'So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion,' said Gandalf
November 30, 2019 10:13 PM   Subscribe

Ohh... I should be writing, but deeply nerdy pedantry about LotR and history.. I'm down!
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:41 PM on November 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

Overthinking a plate of (Sean) Beans?
posted by lalochezia at 11:07 PM on November 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

Wow this guy's blog is marvellous. I have moved on to his series about ancient polytheism. What a find!
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:48 AM on December 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

Thanks for posting. This was an incredible read. I almost wish he had spent the bulk of the time discussing the tactics in the book rather than the one on screen. I never knew Tolkien got the battle and the flow of armies all so right. Think I'll reread the battle portions of Return of the King with all this in mind.

Also appreciated his observation that LotR should be considered a part of the pantheon of WWI novels. I'm not knowledgeable enough on WWI lit to have an informed opinion, but I like the idea.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 2:26 AM on December 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

This is engrossing!! Thank you for posting- I'd never have thought I'd even want to read something like this- but damn it's well worth it.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:35 AM on December 1, 2019

YES this is awesome. Having to put it away for now but wow a great read. Thanks!
posted by freethefeet at 4:25 AM on December 1, 2019

This is great! And timely; I just rewatched RotK yesterday with my kids.
posted by nubs at 4:49 AM on December 1, 2019

Perfect for Sunday morning! Thanks!
posted by Dhertiiboi at 4:54 AM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, this is fascinating, thanks for sharing it, Chrysostom!

(also I think "overthinking it" jokes are more often meant affectionately than disparagingly around here)
posted by straight at 7:05 AM on December 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm pretty sure that Sauron's armies didn't actually move in a single column. You had one wing marching out of Minas Morgul and up through Ithilien under the Witch-King of Angmar, while another wing took the more direct route to Pelenor out through the Black Gate. In Jackson's film, we even see the Orkish main force moving off towards the Black Gate once Frodo and Sam have exited the passages beneath the Tower of the Moon (and after the Witch-King's forces have already departed). Then you have different bodies of auxiliary troops moving up by land via South Gondor, or by water up the Anduin river.

(Of course, on consulting the map that accompanies the essay, it looks like Minas Morgul is closer to Minas Tirith than I remember, and Morannon is further away, so it may be that Sauron's plan was to use the Witch-King's forces to invest Minas Tirith while bringing up reinforcements from Gorgoroth and the Southern lands.)
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:16 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, yes- and I've just got to the point in the essay where he touches on this.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:18 AM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Ooo this blog is great. Thanks for this, I love this stuff. The Resources pages (for teachers and for worldbuilders) linked to in the header are going to keep me occupied for a while.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:43 AM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wow, what great writing.

I am shocked at how vividly I recall the battles under discussion here, given that I've watched and read RotK only once or twice each, and neither for more than ten years. I remember the sense of the hugeness of Middle Earth as one of the novel's great successes, especially contrasted with the playfulness of the Hobbit over the same space.

It's interesting to contrast the mostly-sympathetic treatment of both Jackson's and Tolkien's versions of the battle for Gondor with the much harsher treatment of HBO's faithful reproduction of Martin's errors in constructing Westeros (which perhaps someone who isn't writing on a phone will link).
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:59 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

(which perhaps someone who isn't writing on a phone will link).
... a three-part series where we look at the question “how accurate is Game of Thrones to the European Middle Ages”

... Part I of this series, which looked at this question from the perspective of military affairs, is linked here

... Part II, linked here, will instead pose this question from a social history perspective, looking at cultural and religious norms along with questions of gender and family structure.

... Finally, Part III, linked here, will look at political structures and norms (and also have the conclusion).
posted by mikelieman at 10:24 AM on December 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

I was thinking about posting this! It's great stuff. The comments are also often worth reading, particularly the debate about horse archers in Part IV.
posted by tavella at 10:27 AM on December 1, 2019

Worth reading for the section headers and photo captions alone.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 11:00 AM on December 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Fantastic! There goes the day.
posted by Ilira at 12:49 PM on December 1, 2019

Well, this was great.
posted by kyrademon at 1:07 PM on December 1, 2019

This is the kind of nerdery I adore! Fabulous post, thank you.
posted by merriment at 1:08 PM on December 1, 2019

I really appreciated this note in Part IV:
Book Note: In the books, the “Death!” battle-cry only comes later, after Théoden has fallen, and Eomer believes his sister Eowyn to be dead as well. Instead, Tolkien notes that the Rohirrim break into song at their onset, “and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing was fair and terrible came even to the City” (RotK 124). That may sound silly – singing in a battle – but it isn’t. While Tolkien is drawing from Anglo-Saxon epic (where battle and war songs figure significantly), it puts me in mind of the Hussites (15th cent.), who would go into battle singing “Ye who are warriors of God” or British infantry advancing to “The British Grenadiers” in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Jackson's decision to drain the emotional power out of this sequence by turning the Rohirrim into a bunch of morbid nihilists who apparently just like to ride around chanting "Death!" was one of the liberties that I found most inexplicable when I first saw the movies. I still don't get it.
posted by Not A Thing at 1:52 PM on December 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

Even when I was a kid reading it, it was clear to me that things like the Dead Marshes and the scenes where Sam and Frodo are among the marching orcs in Mordor were heavily influenced by Tolkien's war service, and as got older I understood that Frodo was a sensitive depiction of PTSD, but I hadn't really considered things like the sense of despair in Gondor.

I also appreciate the author had the depth of knowledge to say things like 'well, we have a decent real world example of disciplined troops facing a charge by hugely powerful creatures they had not previously encountered' and talk about Alexander meeting up with elephant troops.
posted by tavella at 1:53 PM on December 1, 2019 [14 favorites]

I am absolutely here for the rehabilitation of Denethor, my brilliant steward.
posted by Think_Long at 2:19 PM on December 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

Honestly, that was the PJ change that annoyed me the most. I didn't love Faramir being overcome with ring-lust, but the explanation that they needed to keep the throughline of how deadly the desire for the ring was, I at least understood. Why Denethor had to be a raving idiot, not so much.
posted by tavella at 2:23 PM on December 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

This kept me occupied through several long train commutes. Fantastic read, as well as the side jaunt into just how dumb the Dothraki charge against zombies was, on all of the possible levels involved.

I’ve read the books several times, but I’ll admit to being surprised at how much the movies have superseded my recollection of the story, to the point of being surprised at how different the battle is between the two tellings. Looks like I’ve got some reading to go back to this winter.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:27 PM on December 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

These are truly fantastic, thoroughly thought out but engagingly written. Like Ghidorah, I'm shocked about how thoroughly the movies have supplanted my memories of the books, and I've read the books more times than I've seen the movies.
posted by mollweide at 3:48 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Came for the discussion of the Siege of Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennor Fields, absolutely staying for the discussion of Game of Thrones.

I appreciate such a clear demonstration that, for all his skill as a storyteller and a writer of compelling characters, George R.R. Martin's sense of economics and scale is way off.

The level of conflict and destruction described in A Song of Ice and Fire is not only completely out of proportion for an agrarian Medieval society where the primary objective is to gain control over the production of wealth, it makes even less sense in the context of an ecology with radically unpredictable winters. Westerosi society should emphasize the stockpiling of food above all else. The massive consumption of resources by armies of the scale described by GRRM, not to mention the destruction of farmland and mass death among the peasantry make absolutely no sense given the goals of any of the main belligerents.

Also (and I may have made this point elsewhere), what on earth could they be using as collateral to borrow all that money from Bravos in order to keep these large (technically Early Modern) armies in the field? Agricultural produce is obviously at a premium, and Westeros doesn't seem to produce any prestige goods other than high-class courtesans and artisanal stabbings, neither of which travel well. Even slaves don't make a lot of sense, given (again) the need for agricultural manpower, not to mention that it appears to be a somewhat of a buyer's market (as Daenerys discovers in the city-states of Slaver's Bay).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:57 PM on December 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

I just re-watched all three movies this weekend, so this is so timely!!
posted by sarcasticah at 6:10 PM on December 1, 2019

tavella: "Honestly, that was the PJ change that annoyed me the most."

So many options....
posted by Chrysostom at 6:14 PM on December 1, 2019

Eh. While I didn't always love the choices he and Phillipa made, they were usually understandable in the service of making the books work as movies. But Denethor felt like an un-needed misstep.
posted by tavella at 6:48 PM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Aragorn’s army of the dead was such bullshit. All of the good guys have been fighting and dying in this very dire battle and then these apparently invincible ghosts just sweep in and instantly defeat the bad guys, and it makes you wonder if all of the other casualties could have been avoided if only Aragorn had hustled a bit more. There. I said it.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:59 PM on December 1, 2019 [13 favorites]

I greatly enjoyed reading these. I'm going to make one tiny, tiny quibble that is based on nothing more than an impression from a fleeting moment in the films: in the section on the charge of the Rohirrim, he pulls a photo of Eomer getting his spear mid-ride. That may be what happened in reality; but having just watched the film yesterday before I came to this excellent post, I also noted that moment, and what it felt like visually was that we watched Eomer changing the grip on his spear during the charge as he rode to meet a new threat. That is, he had been holding his spear in a position for stabbing downward into infantry, with an overhand grip; and that he then tosses it into the air and catches it in an underhand grip so that he can hurl it. I did think it was a reckless move, one that could have ended with the spear left on the ground, but the split second moment did create for me the illusion that this incredible horse warrior had done something like that without pause, as if it were something he practiced on the regular. Illusion is all, I guess.

I have my issues with the adaptation, but overall I give PJ, Phillipa, and Fran pretty high marks for doing what they did. Watching the extended editions with their commentary was fantastic and insightful, and full of discussions of the challenges they had in adapting the books. And I'll always give him props for cutting out Tom Bombadil.
posted by nubs at 7:38 PM on December 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Unnnngh so he looks at Galactica from the point of view of naval artillery and all I can say is NOW DO DONNAGER.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:09 PM on December 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

nubs, yeah, I thought the same thing at the Eomer scene, as I remembered that specifically as a 'get a load of this badass' moment for him.

The various commentaries are all good, if you have the time to spend on them. There's a lot of insight to be had in the director/producer commentary. The actor commentaries are a bit different, as they weren't all together, rather, they were recorded in groups, if I recall, all the hobbits together, etc. The thing is, Rhys-Davies commentary is pretty heartbreaking. The makeup prosthesis he wore around the eyes for the wrinkles evidently ripped up the skin pretty badly, so while all the other cast members were going out and having grand drinking nights, he was holed up alone in his hotel room for most of the filming, not wanting to be seen in public. Pretty rough.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:16 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Reading through it but just had to note:

"I heard these stories for the first time literally before I could read, having them read to me by my parents."

I mean, I read The Hobbit to my kid at 8/9, but the idea of reading LotR to a 5 or 6 year old? It explains why you end up with mammoth blog posts years down the line, but I sincerely hope his parent's vocal cords have recovered.

(Signed, someone currently reading Half-Blood Prince to an 11 year old, and who sincerely wishes the editor had been a lot more pruney)
posted by Hartster at 3:01 AM on December 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is why I was against the films from the start. And why I dislike the Harry Potter movies, and the Hunger Games movies, and 90% of all movies adapted from books. It's too easy for the filmed imagery to taint the imagination, and for most of us the imagination is so much richer! Tolkein certainly has his flaws as a writer, but he paints a picture that Peter Jackson can't hope to improve on. Sometimes books should just be books.

I do like the very loose adaptation tack that The Magicians TV show has taken. After the first season they pretty much gave up on following the source material at all, because they had built a strong ensemble cast and an interesting world and they understood that a TV show has very different needs than a novel. I haven't read the Expanse books, but from what I understand, while the show has been following the general outline of the books, they have also embraced a more streamlined ensemble cast and a pacing that nods to the source material but gets that a TV show is a different medium.

I didn't watch or read GOT, but it seems like a source that was foolhardy to try to adapt to begin with.

Adaptations can work, but trying to stuff any novel into a two (or even three-plus) hour film is generally a bad fit. I'd watch a Harry Potter animated series that could go chapter by chapter, one episode at a time, for like 25 seasons or whatever it would take. But they make terrible movies. Hollywood should look more at kind-of-bad books. Carl Sagan's only novel, Contact, was a terrible read. Made a great movie though. After I saw Jurassic Park I was excited to read the book and see how much deeper the characters were in the original, only to find that they were even more cardboard cutout in the novel.
posted by rikschell at 5:57 AM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Chiming in that this is sooooo, sooo good.
posted by COBRA! at 8:57 AM on December 2, 2019

makes you wonder if all of the other casualties could have been avoided if only Aragorn had hustled a bit more

...so if the War of the Rings is WWI, and the Army of the Dead sweep invincibly forth after the battle is won, does that make the Oathbreakers we Yanks?
posted by mwhybark at 9:59 AM on December 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Tolkein certainly has his flaws as a writer, but he paints a picture that Peter Jackson can't hope to improve on. Sometimes books should just be books.

I'm glad to have been born in an era where I could watch the LoTR discourse transition from "The books are unfilmable" to "Yeah, well, it could have been better."
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 10:45 AM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

posted by Chrysostom at 11:46 AM on December 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

Thanks for this link! What a fascinating site! And perfect timing for me, as I just finished watching Lord of the Rings with my kids this weekend and intended to start re-reading the books this week.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:00 PM on December 2, 2019

Aaand to react in more detail after having read the whole thing... I while I really, really loved the erudition of each point on the way, I think all of the pieces cohere into a bigger, more profound position: that war is largely about morale (cf. Clausewitz and Bonaparte, I guess). Pop culture has engendered this idea that battles last until the last person on the losing side has been killed, when in reality they (usually) end when people fighting on one side lose the will to fight and either run or surrender, and Tolkien's view of the battle is deeply soaked in this (while Jackson's filmed sequences are essentially escalating superweapons, with a video-game quality).

I've thought a lot lately about how appropriate it is for me, a middle-aged liberal intellectual humanist, to be completely fascinated by military history; the fact of it makes me feel weird a lot of the time. But I always come back on the idea that conflict is going to happen, and there's value in knowing as much truth bout it as possible. And maybe this warped-by-pop-culture view has real-world consequences, as he kind of goes into in one of these essays when he talks about the American fascination with firepower as an end to itself.
posted by COBRA! at 12:01 PM on December 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

...so if the War of the Rings is WWI, and the Army of the Dead sweep invincibly forth after the battle is won, does that make the Oathbreakers we Yanks?

*Tolkien rolls over once in his grave, a strangled sound resembling the word "applicability" escaping reluctantly from his corpse*
posted by tobascodagama at 12:14 PM on December 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

a strangled sound resembling the word "applicability" escaping reluctantly from his corpse

wait, so now JRRT's the King of the Dead?
posted by mwhybark at 12:26 PM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was just in New Zealand and did a tour of the area used for filming the Rohan scenes (Edoras, Helm's Deep, the journey from one to the other and the accompanying raids). Our tour guide told us that in this area, the expert riders are almost entirely women. So when the LotR production put out the call for men to be "horse lord' extras, they got almost no response, until they amended their casting call. Consequently the scenes featuring extras on horseback in any kind of number are mostly women.
posted by dry white toast at 9:02 PM on December 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

Only made it through a couple so far but I'm loving these!

This is why I was against the films from the start

Obviously what matters to people comes down to personal taste, but nothing in this impacts the movie experience for me. It's like complaining that an SF writer isn't treating physics at a PhD level, or that Hitchcock had continuity errors, or that Tolkien didn't understand plate tectonics when he drew his maps. Drives some people crazy and I have my own version of those things that get me ranting (ask me about the lysine in Jurassic Park).

But these are more "fun to talk about afterwards" category. As the author correctly intuits multiple times, I'm as often surprised by what isn't a problem as by what is.
posted by mark k at 10:10 PM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you have the time, definitely check out the 7-part series about Sparta on the site as well.
posted by kyrademon at 1:38 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm glad to have been born in an era where I could watch the LoTR discourse transition from "The books are unfilmable" to "Yeah, well, it could have been better."

I'm reminded of a discussion that happened on my local radio station a couple of years back. Once a week they would host a panel (made up of local business people or others of note for one reason or another) and discuss topics - often politics, sometimes just random things. Anyways, one morning the discussion question was "are movies ever better than the books they are based on?" One of the panelists discussed at length how much he had hated being made to read Shakespeare's Henry V in school, but that when he saw a movie adaptation years later, he loved it - it was brilliant. And he wondered why anyone would make someone read such a horrible book when great films of it had been made.

I turned to my wife and asked "Do you think he's aware he was reading a script, not a book? Like, something that was written to be performed, rather than a novel?"

I 'm not really sure of my point here, other than to say that different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses. I enjoy the LotR books; I also enjoy the movies while noting that each has their own problems and limitations.
posted by nubs at 7:42 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I guess I was just responding to the multiple comments to the effect of "the films have overwritten my experience of the books." So, yes, the films can do some good things like cut down on the boring parts and increase the presence of female characters. But you can never really have a conversation again about the books that isn't colored by the interpretation of the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. Or you have to wait 150 years until there are 6 different versions (this is one of the things that makes Little Women so much fun to talk about).

Yes, I'm an English major grump. Different media have their strengths and weaknesses, but it's not a level playing field. Movies shout while books whisper, and different interpretations don't always enrich the source material IMO.
posted by rikschell at 8:21 AM on December 3, 2019

I loved this and *really* like the de-mythologizing of Sparta in that series of commentaries.
posted by Caxton1476 at 12:49 PM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I just watched the films stoned for the first time a month ago (working through star wars right now) and my take away has not changed. PJ took every hero and turned them into a coward who had to be forced to do the right thing. He stripped the morality, justice, the good from the good guys.

Here's a comic about the witch King
posted by rebent at 5:37 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

All I can say is, that's not my take on the books at all.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:53 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sure, I’m like a week late, but as a person up to their neck in the ASOIAF fandom... first of all, just about everything in the series on the blog about the historicity of GoT is correct enough to not need much discussion from me. But I do have something that speaks a little to TheWhiteSkull‘s comments.

Generally, the Iron Bank of Braavos seems to lend on the basis of expected revenues. But there is at least one occasion where we do see luxury goods (which are produced in Westeros via hunting, mining, farming/herding, viticulture, etc.) being used as debt security, or really just as straight up debt repayment.

When the Wildlings/Free Folk pass through the Wall in A Dance With Dragons — really just a large percentage of survivors that comes through with Tormund — Jon Snow requires them to give various assurances of good behavior. One is child hostages. The other is the surrender of all luxury goods, with the explicit comment that they’re to be sold in Essos to repay the Iron Bank for the food Jon borrowed money to buy them. (IIRC, it’s implied that the buyers will more or less be wealthy collectors.)

The Gift (the Night’s Watch’s lands south of the Wall) has been too subject to Wildling raids for people to want to stay and farm in it, which means that the Watch has not been collecting as much food tax from those lands as it needs to support itself. The lack of surplus means that the Watch can’t really feed itself, let alone a few thousand extra people. So for Jon’s plan (of keeping as many Wildlings as possible from becoming wights that he’ll have to fight) to work out, he first has to make a deal with the Iron Bank for the purchase and transport of food. And he makes that deal prior to making the political one with Tormund.

It turns out that the Free Folk have collected a lot of luxury goods over the centuries: the passage describing the surrender (in the second to last Jon chapter in ADWD) is pretty interesting. Sort of like one of GRRM’s food rhapsodies, but about jewelry, weapons, and household goods instead.

Even with that one granular instance sort of making sense, though, there’s still a lot wrong with numbers in the books... distances, economics, troop movements, you name it.
posted by verbminx at 3:50 PM on December 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older Modern midden: one person's trash is another's...   |   "It’s Mommy’s friend, Fred" Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments