Saturday, January 14, 2017

Defending the Castles

This Youtube video takes a close look at three fortification in the Lord of the Rings movies and evaluates how realistic they are. Just for fun, I'm going to argue that the movie fortifications are better than this guy makes out.

The three in questions are Edoras, the Hornburg in Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith.

Before I look at the fortresses themselves, some background is in order for those who have not read the Silmarilion.

The elves were the first inhabitants of Middle Earth. They are very long-lived and some of them were instructed by the Valar (Tolkien's version of pagan gods). They were quite advanced. Men came from further east and began drifting into Middle Earth during the great war between the elves and Morgoth who was a renegade member of the Valar. Many men took service with the elves and learned a great deal from them. Eventually the great war ended with the Valar returned to Middle Earth and overthrew Morgoth. It was a cataclysmic battle. The continent itself was reshaped. With their kingdoms wrecked, most of the elves went with the Valar to the Undying Lands in the west. The men who had been allies of the elves could not enter the Undying Lands but a large island called Numenor was created for them, partway. They spent centuries there while other men drifted into Middle Earth from the east. Eventually, Sauron, one of Morgoth's lieutenants, corrupted the Numenoreans and convinced them that they would become immortal if they conquered the Undying Lands. The Valor punished them for this, sinking Numenor. A small colony of Numenoreans escaped in seven ships, each carrying a palantir. They returned to Middle Earth and founded the kingdom of Gondor. At it's height, Gondor included most of Middle Earth. All of the action in the Lord of the Rings except for the elf kingdoms and Moria takes place in lands that had been part of Gondor and all of the various monuments and ruins had been built by the Gondorians.

But by the LotR, Gondor had been declining for centuries. Even it's capitol city, Osgiliath, had been abandoned and the remaining population wasn't even enough to fill Minas Tirith which was originally meant as a protective fortress. It's sister fortress, Minas Morgul was also abandoned and taken over by orcs and other nasties.

More recently, but still a few hundred years before, a group of horsemen had drifted in and were allowed to occupy the Plains of Rohan in exchange for a mutual protection pact with Gondor. The people of Rohan were comparable to the Vikings while Gondor was more like Rome and Constantinople.

With that out of the way, I'll get on with the specific fortifications.


Edoras is the only city in Rohan. The video complains that it's too small but that misunderstands just how sparsely populated Rohan is. There is a valid complaint that Edoras should have a lot of farmland surrounding the city in order to support its population but I'll forgive that as a budgetary constraint.

The big complaint about Edoras is that it has a wooden palisade instead of a stone wall. The movie depicts Edoras pretty much just at Tolkien described it and the wooden palisade is justifiable for several reasons.

The people of Rohan fight from horseback. Even some of the women ride to battle. They also have mounted rangers and scouts to spot any large forces moving into their kingdom. The palisade around Edoras is meant to resist a small, stealthy group from attacking. Any group large enough to seriously threaten the wooden wall would be met in the field before they got to Edoras. If a very large host invaded then they sent everyone they could to Helm's Deep until the cavalry cleared up the matter.

Which is exactly what happened in LotR.

It should also be pointed out that Rohan didn't have any master masons who were able to build a large wall and the decline of Gondor meant that they were short on masons, also. Skilled masons were important to a kingdom and Gondor wold be reluctant to spare a group able to spend years building a city wall.

By the way, Gondor means made from stone. In early drafts, Tolkien referred to them as the "Men of Stone" then changed to "Men of Gond" and eventually Gondor. Not surprisingly, the other two fortifications discussed were built by Gondor.

The Hornburg

Helms Deep is a series of natural caverns in a valley protected by a heavily fortified tower caned the Hornburg. The Hornburg has a causeway that loops back on itself leading to the outer wall. Within that is a higher inner wall. There is also a curtain wall going off to the side. The gate is recessed which allows archers to shoot at an enemy trying to break through the date. There is also a sally port to allow a counter attack from the rear. The curve of the causeway exposes an invader to arrow fire.

All of this seems very soundly built but the video excoriates it for not being even stronger. Among the complaints are that they could have dammed up the Deepening Stream to make a moat, they could have had a portcullis and drawbridge on the causeway and they should have had crenelations on the curtain wall. Lets look at those complaints.

I've been to dozens of English castles. Very few have a moat. Moats are tricky things. You have to have a nearby source of slow-running water to feed it (as with the Tower of London) or enough drainage feeding into the area that you can create what is essentially a farm pond around the castle. They also need a lot of work to keep the moat from silting up.

The stream at the Hornburg serves as a sort of moat but it's a mountain stream. You have to be careful with those. Start damming it up and a good rainstorm will flood your castle or wash away your dam. Or the enemy can simply knock a hole in your dam and your moat is gone.

I've been looking at pictures of the causeway and I doubt that a drawbridge would be appropriate for it. It seems to be connected to the outer wall and that probably is part of it's supporting structure.

A portcullis or second gate probably would have been used but that would mean slowing the movie while the orcs battered their way through two gates so I'll forgive them some dramatic license in leaving it out. A large, determined enemy such as the orc force in The Two Towers would have been able to breech a portcullis, anyway so it makes no difference in the end.

The lack of crenelations in the curtain wall does seem to be a mistake. These were normally built to allow archers to have cover while firing at the enemy. They were probably eliminated in a piece or artistic license to allow for the defenders to be shown lined up along the top of the wall.

However, a case can be made that not having crenelations made the wall easier to defend against ladders. The orcs could have climbed above the defenders and dropped on them from above instead of trying to climb onto the points of the defenders.

Not all castles incorporated all possible features. I'd rate the Hornburg as being stronger than most English castles, even with the deficiencies noted.

Minas Tirith

As I said before, originally this was one of two massive fortified towns meant to guard the capitol city of Osgiliath. As the population of Gondor declined, Osgiliath was abandoned and fell into ruin and Minas Tirith became the capitol. It was carved into a mountain with a peak jutting through the city, It was constructed in concentric rings with staggered gates which made it nearly impossible for siege equipment to be used on the other gates even if the great gate was breached. In all there were seven gates before you reached the citadel at the top.

This was a seriously fortified city. It was much stronger than anything built in the Middle Ages in Europe. So what were the complaints about it?

The main complaint was that it was too steep. This is true - you would need to do a lot of climbing if you were in on lower ring and needed to do business with an upper one. It's steep but you can find people living on steep mountains all over the world. The mediteranean has several villages that wold require a lot of climbing. This on on the Isle of Cyprus is much higher than Minas Tirith.

There is the same complaint about the lack of a portcullis. In this case, Tolkien gave a detained description of the gate. The reason that gates are attacked is because they are a weak spot. A portcullis is added to strengthen the gate. But the great gate at Minas Tirith was a wonder all by itself. Instead of being wood bound with iron, they were iron and steel. You couldn't just send some people with axes to chop through it. It took a custom-made battering ram, 100 feet long to burst the great gate. A portcullis wouldn't have lasted a second against Grond.

In the book, the great gate was breached then the army of Mordor drew back a bit and the Witch King rode to the gate with his hood thrown back and a gold crown sitting on his invisible head. Gandolf rode out to meet him and the Witch King drew a flaming sword. But they were interrupted by the arrival of the Army of Gondor.

In the movie the orcs and trolls invaded the first level and the defenders pulled back to the next level before the Riders of Rohan arrived. The Extended Edition had a variation of Gandolf's meeting with the Witch King.

Regardless, even with the gate breached and the army of Mordor inside the first wall, it was still going to be difficult for them to advance further. The remaining six gates were smaller and staggered. The orcs and such would be bottled up in the streets with arrows and loose masonry raining down on them and no chance of bringing Grond or other siege equipment into the narrow streets. The battle would have devolved into a long siege with the orcs trying to undermine the walls or tunnel under and up. Assuming Gondor had enough food, the siege could have gone on for years. The impression of Rohan and the fleet brought by Aragorn saving Gondor at the last moment is false.

In fact, the only real complaint that can be made about Gondor was that it was too good.

Note - a few things were dropped from the book. Minas Tirith should have been surrounded by miles of farms and it took two days for all of the reinforcement to arrive before Mordor's army. Again, this is forgivable in a movie that was already very long.

To summarize, the fortifications as described by Tolkien and depicted in the movies compare very well with real life counterparts. A few liberties were taken so as not to slow the action but in general these were very good examples of the types of fortifications they were meant as. Anyone who spends 20 minutes trying to poke holes in them is just engaging in self-aggrandizement.