This is the second part of our look at many of the smaller issues of historical realism in Amazon’s Rings of Power, following on our more substantive discussion of the major worldbuilding problems the show experienced. I had hoped to keep this at two parts (actually, I had hoped this would just be a one-off sequel), but every time I come back to these scenes this post gets longer and so at this point it has been necessary to break it into three parts. Last week we looked at a range of problems centered around metalworking and armor. While the failures there were mostly par for the course for this kind of fiction, they contrast unfavorably with the far greater care lavished in the Lord of the Rings books and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, while at the same time metalworking and smithing are far more central to the themes of Rings of Power and thus ought to have been given more care.
This week we’re going to look primarily at tactics, with a particular focus on the orcs and Southlanders in the climatic battle of episode 6, “Udûn.” Then next week we’ll look at the Númenóreans and their tactics, as well as a discussion of the ships in the show. Now battle tactics are not a major theme of Rings of Power, so one might reasonably ask why they deserve this attention. However, the plot of many of the middle episodes quite clearly builds towards a ‘major’ battle (which at last happens in Ep. 6, “Udûn”) and while this battle doesn’t actually matter very much to the plot (its net effects are almost entirely undone by the beginning of the next episode, a nasty habit Rings has of stepping on its major plot and emotional beats in order to ‘surprise’ the audience and only considering the emotional impact within episodes and not between them), it’s clear the battle was supposed to carry a lot of emotional weight and tension.
And that, in the end, is why the tactics for the battle need to make sense: because for the audience to care about the outcome of the battle, that outcome needs to feel like a product of the decisions characters made leading to it. The moment the audience feels like the battle’s decision depends entirely on the whim of the storyteller, disconnected from anyone’s actions, those actions stop mattering and the audience loses investment in the battle. Instead the storyteller needs the audience to feel like each decision, each event shifts the potential outcome of the battle, the way that for instance much of the action of The Two Towers and the first chapters of Return of the King determine the shape of the eventual battle outside Minas Tirith: the reader sees the decisions being made and then watches one by one as the consequences roll in. As a result, tactics that make sense to the audience are important for sustaining that investment. Does that mean the tactics need to be historical? No, of course not; most audiences do not have degrees in military history. But they need to be plausible and as with so much of the worldbuilding, accuracy is a shortcut to plausibility.
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Dropping a Tower On It
There are so many curious decisions in the main battle in episode 6 (“Udûn”) that it is hard to know where to start, but many of the issues have a single unifying problem: the writers are trying to be clever. The thing is, battles are only very rarely won as a result of clever plans or tricks. Indeed, as we’ve discussed, the ability of a general to pull off a complex plan was very limited; even ‘strategems’ (the term for actual ‘clever tricks’ in battle) are often very simple and common enough that even in the ancient world there were collected volumes listing them all.2 Instead armies tend to win battles at most because they effectively execute very simple plans with very well-known tactics or alternately because they are able to cohere better due to psychological factors. Battle plans themselves tend to be very conventional. But Hollywood writers seem to love too-clever-by-half solutions to battles, which never make a lot of sense when you think about them because if they did they would have become well-known traditional tactics centuries ago.
And the battle in “Udûn” is filled with these ‘clever tricks,’ most of which are actually tactically foolish, from both sides.
The battle begins with just such a clever trick: Arondir lures Adar’s army into the Ostirith watchtower. He then shoots a fire arrow at the ropes (!?) holding up (!?) the watchtower, which then collapses, bringing down the whole fort and raining rocks down on the causeway, destroying all of Adar’s army. Except, wait, is this all of Adar’s army? When he begins toppling the tower, Arondir jumps down3 in front of the gate, kicks it closed4 and then presumably flees down the causeway, which is evidently empty of troops. Except that as we’re going to see, that wasn’t all of Adar’s army or even most of it and he has two whole other armies somewhere but nowhere they could interfere with Arondir’s daring escape. So we have two problems here: the nonsense physics and then bad questions about army size. The latter will keep recurring over this post, but we can deal with the former right away.
Now the collapse of the watchtower itself doesn’t make a great deal of sense from a physics perspective. The tower is apparently held in place by a series of heavy rope stays. Here, I confess I do not know exactly how this is supposed to work; the tower is straight and fairly wide at the base, so it’s not clear why it would need rope stays to avoid falling over (since its center of mass is directly over its foundation, which is in turn on bedrock) or why removing those stays would cause it to immediately topple. I’m also confused as to how the tower ended up this way: the stonework here is old and weathered, so the ropes cannot be part of the original construction (since they’d have long since rotted away), so at some point was the tower failing and ropes were put in to steady it? Needless to say, this is not how anyone, anywhere, ever to my knowledge built stone watch towers.
To make matters worse, Arondir destroys the stays with a single fire arrow. Now most rope materials will burn, but they won’t burn fast and aren’t likely to reach ignition temperature from a single fire arrow. Indeed, a candle slowly burning through a fairly thin thread is a classic part of both Hollywood traps and Rube Goldberg devices. For instance match cord is often made from hemp or flax cord (essentially a very thin rope), treated with potassium nitrate (saltpeter, the explosive component of gunpowder) to make it burn consistently and it still burns quite slowly, such that you can light your match cord (at both ends) before the battle and still have some match cord left at the end (it can also be blown out by a strong wind). This rope is both thicker and also presumably not treated with saltpeter5 and so should burn even more slowly. Unless these ropes have been doused with something that burns (they do not appear to have been), I honestly doubt that Arondir’s fire arrow would generate enough heat to actually ignite them and in any case it would likely take some time for those big, heavy ropes to actually fail as a result. Instead they fail instantly like they were made of cotton-candy just melting before the tiny flame of the fire arrow.
And then the tower somehow collapses in a way that flings sharp, lethal debris outward at high velocities, which is not how buildings collapse: they fall down not out. It might have made a touch more sense if the tower fell over into the courtyard, but we clearly see it collapsing down and yet somehow this creates a huge zone of destruction. Yes, cables on ships and suspension bridges, if damaged can snap with catastrophic consequences, but that’s because those cables are under tremendous amount of tension. But that just invites more absurd questions about why this tower was built to only be stable when held under tension! Cables end up under tension because they are resisting some sort of force, like holding a bridge up or a ship still in rolling waves or keeping a thin, narrow mast upright. But this tower has a wide base and is made of stone; such towers generally stay up on their own! Moreover, if this is a system where the tower only stands up when the ropes are held under tension, that implies they would need to have been regularly tensioned because otherwise they’ll stretch, become loose and then the tower would fail. Who has been regularly tensioning the ropes on this tower and why!?
The problem here, as best I can tell is that a trope of gunpowder-era fiction (particularly Westerns) has been imported into a pre-gunpowder environment without much care given to the adaptation. After all, if this was a gunpowder era fort, there would absolutely be a room full of powder and so you might imagine a trap where the enemy is lured in and the room full of powder is set off, destroying the fort in a fantastic explosion. Now in practice this wasn’t really done very often (for one thing, you have all of that powder for a reason and ‘blowing up your own fort’ isn’t it), but the physics is at least understandable and it is a classic of westerns. But it depends on gunpowder which explodes when lit on fire. Towers and ropes do not explode.
This makes as good a time as any to look at the size of Adar’s army but also on the bafflingly inability of any of the ‘good guys,’ most notably Arondir himself, to know how large it is or what its composition is. Arondir’s plan is foiled, twice (the tower trap and then the village ambush) because he does not have a clear sense of how large Adar’s army is or that it contains humans. In practice I think the real issue here is that not only does Arondir not have an idea of how big Adar’s army is, neither do the showrunners.
These mistakes more broadly make a mess of Arondir’s character. Arondir is an Elven scout and I think we’re supposed to believe he is a capable warrior, given that he does all sorts of fancy fighting and archery moves. But he is, in fact, shown to be absolutely terrible at his main job and while I am sure there is someone lining up in the comments to claim that this was clearly intended by the writers, I don’t think it was. Arondir is a scout and yet is caught unawares by a large orcish army, twice, the first time when he (and his entire company of other Elven scouts) is captured by then and then the second time when Adar’s magical third army appears after the village ambush.
Arondir, who is a trained, professional scout (with supernaturally keen Elven senses!), has been in the enemy’s base, meet the enemy leader personally, and then had the enemy force advance over terrain that he and all of his troops have lived in for decades and yet clearly has no good sense of how large Adar’s army is, to even a rough order of magnitude. If he did, he’d have been well aware from the beginning that even with the tower ambush being maximally effective there was no chance of holding the village and he’d have been aware that Adar had not committed his whole force to the trap the second time either.
That said the audience too could be forgiven for not having a good sense of the size of Adar’s army either. The real answer seems to be that the army isn’t real and doesn’t have a real size and so just comes into being for a scene and ceases to exist after it, in so far as the showrunners seem concerned. After Arondir springs his first trap, at the tower, leaps down onto the causeway and we can clearly see the causeway is empty. There is no great mass of orcs moving up from behind to also enter the tower or guarding the upper levels of the causeway (later we see torch lights lower down, but these seem to be crushed by falling debris). If there was an army here, Arondir would be in a lot of trouble, since he’d have just trapped himself between an army (on a narrow bridge) and a door he just closed. Certainly his trip back down to the village, through that army would be pretty difficult! But instead the army, having taken all of its hitpoints in damage, just despawns for this scene, to respawn when the timer ticks over in the next night.
(Likewise, though we’re not quite there yet, when Arondir springs his next trap, the force of troops trapped by the ambush are entirely isolated: there’s no second echelon coming up behind them (or even in sight at all) either, making it seem like Adar’s army has been completely destroyed again. I can’t help but conclude that the showrunners have failed to understand the difference, famously laid out by Alfred Hitchcock between surprise on the one hand and suspense on the other. Worse yet, by pulling the same trick twice in the same sequence, they do not even get the “ten seconds of shock.”6)
We can compare with Peter Jackson’s treatment in The Lord of the Rings films, because he’s trying to pull off many of the same emotional beats and story ideas, but with much greater care. Now, Jackson is very concerned that we know how big the armies in his battles are. Sometimes he literally has a character tell us (“A great host, you say?” “Ten thousand strong at least”) and in other cases he pulls the camera way back so we can see how large a force is. By contrast, Rings gives us only the size of the Númenórean force; we have no sense of how many villagers or orcs and humans serving Adar there are supposed to be.
Even when Jackson doesn’t keep track of exact numbers, as during the Battle of the Pelennor fields, he still shows the audience not only how big the orc army is (with huge wide shots to show it) but also cuts to the bridges over the Anduin to show it being reinforced before the siege. When fresh enemies arrive after the charge of the Rohirrim, they’re explicitly a second force, the existence of which we’ve been alerted to earlier in the films because we’ve already seen Haradrim and Mumakil (which also means we have the suspense of knowing that they’ll show up but not when or how, at least for folks who haven’t read the books). We may not know exactly how many orcs the Witch King has in all of these, but his army is clearly finite in size and made of identifiable components that we, the audience, can keep track of, which is important because that helps us know who is winning as the battle swings back and forth, which makes character decisions carry tension because we care who wins and we think that ‘who wins’ is something that will be meaningfully impacted by character decisions.
By contrast, we’re never given a clear sense of the size of Adar’s army or its composition because that would defeat the purpose of the ‘surprise’ ‘subversion’ that Arondir’s two ambush traps don’t actually work. The unfortunate result is a deflation of the tension of the battle because what seems to happen is that Arondir destroys Adar’s army twice only for it to respawn each time, robbing each episode of its dramatic weight. The Númenóreans will then destroy Adar’s army a third time – and this time presumably completely (Adar’s orcs are caught in the open in a village by an army of cavalry in the day time hours before the mountain explodes; that is little more survivable than the mountain), and yet we’ll see after the smoke clears that there are still lots of orcs, so many that Galadriel has to tell Theo that fighting them is pointless and they must retreat.
Burning the Village to Save It
That brings us to Arondir and Bronwyn’s plan to defend the village. Once again I think the visual language is meant to convey that this is a good, clever plan full of clever tricks (fire barricade! ambush!) that is foiled only by the inexhaustible numbers of Adar’s respawning army. But this is in fact a very bad plan.
George Meade at the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) remarked, when ordered to fall back off of a good high-ground position at the Zoan Church, “My God, if we can’t hold the top of the hill, we certainly can’t hold the bottom of it!” And I just want to tell Arondir, “My brother in Eru Ilúvatar, if you can’t hold the fort on the top of the hill, you certainly can’t hold the village at the bottom of it!” As you will remember from our series on fortifications, medieval armies of dozens or a few hundred regularly could and did hold off attackers of thousands when behind castle walls. As becomes stunningly obvious over the course of the night, Arondir has no hope of winning a pitched battle in the field, so a siege is his best bet: pull in all of the provisions and hold the tower. Abandoning the tower to deliver nothing more than a bloody nose is stunning tactical malpractice. But because this is a story about clever tricks rather than simple but effective tactics, we have the collapsing tower instead.
The tower is a spectacular defensive position: a stone fort with high walls accessible only by a narrow causeway (which the defenders might well be able to collapse). Adar’s orcs have no siege equipment to bring down the walls, so they’d be forced to push through the gate (which could be blocked far more easily than village streets) while engaged by archers on the wall (which the villagers seem to have plenty of). If Adar has the numbers to take that fort by storm against Arondir’s force, he has the numbers to take the village by storm even after heavy ‘trap’ casualties. In practice, I doubt Adar does have the numbers; this is a really defensible position and so I suspect he would have to lay siege and wait for the defenders to run out of supplies. And Arondir’s ‘supply timer’ is the same in the fort or in the village; either way no one is farming right now so holed up in the village inn or the fort, the Southlanders have exactly the same supply access.
Now one might argue what Arondir is doing here is ‘trading space for time.‘ And that would be a very good plan for his outnumbered force, but that’s clearly not what he is doing. He springs one trap and then sets in for a static defense of the village. Despite the fact that both his force and the orc force are on foot (and thus simply doing a forced march away because he can march both day and night and they cannot is an option), the non-combatants are packed into the inn in a position they cannot withdraw from. So Arondir is not trading space for time, he is trading a superior defensive position for an inferior one in order to inflict a bloody nose on Adar that he seems to already know will be insufficient.
In any case we now jump down to the village where it is only after this that Bronwyn tells everyone ‘we have to make ready the village.’ It might have been wise to start that process immediately, rather than waiting until after the trap in the tower was sprung, but that would have destroyed the ‘surprise’ of Arondir’s tower trap, I suppose.
Now the good news for Bronwyn is that while the village is unwalled, there is a stream spanned by a narrow bridge which makes a natural defense from the enemy’s route of attack. For a defending force with minimal time to set up field fortifications, this is great news (although not nearly as good news as already being in a stone castle would have been). The bad news is that we’re not going to defend that natural chokepoint because we’re still using Hollywood tactics. The way you would actually use this choke-point would be to let a small part of the enemy army across and then engage that force, trapping the back part of their army on the far side of the bridge in confusion. That is, in fact, exactly what the Scots did to great success at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297). The village bridge is wider, but crossing could easily have been slowed by partially blocking it and while the ditch-and-stream beneath it is hardly an impenetrable barrier, the addition of a palisade and some stakes might rapidly improve its value as an obstruction. The goal here would not be to kill all of the orcs, but merely to capitalize in their confusion.
(And if Arondir is trading space for time, he could then retreat during the day (when the enemy cannot move) and set up a new defensive position or ambush in some other place, forcing the enemy to reorganize and then march to him again, with the successive engagements on favorable terms steadily evening the odds. Instead he commits everything in the defense of an unfortified village, a massive unforced error. Arondir, it turns out, is incompetent as both a scout and a leader)
Instead the plan is to lure Adar’s forces into the center of the village and then trap them with burning obstructions, so that they can be picked apart by arrows. Oddly no effort is made to harry the orcs (for instance with arrows) as they approach, and instead the orcs are allowed to advance unchallenged. This is likely to build dramatic tension in the show but in an actual battle if you want the enemy to make an ill-advised attack, skirmishing them – peppering them with a few arrows – is how you do it. Letting them advance slowly and carefully is how they discover your trap early. Remember: the orcs can be pretty damn sure the villagers are here because they’re not in the only other place and defenses have evidently been prepared (they post severed orc heads in the village, they’re not being subtle), so the question is just how the battle will be fought, not if it will be fought.
The ambush itself relies on lots of fire. As Roel Konijnendijk points out, as a defender you are unlikely to light your own village on fire (especially when you are relying on attacking from thatch-covered roofs that are very flammable)! Popular media loves fire because it is flashy and bright but in practice simple fixed obstructions here would work about as well and the orcs break out of the weak side of the barriers within a minute or two anyway. In this context it is unclear to me why it was so important to block the bridge with the rolling burning cart in any event. We know there is a third respawning orc army out there, but the villagers do not, so the cart serves no purpose in dividing the orcs – it just prevents them from retreating in confused defeat which is what you want.
Remember: you do not win the battle by killing all of the enemies, you win the battle by making the enemy run away. Especially against an enemy that cannot operate in daylight and is on your own home turf, hunting down and destroying these orcs after their confused retreat would be relatively easy work and far safer than dealing with a bunch of armored enemies fighting to the death because they have no choice.
Speaking of which, we now get an arrow exchange from villagers on the rooftops with the attackers down below and here Roel Konijnendijk actually beat me to this critique too: the return-fire from the enemy archers shouldn’t be anywhere near this effective. The torches and burning are all down where they are, forcing their eyes to adjust to the bright lights; the peasant archers are in cover in darkness, thus “as far as the orcs can tell, the arrows are coming from the night.” More broadly the idea that the orcs would return fire with archers rather than simply push into the builds and aim to bring the enemy into contact is itself an error in realism borne out of our familiarity with modern firearms and the tactics they bring, which are dominated by ranged fire. Actual bows are not this lethal and shock infantry absolutely could run into contact (in this case probably pushing through the buildings rather than the fire). The right move here would have been for the villagers to capitalize on the sudden shock and confusion of the initial arrow volleys to immediately push their own spear-wielding troops into contact and leave an escape route for the orcs to flee through (an extra clever ambush might have a prearranged escape channel that led into some further disadvantageous position, like into the stream-bed, or through an area laid with short spikes).
Instead the shock infantry response waits until the orcs have largely overcome the archers on the roofs, recovered their organization and are preparing to break into the fortified inn where all of the non-combatants are, resulting in a general melee because the surprise value has, at this point, been completely lost. The village defense is thus a matryoshka doll of bad decisions: defending in the wrong place, in the wrong way, with poor timing. It nevertheless kind of succeeds despite enemies that have pin-point archery accuracy against opponents in cover who they cannot see.
But the ambush wins, at least, with absurdly heavy casualties for the defenders, only for a reveal that has nothing to do with tactics but bothered me: surprise! Those attackers were actually the disloyal humans! The villagers react with horror as they uncover face after face of their former fellow villagers and one reacts with horror saying, “We were fighting our own!” Now as a decision for Adar to make, this makes sense: pushing a unit with questionable loyalty out in front with a blocking force that is more loyal behind it is an effective (if morally dubious) way to make sure those folks actually fight. But the way this reveal is played is meant to imply this is a big surprise for both the villagers (which is odd, they knew some of their number deserted) and for the audience.
And this bit made me actively angry with the show. This surprise is, in fact, entirely unearned; if you go back and rewatch carefully the fighting scenes before the reveal you will find that the reason you didn’t spot that this force was mostly humans is because it wasn’t. We see quite a few combatants with their helmets off and they are clearly orcs. We see combatants with bare arms that are not human skin colors, but orcish-grey. We hear a lot of guttural sounds that orcs make and people do not in battle. These are mostly orcs with at most just a handful of humans. The show did not ‘subvert expectations’ here, it did not ‘surprise’ you, it just lied to you. It showed you one thing and then told you later that another, entirely different thing happened just moments later. I cannot communicate how damaging this is for viewer investment because now nothing we see matters because at any moment the showrunners might just decide that the thing they just showed us didn’t actually happen and some other thing did. Infuriatingly bad.
Adar’s army then, having finished respawning, ambushes the ambushers with arrows from the forest (once again the heavy reliance here on arrows speaks to me of writers that are too reliant on the tropes of gunpowder combat where ranged weapons are far more lethal and thus dominant) and the surviving villagers retreat into the inn. Holing up in the inn turns out to have been a really stupid decision, because the orcs easily break in and begin killing people. One again, it would have been better to retain the option of retreating from the village, though of course this would have required better scouting arrangements from Arondir.
That said, Adar’s leadership is also not very capable. First and foremost, for a good portion of the series, after the capture of Arondir’s unit of scouts, the hilltop tower fort was unoccupied. Now if this were only the commanding fortification in the neighborhood, failing to occupy it in this period would still have been very stupid. But it also turns out to be the keystone to Adar’s entire plan, because it has the mechanism the Evil Sword activates. This is the one place and indeed the only place Adar needs to actually control, yet he leaves it entirely unguarded; indeed he does so twice since he leaves no force behind to protect the ruins during his assault on the village.
Instead, Adar, like everyone else, is given ‘clever’ plans, particularly the ruse of sending his traitor-humans against the village in disguise. Once again it is a ‘clever trick’ that makes no actual sense. If Adar’s plan generally was to use the humans as a first wave to force them to fight, it makes little sense that they were evidently held in reserve during the attack on tower; at that point Adar likely assumed that was the only attack which would be necessary (and would have been, had the Evil Sword still been there). Instead, if we shift our perspective to Adar’s leadership, he first charges, without scouting, into an apparently unoccupied enemy fortification only to be ambushed and lose a portion of his army, which he then follows up by doing it again, charging a portion of his army into a fortified enemy village without scouting and subsequently losing it. Making the same mistake on consecutive days against the same opponent; Luigi Cadorna would be proud.
While the showrunners were busy setting up the ‘surprise’ twist of Adar having send the traitor-humans, an actually competent Adar could have surrounded the (largely unwalled and undefended) village and attacked with his whole army from multiple angles, rapidly overwhelming the defenders at minimal cost to himself. Adar’s trick with the initial deceptive assault thus isn’t clever at all either: it costs him casualties to trigger the ambush this way (by falling for it and taking pretty much the maximum casualties it could inflict). Adar and Arondir are not having a duel of chessmasters, but a battle of nitwits, trading incompetent decisions back and forth until someone’s respawn counter runs out.
Now we’ll deal with the Númenórean rescue next week (this post is already really long) but I want to note that now it will be Bronwyn’s villager’s turn to respawn. This inn is not very big. All of the surviving villagers are in it; the orcs kill some of them before the Númenóreans show up and then begin trying to butcher the rest in the chaos that breaks out when they do. So we have substantially less than one inn’s worth of people here. And yet once the battle is over there are a whole bunch of them, enough to acclaim Halbrand king and have a big celebration.
Little do they know that the orcs aren’t out of respawns and will be back just as soon as the mountain explodes.
Now we’re not quite done because the Númenóreans are also going to employ some really baffling tactics as well, but I want to note a common thread through the absurdity of this battle here: the effort to structure the battle entirely through clever ruses and tricks. First Arondir’s tower trap trick, then the village’s ambush trick, then Adar’s magically respawning army trick (several times). And certainly pre-modern armies did make use of ambushes and ruses when they could, though that was rarely because disguising the presence of an army is very hard and fails very easily. More to the point, if collapsing towers and fire-ambushes worked, people in the past would have done them; there is an almost comical arrogance in the creators of these shows assuming they can improvise novel clever tactics for kinds of warfare that existed for centuries, the practice of which absorbed the energies of many very bright leaders (and some less bright ones) and spawned entire genres of literature.
What this misses are the factors that more often actually determined the outcome of battles: things like cohesion, morale, discipline and simple tactics well applied. And what’s worse is that ostensibly the showrunners key inspirational source material – the Lord of the Rings books and Peter Jackson’s films – get this right and what is more show that getting it right produces a far more satisfying story than the restore to clever tricks and surprise ‘twists.’
Next week we will hopefully finish this series off (unless it also has unlimited respawns, like Adar’s army) by looking at the Númenórean ships and cavalry tactics.
- Bearing progressively more strained metaphors
- On this see E. Wheeler, Stratagem and the Vocabulary of Military Trickery (1988); finding a copy may be difficult, unfortunately.
- Somehow not breaking both of his legs
- The physics of this are also really questionable.
- One would hope, at least
- I should note that this was a point brought to my attention by David Montgomery on Twitter, and it is a good point.
217 thoughts on “Collections: The Nitpicks of Power, Part II: Falling Towers”
My assumption, though I don’t think it was ever stated, was that the villagers used their deep knowledge of building techniques to sabotage the tower, leaving it just about to fall, but for the ropes, which they maybe dipped in some form of oil?
But that still wouldn’t have the effect we see…
Thinking about this a bit more, I think that’s actually a lost opportunity. If you’re going to have the characters nominally be clever, show us in advance. Have them work out a plan, discuss some of the risks and flaws and points where it could go wrong, so we can have the tension of ‘is this where things go off the rails?’
This also would have been a good place for the ‘it’s really our own people’ reveal. They’ve come up with a plan to destroy the fort and the forces within, but they need to wait until enough of the forces are inside for it to matter, but damn, Adar only sent in the traitor humans. Can/should Arondir still destroy it? Or wait until more forces come in at risk of being caught (show us him hiding as people start to search) or the trap discovered. And make him know they’re human, so he has to decide whether or not to kill them all. Then it’s a character beat too!
Of course, in history, people tend to be more fierce about traitors than those who were foes from the start.
Eh, the story clearly didn’t want to go that route and in this case most of them switched sides because they believed that staying on their side would get them killed (which proves to be basically true, for the non-named characters).
I suspect the show runners intended something like this, but as I think about it I’m not sure the details work. It would be really hard to get something like that *exactly* right, so that the tower neither falls down prematurely, nor remains standing even without the ropes. And doing this by undermining the tower would be extremely time-consuming. I suppose if the tower relied on wooden supports, they could have sawed through them (or partially sawed through them), but would the tower have been able to remain standing that long relying on wooden supports, without collapsing when the wood rotted?
So…maybe? Wasn’t it previously occupied by the elvish garrison? They could have maintained it and replaced internal supports?
But as I said in my second comment, if that was what was supposed to happen, they should have just shown us that. ‘How’ can be as interesting and impressive as ‘what,’ especially in a show which is nominally about the creation of specific items!
Hell, it doesn’t even need to be “realistic” in an absolute sense, it’s a show with orcs and elves. Show us a scene with villagers dipping ropes in something and someone saying “these’ll burn nicely!” and a scene of villagers in the tower with hammers/other various tools doing something indistinct to the walls or supports or whatever, and someone saying “this’ll be a big surprise!” or whatever. It would take all of 20 seconds and actually create some suspense! “Oh, what’re they gonna do with flammable ropes? What are they doing to the tower? I wanna find out!”
I mean it still wouldn’t be great, but it would be a sight better than what we got.
Also if that was the scheme I feel like the trigger could have been more practical
Show the tower supported by scaffolding (and make it obvious the scaffolding is necessary because the tower is in disrepair), have Arondir run past a couple of villagers with mallets who knock out the key supports once he’s past and then follow him. Much more intuitively sensible than an inexplicable rope arrangement.
Should probably be “A thin rope” rather than “A thing rope”
To some extent I think the overreliance on tricks is a matter of it being fictional, and thus dramatic: The reasons tricks and feints and ambushes are famous is becuase they were rare, and this is when something unusual happens. But in fiction that often gets extrapolated into the *expected* when in reality they stand out *precisely because they were rare and usually don’t work, and so being able to pull them off shows either great luck or great skill*.
> The reasons tricks and feints and ambushes are famous is becuase they were rare
Ambushes weren’t rare, surely?
Of course. Many common “tricks” like ambushes are actually not that rare in warfare. For example in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, usually forts are built in mutual defensive formation – with 3 forts supporting each other. So the common trick is to siege one fort, waiting for troops from another fort to come to relief it, then ambush the relieving force on the way.
Collapsing tower traps, however, are truly rare, seems never actually happened irl.
Re. tricks: in the strategic long-run the goal is inflict a defeat on one’s enemy sufficient to make them despair, at least for the immediate future, of attempting to fight you: “we gave it our best and they kicked our butts”. Tricks don’t reliably inflict that sense of futility; they merely reinforce in the minds of the enemy that they would probably have won a straight-up fight and convince the enemy to try again once they’ve recovered.
That’s why you don’t reuse one trick against one enemy forever, but switching your tricks to confuse them.
For example to improve the above trick: using a decoy force to attack one fort, the 2nd fort will send troops out to help the 1st fort, leaving it under-defended, then attack the 2nd fort with your real main force. When they come back to defend the fort, laying an ambush on the way. Because they didn’t encounter an ambush earlier, they will not expect it on the way back.
Then there are tricks to counter the above trick as well: send troops out of your fort and pretend to leave in under-defended, but actually lay an ambush there. When the enemy attacks and get stuck in the ambush, turn your force back and crush the attacking enemy from two sides.
Tricks are just ways to maneuver your troops to gain advantages and put the enemy at disadvantages. When they fall for your tricks, of course you should destroy them and don’t let them recover.
Collapsing tower traps, however, are truly rare, seems never actually happened irl.
In the siege of Fort Zeelandia (1661-2), a Dutch detachment defending an outlying fortification were forced to evacuate due to Zheng attacks. They left several barrels of gunpowder and a slow-burning fuse, blowing up the fortification just as the enemy were taking possession of it.
Granted, that’s an exploding tower trap rather than a collapsing tower, and would probably have been impossible to pull off without gunpowder.
Maybe not absolutely impossible; it would have required an undermined tower ready to collapse and a series of tripwire triggers to release temporary supports. But definitely far more Rube Goldberg and much less reliable than gunpowder and a fuse.
“… every time I come back to these scenes this post gets longer…” Don’t be shy! It’s just that you (and we) enjoy it so much
I want a series on Hannibal’s first years in Italy, from the Trebia to Cannae. That would be an excuse to use all the canny tricks. And I want Bret Deveraux to be historical advisor on that show.
So you want it to be 50% dealing with camp logistics and how hard it is to feed elephants in the mountains?
I would unironically watch three episodes dealing with the wacky adventures of the poor grunts charged with finding fodder for the elephants.
There was a British comedy/war movie from the late 60s called “Hannibal Brooks” which was a heavily fictionalised account of a real British POW charged with taking care of elephants at the Munich zoo:
Except Hannibal didn’t really use any “canny tricks.” His double envelopment at Cannae was very much what Bret called “simple tactics, well-executed.” Whereas Hollywood is addicted to the “Gotcha!” surprise tactic; indeed, one would think from most movies that that’s how all battles are won.
Lake Trasimene is (AFAIK) the only time an entire army successfully ambushed and wiped out another entire army. It’s arguably the most successful “trick battle” in recorded history.
I would argue Teutoberg forest would count as well.
It’s far from the only one (I think there’s even an example in the Peleponessian war) but it is a fairly rare occurence.
The Battle of the Caudine Forks was a relatively similar ruse to Trasimene (although the Romans actually surrendered at the Caudine Forks).
A double envelopment seems like a “gotcha” to me, even if it’s a well-understood tactic. “Haha, you thought that you were punching through my weak center, but that was all part of the plan so I could outflank you!”
I would consider Cannae to be a “gotcha” narratively, even if it’s a well-understood tactic. “Haha, you thought you were pushing through my weak center, but that was all part of the plan so I could encircle you!”
Sorry about the double post, the first one I posted took some time to appear for some reason.
I saw what you did there!
As I was reading this, I was going to give one minor counter-nitpick. If Adar’s army assaulting the village are made up of orcs, it’s entirely probable that they can see archers on the roofs shooting at them in the night. Orcs, after all, are nocturnal in the trilogy, are shown to see very well in the darkness. Most major villain attacks start at night, and Sauron even goes to the (presumably significant effort) of creating that huge mass of fumes to obscure the sun over most of eastern Gondor and Rohan in preparation for his big offensive. Those armies do have archers, and orc archers didn’t seem to have any particular trouble beyond the ordinary ones of shooting people behind fortified positions in things like the battles of the Hornburg or at Minas Tirith.
But then the show makes them actually humans all along!? The people who are much more effective during the daytime? Why send them in for a night assault at all? Caveat: I haven’t seen the show and I really don’t intend to, so maybe Adar has some plan that makes sense (probably not), but at least if I was in charge of an evil army like this, I would be keeping my humans together, in some sort of special cohort, precisely to guard the rest of the orcs during the daytime when they’re impaired, since I get the sense that the orcs are the bulk of the army. Maybe you have doubts about the humans reliability, but I imagine they’d fight if they’re guarding a camp and don’t have anywhere all that great to retreat to. While not directly stated, it’s slightly implied at the Pelennor that when the darkness breaks and daylight shines onto the battlefield, the WK and later Gothmog are trying to move their human elements to the forefront of the fighting; you get a lot more ink about fighting the Haradrim and the reserves that Gothmog move into place are explicitly human.
One of the great things about doing some sort of fantasy set military fiction is that you can explore tactics/operations that would never work in real life but could work due to some of the altered conditions set up in your fictional world. But if you’re going to do that, you need to actually pay attention to the different rules of your fantasy system. A task that seemed to be much too hard for this show’s team.
The fact that they expect an attack by Orcs at night might actually justify the fire, as they could be looking to ruin their vision?
It certainly looks like the orcish armies are consistently carrying torches. If they can see in the night well enough to effectively exchange fire with people effectively hidden in the dark, why the hell do they need torches to light themselves up nicely for their opponents?
The orcs did use torches in the books as well. Presumably their night vision was inferior to even torchlight.
“We loosed every arrow that we had, and filled the Dike with Orcs. But it will not halt them long. Already they are scaling the bank at many points, thick as marching ants. But we have taught them not to carry torches.” (from The Two Towers, Ch 7)
I would point out that the same chapter has this note, not all that long beforehand.
” ‘They bring fire’, said Theoden, ‘and they are burning as they come, rick, cot, and tree. This was a rich vale and had many homesteads. Alas for my folk!’ ”
Consider the first major (in the sense of time in the books spent describing it) battle are the orc band fighting Eomer’s troops trying to bring the captured hobbits back to Isengard. The orcs on their hilltop fire arrows at the Rohirrim (admittedly to no great effect, but it is described as a “long bowshot”), and when Mauhur and his lads show up, they’re able to coordinate a two pronged attack, one force on the hill, the other coming out of the forest. And this is without any mentioned torches.
Also, during the battle at the Hornburg itself, there’s no mention of torches, in fact, it’s raining when the initial assault begins. ANd we get lines like
‘Then the Orcs screamed, waving spear and sword, and shooting a cloud of arrows at any that stood revealed upon the battlements;’
Or later, when they’re covering the ram they’re sending against the gates
‘Behind them orc-archers crowded, sending a hail of darts against the bowmen on the walls.’
I could be wrong, but I had generally interpreted the torch-bearing as they’re crossing Helms Dike as part of the general burning and pillaging that the (poorly disciplined) orcs were engaging in as they passed ,not something they needed for light to fight effectively in.
The orcs/goblins of the Hobbit used torches too, as did the ones in Moria. We’ll set aside the question of where they get all that torch material. The Hobbit does have some dark runners:
> When the goblins discovered that, they put out their torches and they slipped on soft shoes, and they chose out their very quickest runners with the sharpest ears and eyes.
> That is why neither Bilbo, nor the dwarves, nor even Gandalf heard them coming. Nor did they see them. But they were seen by the goblins that ran silently up behind, for Gandalf was letting his wand give out a faint light to help the dwarves as they went along.
But I would take this not as the goblins being able to see in true darkness, D&D Darkvision, but using low-light vision, hearing, knowledge of the tunnels, and maybe smell, to chase after a light-emitting prey.
Gollum seems able to see in the dark, but this seems to be because his own eyes act as flashlights:
> Though he was only a black shadow in the gleam of his own eyes
(That’s not reflected light. Bilbo has sheathed Sting, and there’s no other source.)
Ugluk said of the Moria orcs:
> There’s only one thing those maggots can do: they can see like gimlets in the dark. But these Whiteskins have better night-eyes than most Men, from all I’ve heard; and don’t forget their horses! They can see the night-breeze, or so it’s said.
As for the shooting:
> They were within a long bowshot, but the riders did not show themselves against the light, and the Orcs wasted many arrows shooting at the fires, until Uglúk stopped them.
so it’s not like they can see the Riders in the dark.
Helm’s Deep had Dunlendings attacking as well as orcs.
From what I understand, seeing into the dark from a brightly lit place is not made better by being nocturnal, since it’s a question of vision’s insufficient dynamic range rather than inability to see in the dark per se.
I don’t expect that orcs night vision would be any better than using image intensifying goggles, they amplified all the light that they collected so they could get washed out by things like flares, spotlights and fires. Thermal sights were somewhat better, but when a grass fire started on the tank gunnery range it would become quite difficult to pick out the heated targets against the background of the fire.
Yes; I think an orc in that situation would be like me in the daytime, with an extremely bright light shining in my face, trying to see something behind the light.
Another reason that “surprise” filmmaking trips like this fall flat so often is that they’re really hard to explain in any detail after they’ve been sprung. Imagine if Peter Jackson had wanted to keep Aragorn’s Army of the Dead a surprise until they showed up in Pelennor Fields. Here you are, the Rohirrim charge sputtering out, the Enemy within the gates of the city, and all of the sudden an army of ghosts show up…and instead of watching the ghosts fight you have to hear Legolas and Gimli give explanatory dialogue. “Boy, Gimli, it’s a good thing we took the Paths of the Dead there and summoned these guys to fulfill their ancient oath.” “Yes, Legolas, but remember, not anyone could have done it, this could only have been done by the true heir of the throne of Gondor.” If you want a clever strategem to come completely as a surprise to the viewer, it has to be both so brilliant as to be cinematically impressive and yet so simple that it can be visually explained in an instant, during a major action scene.
Or you do the heist thing and explain it afterwards with flashbacks showing how the setup for it occurred.
It’s painful, but we definitely can “hear” the sense of betrayal you express alongside your points about the lack of realism. If the show was going to include so many battle scenes, why wasn’t more of Amazon’s money spent on advisors who know more about military tactics?
Here are some proofreading observations:
essentially a very thing rope > thin rope
is captured by then > by them
meet the enemy leader > met the enemy
tower, leaps down > tower, he leaps down
in the day time hours > daytime [close up compound]
to capitalize in their confusion > capitalize on
Adar having send > sent
that was rarely because disguising > rarely [insert comma] because
than the restore to clever tricks > than the resort
The main problem is that the showrunners are only interested in “does it look cool onscreen?” This is not necessarily a bad thing because TV and films are visual media and you have to cut your cloth according to your measure. But among the other indicators that these guys are used to writing for movies not TV, this is a big one: Arondir collapses the tower on the Orcs. Great, amazing, clever trick! He does this by shooting a fire arrow at the rope holding up the tower. Great, amaz- wait a minute, *what*? A *rope* is all that is holding this together? Why? How? In a two hour movie, you can cram in enough action scenes that you can get away with not providing explanations because that would hold up the plot. With a TV series, you can’t, because people have time between episodes for that seed of “what the heck” to grow.
It would be just excusable if it were shown that collapsing the tower had been planned, its supports had been undermined and the temporary rope stay really was all that was keeping it from toppling. But that would have required foresight and 90-120 seconds of airtime so of course that was out.
Indeed. Wasting time on setting up the scene instead of yet another scene of the Harfoots being dirty little psychopaths (as some online reviewers have tagged them) or Galadriel standing around being demanding and pissy? Don’t be silly!
These guys are not used to writing for movies. They have ZERO writing credits on IMDB. They wrote some scenes for JJ Abrams that weren’t used.
Because money can’t help them find the right answer if they don’t already know what the right question to ask is. On the one hand, we already know what tends to happen when they try: https://acoup.blog/2022/04/15/collections-expeditions-rome-and-the-perils-of-verisimilitude/
On the other hand, we can also reason out why this should happen. First, the already existing team members have agendas (mostly mundane stuff like “we have to ship this on time” but also “this is my one big chance to make my name as director/whatever”) and will refuse advice from an outsider if at first it sounds like those agendas would be hindered. Put yourself in their shoes: if you’ve already written your story and it has an army crossing a large body of water, you want to have your Normandy landing scene; if you already made expensive arrangements (reserving a beach on which to shoot and making that scene a load-bearing part of the story pacing) you are not going to cut it just because they tell you it’s ahistorical.
This part has a theoretically easy solution: if they are a part of the writing from the start, they can give you ideas from which to build the story — ideas you wouldn’t have had otherwise — rather than saying “you can’t do that” afterward.
Second, if you advertise a sizable pot of money and/or influence (“a hundred million people will watch the show”), a bunch of people will show up and compete for your attention and approval to get it, and many will not be particularly virtuous about it. If you seek an expert in X, but multiple candidates show up and they disagree, how on earth would you determine which one is right (if any), as opposed to such questions as which one is more ambitious, charismatic, willing to bow to the necessities of the first part, reflects better on you to have around?
If you have a friend of a friend with the required expertise, you don’t have a problem. Otherwise, you don’t really have a satisfying way to solve it — thus many decide to not even bother trying.
One of my favorite sequences in LOTR is the strategic run-up to the Rohirrim arriving at Minas Tirith; Gondor sends word calling for aid, the Witch-King dispatches an army specifically to block the northern roads, Denethor learns of this and plunges into despair, but Theoden cuts a deal with the Wose Men and outmanuvers the Orcs. It’s a nearly perfect set of decisions and ramifications, bouncing back and forth between the leaders as they spar.
The Rohirrim’s arrival at the battle is SUPRISING, both to the reader and the characters, but it all fits together so well, from both a narrative and strategic standpoint.
I suspect a lot of the problems with Rings of Power stem from the fact that it’s a television show rather than a movie. It’s being written by TV writers _for TV viewers_. People don’t watch TV shows the same way they watch movies. The TV may be on, but you probably have your phone out, or maybe a magazine or a book in your lap, or you’re talking to people in the room. You’re not giving it your full attention. The writers know that, so increasingly TV shows are made up of self-contained beats which are striking and satisfying — but are disconnected from each other because the writers know you’re not paying attention.
Hence the complaints about Galadriel’s character in Rings being too confrontational and inconsistent. That’s true if you view it as a single coherent work. But if you view it as a series of disconnected dramatic scenes, then she gets confrontations and satisfying emotional payoffs in each — even if they contradict or undermine earlier scenes.
And the tactics/strategy make sense in this context. We’re not watching a war, or even a battle. We’re watching a disconnected series of cool moments. There’s no point in having a scene which sets up the stakes or shows what the plan is, because there’s no way to be sure the audience will pay attention to that. But a collapsing tower looks cool!
Incoherency isn’t a flaw. It’s the goal.
I would find this argument more persuasive if it wasn’t clear how deeply unhappy Amazon is with the audience response for Rings of Power. This series did not do well and they’re reportedly making major course corrections into season 2 because they did not get their money’s worth. So if that was the goal, it was a bad goal.
I’ve heard so many rumours of what was going on behind the scenes, and what is going on, that I don’t know what to believe. Amazon is stuck with finishing the second season because they already committed to it and built sets and moved from New Zealand to the UK so they can’t just scrap it after the reaction to the first season. I think it’s understood that Bezos wanted his own “Game of Thrones” for a while to sell the streaming service – and a Prime subscription to watch their service means increased custom buying stuff off the rest of the website and all they offer under the Prime umbrella, so this show is marketing for the Prime brand. Buy a sub to watch the big ‘must-see’ fantasy show, stick around for the rest of Amazon’s products. But the results have been that “House of the Dragon” beat “Rings of Power” in all the ways that matter, and never mind what Nielsen says or the massaging going on to block bad audience reviews and claim they were Number One. I don’t think there will be the next three seasons of the proposed five seasons unless they *drastically* change direction, and they don’t seem to be doing that – season two is going to be the same short eight episodes and they were bragging about “all women directors!” plus they’re still inventing original characters like “the High Priest of Númenor” (so more lore-mangling, because a fantasy TV show needs evil priests and never mind the canon) and allegedly a female Elf named – hold on to your seats – “Mirdania”. Don’t quote me on that last one, I saw it on a Youtube video and who knows if it’s true.
I don’t think that’s the case.
I know several people in the Amazon Marketing and PR arm who worked on the show and the general sentiment is that they’re pleased with the show, at least from a numbers and eyeballs perspective. But that was their goal: get people to watch it regardless of the quality.
So, I’m associated with a group known as FellowshipofFans. Being privy to leaks and some behind-the-scenes knowledge, nothing we’ve seen makes us think an overhaul is in order. Everything seems to show that they’re staying the course. Granted, these are set reports and some lower-level insider information rather than from the mouth of Bezos himself. I personally think that a part of the reason the production moved from NZ to UK is for greater corporate oversight and control, but nothing concrete has come to support that.
Due to the outrage machine working in overdrive in the lead up to launch, Amazon can safely dismiss any criticism of the show as coming from bad-faith actors. Didn’t like it? You’re mad about black elves. Think the writing was poor? You hate strong women. They’d have a harder time dismissing your criticism, but they can accuse you of nitpicking.
Now we’ve come to awards season, and the show is only picking up some technical nominations. I still don’t think that will prompt any change, despite the claims that they were aiming to create prestige television. Why? You can’t be perceived to be changing to address the concerns of people who you’ve previously dismissed as racists, sexists, or other troglodytes.
Unfortunately, this appears to be what we’re stuck with.
” People don’t watch TV shows the same way they watch movies.”
I don’t know how ordinary people watch TV, but I’m not sure they all watch it the same way as you imply. From my Babylon-5 days, one of its big things was long season long (or longer) arcs, and episodes that had multiple plots within them. It was not a low-attention show, and it was reasonably successful. People said it was a contrast to typical episodic TV (certainly to Star Trek TOS or TNG), though others said that soap operas had been doing involved plotting all along. DS9 followed in B5’s footsteps, especially in later seasons.
I happened to catch one episode of Andor while visiting friends, and it was a terrible episode to come in on, the mid-season one where they’re all quietly prepping for some big mission.
Anime is popular worldwide, and most of the anime I’ve seen does not reward a low-attention viewer either.
Or hey, Game of Thrones, _wildly successful_ until the showrunners blew it up in season 8. Not written as disconnected dramatic scenes, especially in the first 4-5 seasons when they had book material.
Babylon 5 is, in many ways, the precursor of ‘prestige’ television: Season-long arcs, building to a many-seasons-long narrative climax and resolution. It was something fresh and new at the time, and it set some of the standards for shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.
IMHO, the worst of both worlds is when there really isn’t a thought-out committed arc, the writers are basically pulling it out of their cloacas, and you find out that all the leadup was towards nothing. A number of promising shows that I watched sank into oblivion because of this. The problem with episodic television is that successful series are supposed to be indefinitely extendable, which is in direct conflict with visually telling a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even Babylon 5 suffered from this when the threat of cancellation forced a premature wrap-up of the story in season 4 and then when a fifth season was greenlit the show struggled to paste together a season’s worth of epilogue.
Worth noting is that in B5’s case what they ended up doing was cramming the planned A-plots for seasons four and five into season four, and then when they uncancelled the show they ended up using the planned B-plots for seasons four and five in season five, which is why the season feels like a massive letdown.
Battlestar Galactica also suffered badly with this after partway through Season 3 where, between sagging ratings and a writers strike, it was unclear how much runway they had to wrap up the story. In retrospect it’s pretty clear they didn’t have a map of how the show was supposed to go from the beginning and kind of made it up as they went.
The writing for Game of Thrones sucked from Season 5 on at least. As soon as they didn’t have the books for scaffolding, it reverted to idiot plotting and just making isolated cool scenes for the showrunners’ favourite actors (which they’re on record as seeing as the most important thing). Despite that, its popularity didn’t seriously start to flag until Season 8 (with some cracks during Season 7), so it was indeed ‘successful’.
And I’ll agree about Babylon 5.
It’s a bit worse than that. The writing started to suck when they still had two books left since they suddenly turned from mostly faithful (with some baffling changes and added filler plots) to standard Hollywood adaptation at the start of S4 when they still had two book left to adapt. Then the quality takes another dip down from standard Hollywood adaptation to bad fanfic.
The writing on GoT was terrible any time they strayed from the books because they were bad writers. Look at Daenerys’ plot from Season 2, which is 90% original writing and just a mess of a storyline (though the original ACOK storyline isn’t a masterpiece either). However, the show’s popularity was not correlated to the quality of its writing. Seasons 5-7 were some of the laziest writing I’ve ever seen, but they won a million awards and got outstanding viewership numbers. Even now, they’re very highly rated seasons.
there’s lots of good stuff in seasons 1:4 the writers invented. everything between robert and cersei, arya at harrenhal, almost anything involving charles dance. They just got stuck getting forced to wrap up a story GRRM has spent a decade trying and failing to come up with a way to wrap up. So it’s not surprising they couldn’t do it.
I think this is a reasonable description of how people consume *some* television–I can’t imagine an episode of something like Real Housewives holding my complete attention–but it’s exactly the wrong model for prestige television in an epic dramatic setting. If you pay attention to anything at all, it’s shows like this, which by genre conventions are *supposed* to be deep and engrossing. (Not to mention that all the Prestige Television Black Screen requirements are going to make it very obvious if you’re checking your phone.)
Moreover, if the creative team really assumed that their audience was going to have the attention span of a hyperactive six-year-old at a video gaming convention with a bottomless candy bowl, then spending the annual GDP of Dominica on it was an unconscionable decision.
If anyone is failing to pay attention to this, it’s because it has been written in such a way as to punish attentive viewers, rather than reward them.
Sorry, I don’t know what Black Screen means in this context.
Oh, sorry. I just meant the way that prestige television since at least the start of GoT tends to use very dark scenes to establish mood–resulting in it a) looking weird on anything other than top-of-the-line televisions that can give very dark blacks, and b) being virtually impossible to see due to reflections if you are in a room with any non-television light sources (such as through curtains, or from a cell phone).
@Tiercelet Ah! I call that “filmed in Murkovision™” and I absolutely despise it.
I get a certain sense of fish-in-a-barrel-with-a-minigun here. Still, be glad you are not a geologist; it gets worse.
It’s hard to say which is more unbelievable: the creation of the volcano using water, or that Galadriel can take a pyroclastic flow to the face and walk away with nothing worse than a covering of Cheeto dust.
To really rub it in, the episode gives us shots of a horse and a man on fire, as well as the entire village burning down around everyone, but since he’s only an extra that doesn’t count: the important characters don’t even get blisters (save Míriel, and she’s pretty much fine otherwise).
I don’t know how you can describe that ethos and not call it a flaw, intended or not.
The most recent seasons of Doctor Who feel like this too, except without actually managing to have many cool moments.
All of New Who has struck me as a sequence of Cool Moments connecting by the flimsiest tissue of plot. But maybe there are fewer Moments; I haven’t seen anything since the Wedding of River Song.
The strength of the original Doctor Who was that it was completely episodic and could switch genres and tone at the drop of a hat – the premise is almost infinitely flexible.
And setting. And characters. It was the most flexible series with a continuing main character ever.
Maybe people watched low-stakes, like soap operas, this way back in the 80s.
But X-files had an overarching myth arc, DS9 had an overarching arc. And this is not a normal TV series that arrives at my TV at a fixed time, it’s streaming and I have to pay extra for it! Why would I pay extra to leave it running as background while doing housework?
Why, if with streaming I can pick the time when it fits into my schedule, would I not be glued in front of the screen following it?
If TV writers still think that way, they are 20 years behind reality, where good series have not just thousands of fans, but thousands of fans which spend hours online debating, discussing, nitpicking things – and learning about real-life backgrounds – and disappointing all these hardcore fans who take a serious dedicated series seriously and expect at least competent writing is … killing the golden goose.
Is this a function of using multiple directors and writers (especially when you run a PR campaign on their identity)? Could cause pressure to make each episode a satisfying mini-movie rather than a cohesive whole – each director wants to make her mark, nobody wants to be the one who just did the “filler” episode.
I also don’t understand where showrunners are getting this idea. Game of Thrones, which this was obviously intended to compete with, was best regarded in the early seasons where there was a cohesive, slow burn narrative, and reviews started getting poor when you started getting the jumpy plot and “big moments” that weren’t earned / threw away a lot of setup. If you’re going to copy Game of Thrones, why on earth would you say, “let’s do what they did with season 8 – that worked great!”?
Do they really do this even with this type of show–did they do it with this show? Having different people direct different episodes? Good Lord, that is such a bad idea. Why does the industry spend so much money on bad ideas?? And why do they ignore the importance of story???
Multiple directors are necessary to meet schedules. The director is not just directing the live action scenes with actors and sets. The director is somewhat involved in pre-production, working out the schedule and availability; and very involved in post-production, overseeing the addition of special effects and editing. (And in the 21st C post-production can be very extensive thanks to CGI.)
So if a TV series uses multiple directors, you can overlap the shooting of one episode with the pre- and post- production of others. Which gets everything running more smoothly and most of the people involved in continuous work. (Plus, directors do get sick, have family emergencies, etc.)
For an arc series rather than episodic this is why a “showrunner” is so important, such as JMS on Babylon 5. They **should** be maintaining a consistent vision so all the directors have similar ideas about story, characters, themes, style. When the showrunner does this you get Babylon 5. When there’s no showrunner or they can’t, you get Star Wars VI and VII.
And once again no edit bites me. Star Wars Episodes 8 and 9.
“It’s Hollywood. Nobody knows anything.”
Having multiple directors (and scriptwriters!) is a practical necessity of filming in a reasonable timeframe, although it does take work keeping them all on the same page.
Bear in mind, TV show directors are not usually as influential as movie directors. there are a lot of things to shoot, so TV shows usually have multiple directors that are brought in and told to implement a house style. they’re mostly not implementing their vision, they’re implementing the vision of the showrunner/producer/etc. Or at most, defining a show’s look, which is then imitated by the other directors.
Tomasz Bagiński said something similar about modern young viewers wanting emotions and not logical plot, in interview about Witcher production. Now, Witcher cratered hard, so probably it’s nonsense take.
“I suspect a lot of the problems with Rings of Power stem from the fact that it’s a television show rather than a movie… You’re not giving it your full attention.”
The most expensive show in television history was made for a subscription streaming service on the assumption that no one paying to watch it would pay much attention to it?
“Who has been regularly tensioning the ropes on this tower and why!?”
I assume some ‘minions as a service’ subcontractor, like the ones who do all that death trap maintenance in ancient tombs.
“I cannot communicate how damaging this is for viewer investment because now nothing we see matters because at any moment the showrunners might just decide that the thing they just showed us didn’t actually happen and some other thing did. Infuriatingly bad.”
[Someone should link that Kathy Bates rant from “Misery.”]
I often describe not-so-great movies as ‘can’t decide what sort of movie it is’ or ‘several movies in a back and forth struggle for control.’ Maybe there is a Satoshi Kon movie in there trying to get out?
(Satoshi Kon was an anime director who did a lot of excellent ‘What is reality? Actually, is there reality at all?’ mind-screw plots.)
A take on Lord of the Rings in the style of Satoshi Kon would be an absolute trip.
I’m a simple person, easily satisfied. All I wanted was Annatar, Celebrimbor’s body on a pole as a war banner, Númenor and the Númenorians as the most amazing kingdom of Men ever and then human sacrifice in the temple at Armenelos as Ar-Pharazon and Númenor descend deeper into pride, paranoia, arrogance, and decadence.
But noooo, they wanted to be *original* so they gave me Harfoots, Meteor Man, and Halbrand. And a potential Sauron/Galadriel romance which ends with Sauron stomping off to be an incel in Moria. The only two characters I liked were Adar and Pharazon (Pharazon mostly because he’s the only guy in Númenor who knows what he wants and is working towards that goal), and they’re the baddies. I would have liked Elendil, since the actor gives that character a glimmer of something – humour, patience, resignation – but the show treats him as only fit to stand around in the background while the Strong Women, Galadriel and Míriel, do all the work. This version of Celebrimbor would probably *welcome* being tortured to death and having his body used as a war banner, since at least he’d be doing *something* other than wearing a granny’s dressing gown and twiddling his thumbs instead of forging the Rings.
I sometimes feel there’s a related phenomenon to the “maximize surprise and spectacle at the cost of things making sense or having stakes” issue OGH points out, where the desire to wring maximum drama and emotional turmoil out of protagonists whose success or failure doesn’t follow from their actions in any discernible way leads the heroes of many stories to seem just, well, incredibly bad at heroing – constantly making terrible plans that succeed due to story fiat, or having solid, sensible efforts come to naught for the same reason – so that they bounce from inexplicable failure to unjustified recovery in a way that makes all their rhetoric and idealism eye-rolling rather than inspirational. Villains, on the other hand, are often allowed to make long-term plans and put real work into them until they pay off. Perversely, this can make them more satisfying to watch and more rewarding to root for.
The heroes win simply because they deserve to, they’re the Good Guys. Bad Guys on the other hand ‘need’ clever and masterfully executed plans because they have to; and thus their inevitable downfall only underscores the moral superiority of the Good Guys who were basically handed victory by God for their faithfulness.
And if the Good Guys ever do lose, like the Jedi in the prequel trilogy, it’s only because they somehow lost The One True Way, and their redemption and restoration consists of finding it again.
How often in fiction do we ever get to see the Good Guys losing simply because they were pulverized by overwhelming force, or because they clung to idealism while the villain used the most straightforward pragmatic path to winning?
May I suggest that, quite simply, the protagonists are basically villains who (along with the author) are suffering from a severe case of moral myopia? The most egregious examples are when a secondary character gets “stuffed in the fridge” — the author evidently cares more about the effect this has on the central character than about the victim, and takes it for granted that the hero would think like that. They imagine themselves nice because they are merciful to the designated villain, who gets hooks for a redemption arc, after having disposed of a large number of faceless mooks. Screentime equals moral worth? Their virtuous “kind and caring nature” just coincidentally picks up on exactly those people who further the hero’s personal goals, which is what “the plot” is?
A violence-prone but “idealistic” (read: sentimental) character who thinks highly of himself (hero? Chosen One?) is a dead ringer for an alazon whom the fool of an author is trying to shove into a sympathetic role. A iuvenis/adulescens iratus out to gain status, damn the collateral damage.
Depends on the writer.
To this day, it’s possible for the Good Guys to win because they can trust each other, while the Bad Guys fall apart due to internal mistrust.
If done right, yes. In fact the whole story of LotR is the good guys snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat by doing the one thing the villain never even dreamed they might do, because it would require a literally unthinkable self-abnegation. Or Return of the Jedi, when Luke’s unfaltering compassion turns out to be the key to the one shred of decency buried in Vader’s heart, which in turn is the secret weapon that destroys the Sith. But it’s the rare writer who can pull this off convincingly instead of just making it look like a deus ex machina.
Clarification: I didn’t mean to criticize well-written stories, or the protagonists being virtuous, or claim that altruistic impulses and behaviors were incompatible with effectiveness and pragmatism. My irritation is with authors who play “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” completely, unironically straight, treating it as normal and moral and writing their heroes as having this attitude. With characters who fail to ask “are we the baddies?” because we are not dark-themed and, more importantly, we are we, and thus cannot be the baddies.
Likewise, idealism and sentimentality are separate concepts. Idealism may turn out good, bad or neutral; my beef is with authors who confuse them, to whom “can’t we all be friends?” (where “we all” stands for perhaps a dozen named characters) appears as the highest possible aspiration there can be.
It’s amazing how Hot Shots! does it better while parodying the concept. At the end when one of the villains who was doing his scheming with good intentions has a change of heart, and the protagonist is like “Good for you! See you in court martial!”
we see this in empire strikes back, which is one of the many great things about that film.
Ned Stark come to mind.
Once, a long time ago, someone described why most published TTRPG adventures are garbage. They are written by people who wanted to be novelist, but couldn’t find a publisher because they were kind of bad. And now they work for RPG publishers, because they are the only once that accept the garbage wages RPG publishers pay. So we get RPG adventures that are written as novels, by people who do not care for RPGs AND can’t write.
Now we reached the point were new writers grew up, on those horrible adventure modules.
This is a neat just-so story which has one the great characteristics for a just-so story to have staying power, it gives you someone to feel better than. Unfortunately it’s probably bullshit.
Most adventure modules bought are never used. Doubly so when you go further back in time because it’s a small hobby and there isn’t so much internet to find people to play on. So there are lots of people buying these modules and all they do is read them, even if they would like to play them.
Which leaves you with two goals if you want to hold onto both segments of customers.
1. Make something that is fun to read front to back
2. Make something that is easy and fun to use at the table in a roleplaying game
They’re contradictory. One requires linearity and lots of prose. The other requires something that’s well indexed, clean, and has great page-design. Good to use adventure modules are more like technical manuals than books. But when lots of people are buying them essentially as books it pays to lean towards writing them that way.
Your just so story, and my just so story are not contradictionary.
If memory serves, most of the stuff you listed is from the Silmarillion, which the makers of RoP don’t have the rights to. The series is made partly from stuff they are legally allowed to use (LotR’s appendices, basically) and the rest is by necessity original.
Yeah. My personal take would be that trying to do a TV show covering the period of the Silmarillion, when you don’t have the rights to the Silmarillion, is a fool’s errand, but they didn’t ask me.
(I at least would have gone with something that wasn’t going to be directly compared to the Silmarillion, if they really needed to do a prequel show. Appendix A has material they could have used for that. Aragorn doing Ranger stuff and staring longingly at Arwen, the founding of the Kingdom under the Mountain and/or its fall to Smaug, the history of Gondor, there were options!)
I was hoping they’d focus on the recipients of the rings of power, especially the one would be the Witch-King. You could weave a nice tragedy out of that without contradicting canon or using what you don’t have the rights to.
But they could’ve covered all the main beats of the Second Age with the Appendices. One of my comments on the last post linked to a YouTube series that shows how they could’ve done it:
But they do have the rights to the Appendices, which contain an abbreviated version of events in the Silmarillion. Yes, there might need to be some delicate legal manoeuvring over “is this legit to use as part of the Appendices or is it properly part of the Silmarillion?” but it’s doable.
You have the rise and prosperity of Númenor and then the darkening of spirit and the kings becoming proud, greedy, and envious of Elvish immortality at the same time as Númenor is becoming an empire. You have the events in Middle-earth, the forging of the rings, Sauron growing in power, his first check by the Númenoreans, the glory years of Khazad-dum, Ar-Pharazon seizing the throne and deciding to challenge Sauron for the lordship of the earth, Sauron’s forces fleeing before the might and power of the Númenoreans and Sauron deciding to use guile and trickery instead of force, the corruption of Numenor, the Downfall and the landing of Elendil and the Faithful in Middle-earth. There’s plenty there for three seasons at least. The annals are sketchy, but competent scriptwriters could fill them in, even if avoiding direct quotation from the Silmarillion would be tricky:
Sauron endeavours to seduce the Eldar. Gil-galad refuses to treat with him; but the smiths of Eregion are won over. The Númenoreans begin to make permanent
The Elven-smiths instructed by Sauron reach the height of their skill. They begin the forging of the Rings of Power.
The Three Rings are completed in Eregion.
Sauron forges the One Ring in Orodruin. He completes the Barad-dûr. Celebrimbor perceives the designs of Sauron.
War of the Elves and Sauron begins. The Three Rings are hidden.
I honestly believe, for all that the interviews etc. said about wanting to be original and tell the story that had never been told, what Bezos wanted was “Lord of the Rings: Version Two” and that’s why we get Galadriel, Elrond, Sauron, the Dwarves, Mordor and Gandalf (Meteor Man is Gandalf, let’s be real here) with all the copying of scenes from the movies and even lines. That’s why they only bought the LOTR rights.
Heck, one of the ideas I had for improving the plot involved a bluff of “Halbrand=Future Ringwraith”. They could have explained his contribution to Celebrimbor’s work as something easier for a mortal Man to see than an immortal Elf, left it an open question exactly when the Southlands were going to become Mordor (instead of making the location a Big Reveal), and milked out a bit more “is he evil from the start, or does he turn later?”
“I admit I have an ulterior motive in helping you: I hope to one day create a Ring of my own. Of course Men envy the Eldar their longevity. They have a mere century, and know not what awaits them after; is it any wonder they fear death?”
Don’t you just love IP law?
Okay, that’s not fair. Copyright and patents and stuff are good things at small scales, but when they extent beyond the original author’s death and get cut up into pieces to be scattered amongst several wannabe megacorps, the downsides outweigh the positives.
If only there was a way to write copyright laws that benefited small creators without letting big corporations wring money out of owning what amounts to well-crafted ideas.
In general I agree, but in this case, the Tolkein estate owns the Silmarillion because they haven’t sold the rights to anyone. Christopher Tolkein, who counts as an original author for legal purposes, decided no corporation should be able to wring money out of it, so they can’t.
Copyright was never — not even originally — meant to “benefit small creators”. It was meant to solve a specific problem scenario with the printing press. Namely, imagine what would happen if copyright did not exist, and a manuscript for the next book of an already-popular series came into existence. Press houses work by print runs, so if they decide to print N copies, first they print N copies of page 1, then N copies of page 2, and so on. Whichever press house finishes first and puts the book on the market, covers the demand, and all the other press houses are left with N unsellable copies of 80%-of-the-book. Apart from the waste, this also negatively affected readers: print houses would split up the book, throwing the first few chapters into a booklet they could push out quickly.
It made perfect sense to solve this by creating a monopoly right to mass-produce copies. Sure, a competitor can beat them to market, but more than all of their profit would be sued away from them. And it happened to make sense to originate this right with the author(s), but this is merely elegant, not necessary. It is a plausible alternate history for 17-18th c. absolutist governments to say “nobody has a right to print anything unless we explicitly say it is OK, the author can give the manuscript to the Censor’s Office and if found to be prosocial, the author will be paid by the Treasury and the right to print the work allocated to a printer/publisher house”.
Today, the problem looks different. As far as text and simple graphics are concerned, there simply isn’t a problem to be solved — fanfics and webcomics supported by patreon are a thing, and some are very good. Musicians make most of their money from live concerts and put their repertoire on youtube basically as an advertisement. However, big-budget movies and equivalents need a way for the studio to earn a lot of money. There are some ways to do this without copyright (can product placement and/or political propaganda fund “Triumph of the Will 2 with Coca-cola”?). However, they create an analog of the original motivating problem: how do we simultaneously motivate studios to create adaptations of popular books(&c) and yet not make them race to be the first.
There is a separate problem that the law doesn’t quite reflect the ontology of fiction. Because it would have been stupid to allow 17th c. publishing houses to hire in-house authors to riff off popular works, this is obviously forbidden. However, there was no particular reason to not allow an author to sell the printright of subsequent books in a series to different publishers. This is why the monopoly rights to different parts of the same “world” can end up with different publishers.
Indeed, for publishing reasons you might never know that the themes of Mercedes Lackey’s “Elemental Masters” series of novels were prefaced in her novel “The Fire Rose”, since it was published as a standalone and Elemental Masters only became a series under a different publisher. The series bibliography often doesn’t even list “Fire Rose” which is sometimes considered “book 0” of the series.
Even given that, they *wasted* Celebrimbor. We know he is the one who is friendly with the Dwarves of Khazad-dum – see his working and probably personal relationship with Narvi – but that all gets given to Elrond instead, and the current Greatest Elven Smith of His Generation and in Middle-earth has to hang around until some scruffy mortal tells him the mystical secrets of alloys. That’s supposed to be *better* than Annatar – mysterious but evidently Maia-level being – teaching the Elven smiths deeper lore of their craft, which since Sauron *was* at the start a Maia of Aule means he genuinely *does* have superior knowledge?
They better give him a lot more to do in the second season, but I have an awful feeling that they’ll go “Okay, Elven rings forged, no need for you anymore, bye-bye!” and drop him out of the storyline completely in favour of some new invented character.
I call bullshit on this. They had the Tolkien Estate on board. They could reference Luthien (with Huan!), Finrod, they could show the flight of the Noldor and the Oath Of Fëanor (or its cheap clone, anyway). They – Payne and McKaye – got the gig precisely because the Tolkien Estate greenlit them. So no, portraying Celebrimbor as an elderly blond fool in a green velvet curtain wasn’t due to not having the rights to the Silmarillion.
Reportedly, they have rights only to LotR. Obviously I have no inside knowledge about how anal the Estate is, but they paid over $400 million for the rights to LotR, so stakes might be high.
Luthien is mentioned in the main text, Finrod (and Finarfin) in the Appendix. Feanor and the departure of the Noldor is there, though no Oath (no sons, except as implied by the existence of Celebrimbor) or Huan. The Wolf that killed Beren is in the main text.
Sauron teaching and deceiving the Elven-smiths of Eregion is mentioned, “Annatar” is not.
I’m not chuffed about the show not being Silmarillion-correct. I think it could be an interesting intellectual exercise to try to extrapolate a “Silmarillion” only from Hobbit and LotR clues. But the show isn’t even using the material it _does_ have rights to. It’s like “I, Robot” or “Starship Troopers” having little connection to their alleged sources beyond the name.
Retreating from the tower to the village wasn’t a tactical mistake. Towers in Middle Earth are apparently liable to explode in response to a small impetus like the burning of a rope or the melting of a ring. Such flimsy structures wouldn’t be defensible. They’re really there to serve as ally-calling beacons, places for elves to watch the sunrise, or to look cool.
That was my thought as well. Given how easily Arondir is able to destroy the tower, I’d hate to be holed up in it to resist a siege.
This could have been foreshadowed. “Pull everyone back to the tower. We’ll make our stand there” “We can’t do that! The ropes are the only thing holding it together. The orcs will cut them and we’d all be killed.” “Hmm…”
Wouldn’t have taken more than a minute or two of exposition, and now you have proper foreshadowing and both suspense and surprise. The burning arrow is still stupid, but that can be overlooked for the sake of cool (or better yet, show that they have a highly flammable solution that they could soak the rope in!).
“But it depends on gunpowder which explodes when lit on fire.”
Um, no: gunpowder is a low explosive. Burning gunpowder mostly produces smoke and invisible gases; those gases have to be contained in something (like a gun barrel) to produce enough pressure to actually produce an explosion (or propel a projectile).
On the other hand, a lot of things such as ships and fortifications did in some sense recognizably “blow up” during the age of gunpowder. And powder mills themselves had a reputation for exploding, too.
I’m guessing that this was because a powder magazine was enough of a confined space, and gunpowder burns fast enough, that the necessary gas pressures could build up to blow the roof and walls off the structure itself.
There was the reenactment of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, which showed that if it had been carried off successfully Parliament and all those therein would have been utterly destroyed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2G8k7zXhkI
Also, there was an enormous accidental gunpowder explosion in China:
(I’m suspicious of the exact numbers in the article though; the figures for the radius don’t match the figures for the area.)
Hmm… if the reported size of the devastated area is taken as the diameter of the region, rather than the distance from the epicenter, then the reported area is approximately right.
Since the place was a gunpowder factory I could believe there would have been a lot of gunpowder dust on all surfaces and floating in the air, providing an explosive mixture. Similarly to how grain elevators are susceptible to explosions. That initial explosion in the factory probably had enough force to destroy and explode containers at the local stockpiles.
Most people don’t like leaving gunpowder lying in big heaps on the floor. It’s easier to use (and less likely to get wet or mixed with non-explodey dust) if you put it in containers. Barrels, for instance.
Yes, they have to be contained by something. Like a room. You know, the magazine they’re already in to keep them safe from errant sources of ignition.
You don’t need the container to be airtight for gunpowder to explode; muzzleloading guns weren’t. You need the avenues of escape to be small enough relative to the amount of gas generated that the powder produces more gas than can escape.
“(unless it also has unlimited respawns, like Adar’s army)”
I busted out laughing at this line. Well done.
“(this post is already really long)”
To paraphrase the quote by Roger Ebert, no good blog post is too long and no bad blog post is too short.
“if this fortress was defended (as he thinks it is!) this would be an incredibly foolish way to approach it, as the defenders could fire arrows or throw all manners of lethal rocks down on an approach this dense, lacking shields or cover”
Although these are the same villagers who forgot to bring any provisions with them as they were fleeing to the tower for refuge, so that after one day they ended up with only two potatoes to feed the huddled masses and Theo had to run *back* to the abandoned village to forage and run into the Orcs, so I think Adar is fairly safe betting they won’t have the braincells to come up with a sophisticated and complex plan like “stand on the walls and throw rocks down at the oncoming army”. He also knows all the Elven garrison save Arondir are dead, so no risk of archers shooting at him, or not much risk anyway.
I see people waving away complaints like these — and the sword-key setting off the volcano — by contending, “Well, it’s a fantasy world. Must be magic.” But these poor villagers live in such squalor they pretty clearly don’t live among magic, nor do they react to these amazing events as if they were magical. (Unlike, say, the Harfoots, who are pretty clearly startled and alarmed by The Stranger and his powers.)
“It’s magic” is a relatively good way to explain singular extraordinary events or exotic creatures (a dragon, a volcano erupting when it really shouldn’t).
It’s not a good way to explain comparatively basic, mundane things where all the components (buildings, wood, fire, ropes, and so on) are individually well-understood, commonplace things.
“you might imagine a trap where the enemy is lured in and the room full of powder is set off, destroying the fort in a fantastic explosion. Now in practice this wasn’t really done very often (for one thing, you have all of that powder for a reason and ‘blowing up your own fort’ isn’t it), but the physics is at least understandable and it is a classic of westerns.”
This appears to have been attempted at the Alamo, for example, but the enemies thus lured in simply shot the guy with the torch.
A Dutch captain plunged into the powder room with a light as his ship was taken by the enemy. blowing them and himself to smithereens (Belgian war of independence)
The Dutch did something similar during the siege of Fort Zeelandia in Taiwan (1661-2): when they were forced to abandon an outlying position due to enemy bombardment, they left a fuse leading to several barrels of gunpowder, blowing the place up just as the Zheng troops were occupying it.
I understand that movies and TV will often sacrifice realism or careful plotting for the sake of a visually exciting setpiece, and that this can often be the right choice (though assuming it’s one or the other suggests a failure of imagination). With that acknowledged, that whole “let’s use our most defensible position, a probably ancient structure that we absolutely do not have the means or skill to rebuild, as a disposable trap that doesn’t actually decisively defeat the enemy, and do it like we’re pulling one key domino out of the stack” sequence sounds like it would be unbelievably goofy and ridiculous, not cool or exciting. I guess in a way this is following in the tradition of the LotR and Hobbit movies, which included more and more such “silly” unphysical setpieces that felt (genuinely, not snarking) like they were intended to entertain preteen viewers for a few minutes while the adults tuned out.
What’s especially baffling is that the setup of “a small band of skilled fighters must prepare a peaceful village to defend itself” is the opposite of new ground the writers need to invent story beats for! It’s a very well-established cinematic trope that’s been re-envisioned and iterated on for decades! People expect the villagers to build rough fortifications and fight smart, it’s okay, you can let them!
I’d watch “Tolkienverse does Magnificent Seven Samurai”. I do not remember seeing a version of that where it’s a group of elves preparing a village to ward off an orc army, but I’ve seen countless other versions with varying degrees of fantasy-ness and they could certainly have cribbed. And yeah, everyone expects to see cleverly repurposed farming implements and tactics that rely on local-level terrain knowledge in that sort of thing. “Ah, we’ll drive them towards the pond where Old Snappy lives! Old Snappy loves to have visitors for dinner.”
” I’d watch “Tolkienverse does Magnificent Seven Samurai””
So, the Scouring of the Shire adapted to the screen?
Yes, I would love to see a Scouring of the Shire movie. My dream would be a one-movie rendition of The Hobbit, then one more movie on Young Aragorn, then one movie on The Scouring of the Shire.
Were you aware of the 4-hour Hobbit movie? Maple Films stripped out a bunch of the extraneous stuff from the 3 PJ Hobbits and spliced them together into one long movie that was more satisfying for Tolkien fans.
And at the end, the few remaining elves depart and final comment is that only the villagers won and the age of man is coming. Glorious!
“However, the plot of many of the middle episodes quite clearly builds towards a ‘major’ battle (which at last happens in Ep. 6, “Udûn”) and while this battle doesn’t actually matter very much to the plot (its net effects are almost entirely undone by the beginning of the next episode, a nasty habit Rings has”.
I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s famous criticism of Fenimore Cooper and some of the 18 literary rules Twain accuses Cooper of breaking
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.
2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
I can’t help but to think of Romance of the Three Kingdoms portrayal of Zhuge Liang, who is also known his stratagems, ambushes, and use of fire.
As the good doctor points out, showrunners really ought to, if not outright copy then at least look for pointers, from history or well-regarded works of art rather than having the hubris to think of themselves as more clever than the ancients or the great authors whose works have withstood the test of time. If you want to portray a crafty general, I’m sure audiences would eat up stratagems like the Empty Fort Strategy (to stick with Liang), leading up to an actual ambush in the path of withdrawal the enemy army opts to take.
“As the good doctor points out, showrunners really ought to, if not outright copy then at least look for pointers, from history or well-regarded works of art rather than having the hubris to think of themselves as more clever than the ancients or the great authors whose works have withstood the test of time”
Ah, but I would argue this is exactly the problem – I don’t think they actually believe that these works have in fact withstood the test of time, they think they are faulty and need to be fixed. Which seems to extend even to the technical parts of the works. As long as this attitude is not changed, and the authors don’t go back to ADAPTING and TRANSLATING rather than “improving”, I don’t think we’ll get a good adaptation.
This always strikes me as such a baffling attitude to take when adapting a work. The reason the rights to the work are so expensive is that it’s a good work! Modern sensibilities will demand some changes like representation, and some things don’t translate well to the screen, but you should want to avoid changing the key bits because they’re why the audience liked the thing in the first place.
Like, I haven’t watched it, but from what I hear Amazon’s Wheel Of Time series inexplicably decides to split up the heroes so one of them is going to the third book’s events and the other two are going to the second book’s events, after one of them sat out appearing for the climactic battle, which they rewrote so as to not introduce the main group of antagonists. Just why?
The main character sitting out was because a main cast member left most of the way through production and they didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Everything else is valid, at least potentially.
Directors and scriptwriters seem determined to put their mark on an adapted work, often to the point of mutating it beyond recognition.
Because they see this as an opportunity to wright the work THEY wanted to wright, they just see the IP as something to get people to pay attention. But otherwise think those people would accept anything with the IP slapped on and so get defensive when this is proven untrue.
That’s the other thing that’s absolutely guaranteed to sink a property: when writers are called in who at best don’t understand and at worst are actively contemptuous of the property’s following, and who presume that they can crank out any piece of trash and the drooling fanbois will lap it up.
Although sometimes you have exceptions, like the Paul Verhoeven Starship Troopers movie. The thing to keep in mind there, though, is that Verhoeven wasn’t trying to rewrite or improve upon Heinlein’s novel, but instead tell an entirely different story with different themes, etc. If Rings of Power wanted to be about how stupid nobles are and the problems with inherited power, then maybe they’d make something worth watching; but they seem to want to keep the broad beats and themes of Tolkien but are nowhere near his level as a writer.
The other thing to keep in mind with Verhoeven’s version, of course, is that it wasn’t Starship Troopers originally and probably wouldn’t ever have enough budget to build something that the fans would enjoy. But that’s just another reason to recognize the limitations you’re working within.
Man, when this show was first announced, all I wanted was for them to not Game of Thrones-ify it. While they didn’t go all GoT with the sex and violence, it looks like they did with the writing. I knew things were looking bad when they hired chief Benioff and Weiss crony Bryan Cogman. Despite that, I told myself to be cautiously optimistic for the show, but I’m still disappointed.
I only made it to episode 4, but everything I’ve seen from this series justifies my decision to bail then.
Is it so much to ask for one well written fantasy series? The Witcher was ok, the Wheel of Time was utterly forgettable, I don’t even need to get into Game of Thrones. Science fiction got The Expanse, can’t fantasy catch a break? I guess there’s always Arcane.
I consider Sandman to be fantasy, but perhaps you don’t. But, I’d give it well written.
If you read any interview with the creators you’ll see their minds have been so thoroughly toxified by Hollywood workshop doctrine about beats, and arcs, and moments, and twists, that they have ignored how to put together plots and scenarios that make sense outside of this arcane system. Similar to the innumerable unearned and unexplained moments in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.
The shoe-throwing moment for me was when Galadriel hands over her sword, which is unexplained but either a millennia-old Elven artifact or a Numenorean loaner, to Theo, who in either case does not deserve it one bit. But it fulfills the “cement friendship” move like in one of those dissatisfying tabletop RPGs with story-level mechanics.
It’s easy to make clever plans/tricks that plausibly work when you’re writing a duel, or a fight involving maybe a dozen people at most. The fewer people there are, the more that character flaws or architectural features or individual actions can shift the balance of the fight. On a battle level, you need to either contrive a series of overwhelming coincidences or come up with something wild like mixing necromancy and geomancy to reanimate an extinct volcano. And let’s face it, it’s hard to write “The enemy gate is down” scenarios convincingly, especially if you want the non-protagonists of the story to come off as experienced professionals and not kids who leave after a few years of training.
If I wanted to give Rings of Power the benefit of the doubt, I could suggest that they’re just trying to write pitched battles the way you’d write a good duel. But while that’s probably part of it, I think that post-Reddit* serial media is developing a horrible habit of trying to surprise the audience. They want people to discuss and speculate about what might happen next, which they won’t do if it’s obvious; but they also need to do something unexected, because nobody’s going to talk about something everyone knew was coming. And if someone online figures out who Jon Snow’s father is, everyone on Reddit is going to find out within days.
So they need to tease that some big reveal is coming soon, but also make sure that nobody on the Internet can correctly guess what that reveal is going to be. That’s a great recipe for creating shows that get a lot of views and buzz when they come out—that improve a lot of immediate, easily-measurable metrics, that make lines go up in the short term—but which fall apart once the show runs out of reveals and ends. Look at BBC Sherlock, look at Game of Thrones, look at Kingdom Hearts.
(Also the Star Wars sequels to an extent, though part of that is because Disney passed creative control in pretty much the worst pattern possible—it would have been better to have each film directed by a new director than to give Abrams a chance to finish his vision on a foundation that no longer supported it.)
Once you’ve got that criticism in your head, you start seeing it everywhere in big-budget narratives. Attempts to surprise the audience and get them talking about how unexpected it was, damn the consequences.
*These problems extent well beyond Reddit, but the rise of Reddit made this sort of online discussion a lot easier and more prevalent, even for fandoms too puny to have their own BBCode forums or whatever.
It’s a tensegrity watchtower, duh. It’s a well-known structure in Snelsonan fortifications.
I can’t think of anything to say, this is just a really good quote.
“or come up with something wild like mixing necromancy and geomancy to reanimate an extinct volcano.”
I understood that reference. Shame how that comic went off the rails.
It also helps if you have a holographic map of the entire battlefield that’s constantly updated and easy telepathic communication and your opponent has scouts and hats.
1) They should apply “write what you know” and embrace that the
battlingskirmishing armies…fine, armies… are a few dozen, or few hundred people. Make it e.g. a Bronze Age village trying to free themselves from having to pay tribute to the small city nearby, while ordinary character-driven plots (“who gets to marry whom”) interact with it, possibly on both fighting sides (and on not-yet-aligned sides).
2) The shows institutionally have borderline personality disorder? Volatile mood, wildly swinging between extreme emotions. Abandonment fears, which means that any attention is better than no attention, and since it’s much easier to earn negative attention, eventually they make everyone hate them. Threatens early discontinuation. Uninterested in “dull” details.
3) Well-known quote: suspense has rewatch value, baffling surprise does not.
“ They want people to discuss and speculate about what might happen next, which they won’t do if it’s obvious; but they also need to do something unexected, because nobody’s going to talk about something everyone knew was coming. And if someone online figures out who Jon Snow’s father is, everyone on Reddit is going to find out within days.”
I think you’re right, but this is absolutely the wrong lesson for them to take. Everybody DID figure out who Jon Snow’s parents were, and they still spent tons of time talking about it, and arguing about alternative theories, and wondering when / if it would been confirmed, and what effect it would have on the plot when it did, and then analyzing I’m detail the scene of the big reveal.
The show confirmed a years-old fan theory and it was awesome and one of the most talked about things in the post-books run of the show.
How on earth they took the lesson “let’s definitely not do that again” is baffling.
I would also point out that people still talk about LOTR today. The reason is that it’s good. It has interesting characters worth discussing. Or look at Star Wars. The old EU is pretty much nothing but extensive fan theories, enough to keep a franchise alive and profitable for a generation.
Put half the creativity spent towards trying to confuse the audience into making characters the audience likes, and you don’t need to worry about the audience discussing fan theories. They’ll do it without you trying.
I remember the showrunner for Mr. Robot being so disappointed a couple of episodes into Season 2 when he realized people had instantly figured out that the delusional main character was not, in fact, living in his highly regimented childhood home with a streetwise roommate, but was actually in prison. The solution is not to try to keep the 2020s-era audience mystified, but to keep the characters mystified and reward the audience with the characters’ reactions when they realize what’s going on.
“Copy this scene with all of the devotion of George Lucas watching an Akira Kurosawa film for the first time”
Ha. At some point, it would be good to have something on how terrible the Star Wars series is in terms of..
.. the economics – even small ships can do planet – interstellar travel – planet journeys. Energy must be really, really, really, really cheap. Do we see the effects of that in the worlds? No.
.. the military science – it’s WW2 in space. With Samurai. Landing craft are based on what you’d want for attacking a beach (troops get out at the front) not when air landing (protected when exiting).
.. the physics – never mind the way all the planets have the same gravity, or the way fighters have their engines on constant full power without accelerating and manage to turn by just rolling and other ships go from FTL to a stop in fractions of a second, even light travels faster than light.
.. the AI – let’s have a robot that fully understands spoken English / ‘interplanetary common tongue’, but can’t say anything except by whistling.
The original Star Wars trilogy is a great example of how good story telling overcomes implausibility. Yes it’s all terrible in the terms you bring up, but by and large the fans don’t care because it is compelling in other ways. If the Rings of Power writers won’t learn from LOTR about fidelity to the source material, they could have at least learnt from Star Wars how to make implausibility still watchable.
My example would be Arondir bringing down the tower, which in story mechanics is almost identical to Luke destroying the Death Star in Star Wars A New Hope.
In Star Wars, we learn about “the plans” in the very first sequence. There are occasional reminders that it isn’t just Leia who needs to be taken to the Rebels, but R2-D2 and “the plans”. And then we get an actual briefing explaining with diagrams how the rebels can destroy the Death Star! I can assure younger readers that even when the movie first came out we knew exactly how this was going to end.
We don’t watch and re-watch Star Wars because of a plot twist or magic box surprise. Even though we know what will happen, the battle is such good story telling. Lucas shows us that this is hard: rebel pilots fail and die. There’s even a little scene where we’re shown that the enemy have also worked out what’s going on, but have motivations and reasons that work for them to stay. The Empire sending out “reinforcement” TIE fighters isn’t a surprise, as we see both Vader giving the order and then the Rebels confirming that they’re on the way. Doesn’t matter!
There is one surprise, the Millennium Falcon returning. But this was foreshadowed by the little interchange between Han and Chewie when they were about to leave. And while this is crucial it isn’t Han who destroys the Death Star. It’s still Luke representing the rebels who actually wins the battle.
Compare this to the Rings of Power equivalent. Arondir shoots an arrow. He hits first time. The tower collapses. WTF?
Star Wars: A New Hope does not follow the known laws of physics, etc. But it is *internally* logical.
It also follows the “folk physics” that people instinctively expect, so in a sense it follows rules the audience expects more consistently than reality does.
RoP offers none of this – just a bunch of cool-looking moments with the thinnest of justifications to hold them together. Then again, I might say the same of the Sequel Trilogy.
Any number of megahit franchises have long since proven you can have pants worldbuilding as long as you’re superficially internally consistent. Harry Potter (eg) isn’t even all that great at internal consistency, but it is Good Enough To Beat The Bad Worldbuilding.
To repurpose a PTerry Quote: “The people don’t want news. They want olds.”
An excellent article, and as ever I enjoyed the skill with which you weave in points about effective narrative structure as well as strict historical accuracy. I think you might have fun performing a similar dissection of the battle scene at the end of The Witcher’s first series, which struck me as probably one of the most incoherently plotted and confusingly shot battle scenes I’ve ever seen.
This is a bit off-topic, but having observed your Twitter feed lately, I couldn’t help but feel slightly taken aback. This will come across as rather critical, Bret, and I mean it in the spirit of friendly advice, but have you considered that one of the reasons why university departments are hesitant about giving you a permanent job is that you keep tweeting that they’re all morons for not hiring you and that you don’t need them anyway (or words which are fairly transparently to that effect)? Now I’m 100% certain that you would be an asset to any faculty, and am fully on board with your points about the importance of teaching and public engagement relative to pure research. However, if I were in charge of a hiring process, and my two options were “(a) quiet research-focused guy who will be totally unemployed if I don’t hire him” and “(b) guy who is constantly posting about how our entire process is trash, and about how stormingly well his lucrative back-up career is going”, then I might be at least tempted to go with the former.
You are, of course, well within your rights to decide that you won’t kowtow to hiring boards’ wrongheaded sensibilities, and that broadcasting the fact that the current system unfairly excludes you is more important than maximising your chances of getting a job. However, as someone whose key selling point is their ability to effectively communicate a message to a chosen target audience, you might find it worth stepping back for a moment to think about how this particular message lands in all circles, and whether it serves your overall strategy. You are probably doing a service to the field at large by being loud about this, but I would be sad if that came at the cost of your own prospects, and the broader point is also slightly undermined the more it comes across as rooted in your own particular circumstances.
Only my two cents, anyhow. You are already far further down the path to tenure than I will ever be, and there are indeed plenty of other paths worth pursuing, so feel free to take my advice with a whole mountain of salt!
But the academic hiring process is undeniably broken, and it’s good for people with a platform to say that. If people don’t call that out for fear of personal backlash, then it will never get fixed (which it won’t anyway, but it’s good to try).
The alternative would be to wait until he has a fairly secure position, then use whatever power he has to change the system. The obvious problem with that is, of course, that once people have a secure position within the system, their interests tend to diverge quite a bit from those of people trying to get into the system.
Wheeler’s book about strategems and trickery is available for check-out at the Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/stratagemvocabul0000whee
I downloaded it, and it’s a philological monography, it’s interesting for me as I have completed half the studies in Latin and Greek but it doesn’t list military strategems or tricks, (the thing I was looking for to adapt some in my project of fantasy novels) as Machiavelli’s “The Prince” does with political strategems. The most useful book I have read till now for this endeavour of mine (and it’s not exactly what I wanted) is “The grand strategy of the Byzantine Empire” by Edward Luttwak. If anyone knows of a book that lists strategems, please, let me know!
I don’t know of a general book, but the trickiest commander in history was probably Montrose, who won several battles with misdirection, local surprise and effrontery. There are at least two good biographies of him.
Thanks, I’ll search for it. It may be the case that this Montrose (good rock and roll group!) lived in the era of gunpowder and muskets or closer to us? I confess my ignorance. I’m more interested in pre-gunpowder military tricks, though.
I’m guessing it was this guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Graham,_1st_Marquess_of_Montrose
“Respawns” is right. The tower trick and the escape across the bridge is the sort of thing I would expect to see in an early-2000s action-adventure computer game where a lone hero has to save the day all alone. Like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the PC. One “Flippendo” spell in the right place, and bob’s your uncle! The action of shooting specific weak points to bring things crashing down to save the day is an old trope of video games.
Given our current era, suffused with video games as we have been for decades, I imagine that the writers are more familiar with video game tropes than westerns. So they tried to apply the “attack its weak point” logic to rope…without being at all familiar with the shape and size and strength of actual hempen cord. (Who even sees that stuff these days?)
That being said, the rest of the battle doesn’t exactly feel like a video game. A video game writer would have the heroes defending that chokepoint over the stream, because player investment depends upon a certain amount of suspense about whether they’ll win an engagement, and a chokepoint is the perfect place to heighten that suspense. You can plausibly have a few people defend it and win, in video games and the real world.
No, everything after the tower sequence feels like the desperate improvisation of an unskilled DM who has realized that the action sequence they had planned was over too quickly. (Speaking from personal experience here.) So what do you do? Uh…oh no, here’s another orc army! And then another! What will these bold heroes do? How can they win the battle in a way that makes it clear they were the key factor all along, and not all these ordinary people who usually do all the work in these situations? Clever tricks, of course! Good job, everybody, you all earned enough XP to level up, see you next week.
“So they tried to apply the “attack its weak point” logic to rope…without being at all familiar with the shape and size and strength of actual hempen cord.”
We have a type of warfare where “Attack the rope” was an effective tactic: naval warfare, particularly 1700s/early 1800s. They had specialized devices fired from cannons (well, great guns of various types) specifically designed to sever ropes. When they had to attack the rope by hand (such as if a mast fell) they used axes. It was more akin to felling a tree than to snipping a string. And those ropes were holding up wooden masts, not towers, so were likely much less substantial than what would be needed in the show (ropes got really freaking big at that time). This gives an indication to the amount of force involved.
Fire was an issue, because the ropes were greased or tarred to prevent decay. It took a bit to get them going, but they could be burned–to devastating effect if you used a ship as a fire ship (light it on fire, sail it into an enemy port or other gathering of ships, hopefully swim away before the fun starts). But that shows the scale of the issue. You’re burning A SHIP in hopes of setting other ships ablaze. If they could have done so with an arrow you can bet they would have opted for that. Even if only one in a thousand arrows succeeded it would still be orders of magnitude cheaper, and the crew wouldn’t have been summarily put to death (people did NOT like fire ships).
So ultimately the idea isn’t stupid. Having stays to hold something up absolutely was done, and I could see Numenorians–who at this point were mariners of some renown and no doubt have fought a few battles at sea–opting for that tactic, as it fits with their equipment, training, and experience. Instead of a bow and arrow, make it a few ballistas with an officer shouting “Arm for the stays!” and give the ammo a relatively broad cutting head. We could still nitpick the usefulness of the device, but at least it would give us an excuse to accept it as valid! Make the tower narrower (say, for a signaling device), and it would make more sense to be held up by stays. Anyone who’s driven past a radio tower has seen this in real life, and while it may be historically silly it wouldn’t immediately shatter suspension of disbelief. It also explains the need to defend it, as command and control is hard. As an added bonus it could also provide a nice visual reference back to the battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers”.
What this shows, yet again, is the lack of thought put into this show by the writers. The concept isn’t necessarily bad–it can work!–they just need to think about it for five minutes.
1. The show needs fire, however stupid, because otherwise the cameras couldn’t film the battle.
2. Re “getting it right produces a far more satisfying story than the restore to clever tricks and surprise ‘twists,'” this is also a problem with a lot of novels today: they’re all about the twists, not characters. People want to be surprised because they’re too lazy or in a rush to submit to suspense.
They need an orcvision cam that shows what darkvision is like.
As far as I’m aware it’s actually very common for films and TV to shoot night scenes during the day and colour-grade the resulting footage to make it look like it’s night time, which makes the scene broadly legible to the viewer while still looking reasonably dark. In fact (and it’s been a while since I watched the show, so this might be wrong), I’m fairly sure the battle scene in this episode of RoP was shot day-for-night; you can make out for too much detail of what’s going on for it to have been an actual night shoot (and presumably also it would have been ludicrously dangerous to shoot that much combat in near-total darkness). If the scenes had been shot in actual night-time with diegetic lighting only pretty much everything more than a foot or two from the fires would be more or less impossible to see at all.
Show runners as a class seem to have forgotten what makes a good mystery: the big reveal should be surprising in the moment, but obvious in retrospect. Now, this means some clever viewers (or “people who read the source material”) might guess the twist and not be surprised, but that’s ok because they get the alternate pleasure of “ha I was right all along!” Foreshadowing is good storytelling!
The big character reveals in The Sixth Sense and Fight Club were great because they were earned. If you go back and watch them you’ll catch lots of little clues to the truth – if you know the twist it’s fun to notice all these clever bits of foreshadowing, and if you were fooled by the twist the first time you’ll think, man why didn’t I catch that?
Similarly the first season of Westworld had a couple huge character twists at the end that were set up quite well. Of course this meant that fans on Reddit who picked apart each episode had more or less converged on the coming big reveals by the time they happened, and if you were a dedicated consumer of media about the show in addition to the show itself the twists were probably “spoiled”. (But even having guessed the twists I think seeing them play out was satisfying).
The show runners (who I seem to recall did an interview expressing frustration at online fans spoiling their clever surprises) seem to have learned the wrong lesson: surprise is the most important thing, logical foreshadowing is BAD because it ruins the surprise. So subsequent seasons went downhill. They leaned heavy into “shocking surprises” but gave up on setting them up logically, instead peppering episodes with red herrings and confusion and stuff that deliberately contradicts the big reveal to fool those naughty Redditors. So on rewatch your reaction isn’t “ooh how did I miss that hint?” It’s “hey wait a minute this makes no sense”.
Rings of Power seems to have gone full Westworld season 2.
‘So on rewatch your reaction isn’t “ooh how did I miss that hint?” It’s “hey wait a minute this makes no sense”.
This reminds me of one of the more frustrating books in Games Workshop’s Horus Heresy series (at least early on before they began including every side plot they could.)
You know from the start that one loyalist Space Marine Legion (the Raven Guard) has been infiltrated by spies from the traitor Alpha Legion, but you don’t know who they are impersonating. The infiltrators aren’t very good at their job, despite supposedly being experts, so one of the Raven Guard high command gets suspicious and begins investigating.
All the evidence points toward one of the other high command members as having been replaced by a spy, and at the climax of the book he rushes to stop the traitor’s plan, only for it to be revealed the person the evidence pointed toward is still loyal and that the real spy was… someone else.
And I mean ‘someone else’ literally, as it’s a character who was only mentioned in one page in passing right at the start. The author obviously felt this was a brilliant twist, but, as there was no evidence at all that it might be this other officer, it just doesn’t work.
The most effective twists, IMHO; are those you figure out roughly as they start to unfold. I’ll always think of Old Boy as a very effective version of that for me, in that I “got it” just before he opens the envelope with The Reveal.
There’s a similar thing with RahXephon (and both of them involve missing pieces of time and realizing the conseqeunces of that… hmmm…)
> On this see E. Wheeler, Stratagem and the Vocabulary of Military Trickery (1988); finding a copy may be difficult, unfortunately.
Apparently the OpenLibrary does have a copy which can be borrowed (which is a nice change from the usual, where they know about the book, but don’t have it)
Forget all this, the value of RoP is illustrating to us that the way to survive an erupting volcano is to just stand very, very still. And you’ll be fine.
“Don’t move! The pyroclastic flow can’t see us if we don’t move.”
Your comment about Ardonir and Adar being incompetent vs. incompetent reminded me of a comment from your Minas Tirith series about how Aragorn, Denethor (to a degree) and the Witch-King were all pretty much on their A-game. I’m curious about your answer to the following questions:
1. What other circumstances come to mind in fiction (Fantasy or Sci-Fi) where you’d say the generals/leaders/etc. of both opposing sides are very competent?
2. How would you implement the “Commander X wins a fight by using clever tricks” in a way that makes sense, so that authors are able to still have the option to resolve conflicts by using a character’s ingenuity instead of simply relying on rote technique? Such as if the Commander in question had a smaller force and was thereby able to “micromanage” a bit more? I’m not for a moment saying practicing military operations is something trivial or insignificant, but from an audience perspective it can be fun (if done well) to watch two opponents bamboozle each other.
One example that does come to mind for both categories is Thrawn from the Ascendancy trilogy, though being he’s in Star Wars and has a bit more advanced communications tech he can get away with a lot more
I think the Battle of Hoth was generally portrayed as two very competent commanders – the Empire executes an effective ground assault on a fortified position, the Rebels devise a fighting retreat that allows the majority of their force to escape. (There are plenty of kind of goofy things about the weapons and equipment of Star Wars, but in the context of those both commanders seem to make good decisions)
For #2, a lot of basic techniques still look visually impressive and clever even if they’re well-established. An ambush is an ambush even if the enemy has a plan to fight their way out of it.
Girls und Panzer has a leader who wins with clever and surprising tactics, but most of them are normal, understandable things like “let’s have Hippo Team set an ambush and drive the enemy into it” or “let’s draw the enemy into the city to force them to split up and negate their numbers advantage.” Like, if you wanted to be boring you could describe a lot of what Miho does as “basic tactics to preserve her force against a larger opponent while waiting for them to make a mistake” but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying when an enemy tank rounds a corner and finds itself staring down the barrel of the StuG.
(The final battle does have some zany tactics, but they admit that it’s crazy and desperate.)
I’m sure there are examples (including ones I’ve read) where this works well with mundane tactical resources but I can’t think of any. The closest I can think of is the general trope of misidrecting your attention away from the hidden relief force; I know I’ve encountered versions of this that worked for me (“wait, where’s Captain SecondaryHero, OH YEAH THERE HE IS!”), I just can’t pinpoint one at the moment.
The ones that stick out are all surprising uses of technology, which I think of as a science fiction thing even if two of the examples I’m going to cite are officially fantasy. I’m not a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s writing – I’ve read two “first book in a series” novels of his and not continued the series – but I can’t deny that I thought Mistborn was just chock-full of clever applications of the clearly-spelled out “technology” of the magic systems. This is on the scale of individual or small-group combat, not battles, but it kept putting me into that kind of “wait, if THAT works, then what if … COOL!” feedback loop.
Kind of a muted example because it’s not dwelt as a tactical innovation but the conclusion of Dune is a good example, I think. Spoilers if you haven’t finished the book, hope the spoiler tags work: Paul’s use of atomics against the shield wall. Everybody reading the book knows the Atreides (and all the other powerful houses) have nukes, but it’s spelled out clearly that nobody uses them because the Landsraad has Mutually Assured Destruction just like we did. The problem to be solved isn’t really highlighted as an insurmountable problem because by this point we know the Fremen can outfight the Sardaukar on foot, so the question of “how do we get our forces into Arrakeen” seems like one of those things that’s just a set up for “the fighting was very hard, we lost of a lot of troops.” Instead Paul nukes “a natural feature of the desert” that was in his way and the Fremen ride sandworms right into the Emperor’s face.
Finally, the best example I can think of is Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, where a number of the heroes are engineers as much as warleaders. They continually innovate new methods of warfare with which they surprise the enemy, justified because these new methods often rely on figuring out novel applications of not-that-established technology. I’ve only read the first half of the series but the battles usually have me grinning with surprise.
I think Dune also failed in this regard. Soldiers have shields that ensure that guns don’t work, so they use knives instead. But why knives instead of swords? And why doesn’t anyone wear armor under the shield? The shield only allows slow things through, and a slow blade won’t go through steel!
I think they do have swords, their trainers are called “swordmasters” after all. And in either the first or second sequel Alia is training against a fencing robot setup.
As to the armor question, dunno.
A fast blade won’t go through steel, either, unless we’re talking about an arrow from a very strong bow or a lance powered by the speed and mass of a horse (and even in those instances, not a sure thing).
I don’t remember if body armor is referenced in the books, but the recent movie shows that they are wearing armor when dressed for battle. I’d have to review the fight scenes to see how well the choreography accounts for this (like in Duncan’s death scene). It’s easy to imagine that “properly” depicted battlefield combat would involve grappling and aiming your weapon for gaps in the armor, just like real late-medieval knightly combat. The movie also shows that the primary blades used are really more like short swords, which is close to what I imagined in the books anyway; I never pictured them using, like, Ka-Bars as the weapon of first resort. I also could imagine that the dynamics of Dune-shield combat dictate against using longer swords because the “slow” attacks would be too visually telegraphed at that distance.
Can’t answer 2, but for 1 …
First example which I’ve gone on about in a different sub thread is the battle at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope. The rebels know what they’ve got to do, the empire figures out what they’re trying to do and responds, finally the rebels succeed. And the story telling and use of suspense is excellent. Rings of Power should have copied the structure and had Arondir bringing down the tower as the last sequence, not the first.
Another good example is the 1961 film El Cid. There is a siege and two battles at the end of the film, and while there are lots of historical inaccuracies as to equipment and events, overall I think they are very good representations of what really mattered. (The single combats, not so good.) It was filmed in Spain and the dictator at the time was trying to make friends in the West. He lent the production some 4000 army infantry and 1000 mounted police as extras, so the infantry and cavalry move in nicely disciplined lines instead of the usual mobs.
Commanders are portrayed as competent and mostly concerned with morale of their armies, not weaponry. El Cid has to deal with the politics of a fragile alliance of Christian and Spanish Moslems and is very aware of his own role as the talismanic leader. The two battles are decided by the effect of his presence or absence on the ordinary soldiers of his own army. The Almoravid army has their morale boosted by El Cid being severely wounded in the first battle, which caused El Cid’s army to falter and retreat. The Almoravid commander tells them that the Cid is dead, so when El Cid rides out at the head of his army the next morning, their morale collapses and they flee. (El Cid actually died from his wound, but he had commanded that he must lead the army, dead or alive, so has been strapped in the saddle.)
The Almoravids are religious puritans but they’re not stupid. I like a scene where the Emir of Valencia swears to assist Ben Yusuf, leader of the invading Almoravids, despite previously having sworn allegiance to El Cid. Ben Yusuf, who obviously doesn’t trust this guy any further than he could throw him, announces that Allah will reward the Emir in the next life … and then adds that he personally will reward the Emir with a new palace guard of his best Almoravid soldiers.
I like how this series has come to be less and less about problems with worldbuilding and more and more about problems with just basic storytelling.
I haven’t been reading here long so sorry if you already covered this.
Peter Jackson did a good job in most things but I think he slandered the Numenoreans.
Their tactics were terrible.
When the Orcs were attacking Osgiliath, Faramir let them land and then jumped in between waves of orcs, he purposely got surrounded while in defense.
In defending Minas Tirith, they use parts of the city as projectiles for their trebuchet, blocks that come straight down. They don’t seem to have round projectiles that could ‘graze’ and plow through the ranks of the enemy.
They also allow the orcs to marshall their army in range of their trebuchet and even worse, they don’t evacuate the lower levels before the battle.
Maybe the defense of Minas Tirith was purposely hampered by Denethor, but really, they presumably had professionals who would do what they could to actually defend their city.
Welcome to the blog! You’d get a lot from reading the series breaking down the siege of Minis Tirith.
Meant to say, I really like reading the posts here. They’re interesting, informative and entertaining.
To be fair: I am starting to think of this argument:
Short version: If you want good stuff, you have to point people to the good stuff, not complain about the bad stuff. Complaining about the bad stuff advertises it, after all.
Arondir’s decisions make no sense. Let’s look at what we know. The outfit Arondir is part of is apparently 3 elves and their job is to keep an eye on the Southlands. The orcs dig a network of ditches spanning, I wanna say maybe hundreds of miles in what feels like a week, so their number is clearly in the hundreds of thousands or more likely a million. or two I don’t know how fast people can dig but the orcish engineering endeavor is clearly pharaonic in scale.
So after he escapes from the orc camp he is the only elf that knows there is an army of orcs of unimaginable scale preparing an assault against the elven kingdoms and instead of racing to the closest other outpost to report this, he chooses to take them all on his own with 50 or so villagers for backup. What all these people should have done is run away. We could have a show that focuses on Arondir’s frantic race to reach the elven centers of power while being hunted by orcs and Southlanders, loyal to Sauron.
Yes. I don’t understand why the villagers were even trying to fight.
Or rather yes, of course, people will want to fight for their homes, but if there were enough orcs to be a threat to the Southlands and the elves as a whole, and a major concentration of their forces is near the village, one village ought to get steamrolled. And if there’s few enough orcs that fighting is do-able, how are they such a big threat?
I mean if it was a small detachment separate from a larger army, sure, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
But sure, if they’re determined to fight instead of retreating to warn others and fight as a part of a larger army – or maybe just figure that the orcs march faster than them and will just kill them all as they flee – why in the world would they not stay in the actual fortress built to allow much weaker forces to fight off much larger and more powerful ones?
Pop culture in general has a real problem with devaluing the kind of heroism that involves following orders and doing your duty to fulfill an essential role in a war effort so that ultimately more people are saved with fewer losses, even if that means avoiding fights and maybe having to allow terrible things to happen you could have prevented because you can’t justify the risk that intervention would pose to your mission. Instead there’s a strong bias towards a short-sighted focus on whatever’s right in front of the characters, on always standing up for what’s right against overwhelming odds, which in fiction looks very brave and good but in reality would often read as undisciplined and reckless.
It’s not even necessarily a matter of military discipline – it can be particularly bad in espionage stories, or anything where protagonists have to grapple with just not having the means to fight directly, but often do so anyway. Heck, there’s even just the standard thing of someone making a heroic sacrifice or a “go, I’ll hold them off” delaying tactic… only for the people they were helping to negate it by remaining, or delaying, or returning, so that if it weren’t for a deus ex machina rescue they’d simply get everyone killed instead of the people they weren’t willing to sacrifice.
The bit about stratagems reminded me of this funny tumblr post about repeatedly failing to do clever tricks in battle
“first day as a second century warlord i have my men tie branches to their horses’ tails to stir up dust and make it look like there’s a lot of us but i forget it just rained so there isn’t any dust and the enemy can clearly see there’s like twenty of us all spread out in a line”
So, the show showed you how shitty that tower is, held together only by an easily burned-down rope, and you complain that the good guys didn’t use it to hole up into?
I’m sorry, Bret, but like last times, it feels like you’re grasping at straw to rationalize why you hated RoP (which can be boiled down easily to “it’s a terrible show”) with isolated demands for rigor. I don’t recall anybody batting an eye at elven bread that never spoil & feed you with a mouthful per day, why reject elven wood armor? Wether you tell me an army is 10 000 strong, 200 000 strong* or don’t tell me anything, it’s going to disband the moment the showrunner want it to disband, because the spectator won’t have a tally of losses (in lives or morale) on each side while watching, and filming a battle while trying to keep a clear picture of how it’s going is mostly going to be dreadfuly boring, as opposed to following characters in close shots.
*:and I gotta say, having read the “wheel of time” serie recently, there were plenty of moments where “not telling me the numbers” would have been a better choice.
If a great army was frightened off by a lone swordsman, we would not say it was proven weak, we would say the writing was bad. All evidence is that the tower fell because it was a plot device.
I think the issue is the name. LOTR sets a certain standard for worldbuilding, and when that standard isn’t met it’s a betrayal of the audience.
If it were Diskworld no one would care. Physics doesn’t matter–as a matter of world-building physics has been made flexible to allow for specific types of story. A tower held up by rope would be silly, possibly played for laughs, maybe played straight, but it wouldn’t be out of place. Similarly in Xanth it would actually make MORE sense to have something like this–Xanth runs on puns. Dune gets around this sort of thing by having physics advanced enough to handle it–the focus is on people, without machines getting in the way. Conan hand-waved it by the titular barbarian being largely uneducated and traveling a lot; stuff appears inconsistent because the guy doesn’t know any better (and some unknown portion of it was him making stuff up; the idea was that Conan was telling the author stories, and spun yarns are never 100% true).
Tolkien focused on realism, particularly in military matters. Distances were important, as plot devices, as ways to raise/lower tension, as determining what characters do. Fantastical elements exist, but clearly in contrast to the more mundane and generally as ways to shift the balance rather than totally destroy it (except the Ring, of course). It’s reasonable to expect something that claims the name of LOTR to maintain that consistency.
There are also issues with consistency in tone, in focus, in character behaviors, etc. But the author if this blog is a military historian, so that’s what’ll jump out at him.
Peter Jackson got away with some things because the project was so ambitious that we were willing to forgive a lot. But things have changed in the past 20 years. Fantasy TV shows have a higher bar now, thanks to things like “Game of Thrones” and, ironically, Jackson’s movies. Consistency within intellectual property simply more important now, for two reasons. First, there’s a LOT of money to be made here. And second, betraying your audience by violating that consistency is a good way to lose that money.
Conan hand-waved it by the titular barbarian being largely uneducated and traveling a lot; stuff appears inconsistent because the guy doesn’t know any better (and some unknown portion of it was him making stuff up; the idea was that Conan was telling the author stories, and spun yarns are never 100% true).
Is this true? I just read the opening and closing pages of the first five Conan stories (“The Phoenix on the Sword” through “The Slithering Shadow”), and as far as I can tell, there’s no framing device, just a third person narrator describing the action (I certainly could have missed things in skimming). Does this idea show up elsewhere? Or is this theory an extension of the “Nemedian Chronicles” epigraph?
I think any failures of consistency are easily forgiven because of the format: the short stories are internally consistent, and aren’t really meant to add up to a grand narrative, so who cares if one slightly disagrees with another? If there were a strict chronology or grand narrative, such inconsistencies would be fatal, but hidden in the interstitial spaces between stories, they are irrelevant.
(I also think Conan rarely comes off as uneducated or misunderstanding a situation, so I’m not sure that theory holds; do you have any examples?)
“Does this idea show up elsewhere?”
The author used that metaphor in describing his writing process, and often used the term “yarn” to describe his stories. Whether it’s true or not that the author intended the audience to accept that Conan was telling these stories, it’s pretty clear that consistency between, or even within, stories wasn’t the focus. Whether Conan could walk 20 or 30 miles in a day wasn’t relevant; what was was that he was more capable of moving through hostile territory than his companions. We simply don’t CARE if the stories are consistent, was my point. In contrast, with Tolkien consistency is a hallmark of his writing. You can map out his military campaigns nearly hour by hour. So even fairly minor issues become glaring.
“(I also think Conan rarely comes off as uneducated or misunderstanding a situation, so I’m not sure that theory holds; do you have any examples?)”
He’s surprisingly wise, but all his knowledge is first-hand or intended for immediate application. The stories focus on the things he’s doing so obviously he doesn’t have a lot of apparent knowledge gaps, but he’s not an educated man and the narrator takes some pains to point this out. It actually plays into the author’s whole point about civilization and barbarism, with education being pretty far on the “civilization” side (which isn’t a good side to be on).
There are cases of him reacting to things as supernatural when he later figures out they aren’t, like mistaking a woman for a dead goddess. A lot of the stories are about him moving from initial reactions to figuring out the situation, then stabbing something to resolve it. His handling of the Aquilonian kingship left a fair bit to be desired–he was good to his people, but ultimately lead to the downfall of the kingdom.
I don’t seem able to directly reply to you, Dinwar, but those are all good points well-argued. I agree that the general larger-than-life tone of the stories is definitely a big part of why any little irregularities are easily ignored.
The Sherlock Holmes “canon” is notoriously difficult to impossible to fully reconcile details between stories, even notionally fairly important details. Because those details are unimportant to the stories being told. Even the characterizations are uneven.
It turns out Watson’s war wound was actually in his *head*, which is why he couldn’t remember whether it was in his shoulder or his leg.
I think his point is that the situation begins to resemble one of those campy shows or movies where the villains are riding into down in three hours and the heroes set up enough boobytraps and spiked pits using only dull axes, an old salad fork, and a ball of string that they reduce the oncoming horde to a trickle. Except RoP doesn’t embrace that it’s being campy.
Especially when The Mandalorian just did that trope a couple years back and took care to sweat the small stuff like building up that the bandits were more basically incompetent as well, only they had an AT-ST and the villagers did not.
So who built such a shitty tower? And is it common to hold up buildings with rope rather than with support beams? _How_ does one hold up a tower with rope, if the tower is the tallest thing around? (I haven’t seen the episode.) What is the rope attached to at both ends?
“_How_ does one hold up a tower with rope, if the tower is the tallest thing around?”
This part isn’t actually unbelievable. It’s done all the time. You set the ropes up so that they’re in tension with one another–each one is pulling the tower towards itself, but because they all are the tower can’t move. You need to attach the ropes at various points on the tower, but it’s entirely possible. You can in fact see this yourself; this is how radio and cell phone towers are built, and if you live near a coast you may be able to see a tall ship, which has rigging serving the same purpose. And believe me, those guy lines or stays breaking is a very, very bad thing! Obviously folks aren’t using radios in this setting, but they ARE using ships, and “Guy on tall thing with flags” is a form of communications technology that could easily be achieved given that level of technology. Dangerous for the guy with the flags (flags equal wind resistance which equals a very long fall), but if these are orcs and you’re trying to gather intel on the enemy’s movements who cares?
The issue isn’t the ropes, but rather the diameter of the tower. Stays and guy lines are used on tall, narrow structures, such as ship masts, radio towers, and the like. Something as big as we see in this show would have been held up by its base. Planks would have been better to use in the show….A lot of Medieval walls were built out of rubble sandwiched between brick, all held together by mortar, and maybe they needed bracing to hold it until the mortar dried. They do the same thing today on construction sites, there are even equations for how far apart the bracing needs to be and in what directions. Makes another plausible reason to 1) attack this place, and 2) aim for the bracing–they’re building a fortress, and the Numenorians don’t want them to do that. Easier to attack while it’s being built than after it’s completed. And attacking the bracings would be a force amplifier, in as much as destroying the bracing would destroy a disproportionate amount of fortress wall. (Now how you set a wooden plank on fire with an arrow fast enough to make a difference is beyond me. Hitting it with enough arrows to dislodge it might be possible, though, or at least not immediately implausible.)
The tower there isn’t under construction though. Instead it’s shown to be very old; the stonework is weathered and worn down and the walls around it have begun to crumble. The implication the show leaves is that this tower dates from before the War of Wrath.
I worked for years as a mason(…’s assistant) and I can field this one.
The answer is skyhooks, and they’re a mainstay of the trade; like board-stretchers are for carpenters.
Both of these posts helped me figure out why I had such a “meh” reaction to the show. I wanted to like it – I’m a Tolkien nerd and there’s lots of good stuff for them to mine for this show. I watched, but couldn’t really get into it the way I got into, say, Andor. I think you’ve articulated why, or at least most of why.
I could’ve dealt with a few of these things here or there. But I think I knew things were not going well when they had Galadriel jump into the ocean and start *swimming back to Middle Earth from the very shores of Valinor*.
I should note here, in fairness to the showrunners, that Arondir doesn’t get captured in the woods while scouting; he gets captured when he goes into the tunnel, which is not his usual milieu, in order to find out more about what’s going on.
Now, this does not explain why or how the other Elves got captured, and it is arguably a bad decision on his part, but it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds here.
Yes, but also not *entirely*. It’s made with the same tranche of rights that the ‘Shadow of…’ videogames are made with, so there’s already a depiction of some of these events that they could pull from other than the Silmarillion et c.
Geographer’s nitpick to your image of Ostirith watchtower: How much land is our single village supposed to cultivate? And how many people are supposed to live there?! Almost no forest, instead hedgerows and single trees like orchards – trees definitely are able to grow there but there is no brushland / secondary forest on former fields lying fallow after the shrinking and embattled population can no longer weed / mow / plow them or use them for pasture. Do they have a nice, inflatable combine harvester hidden somewhere? Asking for strategy games where food is a concern…. Also, lots of roads but no homesteading / single farms – although in times of war it might make sense to have something close by… a fortified fallback position, like a medieval castle, or at least a stockade or – completely unrealistic – an exisiting high-elevation fortification, e.g. a watchtower.
Wow am I the first to note this? Ahem… Minas Tirith (“Tower of Guard”) was named Minas Anor, Tower of the Sun, until the Third Age—complimenting of course Minas Ithil, Tower of the Moon. I haven’t watched the series so is that something they “helpfully” changed, because of course they don’t want to explain things for people who’ve only watched the films?
And yes I am an enormous dork and Tolkien nerd, and when I saw “Tirith” my literal first thought was, “it didn’t get that name until the Third Age, right?”
Also oops this wound up in the wrong spot because I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to the comment system.
Neither ‘Minas’ tower, nor Osgiliath should exist in the show.
> The last leaders of the Faithful, Elendil and his sons, escaped from the Downfall with nine ships, bearing a seedling of Nimloth, and the Seven Seeing-stones (gifts of the Eldar to their House); and they were borne on the wind of a great storm and cast upon the shores of Middle-earth. There they established in the North-west the Númenórean realms in exile, Arnor and Gondor. Elendil was the High King and dwelt in the North at Annúminas; and the rule in the South was committed to his sons, Isildur and Anárion. They founded there Osgiliath, between Minas Ithil and Minas Anor, not far from the confines of Mordor.
— Appendix A
I believe the tower in question – which is called ‘Ostirith’ in the wikis – is supposed to be an Elven watch tower? Honestly, it all raises more questions than it answers.