war, of course, is that while one cannot lead from the rear, neither can one command from the front. Modern armies are also so ridiculously large, and deployed over huge distances, that battlefield leadership simply won’t work, except very locally. Which is why it has become the province of squad and platoon leaders, not army commanders.

  15. “.. 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).”

    So.. in some regards, not much changes in a couple of thousand years.

    The ‘Ruperts’ give the orders, but it’s the sergeants who do the real work.

  16. One thing you might have missed pointing out about the discourse issue is also how media shapes our views about modern war. Some of the most interesting works I’ve been reading lately are the ones discussing the dominance of special forces like the US Army Delta Force or Navy SEALs in popular depictions of war during the 2010s and how it shapes the public’s views on the conduct of modern war (especially in terms of its emphasis on kinetic missions, decapitation strikes, etc. as opposed to more long-term work to infiltrate and dismantle hostile organisations from the inside, or to advise and assist host nation forces rather than taking over the fight from them).

  17. Typo in Tolkien’s regiment – It’s the Lancashire Fusiliers (which does seem an odd place to end up for someone from Birmingham/Oxford, but there you go).

  18. Speaking of historical accounts of cohesion in battle, having leader-focused cohesion was not merely a literary device. Armies in premodern – especially feudal – societies often were formed around the person of the leader (a retinue of retinues, as you mentioned elsewhere). Caesar’s soldiers followed him against Roman Republic itself because they had faith in him; and we have multiple accounts of armies breaking apart upon death of their leader, even in cases where they could have continued resistance otherwise (battle of Manzikert was lost when it appeared as if the Emperor had been killed, for example). So it is wrong to attribute it merely to “what the elites valued”; even if it was not always true, there was a significant element of truth to it.

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