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!?
170 thoughts on “Collections: The Nitpicks of Power, Part III: That Númenórean Charge”
I’ve been enjoying the whole series, but the opening paragraphs on world-building in this installment were, coincidentally, pertinent to a discussion on Goodreads. Would you mind if I quote them, or would you prefer that I provide a link?
The discussion is of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene,” and I brought up the observation by C.S. Lewis that, while Ariosto throws in realistic details among the fantastic events, Spenser, despite following him in other matters, doesn’t seem to bother. Your comments expressed the resulting problems for a close reading of FQ better than I could.
To be fair to Spenser he isn’t making any pretense at realism.
Further to your mentions of the bits of sailing language, it’s worth re-emphasising that sailing has all the lingo for the same reason that software coding does – because sail was the cutting point of European technology for three centuries and absorbed a large proportion of the available intellectual firepower (and associated love of jargon!). Sailing ships were one of the first technologies to be subjected to large programmes of fairly deliberate, often state sponsored technical development, and as a result the 19th century pinnacles of sailing tech like line-of-battleships and clippers are almost certainly as good as any sailing vessel could *possibly* be in the pre-materials science era.
Both the ship of line and the clipper are pinnacles of their development objectives. The ship of line was as large as the timber-based shipbuilding technology allowed. (I think the limiting aspect was the size and tension of the main brace and keel.) The clipper was a steel ship optimised for speedy transport of cargo.
BTW, for me, Galadriel’s ship is so obviously odd that it suspends my disbelief. I haven’t seen the series, but the photo shows a setting which looks like it has been stolen from a medieval manuscript or an Egyptian tomb. The ship is obviously not wood, but something modern or magic, the “crew” are standing arranged according to ceremony and no means of actual sailing are visible. The “swords” are obviosly non-combat ceremonial things. This is, obviously, a symbolic representation of a journey that is probably not physical at all.
Nitpick: the steel ships you’re thinking of are sometimes called “windjammers” and date from the industrial era of the latter 19th century. The ships predating the middle 19th century were originally made of wood, although there was already a move towards composite construction of using iron frames.
In-universe, it would literally have been a physical ship sailing on a physical ocean to a physical port—not that Galadriel ever sought to undertake that journey before the Fourth Age.
Sailing lingo is not really a jargon; it’s traditional language used by ordinary working people, and while many of the words sound funny because they’ve become archaic on land in contemporary late-20th/early 21st century English, most of them are not originally nautical.
Weaving terminology’s an example of the same kind of thing; “warp” and “loom” were just boring old everyday English at one point, with no specific connection to weaving; hence “heirloom”.
That depends on what you mean by jargon. If you mean “stuff blue-collar workers don’t understand,” sailing jargon isn’t jargon. If you mean “technical language only understood by a certain field of professionals,” it absolutely is. Formal definitions trend towards the latter, saying that jargon is specific to a particular profession or area of activity.
Making the distinction between sailors as “ordinary working people” and electricians/doctors/mechanics/programmers/whatever as…something else seems kinda pointless to me. They’re all selling their labor to capital-holders, they’re all ordinary working people. Whether they work in a garage, an office, or a ship, they had to learn skills that specific to their profession, and need terminology to clearly communicate their work with one another.
I think there’s a key difference between the weaving terminology you mention and jargon (including sailing jargon). Weaving was such a widespread activity, like farming, that pretty much anyone you met could be expected to know the basic principles and language. That might have been true of sailing in some specific communities, especially on the coasts, where sailing was one of the main economic activities… but if you plucked a person off the land at random they were not likely to know most nautical terms.
A good comparison is logging: in my rural pacific northwest town, everybody has either worked in logging or knows someone who did. Grab a person off the street and odds are good they know the difference between a dog iron and a barking iron, that “cork boots” means they’re spiked not that they’re made of cork, and can tell you what jobs a limber, faller, and bucker do. Grab a person off the streets in most large urban areas and they won’t have a clue what any of these things are. None of these terms are standard English, they’re specialized terms for a specific industry used exclusively by workers in that industry.
That isn’t necessarily the case. I too lived a significant portion of my life in a Pacific North-West logging community (northern Vancouver Island to be exact), and some of the terms you mentioned I have never heard before, and the others I have only a vague idea what they mean. Despite living in a “logging community”, I never actually worked in forestry. While it is true that I was more exposed to the jargon, and I have a better idea of how the forestry industry works compared to someone who has never lived in such a place, I do not think I am much better equipped than someone picked at random off a city street. I suspect I would be closer to them, in terms of knowledge, than to an industry insider.
The thing is, while it is certainly possible for industry jargon to filter into everyday speech, especially when many people in that area work in said industry, for the most part, jargon remains confined to workers in the workplace. So, unless you actually work in that trade, or take a special interest in it, you will probably not know most of the terminology used by workers in that industry, even if you interact with such people often.
Always fun to see ‘It’s not [TERM], it’s [sentence that is the actual definition of TERM]” out in the wild.
The “bad ships” stuff from Numenoreans is especially a bummer because they’ve clearly got a touch of the “magia” in making things (hence why they can do things like forging nigh-indestructible stone towers like Orthanc) even if it’s not to the same degree as Elves, and you could get away with ship designs that might otherwise seem a bit anachronistic to the rest of their tech level.
Like, they could do a full galleon-style ship, and it would work (or a large ocean-going junk).
Or not have crew for pumping/mending because their ship doesn’t spring leaks and their fabrics don’t break. Also no scurvy.
If they weren’t cowards they would have given the Númenóreans ironclads
LOL. I bet they would have, if they had the rights to HoME.
Or how about something like the current America’s Cup yachts? They put a stop to the carbon fiber spiderweb contraptions since people complained they don’t look like sailboats and mandated a single hull and a textile sail – but still allow hydrofoils. If they wanted to show the Numenorians had no engine but also had innovations the Age of Sail didn’t have, why not start with 21st century sailing development?
Although ironclads would be great too. Live action media seems to either gravitate towards sail or WW2 sorts of ships, with very little of the early age of steam warships.
I’d love to see more ironclad like the French Ocean class: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oc%C3%A9an-class_ironclad Like a steampunk ancient trireme, very cool.
“which holds the past in place” mast
Not sure if it posted my comment.
It seems to have done. The moderation system can be a bit slow at times, but it is necessary to avoid the flood of spam that I assure you would follow if we didn’t have it.
Around about the time you saw the cavalry chain, you should have been hearing Yakety Sax.
Oh, the Big Battle of the Village was its own special thing. The switching between “is it night? is it day? who knows?”, the Special Chain of Orc Skittling, the fact that oh right okay yeah they *are* a bunch of untrained kids instead of being the greatest martial power in the world right then, and that only Galadriel does anything and she does it with her patented gymnastic twirly-twirly unnecessary style, then the final chase where Halbrand sets out *after* Galadriel and Adar and manages to get in *front* of them from the opposite direction – yeah, it was amazing all right.
“I feel I must note just how inferior this is as film-making to the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings”
To be blunt, it’s because Peter Jackson is a competent film maker who knows his job and these guys are not. There was one interview where one of the showrunners talked about how they were writing scripts for ten years yet not one single movie got made (and that’s why they decided TV must be easier and went for the Amazon gig). I think we can see now why that was.
“We were writing plans for ten
battles of the Isonzo“
Well, the eleventh time’s the charm!
> To be blunt, it’s because Peter Jackson is a competent film maker who knows his job and these guys are not.
This remembers me of the youtube marketing campaign for this series. The US installment was so bad it was cut before I could see it, and the German one was so bad, I couldn’t even watch it ironic. I don’t get at all how Amazon could let this happen and spend this much money on it.
Who spends $500m on a show and doesn’t make sure to get a good script? I’m just baffled at how much money has been thrown away by Amazon, HBO, and Disney on just awful scripts recently. It’s like they all think they can market and CGI their way out of a disastrous script.
The script has notoriously little control. Directors have power to butcher masterpieces. Of course, that just turns into the question of why they would take a good script and butcher it. But it’s impossible to tell whether the script was good without looking at it.
Perhaps it’s a consequence of the times. “A fool and his money are soon parted” is a necessary mechanism to stop rich people from being fools with their giant piles of money.
I speculate that perhaps the wealthy have grown complacent on the assumption that because they are unlikely to be parted from their money, they must necessarily be making good choices, and must therefore be geniuses whose ideas are always good. Which leads to a culture of very bad, very expensive boondoggle decisions until equilibrium is restored and billionaires actually start going broke from making stupid decisions.
As I understand from my sporadic reading of showbiz memoirs, the screenwriter has always been considered a minor player in movies and TV. The audience goes for the stars; the cognoscenti go for the directors, the money goes to the producers; and the screenwriter is a nobody.
The entire problem with this show is that the showrunners don’t care about anything matching reality. They are only concerned with the visuals – does this *look* good and cool onscreen? They’ve lived and worked in Hollywood for so long that all their points of reference are fake things. The SF movies they’ve worked on? It’s SF, we can invent techobabble as to why this works. Rings of Power? It’s fantasy, so it works (e.g. the Elven ships) by magic.
And that goes for the costume designers and visual design etc. Does this work, is it functional for what its purpose is supposed to be, is it historical? Not our problem, we just have to make it look good so ‘the ships are kinda Mediterranean kinda Byzantine kinda Arab kinda Chinese’ is our design inspiration and who cares if the sails don’t work and the armour looks plastic and it’s impossible for this to happen this way. They’re also, in spite of what they say, copying the movies so they’re constantly treading a fine line between looking enough like the movie style to be recognisable and evoke familiarity, but not so much as to trigger copyright infringement lawsuits.
It’s frustrating and infuriating, but that’s Hollywood, folks! And completely contrary to what Tolkien said in regard to a proposed film treatment:
“The Lord of the Rings may be a ‘fairy-story’, but it takes place in the Northern hemisphere of this earth: miles are miles, days are days, and weather is weather.”
I’m reminded of a cartoon showing the actual result of fantasy warrior women wearing fantasy armor and wielding fantasy weapons: the (surviving) women being led off naked and chained into slavery.
One problem with this theory is that the battle scene looked decidedly uncool and pedestrian. I think the showrunners are just not good enough to make compelling TV
You can try to make something look cool and fail. In fact, I’d argue that most attempts to “look cool” first and foremost are doomed to failure. Cool isn’t something you strive for, it’s an emergent property from other accomplishments.
I dunno. I’d say that the primary goal of most of Zack Snyder’s movies is to “look cool”, and they mostly succeed at that.
It takes some skill, but maybe not the same level of skill. Not everyone can make toffee, fewer people can make baklava.
I can’t decide if I want to disagree by pointing to other things he tries to do to make his movies look cool, or disagree by pointing out times his movies were extremely uncool. (“SAVE! MARTHA!”)
The chain thing was so they could capture orcs alive to enslave them. Wait … wrong movie.
Are you referring to “Keep your hands off me you dirty stinking ape?”
Still enjoying your posts immensely!
Here’s a few proofreading points you might want to fix . . .
Caption for sailplans:
which holds the past in place > the mast
qualities, but you those principles > [delete the word you?]
time they’re inc column out of > in a column
Caption for full gallop:
which the Númenórean apparently sustain > Númenóreans (plural) or better Númenórean horses
the horseman ride up in a pair > horsemen (plural)
trail at impact that it wasn’t > so that it wasn’t
it sacrifice’s the reach of> sacrifices (plural, not possessive)
Any any time during > At any time
“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.”
Unless, like the trade between the Red Sea and India in Roman and later times, you took advantage of a seasonal reversal of the winds- the Monsoon- to sail out to your destination in one season and then catch the reverse winds back six months later. Polynesian exploration also took advantage of occasional “El Niño” periods: when the usual prevailing easterly winds were temporarily replaced by westerlies, explorers would look for new islands to the east and carry news of colonizable islands back west again when the winds returned to their standard pattern.
Do we have enough of a map of Middle-Earth — notably including the area around the equator and a fair bit south — to be able to tell how the ITCZ a.k.a. the doldrums would behave? In the Atlantic, it is “strung” between the tip of South America and West Africa, hence it’s almost in the same location at the two solstices. In the Indian Ocean, India is just at the right latitude to be able to pull it far north in the (northern-hemisphere) summer but not in winter, hence the large monsoon area (the area swept between the yearly northern and southern extremes of the ITCZ).
Guessing that Middle-Earth has a similar axial tilt to Earth (given the similar seasons), Gondor looks too far north — well north of the tropic of cancer — to act as India.
> Guessing that Middle-Earth has a similar axial tilt to Earth
Probably identical; it’s notionally Earth several thousand years ago. (I’m not a big enough Tolkien fan to know why the continents changed shape so quickly.)
Tolkien never mapped anything later than the War of the Ring, so we don’t know. Fannish speculation occasionally blames it on the Ice Age.
(He did say there was significant flooding around the Downfall of Numenor, but LOTR takes place an Age after that, so we still have coastlines very different from modern Earth’s.)
Do fans also blame the Ice Age for the later extinction of potatoes in Middle Earth?
When LotR was published in the 1940s and 1950s theories about the speed and mechanism of continental drift were still being developed and debated. Let alone during the earlier decades when he was developing his mythology.
So, I think that the issue is simply that Tolkien was not a geography professor.
According to Letter #294:
“The Atlas of Middle-earth” by Karen Wynn Fonstad is a wonderful resource, though I don’t know about canonicity. Note that it does use material from “The Silmarillion” which might be a problem for RoP.
It has flat world maps for the pre-Downfall era, which have vague hypothetical continents for the deep south and far east.
She shows Númenor with the northernmost cape at the same latitude as Havens of Umbar. The easternmost cape is is due south of where the mouth of the Sirion used to be.
There are “Hither Lands” east and south of Umbar, with no sea gap. Don’t if they are based on anything specific in Tolkien, but the west coast is labeled “Grey Mountains.”
The round world maps from after the Downfall don’t show anything beyond Far Harad and Rhûn.
Having just posted that, I discovered the “Ambarkanta maps” by Tolkien, which Ms. Fonstad was clearly working from also.
Seasonal trade winds not so good for a military expedition with urgency in its mission.
I would like to add another objection to the Numenorean warships. Why do they exist at all? Working from the books at least, the only oceangoing civilizations around in the middle of the Second Age were the Numenoreans themselves and the Elves of Lindon. The Numenoreans don’t have any recorded civil strife by this point, and they’re on good terms with the elves. They have ships, but those would be for exploration and moving cargo (and people) around, not for trying to sink the hsips of other people.
Now, I haven’t seen the show, so maybe they invented some reason for the Numenoreans to militarize their vessels, but at least to me, I would have thought no rams, n boarding platforms. If they’re armed at all, it should be in pretty low-key, improvised ways, with a gradual move to more dedicated fighting vessels as the situation in middle-earth gets more tense.
Similarly, another problem with the Numenorean cavalry is that it’s cavalry. The books (Although I will admit this is more in materials which the show-designers didn’t have legal access to) make it pretty clear that Numenoreans didn’t use much cavalry, mostly in ‘auxilaries’ when they set up their empires on the coasts. It was just too much trouble to ship large amounts of horses over seas, and you get something of an implication that the state of horses in Middle-Earth at the time wasn’t very good, we’re still in the early days of horse domestication for much of the region that the action would cover. If it was supported by appropriate other bits of worldbuilding and dialogue, we might actually have an excuse to have chariots.
Not sure I can agree about the elves on horseback. I’m at work as I write this, and I don’t have all my books with me, but I’m sure at the very least Glaurung was turned back in his initial foray during the Battle of Sudden Flame by elves fighting as mounted archers. But on the other hand, I can only think of three elves with named horses, and Legolas’s was a loaner from the Rohirrim. (Legolas, Glorfindel, and Fingolfin, if anyone cares, and none of them have explicit scenes of fighting from horseback, although it’s certianly plausible in all three instances)
As for the elves hearing the horses first, that does strike me as plausible. You get more about Elvish vision than Elvish hearing, but they do seem to have supernaturally keen senses. Legolas is able to pick out a column of horsemen at 15 miles away, know that there are exactly 105 of them, that most of them have blond hair, and that the leader’s really tall.
And for the last line. Do not tempt the Valar by saying such things!
UT says that Numenoreans loved their horses and could call them telepathically, but yeah didn’t fight on them much in part due to Numenoreans being really tall.
The most notable elven cavalry would be Maglor holding Maglor’s gap. You also get elves on horses with the Elvenking’s hunt in the Hobbit, Glorfindel and his horses… oh, Fingolfin had cavalry too:
> Fingolfin and Fingon his son held Hithlum, and the most part of Fingolfin’s folk dwelt in Mithrim about the shores of the great lake; to Fingon was assigned Dor-lómin, that lay to the west of the Mountains of Mithrim. But their chief fortress was at Eithel Sirion in the east of Ered Wethrin, whence they kept watch upon Ard-galen; and their cavalry rode upon that plain even to the shadow of Thangorodrim, for from few their horses had increased swiftly, and the grass of Ard-galen was rich and green. Of those horses many of the sires came from Valinor, and they were given to Fingolfin by Maedhros in atonement of his losses, for they had been carried by ship to Losgar.
> Between the arms of Gelion was the ward of Maglor, and here in one place the hills failed altogether; there it was that the Orcs came into East Beleriand before the Third Battle. Therefore the Noldor held strength of cavalry in the plains at that place; and the people of Caranthir fortified the mountains to the east of Maglor’s Gap.
> he came never in sight of them until they reached the Brithiach, and abandoned their horses. Then by ill fate they were betrayed; for the horses neighed loudly, and Eöl’s steed heard them, and sped towards them
They’ve messed with the timeline something fierce, but AFAIR, by the time any of this sort of thing starts happening, Númenor is an imperial power and has warships to go do colonisation with.
Elves have keen vision, but also don’t have a horizon, so seeing stuff at ridiculous distances is easier. Don’t believe they are mentioned to have keener hearing, but it also wouldn’t be unthinkable.
> Elves have keen vision, but also don’t have a horizon, so seeing stuff at ridiculous distances is easier.
This is a common claim, based on a scene in the second chapter of The Two Towers in which Legolas sees the riders of Rohan from “little more than five leagues distant”. That’s 25 miles, much too far to have line of sight on flat ground. But they’re not on flat ground! They’re on a hilltop, which they have climbed for the purpose of seeing further! Aragorn also has line of sight on them, though they’re just a blur to him.
” ‘I see nothing away north or west but grass dwindling into mist,’ said Gimli. ‘Could we see the forest, if we climbed the hills?’ ”
A few paragraphs later, they do so.
“Wearily they followed him, climbing the long slope, until they came out upon the top. It was a round hill smooth and bare, standing by itself, the most northerly of the downs.”
They stop for the night. A couple of paragraphs later, and it’s morning, and they look out across the landscape.
“Following with his keen eyes the trail to the river, and then the river back towards the forest, Aragorn saw a shadow on the distant green, a dark swift-moving blur. But Legolas stood beside him, shading his bright elven-eyes with his long slender hand, and he saw not a shadow, nor a blur, but the small figures of horsemen . . .”
That’s a fair explanation for that moment, but Legolas sees the furthest in the “The King of the Golden Hall” chapter taking place in Edoras.
>The others too now turned their eyes eastward. Over the sundering
leagues of land, far away they gazed to the edge of sight, and hope and fear bore their thoughts still on, beyond dark mountains to the Land of Shadow. Where now was the Ring-bearer? How thin indeed was the thread upon which doom still hung! It seemed to Legolas, as he strained his farseeing eyes, that he caught a glint of white: far away perchance the sun twinkled on a pinnacle of the Tower of Guard. And further still, endlessly remote and yet a present threat, there was a tiny tongue of flame.
Legolas (unlike the others, most likely) can strain his farseeing eyes and so look to hundreds of miles away – to Minas Tirith and even to the fires of Orodruin (most likely source of the flame, I’d say).
There is elevation in play, but not to an extreme degree relative to the distances involved. I think the only explanation that keeps Elvish eyes from defying the horizon is that Legolas is having more of a vision.
Though I personally don’t see an issue with granting that Elvish eyes are magical, as we in our ignorance are forced to unspecifically say.
To be sure his eyes are supernatural – he sees an impossible level of detail when he looks at the riders of Rohan. But I still think him being able to see past the horizon is a stretch. In the passage you quoted, he strains his eyes and thinks *maybe* he sees something (which he already knew was there before he looked).
“I would like to add another objection to the Numenorean warships. Why do they exist at all? Working from the books at least, the only oceangoing civilizations around in the middle of the Second Age were the Numenoreans themselves and the Elves of Lindon. The Numenoreans don’t have any recorded civil strife by this point”
Reminds me of the trope seen many of times of tribes of “Noble Warrior” types that have actually lived in peace for decades or centuries until (Europeans/Orcs/etc.) came along. If these tribes have not participated in any conflict for several generations, it seems strange to still have a whole warrior culture be dominant.
Numenor not having cavalry surprises me – I’m not very familiar with the Appendices, but I know Numenor was the Middle-Earth interpretation of Atlantis, which was famously sacred to the god of boats and horses.
@Bret Devereaux “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”
Bret, you’ve mentioned before the lengthiness of the process of forming up an army for its day’s march; would a fast pace at the start for the leads just to clear the road so those following can get on the road be a thing?
I thought the idea was to boost morale for those left behind by thundering out of the city, then they would slow down.
Considering the chance of accidents, that they didn’t have any might have been taken as a good omen.
Getting troops out of the city might be worth doing this, but that means all your troops are out before any supply wagons start moving. Most movement would have been blocks of troops with wagons in between so I don’t think that would work well.
I think it’s a cultural “performing kingship” thing. The king has to be seen as a warrior riding his mighty steed to battle. And he does that eager and fast. So after he leaves the gates the army canters for a couple of hundered meters, because thats how you leave a city for war.
Congratulations on your No-Prize!
And jokes aside, this definitely seems unlikely to have been Jackson’s intent considering that he never has horses walking. Possibly could be a result of him having a better grasp of what the scene is supposed to “feel” like creating a more plausible scene since the emotions he wants to stir in the audience line up with the emotions it makes sense for the army’s leaders to want spectators to feel.
“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.”
A wizard did it!
Just because it looks remarkably like a longship, theoretically it could have a “modern” hinged rudder, with the helmsman’s position (not necessarily a wheel) being crammed in belowdecks for some unclear reason, requiring instructions to be relayed somehow. (Military ships generally bother to designate backup steering positions. If both the bridge and the backup position with modern powered steering are unusable, they can fall back to “hey you guys, get out a big winch and move the rudder by muscle”, though I don’t quite see how this has any practical benefit over “that’s it, we lost steering until we can repair it”.)
More interestingly, if they had multiple masts and sails on this ship, they could to a large extent steer with just the sails. Sailing is physics, not magic. A sail on the bow turns the ship downwind; a sail on the stern turns it into the wind, like a weathervane. (Using propulsion to steer has a modern analog; ships with multiple screws can “twist”, run the screws on one side forward and on the other backward, to turn faster than they could with just the rudder(s). This was relatively standard practice for emergency evasion maneuvers, e.g. under torpedo attack.)
“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.”
A common enough mis-depiction for TV Tropes to have an entry for it: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AutomatonHorses
Big thing I remember balking at was the Numenoreans riding at a full gallop across the Southlands–long before they reach the village/Orcs. And having read Judith Tarr’s posts about the use and abuse of horses in SFF over on Tor.com (https://www.tor.com/tag/sff-equines/), I kept expecting a scene with the Numenoreans staring at their dead horses while going “Aw crap, what do we do now?”
Diana Wynne Jones spoof tour guide “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland” was good on fantasy horses:
“Horses are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame or put their hooves down holes, except when the Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world. For instance, they never shy and seldom whinny or demand sugar at inopportune moments. But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them. If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a valley while you talk. Apart from this inexplicable quirk, horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are. Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few horses are described as geldings. It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination. This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals. Nomads appears to have a monopoly on horse-breeding. They alone possess the secret of how to pollinate them.”
The problem with the horses having problems is that it’s hard to do it and not make the hand of the author show.
Take a standard Five-Man Band cast and have The Big Guy be the horse. A named character.
It’s still hard. It’s like having a human sprain her ankle, not esthetically feasible without setup, even though humans do it all the time.
Worked for the crew in Journey to the West. . . .
It would have to be an 8-man band unless only one is riding, or the horse is a pack horse.
Perhaps the horse is a very, very Big Guy. Or the rest of the party is very small.
Magic boats and magic horses. Both exist in the source material. There, the show is now exonerated.
Elven longship: as the discussion of the númenorean ships mentions, weatherliness also depends on hull shape. Thus it makes approximately zero sense to put a lateen sail on a shallow-draft hull.
The reason is that when sailing close to the wind — doing the thing that fore-and-aft sails do better than square sails — the sails exert a mostly sideways force on the hull, i.e. the component perpendicular to the hull is larger than the component parallel to it. It takes a hull deliberately shaped to have a much greater resistance to being dragged sideways through the water than to moving lengthwise through the water to convert this mostly-sideways force to a mostly-forwards motion (the remaining sideways drift is called leeway). Shallow-draft vessels in general don’t have enough of this resistance, unless they have some visually prominent features e.g. movable leeboards (allowing the vessel to convert between a deep-draft weatherly and a shallow-draft unweatherly form by lowering or raising the board).
I would like to disagree with you. The traditional folk boats used in the Baltic have a clinker hull, a shallow draft and a lateen-derived sail, but no kind of deep keel. They are not very weatherly, but they can tack and a lot of trade was done with them until the 20th century. As long as you stay within the archipelago, you are fine.
Jeff Bezos calls you up and says he wants a classical military specialist on tap for season 2 wyd?
Write an invoice with a lot of zeros on it.
I hope there are some other digits somewhere too?
Leaving aside all of the bad cavalry tactics and kit, the Numenoreans never used cavalry at all. They loved horses too much to risk them in battle.
“The Númenóreans in their own land possessed horses, which they esteemed. But they did not use them in war; for all their wars were overseas. Also they [the Numenoreans] were of great stature and strength, and their fully-equipped soldiers were accustomed to bear heavy armour and weapons. In their settlements on the shores of Middle-earth they acquired and bred horses, but used them little for riding, except in sport and pleasure. In war they were used only by couriers, and by bodies of light-armed archers (often not of Númenórean race). [Author’s note.] – Source: Unfinished Tales, “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields”
So mounted scouts, horse archers, and mounted infantry would make sense in the lore, but not shock cavalry. I can’t find a source for it, but I seem to recall that the Gondorians only started using shock cavalry after they’d seen how effective the ancestors of the Rohirrim were with them.
I’ve only read the ships portion so far, but I do have one potential contention: the Elven ships.
This all occurs before the Changing of the World. Arda was still flat at that time, but that’s not terribly significant; what is, is that the Valar hadn’t learned that they weren’t supposed to directly interfere with things yet. Manwee and Ulmo were still very much active forces. Ulmo in particular is significant, because it was he who called the Eldar to Valinor and–the real point here–carried the ships to Valinor.
What this means for Elven ships is that they don’t need to be designed on the same principles as human ships, at least not as far as voyages to the West are concerned. Fundamentally they’re not really ships, in that they aren’t something designed to generate power to move things from Point A to Point B. They are more along the lines of a ferry, where something–in this case the literal god of the sea–pulls them across. And since Manwee commands the winds (see Sauron and Saruman as they died in “Return of the King” for examples of this), and Manwee, like all the Valar, want the Eldar in Valinor, the sails are mostly just there to give Manwee something to work with. (Even bad things happening at sea wouldn’t change this; some of the Maia were not terribly consistent.) The ships can have high sides because no one needs to row; Ulmo takes care of that. They can be open because there won’t be any storms; Manwee takes care of that. Even the sun wouldn’t be a risk (and sunburn was a risk on open wooden ships), because the Sun is pulled by a Maiar that’s on board with the whole “Bring the Eldar to Valinor” plan.
In other words, the Elves can make their ships all kinds of ridiculous ways because all those changes do not, fundamentally, matter. Ultimately what matters is 1) Ulmo and Manwee want them to move in a Westerly direction, and 2) They have a mobile platform that can allow that to happen. I can kind of see the show runners using the visuals to allude to this without coming out and saying it (for copyright reasons). The screenshot has a very religious/ritualistic vibe to it, which would be entirely appropriate for a group of people traveling via divine power toward a literal paradise of eternal life.
Of course, this makes the Numenorean ship design significantly worse. First, the prevailing wind will be moving Westward (because, remember, Manwee wants it to do so). Any ship sailing from Numenor to Middle-Earth would be sailing against the wind. So square-rigged ships are out. Second, the Numenoreans have to contend with the will of Ulmo and Manwee. That wouldn’t have been a major issue in the past, when Numenor and the Valar were on good terms, but at the time of the show they most emphatically were NOT, so it’s unlikely that the Valar were going to help them much. This would be something like trying to play Elden Ring on a “Dance Dance Revolution” mat–in order to just survive you need to be almost perfect. And those ships……are bad. Like, really bad. You never discussed it, but these ships don’t have any obvious way to be reefed (partially furled), which would be critical in a storm–and remember, both the god of wind and the god of the sea are upset with these people, meaning storms are going to be a huge factor.
Good point – the Valar were also quite partial to transporting elves on islands, which are not known for their ability to beat to windwards either.
>(you may need to zoom in)
Is anyone actually able to zoom in on images on this blog? I’ve never been able to short of digging into the dev tools, which can be particularly frustrating in the posts on Paradox games where the screenshots contain a lot of details that are completely illegible at the default size.
The way Bret is talking here makes me think maybe the problem is unique to me, or at least some subset of users I’m part of?
Touch-screen devices let you stretch the image on screen, which functions well-enough as a zoom.
If a browser window doesn’t zoom, you can open the image in a new tab, which should.
Opening the image in a new tab shows it at it’s default size, which is sometimes bigger than it displays on the blog but usually not as much bigger as I’d like and doesn’t allow any further zooming.
Once it is open in new tab, you should be able to zoom in by embiggening the font size (ctrl + on some browsers).
If you are using chrome on windows you can hold down ctrl and use the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in and out. Clicking on the three dots at the top right will reveal several other options including a zoom function.
Zooming in on a fuzzy picture does not make it less fuzzy. It only helps if the picture had more resolution than it was by default displaying. That’s sometimes the case. Other times you can do an image search and see if you can find a higher-resolution version somewhere else. Otherwise you’re out of luck.
Right, I first noticed this issue during the paradox series, where Brett was uploading screenshots of what is presumably at least a 1920×1080 screen, but the images were not available in original size so the UI was unreadable. The images should link to a full-size version, but they don’t.
You can see the original size by removing the end of the URL starting from the “?resize”.
Nice, that does work. Unfortunate that modern browsers abbreviate URLs, I would not have not known that that argument is there if you had not pointed it out.
The chain sounds like a case of Tyrion Lannister envy—a harbor chain, only on land.
Except harbor chains are real, historical things that existed. Those horse chains are just silly.
Math nitpick: 12 knots in one direction plus 8 knots in a perpendicular gives you sqrt(200) ~= 14.14 knots along the hypotenuse of the triangle formed by the two vectors, not 14.4.
No, it would be the square root of 208, which really is about 14.4.
Great series and post! I was particularly laughing at points in this one, like not trying to sink and board a ship at the same time, or jumping off your horse for a tackle not being good for you and your horse. And nice coda about the groundedness of Tolkien and Martin.
Did not expect the lesson on sail physics, but I appreciate it. Even if I still don’t know what most of the sail/mast/sprit terms mean. 🙂
being held taught
but you those principles are your options
could effectively out ride — outride ?
point trail at impact that it wasn’t pulled
it sacrifice’s the
I wonder how Le Guin would compare to those two fantasists. She has done a lot of worldbuilding since magic is so present that Earthsea is rather different from any historical society, but at the same time the culture and attitudes feel historically grounded; she was well-educated in humanistic subjects after all.
If I should contribute with a typo, there is “substantially lesson”.
Also, the homophony taught/taut is something many writers of fanfiction and more salacious material seem to struggle with
All the more interesting in that “lessen” in the proper spelling made it in.
We’ve had 3 Rings of Power nitpickings, yes. What about fourth Rings of Power nitpicking?
-“following up our mode the major worldbuilding problems the show experienced” – not quite sure what is meant here
-“On a normal sailing ship the mast’s great height is steadied by tensioned ‘standing rigging’ which holds the past in place” -> “mast in place”
-“but you those principles are your options” -> “but those two principles”
Given the prohibitions they were operating under on a metaphysical level, I’d expect Numenorean ships to be designed with coastal waters in mind, and only some very recent ship designs incorporating deep water weatherly ships designed to push farther West than they’re allowed to sail.
I wish they’d left off the stirrups (if they had to keep the cavalry and couldn’t replace it with with infantry wholesale). IMO neither Elves nor Numenoreans should need them, and I like to think that part of the rise of the Rohirrim was their introduction of stirrups to Middle Earth.
How great would it have been if their casting and costuming department had put a bunch of tall (6′ and higher) men in heavy bronze armor and had them loping along tirelessly on foot as they moved through the mainland, only to fall upon the orcs in a disciplined wall of bronze and steel that the orcs simply could not stand against. It would have fit so well the descriptions of the Numenorean host of heavy-armed foot who pushed the forces of Sauron back to the very gates of his fortress and took him captive as a prize (and meanwhile subjugated the lesser Men of the continent, here cast using men of no more than 5′ 9″ and with women likewise shorter of stature than their Numenorean counterparts).
One key element that I believe the showrunners simply didn’t care about (or possibly never learned) is that the Numenoreans are supposed to be a Precursor culture, one of those mythical hugely advanced civilizations that could accomplish unbelievable things with comparatively primitive materials. They should look antique and baroque, with things clearly derived from our ancient past but turned up to the figurative 11. Instead they don’t seem particularly special compared to the random villagers in the Southlands, and their aesthetic is entirely forgettable. We see essentially no wonders, aside from some fleeting cgi renders of cyclopean architecture (which was more a reference to the Peter Jackson megalithic statues than anything original).
The elves likewise should be an obviously ancient people possessed of unsurpassed Art, but one at the beginning of a slow but inevitable decline. There should be glorious cities with comparatively few inhabitants. There should be dialog about the past accomplishments of their people and bemoaning the lack of new creations (perfect for Sauron to latch onto as he convinces the elves that he was sent to help them regain their past glory by teaching them ringcraft). Admittedly, the stuff they introduced about Mithril might qualify, but that creates even more problems.
I love the imagery, but don’t think it fits with the lore…The Numenoreans are powerful because of their association with Valinor and their Elvish (Luthien) ancestry. The idea in LOTR was that of gradual decay from that height. Gondor wasn’t merely later than Numenor, but was a crumbling ruin in comparison. The Elves of Middle-Earth were more powerful than humans, sure, but they were mere shadows of their ancient power. Remember, they used to make gems, and give so many as gifts that they were used as beach sand. They had technologies (like the stuff the walls of Gondor was made out of) that were completely lost. Tolkien very much viewed the past as superior, and the modern world as worse in fundamental ways. It would be appropriate to make the Numenoreans more technologically advanced, not less.
For a very specific kind of technology – craftsmanship carried to an extreme, but not industry. Tolkien’s past was very much pre-industrial.
Mostly non-industrial. An early version of the Fall of Gondolin did have mecha-dragons from Morgoth, and he had a version of Sauron-dominated Numenor with apparent steamships (or other non-sail) and cruise missiles. But yeah, it’s not something he kept.
Tolkien viewed the past as morally superior, but he was not so benighted as to believe that the technology of the past was superior to that of the twentieth century. However, he had also imaginatively absorbed the medieval mindset: it was true in the middle ages that Rome had been technologically superior in certain respects, particularly in regard to large-scale engineering. (In fact, the middle ages had seen some considerable technological advances over the ancient world, such as the horse collar and the stirrup, although inventions of that nature aren’t always of interest to intellectuals.)
“Tolkien viewed the past as morally superior”
Do you have a reference to demonstrate that?
Tolkien’s ideal was the Catholic social vision of kindly masters and dutiful craftspersons. It had no room for factories and mass production. The smoking forges of Moria and Isengard, and the great brick mill at Hobbiton were all the products of evil.
“…but he was not so benighted as to believe that the technology of the past was superior to that of the twentieth century.”
Given his writing, I have a strong feeling he would have objected to the term “better”. The term presupposes a standard, after all, and the discussion Sam and the Sherriff had on the way to Hobbiton demonstrates that Tolkien had a non-naive yet still non-standard definition of “better”. I’m not stupid enough to argue that we should go back to the Middle Ages in terms of technology; I am, however, pointing out that Tolkien quite obviously did not view mere increase in power as superior.
As an aside, I would LOVE to have gotten his views on the 1918 Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture. The Sherriff argued, as a point against the new mill, that there was no more grain to mill than before, so increased production was irrelevant; however, the 1918 Yearbook specifically discussed ways to improve production among small-scale farmers. (My great-grandfather was one, and had a copy for various practical reasons, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands on it at one point.)
Further, there’s strong evidence that technology was superior in the past in Middle Earth, as well as in-universe justification for it. The Numenoreans had technology that was superior to that of anyone–including the Elves–of the Third Age. Orthanc and the walls of Gondor, for example. And even they didn’t have the best technology. The Numenoreans had, but did not make, the Seeing Stones, for example. The direction of the technology is different, sure, but the magnitude is on par–we didn’t develop anything comparable to the Seeing Stones until a generation or two ago (depending on how one counts). Even something as simple (for us) as food preservation was such a huge consideration in the past that our comparative disregard for it is, from a historical perspective, quite astounding. My grandfather, who’s still alive, has vivid memories of situations where the Lothlorien leaf wraps would have been a godsend.
For my part, I take this as a sign of Tolkien’s masterful worldbuilding. We have a tendency to consider the past in terms of how it produced the present, on the unstated assumption that everything is leading up to today. But any reasonable study of history (be it paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, or actual history) demonstrates that chance–what Gould called contingency–plays a huge role. There’s no reason to presume that another culture would produce the same results as ours. This is especially true if that other culture is an immortal race of super-beings! The focus on individual comforts (cloaks that keep you warm/cold/hidden, drinks that strengthen you, the creation of gems, etc) makes sense when you’ll only die if someone murders you.
Tolkien viewed the past as morally superior, but he was not so benighted as to believe that the technology of the past was superior to that of the twentieth century.
In the real world, sure. In Middle Earth, on the other hand, the past does genuinely seem to have been technologically superior to the era in which the books are set.
To be fair to the showrunners on the stirrups point, that can often be an insurance issue. I know of at least one ancient Rome-set movie where the producers *knew* their actors should be riding without stirrups, but were forced by their insurance company to give them stirrups anyway.
Going by the canon timeline, Numenorean ships should definitely be good deep sea ships. They’d been operating in Middle-earth for 1000 years by the time of the making of the Rings, and their invention to save Gil-galad from Sauron. And the time of Ar-Pharazon was 1500+ years later. They couldn’t sail west out of sight of Numenor, but they could go everywhere else, and did. And this is what RoP has rights to:
> The first sign of the shadow that was to fall upon them appeared in the days of Tar-Minastir, eleventh King. He it was that sent a great force to the aid of Gil-galad. He loved the Eldar but envied them. The Númenóreans had now become great mariners, exploring all the seas eastward, and they began to yearn for the West and the forbidden waters; and the more joyful was their life, the more they began to long for the immortality of the Eldar.
> now their havens became fortresses, holding wide coastlands in subjection. Atanamir and his successors levied heavy tribute, and the ships of the Númenóreans returned laden with spoil.
> He resolved to challenge Sauron the Great for the supremacy in Middle-earth, and at length he himself set sail with a great navy, and he landed at Umbar. So great was the might and splendour of the Númenóreans that Sauron’s own servants deserted him; and Sauron humbled himself, doing homage, and craving pardon.
> At length Ar-Pharazôn listened to this counsel, for he felt the waning of his days and was besotted by the fear of Death. He prepared then the greatest armament that the world had seen, and when all was ready he sounded his trumpets and set sail;
And we can be fairly sure Numenor isn’t near the coasts of Middle-earth:
> As a reward for their sufferings in the cause against Morgoth, the Valar, the Guardians of the World, granted to the Edain a land to dwell in, removed from the dangers of Middle-earth. Most of them, therefore, set sail over Sea
> There was a tall mountain in the midst of the land, the Meneltarma, and from its summit the farsighted could descry the white tower of the Haven of the Eldar in Eressëa.
This is all RotK Appendix A stuff.
So the Numenoreans should be the very best sailors it is possible to be. (Emphasis on _sail_, despite the older idea of making them industrialized.)
I would note that at the time of writing, Tolkien probably thought of Middle-earth as flat, until it was reshaped with the downfall of Numenor. But that isn’t explicit in LotR, just some references to the seas now being bent.
Now with the show, I dunno. If they haven’t been to Middle-earth before, then yeah they should probably have more coastal ships, and then they also shouldn’t be able to get to Middle-earth easily…
> 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.
Perhaps the result of the director’s experience with cars.
Motorboats have the wind going against the direction of travel as well. but yeah, not sailboats.
CS Lewis makes this point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when he mentions that the galleys in the eponymous ship are near the front so that any strong smells are wafted away from the crew.
Also, on ships of Nelson’s day, the captain’s quarters were at the rear, so the unpleasant smells don’t impinge. The latrines are a bigger issue than the galley, and they are definitely in the bow.
I’m not completly through the post yet, but I have to write this now. The Numenoran ships remind me of something. I’m not quite sure what. At first I thought War Craft II Elven Destroyers. But that’s not quite right. Were have I seen this design before?
Not sure; the extreme recurve on the stern looks vaguely like Egyptian reed boats?
The split masts also go with Egyptian reed boats – because the sides of those boats could take the force much better than the deck. The Egyptian split mast was a triangle though.
The top bar may not be an issue. It would likely be in tension when no wind is blowing. But when the wind starts, the ropes holding the ends of the twin booms would tighten up to the point the top beam is under compression instead. Of course, since this design requires ropes at the ends of the booms anyway to keep the sails from being torqued forward, why not let the sails rotate like a triangular sail should?
Apparently the split-mast thing was used in Age of Mythology for Atlantean ships: https://twitter.com/KylePWise/status/1621630184742084608
I only ever played the base game of AoM. I don’t think the Atlanteans were in there, so I doubt this is were I have it from.
But at least the showrunners don’t seem to be the only once doing this.
Not the split sail/mast thing, but they do have some visual resemblance to Battle for Middle Earth II’s Elven ships, particularly the Storm Ship?
I was also considering the Total War: Warhammer series, but that surprisingly seems to have more reasonable(!) designs for most factions than this show did. Low standards, and yet not low enough, apparently!
Oh no. Warhammer has absolutely insane designs for ships, and I love it for them.
(There are two source games for Warhammer naval combat, the older Man’O’War and the slightly never Dreadfleet (the former was a more generic setup, and the latter a more specific fight between various super-ships)
All of them are insane. Hamster-wheel powered rat ships. Giant orc ships that fight with idols of Gork and Mork bringing down hammers, Chaos Dwarf ships with mortars so large they kille a hundred slaves every time they fire…. Warhammer naval combat is even more insane than land combat and I love it.
Maybe the Warcraft II Ogre Juggernauts? They also have split sails. But at least it sorta makes sense for them, since they have a huge cannon down the middle, so there’s some sort of explanation for why they need a whole in the center.
The sails’ ‘wing’ patterns reappear a lot in the various Gondor armours worn in the ‘Return of the King’, that’s where I recognised them from anyway. Which is presumably why they look so silly – a callback to a successful film is worth any amount of realistic physics
To be fair to Aragorn and co, running three days and three nights straight is very much possible, and simply running after your prey is a time honoured hunting technique. It’s not the best method for hunting orcs, but they weren’t in any position to be picky.
There’s an important distinction between running and walking. Humans can absolutely walk any four-legged animal to death, but we can’t run for 72 hours straight without breaks. The latter is distinctly fantastical.
Which isn’t a huge problem if the people doing the running A. have a clear reason to do that and B. are universally the kind of fantasy hero that just does stuff like that. It’s pretty tame compared to a lot of the stuff people did in the legends and folk tales which inspired Tolkien; Beowulf held his breath for a day and a night before fighting Grendel’s mother, for instance. But just because Beowulf could do it without trying doesn’t mean it isn’t a fantastical feat.
I think that in the book, Aragorn and friends weren’t running continuously.
“This deed of the three friends should be sung in many a hall. Forty leagues and five you have measured ere the fourth day is ended!”
135 miles, so 34 to 45 miles a day, depending on divisor. If you just walk 3 miles/hour for 12 hours, that’s 36 miles.
They did do some running:
“They went in single file, running like hounds on a strong scent, and an eager light was in their eyes. Nearly due west the broad swath of the marching Orcs tramped its ugly slot”
“So the third day of their pursuit began. During all its long hours of cloud and fitful sun they hardly paused, now striding, now running, as if no weariness could quench the fire that burned them.”
with the help of magic:
“Often in their hearts they thanked the Lady of Lórien for the gift of lembas, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran.”
plus being a royal Dunadan, an Elf, and a Dwarf, so none of them are limited by ordinary human stamina.
Those numbers really aren’t that much compared to modern Ultramarathon. Looking at the current record holders, 309 kilometers over 24 hours and 473 km over 48 hours are clearly running speeds, and even the 1036 km over 6 days is still faster than a walking speed.
An easier calculation would be 45 leagues, a league is the distance a person can walk in an hour. So 45 hours of walking in 72 hours.
Hell, I knew a guy who would did challenges like that. 100km in a day, 24h non stop, stuff like that. He probably wouldn’t do it in fighting gear, though.
I think we are facing a difference of culture here. Tolkien was an actual WWI infantryman, and lived in a world where military routinely moved units by marching. 45 leagues in three days and nights is an epic feat by any military standard, and well beyond the capability of an ordinary man, especially if equipped with any fighting gear. (Even light gear would weigh some ten kilos, the standard load for Niejmegen four-day-march.)
On the other hand, in our culture, very few people have experience of marching long stretches, but there are people who do such extreme runs as a personal hobby and are conditioned to extreme endurance. So, Tolkien’s point is true: Aragorn’s run is epic. And my compatriot Mikko and Dark Tiger are also right: we have people with such epic endurance among us today.
Yeah, I surely did not want to say, that the run wasn’t epic. 34 to 45 miles (54,4 to 72km) a day for three days, in fighting gear, in roadless terrain is epic, or at least a feat special interest magazins would write about for years. I just wanted to say it is doable with out literal magic.
There’s also the issue that the three are carrying their food and water supplies rather than having periodic supply stations, and have no street-lights to aid travel over rough terrain at night. I don’t recall the phase of the moon in detail at that point (it can be figured out as the phase is mentioned on departure from Lothlorien).
There may be ultramarathoners who could do this (their speed is impressive enough that the nighttime might not matter), but it is still very impressive given that they had to carry their gear.
“the three are carrying their food and water supplies” Not sure why they would be carrying water supplies, presumably the plains of Rohan are crossed by streams flowing generally from the Misty Mountains towards the Anduin. And if I recall correctly, they are equipped with new shields and armor at Edoras. But 10 pounds of bread and ten pounds of gear would make the journey tougher, for sure.
But of the three only Gimli is wearing any armour to speak of, and Tolkien is quite specific that dwarves’ load-carrying capacity is much greater than that of humans. Their cloaks, which presumably serve also as bedrolls, have the weight and bulk of ‘light silk’. Their food supplies consist of lembas, which is not only so sustaining that one bite is enough for a day, but for all we know may be lighter than any human-baked item (lembas is one of the few items in Middle-earth that Tolkien clearly marks as magical, or at any rate mystical). And if as ey81 says there are plenty of streams in Rohan, they would only need to carry an ordinary canteen of water each. The only heavy items they would be carrying would be Gimli’s axe and Aragorn’s sword.
Just to be sure we are on the same page. Would you consider moving with a speed of 6,5 km/h to be running, or fast walking? Because humans can maintain this speed for even 135h without breaks.
I apologize if someone has already posted this bit from Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” in the comments on this series, but I think it sums up very well why flaws like these are such an issue (and why something like, “You’re watching a show with elves and magic and but the ship design is what is ruining it for you! Ha ha ha!” is a terrible response.)
“Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.”
But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.
The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable.
But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.”
Shen’s flagship in “Kung Fu Panda 2” uses it, and notably, as a junk rigged ship, would have unstayed, unshrouded masts. Also, yeah, they bear a sort of resemblance to the Horde destroyers in WarCraft 2 (which also kind of look like Jabba’s sail barge in Jedi).
This isn’t the only time I’ve seen this kind of trick, and the other time was actually pretty clever. But the Numenoreans aren’t fighting a 45-foot-tall monster that incinerates anything within a bus’s length, their chains aren’t 120 feet long or anchored to their steeds’ harnesses, and they aren’t superheroes with a couple of other powers that made this tactic more effective.
They’re not finding a way to combine their disparate talents to kneecap a seemingly unstoppable threat, they’re just trying to win a boring battle by doing something cool but stupid. I’m not even sure what this stupid maneuver is trying to achieve…
I wish these fight choreographers would put all this ingenuity to work on a superhero or superhero-adjacent story, somewhere where the pieces in play are so exotic and unique that genuinely clever and effective uses of them can be discovered in a basic brainstorming session. I doubt they’d be groundbreaking geniuses in the field (the horse-chain thing is probably the most interesting Unique Tactic mentioned, and it’s basically a less complicated version of something a web serial author came up with as a desperation plan for the characters threw together as a delaying action), but at least they’d be doing the sort of work they clearly want to do.
Also, this arrangement is literally a textbook physics problem for precisely the opposite of the desired effect. It’s usually in the form of “use a rope and a tree to pull a car from a ditch.” But the point is that the force in the middle of a rope under tension has the mechanical advantage.
That makes sense – when I saw this moment I had a strong sense of ‘pretty sure that in real life those guys would come off their horses’, even if it had only been a couple of orcs. And of course, as noted in the OP, the fact that no-one is ever recorded as having done this suggests that millenia of cavalrymen agreed with that intuition…
I disliked the series so much that I wish there wouldn’t even BE any further episodes. I have none to little hope for improvement. And I admire Tolkien’s work too much to settle for this mess of offal.
They could decide that they need to sex up Galadriel, maybe give her a hotter wardrobe. 😫
I know you were joking, but I can completely imagine that being the only “lesson” they learn from the first series…
Just a minor correction from an engineer… Wood is pretty strong in tension. Not as strong as steel ofc, but pretty strong. It is, however, relatively weak in compression. Good examples can be found in JE Gordon’s book: Structures or why things don’t fall down.
Seconding the JE Gordon recommendation, the book is not only fantastic at making the complex simple but it’s funny too. And sometimes emotional: “the consulting engineer is often called in at the same time as the lawyer, and the undertaker.”
With reference to the (non use of) spears for safety reasons: surely in the year 2023 it would be possible to CGI in some spears which the extras are pretending to hold?
The extras still need to hold something that helps them behave as though they are holding a spear. The trouble with spears is that they are pretty much dangerous no matter what. If you look, you’ll notice that outside of Chinese film, all polearms are pretty much avoided in film. Some of that is prestige (officers being a class of folks who get swords, and the general soldiery getting polearms as a rule). Some of it, though, is just the difficulty of filming with them safely, especially once you involve horses as well. It can be done, but not on the kinds of schedules Hollywood has dedicated itself to doing (tv is still on the same 8 day shoot schedule per hour of show they’ve been on for decades, when shows are more and more elaborate)
As a former film crew person, I am all for CGI for safety. But sometimes even CGI can’t solve the problem. And most often, CGI isn’t used for safety reasons – it’s used for production reasons. This is the case in RoP per interviews.
Maybe you could make essentially short sticks topped with foam, and have the CG artists extend them? But then again that would be a lot of work.
It is definitely possible, but expensive and difficult. (Disclaimer I don’t actually do such CGI myself, but I know a bit about 3D computer graphics and compositing and whatnot.)
As Faranae notes, you really need the characters / extras to be holding something, a short handle at least, to get the right physical movement. You can then add a CGI extension so that the final shaft / blade looks much longer. Problem is, this is one of the hardest forms of CGI to make look right. Something like a Star Wars lightsaber is relatively easy because it doesn’t have to look real. A CGI sword or spear has to accurately track the motion of the hand and whatever stub handle is in use, and match the light/shadow that the real weapon would be exposed to while it is moving quickly in a (probably) confined space which means the light is (probably) changing frame by frame.
I know Rings of Power had a stupendous budget, but that seems to have been money not time. Paying some artist to painstakingly paint spears into the battle scenes might have been financially possible but I doubt the production schedule would allow it.
They couldn’t have the actors hold cardboard or Styrofoam poles and CGI them into spears?
A cardboard/styrofoam shaft of the right length would be floppy to the point of uselessness — unless you put a wooden support shaft down the middle, but then you get the original problem back. Anything stiff enough to hold its shape would, ipso facto, be stiff enough to injure someone jabbed in the head with it.
Yeah, you can have cardboard or styrofoam props that are painted green or blue and replaced by CGI art.
But, the prop has to have the same rigidity and preferably same dimensions as the “real” thing being drawn in CGI. A lightweight cardboard or plastic long sword, or even worse three metre spear, will bend or break as it is being moved around by the actor. If that happens you’re back to a human artist painting the correct image frame by frame.
If you make a rigid sword or spear, the computer can be told just to trace over the green thing, which is quick. But now you’ve got people on horseback swinging around fairly solid things: think the cardboard tube at the centre of a roll of cloth, or a length of plastic plumbing pipe. Not as lethal as an actual weapon, but still not something you want to get hit in the eye with, or accidentally get jammed into the scenery or ground as you gallop past. So now you’ve got the injury risk again and your insurance goes up.
All in all, it’s quicker and probably easier just to have entirely CGI armies in the background.
> 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).
Shouldn’t that be 135 degrees, rather than 45, for the math to work out?
That’s to within 45° of the direction the wind is blowing FROM i.e., about a quarter of a circle is too close to the wind, with the other 270° sailable. Nautical terminology can be confusing if you mistake the direction the wind is blowing from for the direction it’s blowing to- and both are used in different contexts.
Yeah. A “westerly” is a wind from the West, not towards the West.
Regarding nautical jargon: the “lee” is the “shadow” of the wind – the side of the ship away from the wind. So you have windward and leeward. But “leeward” for some reason is pronounced “loo-erd”. Similarly, “forecastle” is pronounced “folk-sull”, “rowlocks” is “rollocks”, a “top-gallant” sail is a “to-gallant”, and the main sail is the “mainsul”.
I don’t think French nautical terminology is so replete with contractions and odd vowels. I suspect it’s because most English mariners were recruited (or pressed) from small, isolated coastal communities that spoke interesting dialects. I suspect a lot of English sailors were recruited from Cornwall, as Brittany was the traditional recruiting ground for the French.
This seems like a case of “uncanny valley”. They could have dialed it back, and made it realistic. Or gone even further into fantasy, to make it obvious that this stuff is magic and not at all connected to real-world physics. But instead it’s stuck in this weird grey area where it doesn’t seem magical but also doesn’t seem to make any physical sense.
Personally I would have liked to see them embrace the fantasy angle. Let the Numenorians have *giant* ships, way bigger than any normal wooden ships. Maybe something like the treasure ships of Zheng He, but with crazy curved sails.
Big enough to carry those horses that couldn’t fit on flat-bottomed longboats. 😀
The absolute most than cavalry can travel in a day is 120 miles, and for that you have to be the Mongols. (Regular cavalry can manage about 30) The Mongols used a string of remounts that they changed at intervals. I’ve always gone with the Rohirrim were leading a string of 2-4 remounts, which Tolkien skipped for artistic reasons. Plus a chain of pre-positioned supply posts. Excess Barley, considered unfit for human consumption but usable as horse-feed, can be stored in grain pits for years. If you were to do an article on how did the Ride of the Rohirrim actually work you could add a suggestion about opening pits of feed laid down by Thengel and Ecthelion.
The Rings of Power however! I suppose you could go with there being a string of re-mount stations for couriers and the guard-force?
That’s one of the earlier articles on this blog. Check out the Lord of the rings category for more.
Siege of Gondor was the first big series I think, certainly one of the earliest, and the Rohirrim charge is the 4th section.
The issue with the twin-mast Númenórean ships is that despite the hefty budget they were only rendered at the downwind point of sail.
Here is a twin mast boat at downwind and at angled wind https://boatingnz.co.nz/ready-for-a-change/
Yes, historically twin masts were not used, the gains are not that great when you factor in the scarce supply of mast timber. On the other hand, trees are important in Tolkien’s lore. While I doubt Tolkien wrote anything about the Westernesse ship building industry, there is the Nimloth right there, just saying.
http://gravatar.com/ackacking mentioned giving the Númenóreans gigantic ships. Maybe if the ship was truly of oil tanker proportions you wouldn’t be able to span its beam with just one mast and spars set.
When you have effectively unlimited funds but limited time it’s tempting to expedite the world-building and ditch the limitations of realism in favor of dazzle and glitter. I’m afraid though that the carelessness with which the creators approached their work is also a part of the wider modern practice of ‘betting on stupid’, which, alas, seems to be working more often than not. It certainly worked in this case, judging by the season’s viewership and critical success.
Pauline Baynes attempted to show a Númenórean ship-going vessel. Tolkien’s instructions to her–which can be seen on the annotated map found in 2015–ask her to show “as large a pre-steam vessel as can be drawn, i.e., Columbus type.” In another location, closer to shore, he wrote “vessels of varying sizes, from 3 masted to single.” She managed to show 3 types of ships for the Númenóreans/Dúnedain and one for the corsairs. Of course this was all ostensibly for the Third Age, so perhaps not accurate for the Second Age. However, why would they change their ship design if it had worked?
Link to the annotated map: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/app/uploads/2015/11/transcribed-map.jpg
“9 weatherbeaten galleons… all black 5 masted”
AIUI Columbus’s ships were not that big, so I would go with the “as large as pre-steam can be” intent.
… oh wait, blue is Pauline’s notes, not his, oops.
But “9 weatherbeaten galleons” would be Elendil’s refugee ships from Numenor, so very late Second Age, and the product of Numenor’s _material_ peak.
I wonder if galleons were bigger than the Zheng He treasure fleet ships. I assume Tolkien was not that knowledgeable about naval history, especially the Chinese side.
As for Gondor downgrading… losing expertise, or adequate timber? Smaller population, occasional plague, one could even fanwank Sauron-sent assassins of shipbuilding experts.
The main account we have of Zheng He’s treasure ships is of dubious reliability, so it’s hard to know. HMS Victory displaced a bit over 2,000 tons burden. The early 20th century saw two extremely large wooden ships, the Solano and the Wyoming, but the former was a steam paddleship and the latter needed powered pumps to stay seaworthy.
Oh, and HMS Queen, Britain’s last sail-only 1st rater, was over 3000 tons burden. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Queen_(1839)
Nautical terminology is great in Scrabble. The first time I play xebec against a given opponent they usually challenge it.
For someone who knew nothing about sails beyond “wind push cloth, boat go forward” and “I’ve read that it’s possible to ‘tack into the wind’ but I have no idea how they do that” your simplified discussion of sails was very informative.
Now I’m curious – why did late sailing ships have triple-decker sails?
Triple-decker was nothing: clipper ships frequently had five tiers of sails and could have “moonrakers” or “skyscrapers” above even those. There was only so much deck space to accommodate masts, and only so far abeam that spars could practically extend; so more sail meant going up. In addition, when winds were light stronger wind could be found the higher you could go. This was practical when running before oceanic trade winds; when sailing “close-hauled” these upper sails would be bundled up (“reefed”) so as to not risk capsizing.
As mentioned by Michael Huston, taller masts and higher sails meant access to stronger winds (wind speed increases as you get above the water level, since there’s friction between the air and the ocean surface). Another issue is material strength: large sails are heavy, and under tremendous strain when loaded (when filled with wind). Even modern materials will fail, and for most of the age of sail, canvas was just hemp cloth. So lots of small sails were safer, since each individually was less likely to tear, was easier to repair or replace if it did, and was easier for the crew to manage when under load.
Actually, there was a big change in the 19th century, even as stronger materials (cotton) were common. In an 18th century ship, there’s usually only one square sail per mast (masts were stacked vertically, so the mizzen topmast would be on the mizzen mast, and the mizzen topgallant on top of that). But in the 19th century, each mast would have more than one yard (horizontal spar that the square sail hung on), so you’d have an upper and lower mizzen sail, upper and lower mizzen topsail, etc, doubling the number of sails without adding vertical height (although the individual masts were getting taller, too, especially once steel construction started, so there was additional vertical height).
Another issue is sails interfere with other sails downwind of them (so further forward, if we’re talking square sails), so at different points of sail you might want the force of the wind to be stronger on forward or aft masts, depending on the conditions. Having multiple sails meant you could reef (shorten) or even drop certain sails so they weren’t masking downwind sails, making more effective use of the available wind.
“you cannot create some other kind of sail which works on different principles”
Technically there’s one other, relatively new principle: rotor sails (Flettner sails), which use the differential pressure around a rotating object to sail. But they were only invented in 1924 and need a reliable motor to turn the rotors, so not really an option for a historical fantasy. But it’s a cool idea, so I wanted to mention it.