This is the third part of our three part (I, II, III) look at many of the smaller issues of historical realism in Amazon’s Rings of Power, following up our mode the major worldbuilding problems the show experienced. Last time we discussed the tactics (or lack thereof) of the Southlanders and Orcs in the major battle in episode 6, “Udûn.”
This week we’re going to turn to the Númenóreans, looking at their tactics and also (because it fits nowhere else) a look at the design of the ships in the show. As with last weeks critique the running theme here is that efforts by the showrunners and writers to be clever and novel – to present either novel ship design or novel cavalry tactics – end up looking unrealistic both because the showrunners have not familiarized themselves at even a basic level with those fields but also because producing something novel in fields of human endeavor that have been practiced for centuries is really hard. It is not something generally managed in a writer’s room brainstorming session or with just a bit of concept art.
More broadly as we discussed in the first post in this series, while none of these problems are fatal to the show in isolation, collectively they do real damage to the audience’s suspension of disbelief. We want the worldbuilding elements of a show like Rings to at least seem plausible and to at least offer a plausible connection between the decisions characters make and the outcomes that they produce. Instead, Rings was a show where it was never really clear if this world even operates under the same laws of cause and effect or indeed even the same physics as the real world. And since suspension of disbelief is a vital part of getting the audience to care about characters in a fictional, made-up world, it is important that the worldbuilding and physical logic of the place at least be plausible. And as we’ve discussed before, the best shortcut to plausibility for creators who don’t want to have to reinvent two millennia of ship design or cavalry tactics, is to resort to using historical exemplars.
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But First, Ships
Now we have already talked about the feasibility of actually fitting the Númenórean expedition on the ships we see: they’re much too small and for ships of that size, the horses would require many dedicated transports. But what I couldn’t fit in there was a discussion of the design of these ships and the general problem with ship design in the show.
The first ship we see is actually the Elven ship carrying Galadriel to Valinor, and it is actually a fair bit more reasonable than the Númenórean ships. It is a single-masted, shallow-draft ship which seems fairly clearly intended to echo the design of Scandinavian longships. And the raised prow is, I think, clearly meant to evoke the description of Galadriel’s river barge in Fellowship of the Ring, which is ‘swan-shaped,’ which is a neat enough touch. The ship has a single lateen sail, which doesn’t fit the longship vibe (they had square sails) but would work fine, though it might have helped to have a think about the apparent wind direction here: the wind blows from in front of our characters which means the ship is ‘in irons,’ – the relatively small area of the wind where a lateen-rigged ship cannot sail.
The structure of the ship seems a bit more off to me, though we don’t see very much of it to be sure. The first issue is construction: longships were famously built with ‘clinker‘ or ‘lapstrake’ construction (as indeed, in Peter Jackson’s films, so are the Elven river boats), where the planks of the ship’s hull overlap and are nailed or riveted into each other: it produces a very visually distinctive hull profile. But here it looks like the ship is carvel-built (the plank seems are flush and they are attached, in theory, to a frame) but the ship lacks a well-defined frame for that kind of construction. Moreover, if we’re trying to echo ocean-going longships (which is a good reference point) that really high bowstem ought to be mirrored at the ship’s stern because it should be an extension of the keel. That distinctive ‘high on the sides, low in the middle’ shape of the longship is a product of its construction and important for its sea-keeping. We also ought to see a steering oar at the stern, and I don’t think we do so I have no idea how they control this ship. Finally, for a ship made this way, with the shallow draft and single central sail, I’d expect oars, but we not only do not seem them but also most of the ship’s sides are too high to accommodate them, except for a small portion in the middle. Still I am willing to extend a bit more charity to an Elven ship, given that Elven things in Middle Earth often function better or more easily than their physical design would suggest due to the unseen art of their construction.
But that is nothing to the mess that is the Númenórean ships, which also figure much more in the plot, and of course having been built by humans these ships cannot fall back on Elven art to save their design. These are explicitly military ships – we first see them used as patrol ships by Elendil – and at least one part of their design backs this up: the prow. Viewers will note the ships lack a familiar bowsprit (the forward-projecting spar on a sailing ship which supports the forestays that hold the jib – the sails that run ahead of the foremast), but instead has a broad (but progressively narrowing) platform supporting the forestays. And I have good news: there were ships constructed (sort of) like this! Late medieval and early modern Mediterranean galley warships did in fact have this sort of broad, reinforced prow because it was a ram, designed to fix into an enemy ship and provide an elevated boarding ramp. So this is a good first step: a military ship with a clear primary weapon system.
But just about everything past this initial point collapses. First, the prow is much too high to serve that purpose; notice how much taller it is than the rest of the ship amidships (where you would hope to ram): it won’t hit anything. The prows of Renaissance galleys were very nearly flat to avoid this very problem. At the same time looking at the Númenórean prow we notice that it curves forward again at the waterline underneath the ramming prow, as if the ship mounted a waterline ram, like a trireme. The thing is, these two kinds of ram design – the boarding ‘beak’ well above water and the waterline ram at (wait for it) the waterline – are mutually exclusive in structure and purpose, one designed for boarding a ship and the other for sinking it, actions which it is generally best not to combine. And if this ship is to ram anything, that projecting forefoot (the projection at the waterline) needs to be protected; in antiquity this was the ram itself, a bronze sheath that covered the forefoot. As it stands now using the boarding ‘beak’ ram in battle will probably also mean an impact on the extending bulbous bow, forcing the ship to damage itself if it intends to attack.
Nevertheless these are clearly fighting ships but the problems just keep coming. These are boarding and ramming oriented ships, but they’re not galleys, which is to say they have sails instead of rowers. But there is a reason that ramming warships were (mostly) oared: rowers allow for the high maneuverability and short bursts of speed that ramming demands. At the very least we might expect rowing positions for the combatants on deck (which is how a longship worked), if not a large number of dedicated rowers on lower decks combined with dedicated marines on a higher decks in the manner of a classical trireme. Which brings us to the other problem: as boarding oriented warships, they lack fighting platforms. Elevation is an enormous advantage in boarding actions at sea with pre-gunpowder weapons: elevated missile troops can shoot down into a ship, negating enemy cover, while boarding with contact weapons it is always better to be dropping or striking down then trying to climb up. Consequently, boarding oriented ships often had elevated fighting platforms fore and aft (the forecastle and aftcastle) for this purpose. On early modern Mediterranean galleys, this took the form of the ubiquitous rambade fighting platform, a raised, squared off platform just behind the ram at the bow of the galley which might (at that late date) mount cannon but also provided a platform for missile and melee troops.
All of which somehow pales in comparison to the absolute hard nonsense of the sail plans of these ships, which appear to operate on different physics than the real world. Each of the ships is two-masted with forestays and (sort of) jibs but not a ‘spanker‘ (a sail mounted at the rear of the ship on a rotating boom). Presumably to make them look exotic the main sails are in the style of junk sails, but the ships here are not even a little bit junk-rigged (that would have been both a cool and unexpected choice that would also make sense). Instead the ships are built with these strange double-masts, each of which supports a sail that projects to the side of the ship, as well as a single small diamond-shaped sail in between the two masts1 and this is such a stupid way to rig a ship that I am pulling the whole boat over and we’re going to talk about how sails work.
There are a bazillion ways to rig a ship (a lot of them with really fun names), but all sails function in one of two basic ways.2 First it’s worth noting every ship operates in both a ‘true wind’ (the direction the wind is actually blowing) and an apparent wind, which is the combination of the true wind with the direction the ship is sailing and its speed; the apparent wind is what matters for sail dynamics because that’s the wind that the sails experience. If a ship is sailing at 8 knots and the wind is moving at 12 knots, but the ship and the wind are moving in the same direction, the apparent wind the ship experiences is just 4 knots. On the other hand, if the wind speeds remain the same but we have the same ship moving perpendicular to the wind, the apparent wind is going to actually be 14.4 knots and come from a direction between the ship’s heading and the wind’s source.
Square sails, which are rigged perpendicular to the direction of the ship work by having the wind strike the sail and pile up into it, which creates a high pressure zone behind the sail (because all of the air, blocked by the sail, is ‘stacking up’ there) and a low pressure zone in front of the sail, which pushes the ship forward, technically a function of aerodynamic drag. The upside is that square sails can produce a lot of power, which is handy for big, heavy ships, especially in areas with predictable and favorable winds (such as the Atlantic trade winds). The downsides are two: on the one hand, top speed is limited because the faster the ship goes, the lower the apparent wind on the sails, which in turn reduces how much they can push the ship. On the other hand, square sails only work if the ship is moving in more-or-less the same direction as the wind is, within about 60 degrees or so (so the ship has a c. 120 degree range of movement relative to the wind). Moreover, for square sails to work, the air hitting them from behind needs to be substantially confined by their shape; this is why square sails are made to billow outward into an arcing shape as the wind hits them, instead of being held taught and fully flat against the mast.
Triangular or lateen or fore-and-aft3 sails work on a different principle. They are arranged parallel to the direction of the ship (that is, fore-and-aft of the mast, thus the term) and want to also be close to parallel to the wind (both square and triangular sails can, in some configurations, be moved around the mast to a degree to get an ideal direction to the wind). The way they work is that the wind hits the sail on its edge and the air current splits around the sail, but not evenly; the sail is turned so that the back side takes more wind, causing the sail to billow out, creating a wing-like shape when viewed from above. That in turn acts exactly like a wing, creating a high pressure zone behind the sail and a low pressure zone in front of the sail and thus generating aerodynamic lift as the wind passes over the surface (rather than pressing up behind it) the same way that an airplane’s wings keep it in the air. The clever part about this is that the lift generated doesn’t have to be in the same direction the wind is going, so a ship using these kinds of sails can move up to within around 45 degree of the wind (sailing ‘close hauled,’ – a ship rigged like this thus has a much larger 270 degree range of motion relative to the wind). Also – as noted above – depending on the ship’s ‘point of sail’ (direction of movement relative to the wind), accelerating may not decrease the wind’s apparent speed (because you may not be sailing directly away from it), and so triangular sails often function better in light winds, sailing into the wind, and at very high speeds (but they provide less power for large, heavy ships sailing with the wind).4 And again, there is a lot of complexity in terms of the different functions of these types of sails, but we’re really just trying to make a fairly simple point here so everyone please forgive the simplification.
And that’s it: all sails work on one of those two principles (at any given time); the point in discussing this is to note that we’re dealing not with aesthetics here but with objects that need to interact in fairly fundamental ways with aerodynamics and so have shapes that are dictated by that function (and also, sails are cool). You can combine those two principles in a lot of exciting ways to create different ‘rigs’ with different sailing qualities, but you those principles are your options – you cannot create some other kind of sail which works on different principles. Indeed, most of the more complex sailplans of larger ships use a combination of square and lateen sails, but each sail in the plan must be using one of these two principles; there are no other options.
And those of you looking back at what these ships look like may have already guessed the problem here. These are clearly square-rigged ships; the sails are all perpendicular to the ship’s direction and the sail shape is symmetrical over the keel (that is, same shape on the port and starboard) and are unable to be angled in any event. But every single sail has a gigantic hole in the center because of the split mast. So the air you want to build up behind the sail is instead flowing through the hole between the masts. The sails even angle slightly, curling backwards at their outer edges channeling the air towards the gaps. But that air flowing through the gaps is going to lessen (not remove, but substantially lesson) the pressure differential over the sail which will cut the drag the sails generate which will make the ship much slower.
What is worse is that between the two masts and between the foremast and the bowsprit, the ships mount additional secondary sails. Now in a rig-plan that made any sense, these would be triangular sails in both shape and principle (e.g. gaff-rigged sails incorporated into a square-rig sailing pattern common for full rigged ships as well as staysails between the masts or between the foremast and the bowsprit, also common for full rigged ships), but the designers here have only managed one of those two things. The sails are triangular in shape, but are positioned perpendicular to the wind direction and then symmetrically matched. That means they both do nothing with the wind moving through that center channel we’ve created, but also their triangular shape is entirely useless because they’re functioning on drag instead of lift.
It’s not that this sail plan wouldn’t work: the big sails would create at least some aerodynamic drag which would push the ship forward. But this is a sail plan which would work much more poorly than a far more basic plan with just a single central mast mounting a single very large square sail. You could even keep the exotic junk-style sail supports (they’re called battens; everything on sailing ships has a funny name) if you wanted and just make the ships junk-rigged!5 Or, if you want a lot of fancy sails which aren’t in square shapes, you could go with a multi-masted dhow or xebec sail plan which would give you lots of overlapping triangular sails and also fit the Mediterranean/Roman vibe you were going for.
Moreover, while these sails aren’t square shaped, this is a pure ‘square sail’ ship rig, which for ocean-going ships ostensibly used by great mariners is awful. Square sails only work well when running before the wind: they ‘tack’ (zig-zagging from one close-hauled point of sail to another to climb up the wind) really poorly; some pure square-rigged ships cannot tack at all without the assistance of rowers. That’s is part of the reason why ‘full rigged’ square-sailed age of sail ships nevertheless had triangular sails in gaff-rigging or as stay-sails or what have you, to enable the ship to tack effectively (the fancy term for this is how ‘weatherly’ a ship is: how able it is to sail close to the wind; weatherlyness also depends on hull shape and a host of other factors). With a pure square-sail setup, these ships can only go in the direction of the wind, which is going to make it impossible to use them effectively as ocean-going ships because the prevailing winds on the ocean are very consistent: they will almost always be blowing the same way, which means these ships can sail out, but then can’t sail back. In short these ocean-going mariners have ships which cannot go on the oceans.6
And of course this has been a theme of these posts but please, showrunners: when you are doing the visual design for a fantasy-historical society, you are not going to outsmart centuries of professional shipwrights with a brainstorming meeting and some concept art. So instead of trying to show that the Númenóreans are great mariners (‘the sea is always right!’), which is the point of giving their super-cool ships so much screentime and is an essential thing to establish about their society, by making up a ship design that is going to end up invariably being much worse than historical designs, just go adopt a historical design that was successful. For my part, I’d have probably contrasted traditional Elven ships with a single sail-type (probably square) on a single mast with the advanced Númenóreans using lots of lateen sails.
That said, the fact that the Númenórean ships are terrible is fine because frankly, I wouldn’t want to sail to this battle either.
The Númenórean Cavalry Chain
While the battle over the village is going on, we’re treated to several cuts to the Númenórean expedition, rushing to the rescue. Now before I lay into this, fair is fair: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings had a real habit of having the horses almost always move at the trot or the canter when they ought to have been walking (horses have four ‘gaits’ – patterns of moving – which, in escalating speed are the walk, the trot, the canter and the gallop). Horses can walk or trot for long periods, but canters and gallops can only be maintained in short bursts before the horse wears itself out. So for instance when Théoden leads the Rohirrim from Edoras in Return of the King the horses are walking in the city but by the time they’re inc column out of the city the whole column is moving at a canter (interestingly, you can hear the three-beat pattern of the canter in the foley, which is some attention to detail), which is not realistic – they have a long way to go and they won’t be able to maintain this gait the whole way – but fits the forward momentum of the scene. Likewise most of the horses look to be at a canter when his army leaves Dunharrow for Gondor; again this is a bit silly, but on roughly the level of silly of having Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue a band of orcs by jogging for three days and nights without rest.
By contrast the Númenóreans rush to the battle at a full gallop, apparently the whole way or at the very least for hours through the morning. Horses will be vary, but generally two to three miles is the maximum distance most horses can gallop before fatigue sets in (for most horses this distance is going to be shorter), which they’re going to cover in about six minutes. The gallop is a very fast (25-30mph), very short sprint, yet Galadriel has this whole formation at full gallop even before she can see their destination. And I just want to remember here the absurdity that these horsemen do not even know there is a battle to ride to; for all they know this is a basic scouting effort (which might be better accomplished slowly and without wearing down all of the horses). Théoden at least has the excuse that he’s on the clock and knows it!
The way we are then shown the cavalry arriving is very confusing to me. The speed of their arrival makes at least some sense. We have already established that both Arondir and Adar are incompetent commanders so the fact that they have set no scouts or lookouts checks out. Pre-modern and early-modern cavalry could effectively out ride news of their coming, and so show up unexpectedly in places with very little warning. Not this little warning, mind you – the time from the first sound of hoof-falls (heard by Elves – the orcs evidently hear nothing) to the cavalry deluging the village is just about fifteen seconds; horses move fast but they do not move that fast (at full gallop a horse might cover 150-200 meters in those fifteen seconds and the orcs would absolutely hear them coming before they saw them). But the idea in general that the Númenórean cavalry could appear as if out of nowhere to the orcs checks out – that was one of the major advantages of cavalry operations.
But the scene as a whole seems poorly executed. We’ve gotten some good views of the topography of this village and it is very small. The village is at a three-way road intersection, with the inn at the meeting point on what I am going to call the East side (we see the sun rising over it once and it faces Orodruin); the inn has a small fenced in area behind it. Beyond that there are four small houses on the road and one further up the hill and the land slopes from high in the north and east to low in the south and west. Finally on the west side there is our small bridge over the stream; a forest directly abuts the village on the south side.
The first thing we see is the cavalry in a great mass riding down into the village with Orodruin clearly behind them; they must be approaching then along the East road. Then we see a 2-horse wide column of cavalry crossing the narrow bridge from the West (at 39:14), then a bunch of orcs gather up into a mass to engage that cavalry force as it gallops up the main road into the village (from 39:16 to 39:26) before getting hit by the vanguard of that column in a really dumb moment we’re going to come back to at 39:30. And now look up at the village above there again and note that it takes one cavalry column at full gallop 16 seconds to go from that bridge to the inn, but the massive wave of cavalry coming over the hill from the other direction has still not managed by this point to actually enter the village proper. They have, apparently, frozen completely solid the moment they were off screen.
So it seems like, while galloping wildly to the rescue of a village they didn’t know was under attack, the Númenóreans also took the time to carefully work their way around the village in order to strike it from two sides at once (somehow filtering through the forest without being noticed, rather than working around the more open terrain to the north side; I cannot communicate clearly enough that cavalry generally avoids moving through forests for a reason), then galloped in at full speed. But the one direction they do not attack from is the North road, which is the only area that is clear and unobstructed (good cavalry ground) and where the slope of the ground is favorable (they’d be charging down hill) with enough space to form up into a proper charge. Instead when we see Galadriel next, she is charging up that hill.
So on the one hand this battleplan doesn’t make any sense, but at the same time I feel I must note just how inferior this is as film-making to the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings (or even, dare I say it, Game of Thrones). I had to rewatch these scenes, slowly and carefully multiple times to get any sense of where anyone was. By contrast, good battle scenes are careful to make sure the audience understands the geography of the space. Hell, the ‘battle’ scenes in Home Alone are careful to establish the geography of the place (I found the video at that link, by the way, a very approachable introduction to some elements of film study). In The Lord of the Rings we get a lot of big wide shots at high altitude showing us where the armies are in relation to each other, like this:
Moreover, Peter Jackson’s cavalry doesn’t simply show up. In both of his Big Cavalry Rescues at Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith he follows the same highly effective pattern of first revealing the presence of the cavalry, then pausing a moment for the cavalry to form up and to give the characters there time for some dialogue and character beats. At Helm’s Deep this is a short exchange between Éomer and Gandalf, while at Minas Tirith it is Théoden’s big defining character moment and speech. From a realism standpoint, it gives the audience time to understand where the cavalry is and how they’ve set up (and a sense that this is organized, planned and prepared).
But this brief delay before ‘the good stuff’ also serves an obviously important emotional narrative aspect that Rings also loses here: it builds anticipation. By the time Théoden is giving his speech outside Minas Tirith, the audience has been waiting for about an hour since the beacons were lit for this very moment of emotional release, waiting for the score to be evened, waiting for the emotional satisfaction of the bad guys getting their come-uppance and so Jackson draws that out just a little bit longer, which builds the anticipation that creates that intense emotional response when the charge at last surges forward. You can even hear the emotions he wants you feel in the music, which starts low and subdued but builds and builds as Théoden sets up his army and gives his speech, booms across the charge itself but then cuts hard to silence in the moment of impact – the moment of greatest suspense (will the charge work?) – before surging back as the charge succeeds, culminating in a big overhead shot showing the good guys winning. It is not historically perfect, but the emotional beats land flawlessly and Rings just fumbles shockingly on both counts.
The resulting melee is also confusing. This village is tiny and while we don’t have a good idea of Adar’s remaining force, it isn’t huge because it seems to all fit in this village which looks to be a fair bit smaller than a regulation soccer pitch. A cavalry charge should be able to run from one side of this road to the other in under 10 seconds (moving at c. 12m/s, a rough horse’s gallop speed); the two leading edges of this charge should be slowing down to meet in the middle in well under five seconds. Consequently the decisive phase of this battle, the one in which orcs are trying to hold the open ground between the buildings (these wide mud streets) should last only seconds, but instead it draws out into a minutes-long melee because, as far as I can tell, the Númenóreans have next to no idea how to fight on horseback.
The thing is, fighting from horseback is quite hard but it is also quite simple. If using stirrups, one’s feet remain in the stirrups pretty much the whole time because the goal here is to retain a firm seat on the horse. Horse archers will sometimes stand up just a little in the stirrups to create a stable firing platform, but only a little bit and at speed an observer may not even notice they are standing at all. But showrunners, it seems, just love putting in all sorts of equestrian tricks; Game of Thrones had to make the Dothraki shoot while standing on the saddle (not a great idea), and so Rings of Power has to do some trick riding. In this case they have Galadriel flip over the side of her horse upside down to slash at an orc while dodging an arrow:
A close look and you can see that this trick requires a special handhold on her saddle just for the purpose (just like the Game of Thrones standing horse-archers required special trick saddles for that stunt too). And she then cuts an orc’s head off while flipping herself back on to the horse, a sword-stroke that is traveling in the opposite direction of her horse’s movement (it is moving forward, she is swinging backwards), which she cannot brace properly and thus, if it had hit anything but CGI would have been a fairly weak strike; fortunately for Galadriel, CGI orcs are very flimsy so their heads come straight off. The whole thing is a too-clever-by-half effort to look cool, which I also find a bit confusing because Elves don’t seem to me to fight on horseback very often in the Tolkien legendarium; they do it from time to time, but the great elf heroes tend to fight on foot, so it’s not clear to me why Galadriel has to also be the best rider. But that routine is then topped by the baffling idiocy of Valandil here who, despite having a perfectly good sword (though he seems to have lost his spear in the fighting) decides his best plan of attack is to jump off of his horse and tackle two orcs:
Needless to say a high speed falling dismount is a good way to injure yourself in an actual battle but also that jumping off of your horse is not a good use of you or the horse. Meanwhile the rest of the Númenórean cavalry seem to have mostly come to a stop and are now having stationary fights with orc infantry; some of them get pulled down off of their horses which, yes, is the predictable result of being stupid enough to bring your cavalry to a full stop without of any kind of mutually supporting formation or infantry support. I think many of the problems in this sequence stem from the apparent need to have this seem like a fight that could go either way, when in practice this should have been a short and decisive engagement the moment the cavalry arrived, given that the cavalry is more heavily armored, faster, has the advantage of surprise and presumably outnumbers the orcs given how small the village is. I suppose it might take a bit longer because Adar’s first wave of orcs are hitting their respawn timer so there were adds. Once again the utter inability of the show to keep track of just how many orcs there are ruins any sense of tension but also any hope of the battle making sense; it sure seemed like there were just a few dozen orcs left, which ought to make a battle against 300 armored riders a remarkably short and one-sided affair.
But the moment in this whole fight that broke me completely actually came quite early right after the Númenóreans crossed the bridge. It was this:
I will admit that I burst out laughing when this happened: the horseman ride up in a pair holding on to opposite ends of a chain, which they then use to clothesline about two dozen orcs while steadily fanning out. Once again this is one of those too-clever-by-half Hollywood tactics moments, which defy both physics and logic. The first problem is that I’m not clear on how long this chain is: they need to be holding it tightly or it is just going to snag on the first impact, but they also fan out meaning they need to keep letting out more chain to cover the increasing distance between the two horses. In practice looking at the stills it seems like the chain isn’t under much of any tension at all, which would make it fairly useless as a weapon here – sure a metal chain will have some momentum to it, but not enough to knock multiple ranks of armored troops down.
But of course the broader problem is that if the plan is to merely smash into the orcs with a lot of kinetic force you should just trample them. Putting all of that impact energy in the chain is just going to pull the rider off of their horse since the sole point of contact for that energy is their arms. By contrast, medieval knightly cavalry eventually adopted high-backed saddles, couched lances and lance-rests on their armor all to help keep the knight in his seat through the force of a heavy impact at full speed (cavalry with or without these various devices might need to let their point trail at impact that it wasn’t pulled from their hand but rather the movement of their horse pulled it from their target, a motion pattern easily observed in the modern sport of tent-pegging). But just carrying a chain gives none of these advantages or options: if there’s enough force to knock down a half-dozen orcs, there’s enough force to knock a rider out of his saddle.
Of course in an actual battle this wouldn’t even get this far because the other disadvantage of this chain is that it sacrifice’s the reach of a spear. Now, credit where credit is due, the Númenóreans do seem to have standard issue spears (good!), except for these two guys with the chain (a tactic that only works when advancing two-by-two, which is a terrible way to fight, through a narrow space where cavalry should not be, but nevertheless apparently one the Númenóreans come ready for as standard). No one seems to use their spears on horseback (they shift to swords immediately), but at least they have them.7 The advantage of a spear or lance of course is that it is a weapon which can project beyond the head of the horse, thus reducing some of the reach advantage an infantryman might have, while concentrating all of the energy of impact at a single point.
But the riders here have to hold this silly chain on their laps, which puts it several feet behind the head of their horse and because it isn’t perfectly taut it lags their motion meaning that it impacts the orcs several feet behind that, which means – as you can see above – the entire horse has to gallop past the target orc before he is hit by the chain. Any any time during that operation that orc could strike at the horse or the rider, spilling them both to the ground and to make the whole thing worse because the riders can’t have a sword or a shield in their hands, they can’t even defend themselves if an orc decides to do this.
Much like the ships, much like the falling tower trap, much like the nonsensical ring forging, it is another instance of the creators attempting to be novel and clever without really understanding the historical practices they are working from. Cavalry tactics, like battle tactics, like ship design, like metalworking, were fields of human endeavor that absorbed the sharpest minds humankind has to offer and persistent experimentation and adaptation for centuries, resulting in highly tested, highly refined patterns of behavior. I will not say that improvement on those practices is impossible,8 but it would certainly be very hard, the sort of thing which would itself require extensive dedicated study and experimentation. It is not the sort of thing likely to be accomplished in a writer’s room brainstorming session, which is why efforts to ‘outsmart’ the past tend to end up looking silly, rather than clever.
Now the very nature of this series (which was, I must insist, originally planned to be a single post) is something of an omnium-gatherum9 of complaints. But I do think collectively they speak to a few things about the show, most of all the value that a solid grounding in history can have when producing fiction like this. As I’ve noted at length before, one of the things which makes Tolkien’s storytelling so effective is that even with its magical and moral elements it feels real because it is grounded in the realia of the past which Tolkien, as an expert in early medieval literature had marinated in. And while I do not think G.R.R. Martin’s grasp of the Middle Ages is nearly as sound, he too manages to get certain parts of medieval social structures and ways of living right in a way that gives Westeros a sort of concrete reality as well.
Rings of Power fails quite comprehensively to achieve the same. There are so many breaks from reality or the plausible that almost any viewer is likely to hit at least a few that break them out of the story and make the world feel fake and cheap. In many cases this seems to be a product of the storytellers trying to be clever, trying to either outsmart the viewers or at least come up with novel solutions to problems that were probably exhaustively solved centuries ago. Of course there isn’t anything wrong with trying to do something new, but without understanding the solutions that had been come to and why, attempting to break new ground on a foundation of ignorance is likely to just leave one looking foolish, as it did here.
And yet at the same time, as I detailed back in the original “Why Ring’s Of Power’s Middle Earth Feels Flat,” for all of their novelty, the creators were profoundly incapable of imagining societies very different from their own or even recognizing the ways that societies with different governing structures or subsistence patterns would be comprehensively different from modern, (post)industrial societies in resources, ways of life or outlook. But that’s exactly the sort of thing that history education is supposed to teach: the often radically different ways that people in the past interacted with and viewed the world, familiar in our common humanity and yet alien in our different circumstances.
And so I cannot help but feel like Rings of Power is the sort of project that could have been vastly improved by a stronger sense of historical rootedness, whether that came from a more robust historical education or an effort by the creative team to actually research the sort of societies they were creating, the sort of pre-industrial technologies they might use and the way they might live and fight as a result. The failure to do so is hardly Rings‘ greatest failing, but I think it does meaningfully contribute to a series that, while lavishly funded and produced, with a cast of talented actors, still ends up being quite a lot less than the sum of its parts.
Here’s to hoping season 2 is stronger; it can hardly be much weaker.10
- I suppose we’d say is a skysail or a topgallant, but the sail plan here is nonsensical enough to me that I have a hard time classifying any part of it.
- This is going to be a massively simplified discussion of what are in fact really quite complicated physics, so please forgive the simplifications.
- There are real differences between these categories, but we are simplifying, remember?
- Note that triangular sails which can rotate can also function like square sails if the ship is ‘running’ (sailing in the same direction as the wind), being positioned perpendicular to the wind direction and thus catching the wind and producing drag just like a square sail.
- I really think this would have been a clever direction to go, as an aside, since it would look ‘exotic’ but would also be functional, and some late junk-rigged sailplans are pretty complex. Apparently a few junk-rigged ships have competed in modern sailboat racing with some success, so it is not a bad sailplan!
- Pure square-sail rigs work better on coastlines and in smaller seas because the landmasses create variable wind patterns (land breezes and sea breezes) which can give a ship a bit more freedom, but the wide open ocean does not have those and so the prevailing winds are remarkably consistent in direction.
- As with many other cavalry scenes we’ve discussed, I assume the issue here is that there is just no good way to make a prop spear held at face-level on a moving horse safe enough for filming. It’s an understandable concern and that’s why I don’t fault these scenes too much for not leveling or bracing their lances.
- Without simply incorporating modern technology unavailable in the past.
- Not real Latin
- Right? Right!?