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).
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.
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 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!?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”
A nitpick of the nitpick: There are some other magic materials in the legendarium, galvorn (the secret of making this was lost with its creator) and adamant, which is used for Eärendil’s helmet and in construction of Barad-dûr, so is not just a word for diamond. Both are described as black though.
A lot of your nitpicks about the guilds are based on the idea that they must function like historical European guilds. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine that the word “guild” here is a “translation” of a Numenorean word that refers to a different social institution. As you pointed out in the previous post, the show states or implies that every adult citizen of Numenor is a member of a guild, so in this context “guild” could mean something closer to a Hogwarts House or a Native American skin totem. Something that gives identity to people while cutting across family and maybe even class lines.
Perhaps, for each actual blacksmith, there are dozens of “blacksmith guild members” who are really just farmers whose produce goes to supporting the smithies. Of course, this would require the show to actually depict farmers or farming…
Uncut stones: well, given that we humans didn’t know how to cut stones before the 1700’s (and until then, diamond was *not* considered a precious gem), and they used cab cut before then, that’s not unreasonable.
Maybe the white armor is cloth….
I had no idea gemcutting was so recent. Do you know where I can read more about this?
Love this stuff and I havent even seen the series (nor was I planning on it). The ‘Halbrand makes a perfect sword, isn’t that weird?’ thing sounds like it doesn’t work because the show’s rules aren’t established. I’d probably roll my eyes and think ‘oh this guy is a Mary Sue’.