This week we’re going to take a look at the worldbuilding of Amazon Studio’s Rings of Power from a historical realism perspective. I think it is no great secret that Rings of Power broadly failed to live up to expectations and left a lot of audiences disappointed. In the aftermath of that disappointment, once one looks beyond the depressingly predictable efforts to make culture war hay out of it, I found that many people understood that they were disappointed but not always why. Here I am going to suggest one reason: the failure of Rings to maintain a believable sense of realism grounded in historical societies and technologies (something the Lord of the Rings, books and films, did very well) makes it impossible to invest in the stakes and consequences of a world that appears not to obey any perceptible rules.
I found as I wrote this that I had broadly two kinds of critiques: the more substantive critiques of worldbuilding in the most literal sense and then a set of nitpicks focused on the presentation of things like arms, armor, tactics and smithing which annoy me but were probably less important for most viewers. So this post is going to focus on what I see are the more dramatically relevant failures: scale, distance and social structures; next week’s post will then be a companion to this one which will indulge in endless nitpicking on the other topics.
Now I do want to say that if you enjoyed Rings of Power, that’s fine. I am not here to tell you that you shouldn’t have. I enjoyed parts of it too (mostly the Dwarves; I thought those emotional beats landed best), so I’m not suggesting it was all terrible. What I am saying is that I wish those story elements that worked emotionally had been placed in a story that worked logically. Also, I am not going to hold back on spoilers, either from the show or from the larger legendarium; the story of the Second Age is already spelled out in detail in the Silmarillion and I’m not going to dance around those details.
I think we also ought to head one objection off at the pass here: that it is unfair to hold a TV show to the standards we might a film in terms of things like sets, extras and costumes. The thing is, Rings of Power apparently had a $462 million budget to produce eight one-hour episodes;1 by way of comparison Peter Jackson’s films had a combined budget of $281 million (inflation adjusted c. $470m) to produce 9.3 hours of film (theatrical edition; extended cut is 11.4). In short the series and the films had remarkably similar budgets to cover remarkably similar amounts of screentime. I confess I find myself confused, given the comparison, as to where all of that Rings money went; the show evidently was lavishly produced but it doesn’t generally feel lavishly produced.
And as always, if you want to help fund my digital worldbuilding and enable me to be lavishly produced, you can support this project on Patreon; I am not yet at a budget of $57.75m per post, but you can help us reach that laudable goal. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming that, by the time this post goes live, there is still a Twitter.
But First, Why?
Now before we get into the historical critique (because that is what we do here), I want to explain why I think this approach is valid for this sort of media. Rings of Power, after all, makes no claim to historical accuracy or realism (unlike Game of Thrones or Assassin’s Creed) and so cannot be faulted for failing to do something it never set out to do. Nevertheless, there is a failing here and I think that failing is in worldbuilding rather than historical accuracy. Speculative fiction – be it fantasy or science fiction – is a genre where a great deal of the weight is carried by the fictional world being constructed.
We want the fictional world to feel real or at least like it could be a real world, with internally consistent rules and clear lines of effect and consequence. In part that is because the deep, rich real-ishness, as it were, contributes to the sensation (be it joy or horror, depending on the work’s tone) of exploring and discovering a new fictional world and in part it is because a world that feels real and bounded by rules, the way our world is bounded by rules,2 makes the stakes of the story itself more engaging. The plausible link between causes and consequences, bound by those rules, is what encourages us to invest in characters and to care about their decisions and internal struggles.
One may easily contrast a story set in a world unbounded by rules of logical consequences, like a dream. Anything can happen in a dream, unrelated to what came before or after. Dreams can break their own rules and they can exist in unreal or surreal spaces. And they also, famously, make for extremely boring stories. Nothing is quite so tedious as having someone narrate a dream to you, because nothing in the dream actually matters for anything that comes before or after. Of course nothing in a fictional story necessarily matters in the real world, but nothing in a dream actually matters even in the dream world. Thus the consistency of the rules and the setting are essential for allowing the audience to engage their emotions with the characters and story because they make the events in the story matter by making them feel less arbitrary.
Now that feeling of consistency doesn’t need to be a product of historical accuracy or realism, of course. Fantasy and science fiction, by their very nature, are built around elements that have no real world precedents. The story merely needs to be consistent with itself; we’re very willing to accept fictional worlds with rules very different from our own. Indeed, that is much the fun of speculative fiction, asking the question of how the world would change if some detail – often a minor one – of how our world functioned were different. That said, historical realism is an effective shortcut to the feeling of consistency because if something functions in the story the way it functions now or did function historically, that is going to generally feel quite real because it actually is. And more broadly, audiences generally assume that anything that does not obviously work in a fantastical way instead works in ways we commonly understand.
And I’d argue – indeed, I have argued – that the works of J.R.R. Tolkien are themselves marked by using exactly this kind of historicizing strategy for producing that feeling of consistency. Middle Earth in Tolkien’s writings, feels real because it so strongly resembles historical systems and settings (or in the deeper past of the Silmarillion, legendary or mythical systems and settings nevertheless immediately familiar to us). One can see this perhaps most obviously in Tolkien’s languages; constructed with deep care they feel like real languages because they practically are real languages, based heavily in his own knowledge of linguistics and modeled in function off of real languages that exist (e.g. Finnish was, according to Tolkien, the ‘dominant influence’ in the early construction of Quenya).
Alternately, one might just take a quick shortcut and use a historical thing itself – a system, a set of rules, etc. – because it will already be internally consistent and grounded. Whereas Tolkien invented his Elvish languages, he used Old Norse and Old English to ‘translate’ the tongues of the Rohirrim and the Dwarves. Or, to take a science fiction example, the language of the Fremen (Chakobosa) in Dune feels really real and grounded when its words and phrases appear because a lot of it is just Arabic (with a lot of admixture). When making a speculative fiction world, the author(s), can either plan out the system’s unique function or they can adopt a real world system, but they generally must do one or the other or risk sacrificing audience investment from a world that lacks consistency.
And as noted above, Middle Earth and the broader Tolkien legendarium draws its sense of consistency when it comes to the world and its societies mostly from a firm sense of rootedness in the realia of historical societies and historical literature. Tolkien has not reinvented new systems of farming, new laws of physics or new systems of social organization. In The Lord of the Rings the world’s consistency depends on its feeling of historical rootedness.
In good speculative fiction then, the creator has a choice: import recognizable, real-world systems that will feel real to an audience or build new systems and then explain their fantastical workings to the audience in a way that renders them understandable. Rings of Power does neither and in the process manages to construct a Middle Earth that is not only ‘flat’ in the sense that the the cataclysms of the Changing of the World have not yet happened and thus the Straight Road to Valinor can still be traversed, but unfortunately this Middle Earth is also flat in the sense that it is rendered dull and uninteresting by the lack of perceptible rules and consequence.
Problems of Scale
The first problem we can delve into is how little of Rings’ Middle Earth seems to be in the right scale, particularly in terms of population and space. When watching I found myself repeatedly asking, ‘wait, how many people live here?’ Of course I don’t need the show to stop and give me a census, but in order to understand the stakes of the conflict and what the success or failure of the heroes might mean, it is important to have some sense of how big these places are, how significant the number of people involved are and so on. And at almost no point does the show do a decent job of expressing any of this.
We can start with the Southlands. The show is relatively cagey after the first episode about giving us clear maps (we see snippets of them for early establishing shots, but they’re never put in the context of where the other snippets of map are, making it hard to keep track of the geographic relations of these places), I assume in an effort to disguise some of its ‘reveals’ (such as the Southlands actually being Mordor), but even without that it is clear this is supposed to be a large area. It evidently is big enough to have a royal line and a traditional kingdom (that Halbrand is saying-not-saying he’s the heir to) large enough to be worth putting someone on that traditional throne. And yet from what we see, this entire kingdom consists of a pair of villages, one of which is ruined and abandoned before the action of the show in that area properly starts. It is watched over by a robust garrison of apparently five or six Elves, seemingly concentrated in a single outpost.3 Needless to say, kingdoms generally consist of more than one or two villages; they usually contain many towns and cities, of which the Southlands seems utterly devoid. Instead – and we’ll come back to this – the political seat of power in the Southlands is a small, poor village apparently run by its butcher before being taken over by its widowed apothecary.
The result is a plot, focused on ‘saving the Southlands’ which makes no sense no matter how you think about it. If these people – Bronwyn is able to address all of them in one small courtyard, there can’t be more than a couple hundred – are all of the remaining people of the Southlands than the quest to save them failed before the story got there and it makes no sense at all for anyone to suppose making Halbrand king of these 200 or so people would do anything to change the political or military situation in this part of the world. Alternately, if there are other large settlements (towns! cities!) then it makes no sense that the Númenóreans beeline to this village at top speed or that these villagers recognizing Halbrand as king would in any way be meaningful. For this plot to work, this needed to be a large political and administrative center, which is to say it needed to be a city.
One can easily contrast the similar stakes (in the films, not the books) of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. There we’re told – again, in the films – that some significant percentage of Rohan’s people are present and thus their survival is at stake. I discussed in that series why this doesn’t quite work from a demographic perspective, but the films do put a lot of effort into selling this. We’re told Helm’s Deep is very big, with big caverns, that supplies need to be laid, we see an evidently quite large refugee train going there and we get lots of scenes of areas crowded with extras moving through to impress on us there are a lot of people here. By contrast the whole of the survivors of the Southlands are able to fit inside a single tavern by the time it comes for the decisive ‘cavalry saves the day’ moment. At that stage, there can hardly be a day to save! This vast land likely populated originally by hundreds of thousands if not low-single-digit millions of peasants has now been reduced to the size of a middling Division 1 Football team (American football, that is).
Which is well enough given that the size of the Númenórean force is also ludicrously small. A lot of the discourse as the series was first airing seized on the Númenórean ships for the apparent absurdity of how many troops they were notionally moving as compared to how much space there seemed to be on the ships, leading to fun illustrations like this one:
And yes the boats are a problem but hardly the worst problem with the entire expedition. Still, we can start on the ships here briefly. We’re told the expedition consists of 300 soldiers; when we see these fellows in action, they are all mounted, so this is 300 cavalry. Despite valiant efforts to salvage this, no, these ships are not anywhere near large enough to move that kind of a force. The comparison has been made between these ships and classical Greek triremes and indeed they seem to be roughly the same size, around 120ft length-over-hull. But they are very different ships; triremes were coast-hopping oared warships and the 200 men they carried were almost entirely rowers (the layout of the space is also different; because of the long prow and curved aft, the Númenórean looks to have less usable internal space than a trireme). Rowers had to eat, sleep and relieve themselves at their benches because the ships lacked space for anything else; triremes were built for speed above all other considerations and so lacked quarters of any kind (even for the officers) and couldn’t carry but a couple of days of supplies (thus the coast-hopping). Packed like a trireme, the Númenórean ships ought to be standing room only and certainly would lack the supplies for the long voyage to Middle Earth.
But the real problem isn’t the men, it is the horses. Horses, of course, are famously quite a bit bigger than humans and thus generally require specialized transports. Ancient writers like Thucydides and Polybius are, in fact, often quite careful to separate out specially refitted horse-transports from the rest of a fleet transporting an expedition for this very reason. Thucydides tells us it took one such dedicated horse transport – which was not moving troops or other supplies – to move 30 horses (Thuc. 6.43), which was conveniently all the initial Athenian expedition against Syracuse had.4 The capacity of medieval horse transports was similar, around 30 per ship of roughly this size. The major problem here is not only are horses large and require stalls (since they are hardly used to sea transport) they also require lots of food and water, which has to be carried too.
And 300 cavalry are going to require more than 300 horses. At the very least each rider (I won’t say ‘cavalryman’ because there are clearly some women in this force) needs a horse and a spare (realistically several).5 On top of that, they are likely to require support personnel (grooms, handlers, servants, pages, porters, etc.), at least one per rider. So our 300 cavalry rapidly becomes a minimum of 600 people and 600 horses, at a near-minimum. That is perhaps six ships carrying troops and supplies and twenty more carrying horses (which is why you don’t send all-cavalry expeditions by sea, infantry is far more sea-portable); twenty-six ships total. Not three (or five, as they started out with). At minimum.
But honestly all of this is burying the lede by quite a lot, because the real problem here is that this expedition is absurdly, comically small. Númenór is an island continent with multiple major cities, the largest of which evidently looks like this:
In short, this is a big society, likely with a population in the low millions. At the very least we’re talking about a polity on scale with the classical Athens at its height (perhaps c. 1.5m including the Delian League); realistically much larger given just how much monumental architecture we see (because the surplus to support many hundreds or thousands of workers building it has to come from somewhere and that requires a lot of land and a lot of farmers). My own guess would be a polity no smaller than the mid-third century Roman Republic, so perhaps 5m people or so. This is a big society with a lot of wealth.
And this is no minor expedition! The queen of this society is personally going on this expedition. That means at minimum bringing a substantial chunk of the royal household with her. That almost certainly is going to mean dozens of advisors, courtiers, servants, entertainers, retainers, and so on: where the ruler goes, the court follows and the court of even quite small rulers could be quite substantial. Diodorus (summarized by Photius) notes that Eunus, the leader of a large slave rebellion on Sicily (135-132) who styled himself as a monarch had a bodyguard of 1,000 men and a court that included a cook, baker, bath masseur and master of entertainments. For a more established state example, the weakest major successor state to Alexander the Great was the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon. Their kings had a guard of ‘royal horse’ of at least 400 cavalry and an elite infantry unit that defended the king called the agema (there was also a cavalry agema) numbering 2,000 men.6 His court would have been in addition to that figure, so the total royal entourage might have been something like 2,500 people total (or more!).
And then on top of that royal court, we need the actual army. As noted, Númenór seems to be a lot bigger than even the very largest of Greek poleis. But for comparison the initial Athenian expedition to Sicily (which had to be subsequently reinforced) numbered some 136 warships (134 triremes, 2 smaller penteconters), 6,400 fighting men, 30 horses, 1 horse transport, 30 supply ships and another 100 smaller boats carrying an array of supplies and non-combatants essential to the force (bakers, carpenters, etc.; Thuc. 6.43-4). Númenór itself seems also intended visually to evoke Rome; the Romans don’t even have an independent operational maneuver unit of a few hundred. At minimum an offensive operation like this would involve a legion (4,200 infantry, 300 cavalry) and more likely two legions plus an equal or greater number of socii (non-Roman ‘allies’) for a total force around 20,000. Which would certainly not fit on just three ships. The Númenóreans expect to find a hostile enemy army potentially waiting for them (remember, they think Sauron is out there) and they also expect to need to found a kingdom for Halbrand; this is major military operations and yet they’ve sent an army too small to even function as a foraging party, much less an army of conquest.
And while we’re here I feel the need to note this royal expedition is smaller than some of the disappointing reinforcements Minas Tirith receives from the declining and depopulated outlands of Gondor; three hundred men from the Ringlo Vale, five hundred from the Blackroot Vale, a hundred fisher-folk of the Ethir, three hundred men from Pinnath Gelin and seven hundred infantry and a company of cavalry from Dol Amroth (RotK, 46). And that was, notably far fewer than had been hoped, but “less than three thousands full told,” ten times the size of this expedition, despite Gondor being a declining, exhausted kingdom. For what it is worth I think the solution to this problem is to remove Queen Míriel from the expedition, reframing the whole thing as a scouting party sent to explore the feasibility of creating a kingdom for Halbrand rather than the main effort; that could explain why the force was so small. Then, make only perhaps 30 of them cavalry, put the rest on foot and have the whole group take between six to ten ships.
Of course they may not have needed to pack too many supplies in those ships because they appear to have borrowed Euron Greyjoy’s late-season Game of Thrones teleporters for both their ships and their horses, which brings us to…
Problems of Sail
The physics of this world make no sense.
We can start with travel time. We’ve been through this here before, but Tolkien is meticulous in the Lord of the Rings when it comes to keeping track of who is where and how fast they can move. Such meticulousness isn’t strictly necessary in fantasy fiction – G.R.R Martin sure isn’t so careful and in his books it is mostly fine – but in a story where major events hinge on the cavalry arriving to stave the day, a plausible if not accurate sense of how fast things move really is essential.
And here episodes five and six of Rings are an absolute disaster. Part of the problem is that we, as the audience, can actually mark the progression of time here pretty well because Arondir and Bronwyn’s scenes have lots of time-of-day and ‘by nightfall’ sort of indicators; we can watch as the sun rises and falls between scenes. Queen Míriel decides to do the expedition at the end of Ep. 4, by which point the Southlanders are already in Ostirith. Early in Ep. 5 we see the ultimatum delivered and the Southlanders preparing to be attacked; the expedition has not yet departed; the sequencing of scenes here is important. We get Bronwyn giving a speech in a scene lit like it is morning, then a series of scenes in different places set in progressively later times of day until eventually we see Rowan betray Southlanders and join Adar that night. This sort of thing isn’t – or ought not – be an accident, we are being shown the progression of time. Then we pick up the next morning with the fleet departing Númenór.
In the next episode, it’s night again at the beginning and Adar is attacking the tower but surprise the villagers have snuck away; this is immediately followed by a scene of the fleet moving at night just before dawn; Galadriel and Isildur watch the sun come up and we hear they are in sight of land. We then switch to the villagers preparing to defend their village at morning (with the strong implication that this is the same morning) for the attack that is coming that very night. Then a big combat scene, during which we get fast cuts between the orcs breaking into the Last Inn and its maybe three-dozen survivors and the Númenórean cavalry swiftly closing at what seems to be dawn, with the action syncing up as the Númenórean cavalry storms into town to disrupt the sack of the inn at the last moment.
Which leaves us with the unavoidable implication that the Númenóreans caught site of the coast, sailed up the Anduin, disembarked on what will be the Pelennor Fields, and then rode through Ithilien and through the pass at Cirith Ungol (famously difficult to move through) and then down into the vale (what will be the plain of Gorgoroth in a few minutes) all in a single day and night (having crossed the sea to get there in perhaps a week at most). That is, by my measuring, some three to four hundred miles, half by land and half by river, accomplished in 24 hours. Gandalf on Shadowfax does not move this fast. Normally here is where I would joke that when an army moves this fast I no longer ask how much fodder they need for their horses, but how much gasoline they need for their trucks, but many a modern mechanized force would struggle to move so fast over open country without resupply set up in advance.
And the Númenóreans set out on this dead sprint despite being entirely unaware that there was anything to sprint to! Remember, they have no idea there is a battle at all, much less where it is, yet their army plows blindly without scouts or supplies at maximum speed into what may well be enemy territory. And yet, thanks to our problems of scale, they manage to teleport to the one village in the whole of the Southlands that still has any people in it. It sure is great that they didn’t have to waste any time scouting but automatically knew that the battle would be taking place at the only village in the Southlands.
Once again, I feel the contrast to the Lord of the Rings is notable here. There the reinforcing armies – Gandalf with Erkenbrand (or film!Éomer) and then later Théoden – know exactly where they are going on known routes and have a very good sense of when they are likely to need to get there. As we’ve discussed at length, the movements of these armies are carefully timed in the books (somewhat less so in the films, but never this egregiously). The defensive solution for Rings of Power, of course, is to argue that the two timelines are not actually moving together, that the expedition has in fact been in motion for weeks or months. There are two problems with this: first, that goes against the very clear signalling in the show where the time of day between the two sets of events is carefully tracked, which is a way of very clearly telling the viewer these things are happening at the same time. Second, the writers get no credit for solutions they didn’t put in the show because they didn’t put them in the show. Apart from the Hobbits (Harfoots), all of the different plot threads we see link up at one point or another and at no point does anyone suggest they’ve been advancing at different rates (which also has some baffling implications for Elrond too who has been racing multiple times between Ost-in-Edhil in Eregion, Forlond in northern Lindon and Moria né Khazad-dûm; the fellow has some frequent flier miles after that, I’d bet).
But frankly it also feels like physics don’t work quite right here either and here my focus goes to the catastrophic eruption of Orodruin (Mt. Doom). I am, of course, not a volcanologist and at best I only somewhat dimly remember the course I took in undergrad on earthquakes and volcanoes (shake and bake!), but the mechanism by which the teeming, green Southlands were reduced blasted wastes and then the results of that struck me as absurd the moment I saw them, which of course led me to do some reading. The immediate silly thing was that the Special Sword acts only as a key to apparently turn a physical mechanism to open the dam, moving what appears to be many tons of stonework to do it without a pulley or a winch (or a hundred burly fellows pulling) to be seen. Perhaps there is a magical electric motor quietly hidden under the tower, but again – and I cannot stress this enough – the writers do not get credit for things they did not put in the show. Otherwise I do not believe for one moment that the one fellow with the sword can produce enough torque on it to move the massive stone blocks holding back the river.
In either case an big flood piles down through the plains. Which is a problem because we see the opening in the dam and it is only so wide, with just gravity pulling on this water (it isn’t pressurized), yet by the time we’re at the valley floor, we’re seeing great huge waves and enough water pressure to cause the orc tunnels to explode with rock-tossing force (even before any of this water has become steam). That’s not how water works; this water isn’t pressurized at all and these tunnels all have outlets. The water then falls through an open channel into a great cauldron of lava (with a lot of open space full of at-atmospheric-pressure-air because there is a great big channel linking this to the outside), triggering a massive explosion, which blows the top of the mountain. The eruption is tremendous, sending out a single massive shockwave that our heroes can feel many miles away, flinging volcanic bombs miles away from the explosion and visibly tearing the mountain apart, while ejecting lots of red-hot gasses and incandescent rock particles.
Now steam-explosion eruptions are a thing, they’re called phreatic or phreatomagmatic eruptions. But as far as I can tell, they do not work this way. Purely phreatic eruptions (where there is no magma activity, just steam explosions caused by super-hot rock flash-evaporating steam) tend, as far as I can tell, to be small and rarely involve liquid lava being ejected at all. They are, as best I can tell, thought to be a product of rising magma meeting the local water table (not the water table falling down to the magma). The biggest phreatic eruptions tend to be the result of magma interacting with with the freakin’ ocean; the quantities of water involved are a lot higher than the tunnel of water we see and involve magma already under pressure and pushing upwards to meet the water.
Closer to the right scale would be something like the phreatomagmatic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. The thing is, that eruption, which hit its climactic phase in June, had precursors as early as April. One indicator that eruption was imminent was reduced SO2 emissions detected in May, which indicated that gasses were being trapped in the magma, leading to a pressure buildup; Orodruin shows no sign of this. If anything we see clearly that the magma chamber has a pretty clear, unobstructed air outflow enabling the release of gasses. In any case, the phreatic part of Pinatubo’s eruption were not the cause of the eruption, but warning signs, as volcanic activity triggered smaller steam events starting in April; the main eruption was still magmatic, resulting from a build up of pressure caused by unreleased gasses in the magma, not steam explosions. As I understand it then what happens is that gasses build up inside of the magma which pushes it upwards and as the magma rises nearing the eruption it hits pockets of water in the ground which flash to steam and explode (because there’s no pressure release), creating small phreatic eruption precursors (and earthquakes) before finally the pressure of the magma itself triggers the climactic, massive eruption.
This is a situation where I’d welcome any volcanologists reading to weigh in the comments; it may well be that what we see on screen is most plausible than it looked (if that happens, I’ll throw in a post-publication note here). But to my own untrained eyes and subsequent reading, it seems like the kind of eruption we see just isn’t going to be produced by a single steam explosion, but rather ought to be the culmination of a lot of building pressure. For my own part, I think this is a scene which would have benefited greatly from some actual magic, giving us a sense that Sauron, as a Maia and the lord of this land, was exerting his control to make the mountain erupt in this way from an otherwise fairly trivial cause. But of course the writers couldn’t do that because the show was at this point still obsessed with the ‘mystery box’ approach to ‘who is Sauron!?’ – a storytelling strategy I will say I found misguided and fundamentally boring.7 And once again it is no good suggesting that there is actual magic here, just not on screen because – again – it isn’t on screen.
The problem here is that the nonsensical nature of both the character’s rescue and then their defeat rob both of any stakes. I had a hard time caring about the battle in Ep. 6 because I knew at the beginning that the Númenóreans would show up just in the nick of time dramatically at dawn regardless of how little sense it made. That arrival wasn’t earned it just happened so we could have a ‘cool’ battle scene (that is a visual mess and makes no sense but more on that another week). And the downfall of the heroes didn’t feel like the result of their hubris or choices, it felt like they lost because their enemy opened up the ‘disasters’ menu in SimCity and chose ‘Volcano.’
And then in turn the heroes surviving the eruption didn’t feel earned because…wait, how the hell did they survive that? Episode 6 ends with the village engulfed in an onrushing wave of burning, red-hot ash that is expanding with explosive force and lighting trees on fire as it moves. It blasts open doors, incinerates rooftops and then we see it envelop Galadriel as she looks on. These people are very, exceedingly excessively dead.
What we see is a pyroclastic flow, a racing mass of hot gas and fragmented volcanic ash and debris. These flows are hot enough to instantly incinerate living creatures, if the debris moving 60+miles per hour doesn’t kill you first. And if that doesn’t kill you, it will literally bury you to death in ash in moments and if that somehow doesn’t kill you, the fact that most of those hot gasses are poisonous will. This is one of the least survivable things nature can throw at you. The town of St. Pierre on Martinique was engulfed in a pyroclastic flow in 1902 and of the 30,000 people there it killed all but a tiny handful of them (I’ve seen the number three offered, which may be apocryphal); most of the reported survivors were in some kind of shelter when the flow hit. Galadriel, the Southlanders and the Númenóreans are out in the open in a village made of weak wooden buildings in the middle of an unshielded plain and had no hope of outside rescue or aid. They’re absolutely all dead, most of them several times over.
That is not a survivable situation and yet not only do some of them survive, functionally all of them do. Most of them aren’t even meaningfully injured, except for the queen who loses her sight but somehow suffers no other ill-effects and requires no medical attention. Galadriel’s hair is barely mussed. The only casualty seems to have been my suspension of disbelief.8
Problems of Social Detail
Why yes, that was a long and tortured way to go for that rhyme, thanks for noticing.
The issues with physical and cultural scale then ripple out into the structures of life that we see; we can start with the Harfoots. Tolkien’s actual writings about the early Hobbits are sparse, almost entirely contained in the “Concerning Hobbits” section of the Fellowship of the Ring prologue. Unfortunately, while I imagine the showrunners thought they were hewing fairly close to this description, they’ve managed to drop out key details or miss things likely implied by the description and thus produced a fairly baffling society that seems to have little connection to what I suspect Tolkien imagined.
The Harfoots appear to be a relatively isolated hunter-gatherer culture (primarily gatherer, we see little emphasis on hunting, more on that in a moment) that are nomadic, moving regularly with a collection of carts (apparently one for each family unit), that double as housing and are camouflaged but also make for a neat colorful village when set up. That they are isolated is made clear with their first appearance; the humans who dwell near them know them so little little about them that the two hunters we see treat them as almost mythical; at no point do we see them interact with or trade with other communities of any kind, nor, when they are in trouble do they consider seeking the aid of those communities or other communities of Harfoots.
I found this culture pretty bafflingly incoherent; I’m going to be honest, I think what happened was that the designers mixed elements (especially visual motifs) of hunter-gatherer nomads, pastoral nomads, and travellers without realizing that those are three very different cultures based on entirely different subsistence systems. But we can easily rule out the latter two; pastoral nomads are, after all, pastoralists and the Harfoots are not moving sheep between pastures here. Their society would make far more sense if they were and I’d argue that a somewhat cleverer reading of Tolkien would suggest this is how he may have imagined them, but in any case, they clearly aren’t pastoralists here. Meanwhile, travellers are itinerant communities that operate within larger settled, agrarian or industrial societies whose system of economic subsistence does not work without that larger society.
As hunter-gatherers though, Harfoot society explodes with frustrating questions, the first of which that occurred to me was where did they get all of the heavy wool textiles they wear and drape on everything? Because of course as we’ve discussed, wool comes from sheep that have to be herded; cotton and linen come from plants, which have to be farmed. That’s not to say the Harfoots can’t have clothes, but given the subsistence system they have, they can’t have these clothes. And what they absolutely can’t make themselves are all of these metal pots and tools they seem to have.9 Their leader also has several giant, parchment-paper codices, which is another thing that hunter-gatherer societies famously do not produce: neither books nor writing. Some of the close-up visuals of the pages almost evoke ‘Winter counts‘ – plains Native American pictographic histories – but the information characters later seek to glean from these books sit will the content of such pictographic histories.
Then there are the carts. Now the idea of hunter-gatherer nomads using carts is not very ‘out there.’ As far as I know – and this is one of those questions where the ‘answer’ can shift quite quickly with new discoveries – the domestication of the horse on the Steppe is generally thought to have preceded the arrival of the wagon. But that doesn’t rule out carts or cart-like innovations for nomads: nomadic and semi-nomadic Native American groups often used what is called a travois – a triangle-shaped wheel-less sort of dragging cart and it’s sometimes supposed similar devices may have been in use on the Steppe. Before the arrival of horses in certain areas these were pulled by hand (or by dog!). So it’s not hard to imagine nomads moving goods by cart pulled by hand with the right sequence of technologies.
But they’re not going to use these carts. The carts and travois of Steppe or Plains nomads (the latter being in some cases true hunter-gatherers and thus valuable comparanda here) did not double as living spaces. People lived in tents which were moved on carts along with their other belongings, which tended to be fairly spare because when you have to move everything you think really hard about if a new item is worth the effort of moving. The resulting carts are pretty minimal. A travois is two poles with a net or bag strung between them, while Steppe carts consist of two wheels and a flat bed (often just a frame of the bed with some cross-beams to save weight) and that’s it. You can strap your disassembled tent and other goods to that cart and the light construction keeps it light because every pound of cart is one less pound of things you can have.
The Harfoot carts, on the other hand are quite large and fully enclosed, with an extending lean-to to make a full (if fairly flimsy and not very temperature controlled) structure when parked; the interior space of the cart, packed full of goods on the move, becomes part of the living space when parked. The Harfoots thus live in their carts, a thing the nomads above do not. And it is hard for me not to think here that the showrunners are trying to evoke Irish travellers, especially given the heavy use of Irish accents at play among the Harfoots. And I feel the need to note that this is a set of choices, so far as I can tell, that have gone over extremely poorly in Ireland. But it also makes no sense for these proto-Hobbits to work this way because, as noted, traveller society is absolutely dependent on an existing settled society for its subsistence strategy (itinerant working requires someone to work for after all), which is not at all how the Harfoots live.
And what is perhaps most striking to me is that none of this is required by Tolkien’s actual description of the Harfoots. Tolkien describes a people who “preferred highlands and hillsides,” were “the most inclined to settle in one place,””the longest preserved their ancestral habit of living in tunnels and holes” and “had much to do with Dwarves in ancient times.” To my reading this suggests not fully nomadic hunter-gatherers totally isolated from settled society, but semi-nomadic transhumant pastoralists, likely raising sheep in those highlands and hillsides and trading heavily with the Dwarves (who might supply that metalwork in exchange for the pastoralist’s wool). One could easily imagine seasonal migrations that bring these Harfoots and their sheep down to the entrances to the great Dwarf holds, where the sheep are sheared and the wool traded, with each group having a ‘main base’ village composed of small, subterranean dwellings (smials).
Instead of that, however, we get a hunter-gatherer society that makes no sense and is also oddly willing to dispose of entire family groups if they fall behind rather than working together, which is doubly frustrating given that (though the famous Margaret Mead quote may or may not be apocryphal), mended bones are some of the earliest signs of complex social structures we see because they indicate that an injured individual in a group was cared for while they couldn’t care for themselves. Why is this a society where no one is willing to help pull the one injured person’s family’s cart? Do none of the other families have an teenage or adult child who might be spared for the effort?
But such nonsense societies are par for the course in Rings of Power‘s Middle Earth. Bronwyn’s village is, at least initially, apparently run by the innkeeper. We don’t see any other figures of authority and that’s who Arondir goes to for his fortnightly inspection in Ep. 1; later of course the village comes to be run by its apothecary, Bronwyn. What we don’t see is, say, a village elder or a collection of village elders or an elected or acclaimed chief or perhaps a somewhat wealthier peasants with larger landholdings running the village or any real forms of political organization of the sort we might expect in a village like this. Now I understand that the writers have made a deliberate decision to dispense with pre-modern gender stratification and labor division,10 but a story where enthroning a new king in this land is a key goal can hardly also dispense with political systems. Broadly, this is a story about political systems.
Which is why it is so frustrating that none of the more developed political systems are quite right either. The show cannot quite decide, for instance, exactly how Númenór is run. There are guilds that issue tokens and apparently one must be a guild member to work in the city at all. Oddly, Pharazôn is at one point explicit that everyone belongs to a build, asking an assembled crowd to “look down, each of you, at the guild crests you bear;” this is not how guilds work (on how actual guilds worked see Ogilvie, The European Guilds (2019); guilds generally restricted who could be the owner-operators, not the amount of unskilled or menial labor they could employ and the whole point was to be exclusive so most people in a town were not members of any guild at any given time). And despite that, these guilds seem to have no political presence at all. Never do we see the queen having to interact with the various leaders or representatives of each guild. Instead, we see Evil Vizier Pharazôn shaking hands in the market and giving speeches to angry crowds (Ep. 4; starting at 5 minutes in). Is this some sort of Republic where the opinion of the urban populace matters and if so how?
Except it is clearly not, because there is a queen who appears to wield absolute power.11 Galadriel and Halbrand stay because she orders it; the expedition happens because she orders it; there is no subsequent vote or confirmation. And this seems to be a deeply hereditary monarchy; the point at which you have a Queen Regent, unmarried, ruling for her disabled father is the point at which it has likely been very long established that the rule of the kingdom must belong to the very specific descendants of the ruling house (and indeed she is the twenty-fifth consecutive ruler from that house), such that no other candidates could really be considered (such as, for instance, the king’s experienced, adult nephew, Evil Vizier Pharazôn).
Who are the key powers in Míriel’s court and where does their power derive from? Why can’t she just sack Pharazôn and replace him with a non-obviously-treacherous advisor.12 Elendil seems vaguely important, was is the actual scope of his military command? Does he come from a noble family?13 The lack of a clear explanation or any sense that the writers even know or care is a real problem for us to get invested in what is fundamentally a political drama about the rulers of Númenór and the decisions they make.
The same problem bedevils the Elves. Apart from Gil-galad being in charge, we get little sense of the actual political organization of the kingdom he runs and how exactly his authority relates to Elrond, Galadriel and Celebrimbor. The fact that – as in the books – Gil-galad is really just primus inter pares running a loose confederation of Elven kingdoms (and thus can’t really order Galadriel to do anything, but then hell, even the Valar struggle to get Galadriel to do anything she doesn’t want to) is never really properly explained either.14 But all of the Elves we meet except for Arondir’s company of scouts are not random Elves but in fact elf-lords of high lineages, most of whom are or will shortly be rulers of their own quasi-independent realms and yet again we never get much of a sense of the political implications of all of this.
Now I want to be clear, I do not need the show to come to a dead stop to give me a powerpoint slideshow on exactly how all of these folks fit together. And I know that they couldn’t necessarily use all of these neat details from the Silmarillion. But I do want to feel like someone, at some point has thought about these questions and and that isn’t a feeling that Rings gives me. And in a show where major plot-points hinge on political systems (what will Númenór do?) or subsistence systems (where will the Harfoots get food now that their trees are burned?) the audience is going to want to feel like the writers have thought about these questions rather than merely planning to ‘make it up as they go along.’
A Flat Middle Earth
And that is the recurring problem with the worldbuilding in Rings of Power, that the audience rapidly finds that cannot have much faith at all that the creators involved have given much thought to these questions. And each crack in the worldbuilding in turn damages the stakes of the peril and the significance of character choices because if the story itself doesn’t have to obey any real rules of cause and consequence and thus the creators can merely opt to have anything happen for any reason then there is no reason to invest in any of it at all. If there are no consistent rules to this world then nothing matters and if nothing matters…why should I care?
Now I hardly think this encompasses all of the awkward worldbuilding and visual design choices the show makes and I have so many little, less consequential, complaints about those elements that I’m going to leave them for an entire second post (hopefully fairly soon). But I singled these problems out because they cut to the core of the story itself.
To take Galadriel as an example, she is our main character; we meet her first and she connects all of the various plot threads that we see (except for the Harfoots). And yet at almost every stage of her journey we are dealing with some set of systems the rules of which are unexplained. First, Galadriel is compelled by Elven politics that are never explained, ordered by Gil-galad, whose relationship to her is not explored, to go West on the basis of an order it was never clear to me he could actually give.15 What is the nature of his authority over her and of her authority over others? Then she is thrust immediately into the politics of Númenór, which are also underexplained. Then she joins the inexplicably small, inexplicably teleporting expedition before surviving the least survivable volcanic explosion ever put on film (and then heads for a ring forging scene that left me profoundly confused), before heading off to forge some rings out her suddenly boundless trust for the one being in Middle Earth she hates more than all others (and has now learned has been cleverly deceiving her for essentially the whole show).
Now I know that the creators of the show didn’t have full access to the Silmarillion and so their story had to diverge in important ways from that text. But nearly all of the divergent decisions they made seemed, to me at least, quite bad, actively undermining the story, its world and setting. In particular, it seems to me that at every point decisions were made as to what would make that scene potentially cool or compelling or visually interesting. The entire ‘Who is Sauron’ mystery stands as perhaps the apex of this approach, a collection of red herrings whose emotional impact is lost the moment the audience figures out who is Sauron, creating a lot of scenes with tons of fake foreshadowing that becomes pathetic in second viewing and already feels lame in recollection. Each idea was built for the scene or maybe, maybe for the episode – and then treated as if the moment that was done it no longer mattered. And if it doesn’t matter to the writers, why ought it matter to me?
That’s because a good story – in this case a good TV season – is not just composed of a collection of visually interesting scenes strung together. There has to be a glue that retains the emotional interest of the audience; indeed that glue matters more than the scenes or single episodes because it is what fosters the investment in the scenes. Many great films and TV shows with far smaller budgets have landed far heavier emotional punches with scenes that were far less visually compelling or interesting because we actually cared about the characters involved.
Instead Rings of Power has its big ‘cavalry saves the day’ moment and I felt nothing, because the stakes were either unclear or already undermined by the unreality of what was happening and because the sudden arrival of the cavalry was both unearned and yet sadly predictable. By contrast, Peter Jackson puts a lot of work into the arrival of the Rohirrim; that is the result of hours of character development, the culmination of several character’s emotional journeys and we’ve been shown the decisions that make it possible without the need for a 400-mile teleport to luckily arrive at the one tiny village.
Rings of Power is, reportedly, coming back for another season, despite having been something of a disappointment to both Amazon and audiences. What I would ask the creators to learn from the rocky start is that they need to plan and write the show not for the scenes but for the season (and indeed, for the series to avoid the Game of Thrones disease); build a world and characters, not scenes. Most scenes are not emotional payoffs but emotional investments in much larger payoffs down the line; trust audiences to stick it out.
And fix the damn travel times. Transporter Chief Euron was three years ago and no one liked it then either.
- This is, by the by, much more than the Game of Thrones budget, which was $10-15m per episode in the later seasons
- Rules like the length of a day, the force of gravity, the need of humans to eat, the presence of larger social structures and so on.
- We might normally pardon this issue by assuming this one outpost is just one of many in a large network, except that the ambush of this one small group preventing any word getting back to the Elves about the return of Orcs to this region is a plot-point and it really does seem that this is the only squad.
- Likewise at Ecnomus there were a significant number of dedicated Roman horse transports, so many that one of the four squadrons of the fleet had to be delegated to tow them during the battle to keep them safe, Plb. 1.26.
- The Athenians on Sicily occasionally got away with less because they assumed friendly local communities where they could buy horses; later cavalry reinforcements were sent without horses but with money to buy more locally.
- Polyb. 4.67.6; on the strength of the Macedonian army generally and its units, Taylor, Soldiers & Silver (2020), 79-83 is a handy overview in English.
- I always thought they should have taken the ‘Columbo Approach’ to Sauron – show us who he is at the very beginning and make the story about how the characters discover or fail to discover who he is. Instead the show is larded up with red herrings (Adar before we see him, the starfall not-Gandalf-man, the three strange priestesses, the strange sword itself and so on) which all become pointless narrative dead-ends the moment you realize who Sauron actually is. For what it is worth, I guessed it fifteen minutes into episode five when Halbrand, despite notionally being a either a random refugee or a noble is inexplicably able to forge a masterpiece sword (complete with bimetallic engravings!) in one sitting with no training like he’s a mid-game Skyrim character.
- And Isildur’s one, very forgettable friend.
- Apparently some of the concept art included a portable tinker-forge. This suffers both from the same ‘not in the show’ disease as many other things, but even if it were in the show would still be silly. Hunter-gatherer societies generally cannot support much in the way of specialized labor (like a smith or a charcoaler) and in any case how would the Harfoots get a reliable source of metal? Scrap iron may be common in the modern world, but it was not common in the pre-modern one. Finally, forges aren’t generally very portable things in any case.
- Which I think is an understandable story decision to make these societies more relatable, but not a historical one. On the labor-and-subsistence factors which produced that stratification and labor division, see E.W. Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times (1996). Briefly put, in an agrarian society with high infant mortality, no baby formula and no mass produced textiles, the division of labor which emerged (where men do most, but not all, of the farming and fighting and women work primarily in food preparation, textile production and child care) in nearly all complex agrarian societies was necessary for communal survival in the long term. And I want to be clear because this point, which I think is accurate concerning the past, is occasionally mobilized culturally in the present that just because a set of labor systems were necessary then does not mean that they were good nor does it make them necessary or good now. The wonderful thing about technology is that it means I don’t have to live like a subsistence farmer; I will most surely not do so on a volunteer basis nor can hardly expect the other half of the population to do so.
- Note: being afraid of potentially being overthrown or losing support does not make her rule non-absolute. Every ruler has to fear coups and revolution. The relative absolutism of a ruler’s power is a question of legal and constitutional systems, of which there appear to be none restraining Queen Míriel.
- Answer from the Silmarillion: because he’s her cousin and also because she never really had power; Pharazôn usurped the throne immediately as a rival claimant within the royal house before forcing her into marriage to solidify his claim.
- Answer from the Silmarillion: Yes, he’s noble, descending from the Lords of Andúnië and is a not-so-distant relative of the queen. In the Silmarillion, at this early point, Elendil’s father Amandil is still alive and the Lord of Andúnië, making Elendil the heir to what is a major lordship within the kingdom and thus a major vassal. His father is also the leader of a major political faction, the Faithful, who end up persecuted as part of the plot.
- I don’t know that we ever get a full list of the vassals Gil-galad has as High King even in the books. He rules Lindon directly but the other kingdoms of Elves were founded by Elves looking to leave Lindon, so his rule over them cannot have been as direct. At the very least there was Eregion, ruled by Celebrimbor, Greenwood ruled by Oropher and his son, Thranduil (dad of Legolas) after him, and Lothlórien, ruled by Celeborn and Galadriel who – not that the show would tell you – by this point is married and has an adult daughter (Celebrían) who ought to be dating Elrond. There are also the Grey Havens, ruled by Círdan, who seems to be a more direct vassals of Gil-galad but also a mighty elf-lord in his own right.
- And yet another book note: in the broader context of the legendarium, Gil-galad’s order would have been a mix of nonsense and impiety. Galadriel was one of the few surviving leaders of the original Noldorian rebellion and as such a ban was placed by the Valar on her return to the West. Gil-galad is thus at once demanding that she flap her arms and fly to the West for as much good as it will do, and insulting the more-or-less gods in the process.
439 thoughts on “Collections: Why Rings of Power’s Middle Earth Feels Flat”
Bret, thanks for including that illustration for a Númenórean ship. I hadn’t seen it before, and it had me laughing out loud in truth! The next LOL moment was your comment near the end of the same section: The only casualty seems to have been my suspension of disbelief. I’m sure you’ve made many corrections before I had a chance to finish and to post the following list, but here it is nevertheless.
Caption for Southlands: with yet move lands further > more lands
Caption for Bronwyn addressing people: here, I find himself frustrated> myself
As noted, Númenór seems > Númenor [Unlike the longer adjective and demonym form of the word, this place name does not include the accented “o”. Many uses throughout this post need to be corrected]
cavalry arriving to stave the day > save the day
caught site of the coast > sight
gasoline they need for their tricks > trucks
Southlands were reduced blasted wastes > reduced to blasted wastes
In either case an big flood piles down > a big flood [but it “piles”? Or is something missing here?]
see on screen is most plausible than > more plausible
this is a scene which would have > that would have
here, just not on screen because > screen [insert comma] because
both the character’s rescue > characters’ [transpose s and apostrophe]
who dwell near them know them so little little about them > delete the second them and the first little
glean from these books sit will the content > [what?]
a somewhat wealthier peasants > peasant [singular]
everyone belongs to a build, asking > guild
vaguely important, was is the actual scope > [delete was]
questions and and that isn’t a feeling > [delete one instance of and]
rapidly finds that cannot have > that it cannot have
some rings out her suddenly > out of her
several character’s emotional > characters’ [transpose s and apostrophe]
Here is a question I had as I read. You wrote disembarked on what will be the Pelennor Fields But do we know this was what the showrunners intended, rather than the (just as ridiculous) idea that they disembarked at Umbar and rode north into the Southlands?
“Elendil seems vaguely important, was is the actual scope of his military command?”
“Elendil seems vaguely important, what is the actual scope of his military command?”
Tolkien himself is famously bad on basic facts of geology,* so maybe they’re just trying to be true to his vision? I did enjoy someone’s suggestion here that perhaps nonmagical vulcanism simply doesn’t exist in Middle-Earth at all. (It would explain the Lonely Mountain, which should otherwise be volcanic in origin or connected to a range of mountains.)
*Mountain ranges generally do not make right-angle turns. You almost never find a mountain range, then a major river running parallel to it with a broad plain on the far side. Major rivers, in fact, rarely exist right next to mountain ranges at all, and where they do they generally run perpendicular to the range. The Lonely Mountain should be volcanic. And so forth.
I think we have to consider the shaping of Middle-earth by the powers that may not be consistent with natural formation. https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/147985/are-the-mountains-surrounding-mordor-natural
These geographic complaints have appeared quite commonly, but really what Tolkien portrays isn’t that different from what is found in the real world Danube-Carpathian Basin. The maps don’t portray the intricacies of said geography because they are simplified representations by a people that don’t posses advanced cartographic equipment or skill. The specific example of the Lonely Mountain was actually addressed by Tolkien, it’s not isolated but is actually a prominent spur of the Grey Mountains and this fact is noticeably when one looks outward from the Northern face of Erebor.
Thank you for this reference. I knew I had some discussion on these points some years ago as responses to an article/post on the TOR-dot-com website, but I was too lazy to go search for it again.
Here’s and example of how many “unnatural” mountain ranges are in Europe, if we use same map symbols as the map of the Middle-earth uses:
From article “In defense of Tolkien’s mountains”:
Wow – Sauron is Transylvanian!
But we know from the Silmarillion that those mountain ranges were artificial, and created by the actions during warfare before elves and men existed and while the earth as still flat. You cannot expect mountains created that way to fully behave like mountains crated by slow movements of tectonic plates on a round world.
Yeah, though making sense of the Anduin might still be challenging. So I guess there’s a valley between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, and then all that tips down toward the south…
Yes, a valley between misty mountains and Mirkwood seems obvious
It’s called the “Vales of Anduin” after all.
Not only is such a thing plausible, it seems necessary. Mirkwood has several highlands in it. Dol Guldur is built on a prominent hill in the south, Bilbo climbs a tree to scout out the land at one point and finds (or rather, we’re told by the narrator – Bilbo simply perceives endless forest in every direction) that he’s in a depression between several hills, and between these two highlands are the even taller Mountains of Mirkwood that split the wood more or less in half.
Doesn’t the Ganges run parallel to the Himalayas?
The Ganges have a mountain range to the south of them, too, they run between the two ranges and parallel to both. We just often ignore the Vindhyas because they’re much lower than the Himalayas.
The river complaint never quite made sens to me: I need only look at a map of North America to see a river running parallel to a mountain range: the Mississippi runs parallel to the Rockies.
The Mississippi runs between the Rockies and the Appalachians. The problem isn’t just the mountains and river, but also the broad plain. If there were highlands on the other side of the Anduin, there’d be no problem.
Or, at least, that’s my understanding of the argument.
There are mountains in Mirkwood, I recall.
The maps in LOTR aren’t hugely detailed, so I assume the area on the left bank of the Anduin is elevated, just not enough to be shown.
And as somebody else stated, it is called the Vale of Anduin.
Broad plain… like the Great Plains, between the Rockies and Mississippi?
It’s really not a problem at all. They’re called foreland basins, and occur on the margins of most mountain ranges. The Alps have two, (the Donau to the north & Po to the south) and the Carpathians have several (including the Donau again, through the very prominent Dacian Basin). Now, the Po & Dacia happen to have mountains on their other sides, because mountains generally run in parallel clusters, but as the upper Donau in Bayern (or the Ganges in India, if you want an extreme example) shows, that’s certainly not necessary.
To be fair, plate tectonics wasn’t even proposed until 1915. It wasn’t even widely accepted until the 60s, long after Tolkien had finished writing.
Major rivers often run parallel to mountain ranges, following the patterns of faulting & lithospheric flexure associated with the mountain-raising. The Ganges is the most prominent example of a major river running through this sort of formation, (referred to as a foreland basin) but there are many smaller ones, like the upper reaches of the Donau in Bayern & the Po in Italy, which run parallel to the Alps to the north & south, respectively. And in fact, the Donau later on does exactly the same thing with the Dacian Basin (a foreland basin of the Carpathians – the mountains that happen to be the inspiration for Mordor’s ring ranges). Wikipedia has a list of many extant foreland basins.
I’m a geologist, and I’ve never understood this sort of complaint. Yeah, if Arda followed our rules the geography would make little sense. However, it clearly does not.
To give a few examples: The Misty Mountains weren’t a natural feature, but rather a defensive wall. Similarly, the mountains around Mordor aren’t natural, but the product of Sauron’s activities (I forget who said it, but they noted that he could change geography). No one complains that city walls defy the rules of geology! Rivers are likewise not following our rules–Ulmo and the Maia that follow him are directly in control of the waterways, as evidenced by Legolas’ reaction to gulls and the ability of the Ring-Bearers to travel beyond the sphere of the world. Again, no one complains that irrigation canals don’t follow the rules of geography. Further, you have to remember that Arda didn’t start out a globe. It was originally flat, and was only recently (for Arda) broken into a sphere. Trying to apply modern geologic principles–which are based on a roughly spherical planet–to a flat world is rather silly. There’s also the element of time. We don’t know how log the world existed prior to the Elves awakening, but it’s unlikely that Arda is 4.6 billion years old!
Geology is based on the physics of the world. Where the physics are different, we should expect to see very different outcomes. Sentient entities controlling the courses of waterways, or throwing up geological features as defensive measures or because they feel like it will inevitably provide a much different basis for geology than the principles of buoyancy, gravity, and the like that affect our world. In a world where supernatural entities take a direct hand in shaping the world (and they do–Manwe directly intervenes at least three times [the eagles, plus the deaths of two Maia], Ulmo at least once [taking the Ring Bearers to Valinor], and Eru once [Gandalf} in LOTR alone) deviations from what we see in our world should be expected, not derided as errors. If Arda’s geology matched ours perfectly it would break immersion, because it would be inconsistent with literally everything we know about that world.
I think this issue stems from current demands that fantasy be realistic. Obviously it can’t be–fantasy, by definition, differs from the real world (otherwise it’d be historic fiction). The major way it deviates is in the laws of physics, typically (but not always) via the addition of magic. This creates a tension in the world-building. Make it too fantastic and you end up with weird dreamscapes where nothing actually matters because there are no rules; make it too realistic and you leave the genera. We tend to favor things just at the cusp of not being fantasy today, but that’s modern taste; previous generations were happy with stories far closer to dreamscapes. For my part I’m happy to accept either, as long as the author is consistent with their intent. Don’t promise realism then allow dreamscape stuff without a good excuse, in other words (dreamscapes can have pockets of realism, because dreams are like that).
Fantasy fans tend to be very demanding that what is not done by magic works in the real work. If you find this meme to be wrong-headed, well, we don’t care:
“Fantasy fans tend to be very demanding that what is not done by magic works in the real work.”
Some do. Some don’t. I don’t think it’s fair to say anything so broad as this. There’s a reason fantasy is broken into a number of subgenres. Some fantasy openly operates under quite different rules which, consistently applied, produce drastically different results from the real world in many areas that aren’t directly addressed but which the author acknowledges via world-building. And quite frankly some world-building is shoddy because the author focuses on plot, characters, and the like, and since the author is clearly doing so everyone’s happy. See the Myth, Inc. series.
It’s also context dependent. I don’t know anyone who’s read, say, “Chronicles of Amber” and complained that the chaotic worlds far from Amber weren’t sufficiently explained, for example. Or anyone who’s read “Alice in Wonderland” and criticized it for inconsistent worldbuilding. Or anyone who’s criticized Diskworld for inconsistencies (easy to find, because the author points them out regularly). We accept that there are contexts in which consistency can be dropped for storytelling purposes, or because inconsistency is part of the experience the author is generating.
Further, Tolkien clearly explains that the geology and geography of the world are subject to magical (or at least divine) forces, not natural ones. The Mountains of Mist are a defensive barrier erected by Morgoth. The mountains around Mordor are again defensive fortifications, not natural phenomena–as stated in LOTR, so you don’t even need to delve into the more complex material to know this. Even if we accept the absurdity of “No mountain ranges at right angles” (absurd because they exist, as Jarno points out, and because of how forces operate–see exfoliation on exposed granite for example–and yes, the forces work at both scales), it wouldn’t matter. Saying “Mordor’s mountains make no sense because mountains in the real world don’t work like that” is exactly on par with saying “The Roman postage-stamp fortifications make no sense because mountains in the real world don’t work like that.” Far from the T. rex with the Jeep and the rifle, such criticisms are more akin to decrying a show about gladiators because they did sponsored ads, or a Medieval story for using the name Tiffany.
Myth is comic.
And Amber is explained by the magic.
“Myth is comic.”
To use this as a counter-argument to my point your options from here are to either admit that there are conditions in which fantasy can have unexplained inconsistencies (which means agreeing with me), or attempt to argue that comic stories can’t be fantasy (which is patently false). A third option is to accept that you were unclear and to revise your previous statement.
“And Amber is explained by the magic.”
Taken at face value, this means that all issues in any fantasy are be default explained–anything can be hand-waved away as “Magic did it.” In some settings this is fine, of course–soft vs hard world building–but it rather undermines your previous statement.
Further, again, Tolkien’s geography is explained by the magic, as are most geological inconsistencies in fantasy worlds. Once you state “The gods made the world and put humanity upon it” you can basically do whatever you want with geography/geology, because “Grand High Lord of the Mountains decided it looked better this way” is always an optional explanation.
Secondly, and more interestingly, Amber really didn’t get into details about how the magic worked. It went into fairly great detail on how a handful of powers are used (mostly methods to travel the multiverse, plus one method for making a new multiverse, and one for destroying it), but the mechanics of, say, how large stones orbit smaller stones or what that weird parallel world Merlin went to was are left entirely undiscussed. It discussed the foundations behind the magic, but left the reader to fill in the gaps between that and what’s on the page. It’s dismissed as “We travel the Shadows until we find what we want”, which isn’t any sort of explanation at all really.
Consider that I explicitly cited the use of magic to make it work in my first comment, it’s a bit late to object to it.
“Consider that I explicitly cited the use of magic to make it work in my first comment, it’s a bit late to object to it.”
So I’m confused. What’s your point in this discussion?
If it’s that Tolkien didn’t meet your criteria of “Everything must match our current understanding of the real world unless the author specifically gives a reason why it doesn’t” he met that criteria two ways–first, by specifically stating why it potentially deviates, and second by copying real-world features.
If it’s that my objection to such a criteria is invalid, the only argument you’ve provided to support that conclusion was an attack against my seriousness as a fantasy fan, combined with an obviously hostile and belligerent attempt at pre-emptively dismissing any potential disagreements. Further discussion has failed to produce any other arguments (except that I now know that you don’t consider comedic fantasy to be fantasy, which is nonsense and ample justification to dismiss your line of reasoning as fatally flawed by itself). You will forgive me if I find this sort of behavior less than convincing.
Also, like stated elsewhere, if we used similar symbols as the map of Middle-earth uses on our maps of Europe, Europe would be full of “right angled” mountain ranges:
If I make a map of Europe that uses same symbols as the map of Middle-earth uses, Europe is full of mountain ranges with right angle turns. I do not expect Middle-earth maps to be high definition in their accuracy.
I agree with your points – it was disappointing to see so many unforced errors that took away from the believability of the world. The most egregious was the volcano sequence.
“While we’re here, why do the Southlanders call their homeland ‘the Southlands?”
South is always in relation to something else, no? The American South developed a sense of identity in relation (and opposition) to the North, although from a Canadian point of view the North is more like ‘the middle.’ Granted, unless you are in Texas, there isn’t anything immeidately south of the South except water.
Here in Los Angeles, a lot of people call it the Southland. In that case, it is I suppose because it is Southern California, i.e. the southern part of the state, even though you can keep going south to Mexico and beyond.
All of which is to say I can imagine the Southlanders calling themselves that if there is something they feel they are notably ‘south’ in relation to, though not having seen the show or read the Silmarillion I don’t know what that might be, if anything. Anyway, probably more thought than necessary responding to a throwaway caption, but I was bored…
Sutherland is the very north of Scotland. (The Norse named it, of course, but — it stuck.)
I suspect that “Southlands” was the showrunners’ rather ham-handed way of telling us this part of the story was not taking place in Eriador or the Vales of Anduin. They could have had the characters reference Lake Nurnen or even Khand, but if they considered those options they probably guessed (correctly) that those references wouldn’t mean much even to many fans of LotR as they received only passing reference in the Return of the King (and Appendix A).
More likely that would have givena way that it was Mordor.
There’s also the case of Austria – in German, it’s called Österreich, which means ‘Eastern Kingdom’. Austrians have been well aware there are kingdoms east of Österreich as long as Österreich has existed, but it’s still the eastern kingdom.
Australia is a bit of an unusual case – its name means ‘South Land’, even though it’s not even the southernmost inhabited landmass, but when European explorers found it, it was the southernmost land they were aware of, and the name stuck.
Then there’s like ‘Norfolk’, which means ‘Northern Folks’, but it isn’t even the most northerly place in England, let along Britain.
“Austrians have been well aware there are kingdoms east of Österreich as long as Österreich has existed, but it’s still the eastern kingdom.”
That’s because Austria used to be the easternmost end of the HRE. In that sense, calling your land “eastern one” makes total sense.
Btw, Austria was never a kingdom – “reich” translates to something like “realm”.
Which is a pretty common experience, across all media. Which is part of why telling people that X is bad because cultural Marxism or whatever is such a politically and economically profitable practice.
The word for this is “verisimilitude,” or as an adjective, “verisimilitudinous”. I really like those words, because they are very specific, because they precisely articulate an idea that comes up often in things I like to talk about, and if I’m being honest, because eight-syllable words make monkey brain go brr.
And why do dwarves call themselves “dwarves”? They’re not small, they’re a normal height for their own race. It’s the Elves and Men who are a weird height!
There are real-world cultures which adopted identities project onto them by outsiders; look at how many Native American tribes chose to include “Indian” in their official tribe names, despite that name being thrust upon them by Europeans who didn’t realize they found a new continent until people were used to calling them Indians. But they only adopted that because of a series of historical conditions which traumatically reshaped their cultures, political structures, and ways of life. It’s not something that you can casually drop onto any old culture.
I’m incredibly frustrated by the trend of authors acting like their story is worthless if the readers can anticipate what’s going to happen next, especially since it’s arising in the age of the Internet where if anyone can figure out what’s going on, everyone can find out. It’s a bad writing paradigm to begin with (foreshadowing is a good thing!), and it gets worse the harder you have to work to hide your secrets.
In the name of pedantry, I’d like to note that the using the word dwarf to mean small is the newer meaning; dwarf as the name of certain beings from Germanic mythology is the older meaning.
True, but you have to bear in mind that the conversations we see on-screen were almost certainly translated from either Sindarin (between the Elves and Dwarves) or Quenya (among the Noldor) and therefore likely free of that etymological context. I don’t remember seeing a Quenya word for dwarf, but in Sindarin they were called Naugrim (stunted people) or, less disparagingly, Gonhirrim (stone-lords).
“I don’t remember seeing a Quenya word for dwarf”
It’s ‘Norno’ from the adjective ‘norna’ meaning stiff or tough. The Noldor tended to be on much better terms with the dwarves than the Sindar were, and it’s reflected in stuff like this.
There’s also “Nauco”, from stunted, and “Casar”, adapted from Khazad, the Dwarves’ name for themselves, the politest version one assumes. Sindarin has a number of words for Dwarves too.
Yeah, I feel like complaining about dwarves calling themselves dwarves is putting the cart before the horse. They didn’t originally call themselves a word that means “short”; the word they called themselves eventually came to *mean* “short”.
For a weird analogy, imagine one sapient AI asking another one a thousand years from now: “Why did ancient humans call themselves ‘humans’ when it means ‘disgustingly organic’?” That’s not what it means to us *now*, it’s just what we call ourselves, whatever hypothetical connotations it might come to have in the future.
The dwarves didn’t actually call themselves “dwarves.” Their own name for their kind was Khazâd, but they generally did not share their language (Khuzdul) with outsiders. Southlanders, by contrast, are not speaking someone else’s language when they refer to themselves as Southlanders.
I assume that this is referring to people criticizing race and sex blind casting or gender roles and stuff? But isn’t that logically just as much a problem for verisimilitude as any of the other things brought up here?
I was quite curious how this essay would address those topics, and kinda laughed a bit when they were just ignored.
The post did talk about the gender roles (footnote 10). And yes indeed, injecting modern attitudes about gender roles and ethnic placement in places where they don’t fit is a problem with verisimilitude, which is why the response “you just don’t like ’cause you’re racist/sexist” is a cheap copout. I don’t think having a black dwarf was the Worst Thing Ever, but it still looked like a diversity points decision, not a storytelling one.
Having a black dwarf isn’t a problem at all. Having one (1) black dwarf, with no mention as to why it’s just her (caste system? different clan of dwarves? Unfortunately specific population loss during one of the wars against the orcs and goblins?), now that reduces verisimilitude. It’s like how there’s no issue in WoT with Two Rivers being non-white… but it is super weird that this isolated village that can tell an outsider by the fact that they look different is as diverse as NYC. But a single throwaway line in RoP would have fixed it (“Yes, it was a long trip here from the Iron Mountains for the wedding… and I didn’t even know what my husband-to-be looked like yet!” but, you know, closer to Tolkien’s writing style in language, which I’m not going to try to mimic without my coffee).
Indeed. Heck, they could’ve even brought her in as an offshot from one of the Orocarni dwarves clan, like a diplomat or a merchant (or a descendant of some that came ages ago) visiting Khazad Dum, or maybe an exile from a clan that turned evil. We know so little about eastern dwarves that there would be more than enough space to develop their own story while totally remaining consistent with Tolkien. Instead, she’s just…there.
If the showrunners wanted to include black actors, they should have just made the tribe of hobbits all black, and given them a backstory about fleeing their southern homeland because of war/famine/plague/whatever. This would give a plausible explanation for why they don’t look nothern European like the people in LOTR (they’re from Middle Earth’s Africa/Middle East analogue, not its northern Europe analogue), and also why their material culture doesn’t match their isolated, nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle (since this isn’t their normal lifestyle, just a temporary expedient they’ve been forced into).
The Southland was the perfect place for a multi-racial culture but they preferred tokens planted here and there.
I’d argue that most explanations for a black dwarf would break verisimilitude. Unless the ainur sang the world into existence with very different dwarf skin color groups, Middle-Earth simply lacks the time for such divergence, which would be on the order of some hundred thousand years (indeed more, since the key figure is the number of generations, and dwarves reach reproductive maturity more slowly). (There’s also a fascinating thing where different groups of anatomically modern humans picked up different stuff (both adaptations and some spandrels, though probably not skin color) from archaics — neanderthals, denisovans, h. naledi, etc., and probably some that haven’t been found/named yet; research is ongoing.) Furthermore, unless something extremely weird was going on, several thousand years of living in regular economic contact should produce enough interbreeding to wash out most of the difference; we wouldn’t see the endpoints of the distribution without the middle.
Separately, I have the impression that the parallel existence of elves, hobbits, etc. is supposed to in some sense stand in for this?
They obviously have humans of different skin colours (Harad and Far Harad), which also wouldn’t be evolutionary possible in Arda, so why not Dwarves?
There is no reason I can think of that Tolkien might not have had his 7 fathers of the Dwarves be originally designed by Aulë in different skin and/or hair colors?
I think as regards verisimilitude and race the obvious issue was not finding a different-looking dwarf in the largest and most famous dwarf city in Middle Earth is not a stretch at all by Earth standards. Diversity has been a thing on Earth-Earth in big cities with wide trading networks since Babylon was young.
Racial diversity in a tiny population of itinerant gatherers who have limited interaction with outsiders is a bit more of a head scratcher. A plausible if convoluted filler explanation that would broadly align with real world practice is that hobbit groups would have a general get together every couple of years at a fixed date and place more or less explicitly for the purposes of arranging out-marriage, and that Sir Lenny and a couple of the others joined the clan at that point from a new black hobbit clan that had trekked up from the South. (A clan of 40-odd people couldn’t genetically survive for more than a couple of centuries without such marriage marts, so that part is actually more likely than not)
I think Brett does allow his own political beliefs to colour his writing sometimes. In this case, things that break immersion in a non-political way (geography, time, political structures) are criticised, but things that break immersion in a politically sensitive way (gender roles, racial diversity within groups) get a pass.
Alternatively, it could just be that he wants to avoid a bunfight in the comments, which I am certainly sympathetic to.
Honestly I think there’s not much point to discussing it because the reason is that Amazon wanted diverse casting. That is obviously the reason, we know why they want diverse casting, and it’s an overriding priority for them.
We could conoct an explaination for why, but to my mind the most straightforward answer is that the characters are ethnically homogenous, they’re just played by diverse actors.
Eh, some of the most interesting stuff is invented to internally explain a facet forced externally.
Some of the worst and most contrived, too.
“We could conoct an explaination for why, but to my mind the most straightforward answer is that the characters are ethnically homogenous, they’re just played by diverse actors.”
This is really the only way to look at it and accept it (or not). The skin colour and looks of the members of the same society aside, but when you even have actors who are supposed to be family members looking nothing alike (like Tar-Palantir and Miriel, or Bronwyn and Theo, and arguably even Elendil and Isildur), or older characters looking younger than characters who are supposed to be younger (Galadriel and Celebrimbor) it’s clear that they went for 100% diversity and 0% consistency.
The other reason why telling people “x is bad because cultural Marxism” is profitable is that there are many in the potential audience for “x” who do not share the values communicated by “x”.
For example, let’s say someone wrote a reverse “Animal Farm” where Napoleon was the Good Guy. Not as a satire, and not by having Napoleon do things a different way, but having him be the exact same character, with every totalitarian action described in a positive light. All because the author genuinely believed in Napoleon’s approach to governing. Such a work would probably play well in a culture like North Korea, but not in one like the U.S.A.
Or, let’s say the author wasn’t a die-hard communist, but they felt having all the baddies be pigs promoted racism, so they “fix” that part but break others in the process. If the resulting story was incoherent, it would be just unpopular in general. And people who took the time to shred it with biting commentary would become more popular.
The biggest problem with Rings of Power is that it’s not Tolkien, even though its creators claim to be following in his footsteps. Laying aside the broken worldbuilding, the characters and scenarios of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga channel certain values: chivalry, duty, mercy, courage, and yes, faith in a divine order, The values channeled by Rings of Power seem to be “representation for it’s own sake,” “the ends justify the means”, and “official authority figures are always wrong”.
You basically just described the book Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlen.
It’s extremely fashionable to dump on “Starship Troopers” as fascist, but imho the original novel doesn’t justify such an assessment.
I love the book, but there is a very good reason that the Verhooven saw similarity to the Nazi government he lived under as a child when adapting it to a movie.
The political ideas, which were a much smaller part of the book, but explicitly there are very much fascist.
Starship Troopers is the most militaristic of Heinlein’s novels, but militarism ≠ fascism automatically. The Terran Federation, its values and its goals might be considered fascist except for one crucial fact: the TF is not competing against other humans but against the Arachnids, a species so alien that rapport or diplomacy just isn’t possible. Starship Troopers looks hard at the question “what if the other side just doesn’t want peace?”. If it really is a matter of existential survival, than wishful thinking isn’t going to cut it.
You should be more specific in your claims.
“There is a very good reason that the Verhooven saw similarity to the Nazi government he lived under as a child when adapting it to a movie.”
Yes, it’s that Paul Verhoeven sees a similarity between the Nazi government he lived under as a child and anything that’s right-of-center.
More seriously, while there are some themes in the book that could be considered fascist–the idea of eternal struggle between species applied to sapient ones being the main one–the Federation is hardly fascist, nor would I consider it an endorsement of fascism, especially considering the rest of Heinlein’s body of work.
Plenty of countries have required citizens to serve in the military by law. The main difference with the Federation is that military service, and therefore citizenship, remains voluntary. So you have a choice between joining the military and becoming a citizen, and not joining the military, and not becoming a citizen.
That is not obviously a choice every American young man had in 1955. Or every Dutch one, for that matter. Verhoeven himself was drafted into the Dutch Navy.
So what makes the Federation evil? The death penalty for murder? The cut of their uniforms?
And IIRC, military service was not the only way to citizenship. Two years of any type of government service (including teaching) counted. I think Heinlein’s idea was that in order to be a citizen (and entitled to vote) you had to demonstrate through some form of service that you were willing to work for the good of society. I suppose that emphasis of good of the state over that of the individual could be considered a trait of a fascist government, but the fact that service is voluntary (and there don’t seem to be that much in the way of repercussions if you don’t serve) does seem to change the equation a bit. Heck, I think Rico’s father tries to talk him out of joining and disowns him when he does.
In all of the movies and the books, we do not hear the meaning of the dwarven word for themselves. Dwarf is what others call them… and they use that term when talking to others. Among themselves, they don’t.
Native american tribes add “Indian” when speaking English, but that isn’t the word when speaking Navajo.
They don’t; they call themselves “Khazad”. That’s not even part of the material the show didn’t license – it’s right there in the LOTR books proper.
In theory I’m not opposed to a lot of what RoP has going on. On paper it relieves a lot of the issues one might have with a prequel – and not to forget, Rings of Power is *not* an adaptation of the Silmarillion, or Tolkien’s fully fleshed-out past of Middle Earth. It answers a different question – what might a prequel look like based only on the Appendices? What would a new reader, coming in blind and only knowing those facts, say if asked to create a story based on what we get in LOTR proper?
The idea that the land our heroes have traveled to save turns out to be Mordor – but that this is only revealed at the point of their failure and its destruction – is, on paper, good. We are not, up-front, in the know that ‘this plan is doomed to failure because this is a prequel’.
Similarly, I would challenge the idea that the identity of Sauron is a ‘mystery box’ – the mystery box is a narrative technique where the mystery *keeps* unfolding (‘Lost’ being the classic example where the mystery overwhelms the plot). RoP offers us several major candidates (Adar, the amnesiac Stranger, and Halbrand) before resolving the mystery in favour of Halbrand at the end of the first season. I don’t even mind the idea that Halbrand is essentially Sauron’s self-insert; a troubled prince-without-a-kingdom whose arc is debunked by the Real Tolkien Fans, as represented by Galadriel, who digs into the lore and discovers he can’t be who he claims to be. The execution, however…
As you say, it feels a *lot* cheaper than it should, and I’m not sure where the money has gone, other than the CGI background shots. The tone seems to waver between self-aware, post-Avengers style banter and portentous Tolkienisms, to the extent that it feels schizophrenic.
Part of it is also the need to tell a sequential story with much smaller narrative ‘loops’ than the films. Someone – possibly here, possibly on YouTube – commented that if LOTR had been produced by the RoP team, it would have started with Aragorn roaming in the North, resolving smaller issues for the locals and establishing him as a Good Guy. He would get captured by orcs, Narsil taken away, and then released when a Ringwraith shows up. Ooh, mystery box. How will he get the sword back? Why did the bad guys let him go (the answer, revealed much later, is they think he’ll lead them to the Ring). All this would be intercut with Gondorian politics and the rise of Wormtongue, framed at this point as an anti-hero.
Maybe Aragorn meets up with Glorfindel and we’d get other stories with him. He’d be teased as possibly a bad guy (he’s not, but that would be a Thing for several episodes), while we keep cutting away to Gandalf in Bree.. Six episodes in and maybe we’re ready for them to go to the Shire and introduce a new plotline around a mysterious Ring… The narrative pacing has been comprehensively destroyed, and our introduction to this world has not been from the perspective of a relative outsider seeing the big picture for the first time, but an omniscient Eye of Sauron dashing back and forth between different characters.
To be fair ‘Strider’ is teased as a bad guy when we first meet him for about 5 minutes in the books, too.
A particular weak spot is that Sauron, who in the lore is the greatest shapeshifter of Middle-Earth at the time, could have found an actual candidate for the kingship, killed him and any close associates, and assumed his identity. He’s had thousands of years to plan this out since the War of Wrath; is this non-strategy the best he could do? (Also, too, had he actually become the king for a while it’s a lot easier to develop a story for the creation of Mount Doom.)
Another is that the fact of the royal line of the Southlands having gone extinct half a millennium ago is the kind of thing that you’d surely expect the elves of Lindon (their leaders and scholars, at least) to know. It makes no sense at all that Galadriel knows enough to recognise a motif on Halbrand’s equipment as being the royal sigil of the Southlands dynasty, but not enough to know that that dynasty died out.
So she leaps wildly to the conclusion that he is the Lost Heir, without asking for any kind of detail, let alone corroboration. And when she comes to Lindon with him and introduces him to the Elves as such, everybody accepts this without question; only when Galadriel smells a rat around Halbrand’s personality does she set an archivist to look up the family tree of the Southlands dynasty, and apparently (no details were given) the records prove comprehensively that there can be no legit descendant of that line. That entire plot strand is as lame as a two-legged dog.
“Tolkien has not reinvented new systems of farming, new laws of physics or new systems of social organization.” — and he still has weak spots, like elvish food production, or human monarchical dynasties that are almost totally strife-free for centuries. (I’ll give the elvish monarchies a pass, elves may well have a different psychology, and he does hint their kingship is different… could still have shown more behind that.)
“I don’t know that we ever get a full list of the vassals Gil-galad has as High King even in the books.” — haha! no. and, no. At most, we get Cirdan in Mithlond, Celeborn in Harlindon early Second Age, and maybe Celebrimbor in Eregion.
reduced blasted wastes
these books sit will the content
off to forge some rings out her suddenly
To be fair, he did think about these things. It’s not a lot but we get some notes on Elvish food production in The Nature of Middle-earth. The Appendices reveal that Gondor suffered a major dynastic civil war (the Kin-Strife, which lasted a good 15 years and led to the creation of the Black Numenorean Kingdom of Umbar) despite being ruled by super-humans. Rohan which is a much more recent kingdom also suffered a major civil war which nearly led to the extinction of the Eorlings.
True! But Nature came out in the last year or two? Certainly not a lot to go on in the main texts — not even mentions orchards or managed forests, or meals of nuts and fruit and venison, to suggest that the elves are surrounded by food production in some non-standard manner. I think the only elf-meal described is Gildor’s with fruit and bread.
And yeah, Kin-Strife over a big issue of racism. I forget Rohan’s civil war. But overall it’s very idealized monarchy — power passes from father to (usually) son time after time, with no sons or brothers or cousins making a bid for the throne on minimal excuse, like close to half of English kings until 1688 and parliamentary supremacy.
To be fair, after Arnor did a Carolingian three-way split for some reason, the child kingdoms _did_ fight a lot, though apparently settling into Arthedain + Cardolan vs. Rhudaur and Angmar.
I’ve also grumbled that making your pre-Ruling Stewards hereditary defeats key points of having Stewards (vizier, chancellor, Hand of the King, etc): being able to appoint an appropriate adult even if heredity gives you a stinker or child on the throne, and also being able to get rid of them for bad performance or needing a scapegoat.
The fact that Numenor/Gondor almost never had a lack of heirs, or a monarch dying with minor heir, I suppose can be attributed to divine blessing and good medicine and not engaging in gratuitous warfare, especially in Numenor.
Weren’t the Stewards modeled on the Scottish House of Stuart, who were hereditary royal stewards for something like two and a half centuries? I always assumed that Denethor’s line about stewards ascending to kingship in lesser lands was a backhand against them, and maybe the Carolingians.
Hereditary Stewardship was a pretty common in Medieval Europe, besides the example of the Stuarts and the Carolingian Palace Mayors you have a whole gaggle of German nobles with “Schenk” (Steward) in their name to attest to it. It’s possible it was meant to directly reference the Stuarts, but given Tolkien’s Catholic sensibilities I don’t think it’s likely that he would be that unfavorable to the last Catholic dynasty in England. As for the Carolingians, in one of his letters he compares the return of Aragorn to the establishment of the [Carolingian] Holy Roman Empire.
That’s true. I do think that Tolkien is deliberately presenting a more idealized image of kingship, in keeping with the imagery presented in On Fairy Stories: “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.” One could add that in the Kings of Gondor and the Mark true kingship is made manifest (having Kings that can rule for hundreds of years and are immune to most diseases is a huge boost to stability).
That said, the story of Gondor is definitely one of decline, as one can see looking at the Kings’ List towards the latter years. The Great Plague in T.A. 1636 wipes out Telemnar and most of his heirs, and a few hundred years later the throne is given to Eärnil, a distant cousin of the kings. These catastrophes still happen in the best of realms in Middle-earth, just more slowly than elsewhere.
Tolkien kingship is definitely idealized since otherwise there should be a major peasant revolt every 40-50 years somewhere in Middle-Earth, plus a few minor ones that get quickly put down when the ringleaders are hanged.
Good points. And the Stewards become Ruling in apart because “So it was that no claimant to the crown could be found who was of pure blood, or whose claim all would allow; and all feared the memory of the Kin-strife, knowing that if any such dissension arose again, then Gondor would perish.” So there’s a nod to fighting over inheritance, yet averted.
One of the most fantastic things is the psychology. Elves are Good People, despite the occasional sin. Frodo says no hobbit has murdered another in the Shire, in 1400 years. The Dunedain seem to mostly be decent people: powerful monarchs ruling without being capricious or incompetent enough to spark rebellion, royal relatives rational enough to not repeated a civil war that happened _eight hundred years earlier_. (Though I suppose the existence of Mordor, and the awareness of an Enemy directing enemies, may have helped focus their attention. “If we fight, the Witch-king invades.”) The Rangers give up lordship and accept a role of thankless protection.
Elves are Good People because the Bad Elves got themselves killed in the First Age.
Elves and hobbits aren’t human beings as we know them, so it makes sense that their psychological makeup might not be quite the same. As for the Dunedain, I believe they have elvish blood (or at least their kings do), so perhaps that’s why they’re generally so noble compared to ordinary men.
Yes. Many of the Dúnedain descended from Elros, the brother of Elrond. The brothers were Half-elven, but Elros had chosen his mortal side and ruled the Númenóreans while Elrond chose to be Elvish and ended up establishing a haven for Elves, in Rivendell. In any case, not only were there Elves in their bloodline twice, but even a Maia–since they ultimately descended from Lúthien.
On the psychology point, it is a serious error to assume that elves and hobbits are just taller (or shorter) humans. The point is repeatedly made that hobbits are far more resistant to the Ring than humans would be, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that this is because hobbits simply do not desire power over others. That’s why the Shire has no real government, and why, for that matter, no hobbit has servants or (really) full-time employees (occasional gardeners aside). The best temptation the Ring can come up with for hobbits is “Imagine if you could have a REALLY BIG garden”. It tries to tempt Sam with the idea of him bestriding the world like a colossus, but he just can’t take it seriously. (My pet theory is that the Ring is starting to work on Bilbo by tempting him to have enormous parties because that’s the closest thing to lust for power that hobbits have.)
I believe in the Hobbit, we hear about the feasting that the elves are doing in the forest, and Bilbo sees them going forth on hunting parties.
The thing about Tolkien’s unreal societies is that, as pointed out above, you don’t need to make a fantasy society feel real-world-plausible. That’s only one way to achieve the necessary foundation. Which is that you need your fantasy societies to be *coherent*, and plot points related to them needs to feel *explicable*. It’s totally fine for a kingdom to function on The Righteous King and The Unworthy Vizier logic so long as that logic is used consistently to flesh out the world and plot drivers are visibly rooted in it.
My preferred benchmark of this is predictability. Readers don’t need to know everything going on, of course, sometimes putting things behind the curtain is good for a story. It’s okay to have your audience predicting something different is going to happen than what will. But if something is important to the story, your audience should be able to have *a* prediction for what’s going to happen next.
And the thing about Rings of Power is that the political worldbuilding doesn’t meet that benchmark. There’s nothing churning in the background which gives you an idea of how these states operate and what might inform their decisions, so that you can predict the effect they’ll have on characters. There’s what they exposit to the screen, and little else.
I’d still say Tolkien’s politics are not particularly fleshed out, but yes, there is some coherence to the elven polities. A desire for power — or for being ‘in charge’ — seems to be a rare and possibly hereditary ailment. Most elves are decent people; even prisoners get treated somewhat okay (the Elvenking throws the dwarves into solitary, probably on a makeshift basis; they don’t get let out for exercise but they do get fed well, even meat; Gollum was treated with kindness as they could). In meeting Galadriel and Celeborn we’re told elven kings meet guests like equals, and they seem to be sitting in ordinary chairs not elevated on a dais. Unpopular leaders just don’t get followed. So I feel my spin on them as glorified club presidents to be somewhat justified. It’s not deep but things do fit together.
“this needed to be a large political and administrative center, which is to say it needed to be a city.”
While I generally agree, I do note that political and administrative centres aren’t really required to have relatively complex kingdoms: Lots of medieval monarchies were to some extent peripateic, and scandinavia seems to have had some degree of kingdoms capable of at least raising armies and such before they really had what can be called “cities”. To some extent that’s a question of what counts as a city of course.
The ruins revealed by Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik seemed so modest compared to the mythic grandeur of Troy that critics mocked the purported royal palace as “Priam’s Pigsty”. Bronze Age-scale indeed.
“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?”
They did, but later excavations, IIRC, found that the site was much bigger than Schliemann’s excavations had suggested.
One of the things that really bothered me about ROP is that they (for obvious signalling reasons) made Galadriel a young woman (well, fair, elves don’t age, etc.) but made Gil-Galad, her nephew/cousin (depending on version) who is centuries, if not milennia younger, played by a middle-aged man. (as is Celebrimbdor)
One of the most textbook examples of sexist casting (they should have taken inspiration from Angus McBride’s Celebrimbor for casting him, the cowards). Not helped by how the cinematography emphasizes how Galadriel is much shorter than the male characters she plays against, or Elendil’s line about how she reminds him of his children.
I don’t generally read a lot of commentary external to a show, especially a property I know fairly well (as I do LOTR), but this makes me glad I’m not the only one to have noticed many of these things. I enjoyed it but did not love it. I can only assume that Prime Video’s RoP production leadership were somehow in cahoots with The Peripheral’s team because they did almost as bad a job with the story. The main thing that kept me coming back for both was stellar casting and great visuals.
I was thinking of giving the Peripheral a go; should I not do so?
Speaking as a fan of the book (Gibson’s second best novel, I reckon) – no, ignore it.
I was one of those disappointed with the series but unable to really explain why. I felt the series was incredibly flat. I only made it to episode 4, but by then I had watched an entire LOTR extended edition+ worth of RoP and hadn’t seen anything particularly cool. I went into this show cautiously optimistic, even after the rather lackluster trailers, and still ended up disappointed.
What a shame. They had some really good material to work with and a massive budget, but we got this instead. Where did all that money go? It certainly didn’t go to writers or costumers.
One of the best comments that I have heard about The Rings of Power was that it would have been better if they had simply flipped Galadriel and Elrond’s storylines. Afterall, Numenor was founded by Elrond’s brother Elros, and it would make far more sense for him to be the one in Numenor pointing out how much they were failing to live up to this legacy, than Karen “I want to talk to the manager” Galadriel. And at the beginning of the Second Age Galadriel was living in Eregion, so it would make far more sense for her to be the one involved in Dwarvish politics. (Galadriel is also noted as being exceptionally tall, even by Elven standards. Not an impression you get from the show!)
It might have also been interesting to see Elrond exploring his human heritage a bit. Not regretting his choice to live as an elf, but more like “Huh, so this is what Elros chose. Neat.”
I think a big part of the problem is the sheer amount of plot that was crammed into the show, and this is a problem that I find with a lot of modern television. Since the advent of streaming, a lot of shows now produce seasons that are only 6 – 10 episodes long, so there’s not a whole lot of time to show what you want to show. I think writers are still figuring out how much plot they can fit into these short seasons, and a lot of them overstuff it. Not just RoP, but also Picard and a lot of the Marvel+ series have this problem, from what I’ve seen.
The Ban of the Valar (on the Noldor) was lifted after the Battle of Wrath at the end of the First Age, so Galadriel was in fact free to return to Valinor. In the books, she did not wish to do so, unlike all of the other surviving leaders of the Noldor, because she had married a local, the Sindar Celeborn. Whether her great nephew Gil-Galad had the authority to hustle her onto the boat remains a valid question.
“The Exiles were allowed to return – save for a few chief actors in the rebellion, of whom at the time of The Lord of the Rings only Galadriel remained… Her personal ban was lifted in reward for her services against Sauron, and above all for her rejection of the temptation to take the Ring when offered to her.” – Tolkien, from a letter
Careful reading tells us that Galadriel was one of few exceptions who didn’t have the Ban lifted after War of Wrath, only after the events of LOTR.
Never stated specifically in LotR, but certainly implied, both when Galadriel is tested and later:
“But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?”
Thanks for posting that. I was too lazy to go look for it. This is one pint that was *not* inconsistent about her character in LOTR.
There are in fact several versions, all inconsistent with each-other. Which is the “right” one would be a matter of some debate.
(I have one I like best but I couldn’t prove it’s the one Tolkien wanted in the end)
I have to say that I . . . well, I wanted to like Rings of Power more than I did. Now, I didn’t hate it. It was an ok, vanilla fantasy show with a better visual effects better than what you’d see from say, the CW. But it wasn’t a very good LOTR show. The sets and scenery were amazing, the cast, to their credit, really looked like they cared about their work and were giving it everything they had.
But, the characters were either very forgettable or so completely off from what little we know of the established canon, that they were jarring. Ar-Pharazon looked more like that grandpa that buys the new iphone every year, takes his grandkids out on the lake and gets all along with all his neighbors. Nothing like a centuries-old ruler whose armies made Sauron himself surrender at the mere sight of them.
Elendil and his household were the same. Elendil seems like a middle-aged dad from a sitcom that gives a good peptalk at the end of the every episode. But we don’t see the eight-foot tall king and general that was able to go toe-to-toe with Sauron, at least for a few moments. Isildur too, is nothing like what we could have had. Anarion, who would have been an ideal source of character conflict, just becomes wasted potential. Just as having a random human be Sauron, instead of the established story of Annatar, which could have been very interesting to explore.
The rest of the Numenoreans themselves just come across as more like disgruntled middle class workers at a union strike. The disappointing part is we could have seen them truly humanized, as they grow older and must face death.
They’re not the island empire that none could match and everyone feared. They’re . . . a bit like watching a Narnia battle scene after seeing the LOTR. It’s trying, but you can tell everything is smaller and cheaper, because no cared enough to shell out for the same kind of care and effort that went into what came before. I was honestly excited to see something like I dunno, a kind of bronze-age looking predecessor the soldiers of Gondor, hollow steel bows and all. Instead, we got a very on the nose reference to the Rohirrrim at the Pellenor and that made it look even smaller and cheaper.
I have no issues with a female character leading soldiers into battle and hunting for the ancient foes of the elves. This could have been amazing and it should have been. But what we got was just bland and it wasn’t Galadriel either. I honestly think that a seperate and original character, with a different name would have worked just as well, or even better.
Ultimately, the characters are a microcosm of the whole show, not bad per se. But it’s a lot of wasted potential and a crying shame too. Because amidst the clichés and poor choices for story direction, we do see flashes of brilliance here and there.
I think Morfydd’s character should have been Celebrian, not Galadriel. We know very little about her, which opens up a lot of narrative leeway with the character. Morfydd’s petite stature stops being an issue, since Celebrian’s physical appearance isn’t well described in the text. They could then cast someone very tall for Galadriel. It even opens up a romance plot for the show (although as I said in another comment, there’s already so much plot crammed into this show that it’s overstuffed as it is).
Lloyd Owen was an inspired casting choice for Elendil, but as you say, he wasn’t used very well.
Celebrian is certainly a better candidate for a young(ish) female elf on the loose.
With parents like Galadriel and a kinsman to Thingol, she probably wasn’t short either, but yeah nothing _says_. And it’s not like LotR says that much about heights anyway.
…except, ironically, Galadriel being so tall that her original name was “man-maiden”, specifically because of her height.
And in reply to the OP: I also tried to like the show more, especially after the first couple of episodes and after seeing that, in some respects, it has been done some injustice (mostly the “culture war” thing, which was pretty muted to the point of almost nonexistent). But it fell flat for me very soon, and collapsed completely with the last episode and the cramming of what was supposed to be the central focal point of the show in ridiculous and cramped 20 minutes or so. Not to mention the “twist” of Halbrand being Sauron which was so terribly done.
The only “flash of brilliance” I recall to have really enjoyed was the one conversation between Isildur and one of his friends after Isildur screwed up their careers, and said friend threw an annoyed “hope you find something in your life you can really care about” at Isildur. Pretty dark and damning foreshadowing there…although, looking back at the show as a whole, quite possibly accidental.
‘…except, ironically, Galadriel being so tall that her original name was “man-maiden”, specifically because of her height.’
That’s in Unfinished Tales. I specifically said LotR. There’s a lot to criticize about RoP, but it’s easy for lore-nerds to forget what it doesn’t have rights to. No ‘Annatar’, for example.
OTOH I was wrong here: Fellowship does have “Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord”
“On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel. Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; “
@Mindstalko: fair point on forgetting what piece of lore comes from where – guilty as charged here, and yes, I also could’ve sworn that Annatar comes up in the appendices before checking. Still, I think there is a difference between using actual copyrighted material like storylines and names (although for the latter it’s actually debatable), and just specific pieces of information like “Galadriel is tall”.
And yes, Galadriel is consistently described as tall, even in the LotR book. Her character is really mangled badly, in every possible way.
Seconding and adding to the critiques of Tolkien here vis. geology, politics, farming,. His worldbuilding demographically is very bad too. Not as bad as the series, but there is not enough population to maintain technology and complex society presented in lotr. And there is that weird and unrealistic sharp divide between settled and virtually abandoned regions that border each other. Tolkien requires either lack of most basic knowledge of this or treatment as a legend/concentration on well done aspects, that admittedly are really well done. But good worldbuilder he definitely is not.
The show beign significantly worse is a testament to human ingenuity i guess.
Care to elaborate? And are you going by the books or the movies? Our host has already talked about how the LOTR movies (and other fantasy adaptions) tend to have castles without farmland, but the books seem to be better at this: https://acoup.blog/2019/05/24/collections-the-siege-of-gondor-part-iii-having-fun-storming-the-city/
And how much population do you need to maintain a medieval level of technology (castles like the Hornburg, cities like Minas Tirith), and how does Tolkien get it wrong?
Oh my. Someone asked me to elaborate on this on reddit lately too and i did not. Well.
I am going solely by the books.
I am not talking about elves, fwiw, they are different enough to fall under the ‘wizard dod it’ trope. Dwarves too an extent, too, though how there are any left after what must have been 6000 thousanf years of negative population growth given their sex ratios and social structure i dont know (no, we dont know enough about it to be sure, but it would require dwarves to have tfr of 4 just to maintain population with modern death rates. Well, maybe they have different physiology. And their food economy is kind of mysterious, but lets assume trafe (haha, no, where is moria getting its foo from after eregion destruction? Certainly not lorien, and pleade no fungus)
So, humans. Lets gloss over Numenor becausr again, magic. But third age is 3000 years later. Thats from bronze age to now, so any magical elven valar knowledge has to be maintained.
But: this is non industrial economy, and one that is not about preserving knowledge as its main effort, just normal society. So, there is fairly limited number of people working each craft, there is limited number of people tinkering and very limited number of people exchanging ideas (consider: number of book on agriculture in Europe exploded in late modern age, tenfold during xvii century and that again in the next – or thereabouts, dont kill me for not remembering specific value. Without large enough number of people doing something, knowledge gets lost. Books decay. Masters have accidents. If it was single person its irrevocably lost. If the population is small enough, the non necessary knowledge decays and you get the fate of australian aboriginals or worse, tasmanians.
How it fits ME? Lotr is not explicit, but ypu can infer enough to realize there are only three (not including harad rhun etc) and really just one region with complex enough society to maintain anything but bare minimum of literary society.
This is also another problem, since there are VAST underpopulated regions that dont make sense. Whole of eriador, except the aberration that is shire. Yes, plague, plagues dont work that way, okay, magic plague, but that was long ago. Loooong ago. And humans expand by nature. Why is western gondor border there? There is no enemy, its empty pristine land.
Ithilien makes some sense. Valley of anduin makes some sense. But not eriador. These humans are supposed to be like us but they dont act like us. Tolkien has similar problem that in SF, no sense of scale.
> Without large enough number of people doing something, knowledge gets lost.
This is explicitly described as happening with Gondor getting worse, not better. Including loss of technology and knowledge.
So not sure why you mention it as mark against Tolkien – do you expect faster decline? Different decline?
The whole knowledge thing is a non issue. You have immortal first hand witnesses to most historical events who regularly pop by the human kingdoms and keep their own records. As Elrond says, he was there.
The precedent for under population also isn’t much of an issue. This is a world with orcs, trolls, and legit monsters. You can’t expand too far outside of an organized defense structure. It is explicitly said that the Shire + the remnants of the Arnor are placid and safe because the Rangers patrol and deal with orcs and trolls. (Also, the dwarves in the Blue mountains and the elves going from Rivendell to the Grey Havens keep the areas safe)
Gondor shrinks because the state capacity shrinks. This is the Romans withdrawing from Britain. (Which was almost certainly Tolkien’s precedent for this)
There don’t seem to be that many orcs and trolls in Eriador, though. Bilbo and the dwarves in The Hobbit travel virtually the breadth of Eriador (and back again) and only stumble upon a single trio of trolls, and Frodo et al. in Fellowship only have to worry about the Nazgul sent specifically to find them, not about roving bands of orcs and wargs. The Rangers appear to be small in number, so it’s unlikely they could deal with a really major threat, whilst the east-west road doesn’t have enough traffic or habitation to keep the area safe.
GJ, I’m sure there are few enough trolls, apex predators, that you could travel through the area with a bit of luck. But I wouldn’t want to try to settle there.
GJ, I’m sure there are few enough trolls, apex predators, that you could travel through the area with a bit of luck. But I wouldn’t want to try to settle there.
People have settled dangerous borderlands plenty of time in history. Think of the US’ westward expansion, for example, or European settlers in Canada, South Africa, Australia… The prospect of wealth is a powerful motivator, particularly if your homeland is at or close to its carrying capacity, as both the Shire and Breeland probably should be after so many centuries of peace.
And yet such frontier societies have obvious adaptations to constant potential danger; fortified housing on the Anglo-Scottish border for example. The Shire and Bree don’t seem to have much beyond an organized Watch. While on the far side of the Misty Mountains the Beornings are very visibly mobilized against the Orc threat.
The trolls in The Hobbit have just raided somewhere for sheep.
I think it’s not so much that most of the deserted areas are entirely devoid of human/hobbit habitation as that the settlements are small, sparse, and for whatever reason off the major roads.
Nobles and bishops in the early Holy Roman Empire had to sponsor settlements to move into ‘uninhabited’ regions to clear forests and start farming communities. I suppose some of that was colonialism proper: moving communities from their culture into an area that was inhabited by people from a different culture. But nevertheless parts of Europe that were suboptimal for available farming techniques weren’t farmed at all, and areas that could have been made optimal for available farming techniques were only made optimal when people with resources to spare sponsored the effort.
(Based on The Making of Europe, Robert Bartlett.)
“This is a world with orcs, trolls, and legit monsters. You can’t expand too far outside of an organized defense structure.”
There are two other issues at work here, in my opinion.
First, we simply don’t see much of Eriador, an what we do see is openly acknowledged as atypical. We see where Frodo et al. walk. It’s about two days from the Shire to Bree, but they go through rough and haunted terrain. NO ONE is going to live in the Old Forrest or the Downs, which is why they went through them. Once past Bree, again, we see Aragorn intentionally taking them along paths people avoid. So we’ve got a highly biased sampling of Eriador. It’s like saying that the USA is under-populated because you hiked through Death Valley and didn’t see any major cities. We also don’t get a sense of how much good farmland there is. This is the area that got super-nuked when Morgoth got thrown into the Abyss, then had multiple nations totally obliterated (to the point where a small town could operate totally independently); odds are good that there are a significant number of areas that people simply can’t live. Given the number of hilly areas, marshes, and the like, it’s likely that the farmable land is much lower than it first appears to be.
This also explains why there appears to be few orcs in the area: The travelers didn’t go to places with orcs. Remember, the Nine wanted to find the ring, not start an all-out war (even the attack on Gondor was earlier than the Enemy wanted it to be). Though Sauron DID send out orcs (you see them in “The Two Towers” in Rohan), so maybe he did, they just weren’t seen (again, because the travelers who’s POV we share intentionally avoided seeing them).
Second, I think psychology comes into play a bit. The Shire IS expanding–there is a group across the Brandywine, and it’s evident that there are farmers in the hinterlands. But it’s going very slowly. This makes sense given the typical Hobbit psychology we see. They very much prefer comfort, and it takes an exceptional Hobbit to risk farming away from their center of power. Humans tend to expand because we like adventure and excitement; Hobbits are the opposite. Their expansion is going to be extremely slow, as their threshold for “Screw this, this sucks, I’m out” is going to be much lower than it is for us. Elves and dwarves are going to be even more alien; they don’t seem to have the same food needs as men, and therefore react to terrain differently. Not sure what’s going on with Bree, or Dunedain strongholds. The fact that the Dunedain serve as an army allied to Elrond suggests that 1) there are a fair number of them, and 2) the area is still very dangerous.
Heh, this is odd for me, because I raise similar questions myself. Tolkien is quite explicit about Bree being the only humans around within 300 miles of the Shire. Odd. But, to play Tolkien’s advocate:
1) extrapolating from their field forces, Gondor might have 2 million people, Rohan half a million. This is small compared to Europe, but comparable to medieval England, and I’m not prepared to say England wasn’t able to maintain its own shipbuilding and ironworking skills.
2) Gondor _is_ in decline; they used to be able to make stuff like Orthanc and Minas Ithil (it glows), and now they can’t. They’re still ‘advanced’ in some ways: the Houses of Healing can cure nearly anything, and Faramir gives Frodo staves of ‘virtue’.
3) Eriador’s demographic void looks odd, but there’s an important difference: trolls. Also orcs, wargs, wights, and whatnot. But Bilbo’s three trolls had eaten a couple villages, apparently recently. Yet if we take Sam’s song as indicative, trolls may not need to eat much to survive. This is worst-case: a highly dangerous predator that can just take a break, rather than dying out, when its favored prey runs low. And then, _also_ orcs. And, well, were the Old Forest and Barrow-wights an odd cluster of weirdness and danger, or is there stuff like that all over northern Middle-earth? We don’t know. We do know that Aragorn’s grandfather and father fell to trolls and orcs respectively, within a few years, so those at least are a real threat.
So we can guess why there aren’t homesteads and villages in Eriador: if you’re outside the patrol area of the Rangers, you get et.
This is kind of “fan doing work” for Tolkien, but I’m not having to make stuff up from scratch, I’m just connecting pieces Tolkien that has left lying around. (Making stuff up would be positing that Sauron somehow kept birthrates low across the West, though the baby boom after he falls could make one wonder.)
4) Dwarves are weird, yeah. Somehow went from Seven Fathers to seven kingdoms and then back down again. Though orcs and dragons eating them and the Balrog don’t help. Appendix does say that Moria’s people began to dwindle after Sauron’s rampages in the Second Age, making us wonder about Sauron’s influence or Eru clearing the way for human supremacy. As for food, and dwarves all seeming to be at least middle-class smiths/miners, Thorin boasts of the Lonely Mountain that they didn’t have to grow their own food, implying that dwarves do grow food when not sufficiently rich and enabled of human/hobbit trading partners.
We get more details in posthumous publications: dwarves pulling their own plows when they had to, but readily living in symbiosis with humans; more recent decline, like Tharbad having been hit by floods and abandoned not long before Boromir passed through; the petty-dwarf Mim collects something like potatoes.
Though posthumous also gives us elves, dwarves, and orcs somehow living and reproducing _without sunlight_.
Tolkien’s worldbuilding isn’t airtight, which he knew himself; one of his later activities was trying to abandon the “flat to sphere” transformation and have his myths work in a more scientifically valid past. But if you have an eye for small details, then you can often patch apparent holes.
I still want to know how Common remained intelligible across 1000 years and 2000 miles of separation. Or what the Elvenking exported to pay for imported wine and apples. Or what Bilbo’s family “money” consisted of — land rent? there seem to be missing details. Shire bonds? government seems too small. Private banking or investment in Took trade ventures? Possible.
Your question about Common (Westron) is the easiest to answer, Tolkien’s societies are all extremely literate compared historical ones, books abound even in the comparatively illiterate Shire, and Hobbits even have a postal system because they communicate with letters so frequently.
Not sure what the Shire is comparatively illiterate too… anyway, I’m not sure that local literacies explain high intelligble spoken Common between the Shire, Gondor, and Lake-town, after 1000 years of separations. Not to mention Treebeard and Quickbeam being up to date.
I kind of feel it would have made more sense to keep Sindarin as the lingua franca, as it was in Beleriand; you could have epic poems by Maglor and Daeron providing a role like Homer or the Koran in anchoring a standard dialect. Plus you had Sindar migrating to Lorien and Greenwood in the Second Age.
Compared to the Elves (seemingly 100% literacy) and presumably Gondor. Tolkien actually states in the prologue that most Hobbits aren’t “lettered.” Tengwar (or even the runes the Sindar use) seem like very conservative writing systems, once adapted to Westron they wouldn’t change much. The Dwarves speak Westron to all outsiders and trading practically constantly between the Blue Mountains and Erebor, and the longer lifespans of men in Gondor would also suggest a slower change in linguistics. Tolkien actually notes that Pippin and Denethor use divergent dialects (Hobbitish has lost the T-V distinction among other things) but having a high degree of literacy in a common language in both societies would go a long way towards ensuring mutual intelligibility.
Aragorn relates “‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.”. So yeah Eriador appears to be plenty dangerous outside the enclaves guarded by Rangers, and towards the Blue Mountains by Elves.
3) Eriador’s demographic void looks odd, but there’s an important difference: trolls. Also orcs, wargs, wights, and whatnot. But Bilbo’s three trolls had eaten a couple villages, apparently recently. Yet if we take Sam’s song as indicative, trolls may not need to eat much to survive. This is worst-case: a highly dangerous predator that can just take a break, rather than dying out, when its favored prey runs low. And then, _also_ orcs. And, well, were the Old Forest and Barrow-wights an odd cluster of weirdness and danger, or is there stuff like that all over northern Middle-earth? We don’t know. We do know that Aragorn’s grandfather and father fell to trolls and orcs respectively, within a few years, so those at least are a real threat.
Though the Rangers don’t seem to be very numerous, so the fact that they can deal with these threats with little outside help suggests that the trolls, orcs, etc., aren’t very numerous either.
Personally I suppose the “Sauron was keeping the birth-rates low using magic” explanation. I know it’s not in the text, but it’s the sort of thing Sauron would do if he could, and it does make sense of the otherwise quite inexplicable shortage of people.
Three trolls ate a couple villages in their sojourn down from the mountains, don’t need a whole lot of them.
But you probably do need more than “Can travel the entire breadth of Eriador multiple times and never run into any”.
3) That doesn’t really answer the central issue. Megafauna either shouldn’t pose a barrier to dense settlement (with each village building a troll raid shelter, and supporting more rangers) or it should also have pushed out humans and hobbits from the Shire, then itself populating the area (e.g. orcs conquering and settling, but also applicable to general “wildlife” that would include far more wargs and trolls than we see). There are a few alternatives, but they don’t work either:
– The place is not a desert (or tundra, etc.), it has high primary productivity i.e. plant life.
– There isn’t a “curse” behaving like a geographic feature, e.g. malaria. (To be fair, they do get captured by the barrow-wight, but are no worse for the wear.) Also, some food web should still eat the plants and include predators.
The Hobbit trolls are basically human-intelligent, they’re not just megafauna. Orcs definitely aren’t just megafauna, but they prefer caves ot living out in the open, so they would be raiding, not settling. And the Rangers come from a limited population, you can’t just recruit more from your village.
I figure the Shire survives by a mix of being further west, being big enough to defend itself, and being a point source the Rangers can concentrate on; Bree benefits from the first and third. Just enough Rangers to guard this one spot, but not scattered villages or homesteads.
“no worse for wear” — because Bombadil rescued them.
I did mean to include even orcs in “megafauna”. The point is that they can be identified and killed. In generic mythology/fantasy it’s normal for humans to hunt (often human-intelligent) dragons that interfere with usage of the land, in a way that closely resembles a war against a peer human society (or one with a palette swap, e.g. orcs). If the Shire is big enough to defend itself, it ought to be able to expand against the de facto troll polities.
(Incidentally, if orcs prefer to live in caves, then why don’t they build caves i.e. houses?)
The really interesting outcome is the (unstable) equilibrium, as the historical case with wolves and such, where they posed a limited enough threat that, if there were sufficient refugia (in the form of non-arable land), humans didn’t bother to drive them into extinction until very late.
For some reason I remembered that Bombadil saved them from the carnivorous tree. The wights being endemic to the empty parts of the region, and humans/hobbits not knowing how to prevent/cure it, would work.
Pre-modern societies tend to expand until they reach the limits of their agricultural (/food import) capacity. The Shire and Bree, if they follow historical demographic patterns, should increase in population until their land reaches its carrying capacity, and then start gradually expanding as people colonise hitherto-unused land — unless there’s no land to expand into or their population keeps getting reduced by plague or war, neither of which seems to appply.
I just came across a similar exercise in https://aiyahelcarda.wordpress.com/2022/07/13/where-did-everybody-go/ that is much more up to snuff in its Tolkien knowledge than I am.
It’s also mentioned/implied in the books, IIRC, that there’s some kind of protection over the Shire that isn’t the Rangers.
> virtually abandoned regions that border each other
Note that presence of orcs, evil spirits, dragons etc. is making it far less plausible than in real world.
Likely still not perfect worldbuilding, but at least it is not completely ignored. Blatantly evil forests appear in Hobbit with man-eating spiders, LOTR has Willow that is even worse.
We have “‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.” just as a throwaway line and other indicators that danger is real.
I was reading your tweetstorm today on the dire state of history as a scholarly field, and to me it looks like a classic case of misaligned incentives. Whenever the interests of the people who have the most power in a community become contrary to the interests of the community as a whole, bad things are bound to happen. The people with the most power in the history field are the tenured faculty, and they have an incentive to preserve the system that made them successful and maintain a moat around their own positions, even if that hurts the field as a whole – and the practice of hiring for academic research output and nothing else is clearly doing just that.
An institution that depends on public funds needs to justify itself to the public and not just to itself, but as you point out, the hiring committees are all focused on research that the public doesn’t read and that doesn’t lead to products that the public cares about. History isn’t like pharmaceutical research, where the papers are read by few but the drugs are taken by many. In history, the knowledge *is* the product. If historical knowledge isn’t being curated and presented for public consumption, in the form of good teaching and enlightening outreach, why should the public fund it?
Thank you for all your hard work, Professor. This member of the general public appreciates it.
Great write up. I hated the show because the writing and character building was so bad, but I noticed only a fraction of what you point out about the worldbuilding.
But credit where credit is due: What is entirely consistent with our world is Galadriel’s “reward” for searching for Sauron: she’s going to be allowed to return to Valinor, that is, promoted into irrelevancy and sent to a place where she can’t get in the way anymore. One thinks this Gil-galad’s second attempt to get rid of her too, having failed to send her to command an Arctic substation because she returned.
“Thucydides tells us it took one such dedicated horse transport – which was not moving troops or other supplies – to move 30 horses (Thuc. 6.43)”
I think I’m beginning to see why the Dothraki feared any water that their horses couldn’t drink. I’m also trying to imagine the logistics of Daenerys transporting all the Dothraki to Westeros.
I have a fan theory for how the Dothraki are going to get to Westeros.
It is said that the first humans in Westeros (the “First Men”) came by land, over a land bridge that has since flooded. The maesters think that it might have flooded due to melting ice far away to the north. So I think that the coming winter is going to be cold and long enough to lower sea levels again.
That would imply that the “seasons” aren’t actually seasons, but rather semi-regular global warming/cooling (or else that the world of ASoIaF isn’t actually round). Otherwise, presumably, increased melting in one hemisphere would be offset by increased freezing on the other, so we would expect sea levels to stay roughly stable.
Seasons in ASoIaF are pretty bananas. For one thing, the length of the seasonal cycle varies dramatically from one cycle to the next, which is flatly impossible for real life seasons.
I always took their “seasons” to mean something more along the lines of climate variations. Otherwise if you had a winter that lasted for years, pretty much everyone would starve. I always envisioned that the “winter” would be somewhat akin to the “Little Ice Age” that lasted pretty much until the Industrial Revolution: https://theconversation.com/the-original-climate-crisis-how-the-little-ice-age-devastated-early-modern-europe-178187#:~:text=By%20the%2016th%20and%2017th,Much%20colder%20winters%20ensued.
Probably the most elegant explanation is a horseshoe co-orbital “moon”. It’s probably too aggressive to have the warm and cool periods (which are of equal length) be shorter than a century, but it can work. It’s also of questionable stability over geological timescales, and for real brownie points, the “moon” on such an aggressive orbit would probably be visible at the transition between “seasons” (in the morning when “summer” turns to “winter”, in the evening at the reverse).
More ordinary means (e.g. a little eccentricity combined with axial precession, though this has a period of 26,000 years with Earth) that don’t, theoretically speaking, “cool the planet” can still cool the planet and vary the sea level if the distribution of oceans vs. land is different on the two hemispheres. Cooling the side with a lot of high-latitude land produces a massive ice sheet; cooling the side with no land above 60° or so doesn’t.
I mean, GRRM has literally said that the reason is magical; It doesen’t have anything to do with orbital mechanics.
There’s actually a possible real-world explanation for ASoIaF seasons: a variable star.
My headcanon is that Arondir has been enslaved to the orcs for many months.
Which gives us the time for Elrond to travel to the Moria and come back.
And also gives the Numenorian arc all the time needed for the expedition.
I’m seeing many of the same issues in Disney’s Willow series — not the violation of canon, but failures of worldbuilding. We’re told the fate of the world is at stake, but this world has almost no one in it: A few dozen occupants of Tir Asleen castle, some visitors from Galladoorn, Nelwyn vault-dwellers, and two woodswomen.
I’m a bit confused why so many stories feel the need to go for “save the world” stakes. You can make a perfectly compelling story where the stakes are the fate of a single village. You don’t have to claim that the lives of millions of people who we never see are also in danger.
Right. That’s one of my issues with Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, probably one of many). Every season it seems the fate of the entire galaxy hangs in the balance. Strange New Worlds makes for a very refreshing contrast.
Possibly that’s our modern perspective, in which since roughly the beginning of the 20th century various upheavals really have determined the “fate of the world”; or even local calamities were viewed through the lens of their impact on “the balance of power”.
Blind copying of Tolkien. Also, it’s easier to make important, or so they think
I have noticed that it only works when you introduce the stakes only past the first half of the first volume (even if there’s only one volume). You need that long to establish the world is real. Otherwise it feels like the world is cardboard and not really important.
Its a simple rule but a good drama shouldn’t threaten anything it can’t destroy.
We know that you can’t have the world destroyed an have the next episode, so the only thing you destroy is tension about the outcome.
Feels flat because the writers lack imagination and can only write things they know about. And what they know about? They are mormon and it shows. The undressing ceremony and the harfoot travelling are from mormon “mythology” and I bet you could find more and more as you look.
Tolkien’s view of kingship appears to be influenced by the Catholicism of his time*. His is a divinely ordained estate-based society, where problems arise chiefly due to characters being disobedient.
Most strikingly, Melkor is modeled after Lucifer who refuses to serve God and attempts to rule instead. In the Lord of the Rings, Saruman tries just the same.
Because Tolkien’s social hierarchy is created by God, there is never any doubt about who the rightful ruler is. Those with the noblest blood are destined to rule, and nothing could be worse than tainting that blood by mixing it with that of lesser beings. Saruman’s worst crime is not waging war, but race-mixing orcs and men! And in The Return of the King, Gandalf links Denethor’s positive traits to the circumstantial purity of his blood, contrasting him with Boromir, who apparently lacks this asset. Fortunately, his younger brother Faramir has better blood and would thus never question Aragorn’s right to rule.
Thus it is unsurprising that Tolkien’s work does not feature peasant rebellions, which he could never endorse. But I encourage others to read Tolkien carefully, since his disapproval of disobedience is omnipresent in his works and yet strangely overlooked.
* I grew up with it myself, make of that what you will.
“Those with the noblest blood are destined to rule, and nothing could be worse than tainting that blood by mixing it with that of lesser beings.”
This is, I think, a misreading of basically everything he ever wrote. Are you arguing that Tolkien presents (among others) Arwen, Earendil, Elrond and Luthien as the horrible, unnatural results of miscegenation? That the message of the story of Beren and Luthien was “this whole thing was a mistake”?
Denethor is obsessed with the purity of his ancestry and it is made clear, both by the narrator and by Gandalf, that this is a bad thing that causes him eventually to go mad and commit suicide.
I *do* think Tolkien’s characters viewed “mixed marriages” with ambivalence at best. Humans marrying elves (always men marrying women, it seems) are seen as “marrying up”, often with the disapproval/consternation of the elf’s relatives until approval is somehow earned (Thingol did not approve of Beren until Beren lost his hand trying to reclaim one of the Silmarils, Elrond tells Aragorn that he won’t be allowed to marry Arwen unless/until he manages to become king of both Gondor and Arnor). Certainly Numenoreans viewed themselves as above other men of the time; they referred to themselves as “High men” or “Men of Light,” while the Rohirrim and others in Eriador (besides the Dunlendings) were “Middle Men” or “Men of Twilight”, etc.
Yes, but in the kinstrife, it was those against mixing with lesser men that were the bad guys. And it is clearly stated that this mixing did not have any bad consequences for the offspring.
Right. My point wasn’t that Tolkien viewed “mixing” as a bad thing, but that many of his characters, both good and bad, had reservations about it, and that this mixing of races (whether elf/human or high/middle men) was an issue that was dealt with any number of times in Tolkien’s works. Patrilineal descent seems to be more important to Tolkien in terms of whether someone “deserves” to rule (witness the “breaking” of the line of Kings in Gondor, but not in Arnor despite the fact that Aragorn is basically a glorified park ranger at the beginning of LotR). Thus the kin-strife was fomented by the bad guys because they did not recognize the rightful line of succession had been maintained.
I did consider the kinstrife as a possible counterargument. But look at the story: Tolkien does not treat the rebels who disliked the rightful king’s marriage as bigots, but as disloyal rebels. The queen is praised for her lifespan being longer than her lesser blood would predict. And eventually, the race-mixing among the rebels is bad, enough for their descendants to become the evil men of Umbar. Their moral corruption goes along with their decline in blood purity.
The kinstrife is, of course, not about a democratic anti racist side again an anti democratic racist side. But race mixing is simply not described as evil, except in the mind of the rebels. And it doesn’t affect the special traits of the Dunedain; their waning continues, but with no difference between pure and mixed race (which shows that the special traits such as longevity is due to divine bless and not genetics).
I don’t remember any statements about race mixing among the descendants of the supporters of Castamir. Is the people of present day (from the story’s viewpoint) really connected to the rebels. And if they are, how do we know how “mixed” they are?
I also have a memory of Faramir telling Frodo that the mixture of the sturdier mountain folk in Gondor have been good for strengthening the weakening Dunedain in Gondor, but I may misremember.
I’m looking at the story.
“For the high men of Gondor already looked askance at the Northmen among them; and it was a thing unheard of before that the heir of the crown, or any son of the King, should wed one of lesser and alien race. There was already rebellion in the southern provinces when King Valacar grew old. His queen had been a fair and noble lady, but short-lived according to the fate of lesser Men, and the Dúnedain feared that her descendants would prove the same and fall from the majesty of the Kings of Men. Also they were unwilling to accept as lord her son, who though he was now called Eldacar, had been born in an alien country and was named in his youth Vinitharya, a name of his mother’s people.
Therefore when Eldacar succeeded his father there was war in Gondor. But Eldacar did not prove easy to thrust from his heritage. To the lineage of Gondor he added the fearless spirit of the Northmen. He was handsome and valiant, and showed no sign of ageing more swiftly than his father.”
[pure blood] “Castamir had not long sat upon the throne before he proved himself haughty and ungenerous. He was a cruel man, as he had first shown in the taking of Osgiliath. He caused Ornendil son of Eldacar, who was captured, to be put to death; and the slaughter and destruction done in the city at his bidding far exceeded the needs of war.”
There is nothing about ‘mixing’ because the cause of Umbar’s moral decline. Umbar was captured by a cruel rebel (of royal blood) and it follows from that.
“This mingling did not at first hasten the waning of the Dúnedain, as had been feared; but the waning still proceeded, little by little, as it had before. For no doubt it was due above all to Middle-earth itself, and to the slow withdrawing of the gifts of the Númenóreans after the downfall of the Land of the Star.”
This is not a tale of “the race purists were right”.
@mindstalk0: your reply is to mine comment, but we are in total agreement (so maybe you meant to reply to another commenter). The difference is that you had the diligence to actually bring forth quotations from Lotr appendixes. Well done.
“This is not a tale of “the race purists were right”.” FWIW, I think Tolkien would have been horrified by the idea that he was somehow a proponent of racial purity–his well-known response to the Nazis about whether he had Jewish blood being a good example: “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”
“your reply is to mine comment”
I was responding to mdap’s “look at the story”, which at the time seemed to be the last comment in the thread. I could have been clearer, though. Note that WordPress has a maximum depth of replies, so after a point, either replies end up linear rather than nested, or start all over from the top level; either way, I could have been better at identifying the comment I was replying to.
Re: Dunedain mixing with inferior races, at least some of these races (the Rohirrim and men of the north) were based on the Anglo-Saxons, of whom Tolkien was a great admirer. I don’t think he’d really support the idea that marrying Anglo-Saxon analogues is a bad thing.
No, but the Gondorians thought it was a bad idea. The dark haired Dunedain had the same racist attitude to the blond northmen that Europeans have had to people with darker skin tones.
“the Gondorians thought it was a bad idea”
No, _some_ Gondorians thought it was a bad idea. The ones that the Appendix narrator spins as the bad guys, and factually incorrect to boot.
“I *do* think Tolkien’s characters viewed “mixed marriages” with ambivalence at best” – definitely, but that’s very different from Tolkien himself writing a story and a world in which they are objectively a bad thing.
“Thus it is unsurprising that Tolkien’s work does not feature peasant rebellions, which he could never endorse.”
The last chapter of “The Lord of the Rings” is an account of a peasant rebellion against a rapacious and cruel overlord.
Yes, the Scouring of the Shire was a peasant uprising, but again, Tolkien is more concerned with obeying a *rightful* ruler, by which he generally meant the person properly qualified by his ancestry to rule a given realm. Thus, the kin-strife was bad, while the scouring of the Shire (rightly being ruled by Aragorn after his coronation rather than Saruman) was good.
Tolkien is more concerned with obeying a *rightful* ruler, by which he generally meant the person properly qualified by his ancestry to rule a given realm.
Not quite. The Shire at least has a Mayor, who’s apparently elected, or at least non-hereditary (Sam gets the job after the books end). I think it’s more accurate to say that the rightful ruler is the person whom law and custom qualify — in a hereditary kingdom, this would be the person with the right ancestry, but not because the ancestry makes him inherently better than everyone else.
The Shire had an elected mayor, but they were granted their lands by Argeleb II, the king of Arthedain, and they acknowledged the King (later Aragorn II) as the rightful ruler of the Shire. According to tradition in the Shire, in response to a call from the last King (Arvedui) they sent a company of archers to the battle of Fornost.
“a rapacious and cruel overlord”
i.e., the post-war Housing Council 😀
“I *do* think Tolkien’s characters viewed “mixed marriages” with ambivalence at best. ”
There is a line from Larry Niven somewhere that authors have a word for people who assume an author must have the same opinions as his characters: “We call these people idiots”.
Personally I always thought that Thingols objection to his daughter marrying a mortal man hilarious, in view of the other partner to his own marriage.
I was not trying to ascribe Tolkien’s character’s beliefs to Tolkien (as I noted elsewhere, I think he would be horrified by the idea that he was some sort of “racial purist.”) Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that. My point is that status/lineage was definitely something Tolkien dealt with through his characters. Elves by and large were not happy with their daughters marrying humans–perfectly understandable given that elf children who chose that path will be separated from their parents forever in Tolkien’s cosmology (presumably not an issue with Thingol and Melian). And among humans, there clearly is a tradition of nobility by birth: “true” kings were generally descended, father to son, from those who had been kings before. Aragorn’s claim to the thrones of Gondor and Arnor rested on his unbroken lineage from Elendil–no cousins or daughters in the chain, all father to son.
Except that it could also go through the female line. Aragorn’s ancestor who argued that his descend from Firiel, a princess of Gondor, was denied by Gondor, but they didn’t even try to argue against it.
“marrying a mortal man hilarious, in view of the other partner to his own marriage.”
There is a relevant difference: Thingol and Melian are both immortal, or at least co-eval with the life of the world; Beren is hilariously short-lived compared to Luthien, with a different afterlife. And Tolkien marriage is Serious Business, No Flings. So Thingol was looking at either his daughter being bereaved for the rest of worldly time, or (as it happened) her fate being changed so that _Thingol_ was bereaved from his daughter for the rest of worldly time.
By the time Frodo arrives in Aman, Thingol has plausibly been re-united with his wife for millennia, despite being murdered, but his daughter is _gone_. Tough fate for a parent.
It’s more hilarious (or bigoted) in the very original version, when Beren was just another elf, though a *gasp* Noldo.
Yes, but Thingol’s argument wasn’t that she would die and leave the world (the latter possibility was a big exception anyway), but, if I remember correctly, that he felt even elven princes weren’t worthy of Luthien (given that the most famous of the elven princes in Beleriand are of the rather dubiously reasonable Noldor – quite right here, though he probably meant Sindar ones) and that he feared she was bewitched or something because he didn’t believe she could love Beren.
Characters viewing mixed marriages with ambivalence is hardly unique to Tolkien, or fantasy. Star Trek has been using this to drive plots and character arcs for decades now.
The father of the bride disapproving of a match until the bridegroom is proven worthy — is not exactly uncommon.
Yes, the “king sets the hero a quest to prove himself worthy of the hand of the princess” plot has been used once or twice before…
Maybe even three!
Or just as common if not more so, the king sends the young suitor off on a wild goose chase which he is expected to fail at or even better get himself killed. So the king ends up having to eat his words (if not flat-out get slain or overthrown) when the Hero succeeds.
Like Thingol with Beren.
In fact, Thingol is lucky, because usually the quest ends up with the young hero telling someone — usually a ferryman — that the way to escape his job is to force someone else into it, and the lucky king gets his hand shoved onto the oar, which traps him.
IIRC, the Dunlendings were also “middle-men”, or at least theorized to be so. The “Middle men”, being the relatively close relatives of the Edáin who didn’t follow them into Beleriand. IIRC the people of Rhovanion from which the Rohirrim descends are relatives of the house of Hador, while the Dunlendings are related to a different branch (possibly the house of Haleth?) and their enmity is almost entirely with the rohirrim and the gondorians because the latter handed what they saw as their land over to the rohirrim.
I don’t see Denethor as obsessed with ancestry anywhere. Not like he’s the one descended from a demigoddess/angel, at least officially. What makes him despair is a whole bunch of things: apparently losing both his sons; using the palantir and probably seeing both “Corsairs” coming up river and Frodo having been captured; possibly the stress of mind-wrestling Sauron one time too many; and being dive-bombed all day and night by Nazgul, literal weapons of fear and despair, so good at their job that when the Gate falls, it had pretty much been abandoned by any defenders — after one day of siege! An army coheres based on morale, and the Nazgul _directly attack morale_.
 Denethor knew Gandalf’s plan to destroy the Ring, and thought it folly; he says “the wizard’s hope has failed”. On the other hand, if he did wrestle Sauron in that last night, then he managed to avoid spilling the beans, which would have ruined everything. Let us praise him with faint praise.
“I don’t see Denethor as obsessed with ancestry anywhere”
There’s a comment from Gandalf (going from memory here) that the men of Minas Tirith in general have become obsessed with history and memory, and think the names of their ancestors more important than those of their children. I think it’s fair to assume that he’s talking about Denethor here.
Denethor’s distant ancestry is the reason he chooses suicide by cremation, rather than some other method, isn’t it?
“Those with the noblest blood are destined to rule, and nothing could be worse than tainting that blood by mixing it with that of lesser beings. Saruman’s worst crime is not waging war, but race-mixing orcs and men!”
While orcs as a race are a known problem in Tolkien’s cosmology (to him too), race-mixing orcs and men came closer to bestiality or “mutation” stuff one can see in SF (futuristic fiction really), rather than common miscegenation. And as for the latter, while Tolkien did have some *characters* have anti-miscegenation views, it is pretty clear that his view as a narrator that these (referring to the views, mostly, but in some cases also characters as a whole) are BAD. I mean, it’s fairly obvious from the story that Numenoreans’ and Gondor’s decline (including in particular in their life span) is related to their loss of morality and virtue, and NOT blood-mixing with “lesser” humans.
And also, in fact mostly, to their increased difference from the Undying Lands.
Also, I think it’s worth noting that while in the movie the Uruk-hai apparently come out of magical pits full of mud, in the books it’s implied that they were “bred” the old-fashioned way. Which, unless there was a large population of humans and orcs who shared Saruman’s vision that we’re never told about, implies something I would be willing to accept as more evil than all of his other crimes.
In addition to what other people have said, hang-ups about miscegenation have never, to my knowledge, been a distinguishing feature of Catholicism, in whatever time.
Also, I don’t know where you get the idea that Tolkien’s disapproval of disobedience is “strangely overlooked”; I’ve come across lots of comments on it.
The aristocracy strongly disapproved of marriage to less high-born people and nobles guilty of it risked losing their inheritance and the privileges that went along with it. Miscegenation is an unhelpful term here, because it reminds one of racial views that are out of place in Tolkien’s world. I argue that his view is informed by the strictly stratified society that did indeed exist in medieval Catholic Europe until the French Revolution and its aftermath began to erode it. Catholicism fiercely fought this development. Anecdotally, I have known traditionalist Catholics who remain sympathetic towards absolutist monarchies like that of the Sun King. They are not trolling, but simply view the medieval social order as an ideal.
Mesalliance is a good, handy term for just that.
I believe simply this: monarchy is the best system but only if you got a very good king which is all too rare. I’m also Catholic if you’re interested 🙂
Of course Terry Pratchett had this to say:
“But if he’s a good man—” Carrot began.
“What? What? OK. OK. Let’s believe he’s a good man. But his second-in-command—is he a good man too? You’d better hope so. Because he’s the supreme ruler, too, in the name of the king. And the rest of the court…they’ve got to be good men. Because if just one of them’s a bad man the result is bribery and patronage.”
Not unique to monarchy.
Monarchy is the theory that someone can be expected to justly and wisely rule a country because their father did.
Moot point. No government is immune to corruption.
How can Faramir have better blood than Boromir? They’re brothers!
Gandalf mentions this explicitly, speaking of Denethor: “‘He is not as other men of this time, Pippin, and whatever be his descent from father to son, by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best.”
But actual history in Catholic countries features many peasant rebellions. The question is not so much whether Tolkien would have approved of such uprisings as to why they would not be theoretically possible. Obviously there is other villainy in Middle Earth and some who are willing to serve the Dark Lord. And obviously it was Tolkien who wrote this series.
The Tolkien monarchies maybe acted more like Catholic monarchies were supposed to act, according to Catholic social teaching, rather than how they acted in real history. That probably limited the impetus to rebellion.
Also, there’s a small sample size — we only get a detailed look at two (human) monarchies in the books, as opposed to the multiple monarchies in medieval Europe (the precise number varying wildly depending on how broadly you define “monarchy”, but even on the lowest estimate being significantly higher than two).
1) As others have said, ‘mixing’ happens fairly often. Dior was the _mortal_ son of Beren and Luthien, yet became king of elven Doriath, and his daughter Elwing was leader of the refugees. While there can be loss (of immortality — except mortality was a Gift of Men), and Tolkien elsewhere writes of humans being ennobled by elven and Maia blood (in one letter, I think, even saying that’s the real justification of Aragorn’s kingship, it’s literally divine grace), it’s never written as “miscegenation bad”. Never.
2) I don’t think anything is called Saruman’s worst crime. Treebeard does say “Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!” But that’s not any mixing, that’s _orcs_ — at the time of writing probably conceived of as a direct creation of Melkor, rather than “corrupted elves or something” — with an implication of rape or something, because humans and orcs don’t normally mate.
3) Boromir and Faramir have the same parents. Gandalf does says something about something running true in Denethor and Faramir, which today we’d attribute to genes mixing the right way or something. But it’s hard to attribute Faramir’s acceptance to his “purity” when the similar Denethor had no intention of accepting a king. What they did share was an implication of telepathic mental powers. And Pippin thought that Boromir _had_ accepted Aragorn’s claim; the explicit odd one out here is “Numenorean” Denethor, not Boromir.
4) There aren’t many peasants shown _to_ rebel. But we do see rebellions of sorts. When Finwe is killed, the majority of Noldor follow the younger son Fingolfin, not Feanor. Curufin and Celegorm behave so atrociously in Nargothrond that they are abandoned by many of their people including Curufin’s own son Celebrimbor. These are not bad things. Blind obedience and filial piety are not virtues.
4a) We don’t get many noble rebellions either, not nearly as many as we’d expect for the timespan.
5) The recurrent sin in Tolkien isn’t disobedience in the abstract, but domination and rule by force, which is usually _also_ a rebellion against Eru’s laws: e.g. the Ainur in general and the Istari in particular are supposed to guide, not rule; Melkor, Sauron, and Saruman all break that, but the sin is ruling by force.
Tolkien’s monarchies are very idealized but it’s nothing as simple as “noblest blood is destined to rule”. It’s a mix of government by consent and grace, with the the rulers consistently deserving to rule by their behavior and the people accepting that without a fuss. (Until, of course, Numenorean kings stopped deserving to rule by their behavior, but Numenor went along anyway, probably because of them liked the change to empire.)
I note that the Shire (practically, the Mayor) and Lake-town both run with elected leaders.
” Those with the noblest blood are destined to rule”
That is quite the way to describe Samwise Gamgee, Mayor for seven consecutive terms, and son of The Gaffer.
The legitimate ruler is the one who should rule according to the law. Or at least pre-existing convention. That is what “legitimate” means. Different legal systems have different rules.
Yes, Sam was a commoner and elected mayor. But he was not and was never going to be King of anything (pretty much like the way the UK is run today). Sure, a commoner can be mayor, or shiriff, or even the Warden of Westmarch. But ruling kingdoms (and hobbits in the Shire acknowledged they were subject to the rule of the king) was generally reserved for hereditary nobility.
If Sam did become King of the Shire that would, in the ordinary use of the English language, imply that he had overthrown the existing elective order and made himself a hereditary monarch. Is that what you want Tolkien to have written?
It is not logically possible for the son of a gardener to inherit from him rule over a country.
The complaint is that Tolkien’s kingdoms are ruled in more or less the same way as real kingdoms throughout virtually all of human history. What else do you expect a realistic invented country to look like?
If you really want a big difference from reality, which shows how Tolkien’s’ prejudices about how a country ought to work make his invented countries unrealistic, you might note that they all lack slaves, or even any explicit caste of serfs. That is very unusual, and not at all like the ancient Anglo-Saxon and Norse societies that served as his inspiration.
You seem to be imputing motives/complaints to me that I don’t have. Sam as mayor was raised as a counterpoint to the idea that in Tolkien’s world rule was hereditary and reserved for the nobility. I was responding to that point, not because I wanted Sam to be king or because I was complaining about Tolkien’s mythos, but because hereditary rule that is seen as divinely ordained or “rightful” is, in fact, the way things work on Middle-Earth. As you note, it’s not really different from how hereditary monarchies worked in Europe and England, except that in the real world the divine right of kings is a fabrication meant to help maintain the existing social order.
I was responding to that point, not because I wanted Sam to be king or because I was complaining about Tolkien’s mythos, but because hereditary rule that is seen as divinely ordained or “rightful” is, in fact, the way things work on Middle-Earth.
But that’s the point — hereditary rule is not the (at least not the only) way things work on Middle Earth. There are at least a couple of elective systems (the Shire and Laketown), and the books never suggest that they should switch to hereditary monarchy instead. So statements like “in Tolkien’s world rule was hereditary and reserved for the nobility” are false without qualification.
Except that The Hobbit clearly implies that the elevation of a heroic King over a mealy-mouthed politician like the Mayor of Laketown was a good thing.
No heroic King in the Hobbit is elevated above a mealy-mouthed politician. Bard the Bowman leaves Lake-town and the employment of its Master in order to pursue his claim to Dale, along with such people who voluntarily choose to follow him.
The Master of Lake-town remains the Master of Lake-town, at least until such time as he suffers a mental breakdown and IIRC starves to death in the wilderness.
At which point, the townsmen presumably elect a new Master.
“At which point, the townsmen presumably elect a new Master.”
No need to presume!
> Lake-town was refounded and was more prosperous than ever, and much wealth went up and down the Running River; and there was friendship in those parts between elves and dwarves and men.
> The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions.
> “The new Master is of wiser kind,” said Balin, “and very popular, for, of course, he gets most of the credit for the present prosperity. They are making songs which say that in his day the rivers run with gold.”
And in case anyone wonders if the Masters really were elected:
> “Girion was lord of Dale, not king of Esgaroth,” he said. “In the Lake-town we have always elected masters from among the old and wise, and have not endured the rule of mere fighting men. Let ‘King Bard’ go back to his own kingdom—Dale is now freed by his valour, and nothing hinders his return.
In the 1920s and 30s, when Tolkien did most of his world-building, the eugenics movement was dominant and about the the only organised opposition was the Catholic church. That situation changed in 1945. Tolkien is condemning eugenics, not race mixing. In Tolkien’s world orcs and men are different species, not different races.
I saw it as being from the viewpoint of the English Upper Class, which Tolkien very much is; things are best when Everybody Knows Their Place and the upper class can be trusted to do the right thing. As for the lower classes, see the treatment of Samwise vs Ted Sandyman; the representative of the new industrial working class is treated very badly.
“the English Upper Class, which Tolkien very much is”
His father was a bank manager, who died. Leaving his wife to bring up their children, originally with the help of her parents, who were shopkeepers. Later with no help after she converted to Catholicism, alienating her from her family.
While I am no expert on the English class system, I rather doubt that a professor perpetually worried about his precarious finances, with no familial connection to the gentry or nobility, qualifies as “the upper class”. He was an Oxford professor so arguably part of an intellectual or academic upper class, but that’s not really the same thing.
If we are going to discuss what Tolkien actually thought about government and politics, LOTR always left me with the impression he was a sort of conservative anarchist, which struck me as no great contradiction. But there is no need parse his fiction to find out what he thought about such subjects, because he elsewhere gave his thoughts explicitly:
“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.
Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. ”
Personally, I would have thought it natural to conclude that the One Ring and LOTR were written by someone who thought the love of power was the root of all evil, but that is just my opinion. It seems more conclusive to take his opinions straight from, if not the horses mouth, the writers pen.
What I find odd is how Brett Devereux, of all people, doesn’t make a point of the sacrifice of Galadriel to the Cult of the Badass.
Perhaps it will come up in part 2. I doubt he’ll dwell much on it, since others have beaten that horse to death already.
Maybe. I hope it isn’t that Devereaux is ducking anything controversial. I am so, so tired of finding thinkers whose rigour I respect, who fail when things involve any actual risk.
I didn’t dwell on it here because it isn’t a historical issue, but I did find that decision disappointing. For my part, I’d have preferred a Galadriel who was more a charismatic leader than a warrior. The latter is fine, but what we see of Book!Galadriel suggests someone whose power really comes from leadership.
Speaking on behalf of the Cult of Badass Review Board, we have rejected the membership application for Ms Galadriel, Lady of Light, daughter of Finarfin, etc, etc.
A true Badass must be sidelined from military operations by a distrustful and faint hearted king or similar ruler. Check. Gil-Galahad sends her to the West.
The Badass must inspire unshakeable loyalty among a small band of elite companions. Fail. Galadriel’s elf rangers go on strike and return home literally minutes after she has slain a snow troll to protect them. Likewise the other elves on the ship to the West are not persuaded to return with her.
When the Badass and one or more other people are in peril due to storm, blizzard, or similar, it is the Badass who must rescue the others. Fail. Galadriel falls off the life raft and has to be saved by Halbrand. (Also, the code of the badass or barbarian hero says that when a ship is in danger, tie yourself to something that floats, not something that sinks. High intelligence is not a prerequisite for a Badass, but a certain amount of practical common sense is expected.)
When the Badass and others are in peril due to storm, blizzard, or similar, including volcanic eruptions, the Badass must survive due to their innate bad-assery while others perish. Fail. Galadriel survives a nearby volcanic eruption with minor dishevelment as expected, but so do 98% of the mere mortals in the vicinity.
A new application may be submitted after the next season 🙂
I have no problem with Badass Galadriel. The problem is Dumbass Galadriel. Galadriel in the books, from the very start when she dodges swearing Feanor’s oath, is consistently wise, diplomatic, patient, and even sly. She even manages to dissemble about the Kinslaying to the Maia Melian. Book Galadriel would have talked her way off the boat before it set sail, not jumped off in the middle of the ocean. And she certainly wouldn’t have annoyed the Numenoreans into tossing her into a dungeon. Is she supposed to have gotten a bad concussion in the War of Wrath?
“Waldreg” is a plausible Germanic name. It would mean “Power-ruler.” “Waldric” would be the expected spelling in English “Wield” is from the same root as “wald” here. The second element of the name is common Indo-European, found in “rex” and “raj.” I don’t know where German “Wald” comes from, but it is apparently a different word.
Wikipedia has a useful table of Germanic name-elements. Germanic names are “dithematic,” meaning they are assembled in pairs from a limited pool of standard elements. The first element is called the “protheme” and the second is the “deuterotheme.” Some roots are only found as one or the other, some can be either.
I’m late to this party but I just wanted to comment on the framing of the Harfoots as a nomadic society of some sort, which as Bret points out makes no sense when compared to either the things Tolkien actually said about them or the cultural proclivities of their later descendants.
Tolkien wrote a letter (this one) to one of his editors, Milton Waldman, in which he more-or-less lays out the basic narrative structure of his entire legendarium and the deeper principles behind it. It’s absolutely fascinating and well worth the read for any Tolkien fan (in fact, you may have seen it as it’s been included in some editions of the Silmarillion), but there’s one specific comment that caught my attention when I took a look recently:
“In the middle of this Age the Hobbits appear. Their origin is unknown (even to themselves) for they escaped the notice of the great, or the civilised peoples with records, and kept none themselves, save vague oral traditions, until they had migrated from the borders of Mirkwood, fleeing from the Shadow, and wandered westward, coming into contact with the last remnants of the Kingdom of Arnor.”
I have no confirmation for this whatsoever, but my suspicion is that someone involved in writing the show read this line, went “Migrated! Aha!” and based the construction of that entire plotline on a single throwaway word. Which is obviously at odds with how Tolkien described early proto-Hobbits elsewhere, but Oh Well.
I’m just going to leave this here. Here’s how you tell the fall of numenor as a movie and make it good:
Nicely done. But remember, RoP did not have rights to The Silmarillion.
Have you looked at the medieval Chinese junks of the Indian Ocean?
If I were designing late Numenorean ships, or more accurately asking someone knowledgeable to do so, I would ask them to draw on 1800s clipper ships, Zheng He treasure-fleet junks, and catamarans. As much speed, size, and robustness as one could coax out of wood given all the knowledge and maybe a touch of magic, too.
But then, what’s on screen should look like whatever that process comes up with. Not like a glorified Viking longship.
Yet Tolkien’s art indicates a glorified Longship is exactly how he pictured Elven and Numenorean ships.
In his notes on Pauline Baynes’ authorized Map of Middle-earth, Tolkien writes that the Numenerean/Gondorian ships should be large three-masted affairs (Baynes in her own notes calls them “galleons,” and describes them “as large a pre-steam vessel as can be drawn, i.e. Columbus type”). The ships present on the finalized map are very reminiscent of Portuguese carracks, although there some Elvish ships of the “longboat” type as well.
The largest wooden-hulled ship ever built was the schooner Wyoming, 329 feet at the water line and longer with overhang, and displacing 10,000 short tons. Elves presumably could have done as well or better. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyoming_(schooner)
A brief note on population- Gorgoroth being what it is (a high altitude plateau bordered by mountains) it likely would have had a smaller population. It probably wouldn’t have had a notable royal line, but if it’s anything like 13th century Tibet, you’d expect around 11,800 people there, given it’s not actually very large (the plateau itself is only about 100 miles wide, given it drops off into the basin around the Sea of Nurn). And then probably under 1/3rd of the population flee north towards the Elven outpost at Uldun, because we know the orcs have been working their way out from mount doom, and only those cut off in the very north-west would be backing into the mountains (as all the habitable lands nearby are in the basin around the Sea of Nurn). And, given what we see, about half are flat out dead or enslaved by the orcs, so you could, semi-realistically cut the population to ~1,500. Still too many to fit in one pub (you’d need something like 10 decent sized bars), but at least a bit closer to the density we see in the series.
Dismissing the RoP budget so offhandely shows the viewer really did not look at the glory presented of Khazad-dûm. Even the Númenor ships, which were built of real materials.
Nor is this earth, neither Europe. It’s not even Tolkien’s Middle Earth of LotR’s trilogy.
Morever there are narrative thematic content that from the first episode is rolling in which the doom — get it — DOOM — of the Second Age is embedded.
Which made this program so satisfying.
Every criticism of the Host, whose knowledge so generously shared, I appreciate greatly — ignores the emotional/story telling/character development essential for a story.
And every one of his criticisms are at least applicable to both the source material and PJ — even more to PJ.
Honestly, for the first time I’m disappointed in the Host’s criticisms, because it neglects entirely the thematic work that is so carefully established in this show.
Also, it was working during the heights of pandemic shutdowns, which have played merry havoc with so many programs and shows. I,.e, host’s miserable criticisms of how few people there are in some scrnes. Hopefully the show will have the next seasons to pull things together better — though I may welt be alive to see those seasons, considering the tripledemic raging where I live, and no promise things are going to change in the next years or so, while probably getting worse.
The broader setting shots were nice, but they skimped in other areas. Take a close look at the screenshot in the post of Bronwyn addressing the Southlanders. Some of the actors were copy/pasted. And some of the costumes were also cheaply done: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqEXcPOYvVU&t=1433s
As for “every one” of our host’s criticisms being applicable to the source material, I’d really like to see some examples, because I don’t buy it at all.
Right. And although some of the special effects were spectacular, some of it was really, really . . . not. The wargs, for example, were about on a par with the ROUSes in Princess Bride—they looked like leftovers from a Muppet horror movie. The contrast with the other special effects was pretty dramatic.
>if the story itself doesn’t have to obey any real rules of cause and consequence and thus the creators can merely opt to have anything happen for any reason then there is no reason to invest in any of it at all. If there are no consistent rules to this world then nothing matters and if nothing matters…why should I care?
I don’t know, but I suspect that it’s not really that important to you (or that you’re an outlier). Pretty much every super-popular SF/Fantasy franchise* (or at least, Harry Potter, Star Wars & Marvel) follows rules “made up as the author went”, forgotten immediately after, or retconned in some inelegant way. I’m not going to argue weither these are *good* or not, only that they’re utterly inconsistent AND popular, while RoP was utterly inconsistent AND unpopular. Hence that can’t be the only thing the audience had a problem with.
*: And don’t get me started on other, popular-but-not-ubiquitous stories. I’m currently finishing the Wheel of Time, a serie of novel of sizable fame, and god damn it’s a mess on that level. Reading that at the same period as Bret’s post on logistics is amusing at times, maddening often.
This seems bordering on a troll post. Our host is very much NOT an outlier, as a great deal of criticism of RoP is based on the showrunners ignoring rules previously established in Tolkien’s canon and fails to abide by even their own. And I would contend that pretty much every super-popular SF/Fantasy franchise DOES follow a consistent set of rules. Not perfectly, I will grant, but well enough that a discerning reader/viewer can follow along. That’s how they get popular; consumers escape into a world that “feels” real and they can imagine their own adventures in said world playing by its rules. Prof. Devereaux has extensively covered in other posts how the Lord of the Rings books work logistically (and how the movies fall short).
Great post! Your criticism of the volcano scenes is entirely correct. Another thing is, to cover an area the size of the plains of Gorgoroth in ash would require an enormous eruption, probably the size of that of Mt. Tambora in 1815. The books avoid this issue by saying Sauron was responsible for both Mt. Doom’s eruptions and Mordor’s desolation.
The fact that they butchered the character of Galadriel into a Sword-wielding Girlboss that bears little resemblance to her actual character in the Books is a Black Mark in my opinion.
As has been pointers out, Tolkiens Galadriel was in some sense a “girl boss”. She was, in his own words “amazonian”, and was nicknamed “Nerwen” which means “man maid” in quenya. It is also very clear that she was the one who called the shots in Lothlorien.
But there is no indication that she actually fought with the sword and everything to do with that in the Tolkien Lore.
Galadriel was described in The Flight of the Noldor as a leader of the rebellion and the “only female to stand tall in those days”. Admittedly not much to go on, but I find a sword-wielding Galadriel much less annoying and far-fetched than the whole “Sauron pretending to be long lost heir to the throne of the Southlands,” which was pointless and stupid.
One version of her story in UT has her actively fighting Feanor at Alqualonde. Weapon not specified but the Noldor had been arming themselves thanks to Melkor (self-own, there.) And there are multiple women fighters in the legendarium; while Amazon technically doesn’t have rights to them, it’s not actually out of step with Tolkien.
The actual problem with what I hear of RoP is that it makes her a SWORD-WIELDING girl(boss?) when it should be more like girlBOSS (with a sword). She’s a charismatic telepathic enchantress whose magic can encompass armies or kingdoms, inclined to rule and command; giving her a sword is like the least impressive thing you can do with her.
> Three times Lórien had been assailed from Dol Guldur, but besides the valour of the elven people of that land, the power that dwelt there was too great for any to overcome, unless Sauron had come there himself.
— Appendix A. Strongly implying that Galadriel by herself (or Galadriel enhanced by her Ring of Power, though the Three were said to not be weapons) is a major part of the defense.
Kind of hard to film that, though. Or her other magic, especially given that Tolkien was rather coy about what magic could do. So, crazy thought, don’t try, don’t make a magician the main character in a world where magic is nigh a plot device. Give _Celebrian_ a sword. She’s youngish, we know nothing about her at this time, and her cousin Luthien was the ultimate action girl in Tolkien, so it kind of runs in both sides of her family.
(And cousin-hood is in the rights! “In Lindon south of the Lune dwelt for a time Celeborn, kinsman of Thingol; his wife was Galadriel, greatest of Elven women. She was sister of Finrod Felagund, Friend-of-Men, once king of Nargothrond, who gave his life to save Beren son of Barahir.” — Appendix B)
@mindstalkO: very good answer, you said most of the things I wanted to say. I wish people would stop mixing legitimate criticism (like our host here) of the series with stupid culture war stuff that shows they didn’t know the source material. (If people want to do culture war, it should at least derive from points of Tolkien’s real conservatism, not things contradicted by things he wrote).
At least in some versions of the lore she fought in the kin slaying of Alqualonde (but arriving late and not knowing the reason of the fight). It never says she didn’t fight later.
I don’t think there’s any text that has her fighting against the Teleri; helping Feanor without knowing what had happened was the lot of the House of Fingolfin. The Finarfinians were either entirely uninvolved (being well to the back), or in two late versions (I just checked) in UT, Galadriel fights against Feanor in defense of her kin.
“Even after the merciless assault upon the Teleri and the rape of their ships, though she fought fiercely against Fëanor in defence of her mother’s kin, she did not turn back.”
“In Fëanor’s revolt that followed the Darkening of Valinor Galadriel had no part: indeed she with Celeborn fought heroically in defence of Alqualondë against the assault of the Noldor”
(that second one’s the right before Tolkien’s death version, with Teleporno the Celeborn of Aman.)
Laws and Customs among the Eldar has
“Indeed in dire straits or desperate defence, the nissi [elven women] fought valiantly, and there was less difference in strength and speed between elven-men and elven-women that had not borne child than is seen among mortals.”
I was quite sure I had read somewhere in the legendarium that she arrived late to the kinslayling, and thought the Noldor were defending themselves against the Teleri, but maybe I misremember.
Silmarillion: “Thrice the people of Fëanor were driven back, and many were slain upon either side; but the vanguard of the Noldor were succoured by Fingon with the foremost of the host of Fingolfin, who coming up found a battle joined and their own kin falling, and rushed in before they knew rightly the cause of the quarrel; some thought indeed that the Teleri had sought to waylay the march of the Noldor at the bidding of the Valar.”
Nothing similar for Galadriel in Silm or UT; if it exists, it will have to be buried in HoME somewhere. And the fact that Finarfin’s kids are _not_ personally guilty is a major plot point in dealing with Thingol.
On the topic of Galadriel and feminine power:
Actually Galadriel is actually evil in the “Rings of Power”