Is Combat Boring? Tolkien’s Pelennor Fields

Last article I revived the claim that combat in literature is boring.  I talked about the tainting effect of movie special effects which have prompted authors to futilely chase after the strengths of the visual medium and, thereby, sacrifice what is unique and potent in the written word.  You can find that discussion here.

Continuing along that vein, we’re going to spend the next three articles looking at three authors who were major influences on me in my formative years and assess how they handle combat.  The first of these is J.R.R. Tolkien and his epic Battle of Pelennor Fields.  This took place in front of Minas Tirith and served as the apex for the non-ring plot to the series.  It would appear that we have a string of threes, because three major points leapt out at me as I reviewed the battle.

The first of these is its brevity.  The entire battle takes only nine pages, of which three are devoted to the duel between Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul.  This underlies the point I was making last time.  Long drawn out battles (in terms of page length) often have less poignancy than can be reached with a brief period of intensity (for the reader).  The six pages not focused on the duel were largely portrayed from a panoramic perspective.  Tolkien doesn’t write from the intimate third-person point of view so popular today (and my preferred style).  One of the advantages is that this allows him to use a broader brush in his exposition without breaking the Fourth Wall like I would do if I attempted the same thing. 

This leads to my second point.  The running narrative of a book is broken into two parts that are termed scenes and sequences.  Scenes are those sharp active moments of dialogue and action while the sequences serve as adhesives to hold the scenes together.  I hadn’t really thought about it before, but pitched battles such as Pelennor Fields aren’t scenes.  They are combinations of scenes and sequences that, in their own way, serve as a story in microcosm.  Each battle begins with its first act where the armies form ranks and advance into combat.  The second act has the main sequence of fighting with its highs and lows and growing crescendo.  This usually culminates in a scene or set of scenes that in the third act provide the climax and outcome. 

Curiously, the duel between Eowyn and the Nazgul lies in “Act II” while “Act III” is reserved for the arrival of Aragorn.  Why should this be, when the duel is the more epic moment?  Because, while the death of the Nazgul was a major victory and an incredible scene, the Battle of Pelennor Fields is resolved by the clash of armies led by the secondary protagonist (Aragorn).  After all, the book is titled “The Return of the King” not “The Death of the Nazgul.”

I observed my third point as I was reading the duel itself.  “But lo!  suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king his golden shield was dimmed…”  Without any context other than what I remembered from reading the novel years ago, without any buildup of any sort, I was ensnared by this intense and powerful moment.

But I said combat was boring.

Combat is boring!  The duel comprises surprisingly little combat.  The Nazgul’s mount lands on Theodin’s horse, mortally wounding the king.  The mount lunges toward Eowyn and is beheaded.  The Nazgul shatters Eowyn’s shield (and her arm).  Merry stabs the Nazgul in the foot.  Eowyn stabs the Nazgul in the face (or what passes for a wraith’s face anyway).  That’s it.  There are five physical movements.  That isn’t where the power lies.

The power rises in everything else that comes to the fore.  It is a moment of desperation and doom.  The most powerful enemy in the world, short of Sauron himself, has arrived in person on the battlefield and facing him is a woman.  In this modern era where woman warriors are more commonplace amid the rising equality of the genre (props to Ninanna and Sravika among others) a certain saturation has occurred.  But not in the time of Tolkien.  Here is a cry back to Joan of Arc, Athena, the Valkyrie, and those rare but significant moments that lie in our history and our mythology.  He has folded in innocence along with desperation and depression.  One of Tolkien’s favorite words is ‘fey’ and Eowyn is fey personified in a way that makes the reader filled with sorrow at her brokenness.

So in this moment we have a clash of uttermost evil against desperate nobility and innocence.  We know there has to be a price.  One cannot face the Witch-King of Angmar and walk away unscathed.  To do so is a betrayal to the reader, a betrayal of the genre, a betrayal of all storytelling that would leave a void of anger… not toward the Nazgul, but toward the author.  If you want an example of this, just watch Peter Jackson’s ‘rendition’ of “The Two Towers.”  At the end, in one of his many deviations from the true story, he has Faramir dragging Frodo with the One Ring through Osgiliath when the Lord of the Nazgul flies overhead.  Frodo holds up the ring, right in front of it.  Now anyone who knows anything about Middle Earth knows that the ring is everything.  It is absolute dominion or utter annihilation.  It is all Sauron wants and therefore all the Nazgul wants.  Next to it, literally nothing else matters.  So what happens?  Faramir’s men fire a few arrows (which would be incapable of harming the Nazgul) and it flies off, apparently deciding to deal with the ring later.  No!  If the Nazgul saw the ring, nothing would stop it.  It would attack immediately.  It would tell Sauron who would instantly send the other eight Ringwraiths and all of his armies as well.  This feeble scene is a betrayal of the reader (er, watcher) and a mockery of everything the story was built on.

But Tolkien knew this.  He understood the potency of the Nazgul he’d brought to the page for us.  And it is in this knowledge and its portrayal that the duel comes to life.  The certainty of survival that so often makes combat boring is gone.  We can be hopeful that Merry and Eowyn will make it through, but know that if they do there still must be a grievous price.  We are drawn forward in desperate hope, feeling a fear that is a shadow of what Eowyn feels.  Our hearts race as we hope for victory without cost even as we know that the lack of that cost would be a disappointment… but not too much cost.  Just enough.  And Tolkien delivers.