⚠️ NOTE: The following contains spoilers for Amazon’s The Rings of Power, especially Episode 6, but really the whole show. So, consider yourself warned.
This isn’t a review of The Rings of Power. Suffice to say, I’ve had a good time with what I’ve seen overall, and I’d recommend it to Tolkien fans and non-Tolkien fans alike. You can see its enormous budget at work; overall, it’s fun. But, an incident in Udûn, Episode Six of The Rings of Power, annoyed me. It was a moment that echoed from previous fantasy shows, namely the last few seasons of Game of Thrones. And I wanted to discuss how dismissing realism (yes, even in fantasy) can dampen dramatic moments.
The incident in question: the Fast Travel of the Númenorians. “Fast Travel” is a phrase borrowed from video games that allow players to warp around the game world. It’s most recently been applied to movies and television series when characters seem to travel great distances very quickly, all for dramatic effect. Those moments have to be earned. A foundation needs to be built. A reader’s suspension of disbelief disappears when the Deus Ex Machina is fully displayed. We see the man behind the curtain, taking the fun away from the fantasy. And it happened in The Rings of Power.
The scene that kicked off this error was easy to overlook. It was a shot of the Middle Earth map, primarily focusing on the river Anduin with a conversation between Elendil reporting their situation and strategy to Queen Regent Míriel. It goes as follows:
Elendil: “Land has been sighted, your majesty.”
Míriel: “How long til we make anchor?”
Elendil: “It’s a full day’s sail into the mountains, and from there, another day’s ride east, into the vale.”
In the prose, Tolkien was always hand-wavy with Middle Earth distance (as the crow flies, a day’s ride, etc.), but I don’t buy that it’s “a full day’s sail” up the Anduin from the Bay of Belfalas. It’s easy to say, but it’s just not realistic. This is a fantasy setting, but magic isn’t being used. They’re traveling in big cumbersome sailing ships. This isn’t a car trip on well-paved roads. These Númenorians are voyaging into the unknown, a place they’ve only read on maps or heard about in stories. The two people with them who are familiar with the area (Galadriel and Halbrand) aren’t sailors.
In The Atlas of Middle Earth, Karen Wynn Fonstad estimates the Anduin is about 1388 miles long. Elendil taps the map in roughly the spot where Minas Morgul ends up being built.  Being generous, we’re looking at the distance from the mouth of the delta to the anchorage where they’ll disembark and ride to the vale’s rescue at nearly 300 miles. (The official map for The Rings of Power has a scale and would agree with me—it’s 90-ish leagues which comes out to 280-ish miles.) Rivers on old maps never precisely render a river’s actual meandering, so the odds would be good that, realistically, it was quite a bit longer. Still, we’ll pretend it’s accurate for this discussion and use this guesstimate for our base distance number.
Okay, so we’ve established the Númenorians have to travel 300 miles. Fast sailing frigates during the Age of Sail—technologically, a later time than Middle Earth’s 2nd Age—topped out around 14-ish knots or 16-ish mph on the open sea. Earlier, Roman vessels that sailed the Mediterranean traveled at about 5-ish knots or about 6-ish mph. The Númenorian ships are neither 18th-century frigates nor a Roman 8th-century trireme. They have weird but cool-looking sail structures and seem much bigger than either of our examples. But, for the sake of argument, we’ll be charitable and say they have a speed of 14 knots—these are people of the sea, after all, and they build fine vessels.
So, that’s 300 miles at a generous 16mph. With some quick math, we can see that it’s almost 19 hours from start to finish if you can maintain that speed for the journey. At first, that makes Elendil’s calculation sound reasonable—and this entire essay worthless. We traveled less than a day with time to spare! But there’s a catch, actually a lot of catches. You know what, let’s call them snags.
Sailing up river is challenging. Yes, even on a river as wide as the Anduin would be at this point. The top speed for frigates I mentioned above is with good winds, and rivers aren’t known for favorable wind conditions for sailing vessels. Winds tend to follow river valleys flowing with the river to the sea, and even with fore-and-aft rigging (which the Númenorians don’t use, their ships are closer to square-rigging), you’d need constant tacking or jibing to make it up the river. Then there’s the whole other matter of winds shifting.
You’re fighting the current, which slows you down. The flow for that stretch of the Anduin has to be enormous. It’s the primary drainage basin for the Grey Mountains, the Misty Mountains, the Ered Nimrais, and parts of Ephel Dúath. That’s an incredible amount of water. There’s a reason early American settlers used tows to drag boats upriver.
We haven’t even accounted for basic river navigation on top of everything else. Rivers aren’t the open ocean. To seamen like the Númenorians, the Anduin is a ribbon of an ever-changing shore. It is much more complex to navigate than the sea, with prevalent snags, sandbars, bends, and channel depth changes. Heavy seagoing vessels (especially big ones) require much more draw than smaller vessels designed for rivers, so the dangers from all of those hazards would increase the risk and further slow progress.
And then there’s the Anduin’s hydrography. The river flows through flat flood plains, which means its constantly moving. There’s no system in place to “tame” the river. Elves aren’t running snag boats or building weirs and levees. A bend one day could be a dry bed the next because of a snag upstream. This can depend on weather and seasons and the geography of the landscape through which it flows. It’s less of a concern than the other snags, but it is still a snag we should consider.
To the casual viewer, this probably went unnoticed. But for river nerds like me, it was a glaring mistake that sucked some of the fun out of the story. The idea of three enormous sailing vessels making it three hundred miles in a single day grows more unbelievable the more you examine it. But, it was necessary for the plot and therefore explained away. As a result, the Southlander’s rescue felt contrived—it wasn’t earned.
As I mentioned earlier, Game of Thrones did similar things in later seasons and had a similar effect. Euron Greyoy travels from King’s Landing to Casterly Rock so fast he had to set land-speed records. Gendry’s quick “run” back to the Wall. Daenerys flies from Dragonstone beyond the Wall in a few hours. Theon and Sansa escape Winterfell and magically show up on the Iron Islands with hardly a mention of the hundreds of miles of travel between those two locations.
And like Game of Thrones, The Rings of Power writers could have quickly solved this was some minor editing or a few throwaway lines. It doesn’t take much to earn the difficulty of travel. A few lines about how the journey across the sea from Númenor was long and arduous (it was almost 2000 miles according to the official map!) If they wanted to go further, they could have added a few shots of the ships moving upriver, perhaps under oars or being towed from the shore or by rowboats. A quick pan showing the day or two it’d take to unload a cavalry battalion from sailing vessels (something I didn’t even get into) could have added to the tension of the Númenorians not making it in time. Instead, it was brushed aside with an “it’ll take a day and then another day, NABD” as if this journey was simple.
Compare this to the ignition of Mt. Doom at the end of Episode Six. In previous episodes, pieces were placed to set up for that incredible moment. It was earned. We saw the channels being dug by the orcs and the enslaved elves. Characters even asked “why,” drawing our attention to the orc’s strange strategy. Unlike the rescue, the ignition was earned, and it was spectacular.
The rescue fell flat. When you step back, it becomes too convenient to work out the way it did, especially in Tolkien, where travel and the vastness of the land play a big part in the overall plot. It was such a tiny bit, but it developed in ways over the episode that detracted from what could have been an incredible and dramatic scene. Unearned, it came across less like the heroic task it was meant to be and more like watching someone move a few pieces around on a game board, and that’s not nearly as exciting.
 Interestingly enough, in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, about two-thirds to half of this same trip is taken up the Anduin by Aragorn and pals after they captured a fleet of ships from the Corsairs of Umbar at the port of Pelargir. These are then rowed (accurate!) upriver over the next exhausting day and a half. And, unlike the Númenorians, Aragorn had an angry ghost army with him, who I assumed greatly helped with the rowing.
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