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.