Collections: The Nitpicks of Power, Part I: Exploding Forges

This week we’re going to return to Amazon’s Rings of Power, as promised in the first post there were a plethora of smaller believably and realism issues with in the show that I wanted to discuss but which didn’t rise to the storytelling problems of those major issues. These are the sorts of small issues that many viewers may not notice (although some viewers very clearly did notice many of them) but which I think add up over the course of a season to injure the suspension of disbelief and the audience’s trust in logical consequence in the same way (though not to the same degree) as the much larger problems of scale and social structure do. There was apparently such a plethora of smaller nitpicks that I have opted to split this post in two; this week we’ll deal with armor and smithing, while next week we’ll deal with ships and tactics.

Once again before we dive in I want to note that it is fine if you still enjoyed Rings of Power; most audiences seem to have been disappointed, but I don’t want to take anyone’s joy from them. At the same time, thinking about failure is how we get success. There is a common retort to this kind of analysis that audiences don’t care or know what is realistic and what isn’t and so the whole endeavor is pointless.

But I think a close look at the way fiction – especially visual depictions in fiction – have changed over time suggests the opposite: over time the emphasis placed on verisimilitude or even realism has increased. Compare, for instance, the costume work in Gladiator (2000), especially the opening battle scene, with similar ‘sword and sandal’ epics from the 1940s and 1950s in one direction and with HBO’s Rome (2005-7) or Netflix’s Barbarians (2020) in the other. Of course there are projects that absolutely abandon any sense of realism, but for films, games and TV that want to feel real, the bar has been going up. In part I suspect this is a product of information being so much more available in our age, but also a product of realism being a strong marketing point: it’s something viewers value.

Consequently, I think that these kinds of critiques, while ‘nitpicky’ have some value. Also they’re just plain fun and we all know it. So while these complaints of mine are not ‘story critical’ and are not the ‘reason why Rings was bad,’ I think they are worth talking about.

And if you think this is worth talking about, you can help by sharing it or supporting this project on Patreon. Despite my commitment to nitpicking, I still have not matched Rings‘ absolutely wild budget of $57.75m per episode (or post) so there’s still work to do to 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.

Problems with Scale (Armor)

You don’t know how hard I found it, taking this continuation of the previous post’s joke section title theme and removing it for coherency and length. Alas!

We can start with arms and armor, one of my favorite places for nitpickery. There are a set of interrelated problems with the armor in the show, most of which come down to consistency. On the one hand, armor costumes rarely do a good job telling us much about the people and societies who produced them because they’re not consistent by the societies that made them. On the other hand the quality of these costumes is also wildly inconsistent, with some looking carefully crafted (often despite being on screen for only moments) while others look very cheap. Finally, this is a setting which is relatively low on fantastic or magical things, it is relatively grounded compared to some settings, so we might expect the armor to thus be grounded as well, rooted in real world designs, and the execution of this is also inconsistent.

Perhaps the worst offender (which unfortunately gets a lot of screentime) is the odd Númenórean scale armor. Now scale armor was not necessarily a bad idea here (it could make for an interesting visual motif connecting the seafaring Númenóreans with fish-scales, for instance), but there are two immediate problems with this armor. First, it doesn’t seem structured like scale armor. The strong cording around the edges and rigid spaulders make it look like rigid armor made to look like it is composed of scales. The effect is only increased because the backing is shaped to give it pectoral muscles (and chests for women, which is doubly silly).1 But that’s not how historical scale armor hangs on the body. This is a key difference between scale armors and the related forms of lamellar and brigandine – in the latter the metal plates (which may still be scale shaped and sized) are attached to each other creating a semi-rigid armor since each row of plates connects to the row both above and below. With scale armor by contrast – which is clearly what this is intended to be, lamellar would look quite different – each scale attaches to a backing material. That material is often organic (textile or leather) but we also have examples where the scales were connected by wire (essentially serving as durable thread) to a backing of mail, creating what is sometimes called ‘plumed’ mail (or lorica plumata, a phrase not original to the ancient world).

One of the shots that shows the armors from a variety of angles. From behind you can really see clearly that these are rigid breastplates decorated to look like scale armor rather than actual scale armor, but given the scale-armor-patterned shirts everyone wears underneath to cover their arms, I think we are supposed to assume this is actually scale armor. In the end I don’t think the effect works.

In both cases that means that scale armor is a lot more flexible (with the downside that the very flexibility of the scales means that a strike from below can pass beneath them and through the armor) and would thus hang and shape to the body. This armor does not do that. Instead as noted what this looks like are solid plates that are made to look like they are made out of scales. And that’s also not a terrible idea except that the actors are then also wearing scale-armor-print shirts underneath the armor which makes it clear that we’re to understand a flexible scale armor covering the whole of the upper body, which this clearly isn’t.

The queen’s clearly bronze scale armor, in contrast to everyone else’s plastic-colored white armor. Her version is also the most blatant example of using flat, printed sleeves to appear to extend the armor over the arms. I am not sure why the showrunners thought that solution was good enough for a major character who gets lots of close-ups; it looks very cheap.

This is compounded by questions of material. What on earth is this armor made out of? The queen’s armor looks like it might be bronze, albeit less well polished than I’d expect for royalty, but everyone else’s scale armor is made of this dull off-white material that looks like plastic or pressed foam, presumably because it is plastic or pressed foam. Surely this stuff should be made of iron?

Now video games and such often play very fast and loose with armor materials, inventing all sorts of made up materials for armor to be made out of, but remember that Rings is quite grounded: the discovery of just one mythical material is a major even and a big plot-point. Tolkien’s larger legendarium does not have any other fantasy materials beyond mithril: otherwise equipment is made out of iron and steel for basically everyone. So this is a setting, both for the show and the larger Middle Earth legendarium, where I do not think you can play so fast and loose inventing new materials; if the Númenóreans have a bunch of fantasy metals to work with, these armors are the only time we see them: everything else looks to be iron and bronze.

More views of the definitely not scale armor. Also you can see clearly on the left how the women in this group have had their armor apparently shaped to emphasize the bust. I would be less bothered by this if armor emphasizing sexual characteristics (big cod-pieces, etc.) was simply a thing the Númenóreans did, but it seems instead quite selectively directed at the women.

More broadly, the armor of the Númenóreans is dreadfully inconsistent. Before embarking on the expedition, Elendil wears a bronze breastplate over a padded coat. The breastplate has some ‘muscle cuirass’ elements and a bit of decorative scale-work but it looks little like the later scale armor we see; it lacks the scale-work over the whole armor, the pauldrons and also appears to be made of an actual metal. It also looks kind of cheap and awkward fitting, which is strange because in the show Elendil at least seems to be an important person of the sort who could get his armor custom fitted. Elendil’s armor terminates at the natural waist with nothing to cover his hips or groin (which is not a great way to armor a person), but we see palace guards wearing what seems to be the same armor but with a long skirt extension which is colored similarly to their breastplates but fairly obviously textile, though it has rivets in it. Now, the idea of ‘studded’ armor has a long half-life in fantasy, but it isn’t a real thing; what was a real thing was brigandine, which was composed of a collection of riveted plates where the rivets passed through the textile backing, creating that ‘thick shirt with rivets’ look that gets mistaken for ‘studded’ armor. But if these fellows are wearing brigandine (skirts?) that raises all sorts of other questions because that’s not a kind of armor we see anywhere else in the show. Why on earth is anyone wearing scale armor when they could have a much more effective brigandine!?

Elendil’s earlier bronze breastplate. This is awkwardly badly fitting (it looks to be a tough too big for him) and doesn’t feature any kind of extension over the groin (like the bell of a bell cuirass or a fauld). THis is also one of those examples where, if the Númenóreans were going to do armor that emphasized secondary sexual characters (like their boob-plate scale mail) we might have put Elendil in something closer to a Greek muscle cuirass, with full fake pecs and abs and very defined musculature.

I think the contrast here with the armor of the Rohirrim from the films is really instructive. That armor isn’t always perfect but there’s a strong consistency to it. The soldiers wear scale with spaulders, while the nobility wear mail with cuir boulli or breastplates over it, with the armor always trailing down (usually as scales) in a skirt that covers the legs. The shapes of the spaulders are consistent, the shapes of the helmets are consistent, and the materials used are consistent (iron, with gilt decorations). There isn’t one fellow in the army randomly showing up with armor made of bronze or twigs or what have you. Instead the materials, the general shape, and the basic principles are very consistent so that you get the sense that these fellows have a culture and that this culture makes armor a certain way.

By contrast check out the Men of Rohan, ranging from the poorer general levy-men in limited armor to the king in the back with his full harness of cuir bouilli and yet everyone’s armor seems to come from the same culture, using the same materials and tradition.

Also with precious few exceptions each of those characters has just one set of armor that they wear for the whole set of films. Which brings us to…

Character Inventory

One defense of the show – that all of these costumes are very expensive and the budget just couldn’t cover them all – doesn’t work for me for a single reason: Galadriel inexplicably has three complete sets of armor in this film. Galadriel, for instance, initially wears a coat of mail in her opening action scenes (frankly an odd choice for a culture that, as we see, uses plate armor quite a lot). She then changes into a set of very heavy looking alwyte plate that feels like parade armor for the boat ride. I don’t particularly like this plate armor, by the by; it isn’t absurd (big pauldrons were, at times, a thing), but the lack of lower coverage on the legs or a fauld or tassets is really strange. The arm-harness shows articulation, but then there’s none of it on the collar so no one can evidently bend their neck or turn their heads, things one wants to be able to do in a fight. Then she loses that armor and ends up in Númenór where they evidently make her (or she just gets) a complete new set of armor for the final sequence.

Galadriel: Armor I. This is, in my view, the best of her armors, a fairly straight mail hauberk with some decorative stars worked in among the armor rings, and they should have kept it for the whole show. Those swords, however, are silly, with big overwrought guards and wide blades despite ostensibly being one-handed weapons.

This feels like a character in an MMORPG reaching into their ‘costumes’ menu or bottomless inventory and just picking out the armor they want to use. The situation with her last set of armor, a combination of plate and mail, is the most absurd: that style of armor is entirely inconsistent with the armor the Númenóreans make. Where did she get it? She washed up on ship with nothing but her clothes2 so she certainly didn’t bring it with her. And it looks to be made out of steel, a material the Númenóreans do not seem to use to make armor.3 We’ve already discussed how fast and loose the series plays with timing questions in a moment, but I have a hard time believing that the smiths in Númenór had time to whip up a custom armor in a style they’d never made before with a material they don’t generally use in the days or weeks that the expedition seems to have to prepare.

Galadriel: Armor II.

Meanwhile we have poor Arondir, the elf soldier. First off, he is given armor which appears to be made of wood in a culture that is evidently capable of producing plate armor. Wooden armor like this has become something of a staple for elves in some fantasy settings (I blame Dwarf Fortress), but against opponents with iron weapons and mail armor (like the orcs we see!) Arondir would have probably been better with a cheap layered textile defense (like a gambeson). There’s a reason wood was never much used as armor in Eurasia: against metal weapons it is practically worthless for the weight. And yet Arondir’s wooden breastplate is lovingly carved and shaped to his body, with a face and leaf decorations, a tremendous amount of time and care for armor that is, again, basically useless (but also appears to be standard issue for these elves).

A brief break from Galadriel Of Many Armors for Arondir, a man of just one armor and it is inexplicably terrible. The Elves clearly have both textiles and metal production, why on earth are these fellows in highly decorated standard-issue wooden armor?

But what is really frustrating is that this is again a very unique kind of armor. Only Arondir and his troop of scouts have it. But then Arondir and his elf buddies get captured and stripped of their armor and I was thinking – ever hopeful as I am – that this would be an opportunity to have Arondir borrow some human armor for the big battle (after he escapes, pointedly without his armor) which could parallel really nicely with his growing attachment to the humans. But no! Instead his old armor magically reappears because once again we’re working on MMORPG logic where for the ‘prison scene’ you don’t lose your awesome level 50 super raid armor (because that would suck) but the game just prevents you from equipping it. The moment you are outside, you just have to go into your inventory and reequip all of that armor that has been in your pockets the whole time.

Galadriel Armor III. This was presumably produced for her in Númenór despite being made of a material (steel, it looks like) that they do not use for armor, using motifs (her star) that they do not use on armor and in a pattern (a full plate harness) that they do not know how to make.

The alternative, that this armor is just getting churned out for these characters as they need it is little better, so let’s follow that into…

Problems with Metal

Long-time readers will know I have already done a long series on pre-modern ironworking, so I’m going to assume you all have the basics and I can proceed directly into the whinging here. Now metalworking scenes in film and TV are generally terrible (far too many ‘casting of the swords’ scenes), so it may seem a bit unfair to single this show out since it not a particularly egregious offender. The problem with that is that this show’s plot in this season centers entirely on an act of metal-working, the production of the Three Rings. That means metal-working, metal-working skills and everything related to them are central to this plot and thus important to get right.

And they are not right.

We get two major metalworking scenes: Halbrand making a sword (ep. 5) and then the creation of the rings (ep. 8). Let’s start with the sword-making scene, which is by far the better of the two.

We don’t see the whole process but rather a few snippets in slow motion which are not ‘casting the sword‘ terrible, but do have some problems. The basics of what we see are not too far off for once (I suspect the reason we don’t see Halbrand’s face in the actual hammering and quenching scenes is because that may be an actual blacksmith working as a double). The hammering bit confuses me because I’m not sure why we’re hammering the blade that way; we ought to be drawing and bending, except the blade is already curved and we have the false edge flush against the anvil so no bending is going to take place. All we’re doing is upsetting the blade (thickening it) at the point of impact, in a place where we want the blade to be thin.

We then get a quenching scene, which skips a lot of steps but the metal looks to be the right temperature for an initial quenching (orange-yellow hot, so perhaps 1000°C) which is about the right temperature, though we’re also quenching it in what looks to be water rather than oil which, as I understand the process risks the blade cracking because the metal is of course quite thin; oddly we immediately pull the blade back out before it is fully cooled, which to my knowledge is not how quenching works. Finally we get one run of a sharpening tool and ‘ta-da’ the blade is done and handed over for inspection. Except the blade we get is bimetallic, with what appears to be engraved gilding (or bronzework?) along its lower end. That sort of decorative work would have been done by a different artisan, whereas the swordsmith would generally be responsible for fitting the guard, hilt and pommel to the sword, which has not been done here. Still as smithing scenes go this one is not terrible in what it shows; rather the context is what bothers me.

At least they didn’t melt or cast it. They’ll do that in a minute to a different ostensibly steel weapon, but at least they didn’t do it here!

For one, the impression we get is that this is all happening in fairly short order. The inspector seems to have been waiting for Halbrand to finish, just standing there. Producing a sword like this would not be so quick a task! For instance, in Iron for the Eagles (2002), D. Sim and I. Ridge report forging time for a gladius of 36 hours, 46 minutes, so probably something like a five day task. More to the point, while we see a lot of smithing here and just a touch of polishing, they note that almost all of that time (roughly 30 hours) was spent finishing: filing off extraneous material, sharpening the blade and then polishing all of the surfaces. This inspector fellow has apparently been just standing around for days waiting for Halbrand to finish!

The larger problem I have is the social context: this is apparently a guild entrance examination. Halbrand is producing what we would term a ‘masterwork’ so named because it was a required step to becoming a ‘master’ (independent, guild-approved workshop owner/operator) in a guild. And at this point that’s just nonsense! Guilds do not offer entrance exams to anyone who just shows up because the entire point of guilds was exclusivity, to block entry into a closed market (on this see Ogilvie The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis). Usually a majority of new guild members would have been close relatives of existing members because, again, the point of a guild is to keep people out. Moreover getting to the stage of actually producing a masterwork was a long process requiring years as an apprentice and then journeyman, not merely for the purpose of training but in order to restrict access. The idea that this guild is just going to offer such an elevated position to a random foreigner with no credentials or social attachment isn’t very believable; it cuts against the very reason guilds existed.

The guild representative inspecting the sword. He shouldn’t be here because the way that guilds function pretty much demands excluding the random foreigner, but if he is here he should be amazed not by the craftsmanship but by the fact that Halbrand is obviously lying about his past if he can produce this sword.

And that leads into the larger problem which is that no one is surprised that Halbrand is apparently capable of producing a masterwork sword. Yes, we the audience know (or eventually find out) that it is because he isn’t who he seems, but everyone paying attention should have figured that out instantly. The real world is not like Skyrim; knights and displaced nobles did not take up blacksmithing as a hobby and you couldn’t level it up to 100 in your spare time. Becoming an accomplished blacksmith who could produce a masterwork was a full time occupation that required many years of training and practice. I think the video game demands of ‘crafting systems’ have in some ways distorted public perception here: blacksmiths, armorers, swordsmiths, bowyers, and so on – these were specialist artisans with a life-long investment into a single craft. Halbrand has just exposed himself in an obvious, flagrant sort of way and yet no one seems to notice!

And yet somehow this is the less objectionable instance of metal-working!

Problems with Rings

Let’s start with the central conceit of this scene: Halbrand suggests the idea of using an alloy to Celebrimbor as a way of ‘amplifying’ the mithril and their conversation is just a mess. First, they continue talking about combining ores. An ore is a metal-bearing rock, not a metal; one does not alloy ores together but metals with other metals (and sometimes with non-metallic elements like carbon), but an ore is full of all sorts of garbage impurities you would need to get rid of. Bronze is not an alloy of copper-ore and tin-ore, but of copper and tin.

More broadly, the way Halbrand presents the idea of alloys is nonsense; alloys are not a way to side-step the rarity of certain kinds of metals (much less ‘precious’ metals and the example he uses of precious metals is iron, the most common metal), but a way to get specific qualities out of the resulting alloy. And we know that Celebrimbor knows this because the Elves very obviously use lots of steel, which is an alloy of iron and carbon. We’ve also seen a fair bit of bronze-work in the show (copper and tin). His example is also nonsense adding a ‘trace’ of nickel to iron to make it ‘stronger and lighter.’ There are alloys of nickel and iron (nickel is a component in stainless steels as well as maraging steel) but the useful ones require both a fair amount of nickel, not ‘traces,’ and also require other metals which would be a lot scarcer than the supposedly precious metals he’s so worried about. Stainless steel needs substantial amounts of chromium (and would be poorly suited for the things people in this kind of society use steel for, like swords), while maraging steel is c. 20% nickel but requires cobalt, molybdenum and titanium. Good luck with that.

Then we jump a bunch of scenes to the forge, which is for some inexplicable reason at the top of a tower (forges are heavy you put them on the ground) and which explodes. Explosions are not about heat, they are about pressure and no part of pre-modern metalworking processes are done under pressure so there is no way for them to explode! They can catch fire (indeed, too strong a heat can make even iron burn, which makes a mess of its chemistry), but they won’t explode. Now Celebrimbor declares that he ‘used enough pressure to fuse the heavens and the earth’ which explains the explosion but just makes Celebrimbor an idiot (the theme of all of his scenes) because again that is…not how pre-modern metalworking works. Alloys are not pressed together, but rather heated and mixed, because you need the secondary materials to both be evenly distributed in the resulting alloy but to also take specific places in the microscopic structure of the metal, which you will most certainly not get by just pressing really hard.

Because how will the audience know our Science isn’t working unless we have an ‘exploding lab’ pratfall which also doesn’t seem to actually injure anyone despite the fact that a high pressure vessel exploding in a confined space with lots of workers is an extremely dangerous event that is likely to kill quite a few people.

Celebrimbor’s realization in this scene is that maybe brute force isn’t the solution here but that’s also an idiot’s realization for a smith. Metalworking is one of those crafts where more is not always better. Too much heat and iron burns, too rapid cooling and it cracks, too much carbon and it becomes brittle. For the master smith of the setting not to have cottoned on to the notion that maybe what he needs is a gentle, precise set of conditions is simply silly. I also find it silly in this scene that everyone is wearing lots of protective gear (gloves, aprons with metal reinforcements, etc.) because anyone who has spent any time at all around a traditional blacksmith will know that they generally don’t bother with any of that and just accept lots of little burns as part of the job.

Celebrimbor everyone, ostensibly the world’s greatest and apparently dumbest craftsman. Also that bronze protective plate is silly but also shows that Celebrimbor already knows how alloys work.

We then flash forward again to the Elves settling on three rings. This isn’t a smithing problem, it just bothers me because they go through this whole ‘one corrupts, two divides, with three there is balance’ bit as if there is no other reason why a bunch of Elves might assume three is the right number in which to make magical gemstone bearing rings, like there might be some set of three, I don’t know, gems maybe, that were perhaps important to some of these very Elves. And the worst part is they introduced the idea of the three ring’s stones as Middle Earth’s pale imitation of the Silmarils earlier in this very episode but then do not use it here. Also Celebrimbor ‘needs gold and silver from Valinor,’ and evidently Galadriel’s dagger is the only option which is a bit odd because Celebrimbor was born in Valinor and is the sole heir of the House of Fëanor. Surely he has a few tchotchkes left?

We jump ahead again and the next thing we see is Galadriel’s dagger being melted. Now melting gold and silver is fine, but presumably the blade of that dagger is steel (if the whole thing is silver, it would be a pretty terrible dagger), which this little furnace of theirs is most certainly not going to be able to melt and yet there is the blade melting whole because we had to have at least one ‘casting of the sword‘ moments of stupidity, just in reverse. The mixture is then spun, which is the opposite of what you want here: spinning is going to cause the different materials to separate by density, whereas you want them to mix evenly and so should stir, not spin the mixture. The mixture is then cast into tiny billets which are then worked and the gems (uncut for some reason?) are then placed in the rings.

This should melt the gold and silver out of the dagger, sure, but the steel core of the actual blade should be very hot but unmelted.

Now I understand that showing the audience a magical forging process to produce magical rings is difficult because it relies on magical interactions that don’t exist in our world. And at the same time this would be difficult to write because Halbrand needs to provide some key elements of the process for the plot to work (although I cannot help but notice how the decision to play hide-the-Sauron with the plot has created this problem that the writers have then failed to solve). But taking elements of real world metallurgy and making a mess of them certainly doesn’t work.

And I thought that this would be it for Rings of Power but this post is already too long and we haven’t yet discussed any of the actual battle scenes. So we’ll be back next week for one last look at Rings of Power and the absolute mess that is the show’s tactics and one last look at the design of the show’s ships.

  1. This point is going to need some expanding. Actual armor worn by actual human women will tend to obscure secondary sex characteristics, with layers of armor and padding smoothing them out. Moreover, most kinds of armor, because of the padding, flexibility or deflecting shape, are made such that they require few if any alterations to fit a female body form over a male body form. Now I should note we have, to my knowledge, functionally no battlefield armor we know to have been made for women. What we do have is battlefield armor made for men which strongly emphasized male sexual characteristics, from anatomical (or ‘muscle’) cuirasses that created a false male ‘chest’ to armor with exaggerated codpieces over the groin. It is thus not beyond reason that a culture in which women regularly wore armor might design that armor to some degree to emphasize its understanding of the ideal ‘feminine’ body to a point (a fairly limited point, this stuff is still armor). And so if Númenórean men had armor with hulking great codpieces, I’d be a lot more open to Númenórean women having armor shaped to make it seem like they all have large breasts. But somehow this sort of armor design only ever goes one way and I think we know why.
  2. Which, while we’re here, wearing heavy plate armor without arming garments -specialized padded clothing worn under heavy armor – underneath would hardly be comfortable. No wonder no one was moving very much on the boat, the chafing must have been awful.
  3. That’s not absurd, actually. Armor-making is all about producing really thin plates of metal, which is much easier to do in bronze than with iron. The Romans, for instance, adopt an iron Gallic helmet style (the Montefortino) but produce it in bronze presumably because their iron-working wasn’t yet up to the task of making them. So the idea of an early iron-age society that uses iron (or steel) for weapons but has stuck to bronze for armor makes a lot of sense. Or at least it does until you imply that these same folks who apparently are working with a c. fifth century BC level of metal-working just also produced a mid-15th AD full harness on a lark for the visiting elf dignitary!

241 thoughts on “Collections: The Nitpicks of Power, Part I: Exploding Forges

  1. Just wanted to say how titillating it was to read “Part I” in the e-mail subject. Now time to scroll up again an read the post. But can already say: cannot wait for more!

  2. “But I think a close look at the way fiction – especially visual depictions in fiction – have changed over time suggests the opposite: over time the emphasis placed on verisimilitude or even realism has increased.”

    Yeah. Even good movies can fall prey to moments that yank you out of the suspension of disbelief because there’s a detail that isn’t quite right. Raiders of the Lost Ark is set in 1936, and yet at the end of the movie there’s Indy with a Panzerfaust (actually a Soviet RPG-2), which is only about seven years (minimum!) too early.

      1. My understanding was that they weren’t so much in charge of Egypt, but rather that it was an expedition similar to the 1938 SS expedition to Tibet (though of course, on a much larger scale). Still it’s highly implausible that the British would have let the Nazis bring so many of their own troops along, even as “security forces.”

  3. Actually, spinning things at least would make sense. The Three Rings are all monometallic: Nenya is made of mithril (silver), Vilya is made of gold, while Narya’s metal is not stated. So if they really wanted to make the rings of Galadriel’s dagger, spinning would actually be necessary to produce the end result we see.

    And now I have mental image of Narya being made of steel…

    1. I’ve heard that steel can damage gems set in a ring. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve never met a jeweler who would use steel to set a stone. I think the reasoning is that in a prong setting the steel would create a pressure point and fracture the gem, like knapping flint, whereas precious metals, being softer, wouldn’t.

      Maybe a channel setting or bezel setting, where the stone is surrounded (more or less) by metal, would work.

      1. As someone who was looking at going into that field – fracturing the gem is fairly unlikely, but you would definitely risk scratching the absolute shit out of it if it’s softer than the metal you’re working with. And of course, if there’s any play whatsoever in the setting then that means it can wear down the stone and lead to it coming loose, which is much harder to fix than the prongs bending.

        Something to remember in a situation like this is that it’s vastly easier to reclaim metal you’ve fucked up than it is to unfuck a stone – in many cases you simply cannot unfuck a stone, and even if you can, you almost always have to cut it again to do, which by definition leaves you with less to work with for future repairs and reduces the value of the gem from the pre-damaged state (unless it was so poorly cut to begin with that it would have required recutting anyway).

        1. “…but you would definitely risk scratching the absolute shit out of it if it’s softer than the metal you’re working with.”

          For diamonds, rubies, emeralds (really any of the corundum gems), and amethyst/cytrine/quartz of any kind, this wouldn’t be a problem…It would have to be a REALLY soft stone to get scratched by steel, as far as stones go. Steel can be between 5.5 and 6.5, whereas any corundum gem is going to be a 9, diamond is a 10, and anything based on quartz is going to be a 7. So for a lot of gems this simply isn’t going to be a factor. (FYI, this is one reason geologists carry knifes. It’s a quick way to tell if something’s quartz or not. It’s not always easy to tell visually in the field, but a knife won’t lie!)

          There are a lot of “soft” gems, where the alloy of steel and its hardening would be a factor, of course. Any of the olivine gems (peridote and the like), garnets, opals (which aren’t really crystals the way other gems are, but rather piles of quartz spheres, REALLY cool under an electron microscope!), stuff like that.

    2. It won’t come up in this show, but I recall in “Unfinished Tales” there is some account of the approach to Gondolin which details a long series of gates of different materials. I don’t recall them exactly, but it was something like the Gate of Wood, followed by the Gate of Brick, the Gate of Stone, etc, ending in the Gate of Copper and the Gate of Bronze. Later they retrofit the Gate of Steel because things are looking really nasty.

      1. The Gate of Steel, the last, was built after the return from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.

        The prior ones were wood, stone, bronze, iron, silver, and gold.

        1. Now I’m wondering the Signs in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (“wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, stone”) were influenced by the gates. Probably not, if they only appear in the Unfinished Tales.

          1. Cooper did read English at Oxford, and Tolkien did give supervisions* for the Women’s Colleges, so it is perhaps not 100% impossible he may have shown her some of his writings. But on the other hand, you think she would have mentioned it, if so.

            * I suspect suoervisions may not be the correct term when referring to Oxford. Not knowing the Oxford version, I’ve called them supervisions, which is the Camabridge term.

          2. I think the sequence has its roots in Irish mythology, though most versions I’ve seen have seven parts.

  4. This is somewhat related only but have you read Molyneux crtique of Tolkien world wih regards to class?

    I found it quite insightful and interesting, and wonder if there are any problems or inacuracies within it.

    And while I’m asking question, what is your opinion on Greaber and Wengrow ‘Dawn of Humanity’. Good, bad or ugly?

    Sorry for such wide and not very related questions 😮

    1. Our host tweeted a week or two ago when at a conference that he listened to (at least some of) a panel on the Graeber/Wengrow book: “consensus may be that the book is ‘important’ and ‘timely’ but not … right … in pretty crucial ways dealing w/hierarchy in early societies.”

      If I may be indulged in paraphrasing a comment I wrote at another blog some time ago, every review of a Graeber book by a sympathetic subject matter expert that I’ve ever read basically goes like this: “Graeber’s arguments are so thought-provoking and compellingly written that I hate to mention in passing that 80% of his quantifiable facts are wrong.”

      1. Brad DeLong’s long running feud with Graeber was both fun to follow and highly informative about the flaws in Graeber’s work

        1. Seemed to focus very heavily on a trivial mistake (the founders of Apple). The actual anthropology of money is pretty sound – even if not orthodox economics. The social conclusions are another matter.

          1. That one error that he wouldn’t admit was an error was just the thing that got them to look closer at his modern history. And pretty much his entire modern history work is shoddy or torqued. Graeber’s fans liked to be obtuse about the discussion and kept repeating that it was just a single mistake when it wasn’t.

            Graeber is incredibly sloppy and torques and cherry-picks modern well documented history in service of his ideological points, so that makes me incredibly skeptical of his anthropology and ancient history, where evidence is already sketchier.

            Also he proved to be an utter cock about having to defend himself from criticism.

    2. I started reading that book and never finished it. One thing that really pulled me out of it was the part where they describe various early modern Europeans promoting new (or at least new-to-Europe) ideas about state administration, claiming to have gotten those ideas from China. Then they say that historians typically dismiss the claims about China, but insist that this is just Eurocentrism / western historians not wanting to admit that western thought could’ve been influenced by non-western sources.

      But this is pretty much just a bald assertion, with no attempt to check whether claims by early modern Europeans about the details of Chinese statecraft are actually accurate, or explain how the Europeans would’ve gotten accurate information on this subject.

      Nor do they address the fact that non-European influences on European thought are totally uncontroversial in cases where we have good answers to those questions. For example the answer to “how would’ve medieval Europeans gotten accurate information on Arabic philosophy” is “many relevant works were translated into Latin”, which is why the importance of Averroes to the history of Western philosophy is totally uncontroversial.

    3. The problem is that Molyneux (like most Marxists and Marxisants) sees everything through the lens of political economy, and Tolkien manifestly set out to write a romance, not a treatise on the control of the means of production. When all you have is a hammer and sickle, everything looks like a nail or a sheave…

      1. Have you read it? I’m asking because in general i would agree but his essay is i would say devoid of it. Of course, it’s not about Tolkien literary acumen, but honestly, neither is Brett analysis, here or in other posts. And tbh, it’s something similar to, for example, Brett ROP analysis. Sure, it might make sense in Tolkien worldbuilding but it’s interesting analysis ant the decision to leave out poverty or make hierarchy natural is significant decision. In fact i remember discussion in ROP feels flat comments about adjacent issues, thats why Molyneux essay resonated for me.

        And btw, we criticize Tolkien from the plate tectnics angle surely class conflict is at least as worthy 😀

        1. If we’re being really pedantic you could argue that it’s *more* worthy to scrutinise Tolein with historical materialism than with plate tectonics, since Das Kapital was published decades before he was born but plate tectonic didn’t become widely accepted until after The Lord of the Rings had been written.

    4. At this point, Marxism is surely more akin to a religious movement than a testable and verified theory of the world. You might as well ask for a Scientologist critique of Tolkien.

      1. Not really, Marx is Capital “I” Important, which means a lot of modern political and economic thought has to basically deal with Marx (whether or not they disagree with him or not) there are very few “pure” marxists, and they tend to be cranks, but equally it’s almost entirely impossible to find someone who isn’t *in some sense* a marxist, even if they vehemently disagree with him politically. (though it is often a case of different mutations, and by this point, third or fourth order influences)

        In practice a lot of economic and social history that looks especially at lower-class people tend to be self-described marxists, even Marx probably wouldn’t recognize their methodology.

        1. “it’s almost entirely impossible to find someone who isn’t *in some sense* a marxist”

          It’s almost entirely impossible to find someone who isn’t *in some sense* a Scientologist. Given any particular person you can keep redefining “Scientologist” until it includes them. Then they are a Scientologist in that sense.

          This kind of thing is why I said Marxism was “more akin to a religious movement than a testable and verified theory of the world.” Note that you did not give a case of Marxist theory being empirically true.

          1. If you accept societies are shaped by their economic foundations, that class broadly relates to roles in production, if you theorise on the role of credit, or consider alienation or reification (both key concepts in sociology) then you are engaging with Marx (and one could add much more).

            A great deal of formal economics is an attempt to escape Marx – by taking the ‘political’ out of what used to be called ‘political economy’. For that matter, even predictions of revolution arising from proletarian organising were taken seriously enough that immense efforts were made to prevent such organising and to divert the new industrial classes from being attracted to such solutions. In other cases the threat was deemed serious enough that it was decided to avoid industrialising at all.

            So Marx is pretty significant, if not in the ways he hoped he would be.

          2. The ideas you list are arguably present in economic thought well before Marx–The Wealth of Nations at least touches on most of those themes.

        2. There are many influential thinkers whose ideas most educated people today don’t accept. All of them are in some sense Important, but it stretches the meaning of meaning to say that everyone is “in some sense” a Confucian, or a Muslim, or a Freudian, or a Marxist, or whatever. Those are all historically important thought systems, but you can live a happy and examined life without engaging with any of them.

          Arguably Christianity has been so central to Western thought for so many centuries that it has a different standing for anyone who is reading this blog, but that’s an issue for another day.

    5. I feel the essay is quite badly harmed by the very strange fact that the author seems to have accidentally skipped any of the chapters/slept through the bit of the films set in Osgiliath. And I say accidentally in all seriousness here, because it comes up twice in relation to two completely separate points, one of which is kind of foundational to the final thesis. Osgiliath’s nature and fate aren’t really major plot points in the books, whose plot is more about the large war currently happening, so I’m perfectly fine with the concept that someone simply forgot about outside of it being ‘oh that bit in the ruins, yeah, I remember that’.

      However, it matters to the conclusions reached- Osgiliath is the other ‘city’ we see in LoTR (contrary to the assertion that Minas Tirith is the only urban centre) and missing that causes Molyneux to state that middle-earth is “The most obvious and fundamental feature of feudalism and medieval society, namely its poverty and hence the poverty of most of its people, is simply airbrushed out”, going on to clarify that “The real Middle Ages had the Black Death and numerous other plagues and famines. Nothing like this ever happens in Middle Earth, not in the ten thousand years of its Three Ages.” Just to clarify for those that have also forgotten the history of Osgiliath, there’s a section of both books and film set in the former capital city of Gondor, a city specifically abandoned following ‘The Great Plague’. It’s kind of a big hole in that argument, and one that isn’t going to be patched up easily- I don’t think there’s a good argument that the book needed to show someone dying of cholera, or mourning the loss of an infant (essentially ‘insert some gratuitous depiction human suffering’) to support the existence of the plague when there’s an entire abandoned city to note ‘yeah, plague is bad, but not really what this book is about, so it’s a world building detail in the appendix, not a plot point’.

      1. Middle-earth did have at least one plague; OTOH, he’s right that they’re not common. In fact we’re told that the healers of Gondor are skilled in curing any ailment. Child morality seems correspondingly absent.


        > I think this is the only example of such a modern and democratic notion as election in the saga

        He’s forgotten the Master of Lake-town from the Hobbit. Also the more rough-and-ready “we’re not following you anymore” that the Noldor sometimes did, or the Laiquendi not choosing a replacement king.

        Overall, Molyneux’s essay seems okay. Nothing too deep, nothing too outrageous. Which may make it the best thing I’ve ever read on Jacobin.

        1. I don’t remember any dead children in Lord of the Rings, but I don’t remember any live ones either. It’s largely a story about a bunch of adult men walking through the wilderness.

          1. There were hobbit children at the party, but that doesn’t really count. But LotR has plenty of family trees. No plethora of early-dead children. No one mentions siblings who died young.

  5. In the interest of unmitigated pedantry, there do seem to be a few fantasy materials in Tolkien’s legendarium besides mithril. For instance, the Palantiri look like they’re made out of glass or crystal, but when Wormtongue throws the Orthanc-stone, it snaps an iron railing, bounces off and then hits a stone stair, shattering the slab it hits before rolling a bit, unharmed.

    There’s also whatever weird stone that Orthanc itself is built from, which might be the same stuff the outer wall of Minas Tirith is made out of. Characters note that it’s very different from ordinary masonry they’re more familiar with, and all attempts to batter them, including ent-attack, completely fail.

    As for Elendil, at l way in the books, he was an important nobleman even before the downfall, but his nickname of the “Tall” was well-earned; at least if you consider The Disaster of the Gladden Fields a good source (its in Unfinished Tales) Elendil was just shy of 8 feet/2.41 meters tall. Maybe he couldn’t find an outfitter for someone of his stature? Although I doubt they have Elendil towering over everyone in the show, so that’s a bit moot anyway.

    1. I think these other items you describe are well-understood as produced through fantastic processes, but they don’t need to be made from fantasy materials. It’s established in the setting that those who possess great skill in the relevant crafts can make things normal folks can’t, and this translates to elves being able to make seemingly “magical” versions of mundane items that the elves themselves think are just normal instances of their skilled craftsmanship. The cloaks which Galadriel gives the Fellowship are not (I claim) to be understood as having been spun from a fictional fabric; they’re made from whatever real-world fabric they’re supposed to be made out of, but they can make the wearer nigh-invisible, because they were made by elves.

      1. I think there’s a bit of both going on. The lambas bread is cloaks are simply so much better than normal that they appear magical, without being magical. You see something similar with dwarf-made stuff–it’s iron, but they’re just so much better at ironworking that it looks magical.

        Other items are clearly magical. The seat that Frodo sits on clearly exhibits magical properties. The Rings themselves are magical, as is the Mirror of Galadriel. If you go into the legendarium the Sun, Moon, and Morning Star are clearly magical items (fruit from the Trees and a Silmaril, respectively). Anduril seems somewhat magical, the Morgul blade is obviously magic, and the blades the Hobbits carry seem to have some magical properties. And the rope from Lothlorien is somewhat magic (it unties itself, as Sam Gamgee points out).

        Tolkien wasn’t a materials scientist and didn’t go into detail in the making of things (in fact, he specifically offers several points where he could but refuses to–again, see Sam Gamgee with the rope). And his magic is vague enough that it’s unclear what is and isn’t magical. Galadriel expresses confusion about the term, for example. So I think there’s a combination of things going on, stemming from the materials science aspect largely being irrelevant to the main point of the story. Where it matters he’s specific–either specifically realistic or specifically fantastic–but where it doesn’t he doesn’t waste too much time detailing things.

        1. I think this is reasonable; certainly it doesn’t do to insist that some vaguely described object must or must not be made from a fantastic material. My impulse is to say that Tolkien singles out mithril* but otherwise leaves it vague, and I think it’s simpler to assume everything else is like lembas and the elven cloaks, but more so.

          Obviously we don’t know how any of the magic works either – what (in JRRT’s writing, not the show) actually happens in the making of a Ring of Power? There’s a bit of inconsistency too; the margins of the legendarium seem to imply that “nonmagical” folks, or at least some of them, can learn to do some sort of magic if taught by the right person. This is usually hinted at in a context of disapproval – minor sorcerors and mystery cults derived from the wayward Blue Wizards, e.g. – but I’ve always presumed (for whatever reason) that this is what’s up with the barrow blade. I don’t think it’s just a metaphor when JRRT says no other blade could have hurt the Witch-King so. So there’s something that some people can learn to do that puts magic into otherwise ordinary objects. The Numenoreans must have learned a lot of craft from the elves, and eventually from Sauron as well.

          On the other end Sauron creates the One Ring by putting his own essence into it (though there’s still great skill involved; Saruman had to learn to make rings). I guess I’ve always presumed that in a much smaller way, maybe analogous to the elves making cloaks, he put his essence into the other Great Rings. So a magical being can make a magical item through their essence.

          Between these two ends of “making magical items” I feel like magical materials aren’t necessary, but they’re certainly not contradicted.

          *And really maybe this is just because of The Hobbit; having come up with an article of fantasy armor for the much for fairy-tale book, Tolkien then just worked with the foundation he’d already laid.

        2. Although clearly outside of the what the show could use… JRRT does pause in his wider writing to provide what is a magical explination for why the Elves can survive in small isolated kingdoms without any real apparent agricultural lands. The stalks of the grain the (Noldor?) brought back from the West provide in woven container form perfect storage and pest control – no loss or wastage. Actually a pretty profound power. If the grain was also so imbibed with power that would seem to help explain Lembas and whatever the Elvish drink Gandalf shares out.

        3. Lembas is made from a special grain that originated in Valinor, and the making of it is reserved to Elven women alone. Melian brought the recipe with her from Valinor and presumably taught it to Galadriel, so there is a ‘magical’ element involved beyond just “superior baking technology”. Though Tolkien’s view of “magic” is somewhat different to the spells and systems in most modern fantasy and RPG; thus things like making lembas and the Elven cloaks do have a ‘mystical’ strand in their manufacture, if the Elves don’t think of it the way mortals do about magic:

          ‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.

          ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. Yet they are garments, not armour, and they will not turn shaft or blade. But they should serve you well: they are light to wear, and warm enough or cool enough at need. And you will find them a great aid in keeping out of the sight of unfriendly eyes, whether you walk among the stones or the trees. You are indeed high in the favour of the Lady! For she herself and her maidens wove this stuff; and never before have we clad strangers in the garb of our own people.’

        4. Elves are inhrently magical. Aside from the other items mentioned here: they are immortal, they walk above a snow field without falling through, half-elves can choose to be immortal or mortal, etc., etc.

          And likewise anything made by elves tends to demonstrate some sort of inhrently magical property, like the elves themselves: Lembas bread, the rope, the light of Elendil, the cloaks, and the elven blades that glow near orcs.

          In Tolkien: Elf = Magic and the distance from elfishness is the distance from magic.

      2. I agree. In the case of the walls of Orthanc and Minas Tirith, for example, it might be that they had been constructed using ordinary stone and building techniques, then been treated by some magical process that fused and hardened the masonry into a seamless impermeable whole.

        1. Or even being able to (comparatively) easily build walls and towers entirely of squared cyclopean stone, rather than roughly fitted stone faces and rubble cores, would have made them far stronger than typical stonework in medieval Europe.

        2. A simple non magic Vitrification would give you a wall made of one fused mass of stone.
          But the shear amount of fuel needed would be massive.

          1. That’s only if you had to heat the stone up to its melting point and then let it cool again. Some people claim that ancient stone workers knew of a chemical process to cast stone that has since been lost. In any event if we’re talking magic or semi-magic the process wouldn’t have to be energy-intensive.

    2. Palantir: a symmetrical Prince Rupert’s Drop, possibly from a material other than glass.
      Orthanc: modern unreinforced concrete, especially a slow-setting low-water mixture (generally called Roller-Compacted Concrete). It would still be vulnerable to very aggressive attack (e.g. fire-setting with periodic quenching with water) but certainly a different level of challenge from jointed masonry held together by lime mortar — or nothing, relying simply on the friction under the wall’s weight.

      1. Agreed. As for the palantir, diamond (or possibly a colourless version of sapphire/ruby) was always my assumption. The published Silmarillion states that Fëanor invented a method of making artificial gems. The specific gems aren’t named, but I don’t think there is any reason to posit a fantasy material for palantíri, when real-world materials with the properties stated exist.

        1. AIUI, diamond is _hard to scratch_, but also _brittle_. I am not sure that falling out of a 500 foot tower and bouncing off steel railings unscathed is actually something that a big piece of diamond would do. Of non-magical substances, rock crystal (quartz) seems a better candidate, as well as traditional for crystal balls. Some sort of tempered glass might be even better, though perhaps that should have been scratched by the fall.

          One page claims that high hardness and brittleness go hand in hand, which would push a hard, durable substance into magic territory anyway…

      2. Clearly not modern concrete for Orthanc and Minas Tirith – for instance, Orthanc’s walls can’t even be scratched by anything the Ents do, while I’m pretty sure they could do a number on mere concrete. It seems more like some kind of shaped super-stone, almost crystalline.

    3. And there’s galvorn, the black allohy created by Eol. I believe that’s what the blade of the mormegil was made from and Eol also had a mail suit of it.

      1. I was trying to stick with things that were mentioned only in the core trilogy; what with the licensing issues with the rest of the legendarium.

      2. This reads more like it should be a follow-up on your decline of history as a profession thread. It’s a very useful case study of why a good working knowledge of history is important for people in other fields, especially as the general public has vastly greater access to historical knowledge and a clear thirst for both history and historically-plausible fiction. Most of the errors you identify probably would not have happened had the writers and show runners had a better understanding of how things worked in practice.

        1. Indeed! This entire blog project, all of it, is my follow-up on the decline of history as a profession. It is both my effort to reverse that decline, my way of showing the continuing relevance and interest of history and also my literal direct response to the need to make a living when academic jobs are extremely scarce.

          Perhaps posts like these are more relevant to that aim than others, but they are all pulling in that same direction.

        2. “Most of the errors you identify probably would not have happened had the writers and show runners had a better understanding of how things worked in practice.”

          I think the major problem with the show is that the showrunners want what looks *cool*, rather than anything else. So the teleporting all over distances because we need our characters to get from A to B to do stuff, and making it a realistic journey or anything near to it is boring. Why Galadriel can one-shot an ice troll that has been tossing her squad around. Why Arondir collapses the tower by shooting out the support rope (in *what* conceivable universe does “there’s one rope holding the entire structure together” make *any* sense?). Why Halbrand can be at death’s door yet survive a hard ride of six days with an open wound (though if you didn’t already know he was Sauron, this alone should have tipped you off). The whole “the knife ears are gonna take er jerbs” scene. It doesn’t matter if what they do now contradicts what happened before – is it Cool? That’s all they care about.

        3. One wonders how much good could have been done by spending some of that insane budget on just sending some of the costume designers on a tour of European military museums.

          I’m a dabbler in history, but even a couple hours in a hall full of real armor makes many of the flaws Bret points out here obvious.

    4. The character heights are another thing. I agree they probably couldn’t have filled a full cast of 6’+ actors and extras for Númenor, but Galadriel should be played by someone like Gwendoline Christie, not Morfydd Clark.

  6. I believe the writers started at one point that Halbrand forged Galadriel’s armor, which would explain some of the inconsistencies.

    1. That would suggest Halbrand is a better smith than anyone in Numenor by a margin of a couple of centuries of advancement at least. Which since he’s Sauron is undoubtedly true, but should definitely be raising some eyebrows!

      1. “Folks, who could Sauron be?”
        “What about this guy who just showed up and outsmithed every human being?”
        “No, no, he’s cool. Probably just multi-classing”

    2. I had kind of assumed that Galadriel’s third set of armour was an old elven artefact that happened to be stored in Númenor’s treasury. Left over from when Númenor had friendly relationships with elves. Like the palantír. That seems to make the most sense to me.

      1. She found it stuffed into a cupboard in the Hall of Lore, along with the map of Sauron’s sigil and the ancient spy report? Makes sense! 😁

  7. One of my favorite things about LOTR is that it has a purposefully “soft” magic system, in which everything is described in terms of willpower or in extremely vague terms. Like, there’s a magical duel between Sauron and Gandalf at one point that’s just described as “I went up to a high place and I strove with the Dark Tower”.

    In general, I felt like attempts to visualize the magic were some of the weakest parts of the Jackson films, because they were taking stuff that’s purposefully inexplicable and trying to explain it.

    Anyways, it definetely seems like Rings of Power ran into the same problem with the rings. They’re more interesting the less you know about them.

    1. I have Opinions about how Tolkien expresses supernatural power that I may write up here at some point but yes I think Rings of Power does not grasp how magic works in Middle Earth.

      1. RoP seems to fall into a common modern problem of treating magic as science. Which, to be fair, can be fun if done right but it is absolutely out of step with Tolkien’s world.

        1. In Tolkien’s world magic is an Art; not something alien to the normal “laws of nature” but a supremely graceful and sensitive enactment of them. Doubtless if you could analyze mithril or lembas scientifically you would think them the product of high technology. “Magic” gets there by intuition, science by method.

          1. From Letter 210, written in 1958, ripping into Zimmerman’s movie proposal:

            “22. Lembas, ‘waybread’, is called a ‘food concentrate’. As I have shown I dislike strongly any pulling of my tale towards the style and feature of ‘contes des fees’, or French fairy-stories. I dislike equally any pull towards ‘scientification’, of which this expression is an example. Both modes are alien to my story.

            We are not exploring the Moon or any other more improbable region. No analysis in any laboratory would discover chemical properties of lembas that made it superior to other cakes of wheat-meal.

            In the book lembas has two functions. It is a ‘machine’ or device for making credible the long marches with little provision, in a world in which as I have said ‘miles are miles’. But that is relatively unimportant. It also has a much larger significance, of what one might hesitatingly call a ‘religious’ kind. This becomes later apparent, especially in the chapter ‘Mount Doom’ (III 213 and subsequently).”

        2. FWVVLIW, I’ve looked at the way the Elves move in a gleam of light like the shine of the rising moon (in the Shire, scaring the Nazgul away), and thought, yes, what if it’s explained in terms of having semiconscious control of the quantum foam, the virtual particles that pop in and out of existence at nanometric levels of reality? At some level they can harness such powers, alter the otherwise random distribution in their favour on the ordinary level of existence? They would then be able to infuse desired characteristics into forged metals, into woven objects, into wood-worked boats, and the like. After all, cybernetics is the art and craft of managing algorithms, and algorithms can work on any scale and in any system that allows a satisfactory degree of freedom. FWVVLIW

          1. “Sonnet to science”

            I don’t know. Letter 210 does have him objecting to ‘scientizing’ stuff like lembas; OTOH he also noted that humans and elves had to be the same _biological_ species, since they had kids (the difference is _spiritual_, elves have different souls that interact with the body differently). And later in life he tried redoing his whole mythology to have a Round world from the beginning, with the Sun existing but suffering a spiritual loss due to Morgoth. So I’d say he wasn’t entirely grumpy about science as a general thing, like Poe’s sonnet; OTOH he directly objected to explaining away all the magical/spiritual stuff with ‘science’.

        3. A science is just an attempt to study patterns in the world; were magic to exist and be usable it would demonstrate such patterns. But such patterns were largely obscure and unknown to the writers of Norse myths and the viewpoint characters of LOTR.

          It is one thing for his characters to record that the world was once flat, and then transformed into a sphere by the work of Eru; that doesn’t mean they know what laws of nature kept it stable in either shape.

        4. Definitely. Trying to be science-y but ending up with cringeworthy pseudoscience that is far less satisfying than good old magic. For example, the Rube Goldberg Volcanic Eruption Generator..

        5. I noticed this first in Harry Potter as a kind of commuted Clarke’s Law: “Any magic is indistinguishable from advanced technology.”

          I don’t like it myself.

          1. I don’t really see that. In Harry Potter the practice of magic follows the traditional pattern of commanding a desired result and by simply a combination of power and will getting it with little or no intermediary details, other than the words of an incantation or the ingredients of a potion. What I do see is the wizarding world using magic to _imitate_ technology. Like for example the magical “radios” that play the wizarding world’s music and news.

          2. Niven’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

            The wise fantasist remembers to give clues to the differences.

      2. Yes, this is a massive thing in Tolkien. We have the elven-magic (which they don’t think is magic), Necromancy (which clearly *works* even if it’s universally bad, and is what’s accessible to humans), Istar-magic, whatever it is that Dwarfs do…

        One of things few Tolkien games quite grasp is that most magic (or “magic”) in Middle-Earth is item-based. The Fellowship leaves Rivendell with a whole slew of magical items (and leaves Lothlórien with even more), but only one “spellcaster” whom they lose soon enough anyway.

    2. I had a similar thought. In Middle Earth magic appears to mostly be the domain of characters who are the setting’s equivalent angels (Maiar and Valar). Even if the show had not tried to hide Halbrand’s true identity from the audience, there’s still the question of how he goes about instructive the elves on making the rings without revealing his identity to *them*. I do believe there are hints in Tolkien’s legendarium that magic-as-learn-able-skill coexists in Middle Earth alongside magic-as-innate-supernatural-power, but I don’t think we’re given much information at all on what the former looks like (disclaimer: I’ve read only a little of the relevant material myself, and am relying heavily on summaries of others here).

      1. That’s not quite true, there’s actually a thread on about it, (though they’ve not gone past the Hobbit yet) and there’s a surprising amount of mentions of magic (the dwarfs “made mighty spells” under Erebor, the hobbits “There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them disappear quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.”, Thorin isn’t *quite* as good as controlling smoke rings as Gandalf is, but clearly seems to be able to do more of it than is quite natural, Aragorn has special healing powers because of his kingship, etc.

        The Hobbit has more of it than LOTR proper (even the trolls have a purse that speaks!) but there’s quite a bit of minor “magic” done by characters who aren’t of Gandalf’s exalted stature.

        1. There’s even references in LOTR that a lot of what makes Gandalf the Grey a skilled magic person is he’s been around Middle Earth so long he’s picked up a lot of the magic that Dwarves, Men, Elves, Orcs etc. know how to do rather than relying on Maia powers. Part of his mission is to not throw around the abilities of an Angelic demi-god but to use what powers to resist he finds among the mortal folk.

          The Witch King by comparison is clearly originally just a Man, but throws around pretty potent magical powers in setting, no Maia abilities.

          1. The Witch-King’s powers all seem to come from his own ring (I’m pretty sure it says the Ringwraiths all still have theirs) and Sauron. Which makes sense – I don’t think he was anyone that special originally, just the unfortunate human king who got one of the nine human Rings of Power. His mount isn’t even that exotic at first. It’s just a normal horse that’s been trained to not flip when he gets near it.

          2. Its mentioned that at least some of the Nazgul were sorcerers before they were wraiths, so I don’t think that interpretation holds. I think the rings and the longevity just made them much, much better at it than you could get even an Numenorean lifespan.

          3. This is a reply to cptbutton, but yes, subject to the usual caveats of the somewhat unreliable narration. Here’s what the RoTK’s “Narrator” has to say about Loudmouth.

            “But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Numenoreans; for they established their dwellings in MIddle-earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamoured of evil knowledge. And he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the Lord’s favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc.”

          4. “sorcerers before they were wraiths”: I don’t think that was stated. The Simarillion has

            “Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old.”

            so they could be sorcerers because of their Rings.

            OTOH Aragorn in TT says:

            “the Orcs despoiled them, but feared to keep the knives, knowing them for what they are: work of Westernesse, wound about with spells for the bane of Mordor.”

            Denethor has “the long sight”, and UT tells us of Numenor

            “it is said in old tales that where there was great love between men and women and their favourite steeds they could be summoned at need by thought alone.”

            Also “nor had he [Sauron] any servant whose mental powers were superior to Saruman’s or even Denethor’s.”

            So I think Numenoreans had something we would call magic, as well as telepathy… despite our not getting any hint of the latter when Aragorn was close to being a POV character. (His healing, OTOH, I think is magical, not just a matter of knowing the right herb.)

          5. No, knowing the right herb isn’t enough. Athelas only has it’s healing properties from the hands of a king. (this of course ties into the medieval/early modern notion of kings being able to heal scrofula, etc. etc.)

          6. Where in LOTR do you glean this idea? I agree he does not use his “angelic” powers to overwhelm anyone or any situation, but he no doubt did use the power of Narya to amplify his powers of persuasion and encouragement, lighting metaphorical fires in the hearts of those who were resisting the Dark.

      2. While (as others have said) there is magic other than that of the Ainur, I do think the authors of this show made a serious mistake in having Sauron pretend to be a Man during his work with Celebrimbor. Because the idea of a Man knowing more about metal working than Celebrimbor, the great-grandson of Mahtan for goodness’ sake (as in the chappie _who got private lessons from Aulë!_) is fundamentally improbable, and as you say, really should have raised a lot of questions that the characters inexplicably just never thought to ask. More bad storytelling.

        That being said, I was follwing fan discussions on Facebook as the episodoes were coming out. There was endless heated discussion about which of the characters might be Sauron in disguise, with lots of reasons put forwards to suppotr the idea that various characters were him; not one person commented on his amazing sword-forging ability as a clue. So maybe the authors just (appranttly correctly) just though everyone would assume it was a standard skill for the human character-class in this show.

        1. That’s the part that annoyed me most about the interviews the showrunners kept doing – and digging the hole deeper with every interview; they said they scrapped the idea of Annatar because they didn’t want book fans to be five or six episodes ahead:

          “Patrick McKay: We were concerned about a situation where the part of the audience steeped in lore is six or seven episodes ahead of the characters. If deception is an important part of the journey, we wanted to preserve that experience for book readers too.”

          Yeah, but then they kept teasing all through about “oh, is this character Sauron? Could this one be? What about him?” but it was fairly easy to work out that Halbrand was Sauron (I resisted that all along but it was true). And they kept dropping hints with lines and things like ‘the second he lands on Númenor all he wants to do is work in a forge’. So the ‘mystery’ wasn’t one unless you were a casual viewer, and for a casual viewer Annatar would have been a surprise. There’s things we *know* have to happen, because even Payne and McKay can’t rewrite *every* bit of canon. So Isildur has to be alive, for instance, and never mind the tearful scene where Horsie gallops off to find him. Knowing that “Oh my goodness, this is Annatar!” where the characters don’t, and seeing him operate while knowing what is going to happen, would have been great – but I honestly don’t think they’re capable of writing that. Their vision of Sauron is “he’s gonna be a great TV villain like Walter White or Tony Soprano!” I mean, what can you do with the likes of that?

      3. Most human abilities in the mundane world coexist as learnable skills and innate powers: writing well, playing baseball, solving math problems. Why would performing magic be different?

        1. A human *might* be able to learn that skill. But they’re going to have to devote most of their life to it and will have studied under other magicians/smiths. Halbrand comes out of nowhere with no letters of recommendation, no “this is the seal of Master Smith such-and-such that I apprenticed under” nothing like that. He just appears out of wholecloth with skill that surpasses the best smiths in the setting.

  8. I wonder if the pressure thing with the rings could be fixed, while showing the smith to be the best and having insider knowledge, by making the ring require pressure welding. That would require pressure to accomplish, as well as a vacuum (at least in some applications; I think there are some that don’t require it, they just need super clean [oxide-free] metal). It would explain the necessity of pressure and create a situation where an implosion (which, from my experience, look remarkably like an explosion when they occur) is possible. They could provide some magical mumbo-jumbo to explain how he learns it and why this is better than solid metal (maybe have the smith reading through some texts before having a eureka moment); ultimately we don’t care how the magic works, it’s magic and Tolkien’s world is notorious for being stingy with details. This could also be a way to side-step the rarity of metals, because you could use a thinner outer sheet of metal pressed into a much larger core of more common metal.

    This would set up Celebrimbor as having deep knowledge of his craft, access to stuff that mortal humans haven’t even thought of yet, and provide a rational explanation for literally everything you discussed. It’s not ancient, but that’s fine given the context–he’s immortal being who lived in Valinor, an explanation that has been used for other fantastical artifacts. This method of welding is rare enough that it would seem magical, but realistic enough that when folks inevitably read the Wiki it’ll add to the realism of the series. The only downside is that the style of the rings shown in LOTR makes this a non-ideal option; hard to figure out how to set up the press for those shapes.

    What gets me is that I’m not a master jeweler. I do some, in college and as a hobby. And this took me like five minutes to realize on my lunch break. This makes the failures you point out all the more egregious. They could be fixed, easily, by adding a single scene. It shows how bad the writers are and how little respect they have for this material.

      1. (Mostly-) Chemical etching?
        Alternatively, just as some people made low-carbon pattern-welded blades because it was cool and/or out of misunderstanding, it doesn’t (currently) seem wildly unbelievable to me that at some point a culture would make plate armour out of pattern-welded wrought iron and etch it. (And apply arbitrary insetting materials, from paint to gilding.) Pointlessly expensive, yes, but we already see it had other forms of decorations.

  9. My one bit of poorly-informed pushback (as one who hasn’t watched the show) is that I think your comment that someone who is what Halbrand claims shouldn’t be a master smith seems less applicable to a world with Celebrimbor and Fëanor in it. This *is* a world where at least some nobles are expert smiths just as (closer to home) they might have tried their hands at poetry or philosophy or music.

    1. But Feanor and Celebrimbor were immortal and so had ample time to learn crafts. The point in the main post is that a human wouldn’t get so good without dedicating their life to it.

      1. I would also add that the Elves don’t seem to (in the books at least) have the normal aristocratic setup from history where they’re landowners and usually warriors. We never get a detailed breakdown of how Elves apportion up land or ownership of their stuff in general, and it seems like every male elf fights when there’s trouble.

        I don’t think you can really compare elven ‘nobility’ in Tolkien to real life institutions of rank. Not easily anyway.

    2. There’s also a real-world parallel for royal/imperial craftspeople Tolkien would have been aware of: the House of Habsburg.
      The Habsburgers (including the Spanish line and Habsburg-Lorraine) were an extremely succesfull royal dynasty who controlled large parts of Europe for about seven centuries, and at one point controlled the fifth largest empire in history (the Spanish empire).

      The Habsburgers had a family tradition that every prince/Archduke had to learn a craft, some Archduchesses participated too. For example, Emperor Franz I learned to be a (greenhouse) gardener. Marie Antoinette was trained in music to a professional standard (unfortunately they forgot the political aspects of her education). Other members learned sheparding and salt mining (due to the positive religious associations), but leatherworking, woodcraft and copperwork are recorded too. This was of course in addition to the regular military training male members received. You can view gardens and greenhouses various members personally worked on in Schönbrunn, and other examples of their work in the Imperial Furniture Museum off Mariahilfergasse.

      The custom also bled over into other royal families due to dynastic marriages. So a royal craftsperson is by no means unthinkable even in the real world!

  10. Nitpicking the nitpicks:

    > Tolkien’s larger legendarium does not have any other fantasy materials beyond mithril: otherwise equipment is made out of iron and steel for basically everyone.
    Not actually precisely true, though to my memory we don’t see the other fantasy materials used for *armor*. Still, the Doors of Durin are iirc made out of a magical silvery material that is only visible and glows in moonlight, the silmarils are made out of what’s to my memory pretty explicitly a magical material though not a well defined one, the Two Trees seem to involve a lot of magical materials, etc. But the closest to fantasy armor is probably Luthien’s cloak? Which is made out of her hair in a very epic scene (idr how detailed the Silmarillion went into this, was more explicit in the Lay of Leithian which is admittedly only kind of canon), and her hair seems to have magic properties. But that seems to be more a fact about the *crafter* – there’s some hints elsewhere that hair can be used for magic but possibly only if willingly given, and possibly only in the hands of a very talented crafter.
    Mithril though seems to be the only one people can *mine* – the Silmarils were created by Feanor and no one can figure out how in the world to even mimic the material, assorted Ainur and epic heroes running around with magic stuff they made out of pure magic and/or magically altered normal materials and/or their bodies are outliers adn should not have been counted, and Luthien’s hair only grows on Luthien. The source of the moon silver for the Doors of Durin is unclear but “magically altered silver” is entirely plausible.
    I’d buy magically *altered* materials for weapons and armor, though, but… You’d need a really, really epic smith to get that, esp in the Second Age when the world’s less magical overall. Celebrimbor, or Sauron, or some great hero. Would also buy “mining the body of a dragon/ maia/ etc for bio-source materials” though that seems Inherently Dangerous And Probably Cursed. Still, “somebody found Ancalagon’s body and is trying to turn it into armor” is at least like. Within the realm of what’s allowed by the worldbuilding.

    1. I’ve actually seen dragonbone as a magical material before, and it’d make sense here. I’m not sure how well it’d go for the elves, in particular, because it does not seem to line up with their general feel, but I would 100% believe it for Men or maybe dwarves. (“This dragon tried to take the hoard of Dwelgin, and we slew him and this armor made from his body has been passed down through generations.”)

      Enchanted tree-bark would also maybe work, and that’s more in line with the elven culture/aesthetic. I assume you’d want to get the trees to cooperate, but armor made of magical bark that’s been made supernaturally tough seems viable in the same vein as Luthien’s hair. Maybe they could trade with the Ents?

      1. We’re getting deep into Tad Williams territory there, deep into Osten Ard, meeting Sithi with their witchwood swords and armour.

    2. The Doors of Durin were made out of ithildin, but that was somehow or other made from mithril. Another fantasy metal which was used to make armor was galvorn, but it was black and we have no idea if anyone but Eöl and Maeglin ever knew how to make it.

    1. Regarding these, to steal a quote from a great Tolkien roleplaying fanzine “Other Minds”, in this case regarding creating a map of Ardor as found in issue #1:

      When Tolkien died, he left an enormous bundle of textual fragments, making it very
      hard for later scholars to assemble a coherent and complete narrative, especially for the earlier ages of Arda. With this lack of coherent narrative went a lack of coherently narrated
      geography and cosmology. This meant that we have to delve deeply into the various posthumous fragments to recover – as far as possible … all of the relevant geographical passages to present maps with a very high level of “canonicity”. In this process, we often weighed up very carefully the respective merits of inconsistent and sometimes contradictory sources: The corpus of Tolkien’s legendarium (especially The History of Middle-earth) offers countless quotes for nearly every interpretation imaginable.

      1. On a point of information: Galvorn appears in the published Silmarillion, so (if we take the position that the published Silmarillion is part of the canon, as a lot of people do) the argument doesn’t apply there. In addition (and in contrast to most of the published Silmarillion), the version appearing in the Silmarillion dates from the 1970s, and is Tolkien last known intent. So either way you look at it, it can safely be considered canon.

        I note also that the passage you quote from ‘Other Minds’ refers specifically and only to drawing maps of the First Age, not using material from HoME to, for example, argue about balrogs’ wings. Or alloys.

  11. Curious about the scene from RotK, in which Anduril is made seemingly by heating and welding together the pieces of Narsil. Is that accurate, or nonsensical on the same level as casting swords?

    For that matter, is there even a historically-correct way to render the broken pieces of a steel sword into a working whole? Tolkien, being Tolkien, dedicates all of one fairly prosaic sentence to this re-forging process, so I have no clue if there’s some fairly mundane process behind it, or if it’s meant to represent mystical Elf-craft.

    Apologies if you’ve commented on this already in one of your previous Rings- and metallurgy-related posts.

    1. I believe the short version is that you’d have to cut it up into smaller pieces and add new material before reforging (because you’ll lose a bit of the original). Assuming it looked like it does in the movie anyway, the book version was a cleaner break.

    2. As I understand it, if you want to avoid creating a weak point where the break was, you’re going to have to just make a new sword (possibly using the old one as scrap).

    3. It is completely nonsensical.

      You could reuse the metal itself in various ways, but you couldn’t forge-weld a couple chunks of sword like that and have it be anything good.

      Forged in Fire has a few episodes (available for free) where they have to do similar “make random chunks of metal into a blade” and you can see all the things that can go wrong with it, as well as the methods they use for it. The most likely in this case would be to forge the shards back into flat stock, then forge weld them together into a bar, then make the bar into a sword.

    4. There was a Youtube channel a few years back called Man at Arms that was all about trying to create real life versions of swords and other weapons from pop culture. They did an episode where they forged Narsil then broke the blade and showed how to properly reforge a broken blade and made it into Anduril.

    5. My understanding is that this is doable but usually unwise. Still, it’s much better than melting and “recasting” the sword as they did in Game of Thrones. I mean, what are you going to do if the sword is broken and you want to repair it, after all?

  12. As a semi-defense of… well, not a defense of the show because everything involving smithing was terrible and everything involving the Rings inexcusably terrible in every way, from their actual making to how ugly they were (the gems look like d20s, and not the pretty d20s), to the terrible characterization and pacing and writing. But there’s a lot of evidence that Elves do have advanced metalworking: they can make multistory steel beams (the Gate of Steel in Gondolin), Glamdring and Orcrist were immediately usable seven thousand years after being made (magic no doubt, but still something we couldn’t do), the Noldor’s whole thing was making gemstones (which requires quite hot furnaces, among other things); there’s also various non-smithy technomagical items they have and make, not that Galadriel at least seems to make the same distinctions that humans do with magic.

    And at least among the Elves, high nobility can be and are smiths or other artisans, though it probably wouldn’t be something seen in at least non-Numenorean humans (given the lifespan of the Numenoreans, nobility having other professions could be possible and we do see some of that in the Mariner’s Wife).

    (Also, as a Celebrimbor connoisseur, I would like to point out that there were versions of him where he wasn’t born in Valinor but in Middle-earth. Not that the show has access to either the line about his mother staying in Valinor or the various non-Feanorian and non-Noldorin backstories he also has.)

  13. Regarding female armor with stylized breasts: One enduring criticism I’ve read that that such decorations would channel a strike directly to the sternum. Advanced plate armor actually utilized ridges to deflect strokes away from the centerline.

    1. It doesn’t really work that way because by the very fact of deflection strike would be stopped regardless. It is simply an attempt to “backport” the idea about tank armor shot traps into different matter.

      Real problems with breast-shaped armors are two fold: it is more complicated design that can potentially introduce weak points into the metal itself. Usual dome-shaped cuirass is both more structurally sound and also easier to make. And second one is that if armor is poorly made, the middle “dimple” would be right against the flesh and bone of the ribcage and therefore could transferring the power of a strike directly into wearer without flexing. But it would be specifically that – a bad design that regular shaped armor (especially flat breastplates that you often see as cheap costume armor) can also have.

  14. I’m going to play devil’s advocate because it’s just plain fun and we all know it.

    I don’t think the normal Numenorean armor is that bad. I think we are meant to understand it as scale like you say. But I think the breastplate is a solid piece decorated to look like scale probably because of cultural expectations about the proper appearance of armor and the fact that Numenor is fantastically wealthy and can afford to look good. And wouldn’t that actually make sense in following the order of armor? As for the material, I think we’re supposed to see it as white-enameled metal not as plastic. The queen’s coloration could be a status thing, and she doesn’t need the breastplate since hers is really for appearances nor for use in fighting and so she can get the scale look honestly. Eledil? Yeah I got nothing. It sucks.

    Is Arondir’s armor wooden? I thought it was bronze old enough to develop a patina. Also “Wooden armor like this has become something of a staple for elves in some fantasy settings (I blame Dwarf Fortress)”. I don’t think Dwarf Fortress has anywhere close to wide enough appeal for that.

    Celebrimbor had to use extreme pressures unfortunately because mithril’s melting point is above the vaporization temperature of iron at standard pressure.

    Not quite as fun a defense, but mithril is presented in the show as clearly magical. So it’s not _that_ dumb to suggest you can get more magic vibes for the buck by making an alloy.

    1. D&D has had the Ironbark spell, and similar for quite a few years before Dwarf Fortress was ever imagined.

      1. I don’t recall any such spell (maybe it was an AD&D thing), but ironwood as a material was fairly common in 3.5. (And I think 4e/5e?)

        Still, I can see Bret’s argument. D&D elves make most of their armor and all of their weapons out of steel; it’s druids that use ironwood, and even then not much. It’s on the same level as mirthril chain or adamantine plate—easy for adventurers to get, not the kind of thing you’d outfit a typical army with.

        By contrast, DF elves only use wood. Wooden swords, wooden spears, wooden arrows, wooden breastplates. I can’t think of any other setting where elves use wood so exclusively in their armories.

        1. They’re not exactly elves, but the Woodhelvenin in Thomas Covenant seem to exclusively use wood for their tools and their weapons. That being said, this is a setting where

          A) Metalworking of any sort is pretty rare.
          B) Magic is extremely common and powerful.

          The Woodhelvenin don’t care much about the physical properties of other stuff; they know how to use wood magic to enhance their wooden tools and weapons, so they don’t bother with anything else.

        2. There’s also the Sithi in Memory, Sorrow & Thorn, who normally can’t use iron weapons and instead use swords made out of “witchwood”. (there exists one exception that is plot-important)

    2. If the melting point of mithril is high enough to vaporize iron, what the heck are they making the pressure vessel out of, and how did anyone who happened to be in the same room during a window-shattering containment failure manage to avoid third degree burns?

  15. About wood armor, wouldn’t that depend on the wood used ?
    Considering how elves are forest masters, isn’t it imaginable that they’re able to find really good wood for armor ?
    While still being able to craft it precisely even though it’s supposed to be very hard wood, apparently, but they’re elves, so maybe they have the knowledge to do so…

    1. The problem is grain. Wood is basically tubes of cellulose tight enough that it seems solid. This gives it several useful properties–it floats, and it can exert internal pressure to hold nails in place, for example. But it means that it’s going to crack and split as those fibers separate if, for example, it was exposed to the elements or heavy blows. And since that’s a function of the way trees work, it’s really not viable for even fantasy trees to create a wood that can make realistic armor. (If you’re going to enchant the material all bets are off, of course.) Think about how the forces would act when a weapon strikes a wooden breastplate–the first blow is very likely to crack the thing in half, no matter how you orient the grain. If you carve the breastplate out of a solid block you’ll cut the fibers, reducing the strength; if you bend it you’ll create stress points, inviting failure.

      Plus, they have a source of far superior material ready to hand: Leather. Hardened leather can be remarkably hard, and while it can break or tear it doesn’t have such a strong built-in failure mode. If you really like wood you can tool the leather to look like wood.

      The only way I can see wooden armor working is with a particularly hard wood (maybe bred for this reason), laminated like plywood (so that the grains are at 90 degrees to each other in each ply), and in small pieces (lamellar). Maybe sewn onto a shirt made of natural fibers if you want to make the elves anti-meat for some reason; otherwise, add them to a leather shirt and put the padded shirt under that. The plys would reduce the problem of the wood splitting, and the small size means that any splits that do occur are limited in extent.

      1. AFAIK that is roughly how actual real-world wooden armours were made. (obviously people preferred metal armour when they could, but there are examples of wooden armour) i seem to remember a few mentions of rattan and bamboo armour for tropical asia. (Philipines, southern china, etc.?) Though now that I think about it i’m not certain if rattan counts as “wood”.

        An interesting case is japanese armour composed of scales of leather covered in lacquer.

        1. I know the Japanese used bamboo armor. It, along with rattan, is technically a grass, but since it’s built along the same lines (bundles of fibers running in the same direction) it can be treated as wood for the purpose of this discussion. (If you want to get SUPER pedantic, trees don’t actually exist so the whole discussion is built on a false premise; that requires some detailed reading of plant phylogeny, though.)

          There are a few things making such armor viable in Japan at the time. First, they didn’t have much iron to begin with, and what they did have was often of poor quality. Thus the folding of the katanas–it was a way to improve the steel. Second, the armor wasn’t going to stop many of the blows to begin with. Samurai originally were archers shooting from behind shields, with swords as backups; the shield was doing most of the protecting. And the weapons were somewhat different. I mean, not in fundamental ways–“pointy bit of metal” was still a popular weapon type–but they preferred certain attacks to others, and bamboo armor defended adequately against much of it. Finally, combat was more formalized in Japan, in part because of the geographic constraints.

          In a more European setting like Middle Earth, I don’t see such armor being useful. It’s not going to stop a longbow, or a war hammer, or keep you alive in a shield wall (something Japanese tactics seem to have not included).

          All that said, I’m certainly no Japanophile, so I’d be interested to see what someone with more expertise in this has to say.

          1. “Tree” is not a phylogenic category. That doesn’t mean that trees aren’t real. It’s a meaningful category in everyday speech, and you can’t argue that we should use the proper scientific meaning because it doesn’t have one!

            Also, steel folding isn’t a special katana thing; any steel blade, from any culture, is folded steel.

          2. ““Tree” is not a phylogenic category. That doesn’t mean that trees aren’t real.”

            Yeah, I know. It’s a joke among folks who work with phylogeny. The other one is whether fish exist. I thought it was funny, especially in juxtaposition to my statement that we could treat grass as wood for the purpose of this debate. I figured folks reading a blog like this may share that amusement.

            “Also, steel folding isn’t a special katana thing; any steel blade, from any culture, is folded steel.”

            I think you’re over-stating the case. They CAN be folded, but they don’t necessarily NEED to be folded. Depends on the quality of the steel, and Europe has some really good iron ore, plus developed various methods for purifying it.

            Further, I never said anything about other cultures. I was specifically discussing why Japan utilized bamboo armor, and my comments were confined to issues related to that. The paucity of iron and the poor quality of much of the available ore is relevant to that, and their sword-making process–which developed because of and to mitigate the low quality of the available ore–is one line of evidence to support this. Japan used bamboo for armor because, in part, they didn’t have a choice. (For the record, they DID have steel armor–they invented one of the two weaves of maille, as well as individual components of armor, such as masks. It’s a question of what proportion, not of presence/absence.)

          3. Palm “trees” for example are basically giant stalks. Whole trunks could be made into dugout canoes, and they were used in the Pacific theater of WW2 as improvised beams but they’re more or less worthless as lumber.

          4. Not only do fish exist, they include whales!

            (If someone tries to tell you that birds are dinosaurs because a sparrow is more closely related to T. Rex than T. Rex is to triceratops and stegosaurus, point out that all of them, and whales, are more closely related to a lungfish than it is to a shark.)

        2. Herodotus claims that some peoples in the Persian army had bronze helmets. Interestingly the Persians themselves appear to have worn only their tiaras (cloth caps) even in battle

          1. That surprises me; rigid metallic helmets are very common for soldiers in a lot of cultures. We really have no evidence of Persians c. 500 BC wearing helmets?

          2. I was also rather surprised by this, Simon, since our host often mentions how basic helmets are as armour. Apparently I was not entirely correct, since Herodotus and Xenophon mention that Persian cavalry wore helmets, but they are noticeably absent in both Greek and Persian art (these palace reliefs, for instance: and, as well as Greek writing. A helmet has also been found at Olympia with an inscription that it was taken from the Medes, but due to it matching Herodotus’ ‘catalogue of nations’ of the Persian army it has been identified as an Assyrian one. I skimmed through Sean Manning’s excellent thesis on the Achaemenid military but could not find anything definitive on the topic

          3. I’d be very sceptical about such things. (there has been similar claims about scandinavians in the viking, since we have no metal helmet finds from that particular period)

            Basically, archeological finds are always very scattershot, and you can’t neccessarily take artistic depictions as accurate either.

      2. There was hardwood armor in the pre-columbian americas. And I have seen reproduction-tests showing they work reasonably well, even against steel weapons.

        But they aren’t lighter than metal armor, nor easier to maintain, and as you suggest they tend to break, or split, even in cases when the weapon does not penetrate. Thus forcing you to replace parts basically after every fight.
        Using fabric or metal will be cheaper (and more comfortable) in the long run.

        1. Descriptions of rattan armour seems to at least indicate they were lighter than metal armour, (my understanding is that they were kind of corded together, sort of like basketweaving, and then dried to “set”)

          (this bit from natural history museum has an example, this one is from New Guinea, but there are mentions of chinese uses as well, and those tend to put forward the lightweight nature as one of the reasons for using it, especially when fighting on ships:

          1. “Basketwoven” armor seems like it could be reasonably useful against light projectiles, blunt weapons, and slashing blows. But it would be pretty ineffective against the longbows and forged steel swords common in the show setting, and in any case is a vastly different thing from the elven armor which just looks like a big hunk of wood, however ornately carved.

    2. Actually, it’s really only the Silvan elves who are associated with forest living and associated skills and crafts that go with that. Although my quick search on One Wiki to Rule them All does suggest Arondir is a Silvan elf. Most of the other Elves are comfortable in a wide variety of climates and use metals for their tools and weapons.

  16. If wood makes for lousy plate armor, why was it adequate (or at least better than the alternatives) for shields?

    1. Because people hold their shields a fair distance in front of their bodies (this distance varying with the grip system) thus blows cutting into the rim, or missiles penetrating through, even to a fairly substantial distance, are harmless. Shields were consumable protection to a much greater degree than armor worn on the body (which itself was to an extent an expendable; if e.g. your gambeson got cut to shreds but this allowed you to survive the fight, it did its job — you can get a new gambeson much more easily than you can get a new you). In various cultures, they even made shields out of wicker (and stretched leather on it).
      From a different point of view: the Roman pilum had to be an unusually heavy javelin, with some unusual design features (that expensive long metal shaft), to be able to sometimes wound after going through a shield.

      More broadly, unlike body armor, shields are not passive elements in melee. With the more common center-grip system, it is used actively to control the opponent’s weapon. For this purpose, low weight is more important than durability. It is not a coincidence in either direction that the heaviest shields that I know of, the Greek hoplite shield, uses an uncommon grip system. (If the grip system makes the shield relatively immobile, it should be beefier; and such a heavy shield would be unwieldable with other grip systems.)

      1. Control an opponent’s weapon? IIRC, in the Iliad at least one Trojan is seriously wounded by receiving a shield blow to his face.

        1. I’ve bashed myself in the face hard enough to chip a tooth with a heater shield. And that wasn’t full-force, or with intent to harm–that was just me doing something stupid and hitting myself on accident. Someone actively trying to hurt you by punching you with a shield? You’re gonna have a bad day.

          A heater-strapped shield, where you punch the edge into the enemy, won’t be as effective as a blade–the shield is going to be wider at the point of impact, diffusing the force–but it still does concentrate the force, and that much force, applied at the proper location, is going to hurt a LOT. Center grips can hurt too, but are more likely to just push you out of the way–not an insignificant consideration, as the German longsword manuals demonstrate! An enemy that’s pushed out of the way leaves an opening your army can exploit, and is vulnerable to things like spears and polearms and daggers from the folks not immediately engaged in combat at the shield wall.

    2. Shields weren’t made from massive slabs of wood, but laminated layers like plywood, often reinforced with hide, leather or fabric on either side.
      And even than shields were consumables, to the point that viking law demanded from warriors to bring several for a campaign, and trial by combat allowed both combatants to bring three.

      Imagine the cost of going through several sets of decorated wooden breast plates per campainging season. Let alone the logistical requirements.

  17. I will actually be so bold as to defend the wood conceptually (although I don’t think the show thought it through this way) which is to say that if I encountered a mention in the Legendarium of a wood that some group of elves could fashion as strong as steel I wouldn’t really blink at it. Tolkien’s world has natural objects with unnatural characteristics (e.g. healing virtues of various plants/drinks/foods, troll hide, elven blades etc.) If you were going that route though you would want to imply that the armor, in addition to be highly individualized, is extremely valuable with the necessary art/trees fading (which would tie in to the theme of the elves of this age!).

  18. “This isn’t a smithing problem, it just bothers me because they go through this whole ‘one corrupts, two divides, with three there is balance’ bit as if there is no other reason why a bunch of Elves might assume three is the right number in which to make magical gemstone bearing rings, like there might be some set of three, I don’t know, gems maybe, that were perhaps important to some of these very Elves.”

    I come here for the history, but I stay for the shade.

  19. “one does not alloy ores together” With the possible exception of calamine brass (not bronze, _brass_), produced by smelting copper together with zinc ore, since due to its low vaporization point zinc was not recognized as a metal in Europe until modern times.

  20. Of course there are projects that absolutely abandon any sense of realism, but for films, games and TV that want to feel real, the bar has been going up. In part I suspect this is a product of information being so much more available in our age, but also a product of realism being a strong marketing point: it’s something viewers value.

    More cynically, I suspect that a sense of Realism is also considered a useful shield against criticism.
    “Yeah, we wrote all those sexual assault scenes kinda flippantly, but it’s historically accurate for that many people to be raped. (We will not cite any sources for this, or acknowledge that the criticisms have as much to do with how we wrote those scenes as their existence and number.)”

    I am not sure why the showrunners thought that solution was good enough for a major character who gets lots of close-ups; it looks very cheap.

    It looks pretty good, on the parts of her arm that are oriented close to 90 degrees from the camera, letting us see the sleeve flat-on. If she T-posed directly at the camera, the effect would probably work fine.

    1. Yeah well, there was also a roughly 1,500 year gap between the forging of the Three and the Downfall of Numenor. And since Elendil is around for the former in this and presumably survives to lead the escapees of the latter……. I’m guessing the timeline isn’t going to synch up with the books all that well.

        1. I was always of the opinion that they should make it something of an anthology show, with the elves as reoccurring characters.

          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:

    2. Lo, behold the show’s fidelity to the source material it paid half a billion dollars for:

      Sauron endeavours to seduce the Eldar. Gil-galad refuses to treat with him; but the smiths of Eregion are won over. The Númenóreans begin to make permanent havens.

      c. 1500
      The Elven-smiths instructed by Sauron reach the height of their skill. They begin the forging of the Rings of Power.

      c. 1590
      The Three Rings are completed in Eregion.

      c. 1600
      Sauron forges the One Ring in Orodruin. He completes the Barad-dûr. Celebrimbor perceives the designs of Sauron.”

      Appendix B of LotR.

  21. “It is thus not beyond reason that a culture in which women regularly wore armor might design that armor to some degree to emphasize its understanding of the ideal ‘feminine’ body to a point (a fairly limited point, this stuff is still armor).”

    Ummm, I dunno about that. Making a breastplate like a steel Madonna bra effectively creates a wedge directed right into the sternum, so that any heavy blow could quite well split the latter- almost certainly a mortal wound given medieval medicine. And imagine how such a breastplate would function against a horseman’s lance!

    1. You could have the inside of the breastplate made with one curve like a regular breastplate and then add on the feminine breasts as decoration, like a giant codpiece or chest muscle breastplate would be normally shaped on the inside. The decorative elements don’t have to be the same material or strength either.

      Though it doesn’t look especially like they did that in this case.

  22. As far as I know quenching in oil versus quenching in water is one of those debates which are mostly about personal preference and the correct answer is probably “both were used”. From a material science perspective the lower boiling point of water means the quench is more rapidly which would give a probably negligible improvement in hardness in exchange for more stress an therefore a higher risk of fracture. At the same time, a well-made sword should survive such a quench and water is far cheaper than oil.

    A short quench or quenching in multiple stages can be very workable. Especially with water where you may indeed want to have a short quench of a few seconds followed by more gradual cooling to get a softer, less brittle blade. The weirder aspect was that the sword stayed glowing during the quench water has a massive heat capacity and will gladly cool that sword below glowing temperature within a second. Which you of course want for a successful quench. I am also very sceptical about the colour of the sword before it is being quenched, it seems to be bright yellow, about 1200 C while for a sword with about 0.8% carbon you really only want to heat it to a deep red 750 C because the colder the sword before quenching the less risk of fragmentation. The more I dig up my material science knowledge, the worse it gets.

    Also, the main insult to me was the lack of tempering which is far more important.

    1. There have been finds of Medieval-era swords that were slack quenched and not tempered, so it’s not like it’s a completely unviable process.

    2. Quenching in water and oil result in different cooling rates because of the thermal conductivity of the quench media. For a given carbon steel composition and section thickness, water quench results in a faster cooling rate, and therefore higher hardness.

      Some steels cannot be transformed into hard microstructures by oil quenching because the cooling rate is too low. Other steels have higher hardenability due to their composition and can be transformed to hard microstructures by oil quench. For more information on hardenability of steels, do a web search for “Jominy End Quench Test”.

      The normal room temperature microstructure of carbon steel is “ferrite”. Heating steel turns the microstructure into “austenite”. Quenching the heated steel produces very hard microstructures (“martensite” or “bainite”) rather than the softer “ferrite” (which is what “austenite” transforms back into if the cooling rate is low). Tempering gives a balance between hardness and toughness by transforming some of the martensite to ferrite and carbides. For more information on quenching and tempering (and heat treatment generally), do a web search on “CCT curves” and “TTT curves”.

      Quench cracking mostly depends on the specifics of the composition and the section shape/thickness. Differential cooling rates throughout the section results in differential thermal stresses which causes the cracking.

      1. Ferrite is pure iron. Steel at room temperature is a mix of ferrite and Cementite (Iron Carbide(Fe3C)). Bainite and Pearlite (and Spheroidite) are the microstructure of the Ferrite-Cementite mix while martensite is a different phase. A low cooling rate results in pearlite possibly mixed with ferrite or cementite of the steel has low or high carbon.

        Then again medieval people did not have access to a material science textbook so the water versus oil debate as well as the tempering process will be a lot more about tradition and the condition of he local ores.

  23. The mention of the merits of scale vs brigandine raises a question I’ve had for a while, which I may as well ask here: is there any kind of resource you’d recommend on how different kinds of armour compare, in terms of which ones might coexist versus which ones entirely supersede each other? Is there a fairly linear progression from mail to scale to lamellar/brigandine and coat of plate to full suits of plate as metalworking and armourcrafting improve, or do many kinds of armour remain viable even in cultures which have unlocked forms that historically came later, whether for reasons of cost (in materials), time/skill (in expert smith-hours), or inherent properties? Does any part of the standard RPG mishmash of co-existing “tiers” of armour drawn from many different times and cultures actually work, whether within a single material culture or a stew of several bumping up against each other, or once certain kinds become available would they entirely invalidate others for anyone who can get access to them?

    (I’m thinking of, for example, the standard D&D 5e fighter who starts out in a chain hauberk, whose options to upgrade are first splint/lamellar, then plate. If the top knights of the starting kingdom are running around in plate, would anyone actually be making or selling lamellar – or chain?)

    1. Rather old sources are the Wargames Research Group “Armies of X” books published in the 1980s. Written for tabletop ancients/medieval miniature gamers, they have history and organisation of various armed forces and detailed illustrations with descriptions of individual soldiers and warriors from period sources. I still have the two volume Armies of the Middle Ages, covering from Western Europe to Iran and the steppes for 1300 – 1500. More modern books are the Osprey Men-At-Arms series, which also go into period sources.

      Based on these I’d say that yes, many kinds of armour do remain viable. In early western Europe you would have rich knights wearing plate arm and leg defences over their mail, then coat of plates, while poorer knights and non-nobles might just have a mail shirt. As metalworking improved larger plates became available, but full plate remained very expensive throughout, so a fair number of mounted “knights” and a lot of non-noble soldiers on foot would still be wearing brigandines, or at best bits of old fashioned plate armour from decades ago.

      From Turkey to Iran it was similar. This remained horse archer territory, but the horse archers started with mail shirts, then added plates on the lower arms, brigandines, and lamellar. (But never going for full plate.) Sometimes it might even have been fashion, with mail armour becoming more popular again in the 15th century. In between the horse archers and the western Europeans were the Byzantines, who look thoroughly out of date with their own distinctive gear. (Although it is also possible that this was a deliberate artistic convention depicting The Good Old Days for the empire.)

      And cultures did buy armour externally that they couldn’t produce locally. An Ilkhanid Khan, ruler of roughly modern Iraq and Iran, bought over a thousand suits of European armour and helmets in 1315. In 16th C Japan the smiths couldn’t quite manage large plates of steel, so very rich nobles would buy European breastplates and helmets.

      1. The Roman cataphractoi are thought to derive from the Sassanian heavy lancers, who wore ‘char aina’ (four plates). Back, breast and side, plus helmet, mail arm and leg coverings. Nick-named the ‘boiler-boys’. So plate comes earlier in the Middle East than in Europe.

        From my reading, in Western Europe plate supplemented mail, and then replaced it at the upper end, while brigandines replaced mail at the lower end (you don’t see a lot of mail after the 1400s, but plate – full or half, and later just back and breast, persists into the early 1800s, while ‘coat of plates’ goes into the mid 1600s.

    2. I am no expert, but AIUI scale was largely early and not very common. Maybe also used for Byzantine horse barding? In Europe/Mideast you go from maybe scale (and primitive non-metal lamellar) to bronze breast plates to mail for a long time, then transitional armors and brigandine and full plate or steel breastplates. Further east in Eurasia lamellar seems to have existed when mail did, whether because China needed a less labor-intensive armor for mass troops or because it works better against arrows or both.

      If you want to be picky about realism, I could see ‘adventurers’ sticking to mail or brigandine (or brig with mail sleeves) because they’re quick and easy to put on by yourself; even if your society can make full plate, it’s not obviously camping-appropriate. Or “lack of servants” appropriate, or “respond to ambush” appropriate.

    3. A caveat to any answers you might get: armor was very expensive and, if properly maintained, quite durable. This means that people could be using pieces a century out of date, perhaps updated in odd ways to incorporate the benefits of newer styles.

    4. There are also environmental considerations with armour. Ming naval forces used rattan armour because it weighed less. I understand that in the battle where Magellan was killed, the native Filipinos specifically attacked when he and his men were on the beach because they knew that the Spanish would be weighed down in the sand by their armour.

      And besides weight, an additional environmental consideration would be that wearing full plate armour in hot and humid environments would be asking to get heat stroke.

    5. Tiers work if you consider it weight and restriction of the whole armour against there protection given.

      Mail stayed in use due to its flexibility and comfort even when it was faced with cheap plate in the form of coats of plate and then full plate armours.
      Italian export armour’s often came with a mail shirt so the user could remove the restrictive arm and shoulder armour.

      But scale and lamellar where widely replaced with brigandine and plated mail.
      Brigandine’s don’t have fragile and time consuming laceing, plated mail turns it in to mail and lower’s the production time.
      Scale was retained as minor part of armours used for things like sabatons.

  24. I might accept “ore” as shorthand for “metal from the ore from this mine.” It was well-known in Roman times that superior ores led to superior steel, after all. Perhaps elves had passed on knowledge that this ore had this virtue, and that one that virtue, and you could combine them.

    Still, it would be more likely to refer to the metal by the name of the mine and the metal.

  25. About Elendil’s armor, I’d like to add a personal nitpick that’s bugged me to no end while watching the show : the fact that while his chestplate stops at the natural waist, his belt lies on his hips as if it were worn on a pair of blue jeans (with the buckle often resting directly over the right iliac crest). Not only must it be uncomfortable and hamper his mobility, not only does it highlight how awkward his oversized armor is, but it also speak volumes about how the costuming department imported its own XXIth century reflexes to a costume that has no place for a low-rise belt.

    To be fair, wearing any kind of belt over a rigid armor has always been a problem – it tends to slip down – but usually it’s solved either by having a lower ridge upon which the belt can lie (rather common from bronze age cuirasses to Boromir’s almain rivet), or by forgoing the belt entirely and wearing the sword/pouch/canteen/whatever on shoulder straps.

  26. Related to Arrondir’s armor, but still kind of a tangent.

    Apparently, there is a process called ‘wood densification’ that lets you take normal wood and turn it into a denser, harder substance.

    The tech is not super complicated (boil the wood in lye and another solvent for about a day, then compress it under weight and bake dry for about another day), and it turns balsa wood into something as dense as oak and even stronger. A stronger wood would produce a stronger finished product (though not quite as dramatically)

    You probably couldn’t make a sword out of it, but you could maybe make armor out of it? Maybe? Densified wood is not as quite strong as steel, the numbers put in in the vicinity of plain iron or maybe a bit lower, but it is lighter, so you could just make it thicker.

    1. You can make armor out of good hardwood anyway. North american natives did. But the armor would not look like breastplates at all, and also you’d still prefer metal options.
      Metal armor would are lighter, easier to maintain, easier to repair and easier to fit to your shape. I.E. cheaper and a better protection.

      Wooden armor is the fantasy aquivalent of SciFi Mechs. They look cool, but why use them given the alternatives.

  27. Nice post!

    People have already mentioned galvorn, but I’ll give the quote: “so malleable that he could make it thin and supple; and yet it remained resistant to all blades and darts”

    I’ve never been sure if this meant that Eol invented the only plate armor in Middle-earth. Or whether his armor actually behaved like fantasy leather armor, soft ‘clothing’ that’s uncuttable. AFAIK there is no other detail on it.

    pressure: sadly, the show doesn’t have rights to the “Jewel-smith” label, which could justify some high-pressure ‘forges’.

    typo: “THis is also”

  28. I can imagine that the armour Galadriel picks up in Numenor might be a left behind/exhibition piece from when the elves were on better terms with Numenor. The Numenoreans’ own armour does look remarkably fake though, I can’t imagine what the costume designer was thinking.

    1. That was my “let’s be generous to the writers” assumption too… although all it would have taken was a very small scene showing this for it to make sense. A couple of seconds of Galadriel walking past the dusty set of armour on display and pausing to look at it would have done…

  29. It doesn’t necessarily make it good armor, but for Elendil having two different armors I just figured one was his armor for being a sea captain and one was his armor for fighting on land.

    As for the color I just figured it was paint or enamel and meant to show rich they are, and the queens armor was more ceremonial.

    As a non-historian I felt like some of the imperfections like solid breastplates made of scale or using patterned cloth were just the limits of costuming and as long as they’re trying to depict the right kind of armor, not creating perfect replicas of that armor was okay.

    But since you bring it up it could also be the case that it’s steel breastplates over scale armor with decorative and enameled scales on the breastplates to match the enameled scales of the scale armor on the parts that aren’t covered by solid steel.

    Ditto with the wood armor. I’d have assumed it’s just a decorative layer over steel armor. Sure, using wood as essentially a decorative enamel over a steel breastplate would be hard, but presumably not beyond the talents of the skilled, immortal, quasi-magical elven artisans.

    For the weird ring forging all I can say is blah blah blah forging magic items doesn’t work the same way as forging normal items. You need the pressure to keep the magic in or something, and magic is also what’s providing the pressure. I mean if they need Sauron to teach them how to make the rings and it takes great skill, even by the measure of the elves there must be *something* more to it than the normal method of casting precious metals. This particular something doesn’t make the most sense, but I’m not sure what else would. I guess you could just have people focusing their will on the rings and casting spells on it.

    1. “the right kind of armor” in Tolkien is almost always mail. Good old chain mail. Attested in the First, Second, and Third Ages, across all war-like species and most cultures. Tolkien made very limited use of culture-specific panoply: Sam’s dead Southerner with overlapping brazen plates; orcs sometimes having curved sword; Silvan elves not having metal armor (or metal); Eol’s mysterious galvorn; dwarves using axes more than others, or mattocks; Dain’s dwarves having _really good_ mail (metal hose, basically).

      Otherwise, pretty much every army has mail, shield, bow, spear, and sword.

      One might imagine Noldor in Aman getting their idea of armor from lobsters and going directly to full plate, with the metallurgy to pull it off, but it’s not what Tolkien gave us. Mail for all, and all for mail!

      1. Good work! Some other possible exceptions include First Age scale armour in the Song of Durin (“metal wrought like fishes’ mail”; a line copied from the Lay of Leithian), and Imhrahil’s hotly debated vambrace. In the Lost Tales, the Houses of Gondolin also have all sorts of weapons like maces, clubs and slings, but of course the canonicity of that is low. You are entirely right that nearly everyone uses mail though

        1. Given how strongly dwarves are linked to mail, and its invention, I suspect “wrought like fishes mail” was meant to describe mail (continuous, flexible, protection) rather than scale armor (even if visually more similar). But I grant it’s unclear.

          As for Imrahil and his vambrace, we also have

          “So it was that Gandalf took command of the last defence of the City of Gondor. Wherever he came men’s hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory. Tirelessly he strode from Citadel to Gate, from north to south about the wall; and with him went the Prince of Dol Amroth in his shining mail.”

          1. I’m not certain Tolkien would neccessarily be using the correct terminology for armour, tbh. Rather than the later shift of mail just meaning “suit of armour”.

      2. I agree, I think it would have made more sense to give all the characters mail. But the premise of the piece was that scale armor and/or breastplatessde sense and were executed poorly and I was arguing that some aspects of it like white, non-metallic scales and seemingly solid breastplates over more flexible but identically scaled arm coverings were fine.

        Plate armor both here and in the movies just seems out of place to me, whether the details of the armor make sense or not.Compared to that scale armor doesn’t seem so bad.

    2. The wood armour I took as “It’s because he and they are Silvan Elves” and the show was trying to indicate their separate from the Noldor culture. That’s why they have the Green Man archetype face on the breastplates: emphasis on them being woodland Elves who never went to Valinor so not as technologically advanced and are closer to nature, hence wooden not metal armour. But once again, it’s because it will look Cool, and never mind trying to understand the function of armour and what materials it is made of.

      If they needed gold from Valinor, they could have asked this version of Gil-galad, who seems to have enough to throw around making laurel-leaf crowns for Galadriel etc.!

      1. “… who never went to Valinor so not as technologically advanced and are closer to nature…”

        Except that this contradicts the Middle Earth mythology. Yavanna is pretty much Nature incarnate, Ulmo is literally the god of the seas, and Manwe is the lord of the sky. (Sorry, not sure how to do the double-dot thing on an American keyboard.) And the Noldor aren’t exactly anti-nature; in fact, the whole ethos of the elves that have been in Valinor (see Galadriel in LOTR) seems to be a balance between technological skill and reverence for nature. Those who’d been in Valinor tended to live in realms where nature was enhanced. It wasn’t tamed–see Lothlorien–but it was made…more, if that makes sense. The Noldor had met the folks who literally BUILT nature, and studied under them; they were about as close to nature as it was possible to get!

        It’s a sign of evil when someone starts splitting the two concepts–see Saruman, or the hobbits involved in the mill, or the way Mordor/Isengard are described. For that matter, the decline in herb lore was used to signify the fading of Gondor in “The House of Healing”. The balance the hobbits of the Shire struck between technology and nature was one of the things held up as good in the books and in Tolkien’s other writings. They were on their way to the ideal–not nearly there yet, but at least on that path. That’s why “There’s power in the Shire,” as one character put it.

        To be clear, I’m not saying you’re wrong. You’re probably right that this was what the production team was thinking. I’m saying that this betrays a real failure of that team to understand the story Tolkien told. If the show runners had wanted to use this to emphasize that the Noldor had fallen away from the ways of Valinor, or that this was a lead-up to the fall of Numenor, maybe it would be understandable–a subtle bit of foreshadowing. But given their failures to understand far more basic aspects of the story, I somehow doubt it.

  30. It is interesting that you say the sexualized armor is purely focused on women.

    The “moob” armor is one of the more common mockeries of this abomination of a show that I’ve seen talked about.

  31. Actually, you can set diamonds in steel tension rings. The effect is not very visually pleasing, and the process is very expensive becasue you only have one chance to get it right.

  32. Dwarf Fortress is at least honest that their elvish wooden armor is garbage that they only use because their culture is BIZARRE.

  33. You only make passing references to the problems with the swords, but I have a need to call it out extra from that picture of the armor on the boat. Those sword handles look like they’re nearly foot and a half long! They seem to be patterned from the same ideas that get us modern HEMA longsword feders, but my feder has a foot of handle because I wear comically oversized hand protection. The elves there are holding them bare-handed, at which point the enormous handle is more likely to get in their way than to be helpful, at least for swords of the length that they’re showing. It might change for something bigger, but those can’t be more than about 5 feet long including the handle unless their points have been driven through the deck.

    On the bright side, while they’re undoubtedly devastatingly heavy if they’re metal, they might still have excellent balance, if the manufacturers bothered to put something heavy in the pommel…

  34. Regarding the white Númenorean armour, I took it that it was intended to be made out of horn or ivory or bone of some kind. Yes, it looks like plastic because it’s made out of plastic, but in context that’s the only explanation I can come up with. As for the female armour, at least they made the male boob armour equally terrible looking.

    As for the smithing – the one thing I reluctantly have to give them credit for is that they *don’t* just let Halbrand show up and start work; there’s a scene where he’s practically begging for work in a forge and claiming all kinds of skills, and he’s told by the smith that he has no chance without a guild badge. So then he goes off and steals a guild badge, which is all kinds of dumb (he’s going to show back up at the same forge with a badge he mysteriously gained in the last half-hour?) but does at least fit in with the idea of guilds. Again, I took it that due to influence by Míriel (or more likely, Pharazon with his collection of guild badges on his sash indicating that he has at least a notional position in every guild on Númenor) getting him the chance to create his masterwork. That would explain the smith/inspector standing around watching him all this time; he’s watching to see that Halbrand really can do the work from start to finish. It is an entrance exam of a sort. Galadriel is the one pushing the notion that he is the lost king of the Southlands, all along he claims he’s no-one special.

    But the rest of it – the forge on top of the tower, Celebrimbor needing to be told what “alloys” are, the forging of the rings, the dagger, the uncut jewels, the “hey how about we coax the metals instead of using force because mithril is proud” – oh it’s terrible. Terrible! ‘No we can’t have magic but we do have to rush the forging of the rings in the finale and they have to be three and they have to be made before any other rings and we won’t use Annatar’ – I have no idea what they thought they were doing.

    1. Yes, unknown outsider isn’t going to get a chance to join the guild, not even as an apprentice.

      If the queen says, ‘This guy is a VIP, give him a chance,’ that’s a whole different story. And as you said Pharazon in addition to being a powerful noble and close relative of the queen probably has some top leadership position relating to the guilds and also wants Halbrand to cooperate with his plans. And just to make it easier to admit him they can tell the guild that he’s not going to be sticking around in Numenor for long anyway. Though really just the queen wanting it is probably enough.

      As for the tower I initially assumed that there would be some mystical reason like needing light from the sun or stars or being closer to the sky or something in order to put their magical properties in the works. But apparently Celebrimbor just likes having a good view while at work.

      1. Eh, it’s possible that “guild” is merely the most convenient translation of the term they actually used. In a world where literal angels can walk around in human disguise, you may want to be just a little more welcoming to outsiders.

        1. “it’s possible that “guild” is merely the most convenient translation”

          Yeah, I’m personally more confident that Tolkien’s “mail” meant traditional (chain) mail armor, than that his Numenorean guilds were modeled tightly on medieval European guilds. The two Guilds mentioned in Unfinished Tales are

          “Swords the Guild of Weaponsmiths still made, for the preservation of the craft, though most of their labour was spent on the fashioning of tools for the uses of peace.”

          “Aldarion son of Meneldur, whose wife was Vëantur’s daughter, formed the Guild of Venturers, in which were joined all the tried mariners of Númenor;”

          “he formed the Guild of Venturers, that afterwards was renowned; to that brotherhood were joined all the hardiest and most eager mariners, and young men sought admission to it even from the inland regions of Númenor”

          “Upon Eambar [Aldarion’s ship] was the guildhouse of the Venturers, and there were kept the records of their great voyages;”

          The weaponsmiths could be a conventional blacksmithing monopoly, though I would question whether Tolkien would want such a thing in his semi-utopian (at the time) Numenor. The Guild of Venturers sounds more like an exploration society, later trading. And clearly not limited to inherited positions.

          1. It doesn’t say how one “seeks admission” to such guilds. The normal way of joining a medieval guild, other than as the son of member, was to apprentice to a master (i.e., a guild member). He might take you because your father paid him to do so (in which case your seeking admission would consist of asking your father to advance a portion of your inheritance for that purpose). Or he might be your uncle. Or you might just be a likely lad who talked a master into taking you on, although I don’t think that’s the most common.

  35. I see this 2-part series has become a 3-parter. Strange, that seems to remind of some movies based on a certain book, but I can’t remember what it was…

    Anyway, if this is the result of analyzing the worldbuilding of RoP, then I shudder to think of what would happen if Devereaux tried to analyze the “””worldbuilding””” (I don’t think it’s possible to put enough quotation marks around that word) of Witcher Blood Origin.

  36. Late to the party, but it’s technically possible that Celebrimbor was using explosion welding to weld bits and pieces. ( Sure, that requires exceptional metal purity, the existence of high explosives, and still the question of why you’d put that process in a tower rather than a bunker. Not to mention why a culture that has access to high explosives is still fighting with swords and bows. If you overlook all of those little details that make it impossible, it all makes sense.

  37. Personally, I would not say that literally-white armor is necessarily a problem. Sure, it is not really realistic and is inconsistent with how Numenorean armor had been portrayed previously, but armor was often painted (15th century sallets at least were quite frequently painted), and since Numenoreans were notable seafarers, I imagine that rust would be a massive issue.

    Greater problem is that we already KNOW what Numenorean armor looked like from Fellowship of the Ring:
    and it is nothing like the Rings of Power armor.

    1. Point of order, we know what _Gondorian_ armor looked like in the films. That’s not Numenor anymore, any more than France or the HRE was the Roman Empire.

      1. There is no need to try and infer anything from Gondorian armor. We in fact know *exactly* what Numenorean armor looked, which is what I was talking about.

        So it is precisely as I have said: Numenorean armor in the movies looked absolutely nothing like what it looks in this travesty of a series.

      2. The movie’s flashbacks to the Last Alliance are technically Gondorian, but it’s a Gondor (and Arnor) whose living leaders were refugees from Numenor. It’s fair to call that Numenorean armor. Still too much plate, though.

        1. Eh, “too much plate” is an issue for all of the movies. Nobody should be wearing any plate at all – in fact, with the exception of some mentions of possibly partial plate (greaves), it is clear that mail is dominant armor among all sides, and only quality of manufacture sets apart e.g. Gondorian armor from Orcish armor. But when you’re making plastic props, plate is much easier to make than a gazillion of rings, so I understand why that choice was made.

          In fact, if you go back to Bret’s “Siege of Gondor” series, it can be seen that many of Gondorian extras don’t even wear any mail underneath their plate – for precisely this reason.

  38. “too much carbon and it becomes brittle”

    It’s not common knowledge, but making iron into steel nearly always means *removing* carbon in the iron from the smelter. That’s what the blast in blast furnaces is for: the oxygen in the air burns up the carbon into CO2.

    1. This is true for industrial steel production, but in pre-industrial steel production the problem is adding a sufficient amount of carbon

  39. Wood-based armor for agile elven scouts is the least of my problems with the costuming.

    As for Galadriel’s third set of armor, presumably she brought it with her, carrying it in the same place she carried her dagger while swimming in her frock.

    1. Wooden armor of any usable thickness is not going to be lighter than well-made metal armor and it going to be substantially more hindering.

      1. (I’d “Like” but WordPress is fighting me today). A very good point: “not as strong but lighter” for armor has its limits when there are practical constraints on how thick it can be.

      1. “So, when you say horse-pocket, are you talking about some sort of building or like a carriage?”

  40. “But somehow this sort of armor design only ever goes one way and I think we know why”

    Do we have some idea why in the other case (specifically WRT codpieces?) There’s something suggestive in how purely “formal” armor (i.e. costume,) would have the one look, while presumably functional armor would have the other.

    It’s said that “women dress for other women,” but whom were these men dressing for? Makes you wonder how the armor of women who traditionally fought other women would be decorated.

  41. I think it’s better to understand the wooden breastplate as magic–if a piece of decoratively carved lumber were to gain as much durability, strength, ‘virtue’ as the elven cloaks in the books gain over real-world cloth, then it quite likely would be comparable to mundane bronze at least. I mean wouldn’t you think?

  42. “Bronze is not an alloy of copper-ore and tin-ore, but of copper and tin.”

    Monel(r) is a interesting exception: it started out as what you get when you refine a copper-nickel ore found around Sudbury ON, that just happens to start out with a useful mix ratio.

  43. I’m finding the obsession with breasts as being sexual characteristics a bit off-putting. Yes, they are secondary sexual characteristics but they’re also very much part of a functioning adult woman’s body – the function being feeding her children.

    As such there is no reason to think that a woman might want them, if not exaggerated, at least not completely hidden. They are not shameful. Additionally, there is a potential comfort issue I imagine.

    And with scale mail, there’s not such a big deal to be made about the difficulty of forging the shape.

    The constant equating of breasts with penises seems to me to be a strangely unreasonable comparison too.

    What would Freud say?

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

    1. I am not saying they are shameful or need to be hidden. But if you take an actual scale armor shirt, over a gambeson, over regular clothes, it is going to tend to heavily obscure the underlying shape of the body. Adding that shape back in (much less emphasizing it) is going to incur costs in protection, weight and mobility. Women who wear reproduction historical armors generally report that comfort is not a major issue, by the by: armor is generally made to be somewhat loose over the chest (rigid armors do not hug the body, by and large) for reasons of protection and breathing. Your comment on the ‘difficulty of forging the shape’ suggests to me that you are not particularly familiar with how scale or mail falls on the body: to get the ‘boob plate’ effect would in fact require adding some kind of shaping element where none was necessary before, because of how the multiple layers of armor obscure the chest.

      But that means making ‘boob plate’ is an entirely cosmetic choice, one that comes with notable downsides. I can absolutely see a culture making that choice anyway for aesthetic reasons; historical armor for men sometimes did too (muscle cuirasses, codpieces). But I want to see that as a thought out, considered part of the culture in question. Instead what we tend to get in a lot of visual fantasy fiction is that male characters wear sensible, protective body-armor that does not emphasize sexual dimorphism, while female characters wear armor that very much does for the ‘benefit’ of a presumed male audience.

    2. I beg to differ. Female apes are almost completely flat-chested and still manage to nurse their young; not to mention breast size in humans does not correlate strongly with milk production. Desmond Morris in “The Naked Ape” made the case that breasts correspond to what in some primates are called “chest patches”: features that move visual sexual signals from the rear to the front.

  44. “Usually a majority of new guild members would have been close relatives of existing members because, again, the point of a guild is to keep people out.”

    This is actually an outdated view of how guilds worked. Actually, Ogilvie’s analysis of guilds in general relies on old research. New research has overturned a lot of the assumptions of how guilds operated in practice.

    From the paper Access to the Trade: Monopoly and Mobility in European Craft Guilds in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries ( ):

    “In this paper, we examine this assumption by studying the composition of guild masters and apprentices from a large sample of European towns and cities from 1600 to 1800, focusing on the share who were children of masters or locals. These data offer an indirect measurement of the strength of guild barriers and, by implication, of their monopolies. We find very wide variation between guilds in practice, but most guild masters and apprentices were immigrants or unrelated locals: openness was much more common than closure, especially in larger centers.”

    It is factually wrong to say that the majority of guild members would be close relatives of existing members. In fact, in most guilds the majority of the masters and apprentices were not related to existing members. Often, these masters and apprentices were immigrants.

    1. I am excited by the interesting contrast that article makes with Ogilvie’s work, but one four(ish) year old peer-reviewed article – however good – disagreeing with another four(ish) year old peer-reviewed book is not enough to declare a view outdated.

      That’s a debate, and evidently an active one, not a settled point where one view may be decisively disregarded.

      1. That’s fair. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s correct to state that a certain view of how guilds functioned is fact while there is still an active debate in academia.

        The current debate in the practical functioning of guilds has Ogilvie on one side (the orthodox view of guilds) and Epstein and his followers on the other (the revisionist view of guilds). Currently, the revisionist view has more up-to-date quantitative research – although as you once pointed out, this does not mean that the revisionist view is correct, as new positions typically out-publish the orthodox positions. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the orthodox view of guilds as described by Ogilvie can survive.

    2. But isn’t early modern times (1600 AD) way past the feudal era which guilds are usually associated with?

      1. And this is millennia before….

        The question is which was Tolkien thinking of when he used the term. The problem is that even if he thought of a closed guild he might have deemed it the closest term to a different organization.

  45. > The real world is not like Skyrim; knights and displaced nobles did not take up blacksmithing as a hobby and you couldn’t level it up to 100 in your spare time.

    While not a historical record, it does seem to exist in literature: Manawydan in the Mabinogion does take up a variety of crafting trades to support himself, Pryderi and Rhiannon when Dyfed disappears under a spell. And inevitably gets run out of town every time.

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