Collections: Why Rings of Power’s Middle Earth Feels Flat

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 vastness of the Southlands, which apparently has only the one village. While we’re here, why do the Southlanders call their homeland ‘the Southlands?’ It isn’t hard to see why the Elves might, but it wouldn’t be South to the Southlanders, it’d be ‘here,’ with yet move lands further to the south.

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.

Bronwyn preparing to address all of the remaining people of the Southlands.
While we’re here, I find himself frustrated by the naming choices here. Bronwyn is a Welsh name, her son is ‘Theo’ a name root that Tolkien uses heavily in Old English Rohirric names (From þeod, ‘people,’ e.g. Theodoric) or alternately it is Greek (‘theo-‘meaning ‘God’ in compound names like ‘Theodosius,’ ‘given by God’), since he is Theo and not Theod, it seems to be the latter. Theo’s friend is named ‘Rowan,’ which is an Irish name while ‘Waldreg’s name seems entirely made up (though it could be Germanic with ‘Wald’ meaning ‘wood, forest’ and -reg meaning…well I’m not quite sure honestly; Welsh rheg meaning ‘curse’?). Naming is, of course, something Tolkien was extremely careful about; the sorts of names these folks have should tell us something about them. The fact that we have apparently Welsh, Greek, Irish and maybe Old English names all swirling around this one village is baffling; surely these people have a language which they name their children in?

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:

I’m afraid I do not know the original source for this image or the many like it. I found it on Reddit but also saw it on Twitter.

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!).

These three ships aren’t going to do it. Also, we’ll come back to this, but these are badly designed ships that wouldn’t function well. Also, is it just me or does it really look like their masts can’t fit under that bridge there?

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.

The route traversed by the Númenórean expedition in its last 24 hours. Even Aragorn in his dead sprint from the Paths of the Dead to Minas Tirith did not cover so much ground and he took eight days to do it.
This map is from the LotR Project ( – go check them out.

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.

This river flow at the bottom of the screen is what is going to cause the flash-steam explosion to blow up Orodruin in a moment. Perhaps my physics is just off but I do not buy that this is enough water entering the caldera fast enough to produce the blast we see.

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.

Again, I’m not a volcanologist, but to me this doesn’t seem plausible either. Of course this water is going to flash to steam, but it’s going to do so on the surface of the lava, because the lava is several times denser than water, so the water will float on its surface. And then that steam has this huge cavern to expand into and then the wide opening the water is flowing through to push out of. I can absolutely believe it could create a geyser of very hot water out of that hole (one big, oversized kettle), which might be very bad if you were close to it, but I have a hard time thinking that enough steam pressure is going to build up here to rip off the top of the mountain. Perhaps my sense of the physics is wrong, but a pressure bomb requires containment, the one thing we’re shown is not present here.

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.

Looks cool, at least.

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.

This looks very clearly to me to be a pyroclastic flow, cf. this picture of one from the Philippines in 1984. It even has volcanic lightning, an actual thing that happens in some pyroclastic flows.

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.

When I pulled this screenshot, I titled it, “Nah, mate.” As in, “Nah, mate, no way she’s living through that.” And I think that’s as accurate a caption as I can manage.

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.

I’m not sure which confuses me more, where she got those two metal pots or where she got all of those clearly woolen textiles. Neither should be possible to produce in a purely hunter-gatherer society like we see here, yet we hear no mention of the Harfoots in the show engaging in trade, like they do in the books. It ought to be really important if it is where they get all of their wool.

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.

Harfoot tools; where did they get the metal and then the fuel to forge it? Also I find myself a bit puzzled by all of the tool marks on that spoon (?) on the middle left.

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.

Harfoot cart interior, with what appear quite clearly to be heavy woven wool textiles used to extend the living space.

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.

Bronwyn’s village which will, in the final battle somehow contain the entire population of the Southlands in just one of those six small buildings.. Also the show’s visuals are really inconsistent about how close this village is to Orodruin.

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?

How is this society structured!? Do these people get a vote and if so for whom? The point of Rome’s traditions of oratory, mass politics and riotous mobs of citizens was that these cultural patterns emerged in a context where they could vote (see F. Millar The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (1998)) and thus where their collective action was important! But this is a well-settled hereditary monarchy!

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).

And here we have a royal court. Some of the folks near Pharazôn look like they might be artisans, though if they are meant to be the representatives of their guilds the showrunners are apparently unaware that the leaders of guilds with great public influence would tend to be very wealthy men of the sort who wouldn’t attend court in their leather apron. But we have a lot of finely dressed nobles here too; who are they? Is there a hereditary nobility here? Surely if there is (in the books there is!) their opinions are going to matter rather more than the crowd outside? Alternately, if the court really is composed of the representatives of each guild, a sort of senate-as-advisory-council, then perhaps tell us that. In practice we see no deliberation, only Míriel and Pharazôn’s opinions matter in this scene, no one else’s counsel is sought.

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.

  1. This is, by the by, much more than the Game of Thrones budget, which was $10-15m per episode in the later seasons
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. And Isildur’s one, very forgettable friend.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.

449 thoughts on “Collections: Why Rings of Power’s Middle Earth Feels Flat

  1. Superb analysis! Esp. the transportation of cavalry problem. As they say, amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics!

  2. This post has many good points but I’m a little confused as to what standard you think storytellers ought to be held to in terms of what they explain and what they don’t. You complain that it does no good to fill in the story with guess work, but then you proceed to fill in Tolkien’s description of the Harfoots with guesswork.

    And for what its worth, while the creators of the show may have taken some liberties with volcanology, it seems pretty obvious that the dam-opening mechanism itself is meant to be magic. After all, the key is a sword that magically repairs itself when exposed to blood. You may as well complain that it’s unclear whether the Doors of Durin are magic or not.

    1. For my part, that which is logically necessitated (using the internal logic of the story) can be treated as being represented. For example, we don’t need Aragorn to list out his tax policy; the nature of his government (shown in various scenes in the books) makes only one tax policy possible. Similarly, we don’t need to know how the Shire elected its rulers; we know that they are elected, and we know that certain families (the Baggins, Brandybucks, and a few others) have tremendous influence while others (the Gamgees, for example) do not.

      This, by the way, is a criticism I have about Bret’s assessment of Sarumon. I don’t think he’s given sufficient consideration to the fact that Sarumon was in routine contact with and in fact under orders from (stated to be reporting to!) Sauron, or the fact that Sarumon made a Ring. We know Sauron can dominate minds (we see it with Pippin). We know that using a Ring opens your mind to Sauron (we see that with the Nazgul, and it’s stated to be a major threat to those wearing the Three). The logically necessary conclusion from these is that Sarumon wasn’t the one deciding to attack Rohan. He may have had his own designs, but he was operating within Sauron’s strategic framework. Sarumon didn’t have any reasonable justification for his actions, but Sauron–who was in charge–absolutely did. It doesn’t make Sarumon’s situation any more survivable, but it does explain why he made such stupid decisions. He did so because Sauron was aware of his maneuvering, and put Sarumon into a position where live or die Sauron comes out ahead.

          1. I don’t think Tolkien–who we know spent untold time devising languages and names–would agree. :^)

          2. To ey81: we don’t actually know whether Tacitus was referring to Jesus of Nazareth or some other prophet. They were, after all, a dime a dozen in the Eastern Mediterrenean during the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

          3. SmallCatharine: Actually not too many prophets executed by Pontius Pilate who had followers in Rome persecuted by Nero 30-some years thereafter. Probably just one.

          4. @ey81: While the passage from Tacitus is less controversial than the Testimonium Flavianum, I have seen credible arguments for the Pontius Pilatus bit being an insertion.

      1. “I don’t think he’s given sufficient consideration to the fact that Saruman was in routine contact with and in fact under orders from (stated to be reporting to!) Sauron, or the fact that Saruman made a Ring.”

        Saruman made a what now? OK, he made a ring of some sort – Gandalf sees him wearing it – but that’s a big jump from “he made a Ring of Power that was exactly the same as the Nine in the sense that it made the wearer vulnerable to Sauron”. Note that the Three don’t make their wearers vulnerable to domination – the problem here is that their power dies with the One.

        1. Galadriel to Frodo: “Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished”

          Gandalf at the Council: “He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others. If he recovers it, then he will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger than ever.”

          And Tolkien wrote about the Three not being actively used until after the One was lost by Isildur.

  3. If I wanted to no-prize Southland naming and nomenclature, I’d say that they’re the remnants of Morgoth’s followers who were a mix of all the mortals who didn’t wind up Edain elf-friends in Beleriand, hence a) hodgepodge personal names and b) the name of the Southlands (since they came there after the fall of Angband in the north). But as you say, not in the story as told, and unclear how much they had the rights to tell.

    I am willing to credit the clearly magic, blood-fueled sword wielded by a knowing follower of Sauron as triggering mystical devilry at most initially kicked off by the rocks and water. We don’t need to know where Sauron actually is at that point for it to be something he’d previously enchanted and made sure was part of his worshippers’ lore.

    1. Regarding rights: There’s actually quite a bit of material in the main text and the Appendices. Obviously sparse compared to the Silmarillion, but enough to sketch out quite a lot: Feanor, Silmarils, Morgoth, Edain, Melan as “people of the Valar”, Beren and Luthien, Finarfin and Finrod and Finrod dying for Beren, Beleriand, Turgon and Idril and Gondolin, Lord of Andunie… And of course a moderately detailed Second Age timeline, including the Numenorean king list (without dates, unlike the Arnor/Gondor kings who get death-years). It could be a fun exercise to extrapolate a ‘Silmarillion’ just from LotR.

      1. You can get a surprising amount out of it if you can stay awake during the songs and poems that are embedded in the trilogy.

        1. I hate poetry. But I’ve found that reading or chanting aloud (or even singing if you know which old songs Tolkien used for his inspiration for certain songs) keeps me awake and even increased my appreciation.

      2. Here’s a Youtube playlist where a guy does that. It’s like you said, even with just what’s in LOTR there’s still quite a lot to work with. It’s also virtually 100% different from Rings of Power.

        1. Interesting. It seems to me that the most obvious point of departure between Tolkien Untangled and RoP, is that RoP started with the idea that you can’t have human characters star in a millennia-long story, so they have to contract the story by a factor of 1000, and keep nothing but the occasional name. And TU started with the idea that you can’t have human characters star in a millennia-long story, but Sauron and the elves are the major characters anyway. So you can adapt Tolkien’s story without too much trouble.

          Although I suspect RoP would still have made Eregion a village led by its blacksmith, Celebrimbor anyway.

          1. This proposed having a couple of seasons forging the Rings of Power, and then a jump 1500 years forward to a couple of seasons with Ar-Pharazon and friends on Numenor:

  4. Small note: if “Waldreg” is Germanic, -reg could conceivably be some version of the common name suffix -rich (or -rik), which means “king” (and/or “wealthy”). Although that may be more thought than the showrunners put into it already.

  5. “While we’re here, why do the Southlanders call their homeland ‘the Southlands?’ It isn’t hard to see why the Elves might, but it wouldn’t be South to the Southlanders, it’d be ‘here,’ with yet move lands further to the south.”
    That’s kinda the same as saying “why do people of Alabama, etc. call themselves Southerner?” They have some history, too, and the designation probably stuck according to their own history.

    1. Also, rather famously, *Austria* has been going strong for over a thousand years at this point. I’m guessing they ain’t gonna change it now.

      1. Also Australia, South Africa. In England, people regularly refer to themselves as Northerners, or their home region as the Midlands or East Anglia.

    2. I was thinking the same thing. If they are part of a wider context that they are (or historically were) in the southern portions of (the united kingdom of the Dúnedain), it feels appropriate to call their lands the Southlands.

      1. But this is the Second Age. There was no such kingdom. Unless part of some Numenorean empire. But the show doesn’t seem to have hinted at that. The canon empire probably extended far south of Mordor — Numenor itself was not far north of the ‘equator’ — but their source material doesn’t specify those details.

  6. Lovely discussion. A little quibble on women’s work: seems to be a correct description of plough and pastoralist societies. Not so much horticultural/hoe societies, where women often did/do a lot of farming. Something that aid programs in Africa use to miss, for instance.
    While I understand your reluctance to buy into the culture war stuff, the showrunners not bothering to be much constrained by canon raises whether they be constrained by any other structural features. Given that the intention to Reflect Modern Society and have Strong Female Character(s) justifies itself, it seems likely that bothering to be structurally careful might also get downgraded.

    1. Why are Strong Female Characters ™ such bad characters? I like female protagonists, I like female centric stories but I HATE Strong Female Characters ™!
      Galadriel could have been compelling if she’d ever shown any sign of inner conflict and self doubt, if occasionally she’d wondered if maybe everybody had a point about her obsessions, or worried that she’d lost the trust of her troops and her king.

      1. I can but speculate; but it seems to me that stories are about characters struggling to overcome difficulties that they find difficult, if not insuperable. But the Strong Female Character is shown to be Strong by easily triumphing over difficulties.

        So you end up writing a story while going out of your way to minimise your own characters challenges.

        The other issue I can think of is that in a story about the good guys banding together against the forces of darkness, you do have to show the good guys needing each other and banding together. But would the Strong Female Character be a Strong Female Character if she needed help?

        She might be the hero, but that is not the same thing.

    2. “A little quibble on women’s work: seems to be a correct description of plough and pastoralist societies. Not so much horticultural/hoe societies, where women often did/do a lot of farming.”

      OTOH, it is hard to find a society where men do not do the great majority of the fighting. And this was especially true in the days when almost every weapon was powered by the upper body strength of the person wielding the weapon. IIRC, Galadriel and Luthien were powerful characters, but not because they were good at hitting people with a sword or spear.

        1. True in a couple versions of her story in UT, once in her life. There are other women warriors: UT “Cirion” also has the (trained!) young women of the Wainriders putting down a rebellion while the men are off fighting. HoME tells us Haleth of the First Age got turned into a woman for no obvious reason than more representation, and was given a guard of “Amazons”. Silmarillion has Emeldir the Man-Hearted, who wanted to stay and fight (it also has Haleth as a leader, though less about her.)

          But I think in LotR, Eowyn and a vague mention of shield-maidens are all we’re given in the way of women combatants.

  7. I never put much thought into *why* RoP fell so flat for me, just knew that it didn’t feel like a convincing fantasy world – and especially, that it didn’t feel like Tolkien. Seeing all its issues broken down in detail here was so satisfying. Thank you, and I look forward to part ii!

  8. I have a bigger problem with Orodruin than volcano physics. What was the point of it? In LotR it is established that Mordor is an agricultural superpower, because the ash of Orodruin has created an extremely fertile region where orcs can power-grow food. But in the show, Southlands are already fertile. We see these bountiful verdant hills and valleys. Why did Sauron blow them up? He is an economist, he knows you need food and farms. So why is he ruining?

    1. Probably like Evil in “Time Bandits.”

      Evil : God isn’t interested in technology. He cares nothing for the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time, forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!

      Robert : Slugs.

      Evil : Slugs! HE created slugs! They can’t hear. They can’t speak. They can’t operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic?

    2. The main reason shown in the show is that Orcs are hurt by sunlight. If he can cover the skies in dark clouds, then Orcs can roam free during the day.

    3. Furthermore, it’s not clear that volcanoes *can* erupt in the absence of powerful magic—in the First Age, the eruptions of Thangorodrim are the direct work of Morgoth, and Orodruin erupted because of the release of the power contained in the Ring. Having a volcano erupt in the absence of the action or release of great magical power breaks the entire feel of the world.

  9. Hello, not a volcanologist or a specialised geologist, but I picked up a few things on volcanoes as a dinosaur-adjacent topic in uni! For the most part, an eruption is due to dissolved gas buildup, and exactly what type of eruption is determined by how viscous the magma is, which in turn tends to be due to how much silica versus iron/magnesium-based minerals there are in a given magma. As a general rule, a silica magma with a lot of gas is sticky and will erupt violently when the gas erupts violently, like superheated water in a pressure cooker; on the other hand, a less silica-rich magma will act more like an overflowing kettle, with a consistent pressure release creating a consistent flow of lava.

    For this particular volcano, it basically makes no sense whatsoever. A tall cone is generally formed by more viscous, explosive magmas, because the magma’s too sticky to flow properly and lands close to the cone, and then the way that rock grains work mean that the cone erodes to about thirty degree slopes. The main body of magma is deep below the surface where it can stay pressurised.

    A surface-level magma chamber like this is more similar in concept to a Hawai’ian-style volcano, with runny, low-silica magmas that can sit close to the surface without popping the earth like a zit from the pressure. If the pressure and temperature is particularly low, you might get areas where active lava sinks below the level of the cooled lava-rocks, creating a chamber just below ground. However, this lack of pressure and lack of viscosity means that they’re simply unable to generate the pressures for a pyroclastic flow or any other sort of dramatic eruption, and create shallow ‘shield’ domes instead of cones.

    Now there is one type of volcano that can combine surface-level magma, consistent volcanic activity and sticky, explosive magmas- a flood basalt, which is basically as close to Mordor as the Earth ever got. The record-setting flood basalt was the Siberian Traps, and while basalts are generally a low-silica rock, the eruptions lasted a long time and included explosive magmas on occasion. An area half the size of the USA was full of various types of volcanic activity, and ended up wiping out about 95% of animal genera (one genus being ‘all the big cats’, ‘wolves/dogs/coyotes/jackals/dingos’, ‘both types of chimpanzee’, and so on) due to the ash and toxic gases it released, which certainly isn’t something to bat an eye at! However, this still doesn’t let you pour some water into a completely depressurised lava chamber that’s underneath the wrong type of volcano and get a pyroclastic flow. If you want to see a flood basalt, you either need some apocalyptic magic or the sort of bad luck that happens literally once in a hundred million years, and I don’t see either of them anywhere over here.

    1. As another non-volcanologist, but resident of Hawaiʻi where I’ve picked up a few things about volcanoes, lava lakes also do not look like that with a glowing surface everywhere. The average air temperature on the Earth’s surface is *hundreds of degrees* (Farenheit, Celsius, Kelvin, take your pick) colder than the molten lava; the surface of lava exposed to air is constantly cooling and crusting over with a layer of solid rock, especially in lava lakes where there isn’t much movement to jostle things. (Note: not *no* movement, because the lake is slowly churning like a boiling pot, but it’s not a fast-moving flow.) Now, in darkness a lava lake can look pretty cool because there *are* cracks in this solid crust (due to that slow churning) and light seeps out between them, giving a neat spider-web of glowing cracks across the surface. Seems like they could have easily gone for that by making the surface crusted, the cavern darker (as a direct consequence), and those cracks be the only sources of light as the water spills in, but instead they’ve gone for cartoon lava where it retains heat infinitely well and the concept of “heat transfer” apparently doesn’t exist (though to be fair, this is what generations of movies, cartoons, and games have conditioned us to expect at this point).

  10. I just want to outpedant by pointing out that super heavy doors that are somewhat so well balanced that you can push them open with a small push of the hand is very much a Tolkien trope (see the doors of Moria, Minas Tirith and so on).

    1. The doors of Moria open by magic, and are as tall as Gandalf:

      The Moon now shone upon the grey face of the rock; but they could see nothing else for a while. Then slowly on the surface, where the wizard’s hands had passed, faint lines appeared, like slender veins of silver running in the stone. At first they were no more than pale gossamer-threads, so fine that they only twinkled fitfully where the Moon caught them, but steadily they grew broader and clearer, until their design could be guessed.

      At the top, as high as Gandalf could reach, was an arch of interlacing letters in an Elvish character. Below, though the threads were in places blurred or broken, the outline could be seen of an anvil and a hammer surmounted by a crown with seven stars. Beneath these again were two trees, each bearing crescent moons. More clearly than all else there shone forth in the middle of the door a single star with many rays.

      ‘There are the emblems of Durin!’ cried Gimli.

      ‘And there is the Tree of the High Elves!’ said Legolas.

      ‘And the Star of the House of Fëanor,’ said Gandalf. ‘They are wrought of ithildin that mirrors only starlight and moonlight, and sleeps until it is touched by one who speaks words now long forgotten in Middle-earth. It is long since I heard them, and I thought deeply before I could recall them to my mind.’

      Picking up his staff he stood before the rock and said in a clear voice: Mellon!

      The star shone out briefly and faded again. Then silently a great doorway was outlined, though not a crack or joint had been visible before. Slowly it divided in the middle and swung outwards inch by inch, until both doors lay back against the wall. Through the opening a shadowy stair could be seen climbing steeply up; but beyond the lower steps the darkness was deeper than the night.

      1. “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”

        “everyone belongs to a *guild*,”

    1. > 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

      “than” should be “then”

  11. Interesting that you mention “length of day”. Some days have 24 hours. Some have 23, and some have 25, and which day is which, and if that even happens at all, is dependent upon the local politics where on Earth you are… See the colossal nonsense of “Daylight Savings Time”.

    1. Still better than the Roman calendar. Some years have several days fewer or more than usual, because the pontifex maximus is engaging in politics. When GJC wasn’t doing his job as PM, the calendar got something like three months out of alignment.

  12. “It isn’t hard to see why the Elves might, but it wouldn’t be South to the Southlanders, it’d be ‘here,’ with yet move lands further to the south.” I know it’s a modern nation, but I thought of Yugoslavia here. You don’t think such a thing would be possible in the pre-modern period?

    1. Older than that, there is of course Wessex in England. I am also reminded of Swedish provinces like Uppland, Västmanland and Södermanland, as well as the region (really more than half the country) of Norrland

    2. China is the middle kingdom and has been since pre modern times.

      I don’t have any examples offhand, but I feel like there have been cases where empires broke apart and a piece that was originally the province of “east whatever” just became the kingdom of “east whatever”. Like the name preserved the imperial frame of reference, even after the empire was gone.

      Actually, think of Wessex, Sussex, and Essex in England. Or the kingdom of northumbria.

      It could be the southlands were what it was called by morgoths people and the early edain. Then it just became the local name after the end of the first age.

      1. Medieval England also saw the kingdom of the East Angles, who were further divided into the North Folk and South Folk (modern day Norfolk and Suffolk, respectively).

      2. Also this small Southlands’s village is the outermost outpost of the Elven wardens against the return of the dark. Which is now in the process of being closed down, since there no longer is need for it, as the Dark hasn’t shown itself in centuries, so the boundary doesn’t need them now. Which all means there weren’t a lot of people living there for many reasons, since much of what they did, as is the case in settlements around such garrison since there were such things, was providing services for the garrison inhabitants. So the area lives off the occupiers — which word is used — while resenting the hell out of them.

        This is all in the show,

    3. Austria was first given a name meaning “eastern realm” in 996, through it was not an independent realm back then.
      There had also been some earlier Frankish kingdoms named for directions despite having lands yet further in their directions.

      Those also had their names from before they became independent through.

      1. Tolkien is pretty vague about the exact breadth of Morgoth’s realm in the first age. Most of the Silmarillion takes place in Beleriand (which is far to the west of the environments in Lord of the Rings). It could be that Morgoth’s dominion was “only the north part of beleriand, and then much more of the land across the misty mountains and to South. Sort of a St petersburg as capital of Russia where the capital is West of 95% of the actual kingdom.

        1. The sense I’ve always gotten is that Morgoth has broad dominion over Middle-earth during the First Age; his *attention*, however, is mostly on Beleriand because the Noldor exiles and, later, their Edain friends, are the single most pressing problem he has to deal with at any given moment following the destruction of the Trees and his flight from Aman. We also only see glimpses of his devices elsewhere—mostly, we can extrapolate from the prevalence of Melkor-worship in the East. Some of that we may assume was introduced later by Sauron, but I think the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth suggests he’s had a hold on the minds of Men largely since the beginning.

    4. Scotland is the Land of the Scots, Ireland the land of the Irish, and Poland the land of the Poles.

      So I suppose the Southlands ought to be the area inhabited by the people known as the Souths.

      Seriously, look at the names of the neighbouring lands. Does the name “Southland” really fit in? How hard would it have been for the show to translate “Southland” into an Elvish tongue? If they wanted a name that contrasted with Mordor, the Black Land, they could have called it the Greenland or the Fertile Land, and then translated it.

      Instead we get a name that sounds both mindlessly generic, and utterly unfitting for the world in which it is used.

      1. > How hard would it have been for the show to translate “Southland” into an Elvish tongue?

        The problem is that with the most common Elvish language, Sindarin; we would get “Harad”. And Harad is also the name used for a completely different political entity that existed in the Third Age, at some distance from Mordor. “Greenland” would be “Calendor”, which personally I think sounds much nicer.

  13. Like you I wondered (as a film & TV pro) where all the money went? For example, Peter J’s LoTR starred many big name actors, and they do not come cheap. In contrast, the producers in RoP cut costs by casting largely unknown and clearly inexperienced actors. As a result, a lot of the performance were very poor. Yet that might also be a product of the terrible scripts. Not even Kate Blanchett could have done a better job with many of Galadriel’s line. This could be the explanation for why Peter & Fran were ghosted after they agreed to help RoP, but on the condition that they see the scripts first.

    And you’re right about the lack of respect for world-building and timelines. This has to be the most expensive piece of lousy fan-fiction ever devised. It bears all the tiresome hallmarks of that genre: personality changes to well-known characters, improbable plot twists unjustified by the narrative, modern speech usage, blatantly obvious changes to the world Tolkien built, childish narrative arcs that defy Tolkien’s intentions, lack of grandeur in the story-telling and so on.

    The producers could have made a much greater series using the story of the Second Age that was already in the text they were allowed to use. I suspect they were terrified of the scale of a story that spanned so many thousands of years. Other series don’t have that problem, and nor should this, especially when so many of the peoples and characters are either exceptionally long-lived or immortal.

    1. “LoTR starred many big name actors, and they do not come cheap.”

      Shooting from the hip without looking at the budget, there were a number of recognizable faces with respectable careers, but few “big names”. Like Star Wars, many actors got their big break FROM the films; they weren’t big before it.

      Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, and Billy Boyd were largely unknown.
      Elijah Wood was mostly known for a modest role in Big Impact. Of the four Hobbits, Sean Astin was probably the best known for the Goonies and Rudy, the former being over a decade old and the latter being a modest hit.

      Ian McKellen was a respected actor possibly who had recently come off of a string of smaller hits/critical darlings like Gods and Monsters and Apt Pupil. Christopher Lee also had a long, illustrious career for horror films but wasn’t a huge box office “name” in 1999. Similar to these two, Ian Holm had a long career but was far from a box-office draw by the late 90s.

      Sean Bean (at least to non-UK audiences) was mostly known for being the villain in Patriot Games and Golden Eye.
      Cate Blanchett had only become somewhat well-known a year prior for her role in Elizabeth.
      Hugo Weaving had also just become a recognized face a year prior for The Matrix.
      Jonathan Rhys-Davies was known for secondary roles in Indiana Jones and Sliders.

    2. I clicked “Like” but I want to applaud virtually the entire middle paragraph! Perfect!

      This has to be the most expensive piece of lousy fan-fiction ever devised. It bears all the tiresome hallmarks of that genre: personality changes to well-known characters, improbable plot twists unjustified by the narrative, modern speech usage, blatantly obvious changes to the world Tolkien built, childish narrative arcs that defy Tolkien’s intentions, lack of grandeur in the story-telling and so on.

      I want to give special emphasis to this point: blatantly obvious changes to the world Tolkien built Oh, my, yes! The only word lacking there was UNNECESSARY.

  14. I understand the desire to avoid wading into the “culture war”, but given the nitpicks over linguistic naming conventions, textiles, or metal cookware, I was hoping you could briefly comment on the subject of ethnicity, especially vis-à-vis the Harefoots. Again, I understand why not, I just think it could be productive discussion, in isolate.

    1. Generally the hobbits seem a fine enough ethnicity? I mean to the extent you can get while casting the actors. The multiculturalism seems to fit with a nomadic society (provided the nomadic society finds a way to live). The ethnicity seem to line up with the books, where the hobbits are described as a light brown or white in skin tone. Of course the major parts of an ethnicity: the culture, is entirely lacking.

      1. A society with clearly defined ethnic groups hasn’t has much intermarriage between them. So either they have something like caste in India, or they are comprised of relatively recent immigrants from widely different parts of the world. But the Harfoots don’t seem to have the first, and seem to cut themselves off from contact with the rest of the world, suggesting they don’t have the second. So how can they be a multiracial society?

        BTW, note that most Europeans turn light brown if they work in the fields all day.

  15. “Cavalry arriving to stave the day” is typo of the month. Trumpets sound and the rescuing cavalry column charge in over the hill to beat you about the head with a big stick.

  16. This was very good. I quite liked chunks of the Rings of Power, and a lot of other issues people raise are matters of art and taste and hard to come to a definite conclusion on. But world-building is more a matter of craft, and I think you demonstrate well that it’s done badly. Some stuff could be quibbled about – I could imagine a social system where ‘guilds’ were more like lodges, castes or centuria, a complete political system for all (and in that case the Smith’s Guild leader might wear a ‘ceremonial apron’ to indicate his status). And monarchies, as you know, often have complex systems to allow for input on decisions which are still in the end reserved to the monarch.

    I think that the showrunners made two major departures from Tolkien’s world building which they probably felt were necessary but damaged his sturdy foundation. One which is almost inevitable is compressing time from millennia to months (I think they should have stuck with years but so it goes) to allow for only one generation of human characters. That drives some of the weird journey and character development times and gives you this odd pace. (Heaven knows how they’re going to show the Numenorean colonisation of Gondor). The other departure other is to give up on scale of armies, presumably to save money. The latter is an odd choice given that Jackson managed to get to a good scale with less money 20 years ago. I agree with you that this is disastrous, because as a result you get the whole downscaling effect in the Southlands which makes the whole thing seem like a pathetic squabble between a few hundred people and orcs.

    Still, the nice thing about this kind of review is that it does show again how great Tolkien really was at this, even though he was one of the first worldbuilders. From the coherence of naming, to the logic of the Numenorean and Elvish political systems, or even the underlying economic system, there is a coherence there. A deep grounding in history is just such a good place to start with this kind of exercise.

    1. I would dispute the “underlying economic system” for Tolkien. Men and hobbits have them; but the elves, dwarves, and orcs don’t. The most egregious is Saruman turning a small holiday resort into an industrial city. The forest-states of elves could be doing forest gardening, the mountain-dwelling orcs could be mostly-pastoral, the underground states of dwarves could be mining coal and doing syngas fermentation, Saruman could be feeding his orcs by feeding sawdust either to rodents (meat!) or fungus farms.

      I think writing stories to Bronze Age Scale is a good idea. If we’re really talking about towns with ~3,000 adults within the walls, then the sort of things writers instinctively do mostly work out. The armies are a few hundred people, so it’s feasible to have just the one commander shouting to them. The distances are a day or two on foot. Etc. If they sell us some characters, then the actual scale could well be a mere clan feud and still work emotionally (the people involved sure don’t think of it as meaningless) — and if they only show characters from one side, they can make the other side be orcs if that’s what they want. If they don’t feel like they can keep a map straight, that’s OK, don’t show us one — the people of the era didn’t make maps, either. (They are more than welcome to include a periplus or itinerarium.)

      1. Tolkien’s military logistics are a bit dodgy too, I think. Sauron running all over Eriador in the middle of the Second Age raises my eyebrows. But at least the more implausible people are very well organized and/or supernatural — perhaps a minor function of the preservative powers of the One Ring is to prevent food spoilage. And we know that both elves and Numenoreans (UT, Disaster of the Gladden Fields) could have superb portable preserved food.

        1. >Tolkien’s military logistics are a bit dodgy too, I think. Sauron running all over Eriador in the middle of the Second Age raises my eyebrows.

          It takes him about 6 years to do it if you’re talking the war following the forging of the One Ring; and that’s with 90 years planning this offensive. Plus, I got the impression that the elves have low population and don’t spread out much, and that “Eriador” of second age circa 1700 is a few scattered cities, the western end of Khazad-Dum, and a few scattered communities of primitive men who don’t actually offer resistance or are of much strategic importance.

          I tend to think of it as the sort of “Well, I sacked Ost-in-Edhil, Moria and Imladris are beseiged, and Gil-Galad’s armies are falling back to the Havens. Yeah, I conquered all of Eriador.” without having orcs trample over every bit of wilderness or hidden settlement.

          1. Well, six years and low population density brings its own problems: hard to forage if there’s few people to steal from, let alone for six years straight. Though I guess “few elves” means Sauron could get away with a historically small army… still, I think he must have had at least a few legions-worth of soldiers. I’d say minimum 20,000, even if we avoid 200,000.

  17. My understanding ( is that the only had rights to the LotR books including the appendices…so Zero Silmarillion, Zero Unfinished Tales. Explains why we see Dwarves, Elves, Harfoots, Wizards, etc…they want to make full use of their license!

    Of course, if you don’t care about this stuff, then why bother licensing the parts that describe the era your show is set in?

    (Also, I am sad that you did not address Wounded-Halbrand and Galadriel’s 6 day ride across ur-Rohan.)

    1. Or if it comes to that, Bronwyn takes two arrows to the torso, but is up and around next day with no ill-effects at all.

    2. As I say in another comment, LotR + Appendices include at least skeletal versions of the First and Second Ages, which after all is why we have ‘Miriel’ and ‘Pharazon’. RoP does not seem to be using all the material they paid for.

  18. “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.” This was precisely my 10,000-foot level take on the show (though stated more eloquently than I could have). Lots of visually interesting scenes that seem to have been included simply because they *were* visually interesting–Galadriel endlessly riding a horse being the most obvious, but by no means the only, example. It’s almost like they decided to tell an illustrated history of the Second Age–but then dropped all the meaningful text that gave context to the illustrations. The overall effect is more or less like what happened with Game of Thrones when they ran out of Martin’s text and were forced to go with his rough outline for the rest of the story: the narrative here comes across as more like something you’d see in a Mid-90s Sci-Fi/Fantasy show on the WB/UPN network.

  19. Some people may have heard of Sanderson’s First Law of Magic: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.”

    This post really drives home how much that should be the first law of *writing*, rather than just about writing magic. This is a political story where the politics are never understood. It is a military story where military limitations are never understood.

    You don’t have to perfectly world-build every little piece of your story like Tolkien did, but you do have to actually put craft and research into the load-bearing bits! The mechanisms that solve your major conflicts need to make sense either with the real world, or the fantasy world you have previously constructed. Otherwise you tear apart the illusion that any of this is happening for reasons other than “because the author wanted it to.”

  20. Speaking as an ex-geologist, that Rube-goldberg-volcano-generator sequence was very painful. It managed to trivialise the creation of Mordor – no sorcery or ‘transfer of power’ just a mechanism, whilst also having the pyroclastic flow which should kill everyone several times over – even Elves are not Dragon-proof.

    1. It also feels actively counter-Tolkien – if Orodruin erupts, it’s because Sauron applies his will on it, not because of some weird-ass hydro-engineering project that for some unfathomable reason requires a magical sword to activate.

      (Worst counter-Tolkien thing in the entire show – “yes, by all means pick up the tool of the Enemy and use it against him, Gandalf, this is how things are supposed to work”. I felt certain this was some kind of trap, because it’s just so appallingly bad in a Tolkien perspective, but no, this is apparently a Good Thing.)

  21. I agree with most of this, but I think you made a few mistakes on the Southlands.

    “And yet from what we see, this entire kingdom consists of a pair of villages”
    We are briefly told of more villages when the Southlanders first enter Ostirith. Bronwyn says something like “this is everyone from all the villages from here to Orodruin”. We should probably be able to see these villages in the shots we get of Mount Doom, but I guess maybe the orcs destroyed them. At least it implies there are more villages outside of the “here to Orodruin” area. I would assume that those villages have their own elf watchmen, though it would be nice for the show to have mentioned that. And the reason the expedition knows to head towards Tirharad is (clumsily) explained, Halbrand tells them Adar is likely to head to Ostirith (no one asks for his reasoning). I’m also not sure the expedition went through Cirith Ungol/the Morgul Vale, the glimpses we get of Miriel and Elendil looking at the map make it look like the show invented a new way into Mordor? Maybe I’m mistaken on that.

    That the Southlands apparently have a unified identity with absolutely no political structure and apparently limited contact with each other is what makes it all feel artificial to me. They feel like default human villagers in a generic fantasy RPG, not a real society with a shared culture. As far as I can tell their only shared culture is “we ‘ate elves”, which is fair enough I suppose.

  22. The guild thing might be them projecting modern unions back into the past, particularly as film and television are dominated by unions that are called guilds. They represent entire trades and have contracts that place limitations on non-members doing work. As I understand it, you need to be in the Screen Actors Guild to have even one line make it on screen.

    Though if anything you’d expect that to make the guilds even more powerful political forces, if they collectively represent the [i]entire population[/i] and might react to being ignored with a general strike.

    1. Many films and TV shows project Hollywood business structures onto other business sectors, often with rather hilarious results for those who work in the sector in question.

  23. My worst moment of being unable to suspend disbelief: following the volcanic eruption Greenwood, hundreds and hundreds of miles away, is subjected to an intense and concentrated barrage. It’s *utterly ridiculous*, as is the notion that a small burned apple orchard will mean certain doom to a bunch of hunter-gatherers.

    The nomadic Harfoot lifestyle is presumably taken from the actual lore about the “wandering days” of the hobbits (the exact words are even sung), but in Tolkien, that seems much more like the hobbit version of the Age of Migrations in Europe, looking for a new place to settle (as they indeed do, in the Shire), not a lifestyle.

  24. Please note, I am writing in haste as this is a subject near and dear to my heart but I’m also a bit late for work. I apologize for any formatting issues. I also haven’t seen the Amazon series and have no intention of doing so. Some of Peter Jackson’s deviations from the books annoyed me enough, and I knew this would be way worse. Apologies if anything I say isn’t accurate to the show, I’m working solely from this post and might have misunderstood things.

    First off, I noticed two typos:

    “Gasoline they need for their tricks” I presume means to say “Trucks”

    “Oddly, Pharazôn is at one point explicit that everyone belongs to a build” I presume means “guild”

    Secondly, in an excess of pedantry, I noted that you used the term “Silmarillion” to describe your sourcing for Numenor and life there. What gets packaged as “The Silmarillion” is really a collection of 5 separate works: The Ainulindalë, a story about the Ainur and their creationand how they in turn create Arda, the Valaquenta, a sort of hymnal list of the 14 Valar, the Quenta Silmarillion, the story of the first age, Akallabêth the story of the fall of Numenor, and finally Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, which is what it sounds like on the tin. Almost all of the information on Numenor comes from Akallabeth, not the Quenta Silmarillion.

    As for the substance of the post, I had a few thoughts:

    “Tolkien has not reinvented new systems of farming, new laws of physics or new systems of social organization.”

    He kind of does, especially for the latter two. The way magic works and can very much influence things does smack me as “new laws of physics”, although maybe I’m using it in a way that you don’t mean to. But I look at something like the curse on the children of Hurin and say that real life as we know it simply does not work that way. Big evil tyrants don’t die when you destroy their precious. And social organizations do very much differ from real life, from the government of the Shire where the postal service is the biggest government organ, to the mind-link that Suaron has of his forces where they noticeably falter when his attention is diverted, to the dwarven economies near human settlements such that they don’t bother to grow or find any of their own food, simply trading for it entirely. But those systems differ because the people and ‘physics’ of Middle-Earth do differ from reality as we know it, so they come up with new systems to take advantage of their abilities and guard against novel pitfalls.

    Wait, Rings of Power had the Numenoreans on horseback?! No! Bad! Tolkien explicitly notes that while Numenoreans did ride on their island, they didn’t bother sending horses over to their expeditions to the “Great Lands”, and that the wild horses of the time living in Middle-Earth weren’t suitable for them. Remember, Numenoreans are GIANTS. Elendil is unusually tall (hence his nickname) and he’s 7 feet eleven inches tall. Most Numenoreans were shorter, but let’s just say they’d have some excellent basketball teams with heights over 6’6″ being very common for men.

    The Numenoreans simply did without cavalry in their expeditions to Middle-Earth, and went everywhere on foot. Their descendants only started using cavalry after long breeding programs to get bigger horses and having shrunk a bit themselves.

    Concerning the size of the expedition, you stated “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.”

    I don’t know how good of a source you’d consider it, but the only thing I’m aware of which goes into the population of Numenor is an essay in the collection of The Nature of Middle-Earth, published 2021. From The Land and Beasts of Numenor, we get that Numenor was about 180,000 square miles in size (so slightly smaller than modern Spain), that it was settled by an initial colonization wave of between 200,000 and 350,000 people (It’s framed as one of these ‘sourced in old legends things, so it’s intentionally fuzzy about numbers like this), the population grew rapidly, and by the time of the Downfall, the population of the island was about 15 million, which was actually a minority; by this point the majority of the Numenorean population was in settlements in the Great Lands.

    I’m not sure when exactly this is supposed to be, since Sauron has apparently not forged the rings yet but Isildur is running around, despite about 1,500 years separating the two. Nonetheless, I would actually think that Numenor is even BIGGER than the polity of the mid-third century Roman Republic.

    That being said, they do seem to go lightly, at least some of the time. In the Disaster of the Gladden Fields, Isildur’s bodyguard expedition is 200 men, and he seems to be going without a lot of court amenities. That being said, he also is trekking through the wilderness and believes Sauron’s defeated, so there’s nothing really to worry about, and it is portrayed as hubris to move with such a light force.

    Concerning the Harfoot semi-literacy, Hobbits explicitly learned reading and writing from the Elves. (Who seem to be the originators of almost all written scripts and most languages in general) An isolationist group of hobbits should be illiterate and speaking a language that is VERY different from most of the people around them, akin to the Druedain.

    Concerning note 14: “I don’t know that we ever get a full list of the vassals Gil-galad has as High King even in the books.” We do not. It’s not even clear that the Elves have a system of vassalage. High King is specifically a Noldorin title, and all it really seemed to mean was that the descendants of Fingolfin had a bit of precedence over the descendents of Feanor when they were fighting Morgoth togehter. But even then, I would hardly call Maedhros anyone’s vassal. And the system CERTAINLY didn’t apply to non-Noldor, which disqualifes everyone on that list except for Elrond, Galadriel, and maybe Celembrimbor (his origins got revised so many times I’m not sure what Tolkien had in mind for certain). And Galadriel at least, while Noldorin herself, is not actually ruling a kingdom of Noldor, with most of the population of Lothlorien being Silvan elves, and her ruling like a SIlvan queen seeming to have ‘gone native’.

    Also, I don’t think those other kingdoms were established by elves looking to leave Lindon. Lindon seems to have been a Noldor settlement of elves that weren’t willing or ready to go back to Valinor. Tolkien revised his origin stories for Galadriel even more than for Celembrimbor, but in at least quite a few of the versions, Lorien and the kingdom in the Greenwood were as old or older than the foundation of Lindon, and aren’t made by people who wanted to leave.

    I’m also not sure about Cirdan’s status. Cirdan’s weird, being one of the Fatherless (that is, one of the original 288 elves directly created by Illuvatar), and is definitely an independent leader of Falas during the first age. While Gil-Galad was in around the same region and definitely had a bigger following of Noldor, I’m not quite sure he was a subordinate so much as an enclave.

    But I really have to go and have delayed too long to get to work already. I’ll clean this up in the evening. Or at least add elaborations.

    1. I think it is hard to comment on something you haven’t seen so you don’t know what people are responding to. And while I’ll believe you that Numenoreans didn’t bring their horses with them, I had to respond about the height and horses bit. 6’6″ just isn’t that much of a problem re horses. You can’t ride Mongolian ponies but you absolutely CAN ride any of the horses that would have been common in English farm life, and used by knights in the medieval period, your percheron and clydesdales, etc. You could ride today’s warmbloods and 6 foot men can and do regularly ride any number of horses that stand 16-17 hands. Heck, cowboys are not known to be short, and they ride quarter horses which are short.

      1. Medieval knights didn’t have available to them horses anything like as big as modern Percherons or Clydesdales. The Clydesdale breed, like the Shire, was created in the mid-18th-to-19th century to plough the large fields created by enclosure, and for road haulage. The Percheron is an ancient breed but, like many other old draught breeds, was bred for extra size in the same period. (I don’t have figures for the Percheron, but the average weight of the Ardennes, for example, literally doubled between the Napoleonic Wars and today.) All the evidence is that the average mount of a knight in the 11th-13th centuries was solid but relatively small, much like a modern cob. The biggest (and most prized and expensive) war horse was the Andalusian, which averages only 15-and-a-half hands..

        1. This is intended to go for NSH as well, but I’m working off of things like the Disaster of the Gladden Fields which has the following note (Note 7 if anyone cares)

          “7 The Númenóreans in their own land possessed horses, which they esteemed [see the “Description of Númenor,” p.177]. But they did not use them in war; for all their wars were overseas. Also they were of great stature and strength, and their fully-equipped soldiers were accustomed to bear heavy armour and weapons. In their settlements on the shores of Middle-earth they acquired and bred horses, but used them little for riding, except in sport and pleasure. In war they were used only by couriers, and by bodies of light-armed archers (often not of Númenórean race). In the War of the Alliance such horses as they used had suffered great losses, and few were available in Osgiliath.”

          Isildur’s expedition back home included ten horses for carrying stuff, but none for riding. And they’re described as “small sturdy horses, of a kind, it was said, that had first been found, wild and free, in the wide plains south and east of the Greenwood”

          And this is after the victory of the war of the last alliance. While it’s not definitive, it leaves me with the impression that horse domestication and selective breeding is far behind medieval western Europe is, and that even horses akin to what a 13th century French Chevalier would have would be unavailable outside of maybe some Elven enclaves.

    2. > The way magic works and can very much influence things does smack me as “new laws of physics”, although maybe I’m using it in a way that you don’t mean to. But I look at something like the curse on the children of Hurin and say that real life as we know it simply does not work that way.

      It somewhat depends on what era you’re talking about. Prior to the downfall of Númenór, Arda is flat and the Sun and Moon are special vessels guided by Maiar around the sky and underneath the world, so yeah, presumably physics does work differently then. By the Third Age, however, things seem to be more like the real world. But apart from this, I would say that magic being “new laws of physics” makes it simply “insufficiently analyzed science.” Now, a hallmark of science is repeatability; something that can be done repeatably can be analyzed. If magic can be analyzed and systematized, then you get Vancian magic systems like in D&D, which doesn’t seem to match up with how magic is presented in Tolkien. Admittedly, some aspects of “magic” in e.g., the Lord of the Rings, such as the elves’ lembas bread, might be repeatable enough to be considered as actually just advanced science that the hobbits (and men and dwarves…) around them just didn’t understand. (The ithildin on the doors of Moria might also be of this sort of “sufficiently advanced magic”.) But there are also acts of “magic” which are explicitly said to be non-repeatable (Yavanna with the Two Trees, and Fëanor with the Silmarils, both say that they cannot repeat their singularly incredible feats), and on the whole I think the majority of “magic” in Tolkien is of this sort.

      Melkor’s cursing the children of Húrin can’t simply be due to some “unknown law of physics”, or he could win the war in Middle Earth by simply similarly cursing everyone who opposed him; laws of physics don’t care who is using them or to what end. Instead, I see it as Melkor imposing his will on the natural order of the world in a specific way (via utterance) which perhaps not even he could reliably bring about again. Sauron with the One Ring is another case study; if he could it do once, why not just use his enhanced power from wearing the One Ring to forge a second ring (the Two Ring, if you will) to enhance it even further, and then another ring, and so on and so forth ad infinitum? He didn’t have access to some hitherto-unknown law of physics that allows for sharing existence with inanimate objects for power amplification, he’d pulled off an artistic feat of skill that he couldn’t replicate. (Though I note that just because Tolkien’s magic isn’t *systematized* doesn’t mean it doesn’t have *rules*: the fact that unmaking the Ring will also unmake Sauron is presented as a fact [which is later proven to be true] upon which the entire plot of the Lord of the Rings hangs.)

      Ultimately I’d say magic in Tolkien is sort of a spectrum from “insufficiently understood technical feats” to “one-off impositions of one’s will on nature”, but I think on the whole it is, to use a clichèd phrase, more of an art than a science with lots of results that can’t be reproduced and thus wouldn’t fall within the domain of physics.

      1. Tolkien and his contemporary C.S. Lewis present magic as essentially being the interaction of spirit with the material world (and even the material world itself is ultimately a manifestation of spirit). Lewis portrays this most explicitly in “That Hideous Strength”, in which magic is functionally being on a first-name basis with the various spiritual forces, the animi, underpinning physical nature. This is a pre-modern hypothesis of nature where the idea of blind, deaf amoral “laws of nature” doesn’t fit.

    3. “And social organizations do very much differ from real life, from the government of the Shire where the postal service is the biggest government organ…”

      I can’t help but think of this quote from AJP Taylor: “until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and the policeman”

      In many ways the Shire is an idealised version of rural pre-1914 England. But it is a somewhat idealised version of a real society, with which Tolkien and his audience were familiar. Not something completely new and made-up.

      1. Rural Victorian England, of course, only existed in that idyllic state thanks to a professional army and the world’s largest navy, and being surrounded by water. So Tolkien’s Shire is in that respect a little unrealistic: you have to imagine the Rangers in the role of Tommy Atkins and Jack Tar, and the generally unpopulated (why?) lands around the Shire as being the English Channel.

        1. The Shire had its own border defense as well, the Bounders, it wasn’t all on the Rangers. Plus repelling an orc invasion some generations back. Unlike some things in the Hobbit (talking Ravens, stone-giants, Beorn changing shape), Bandobras got promoted into LotR:

          “later in the days of Arassuil, Orcs, multiplying again in the Misty Mountains, began to ravage the lands, and the Dúnedain and the sons of Elrond fought with them. It was at this time that a large band came so far west as to enter the Shire, and were driven off by Bandobras Took.”

          “2740 Orcs renew their invasions of Eriador.

          2747 Bandobras Took defeats an Orc-band in the North-farthing.”

          So the Shire is peaceful partly because after the fall of Arthedain and Angmar, there’s hardly any threats nearby, but also because of layered defenses against remaining threats, from Rivendell to the Shire’s own militia.

          I note that at least 7 years of orcish invasions, especially if in “kill all humans” mode, might help explain why there’s a shortage of people in eastern Eriador.

    4. In reluctant defense of the show, I note that it’s unfair to use material from the published Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales etc. against it: no rights.

      The elf creation story in _HoME_ says 144 Unbegotten elves, half male and female. But Cirdan is ‘kin’ to Thingol, so probably isn’t Unbegotten; HoME also has a line that none of the Unbegotten joined the Eldar, though this conflicts with saying all the Vanyar did. But from LotR, all we know of Cirdan is that he’s old, “saw further and deeper than any other in Middle-earth”, was lord of the Havens and thus a lord of Lindon (probably _the_ lord in the Third Age), and gave Narya to Gandalf.

      In the First Age, Cirdan was notionally vassal to Thingol, who was originally king of all the Teleri and then of the Sindar of Beleriand. “the Elves of Beleriand, from the mariners of Círdan to the wandering hunters of the Blue Mountains beyond the River Gelion, owned Elwë as their lord; Elu Thingol he was called” — Silmarillion

      There is some idea of vassalage:

      “Angrod and Aegnor, sons of Finarfin, looked out over the fields of Ard-galen, and were the vassals of their brother Finrod, lord of Nargothrond”

      “High above the realm of Morgoth Thorondor [king of Eagles] and his vassals soared”

      OTOH I feel elven kingship makes most sense as an overgrown “club president”: it’s often hard to find even one volunteer, there’s more work than payoff, you’re on terms of equality[1] and people can just start ignoring you. Vs. historical human kingship being rooted in “gang leader, with a band of warriors to enforce your orders”.

      [1] “Celeborn and Galadriel. They stood up to greet their guests, after the manner of Elves, even those who were accounted mighty kings.” And the scene seems like ordinary chairs in a chamber, not people before a throne.

    5. It is 144 Unbegotten (in 72 pairs). And Cirdan is not one of them.
      High King is not specifically a Noldorin title, Thingol is also referred to has High King (as is Ingwe).

  25. BTW, would love to see your take on ‘House of the Dragon’, in my opinion a *vastly* better tv-series where any issues are far more subtle.

    1. HotD is far far superior in characterization, acting, pacing, dialogue, etc, but just as bad as RoP in historicity. Worse, really, since HotD, and GoT before it, it makes the pretense of being historical. The wigs are worse too. (I’d also love to see Bret cover it!)

  26. Perhaps the worst *philosophical* sin of the tv-series is treating Evil in an utterly non-Tolkienian way, making Middle-Earth fully dualistic and Evil an active, creative force.

  27. “No good film is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” – Roger Ebert

    To clunkily paraphrase: “Inconsistencies are easily overlooked in a show you like and no nitpick too small for show you hate.”

    (Not to imply your criticisms are small.)

    1. The point is that when nothing makes any goddamned sense, it will tend to *make* the movie bad (unless the lack of sense-making is part of the premise).

    2. The problem is not with inconsistencies. That is problem that fundamental parts of the story does not make any sense at all and do not fit the theme.

      You can have characters surviving direct hits by anvils falling from great height, but then you should not expect people to take danger posed by anvils seriously.

      You can ignore plot holes in worldbuilding and make more of them, but then why adapt work made by Tolkien?

  28. Okay there is a lot here but I just want to latch onto a couple points:

    “Bronwyn’s village is, at least initially, apparently run by the innkeeper.” It is? The understanding I had was that it was run by nobody. The people in the southlands are easterlings and the elves dont want the easterlings to have any kind of government. Because the elves provide protection and policing for free, there isn’t a need for a military and the attached taxation. Again we have a scenario that doesn’t mimic earth. Our stateless societies lie back in prehistory and didn’t exist at a time with all the things the southlands have.

    I dont get why you would use heavily militarized real world historical polities for a demilitarized state that has not known war in 25 generations by the reckoning of even the longest lived. A retinue of 300 lines up with Tolkein’s writings, Isildur only took about 200 to Gladden fields. This seems more like a “dip the toes” and “show the flag” type expedition and I think that raises an interesting question. What would it look like if people completely unused to war started dipping their toes back into geopolitics? What do you do when you have the best materiel but dont know anything about campaigning?

    I’m was disappointed reading this article because I was hoping for discussions about matters like these where things differ from earth. I imagine that the authors probably made mistakes on interpreting these kinds of things and I think an expert take on this stuff would be interesting. It was far more interesting to read you talk about the sociology of Saruman’s army of greenhorns then to talk about how unlikely it was for such an army of greenhorns to exist in the first place.

    1. I believe Al Pharazon took thousands of soldiers (at least) with him when he invaded Middle Earth to challenge Sauron (from the Silmarillion). That’s what I was expecting here.

      1. Ar-Pharazon takes such a huge army that Sauron’s forces (And let’s not forget, this is Sauron who has taken over most of the area the action occurs in for the main trilogy) and holding the Ring, with his ringwraiths beside him) simply deserts at the sight of this force and Sauron immediately pivots to trying to bring down the Numenoreans by subterfuge instead of open force.

    2. To put it differently: the elves are the government of the southlands, they just set a 0% tax rate.

      A demilitarized-for-generations society won’t actually have good materiel (they may or may not have ceremonial “bling of war” that lacks critical functionality — some relevant derisive terms are “mall ninja” and “tacticool”), and almost certainly their expedition runs into a logistics failure. Or several. A premodern army runs out of food, disperses, probably throws away a large fraction of its gear and trickles home as light infantry. (They won’t get far enough to starve to death while walking home, but they may die of cold.) Should they make it into combat first, cohesion fails and they rout. (Or the enemy may ambush them in camp, due to lack of scouting/sentries.) A modern army — just look at early 2022, but turned up to 1011 — runs out of fuel and maintenance, leaving the broken-down (or fuel-less) stuff at the roadside. (Different but real example: have fancy tanks but skimp on tank-transporters, so tanks do strategic repositioning on their own tracks; all of them break down en route.) Should they make it into combat, they fail to do combined arms, run out of ammunition, probably get broken through, encircled, and forced to surrender piecemeal. Probably they get numerous IFF failures, thus their AA shoots down a good chunk of their air force (assuming the planes get the servicing and fuel to even fly sorties — not that would do any good, if they can’t coordinate CAS with ground forces (adding some friendly fire in that direction as well) nor plan operational-depth strikes). Plausibly similar incidents can happen with artillery as well; before they run out of ammo, they may very well hit the wrong things, including friendlies.

    3. In the books, Numenor has been an imperial power for close to two millenia at this point, with the area that would become Gondor and Harad heavily colonized and settled by Numenoreans. (The timing is debatable, depending on where you want to start Numenor’s imperialism – Lond Daer and the clear-cutting of the surrounding forests? It’s certainly an empire by the reign of Tar-Ciryatan in the ~SA 1900.) It’s not a demilitarized society (kind of the point, really. Island sunk due to colonialism and devil worship.)

    4. Going by LotR material, the Numenor of Tar-Miriel’s time had been running an empire for nearly 1500 years. The Numenor of Celebrimbor’s time had not, though they still managed to throw together enough force to completely wreck Sauron’s forces, which in turn had been overrunning Gil-galad; this is pretty much the “Numenor is like the USA in WWI” moment.

      The show, of course, puts Celebrimbror in Miriel’s time, despite 1500 years of separation in the canon.

  29. Hi Brett. Great post. Putting on my hat as a PhD Earth Scientist, I can confirm that the way the show portrayed the eruption of Orodruin was utterly batshit. It makes no sense that there was a functional reservoir there, there’s no way the water would have gone near the volcano, there’s no way anyone could have sensibly tunnelled into the magma chamber, the magma chamber wouldn’t look like that, and the water wouldn’t have precipitated a Plinian eruption had it got in there. And then there’s no way anyone would have survived the pyroclastic flows, as you point out. So you’re broadly correct in your analysis.
    I wrote up a decent-length article (something I might use for outreach purposes at some point in the future) going into the above summary in more detail if you want an in-depth read!

    1. Reading your blog post, I think the show writers were thinking of a lava lake. There are a handful of them on Earth now, and that seems to be the go-to non-geologist “what does a magma chamber look like?” thing. It’s one of those things that appears to make sense–if you want to know how magma works, go look at it!–but which is in fact very misleading.

      This doesn’t actually solve anything, of course. It just means the writers don’t understand how lava lakes work.

      One potential solution for how the river triggered the eruption is that the river activated underground faults (as my Structural Geology prof used to say “All answers are either pore fluid pressure or 30 degrees”), which either released pressure from a magma chamber under Mt Doom, or released pressurized water from under the magma chamber into it. Releasing water under the magma chamber would create a massive amount of steam under the magma that would make a vigorous attempt to move such that it is above the magma, which would explain the pyroclastic cloud. It may not be a real pyroclastic cloud, but to the people being hit in the face with an extremely hot wall of glass shards the difference would be fairly academic. It could explain what the orcs were tunneling toward–Morgoth literally raised the Misty Mountains, and he and Sauron heard the Music and saw the vision before Arda formed, so they’d know about such things one can presume and thus direct digging. Pressure from water is based on height (hydraulic head, really, but it amounts to the same thing), so attaching an underground reservoir to an above ground reservoir in a sudden fashion can make the water jump fairly quickly (depending on transmisivity, pressure, and some other factors). The volume of the tunnels wouldn’t be an issue, because volume is irrelevant to hydraulic head calculations, only differences in height do. What that would do to a mafic or ultramafic lava lake is beyond my training; I do soils and dead things! (My understanding is that felsic lava wouldn’t form a lake, it would simply explode when depressurized, to the point where there wouldn’t be enough left to make a lake.)

      I’m not sure if the show would support such an interpretation. Despite loving Tolkien’s works and the LOTR movies, nothing about this show has excited the least interest in me. For my part, I find much more joy in exploring Tolkien’s source material. David Day’s works are fantastic for that!

        1. I treat his works as elaborate fan fiction (which is fair–Tolkien’s works were elaborate fan fiction themselves….). Mostly I harvest the names from ancient texts from them. He may or may not be accurate, but such references as the Poetic Edda are what they are. I was a tad surprised to realize what the Prose Edda was, but am enough of a nerd to appreciate an ancient literature textbook; I have a collection of old, outdated geology textbooks, and a sibling that’s a literature professor.

          Right or wrong, Day points me in interesting directions. And since my interest is in worldbuilding (I’m one of those playing in Tolkien’s attic), I figure that’s sufficient.

      1. Yes, I agree, they were very much thinking of a lava lake. Your scenario would work, I think, but it’s very much not what the show was thinking or depicting.
        If you haven’t already, you might want to consider reading The History of Middle-earth, which takes you through Tolkien’s creative process and shows you a lot of how he developed his ideas.

    1. If everyone survived, there must have been a lot of fridges. It’s been a while since I read the Silmarillion, but I think the Southlands were a center of appliance manufacturing?

  30. Wait, the writers didn’t have access to the Silmarillion? They didn’t have access to the notes for the story _they were themselves writing_?? That’s ridiculous.

    1. They only had the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, including appendices. None of the rest of Tolkien’s work is even available for option, though that might change since Christopher died. Simon seems much more keen on tv and film.

    2. I think he means they didn’t have legal rights to the Silmarillion, so they had to write in a way that deliberately avoiding using only the parts of the Silmarillion that where referred to in the Lord of the Rings, or something to that effect

      1. This also explains why the Burning of the Ships was replaced with Noldor children being naughty and sinking Galadriel’s paper boat.

    3. They had the rights to the Appendices, which give them a lot of material for the Second Age, most of which they have (so far) gone against (the show’s timeline is an utter mess, and while it would always have been difficult to deal with and need some adaptational changes from the Appendix B one if they were planning on both the Rings and the Akallabeth, it’s internally inconsistent – does time in Numenor move faster than Middle-earth proper?) But they have the entirety of the Akallabeth story, minus some of the fun but unnecessary details.
      Plus they can ask the Tolkien estate for permission to use Silm/UT/HoME details, so it’s not like that’s completely barred from them.

      Amazon had enough information to tell a decent, coherent Second Age story. They just sucked at it. Thanks, JJ Abrams, for getting two people who’d never had a credit in their life before this job! (The inexperience of the showrunners, who had previously been uncredited writers on an Abrams script, is probably responsible for the ridiculous budget and how the money doesn’t seem to have been used to good effect.)

  31. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy had its own problems with time and distance (particularly when Legolas and Tauriel travel to Gundabad and back) but, yes, he does a much better job of it than Rings of Power.

    Payne & McKay and their writers also demonstrate that they do not understand how stars and constellations work, even on a(n) (hypothetically) flat Arda.

  32. Could have been “Additional problems of social detail” for a perfect cadence to the rhyme.

    Excellent post. I definitely fell into the camp of “didn’t love the show, not entirely sure why” (though I do know enough of the Silmarillion to have seen where the show contradicted it). This helps to make a lot of my objections more concrete.

  33. It is interesting to see your thoughts on Fantasy and worldbuilding! I generally agree with your points, but recently I have gotten into the works of Lord Dunsany, one of Tolkien’s forerunners in the genre. His short stories are much more dreamlike than later Fantasy, but they are still pretty good I think. Though perhaps they are based enough on “legendary or mythical systems and settings” to be understandable to “us”.

  34. Isn’t there also some evidence that sophisticated metalworking from hunter-gatherers is not all that “out there”? I thought that many of the peoples associated with the Seima-Turbino phenomenon were in fact hunter-gatherers, but it seems like they presumably sustained enough specialization for quite sophisticated bronzeworking.

      1. Well, they’re supposed to be nomads as well, and isolated ones at that. It’s easy to imagine sedentary or semi-sedentary non-agricultural people with good trade networks doing some metalworking: it’d be a valuable trade good, so if you can manage it there are clear advantages.

        But if you’re isolated nomads with lots and lots of iron… Where are you getting your ore? And you’re smelting *so much* that you eat with iron spoons instead of wooden ones? How does that work?

  35. I am disappointed, really disappointed by this review. How did Brett Devereux, of all writers, fail to condemn sacrificing Galadriel to the Cult of the Badass?

    1. I thought Galadriel’s character was not well done, largely because she was so inconsistent in her values and motivations, but I don’t see how it connects to Brett’s writing on the “Cult of the Badass”.

      Brett’s writing on that is to reject the idea that there are “certain set of warrior values which were both expressed by famous historical warriors and which now provide a blueprint for life”.

      However, the cult of the bad-ass in pretty inapposite here. In Tolkein’s world, basically all of the ages of their history did use, more or less, the exact same type of combat and social structure and therefore warrior values. So to that extent, the values of the first age would actually remain relevant in the second age, which is quite different from Brett’s criticism of trying to cherry-pick these values to live in a modern world. And further, Galadriel has basically lived through all of that herself! In some ways, she is like having an ancient Spartan still kicking around. The cult of the bad-ass criticism is about modern people trying to copy these values–not someone who has actually survived until the present who was raised under different values.

      1. I don’t think the issue is really the cult of the badass in itself, but rather she is shown to be one in the least interesting way possible, by showing she’s (just) capable of extreme violence. By comparison, in the Jackson version, the viewer is still clearly shown she’s powerful, but without showing her committing acts of violence.

      2. Galadriel’s portrayal is part of a trend by which female characters are portrayed are admirable insofar as they do badass things like inflict physical violence on opponents, and “portraying people as admirable insofar as they inflict physical violence” seems like a textbook example of the most negative aspects of the cult of badass.

        However, the cult of the bad-ass in pretty inapposite here. In Tolkein’s world, basically all of the ages of their history did use, more or less, the exact same type of combat and social structure and therefore warrior values.

        Tolkien never suggests that people are admirable in proportion to their badass qualities — indeed, his choice to make his main heroes a quartet of peace-loving pygmies is a pretty strong rebuke of the idea. And regarding his female characters, there’s never any suggestion that they should strap on a breastplate and join in battle. The closest to a badass woman in the books is Eowyn, and she ultimately finds happiness by marrying and leading an apparently conventional noblewoman life, not by fighting.

    2. Tolkien pre-Lothlórien Galadriel is pretty danged badass. This part is the least of the show’s problems. If anything she isn’t badass *enough*. That troll is an effort for her!

      When she struggled with the ice, I wanted to say “oh come on, this is like nothing compared to the Helcaraxë, you can do this in your sleep!”

      This means that all the other Noldor except sometimes Elrond were impossibly wimpy, yes.

      1. She’s very badass, but in a way that demonstrates strength of will, not physical martial prowess. I can’t think of any of the versions of the story and her origins that has her actually fight anyone or anything. I haven’t seen the show, so I don’t know what it’s like, but I am far from convinced that book Galadriel could defeat a troll in melee combat.

        1. Her chapter in Unfinished Tales does have her fighting against Feanor at Alqualonde, in some versions. I believe that’s the only hint of direct combat; the chapter also has her viewing dwarves favorably the way a high commander would:

          “Thus the Dwarves of Moria may be presumed to have been innocent of the ruin of Doriath and not hostile to the Elves. In any case, Galadriel was more far-sighted in this than Celeborn; and she perceived from the beginning that Middle-earth could not be saved from ‘the residue of evil’ that Morgoth had left behind him save by a union of all the peoples who were in their way and in their measure opposed to him. She looked upon the Dwarves also with the eye of a commander, seeing in them the finest warriors to pit against the Orcs. Moreover Galadriel was a Noldo, and she had a natural sympathy with their minds and their passionate love of crafts of hand, sympathy much greater than that found among many of the Eldar: the Dwarves were ‘the Children of Aulë’, and Galadriel, like others of the Noldor, had been a pupil of Aulë and Yavanna in Valinor.”

          But in LotR, her basassery is all magical: she has her own versions of palantir and Silmaril (Mirror and phial), she says she’s mind-wrestling Sauron even as she speaks to Frodo, she gives other magical gifts, and “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.”

          She also has a badass feat again in UT, not her chapter but in Eorl’s.

    3. Because that part of the show is actually consistent with her description in the books

      Her sacrifice to the cult of the dumbass is not

    4. That part is accurate to the books tho
      The issue isn’t her being a badass it’s her being a dumbass

  36. I am certain that you’ve covered this in an earlier article, though I’m not familiar enough with your archives to give a citation. But this just made me think of my pet peeve

    > The first problem we can delve into is how little of Rings’ Middle Earth seems to be in the right scale

    According to the maps in the front of the first Game of Thrones book, the marching distance from Winterfell to King’s Landing is 1800 miles. This means that, at a typical marching speed, 6 months of time elapse between the first chapter (King Robert requesting Ned as Hand) and the third(?) chapter (arriving in King’s Landing)

    I really liked GoT but the one thing that really really bothered me is that particular element of scale. The worst part is that if I just scratched out the scale marker on the map and rewrote it at 1/10th scale, it would actually be pretty ok. So none of this actually matters one whit to the story. But it always tweaked me.

    1. Yeah, I love Martin but he has this bad habit of making tons of stuff in his setting “Like the real world, but bigger, because it’s an epic fantasy,” without realizing that much of it (cities, distances, armies) etc, no longer works the same way if you change the scale.

      He still had a much better sense of it than the show-runners, though, once they moved past the books. Martin seems like a person who read a bunch of medieval history but isn’t a historian and doesn’t understand all the “whys” behind everything, whereas D&D seem like people who only read ASoIF and didn’t even fully understand that.

  37. I admire the choice that in the introduction, the link to previous analysis of Tolkien points to the “mind of Saruman” post. More important than the proximal failure of historicity is that the showrunners mess up the Clausewitzian Planning Trinity. After they lose the plot by subordinating it to concerns of scene composition, they are unable to consider writing a new plot, only writing new scenes.

    I would otherwise suggest solving problems of having to match the audience’s attention-span to the plot by using Bronze Age Scale (and appropriately “translating” some terms to wildly different meanings between show!English and normal!English). If the Southfields polity really were a few hamlets with an adult population of a few hundred, and located on the outer edge of the khora of Númenor (a town of 10,000 residents within the walls), most numenorean numerical problems disappear. The royal expedition of 300 traveling for a day or two to a destination small enough to not need meaningful scouting now fits. Indeed, 300 mounted may be on the higher end (since it probably implies that 3000+ infantry could be mobilized for a field operation). Of course, show!”king” now translates to something between “lord of the manor” and “mayor” in a medieval setting.

    Otherwise the ship is a distraction, they delivered the horses by airlift.

  38. I have not seen the series. My interest in it is mostly finding out just how they managed to go this wrong.

    My understanding is that the Tolkien sources they bought the rights to for the Rings of Power included |only| the appendices to the Lord of the Rings (everything else was already bought or not for sale).
    So they could not consult the Silmarillion for anything because they could not use it.
    I make no comment on why they would attempt to make a series, while having only that for source and making the rest up.

    The problems discussed in the post likely originate in the writers room. It is quite likely that no writer on this series has any training or reading in history, so inaccuracies and infidelities like this would pass unnoticed. The “question box” plotting is a hallmark of writers looking for the immediate “cool thing” while not considering what the non-immediate effects are.

    I also doubt there were any consultants hired for “could they really do this?” if the problems are this large. Or they didn’t listen to them, since from the budget it is pretty obvious that a lot of money ended up spent on things that were not used in the final product.

    1. They clearly did have some rights to the Silmarillion, things like the flat summit of Armenelos appear

  39. At the risk of unmitigated pedantry, I want to point out that Lothlórien is not actually ruled by Galadriel and Celeborn yet (though they do have a complicated history with it already), but under King Amdír/Malgalad and his son Amroth. Amroth is even established to once have been the king of Lothlórien in the main text of the Lord of Rings (in Legolas’ song about Nimrodel).

    Something also seems wrong with this sentence. Sit ill with, maybe?
    “but the information characters later seek to glean from these books sit will the content of such pictographic histories.”

    1. At an equal risk: LotR doesn’t have Amdir/Malgalad, and doesn’t even say outright that Amroth was ever king, though he did “build his high house” at Cerin Amroth. And Galadriel’s own words do easily lead one to believe that she and Celeborn have ruled Lorien since the First Age:

      “For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

      1. Though LotR also has “In Lindon north of the Lune dwelt Gil-galad, last heir of the kings of the Noldor in exile. He was acknowledged as High King of the Elves of the West. 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.”

      2. Amroth beheld the fading shore
        Now low beyond the swell,
        And cursed the faithless ship that bore
        Him far from Nimrodel.

        Of old he was an Elven-king,
        A lord of tree and glen,
        When golden were the boughs in spring
        In fair Lothlórien.

        Amdír is only in Unfinished Tales, true, but then, so too is Oropher who does get to be in the sentence.

  40. “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”

    Reminds me of one of the issues of The Last Jedi. Luke and Rey save the remnants of the rebellion at the last minute after no one else in the galaxy is willing to help. Hooray, the Resistance is saved! Err, a few hundred of them anyway, against the forces of the First Order which are dominating a *galaxy*. For all intents and purposes, the Resistance was destroyed.

    1. You’re right that Star Wars writers have no sense of scale (Don’t get me started on the Grand Army of the Republic), but I actually think the point in TLJ was slightly more subtle. It’s not that what’s left of the Resistance can actually take on the First Order, but that the fact of their survival and escape is important to rally future opposition to its rule, esp. given the symbolic importance of Leia. That’s the meaning of the last scene with the kids; they are inspired by this story to help build a new rebellion.

      1. What was the Grand Army – a couple of million clones? Not sure they had enough for one per populated planet..

        1. Even more egregious is when script writers don’t understand the difference between interplanetary and interstellar distances, the latter being tens of thousands of times greater than the former. The Empire Strikes Back made the loss of the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive look no worse than having to push your car to the nearest gas station. In actuality, f your faster-than-light drive breaks down and you have no way to repair it, you are as doomed as someone floating on an inner tube in the middle of the Pacific.

          1. The Expanded Universe Lore explains on this by pointing out that the Millennium Falcon, and almost anything larger that an X-Wing, has a back-up hyperdrive. Its not very fast or good for any sort of range, but it exists.

          2. That would be sensible given how utterly f’d you would be if you were stuck in the interstellar void.

        2. In AoTC, it is described as 200,000 with 1,000,000 more on the way. Even at full strength, that’s not enough to cover the Eastern Front in WW2, let alone fight a galactic conflict.

  41. I was so frustrated by this show. I think it was originally intended to be ten episodes, which I thought very short, then they reduced it down to eight. And because they only rights to certain sources, they had to leave a lot out that would have set the scene and explained what was going on. But then they did things that *only* people familiar with the lore would have recognised (I had to laugh at the very abbreviated version of the Elves leaving Valinor to pursue Morgoth – so they all sailed off in a fleet of ships that were conveniently lying idle, belonging to nobody, Galadriel?) such as having the Bough of Return on the Númenorean ships. It’s a small detail glimpsed in the background, but if you see it and you know the lore, then you realise what is going on.

    And then they do stupid things like having Elrond and Celebrimbor able to go for an afternoon stroll from Lindon to Khazad-dum. The mighty navy of Númenor, sea-faring nation, being a whole five ships that gets reduced to three when two of them catch fire and so the expedition is reduced now to three ships since they haven’t any spare ships to make up the loss. The entirety of the Southlands being two villages, one of them burned down. Nobody back in Lindon notices that the Elf garrison has not returned after being stood down. Celebrimbor, second greatest smith in all of Middle-earth, has to be told what “alloys” are. The idea of dumping Annatar because “oh well everyone familiar with the books would be ahead of us because they would know who he was” so they gave us Halbrand instead. And if you didn’t guess he was Sauron by the second episode at the latest, congratulations, that is the level of intelligence to be a writer for this show. Guy who falls out of the sky and does magic, oooh could he possibly be Gand- yes he’s Gandalf, how stupid do you think we are? Time and distance having no meaning. Oh no is Isildur dead – no of course he’s not. Anarion? Who is that? No, Isildur has a *sister*. I could go on, but the only good original element was Adar, and I wonder how that they let that happen. If you ignore it as being supposedly Tolkien’s world, then it’s generic TV fantasy and it’s okay. Not great, not awful, sort of okay.

  42. The biggest problem with science fiction and fantasy franchises is outsider script writers brought in who simply don’t have a feel for the mythos of the franchise, the elements that appeal to the franchise’s fan base. Often you at best get uninspired paint-by-numbers efforts that fall flat. At worst you get people actually contemptuous of the franchise and its base, who presume that they can churn out any piece of garbage and the drooling fanbois will lap it up.

        1. Abrams demonstrated quite thoroughly with his treatment of Star Trek that he doesn’t think being invested in original source material is important. .

  43. > Númenór is an island continent with multiple major cities

    To be extremely pedantic, I don’t think Númenór would really be considered a continent. Australia, the smallest continent (about the size of the Lower 48 US states) has an area of 2,969,907 square miles, while the Wikipedia article for Númenór (sorry, I’m in a rush) has a reference to an area someone calculated for it of 167,691 square miles, 17.7 times smaller. This is admittedly still pretty large, as it’s just below the island of Sumatra (171,068 square miles) and twice as large as Great Britain (80,823 square miles), but nowhere near what might considered a continent. (Greenland, the largest island not considered a continent, is 822,700 square miles, though given how “continent” doesn’t seem to have a formal definition I suppose the point could be argued…)

  44. One pedantic reply to a pedantic point made in this article: It doesn’t really matter whether that Margaret Mead quote is real or not, because it’s wrong:
    Animals regularly break bones and survive the injury without complex societies. This is especially true for social primates, which can rely to some degree on their group for protection and access to food (the group will not kick them out for having a broken leg), and that have sufficiently flexible diets that they can find enough to survive for a few weeks while their bone heals – if they get lucky. It’s not common but it is not unheard of to find fully healed fractures in very important bones in a primate skeleton – I’ve seen studies indicating about 0.5-2% of wild nonhuman primates in modern museum collections have healed fractures. I’d have guessed a bit higher based on my own experience in collections, but I believe the formal studies. Regardless, healed fractures themselves are not an indication of complex societies.

  45. The idea of the Hobbits being folklore feels like a reference to the thing in LOTR where the Rohirrim only know about them through old folk tales and fairy stories about “the little hole-dwellers”, but that’s clearly because it’s been a thousand years since the Hobbits migrated over the Misty Mountains.

    Presumably the actual proto-Rohirrim they lived alongside in the Vales of the Anduin knew more than that back in the day.

    1. There were hobbits in the Anduin just 500 years past, thus Gollum, but the proto-Eorlingas had moved north before then. Eorl probably rode to Gondor past Smeagol’s people, unknowing (Eorl; the hobbits probably noticed a massive cavalry ride) though Gollum himself had gone under mountain 40 years before.

      But even 500 years of a mostly illiterate culture would lose knowledge of frankly kind of boring hobbits.

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