Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VI: Is This a Good Sword?

This is the sixth part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. VIII) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. Last time, we looked at Saruman’s siege tactics and found them badly wanting. Even the effective parts of his tactical plan were spoiled by the lack of training, preparation and discipline in his army.

This week, we’re going to take a fun diversion into discussing the weapons and armor on display at Helm’s Deep. How well does the film reflect the actual capabilities of these sorts of weapons and armor? And have Saruman or the Rohirrim brought the right tools to this fight?

This is going to be quite a bit more film-centered than book-centered. Tolkien in his writing doesn’t offer detailed descriptions of most of the equipment of the battlefield, although the words he does use can give us a good sense of what he is imagining. On the other hand, a film has the opportunity to convey a lot of information through the props they use, which naturally leaves more to say. Most of it is…well, not great. It’s not great.

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Swords Out of Central Casting

In both the Two Towers and in the Fellowship of the Ring, we get scenes of Saruman arming his army. I’m actually planning, later this summer, to start a post-series on How Ancient Things Got Made (not just weapons, but tools, clothes, food and so on), so I am not going to descend too greedily or too deep into the details of smelting and forging here. I just want to note one thing I very much like in these sequences, and one thing I do not.

Let’s start with the good: the idea, captured in the orc complaining “we don’t have enough fuel to feed the fires” that fuel is a real limitation to rapidly equipping an army. This is solidly on point.

Book Note: Naturally, this is an element taken from the books, particularly Treebeard’s description of the destruction of his forests, some of it for fuel, some of it for simple wanton destruction (TT, 90-91).

One of the things that even scholars sometimes fail to appreciate is the raw quantity of fuel required to produce iron objects, like swords and armor. Almost every stage of ironworking requires quite a lot of energy in the form of heat, and the energy is provided by burning fuel. While today, we tend to think of coal as that fuel, for much of the ancient and medieval world the most common fuel was charcoal, created through slow-heating wood. Why charcoal and not more raw wood? Charcoal burns more cleanly and can reach higher temperatures, because its partial burn (a process of pyrolysis) has left a nearly pure carbon mass; charcoal thus makes the higher temperatures required for metalworking possible. So you can imagine the fuel inputs to the process to make an iron tool (or weapon) like this:

Don’t get hung up on all these steps – we’ll get to what they are in a series later this summer.

We can quickly get a sense of the scale of this when multiplied over an army. Let’s do some quick back-of-the-envelope estimates. Each Uruk has a sword (perhaps 1.0 to 1.5kg of iron), a pike (the haft is wooden, so perhaps only .5kg of iron for the tip and butt), and their armor. The armor is arsenal plate over mail; something like 15kg is a fair low-ball estimate (cf. this 20kg 15th century harness; note that it has mail voiders, not a complete mail shirt). There are likely a host of smaller metal objects – buckles, fittings, reinforcements for their shields (we can dispense with the film’s apparent all-iron shields; shields are made of wood and are at most, rimmed or thinly plated in metal), so we might round up a bit and assume something like 17kg of finished iron per Uruk.

Estimates for the amount of raw wood required for this process vary; there are a lot of variables. The wood is being converted into charcoal (which involves burning off a fair bit of the wood; 320kg of raw wood might yield something like 80kg of charcoal) and then used in a variety of processes whose fuel consumption will vary based on the quality of the ore, the skill of the smith, and the type of tool being made. But if we follow the figures in Sim & Ridge, Iron for the Eagles (2002), we can estimate as much as 12kg of ore and 14kg of charcoal (from c. 100kg of wood) per kilogram of finished iron (but cf. Healy, Mining and Metallurgy (1978), who comes to much lower figure of 20kg, but does not include bar-smithing or forging in his experiments).

Orcs processing wood in the Fellowship of the Ring. For real metal processing, you would not have big, open fires like this. You want to channel absolutely as much heat as possible from the burning of your fuel into the work you are doing, whether that is heating metal for working or reducing ore in a smelting process. Those big open furnaces are going to allow lots of hot air to escape, carrying lots of precious heat-energy with it, requiring you to cut down even more trees.

So we have 10,000 Uruks who need 17kg of metal a piece, or 170,000kg of finished material total. That in turn is going to require 2.04 million kg of ore (2,040 tonnes) and 2.38 million kg of charcoal (2,380 tonnes). That charcoal will in turn require 17 million kg of raw wood (17,000 tonnes) to be processed. The density of wood varies quite a lot, but something around 500 to 650kg/m3, in the range for pine, chestnut or birch, common fuel woods (cf. Pliny, NH 33.30; Theophrastus HP, 5.9.1-3), that suggests something around 25-30,000m3 of raw wood – a pile of wood the size of nine Olympic swimming pools. And that actually does not include additional charcoal used in case-hardening; that is just for iron gear, not steel. I don’t wonder that the orcs had to cut down huge swaths of Fangorn Forest, I wonder that they could cut down enough of it.

Ancient and medieval societies, I should note, did not accomplish all of this in vast centralized facilities like Saruman here. Instead this economic activity was typically spread out (especially the final blacksmithing phases of production) into lots of little producers; smelting might be centralized around mines though. Even in cases where the state directly engaged in some production, like late Roman fabricae, these were often decentralized. Quite frankly, I find the idea that Saruman could produce so much equipment so rapidly, with such a limited pre-industrial base, less than plausible. The mail shirts alone would have represented a few thousand hours of work apiece to assemble; 10,000 of them might require something like 23 million hours of labor. That’s 5,250 orc-labor-years (assuming 12-hour-work-days) and much of that labor is either skilled or semiskilled. Working the furnaces ‘night and day’ isn’t going to be enough, unless Saruman can conjure thousands of trained orcish smiths.

But that leads to the worst part of these scenes, because if you looked closely at that process chart, you may have noticed that there’s a step we clearly see the orcs do that isn’t there. They are casting equipment, particularly swords. And oh my do you not cast swords.

Sigh. No.

There’s so much wrong here. First, most medieval societies did not have furnaces that could achieve the extremely high temperatures necessary to cast iron (in China they could cast iron at an earlier date, but it wasn’t strong enough for use in weapons). Second, this clearly isn’t molten iron. The color things change as they heat up is a product of that heat; iron, with its extremely high melting temperature, is a brilliant white hot (seriously, look at how much light it throws off) when molten. Iron at this orange color would be soft, fit perhaps for hammering, but hardly molten (as an aside, most ‘casting the sword’ scenes in films use aluminum, because it melts at a lower, safer temperature and has that characteristic orange-glow when it does).

Also no. I do like that there’s a fellow whose job it is to strain off the slag from these casts, but that ought to have been done earlier in the processing and also you do not cast iron weapons.

Second, even if they could use cast iron, they wouldn’t have. Cast iron is brittle. On the one hand, it tends to have a very high carbon content (making it, if not processed, pig iron) which tends it towards brittleness. But also, the hardness and strength of iron actually changes as it is worked (read: hammered or rolled); cast iron has none of that strength, called ‘work-hardening.’ Swords and armor generally demand metals that perform at the very outer limits of their abilities, because they need to be as strong as possible while being as light as possible. Cast iron, which is heavy, brittle and weak, is simply an unsuitable material. A cast iron sword used in combat would likely break.

Finally, why are these molds open-topped? The blade-shape of swords is complex (as we’ll talk about in a second) but the top-side of these cast-iron sword-like-objects is just going to be a flat bar! And it’s no good to say that these problems will be resolved by further forging, because that won’t fix the chemical composition problems, but also – if you were going to forge this iron, why cast it in the first place?

I could go on for quite a bit longer, but I’d be stealing my own thunder for the future. Suffice to say, swords are not made this way. No metal arms or armor really were.

Book Note: The nature of books is such that Tolkien does not need to give us detailed descriptions of arms production at Isengard, but I think what we do get fills some of the holes found in Jackson’s adaptation. Gandalf remarks that Isengard was, during his imprisonment, “filled with pits and forge” (FotR, 312). Treebeard notes that “There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days” (TT, 90). Most of that smoke would actually come not from the forges and bloomeries (charcoal burns cleaner than wood, as anyone who has owned a charcoal grill may attest), but rather from the charcoaling process, which lets off quite a lot of white-grey smoke.

But the other virtue of Tolkien’s account is that it doesn’t require Saruman to produce so much iron equipment so rapidly. First, as discussed below, Tolkien’s orcs and Uruks don’t seem anywhere near so uniformly heavily equipped as Peter Jackson’s. But also, book!Saruman doesn’t seem to have needed to equip his entire army from scratch; many of his forces were lesser orcs or Dunlendings who likely came with their own equipment (though, as we’ll see, the Uruk-hai appear to have distinctive arms which are likely of Saruman’s manufacture). Having a composite force like that reduces the materiel demands on Saruman’s fledgling industry.

Some Not Very Good Swords

But to be fair, if the manufacturing process isn’t so great, then we should note that the swords aren’t very good either. The standard Uruk sword of this slab of iron:

I do have to wonder, why are these orcs smithing while wearing helmets? Helmets are uncomfortable all of the time, and forges are uncomfortable all of the time. Why would you combine them? Blacksmiths do not wear helmets; hell, many of the blacksmiths I know don’t even wear gloves (they tell me you get used to being burned by the sparks after a while and it stops hurting).

There are two types. One type has a single projecting spike at the tip and is wielded with that spike away from the enemy (it is on the ‘short’ or ‘false’ edge). The other type has two spikes at the tip, one at the end of each edge; this type seems to perhaps be larger and possibly intended for use in two hands. Both of these are just very bad designs, and in so many ways it is hard to catalog them all.

Some of the heavier, double-spiked Uruk swords, wielded by the unarmored ‘berserkers.’ I struggle to communicate how rapidly unarmored, unshielded soldiers would die on a medieval or ancient battlefield. And before anyone notes that the Gauls sometimes fought nude, 1) not as often as you think and 2) they used shields.

Let’s start with the tip-shape and those spikes. Now, you do see projections like that on other kinds of weapons (polearms, mostly), where they are using defensively (to catch blades) and offensively (both for hooking attacks and also to deliver concentrated, armor-defeating force to a small single point). But those don’t appear on swords for a reason (and no, the second, smaller set of quillons that appear above the ricasso on some greatswords do not count; they’re much smaller and serve a completely different purpose). Looking at the sword of weapons that have such pick-attachments, they appear on weapons where the weight is concentrated at the head, like the head of a halberd, a bec de de corbin, or a horseman’s pick. Concentrating the mass towards the weapon’s head is essential for maximizing the energy delivered by the impact. Moving the mass forward like that pushes the point of percussion out to the impact point, which needs to be out at the end of the weapon so that you can achieve maximum acceleration through the leverage that the haft of the weapon provides, and finally concentrating the mass at the point of impact ensures that its momentum is delivered to the target (in comparison, for instance, to the weapon-mass in the handle).

Via the Wallace Collection, a warhammer with a pick-end. Note how much of the mass of this weapon is concentrated at its tip (keeping in mind that the wooden haft is much less dense than the iron head).

But the physical dynamics of a sword, particularly a long, cutting sword like these, is completely different. It takes a lot less energy to cut something than to crush through it, so swords are generally less focused on the amount of raw energy delivered. Not unconcerned, mind you; sword designs are still designed to maximize energy delivery, but that has to be balanced with other design concerns! The weight of most swords is more evenly distributed, with a center of balance usually at or near the guard (some cutting-oriented swords will draw the center of balance up the blade, but never anywhere near as far as a warhammer). Having the point of balance close to the hand allows the blade to be easily and precisely wielded, the same way a well-balanced door may be easily opened regardless of its weight. But this very design feature means that the amount of energy that can be delivered with a hit at the tip of a sword is very low; instead, swords are meant to strike at that center of percussion, which is usually about 2/3rds of the way from the guard to the tip (but varies a fair bit, sword-type to sword-type). Well-made waisted swords – that is, swords that widen over the blade – make the point of percussion really obvious; you hit with the thickest part of the bulge in the weapon. But note how far back from the tip that is:

A three-dimensional model of a Greek Xiphos I made (with much help from a friendly engineer!) based off of the measurements of the ‘sword of Beroia’ published in Touratsoglou, L. “Τὸ ξῖφος τῆς Βεροιας: Συμβολὴ στὴ Μακεδονικὴ ὁπλοποιία τῶν ὕστερων Κλασσικῶν Χρὸνων” in Ancient Macedonia IV, 611-51 (1968). It’s hard to see it here, but the thickest point is roughly 10cm from the tip (the entire weapon is 59cm long). I should also note that the actual sword of Beroia has an elegant double-fuller which ends right about where the blade-bulge begins, not modeled here.

But that gets into further problems with this design. The blades of these Uruk swords have no taper. The ‘taper’ of a blade is the term for the way it narrows or thins (the former is known as ‘profile taper’ and the latter as ‘distal taper’) along the blade. Nearly all swords have some sort of taper; those with parallel edges over most of the length often have a pronounced distal taper. This is because of the weight considerations above – the sword blade is much longer than the hilt, so to keep the center of balance close to the hand, the swordsmith must use every possible trick to remove weight (which means removing metal) from the blade itself, without compromising its length. Since the forces on the blade increase the closer you get to the point of rotation (read: the hand), those parts can be made thicker, while the blade can thin as you reach the tip and especially beyond the point of percussion.

If that taper shape leaves extra strength in the lower part of the blade than what is required (perhaps because a wider blade is desired; it can aid in cutting), a fuller – a depression in the center of the blade – may be used, removing material from the center of the blade, so that the strength may be concentrated towards the edges without excess weight. These are sometimes misnamed ‘blood sleeves’ and it is sometimes claimed they have some wound-causing function; they do not. They are entirely about altering the weight and handling characteristics of the sword (plus they look really elegantly cool). Uruk swords also do not feature counter-balanced hilts. The hilts of larger two-handed swords are often very long and feature heavy pommels. While the pommel – a metal mass at the base of the sword – could be used as a weapon, it also functioned to control the weight-balance of the weapon. Long hilts could do the same thing, counter-balancing a longer blade. Again, the Uruk swords have none of these weight control techniques. What that would mean in terms of handling characteristics is that the Uruk sword would be difficult to wield, with almost no gains to striking characteristics.

Another good look at an Uruk sword and heavens look at how thick it is. You could use it as a cricket-bat!

What’s worse is that, while the pick-spikes on these swords would be of limited use in an armor-penetration role, adding them has compromised a sword’s native armor-penetrating ability, the thrust. Put bluntly, these swords have no point. Saruman is facing an enemy that makes heavy use of mail armor, which cannot be meaningfully cut, but can be thrust through and he has equipped his soldiers with swords that cut poorly and thrust not at all. The spikes might be used to hook an opponent’s shield out of place, but otherwise provide little advantage. And still worse yet, on the swords with two of those tip-spikes, they’ll get in the way of a proper drawing cut! Yes, there are forward-curving swords like the kukri, falcata, kopis and kopesh, but those are forward curving, not a forward spike.

But then again, Saruman is not the only apparent sword-idiot here, because we get this scene:

where Aragorn swings around this boy’s sword and then hands it to him, telling him, “This is a good sword, Haleth, son of Háma.” That is clearly not a good sword. The blade is notched in at least 11 places in just the picture below (which only shows half the blade). Here is the thing about good swords: they are, in a sense, precision instruments. They work by concentrating a relatively modest amount of force (swords are not generally that heavy; one handed swords tend to cluster in mass around 1kg) on to a very thin edge in order to deliver a cut. For that to work, the force has to line up with the sharp edge quite precisely (this is called ‘edge alignment’ and is an important skill to learn to wield a sword). Most swords than make use of the ‘drawing’ motion of a cut so that this thin edge slices over the surface it is striking (like sliding a knife through butter) so as to deliver a deeper cut. Notches in the blade defeat all of this; they throw off edge-alignment (because the metal around a notch is likely bunched up or turned up and thus not aligned with the edge generally) and create what are, in effect, little saw-teeth to interfere with the slicing-drawing motion (note, serrated blades sound cool, but defeat the very mechanics by which a sword-cut functions).

Moreover, while I generally give films a pass on the sharpness of their swords, sharpness does matter! Now, films generally use prop-blunts for safety purposes, which I understand – although I wish the actors wielding those prop-blunts would stop opining over how heavy they are. Being blunt, they have a lot more metal in the blade than a real sword would (to create that safe, thicker ‘edge’), making them quite a bit heavier and ruining their wielding characteristics. But this is why I am, for instance, not shredding into the fact that the Uruk swords are clearly not sharp, but rather just flat sheets of metal, apparently almost a full centimeter thick. But all of those notches in this blade mean something else: it is almost certainly quite blunt. Had the blade been properly sharpened, we’d be able to see it in the reduction (but perhaps not removal – some of them are quite deep) of those notches.

Does Aragorn just not know very much about swords, or is he just lying to this poor kid? To be clear, I think we are meant to believe that Aragorn, with his heroic warrior-sense, has divined that this blade, despite its poor appearance, is well-made. And fair enough – maybe coat it in some rust (worn off at the edge where it has been sharpened, mind you!) – but don’t notch the blade! Swords are not ‘good’ out of some mystical quality, they are good because of weight, blade-shape, metal-quality and, yes, sharpness.

The Worst Armor

But none of this ends up mattering very much, because no one’s armor works anyway. I’ve been over this in depth before, so I’ll just summarize briefly. Mail armor can be pierced, as with a spear or sword thrust, or by an arrow, but it is effectively impossible to cut (although a strong blow may deliver some blunt trauma through the armor. Plate armor of even relatively moderate thickness, by contrast, is functionally immune to almost any muscle-powered weapon (which is all Middle Earth has), where it covers, forcing attackers to aim for weak points or gaps, even with arrows.

This fellow’s armor is penetrated by a flying shield. And this is as good a time as any to note the deficiencies of this shield design. First, it appears to be all metal; shields were always made with wooden cores and limited metal reinforcement, except for some very small bucklers. Large, all-metal shields would be far too heavy to be used. Tolkien describes the shields at Helm’s Deep as ‘sable’ (TT, 162), which is a term for a particular black paint used in heraldry. We may safely assume those shields were thus painted wood, not black iron.
The shield shape is also very strange. Despite the popularity of spikes or sharpened shields in fantasy fiction, they functionally did not exist. Most shield bosses were rounded, not spiked, and I cannot think of any shields with sharpened or spiked rims. That’s not to say shields weren’t used as a weapon – being slammed by a boss or jabbed by a rim would be profoundly unpleasant – but they weren’t spiked like this.

Most of these armies are quite well armored. The Rohirrim wear long coats of mail or scale that extend down to cover the knees (a hauberk, when in mail), reinforced in some cases with textile or hardened leather. Given that the Uruks cannot make use of their pikes on the walls or in the keep, this gives the Rohirrim functionally full protection against the remaining Uruk swords because, as noted, those swords have no thrusting point. The Elves and Uruks are even more heavily armored, with the Elves wearing segmented plate armor that covers most of their body and the Uruks wearing a fairly full plate harness (breastplate, pauldrons, gauntlets, bracers, greaves and cuisses) over mail, on of the very rare examples of a film correctly layering the armor.

The foley artist adds a very audible metalic”thwack” to this hit directly into the thick crown of this Uruk’s helmet, so there’s no arguing we’re supposed to think he’s striking something other than metal.

But, of course, you know what happens next, which is that all of these very heavily armored fellows are repeatedly slain by cutting blows delivered directly against their armor. Gimli in particular has a habit of ‘killing’ armored Uruks with axe-blows to the breastplate or by knocking the flat of his axe against helmets.

Gimli, delivering what would be an entirely ineffective blow against a breastplate. Note that if Gimli was using something like the warhammer above, or a pollaxe, this strike might work, as the pick or hammer can focus much more energy into a smaller area of contact.

Meanwhile, Uruks with dedicated (poor) cutting swords routinely cut down elves by striking them directly on their armor. As noted above, swords are not generally that heavy and while the comments enjoy theorizing that either elves or orcs have much greater than average human strength, there is simply nothing in the text to support this. All of the peoples of Middle Earth use the same sorts of weapons and armor; Dwarves and Men (well, wizards) have no trouble wielding Elvish blades and even Frodo and Sam make use of orcish equipment in Mordor. While many of these creatures have supernatural endurance, aside from Ents and Trolls, none of them have supernatural strength. Uruk swords are likely about as heavy as human swords, which is to say 1-2kg, 3kg on the outside for very large dedicated two-handed swords. They aren’t swinging anvils. Simply put, the weight distribution and general lightness of swords makes them terrible tools for delivering blunt trauma through plate armor (be it solid as for the Uruks or segmented as for the Elves); when you did need to do this with medieval European swords, you used the pommel for what was called a mort-strike.

Via the Wiktenauer, a man delivering a mort-strike with a longsword against an armored opponent who appears to be half-swording. Plate from folio 87r of Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch (MS Thott.290.2) now in the Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen.

Because everyone is so heavily armored, much of the close-combat in this battle would actually turn on weapons which could defeat that armor, typically by delivering penetrating thrusts to key gaps. That’s actually quite awkward for everyone involved. Gimli’s axe can’t do it (Legolas’ arrows and knives are a much better fit). The Elves wield two-handed swords which might actually be fairly handy in close-combat; the gentle curve of the blade might inhibit precise thrusts, but if they half-sworded them, I’d expect they could push into the rather large gaps in the Uruk’s arsenal-plate quite well. The Rohirrim’s swords are relatively broad-bladed, which is a liability, but not a fatal one, and they ought to be able to thrust fairly well into the gaps in armor; their spears would be somewhat better, but would be hard to use at the range the Uruks would operate in. And the Uruks, well, they have swords without tips that can’t thrust and pikes they can’t use on the wall, giving them absolutely no offensive options likely to be effective against even mailed, much less segmented-plate-armored opponents.

Thus given how relatively ineffective everyone’s weapons would be, and how much armor everyone is bringing, I’d expect this battle to involve less striking and a lot more grappling, in line with the advice of late medieval armored-fighting treatises. That might benefit the bigger, meaner Uruks, though in practice it would really benefit the fellows on a wall against the guys trying to scale that wall; dropped objects are pretty effective against armor. It doesn’t matter how thick your helmet is if someone just dropped a 10lbs rock on it.

Book Note: The equipment of the Uruk-hai and of the rest of Saruman’s host is almost completely different in the books. I’m not sure if Tolkien’s descriptions were misunderstood, or if the adaptation-decision was made that their equipment had to be more visually distinctive or what.

Merry and Pippin get a good look at the equipment of the Uruk-hai elites when they are captured, “with great bows and short broad-bladed swords” (TT, 63). When Tolkien says a sword is ‘short’ he generally seems to mean shorter than a typical arming sword; I wonder if he had something like the Roman gladius, or even the Cinquedea in mind. In any event, we should note that his Uruks use bows, not crossbows, so that’s another departure for the film.

More complicated is the description at Helm’s Deep (TT, 162) where Saruman’s forces advanced “with high helms and sable shields” and later “Orcs screamed, waving spear and sword, and shooting a cloud of arrows…” We’re later told that those sable shields (that means shields painted black) have the White Hand painted on them. Since Saruman’s force is a composite one here, and Tolkien doesn’t always distinguish, it’s hard to say who carries what. I wonder if Uglúk’s detachment that Merry and Pippin saw is a light infantry force (thus swords and bows, but apparently no shields or spears) but that Uruk-hai heavy infantry was your standard spear-and-shield infantry. Tolkien describes the shields as “great shields” (TT, 163) so I wonder if he really does have the Roman scutum in mind, to go with a gladius.

Nothing is said of their armor, but as a number of commenters on my Siege of Gondor piece have argued (persuasively, in my view), Tolkien is probably imagining mail as the heaviest armor for all of Middle Earth, so it’s probably either mail or textile. In any case, their armor is clearly not uniform, as Gimli notes that only the 43rd orc he slew had an iron collar (TT, 174).

Pikes in the Deep

But the Uruk’s primary weapon isn’t their swords or crossbows. Instead, Saruman’s host is shown clearly using very long pikes. And that’s worth noting. I think the charitable reading here is that Saruman expected to face the Rohirrim not in a siege but in the open field, where Uruk pike formations would be effectively immune to Rohirrim charges. It has been suggested in the comments that Saruman knew all along that the battle would be at the Hornburg; if that is the case (which it clearly is in the film), then film!Saruman is a fool for equipping nearly his entire army with a primary weapon they cannot actually use in a fortress assault.

I suspect part of this was a bit of Total-War-esque rock-paper-scissors thinking about tactics, where pikes beat cavalry. But that misunderstands how pikes are used tactically; pikes are almost always (yes, yes, I see you there, the Swiss, calm down – I said almost) used as part of a larger tactical system with another troop-type or weapon-system, be it as a pinning force to enable cavalry (as in the Macedonian system) or in conjunction with shot and artillery (as in late-medieval and early modern pike systems). The Uruks have nothing like enough crossbowmen to pull off something like the Han Dynasty crossbows-and-Ji-infantry system, nor do they have enough cavalry for a Macedonian style pikes-and-shock-cavalry system (and they have no shot at all!). In an open field battle against the full force of the Rohirrim, rather than small detachments of Westfolders, I suspect the Uruk pikes would find themselves unable to bring the Rohirrim to battle, while the latter peppered them with arrows. Given the poor discipline and low cohesion the Uruks display, I’d expect it to turn out something like Hastings (1066) with Uruks breaking formation and being picked apart in the open as discipline broke down.

The one chance the Uruks get to deploy their full kit during the assault itself is in the Deep after the Deeping Wall is blown, where in the film, there is a sizeable body of Elven infantry waiting for them. The scene that results is a bit of a mess for the interaction of the various elements of the two sides’ kit; at every stage, the result of that collision is not what history or the physics of the battlefield would lead us to expect.

The Uruks are still filing through the gap, there’s not much order and Gimli is in there somewhere. If the Elves can get through the handful of pikes that will be leveled – easy to do since it isn’t a solid wall of them yet – they should overrun this line easily and be able to set a defense in the breach.

Initially, the Uruks surge into the Deep in a disordered pattern, while the Elves are still in good order on a small rise behind the breach. The ground is rough, uneven, and muddy, the Uruks effectively advancing uphill through a shattered creek-bed, exposed to effective arrow-fire and further badly disrupted by opposing an light infantry skirmisher in the form of Gimli landing in the middle of their advance. Forming an effective pike line under these circumstances should be practically impossible. Drilled and battle-hardened pikemen, like Alexander’s veterans or Antigonid phalangites struggled to keep effective formation just advancing in good order on rough ground. This is even harder – these Uruks need to push through the water and the mud, get past Gimli’s crazy disruption and then fan out, essentially transitioning from column into line (a tough thing to do under battlefield conditions), while under fire, with only moments to do it. That’s a near impossible task for elite pikemen; for Saruman’s half-trained, poorly drilled Uruks it seems well beyond impossible. Their order should fall apart, leaving them to drop their pikes and fight with close-combat weapons.

….ooooor the Uruks could all level their pikes in time, despite being disordered on rough ground without officers in the rain and mud and a rushing stream in the dark.
Well, at this point, the Elves are pretty much ruined. That’s a solid wall of pikes, probably several ranks deep. Each swordsman would have to ward 3 or more pike-points to get into range to fight, which is practically impossible, even with a shield, much less without one.

Except that doesn’t happen. Instead, by some miracle of orcish deliverance, Saruman’s Uruks are able to form up and level pikes before the Elves are upon them. At this point, Aragorn’s charge should be doomed. First, he shouldn’t be charging. Films like to show people running themselves up onto pikes; this one does it, so does Alexander (2004). But humans do not voluntarily run themselves through with sharp things and there’s little advantage, once the pikes are level, to rushing in. Rather I’d expect the Elves to either continue to engage the pikes with arrow fire while slowly moving back through the Deep (and rapidly running out of space), or else close slowly and try to bat down the pikes with their swords, while in tight order, to open a wedge to get into close combat. I think the chances of success in either tactic are slim; the Uruks can absorb the missile fire with their strong armor (which again, in the real world, would be quite able to resist most of the fire they are receiving) and pushing through pikes in good order is hard with shields or fully encasing plate armor; without them, it is nearly impossible.

…oooor the Elves all get into close-quarters with what appears to be no difficulty and minimal casualties (we see one fellow get piked, but just one from the look of it). Well then, this is about to be a crushingly lopsided fight, since the Uruk’s primary weapon no longer functions at this range and the tiny gap their reinforcements are coming through is too narrow to support their massive arc of frontage.

Except that doesn’t happen either. The Elves charge through the pike line successfully, taking only a few casualties. This is presumably due to their incredible swordsmanship skills, honed by years of careful practice. And at this point, I say, OK, well, now I definitely know what is about to happen. These Uruk pikemen are now caught in close-combat against heavily armored, highly cohesive opponents whose two-handed, long-hafted swords are basically used half-swording by default and thus should be quite effective in close-quarters making levering, grapple and thrusting attacks against armored opponents. To say that pike formations that get penetrated this way fare poorly is an Olympic gold medal understatement. Having penetrated the Antigonid pike-phalanx at Pydna (168), the Romans traded with it roughly 100 dead Romans to twenty thousand Macedonians KIA (admittedly, many of those after it collapsed into rout, but still you take the point – seriously, Livy’s casualty report is so insane that it occasioned my current research project); Cynoscephelae (197) is almost as lopsided (c. 700 to 18,000), as is Magnesia (190), although that is a much more complex battle and I’m not sure I trust the figures (c. 350 Roman against fifty-three thousand Seleucid KIA). This wasn’t restricted merely to the Romans; the main reason early modern European pike squares often had halberdiers or swordsmen at their center was because these men were extremely valuable in the rare event of a push-of-pike, able to disrupt the enemy formation and make a mess of it. At the very least this should cause the Uruks to collapse and reform on the far side of the wall in a desperate effort to get their pikes between them and the Elves.

And now we are retreating.
I actually really dislike this bit. Book!Gimli is absolutely fearsome. Aragorn, who has seen decades of battle, remarks “Never have I seen an axe so wielded” (TT, 168). In this whole sequence he’s just a joke – he jumps in and gets knocked down immediately and has to be rescued. And then he has to be carried off the field because he wants to charge in like a fool again.
Of the Fellowship, I think Gimli is the hardest done by through the conversion into comic relief. Book!Gimli is surprisingly sensitive, earnest and often quite vulnerable (for instance when he confesses his fear of the Army of the Dead), whereas film!Gimli is an overcompensating comic-relief braggart. I’m struck by how different the end of the Helm’s Deep counting game is; film!Gimli waits for Legolas’ score and then arrogantly tops it, which prompts Legolas to ‘even’ the score in an all-around display of bad manners. Whereas book!Gimli leads with his number, but is mostly focused on his damaged axe and inquires after Legolas, who freely admits that he has lost the game, but that he’s gladder to see Gimli alive (TT, 174). I vastly prefer the heartwarming book scene to the braggadocio of the film.

But no, instead the Uruks, with swords that are literally incapable of effective attack against armor because they cannot give point at all (not having a point to give!) somehow trade more or less evenly with centuries old master-swordsmen wearing segmented plate armor in close combat. We know that the Elves couldn’t have done too much damage because the Uruks can still file through the water-choked breach fast enough to continue pushing out into the Deep despite their losses. This even though the initial Elven push reaches far enough to fish Gimli out of the water (he had jumped from the wall, mind you, and so is unlikely to be more than a few meters from it), easily far enough to break the entire pike line wide open (it’s clear in this case that Peter Jackson has rather lost track of exactly where Gimli would have to be to have fallen into the water). Instead, the Elves are forced to flee the Deep, heading up into the Hornburg where, despite the fact that we clearly see many of them escape, they are never seen again (Jackson has a bad habit of this, with units retreating into the Phantom Zone, forever lost).

Book Note: The description of this moment makes a fair bit more sense in the books. With a gap under the wall, and ladders coming over it, the Rohirrim are forced to retreat backwards in the Deep; given what happens, this is probably in small pockets of shield-walled infantry. The initial rush of orcs is fairly loose (no surprise, given the chaos) allowing some groups to “cut their way” either to the citadel of the Hornburg, or to the caves (TT, 168). Note that the caves in the books are not accessed through the Hornburg, but through the Deep itself. Éomer and Gimli in particular fall back to the caves (TT, 168-9). They hold the narrows of the caves until, when hearing the horn of the Hornburg, they charge out at the same time as Théoden (TT, 172); good signals there. It seems possible that Éomer made some effort to hold the Deep, and just got pushed back as he kept having to back his shield-wall up in order not to get enveloped by the rising tide of enemies. We’re not told because our ‘vision’ remains on Aragorn.

Given the very different equipment involved, I have little problem believing Tolkien’s account. I’d expect the retreating Rohirrim to group together into their levy militias, or around key magnates and their dismounted retinues, forming shield-walls (as we know they do, TT, 156) which could retreat in good order, cutting their way to a defensible position. While Saruman’s host has numbers, it would be hard to mass force in the Deep to be able to effectively challenge these groups quickly, since only so many orcs or Dunlendings can scale a ladder or pass through a small blasted breach at a time.


I’d like to be able to conclude by saying that the choice of mostly pike infantry with just a handful of sword-and-shield infantry (for the gate, mostly) is another example of Saruman making an error consistent with his character. It’s a complicated, highly drill-intensive fighting style that is theoretically very powerful but in practice both unsuited to his army and also the terrain he ends up fighting on. It suggests further flaws not only in the operational plan but in the broader conception of what this army was for, since a siege assault was in its future no matter what happened.

But I just think this is a case were the prop department went with cool, evil looking weapons and didn’t think that much about them. Big, long pikes (and the Uruk pikes are made very long, as long it seems as Hellenistic sarissae, which seems a bad choice for the situation and supporting arms) are intimidating and scary and they make the Uruks look professional and deadly. Lots of black iron everywhere is scary, despite the fact that the Uruks of the books are pretty clearly not this well armored.

This appears to be the unluckiest Uruk ever. Here he is, being killed by not one, but two arrows, both of which have punched through his iron (steel?) plate cuirass, and his mail shirt. Each of these is basically a one-in-a-million hit, based on the testing I’ve seen of arrows against steel breastplates and here he is catching both of them with so much force that they punch through deep.
I’m kidding of course. Like the Gondorian Watchman, this Uruk is fine, both of these arrows bounce off harmlessly (the raised ridge on the edges of his breastplate will save him from a nasty shoulder wound by keeping the arrow from sliding into his armpit).

And I get the problem facing the prop department. If you read the books carefully for details, nearly everyone fights with swords, shields, spears and bows, except for the Dwarves, who have their signature axes (which Tolkien also sometimes calls mattocks, which is to say, axes with a pick-attachment), and everyone effectively wears mail armor with ‘high’ helmets (Tolkien likes this phrasing, which is I think more for emotive impact than an actual description of the helmets, though high crested helmets are certainly a thing). If you represented that range of equipment accurately, you end up with the Total War: Thrones of Britannia problem – too much sameness (I think I am the only person on earth who enjoyed Thrones of Britannia; the critical and fan reception was not kind). They need more visual diversity and the equipment of the books just doesn’t provide it, especially in the dark-blue color-grade that Jackson has chosen to shoot in (because, don’t you know, blue and orange make colors pop).

Compounding this is the simple clear fact that Peter Jackson has a mastery of film language, but not the physics of the battlefield. His scenes are brilliantly staged, but often make functionally no sense as the interaction of men and weapons, from killer arrows to less-than-lethal rock munitions. Likewise, we’ll see next time that Jackson hasn’t quite grasped the morale factors being expressed in the text either. These films are brilliant adaptations, but when Jackson gets into the details, especially wherever he changes the details, he gets into trouble fast. Unfortunately that means, apart from the fun of picking at mistakes, there isn’t much analytical meat to be found here, even in the mistakes.

Not like next week’s topic. Next week: Morale and Speeches!

161 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VI: Is This a Good Sword?

  1. This is a response to a Twitter post; I know it doesn’t belong here, feel free to delete it. I am from abroad and I am not one bit tired hearing you moan about the republic. Quite the opposite, it is great that you do your part in defending “this experiment” as Jim Mattis says. I wish more historians in my country did the same. And no, there is no comfort in gazing on troubles on another shore. But it does feel like Two Towers: forces of darkness attack with force everywhere.

  2. I’m pretty sure Aragorn’s comment about that Rohan youth’s sword being a “good sword” is meant knowingly as a white lie to try to instill confidence in the kid because he feels bad at that moment from having had a scene with Legolas a few minutes previously where basically he and Legolas say that everyone was going to die. I don’t think movie Aragorn actually thinks it is a good sword. But I agree with the rest of your analysis.

    1. Perhaps it was because the kid was the son of Hama who is seen being killed in the Warg attack, and Aragorn decided to tell him a white lie to lift the poor kid’s spirits up before the coming battle.

    2. That doesn’t really reflect well on Aragorn, does it? Sending a kid into battle is bad enough, but giving him a subpar weapon and then lying about it is just cruel. In an earlier scene, Aragorn’s friends took quality weapons and armor from Theoden’s personal stash- why is their safety more important than Haleth’s? The army’s all-important cohesion depends on soldiers’ trust in their leaders, so what happens when word gets around that the strange foreigner who rolled into town a few days ago and is now in command for some reason is telling bald-faced lies about their equipment? (Haleth may be too young to know any better, but there are plenty of adults with battle experience around who do).

      If Aragon’s just reaching for something reassuring to say, well, he has options that aren’t easily-disprovable falsehoods, like the fact that they’re inside a legendary fortress, or that a literal wizard will probably come help soon.

      1. That doesn’t really reflect well on Aragorn, does it? Sending a kid into battle is bad enough, but giving him a subpar weapon and then lying about it is just cruel.

        It isn’t *Aragorn* who’s sending him into battle, or giving him equipment, subpar or otherwise.

        The army’s all-important cohesion depends on soldiers’ trust in their leaders, so what happens when word gets around that the strange foreigner who rolled into town a few days ago and is now in command for some reason is telling bald-faced lies about their equipment? (Haleth may be too young to know any better, but there are plenty of adults with battle experience around who do).

        I expect those adults would be, well, adult enough to recognise that Aragorn was just trying to buck the boy up, and that his reply isn’t indicative on any sort of conspiracy or deep-rooted socio-economic injustice.

        1. _I expect those adults would be, well, adult enough to recognise that Aragorn was just trying to buck the boy up, and that his reply isn’t indicative on any sort of conspiracy or deep-rooted socio-economic injustice._

          Right, but the morale problem is a lot bigger than Haleth. According to him, “the men are saying we will not live out the night.” The battle won’t hinge on one kid’s performance, but on the mood generally. After this conversation, Haleth’s going to go back to his unit- which largely consists of his relatives and neighbors- and tell them about it. The adults are going to hear Haleth say “Lord Aragorn says I have a good sword!” while he shows them a piece of junk. They might be tactful enough not to say anything, but they’re all going to remember it.

          Eomer says this to Aragorn, when they first meet: “‘All that you say is strange, Aragorn.’ he said. ‘Yet you speak the truth, that is plain: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived.'” (TT 28). This is a statement about Rohirrim culture, and also part of Tolkein’s overall thesis on good leadership. (for example, Faramir declares “I would not snare even an orc with a falsehood.” (TT 266)) Eomer and Faramir are both part of the same mold of heroic noble of which Aragorn is supposed to be the prime example. For Aragorn to lead the Rohirrim with comforting bullshit goes against everything we’ve been shown about him and them.

          (And that’s not even getting into how gross it is to “buck up” a child soldier, as though he’s feeling bummed about losing a soccer game and not, y’know, impending death. If you’re asking someone to assume the responsibilities of an adult, you ought to treat them like one.)

          1. I really wanted to find way to theorycraft some defence, but I agree – that is not matching to other things.

            But it is yet another movie-only thing, right?

      2. “In an earlier scene, Aragorn’s friends took quality weapons and armor from Theoden’s personal stash- why is their safety more important than Haleth’s?”

        Bret mentioned this when discussing the different levies and how Rohan’s military is structured – the best equipment goes to the best troops, because they’ll be able to use it most effectively. A logical consequence of this is that the worst equipment goes to the worst troops, like Haleth, who has seen far too few winters, and you just hope he won’t have to use it or can grab a better sword that someone else no longer needs.

        1. (In fact, it sounds like it’s a sign of his parentage that Haleth even has a sword and not a sharpened trowel on a stick.)

    3. I was very surprised Bret dismissed this possibility so swiftly. Just imagine the alternative: “I know you’re nervous, Haleth, but good grief your sword’s a piece of shit.” What kind of leader would demoralize a young soldier like that?

  3. I’m just going to make my own fanon that under Orthanc there were forgotten vaults full of armor, metal billets, and old weapons taken as trophies by the Númenóreans from the people they conquered back when. Makes Saruman’s crash industrial buildup very slightly less implausible.

    I also agree with citizencokane that Aragorn’s “good sword” comment is more concerned with morale that truth.

    1. Saruman’s wizardry is also heavily tied in to metal and crafting of all sorts. If he can enchant the flames to burn hotter for longer, you can solve a lot of fuel issues.

        1. He may be able to enhance and prolong the wood’s burning but not create it from nothing.

          1. Oh, right. I thought you were saying “but then why cut down the trees?”

    Speaking of Uruk swords, the falchion depicted above has slight spikes at the end, not as spiky as Uruk swords but not too far from it. Is it an inaccurate or fanciful depiction?
    I also found these images of messer, which seem exceptionally wide for swords. Would these have been wielded in the same manner as swords, or would their balance and center of percussion shifted towards their tips? And what utility might a falchion or messer have had over a sword with a proper point?

    1. The Maciejowski bible falchion is the subject of some debate in the arms and armor community. Be wary of any weapon that you only see once in artwork; artists occasionally take liberties. Of course the falchion was a real thing, but it’s not clear that scalloped design was popular, and I don’t know that any examples survive? They’re not in the typology charts.

      Falchions and Messers were related types (the difference is actually hilt construction; the Messer’s hilt construction is designed to side-step laws against non-nobles carrying swords, because it is a ‘long knife’). I’d argue they’re designed for use against unarmored targets. The thick blade gives heavy weight to the swing and the gentle curve most have allows for fearsome cuts. So the falchion was a knight’s sword for cutting down peasants while the messer was often a civilian personal-defense weapon; obviously both had other uses and messers start showing up in armies pretty quickly, but that’s the core of the design.

      1. Insofar as I’m aware, the messer’s legal classification as a long knife is actually more to do with the knifemaker’s guild wanting in on that sweet, sweet sword profit. After all, only craftsmen would define a blade by such a detail as how the handle is constructed, and more to the point, there were plenty of laws at the time dictating that a citizen MUST arm themselves, own a weapon, and the like.

  5. I’m really looking forward to that series about equipping armies. I’ve always loved the various forging and equipping scenes in media. It goes all the way back to the blacksmith interface in Lords of the Realm 2 or the opening cinematic of Warcraft II where all the humans are arming themselves. Equipping a large army with any degree of uniformity when your economic base is so decentralized sounds like quite the problem.

    1. haven’t you ever played age of empires? it takes a while, but it’ll get the job done. hahahahaha

  6. Great article, as usual!

    I did however find something interesting, pushing through the appendices at the end of Return of the King on something completely unrelated, and I wish I had discovered it earlier, in some ways I think it very much impacts this line of articles.

    Specifically, in Appendix A, the section concerning “Kings of the Mark”, on the “Third Line” (or dynasty), we have the following paragraph.

    “In 2989 Théodwyn married Éomund of Eastfold, the chief Marshal of the Mark.
    Her son Éomer was born in 2991, and her daughter Éowyn in 2995. At that time
    Sauron had arisen again, and the shadow of Mordor reached out to Rohan. Orcs
    began to raid in the eastern regions and slay or steal horses. Others also came
    down from the Misty Mountains, many being great uruks in the service of Saruman,
    though it was long before that was suspected. Éomund’s chief charge lay in the
    east marches; and he was a great lover of horses and hater of Orcs. If news came of a raid he would often ride against them in hot anger, unwarily and with few
    men. Thus it came about that he was slain in 3002; for he pursued a small band
    to the borders of the Emyn Muil, and was there surprised by a strong force that
    lay in wait in the rocks.”

    For reference, the attack on the Hornburg occurs in 3019. I find the phrase “At that time” somewhat vague, but it’s clear that Saruman was already recruting and arming orcs sometime in the past generation, and that this army is not just a year old. (At least in the books, the movies are of course different). That in turn affects a lot of different things in this line of analysis.

    Can’t wait for the next one!

    1. Well-spotted! Yes, the precise timing of the raids is a little vague, but the dates here set a pretty good upper bound with Éomund’s death in 3002. So Saruman has been making uruk-hai for at least 17 years, probably closer to 20.

    2. Also (at the risk of being a bit gauche and blowing my own trumpet) the statement that they came “down from the Misty Mountains” supports my theory that Saruman had (at least some of) his spawning grounds here, where they’d be close enough to keep an eye on but not so close that Saruman’s involvement would be obvious to external observers.

      1. If Saruman was spawning Uruk-hai in the Misty Mountains, it seems like a massive oversight that the Free Peoples didn’t notice it when they marched out. I don’t see how he could have armed them without the fuel from a nearby forest, or fed them without access to the resources of the rivers and plains, and also not be noticed.

          1. Not to mention the high likelihood that Saruman’s original stock WERE pre-existing misty mountain orcs, and that he gathered them in, asserted control, and eventually began modifying them.

  7. Another excellent article. Thank you.

    One further point; book-Saruman undoubtedly didn’t have the same problems producing all that steel equipment in such a short time as movie-Saruman, not only (as you state) because some of his men would have their own equipment, but more importantly because he had a LOT more time to make it and didn’t necessarily produce it all centrally at Isengard. Appendix B states that ‘Saruman withdraws to Isengard… and fortifies it’ in 2953 (65 years before the War of the Ring). Presumably, this would mean that he was at this point, already making preparations to assemble an armed force. We are not told when he allied himself with the Dunlendings, but, unless I’m misremembering, there’s nothing to suggest that it was just recently as in the film. If his alliance went back a number of years, this would enable him (presumably) to arrange the production of metal objects using the forges, skilled smiths and resources (wood) of Dunland, rather than producing it all centrally in the forges he set up in Isengard.

    Also, we know that Saruman was trading with peoples at some distance (for example purchasing pipeweed from the Shire). It occurs to me that he might have purchased pig iron in a similar way over a period of years from a variety of sources, thus reducing the amount of wood required by his own forges considerably.

    1. I think there may even be a reference in The Hobbit somewhere to some dwarves ‘mining coal’ although from what we know of dwarven settlement distribution nowhere near to Isengard and of use to (films) Saruman needing to engage on a crash armaments program.

      1. Yes, in The Hobbit. Gandalf is replying to Gloin, who has said about Bilbo that “He looks
        more like a grocer than a burglar.” Gandalf reveals that he put the mark on Bilbo’s door, and that if they don’t like his choice, the dwarves can can “stop at thirteen and have all the bad luck you like, or go back to digging coal.” [emphasis mine]

        1. Thanks for rooting the quote out! I had a feeling coal had been mentioned somewhere.

          1. However, as I ruminated on Gandalf’s comment, I realized that the mention of coal could merely be his irascibility expressing itself in response to the dwarves doubting his choice of burgler. In other words, he is denigrating their actual mining operations by comparing them to mining coal (as opposed to silver, gold, or gems).

          2. However, simply having a source of coal is not sufficient to enable its use in iron-making. For the actual reduction of the ore to the metal, where the carbon is a reagent as well as simply a fuel, coal cannot be used; it contains too much sulphur. Coal (once coked) can be used to produce iron (and this has been done since the beginning of the 18th Century), but the high sulphur content of the iron means it can only be used for cast iron; the iron produced cannot be forged. It wasn’t until the 1820s that advances in blast furnace technology enabled coal, rather than charcoal, to be used to make forged steel.

          3. Not till the 1820s for humans. Who are not the pet project and students of Aule the Smith. It’s entirely possible dwarves could coke steel, which might be part of why their work was so esteemed.

      2. “what we know of dwarven settlement distribution nowhere near to Isengard”

        Actually Thorin’s family lived in Dunland for a while, before moving up to the Blue Mountains. Appendix A:

        “He was a little crazed perhaps with age and misfortune and long brooding on the splendour of Moria in his forefathers’ days; or the Ring, it may be, was turning to evil now that its master was awake, driving him to folly and destruction. From Dunland, where he was then dwelling, he went north with Nár, and they crossed the Redhorn Pass and came down into Azanulbizar.”

        “So Thráin and Thorin with what remained of their following (among whom were Balin and Glóin) returned to Dunland, and soon afterwards they removed and wandered in Eriador, until at last they made a home in exile in the east of the Ered Luin beyond the Lune.”

        It’s earlier than Saruman’s fortifying of Isengard, but there could have been other dwarves around.

        1. Also since Saruman was trading with the Shire he might also have buying coal from Dwarves somewhere.

  8. “Having penetrated the Antigonid pike-phalanx at Pydna (168), the Romans traded with it roughly 100 dead Romans to twenty thousand Macedonians KIA”

    wait, I though that all such numbers are fantasy and should not be treated seriously?

    1. I can’t speak for Brett, but my understanding of the current academic consensus is that, while casualty figures for the enemy need to be taken with a grain of salt, they generally convey the scale of the casualties inflicted. The rough percentage of casualties for the friendly side is reasonably consistent where we have good sources for the pre-modern world (1-5%, generally closer to 1-3%), and in some cases we have more or less reliable casualty figures for the enemy (especially Classical Greece) that show general trends that are similar to casualty figures that may be less reliable. The estimate of 20 000 killed at Pydna is probably an overestimate based on eyeballing the bodies (which, as 19th century sources note, leads to a distortion of numbers), but I don’t think anyone would argue that the Romans killed thousands of Antigonids following their rout.

      1. Yes, I think that’s pretty much right. There’s a robust scholarship on the reliability of ancient casualty figures; they vary quite a lot author to author. Livy tries very hard to get his numbers right, and is openly dismissive of clearly inflated figures from the the late annalistic tradition. He is here (and for all of the wars in the East) almost certainly relying on Polybius, who is similarly scrupulous. So while the Macedonian numbers here must be regarded as ‘rough’ they are probably on the right general order.

        Roman numbers in general tend to be better than the pre-modern norm. Roman armies kept detailed rolls and the Roman state had records of who had served and hadn’t in each year (which comes up, Liv. 24.18.8-9, when the census is checked to find all of the adult men who had evaded military service), so they might have both a good sense of their own strength and of KIA and WIA. On the flip side, Roman commanders who wanted the honors of a triumph needed to keep track of enemy KIA or captured, because certain amounts were required for a triumph (and EVERY Roman general wanted a triumph); a general might fudge those figures a bit, but they could not be wholly invented, given that the battle would be witnessed by thousands of citizens.

        That said, each battle’s sources need to be assessed individually. The annalistic tradition (which survives mostly in fragments) is very unreliable. So are much later sources unless they are clearly working from an earlier source. Consequently some battles are a complete trainwreck (Actium comes to mind as being a total mess) whereas others, I think the numbers are quite secure (I have an article forthcoming in Historia which goes into some detail on why I think Polybius’ figures for the First Punic War are broadly reliable).

  9. Here are some proofreading corrections for the post above:

    descend too greedly or too deep -> descend too greedily or too deep
    scholars sometimes failure to appreciate -> scholars sometimes fail to appreciate
    Let’s go some quick -> Let’s do some quick
    and are a most, rimmed -> and are at most, rimmed
    hours of work a piece -> hours of work apiece
    either skilled or semi-skilled -> either skilled or semiskilled
    (making it, if not processes, pig iron) -> (making it, if not processed, pig iron)
    Caption for Greek Ziphos: A three-dimension model -> A three-dimensional model
    and the later as ‘distal -> and the latter as ‘distal
    Caption for “flying shield”: fantasy fiction, the functionally did not exist -> fantasy fiction, they functionally did not exist
    Caption for Uruks in the gap: there’s no much order -> there’s not much order
    disrupted by opposing light infantry skirmisher -> disrupted by an opposing light infantry skirmisher
    know what its about to happen -> know what is about to happen

    Comment on Aragorn telling Hama “This is a good sword, Haleth, son of Háma.” That is clearly not a good sword.
    Well, of COURSE NOT. It has been made (by the props department) to clearly show even the most inexperienced viewer HOW BAD IT IS.
    Does Aragorn just not know very much about swords, or is he just lying to this poor kid?
    Yes, he is lying. As other posters have already mentioned above, he has seen that there are many weapons being issued to this rag-tag civilian remnant that have not been properly sharpened because there are too many and not enough time. A fault of Erkenbrand, who is actually in charge of this fortress and presumably, the upkeep of its cache of arms.

    1. Fixed!

      As for the part with the sword, what I actually think we’re supposed to understand from that scene is that Aragorn swings the sword around and discovers that, despite its old and worn appearance, it is actually a good sword (in some almost mystical sense), as a thematic mirror for the Rohirrim in general and his decision not to despair. emotionally, it connects to the next scene: Aragorn gives hope to this kid, and then we see Legolas saying he was “wrong to despair” as everyone gets ready to fight.

      The ‘swinging the sword around and then saying it’s good” thing shows up in all sorts of movies (Conan and Chronicles of Riddick come immediately to mind); I think we’re meant to understand that he is discovering some hidden qualities to the weapon. Sure, in a military sense, it’s silly, but in film logic, it works OK. Honestly, they just needed a rusted-but-sharp sword from the prop department. And of course the Rohirrim, with their hidden strength, win both this battle and the next – remember that “waking up to find that they are strong” is a theme, particular in this film (Theoden, the Ents, Rohan generally, Pippin’s moment of courage, Faramir’s aristeia in resisting the ring).

      1. Is it necessarily silly in a military sense? I’m not an expert, but if a sword is well-balanced, it seems like the best way to tell this would be to swing it around a bit and see how it feels in your hand. And I think a well-balanced sword could reasonably be described as “good”, even if needs a bit of sharpening and polishing to get back into a battle-ready state.

        1. Oh, swinging a sword is a good way to get a sense of its balance, yes. I didn’t mean that was silly. I meant that an otherwise rusty mess of a sword could be declared good based on such a test. There’s more to a sword than its balance. You cannot generally see or feel metal quality, for instance (though lots of notches might suggest a lack of hardness). This comes up in the study of La Tene swords, some of which are pattern welded, but absent testing, we talk about them as ‘streaky’ or ‘not streaky,’ because the characteristic streaks of pattern-welding (which would likely indicate a better steeled blade) can be faked in production.

        2. I suggest that Aragorn the professional warrior who actually picks up and swings this sword is a much better judge of quality than someone just looking at it.
          An otherwise old and rusty sword that has maintained good balance and is still straight (Aragorn looks along the blade IIRC) implies that it is also good quality metal and well made. When steel and swords are made by hand, quality varies a lot.
          Nicks in the blade aren’t great, but I doubt they’ll affect the balance as much as you suggest. And Aragorn knows that this kid is going to be stabbing orcs with the point, not trying for draw cuts.
          For a modern day equivalent, cricket bats and other sporting clubs and rackets. You can’t tell a good cricket bat from bad just by looking at it. A cricket bat has to be swung with precision tens or hundreds of times in a match, with repeated impacts against a hard ball, but even well paid professional cricketers who could buy a new bat every week if they wanted to will often be seen using a favourite bat that has cracks and chips and patched with tape.

      2. I don’t think it’s either lying or silly. Haleth isn’t making or choosing a weapon, in this scene, so accordingly Aragorn isn’t comparing the technical merits of better or worse swords. Rather, Aragorn is making a practical point about fighting – that the fine swords Haleth has seen carried by the riders or heard of in tales of heroes cannot help him against tonight’s orcs; for that, the sword in Haleth’s hand right now really is the best sword.

        It’s also a point about warfare that is well made in the earlier posts on this blog: Helm’s Deep isn’t chiefly decided by the relative merits of the combatants’ weaponry, but in larger part by morale, terrain, and tactics. Weapons like Haleth’s are sufficient to force there to be a contest at all, and then the battle will be a matter of Saruman’s forces having to cross defended fortifications, uphill, at night, in the rain, against armoured opposition who have their families present and no opportunity to flee. Aragorn can see this, as perhaps Haleth can’t, and that’s the context in which I interpret these lines. I like this scene.

        How poor would Haleth’s sword have to be to make me fancy my chances better as J Random Orc climbing a wet ladder in the dark? Worse than that one, I think.

    1. Sadly, most Hollywood armor is evidently a fashion accessory.

      I’d love to see someone make a TV or movie series set in a “medieval” setting where in armor actually works, and good armor plates are nearly impervious. Let the skilled characters show their skill by finding the gaps, picking weapons that work against the armor they’re faced with, knocking their foes over and pinning them down, etc.

      1. This comment just reminded me of ‘Locksley’ complaining in the abridged novel version of Ivanhoe (by Walter Scott) about De Bracy’s ‘Spanish steel-coat’ which Locksley’s arrows do just bounce off.

        1. I’ve always liked the bit in GOT where Ser Jorah defeats a dothraki by catching the blade on his armour.

          1. Problem is, at least in the TV series, we routinely see blades plunging through armor like it’s a fashion accessory.

          2. Selmy beats Khrazz the same way, right (books – I stopped watching the show after season 4)?

  10. Regarding the one-handed uruk swords, have a look at the Maciejowski bible falchion; it’s essentially the same shape, but has more spikes and is even more tip-heavy. The design lends itself well to simplistic but very brutal draw cuts, perfect if facing unarmoured, unskilled fighters such as general levy. It also just doesn’t work well for stabbing, as the overly heavy tip loves to drop, so the absence of a stabbing point is acceptable. That said, for a weapon like that to work you NEED a hooked hilt, as otherwise it slips out of your hand. I’ve not had a chance to play with one, but I have used a Greek kopis before and the fighting style does work.

    I should note that the historicity of the Maciejowski falchion is heavily disputed ’cause there’s a lot of dodgy stuff in there, but most of the weapons have either archaeological finds or sightings in other manuscripts to back them up. I’m told you can find a similar falchion in other sources, but I haven’t seen it.

  11. “why are these orcs smithing while wearing helmets?”

    My immediate thought was “so the helmet doesn’t get stolen while he’s working.” The orcs are poorly disciplined, and Saruman (assuming he hears about the theft) is likely to say something like “to the stronger go the spoils” while nodding approvingly.

    1. Hah! Probably not far off the mark. Even the more disciplined Mordor Orcs are prone to fighting over loot, as we see later, so no doubt Saruman’s rabble are even worse.

    2. Why are the orcs smithing while wearing helmets? Because the helmets cover the awkwardly bare area between the rubber orc-face and the wig. I’d call it a costume design error.

    3. Of course, smithing is a skill that takes a long time to develop. If soldier-orcs are forging weapons and armor, it could only mean that they are not born and raised as soldiers. Realistically, being a smith is a rare enough skill that it’s likely these orcs would not be wasted as line infantry.

  12. For several reasons, I think it would have been better to arm most of the movie!Uruk with different pole arms, warhammers, and such. They’d have been better than the rough heavy counter-effective swords we see, would have been better against the horsemen of Rohan, and would have been far more fitting a quick arming of a from scratch force, using more of the cut-down wood for hafts and stretching the iron/steel making capacity of Saruman’s forges across a greater number of weapons. Long pikes probably weren’t the best pole arms for many of the situations the Uruk find themselves in.

  13. The flat of an axe swung against a helmet wouldn’t still potentially cause massive blunt force injuries to the head? I wouldn’t feel very comfortable having a metal chunk swung into my skull just because I had a helmet, I’d expect a concussion and a skull fracture.

    1. A lot depends on how the hit lands. The thing is, axe-heads aren’t huge, thick heavy things in the real world. Not battle or war axes. They’re fairly small and very thin. Contrary to many video-games, axes are not just sharp maces.

      That said, a solid hit to the head can absolutely cause serious damage through a helmet and helmet-liner (*always* assume helmets are lined). But delivering a solid hit to the head is hard (small, moving target that can easily tilt away from you to cushion the impact); the helmet just complicates that.

      1. What a helmet does, assuming it has sufficient padding between the outer surface and the skull, is diffuse the blow somewhat. (With cycle helmets and motorbike helmets and racing car helmets, the helmet is designed to absorb the blow by breaking. A war helmet does not have that luxury.)

        Of course, one must also recognize the effects of even minor concussion on an opposing soldier. It makes him slower, less agile, less aware, etc. And thus changes him from being an asset to being a liability. Maori for example, in pre-contact society, had no edged weapons – their warfare was based firmly on the principle of concussion and contusion. Changing an enemy from an asset to a liability had a long-term effect in a stone-age society. When the collected proverbs indicate how valued an active contributor to village life was, it’s easy to see how sufficient battle-damaged warriors would demoralize a village.

        1. There are, from what I’ve read, modern weapons, such as some landmines, are intended to maim, not kill, on the basis that there are more resources used in keeping a severely injured soldier alive than dealing with a corpse, and that the severely injured soldier may be unable to work, serving as both a drain on the enemy’s economy and as a demoralizing reminder of war.

  14. Just in case you want textual support for your assertion that elves are not stronger than men:
    Simarillion Chapter 12
    “In those days Elves and Men were of like stature and strength of body, but the Elves had greater wisdom, and skill, and beauty”
    “But Men were more frail, more easily slain by weapon or mischance, and less easily healed; subject to sickness and many ills; and they grew old and died”

    I looked this up because I would have sworn that Tolkein explicitly said that Elves were stronger, but I was wrong.

    1. You also have certain implications. For instance, when the Fellowship are portaging their boats near Rauros, it takes the strength of the two men to lift the boats and haul them over the rocky track, and Legolas and Gimli aren’t mentioned. In Children of Hurin, Turin is mentioned to be as agile as any elf, and far stronger.

      Granted, these are exceptional humans, but then again they often tend to hang out around exceptional elves too.

    2. OTOH he angrily described Legolas as immensely strong.

      A problem is that Tolkien isn’t always consistent, especially if you compare texts from across decades.

      1. Yep! nice catch!
        Although it is also implied that Legolas’s main weapon is a longbow, which tends to build up a lot of strength as you train to use it, especially as a war bow with the higher draw weights used for that purpose. So it may just be someone of different skills going up against a skilled longbowman of whatever race or species.

        and yep, there’s def a lot of inconsistencies as ideas were tossed around from draft to draft! So there’s a lot of room to work with.

    3. I find it a bit strange that Eru, the Tolkien’s invented God, made his second children (Men) worse than first children (Elves). Normally when you practice something you get better at it. Doesn’t it look like Eru is getting worse over time? There’s a ton of things that get worse over time in Middle-Earth (And Aman/Valinor), but… does it extend to God too?

      1. Both were planned from the beginning. There is no “practice” for an eternal being. Men are inferior by design, probably so Elves can have the honor of safeguarding them. Though some of man’s weaknesses are probably due to Morgoth’s marring.

        1. Myths in general tend to glorify the past and make subsequent stuff less and less impressive. Golden age, silver age, bronze age. Garden of Eden and the banishment. Before and after Pandora’s Box. Degeneration just is.

          But I do find your explanation convincing. Assuming a perfect God, and the catholic one is presented as such, there is no room for getting better. It could be different if Middle-Earth was inspired by Norse or Greek myths.

          1. Don’t forget the Renaissance and the Noble Savage and what r/BadHistory calls The Chart—modernity is as prone to myth-making as any other society, it’s just one of our myths is about how we don’t.

          2. There is a quaint notion out there that totalitarianism represents a rejection of the “Enlightenment”, when in fact that was the age of the witch-hunts and the beginning of the totalizing state. It’s doubly ironic because the same people who lionize the Enlightenment say one of its strengths was rejection of the idea of a Golden Age, but A, it was just as classicist as the Renaissance and originated the Noble Savage, and B, they are themselves making the Enlightenment out to be a Golden Age. (In reality it should’ve automatically been disqualified as one, because people who lived during it declared it one—never trust anyone who declares their own era to be a Golden Age.)

      2. In fact, Men are seen as better than Elves, even by the Elves themselves, because Eru has given them “the gift of death”. Which of course doesn’t sound pretty great for everyday life, but is connected to Tolkien’s catholic-inspired metaphysics. When Men die, they are implied to enter (christian? In-Universe proto-christian?) Paradise, while Elves ultimately either live an eternal physical existence in Aman, the continent in the West where they live forever without the… transcendental happiness? of the “true paradise”, or they stay spirits that ultimately dissolve to nothing.
        So, from Tolkien’s point of view, Men are metaphysically and in the long run of eternity “better” than Elves, which seemed to be more important to him than physical capability.

        1. It’s clear that no one, Elf, Man, or Ainur, knows what happens to Men when they leave the world. It is a gift of Eru, and that is what they have to base a belief that it is good on.

          Arwen, at Aragorn’s death, has come to pity the Númenóreans who tried to invade the West, because the gift is very bitter.

          1. The gift is bitter–to her–because she did not have the faith/confidence Aragorn did that they would see each other again.

    4. And then you have “not though Elf or Dwarf should forge the steel or the hand of Beren or Turin wield it.”

      In tLotR, I assume Tolkien put humans higher on the physical strength scale then the Elves.

      1. The full sentence (and the one before it) runs ‘…Knobbed and pitted with corruption was her age-old hide, but ever thickened from within with layer on layer of evil growth. The blade scored it with a dreadful gash, but those hideous folds could not be pierced by any strength of men, not though Elf or Dwarf should forge the steel or the hand of Beren or of Túrin wield it…’
        That’s the 1987 impression of The Two Towers. I don’t know if a subsequent ‘Christopher Tolkien approved edit’ has changed the sentence, but the super-elves school of thought can point to the fact that it says nothing about an elf not being strong enough. Although the latter part of a later sentence (same impression) says ‘…and so Shelob, with the driving force of her own cruel will, with strength greater than any warrior’s hand, thrust herself upon a bitter spike…’
        So ‘men’ are inadequate in terms of strength to pierce Shelob’s hide, and Shelob is stronger than any warrior, but there’s a grey area in between Shelob and ‘men’ in terms of strength into which elves (and elvish warriors) might fall.
        If Elrond had sent Pippin home from Rivendell, and Glorfindel had accompanied Sam and Frodo to Mordor, we would have a definitive answer… (Maybe for that matter we do have something in a Tolkien letter of how ‘Glorfindel vs Shelob’ would have gone?)

        1. That he mentions the two strongest warriors in Middle-Earth being men is significant – the Elves and Dwarves were the smiths who forged the weapons, the two heroes being mentioned are men. It doesn’t indicate that the Elves were any stronger than men, just that they were much better smiths.

          1. OTOH no human killed a revised Balrog in single combat, like Ecthelion or Glorfindel. Could any human have done that? Or dueled Morgoth like Fingolfin did?

  15. On dwarves, axes and mattocks:

    I’ve heard a lot that the stereotypical dwarf-with-an-axe makes no sense, as an axe is neither a mining tool nor particularly suited to fighting in confined spaces.

    Where this claim goes wrong is that an axe is, in fact, a mining tool. Pre-modern miners need large amounts of wood for pit props, ladders and various machinery (hoists, pumps, etc), and they need axes to cut that wood. Central European miners’ guilds carried ceremonial axes- not picks or hammers- on parade.

    Of course, the need for wood in a mine also explains the antipathy between dwarves and elves…

    1. From Of Aule and Yavanna:

      “Then Yavanna was glad, and she stood up, reaching her arms towards the heavens, and she said: ‘High shall
      climb the trees of Kementári, that the Eagles of the King may house therein!’
      But Manwë rose also, and it seemed that he stood to such a height that his voice came down to Yavanna as from
      the paths of the winds.
      ‘Nay,’ he said, ‘only the trees of Aulë will be tall enough. In the mountains the Eagles shall house, and hear the
      voices of those who call upon us. But in the forests shall walk the Shepherds of the Trees.’
      Then Manwë and Yavanna parted for that time, and Yavanna returned to Aulë; and he was in his smithy, pouring
      molten metal into a mould. ‘Eru is bountiful,’ she said. ‘Now let thy children beware! For there shall walk a power in the
      forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril.’
      ‘Nonetheless they will have need of wood,’ said Aulë, and he went on with his smith-work.”

    2. Axes for dwarves don’t make sense for other, more pragmatic reasons. Short reach, magnified by dwarves’ short height. They would be absolutely hopeless without a shield. It would be simpler to just use another weapon, especially a polearm.

      Skallagrim explores the topic in this 21 minute video:

  16. I don’t think the lumber Problems are as serious as you think they are. A quick calculation: Assume 0.1 Trees per m^2 , that makes 100.000 trees per km^2. At 100kg per tree, that makes 10.000.000kg = 10.000 tons per km^2.
    This website gives about twice that number for natural pine Forest:
    Fangorn Forest has a size of about 80 * 80 miles, according to this website:
    Sarumans lumber requirements require only about 1/10.000 of fangorn forest.

    1. The problem isn’t the scale of the forest. Iron-age deforestation was slow and steady; it did not happen in a year. Absolutely, Fangorn is large enough, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying it’s a wonder they could cut down enough of it, whatever size it might be.

      Because the problem is cutting down the trees. Cutting down a mature tree with a chainsaw is already a task; you have to notch it, and wedge it, and then finally cut it down, then you have to limb it, then section it off. Then it needs to be carried back. With a chainsaw, that’s a lot of labor. With nothing but iron axes and hand-saws, it’s a TON of labor. Cutting down trees is hard. Is it doable? Sure, with hundreds or thousands of orcs, yes.

      But that’s in addition to the orcs manning the forges and the ones manning the furnaces and the ones doing the charcoaling and the orcs building all of these facilities and the orcs moving all of this stuff. And then the support personnel feeding, housing, clothing those orcs. Labor is the limited resource, not timber.

      1. Clearing forest with saws and axes is hard, but not that hard. Medieval lords would regularly offer patches of woodland to peasants on favourable terms provided they cleared the land and established fields and a village (assart). Large areas of Australian forest were cleared with a decade or so of first settlement (sufficiently so that by 1830 the first effects of salinity were being noted) – and Australian trees are some of the hardest wood around. These were done by hundreds – not thousands – of people. New Guinea people cleared new fields every 20 years or so with stone axes.

        Fire helps. Saruman’s orcs could fell trees and make charcoal on the spot for the forges of Isengard.

      2. I noted the importance of “degree in forestry management orc” (who also highlights other flaws in Saruman’s management style) in a previous post.

  17. I have the “The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare” book (Smith 2003) that provides pictures and in-universe descriptions of how the weapons used in the film were designed. The book has a forward from Daniel Falconer and Richard Taylor of Weta Workshops, but I’m not sure to what extent the book actually reflects what the prop department was thinking during their design process. I hadn’t read the book in a while, so I went back to see what it said about the design of the Uruk-Hai swords:

    “[The swordsmen] were equipped with a brutal, one-handed falchion resembling a meat cleaver, which had a spike on the back of the blade for hooking and stabbing. Saruman knew that his Uruks would likely be facing the Riders of the Rohirrim, and so added the spike, which could be used to stab and disembowel their horses, or to hook the cloak of a passing rider, pulling him to the ground; against infantry, the spike could be used to punch through armor. Like every item in the Uruk arsenal, the three-foot weapon was designed along straight lines. The blade was single-edged so the edge could be sharpened quickly on a grindstone.”

    Smith also asserts that “it has been found that the metal was not simply cast iron, so there must have been some beating and working done to avoid its potentially brittle quality,” though, so at the very least he was given space to embellish beyond / contradict the evidence that’s actually in the movie.

    Your (excellent, as always!) post provides a far more credible analysis of how the design and construction would have actually worked, but hopefully it’s interesting to see how the prop department asserts the swords were meant to work.

  18. I know nothing about the physics and engineering of sword but I am happy to see my ‘what the heck?’ gut reaction to those very odd orcish swords was justified.
    As for the kid’s sword , I am willing to accept Aragorn’s judgement over appearances because obviously equipment goes by rule of cool in the movies. The battered rusty swords swings good, it’s cool.

  19. Regarding forests:

    I live in Connecticut which is, now, quite heavily wooded, but it was mostly deforested by the early 19th Century. Fuel and clearance for agriculture were the major causes of this.


    Iron production was, until the later part of the 20th Century, also very sensitive to ore quality. Many iron ores contain sulfur and phosphorus, both of which are quite damaging to steel quality, making the steel brittle. The properties of the ore are considered in the historical metallurgy community (there is such a thing) to be one of the reasons for the quality of Damascus steel (the ore actually seemed to originate from India; see

    Ultra-high carbon steels are a very active area of current research; both Damascus steel and the steel used for samurai swords fall into that category (

    Many people, including film makers, don’t know how much more is known about making everything involving iron with various admixtures than was known in the 19th Century, let alone by people in the 14th. Maybe a 21st Century foundry could produce cast steel sword blanks, which would need some post-processing, but it’s more likely they would produce them by cutting (possibly stamping) the blanks out of hot-rolled stock, then hardening and tempering them.

    1. Based on how other steel tools are produced today, I think pragmatic 21st century swords would be made by machine forging blanks (since you need a 3-D shape) and then hardening and tempering.

        1. Also how the Imperial Japanese military made its swords, I believe, and how the swords for practitioners of martial arts that perform real cutting (of targets not people) are made.

        2. That’s what I’d expect. Although there seems to be a certain amount of mythologizing about how actually-good modern swords are made that doesn’t match up with my knowledge of steel.

  20. Thanks for this post. I always hated the elf charge scene along with the charge into the Oliphants at Pelennor. They are the scenes for our herores to heroically charge to show how brave they are in the face of overwhelming odds. Always felt like the elves should have met the Uruks early before they could form up or retreated into the keep. That is what keeps were for as I understand it. The charge into a pike wall thing is just painful.

  21. Fun fact 1: I heard you can actually cast swords *as long as you make them out of bronze*. Bronze is cast-friendly.

    Fun fact 2: one of the most realistic movie sword fights is (as judged by Skallagrim) the one from the Polish movie “The Deluge” (Potop). Polish actors used to have mandatory fencing and riding lessons. Check out on youtube. Those were real, although not very sharp, sabers. The duel was largely improvised.

  22. I have sometimes wondered whether “mithril” is just Elvish for aluminium or titanium.
    Given a few thousand years and occasional magic, might Elves at least have worked out how to use these metals?
    Could aluminium or titanium be used in small amounts, eg mail links, arrowheads, spearheads? Or larger things such as sword blades and helmets?

    1. Aluminum is too soft for most of these purposes. Titanium likely would work well, but it does not fit mithril very well:

      – It’s not silvery enough.
      – It’s really hard to work, while mithril is supposed to be a wonder-material that can be worked very well.
      – The ore is common, but it’s hard to smelt into metal, while mithril is supposed to be only found in Moria.

    2. Aluminum is very difficult to separate from ore chemically; it binds to oxygen more tightly than does carbon. It wasn’t until the Hall-Héroult process was developed that it could be mass produced. Since no one in Middle Earth seems to have discovered electricity, mithril is not aluminum (aluminum-based armor does exist). At the beginning of the 19th Century, aluminum metal was more expensive than platinum. Titanium was discovered in 1791; it wasn’t isolated until 1910 and wasn’t mass produced until 1947. Unless Tolkien was watching the technical literature, it’s unlikely he would have any significant knowledge of titanium.

      Mithril was just one of those fantasy metals that is a common trope for sf/f authors.

  23. I find the scene with Aragorn and Haleth moving. Aragorn has been in a bad funk since getting to the castle. He fell off a cliff, he’s recently broke up with his girlfriend, and he thinks he’s failing at his job. He gets into a fight with his friend (Legolas) and has to go think. Haleth comes to Aragorn to ask if he, and everyone else, is going to die. This is the moment when Aragorn snaps out of his funk and remembers he is supposed to be a leader. Yes, he lies to Haleth. He is about to lead an army that has a bunch of child conscripts outfitted with whatever the armorers could scrounge up. And then he goes to armor up, and make peace with Legolas. And then the cadre that has been drilling for 3000 years shows up, and it looks like they might have a chance.
    I have watched the bonus stuff on the DVDs and the prop department built all the swords with shock absorbing material in the hilts, so none of them broke. Blame John Millius (Conan) for making people think you cast swords. But really, the Anvil of Crom title sequence is visually brilliant. Another thing you learn from the bonus discs is that all the orc actors were black belt or better martial artists. In fight between Aragorn and Uglik in the end of Fellowship, the actor doing Uglik forgets to not throw the knife directly at Viggo Mortensen. What you see in the film of him swatting the knife away with his sword is Viggo reflexively defending himself.

  24. The scene where Aragorn judges the sword was supposed to be morale-building, I think. If there’s so much controversy surrounding it and we debate not just if he acted right but also what it was supposed to mean, the scene is a failure. Aragorn is not convincing in that one, and he should be more than that – he should be inspiring. Peter Jackson should have come up with something else.

    1. A bunch of geeks concluding it’s not accurate is not exactly a fair sampling of the intended audience — and not all the geeks have thus concluded.

    1. There’s more than one Haleth. This is who Haleth son of Hama is named after, a prince of Rohan whose father gave his name to Helm’s Deep –

      The Haleth in question has a male name from Old English that literally means “warrior”, so having a Haleth from the first age with the same name but an entirely different etymology (Sindarin rather than Old English) is simply a coincidence.

      1. In addition, we should point out that the character from the First Age had originally been conceived by Tolkien as being a male warrior, so one could argue that it is a man’s name that was used for a woman who assumed leadership of her people. There is no etymology for the language of the Folk of Haleth, so most fans default to assigning the Old English meaning.

      2. I’m very suddenly reminded of “Misha” being a male diminutive in Russian and a female diminutive in some other Slavic languages (Czech, I think, but I don’t recall with confidence).
        An NPC in World of Warcraft has an animal companion with this name, and confusion about the companion’s sex is unending.

  25. I always wonder, particularly watching the Clone Wars cartoon, why anybody in Star Wars bothers to wear armor. They’re constantly getting one-hit KO’ed through their helmets.

    1. I always assumed that stormtrooper armor is also a pressure suit for use in vacuum. And they wear it planetside because of inflexible regulations.

      1. If you punch a pressure-suit helmet you’re still going to break your hand long before you knock its wearer out.

      2. One would think pressure suit helmets would also be designed to resist small, very high speed projectiles. It’s amazing what one gram of something (it doesn’t matter what) moving at 10,000 m/s can penetrate.

    2. (This is 100% stupid techbabble)
      The armour those people wear is designed to difuse “Blaster-Beams”, and not espacially useful against blunt trauma. Just like an kevelar vest might catch, low energy bullets quite well, but offers little protection against a knife.

  26. Enjoying the blog as per, Bret.

    The elf charge really interested me – do you have any recommendations for reading on meetings between Hellenistic and Celtic warfare? I’m thinking battles á la Ptolemy Keraunos, when sarissa-based armies were swept away, but I can’t find much detail on how tactics would have worked.

  27. “The shield shape is also very strange. Despite the popularity of spikes or sharpened shields in fantasy fiction, they functionally did not exist. Most shield bosses were rounded, not spiked, and I cannot think of any shields with sharpened or spiked rims.”
    The one that comes to mind is the German “Hungarian Shield” for duelling, which looks like a prop from Max Max.

    1. Duelling weapons were their own thing and sometimes had no place on the battlefield. For example a few treatises described techniques for fighting with a greatshield – that is, a 2-handed shield. These are not depicted anywhere else, and seem to be specialized weapons for civilian duels. Just like treatises show how a duel between a man and a woman should look like (Hans Talhoffer; also some illustrations here ).

      1. Yup, the big Duelling Shields are almost bat’leth-esque in complexity. The “Hungarian” duelling shield as used in Germany probably did evolve from the pre-existing battlefield one though, and I suspect a blending of the two might have been the inspiration for the Uruk one.

  28. I’ve spent 30 odd years now fighting with pike and polearm. Frankly, the thing that gives pikemen the screaming ab dabs is polearms. As you point out Bret, past the tip and its a useless stick; not unusual when a musketeer passes the point for the pike man to drop it and just rush the sod as its the only chance hes got. Where polearms come in is this: face enemy square on, hold polearm vertically in front of you, with one hand at shoulder height and one at waist height. swing it it short fast jabs left and right (keeping it vertical). Walk forward, as you reach the tips off the pike they are just swept out of the way – being a 15ft lever you have a mechanical advantage of about 5:1, and just sweep the lot aside, even to 2 or 3 ranks back makes no difference (deeper than that and rear ranks just cannot engage there’s no space for them; we usually port pikes and infill for casualties in rear ranks) . If you are suicidal/ balls of steel/ full clanky with a well trusted retinue behind you on a hill called flodden feel free to angle off at about 45 degrees as you run forward- you rip a hole in the pike points 10 foot wide for your comrades to flood (hopefully fast enough to save your hide) . If you are skilful and have a large shield, its possible to do something similar with that: squat down, angle shield back around 45 degrees and try to get all of you behind it. Shuffle forward (or let them come to you) and then explode forwards and upwards at 45 degrees- you push everything ahead of you upwards on the same mechanical advantage basis- but you need to get your timing spot on or you get kebabed. So for experienced elves dealing with a dodgy Uruk pike block would not be an issue.
    Oh yes spot on about the impacts of terrain – anything-absolutely anything that disrupts the cohesion – mud, bushes, rocks, rabbit holes means the tips of the pikes dont form a continuous line and the opposition can exploit it to get in. The flanks need protecting too (we use officers either side with polearms)

    Does all this suggest that Saruman was expecting a field battle not a siege ie pikes, lack of siege equipment, a poor plan?

    I am unclear as to sarumans overall objectives, is he

    A) Intending to sweep Rohan aside, then move on to destroy Sauron and set himself up as Supreme Evil Being?
    B) Kill Théoden , subjugate Rohan and use whats left as additional forces to destroy Sauron etc etc
    C) Help Sauron, get a nice pat on the head and get set up as assistant SEB with lands etc

    If A) he is deluded (he might not know that ) nowhere near enough might – now if he had the ring of power (does that make the witch king loyal to him?? How the ring can be used is never made clear). But he doesn’t have the ring, hes not even sure where it is. He would be better keeping out of it, letting Rohan assist Gondor against Sauron, then finish off the winner. This way he has to fight Rohan and the witch king, even if things go to plan

    B) makes slightly more sense from the context of the film. His short term objective is to remove Théoden, and not a lot else- so cross the Isen and march to Théodens halls, possibly meeting him in open battle on the way. But Théoden moves to Helms deep and so he has to divert into a siege he isn’t equipped for and hasn’t the supplies to maintain – hence a suicidal unplanned assault

    C) The key part of being an SEB is the evil bit – you cant trust Sauron not to just gut you at the end of it. And lets face it – what’s in its for Sauron?

    Or has he been corrupted by the seeing stone, and is now Saurons puppet. Sauron is essentially calling the shots and doesn’t give a rats arse about Saruman and his army, He just wants to stop Rohan aiding Gondor, and doesn’t care who or what dies doing it?

    1. Saruman knows Aragorn is in Rohan. He doesn’t know Frodo went off into Mordor alone with Sam. He therefore has good reason to believe that the Ring is with Aragorn in Rohan. So his major strategic objective is actually to capture Aragorn.

      1. That could be logical but I recall not the slightest hint of in the text. Saruman seems more concerned about Theoden having the Ring.

      2. Same thing. If Saruman knows about the Fellowship, the ring bearer is most likely wherever Aragorn is. Like Sauron, Saruman probably does not imagine that the Fellowship want to destroy the ring, he is expecting a quarrel or actual fight over who gets to wield it.

  29. There were a few battles in the Scottish side of the British Civil Wars of the 17th century where Irish sword and buckler troops defeated veteran pikemen – taking advantage of rough ground to get past the points, after which it was mostly one way.

    1. That happened elsewhere as well–the early Spanish tercios were comprised of pikes, musketeers, and sword-and-buckler men for precisely that reason.

  30. “. . . And before anyone notes that the Gauls sometimes fought nude, 1) not as often as you think and 2) they used shields.”

    As another note, when the Romans fought an army that had naked Gallic warriors, often all they had to do was barrage them with arrows and javelins for a little while before they either broke and fled or engaged in a suicide charge.

    1. As amusing (or hot…*) the idea of naked Gauls is, it was still practiced mostly by poor warriors. Nobles were very happy to use mail.

      * Fear has an impact on male physiology. Check out the famous sculpture of David.

      1. Ah, the literature on this is complex. I am working on an article that touches on this. The Latin-language sources – who are most familiar with Gauls – are the least likely to report Gauls actually fighting completely nude and the total number of instances of nude Gauls is quite low. There’s quite a bit of evidence for textile armor among Gauls, if you know where to look.

        Mail seems to have been the preserve of the mounted aristocrat.

        1. Would there be any Roman art of Julius Caesar’s campaigns, maybe? From what I remember of school classes (and a quick Google appears to confirm) a later emperor, Trajan, had some sort of column constructed featuring one of his campaigns, and it might be that his predecessors had a similar thing for monumental stone.

        2. Makes sense given mail is super labor (and material?) intensive and therefore expensive.

          1. At the same time, the Romans adopted the Gallic pattern of helmet, so the average Gaulish (Gallic?) warrior was likely to be wearing one of those even if he couldn’t afford the price of a full coat of mail.

  31. Historians: “serrated blades sound cool, but defeat the very mechanics by which a sword-cut functions”
    Space Marines: haha chainsword go brrr

    (sorry). Have you played WH40K: Space Marine? I think the chainsword is a very fun weapon to use (in-game) precisely because of its sheer ludicrousness.

    Jokes aside, the Return of the King movie does show Andúril being re-forged from the shattered pieces of Narsil. Was this done historically? I guess it saves a lot of processing by using already-existing (and possibly magic-enriched) steel, but wouldn’t it take a lot of work to homogeneize the alloy so that the pieces don’t fall apart again?

    As always, great post. Really looking forward to the series about how ancient things were made!

    1. I’m not going to worry about the realism details of reforging a magic glowing sword.

      (And yes, the book Narsil and Anduril shine with the light of the sun and the moon. Good dwarf-work there.)

  32. 1) I think the “short broad-bladed” swords described by Tollien in the books would be either saex/sax type swords, or they would something like a Khyber Knife or a Kukhuri.
    My reasoning is quite simple, the first would fit into the cultural background Tolkien used for middle earth. The seconed would fit into, what my prejudice tell me, what a British person back than would think of, when he thinks about the arms of mountainous people.

    2) As you wrote about Pike squars being unable to form up in broken terrain, I thought of an question I wanted to ask you anyway: You often wrote that the Cavalary charge is more of an psychological strategy, triggering the enemys flight reflex. I have a pet theory (developed from reading all of two first hand accounts from Napoleonic Warfar) that one of the main strenghts of cavalary is its tactical speed. Horses are fast enough to exploit any instance the enemy is forced to break formation, like when they have to traverse broken ground, or need to sprint to take an position first. Is this a useful way to thing about horses, or am I an idiot?

  33. A note – you note the pillow-rocks, but not that, for example, Gimli’s axe could also be seen as a mass-weapon, and if he hits an Uruk in the head, the Uruk will feel it. Their padding inside their helmets was no where near as good as ours… and as someone who, back in the seventies and early eighties fought heavy in the SCA, with mace and shield, if I hit you with a mace in the helm, you’re dead. Or, for that matter, if I get you in the hip, you’re dead from hydrostatic shock.

    And I assure you hydrostatic shock is a thing. I once went down on a bicycle in a large intersection, and landed on my hip, and I lay in the street, immobile, for minutes.

  34. “where Aragorn swings around this boy’s sword and then hands it to him, telling him, “This is a good sword, Haleth, son of Háma.” That is clearly not a good sword.”

    I always took that to be a morale-boosting lie, especially considering the row he has with Legolas about it earlier. Ironically, after he played the “we’re doomed” guy with Theoden.

  35. I agree with your analysis. However I felt the Uruk designs worked well *thematically* in hammering home the artless industrialization they represent—with its mass-produced, low-quality goods (casting two dozen blunt swords at once), inelegant, utilitarian forms (uninspired rectangles), and of course rampant deforestation.

  36. “Put bluntly, these swords have no point”

    We are reaching levels of wordplay that shouldn’t even be possible

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