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.