The Rings of Power Doesn’t Understand How River Navigation Works

⚠️ 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 ships of Númenor – The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – Amazon Prime

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.”

(Emphasis mine.)

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. [1] 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.

The lands of Númenor and Middle Earth – The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – Amazon Prime

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.

Snag One:

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.

Snag Two:

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.

Snag Three:

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.

Snag Four:

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.

[1] 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.

Friday Link Pack 10-16-2015

Friday Link Pack 10/16/2015

Friday is here! That means it’s time for the Friday Link Pack. My weekly post covering topics such as writing, art, current events, and random weirdness. Some of these links I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Do you have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! (Include a website so I can link to you as well.) Let’s get to it…


This will be the last week for the Red Litten World category. If you haven’t picked up your copy there are plenty of ways. Paperbacks can be purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or direct from My Store. EBooks can be purchased from  KindleKoboiBooksGooglePlayNook, and of course, My Store. (Always DRM Free.)

Red Litten World, 1 Week Old
A week after the launch I reflect on the happenings around Red Litten World. I discuss early reviews, direct folks to inspiration, the delay I experience with some minor printing issues, and more.

Jazz Saints Of The Bell Forging Cycle
In the first entry for my ongoing series, Wild Territories, I explore the reasons behind the Jazz Saints that crop up through The Bell Forging Cycle. I look into individual songs and explain why I selected them.


Three Reasons Your Writing Career is Stuck
Author and blogger, Kristen Lamb, offers some tough-love advice on shifting your attitude, changing your perceptions, focusing your time, and unsticking your writing career.

See the Sketches J.R.R. Tolkien Used to Build Middle-Earth
Yay! A maps link (and a bit more)! If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings, then do yourself a favor and check out these early sketches and notes for Middle Earth. Heck, if you’re a fantasy fan at all this article and the associated imagery is worth your time. Show’s how much work Tolkien put into his world.

100,000 Books Sold – What Happened?
Indie-author John Ellsworth, writer of legal thrillers, discusses his career and what it took for him to sell his first 100,000 books and what he plans on doing to sell many more.

How to Market Your Book to a Niche Audience
Handy advice from BookBub on how to sell to a specific audience. From nailing down that metadata to creating a solid social campaign strategy.


The Most Mysterious Star In Our Galaxy
Strange things are circling a very distant star located between the constellations of Cygnus the swan and Lyra the harp. Is it a natural occurrence or some enormous an ancient superstructure? Maybe Commander Shephard knows? Scientists are struggling to find out. [Thanks to Mike for sharing this.]

It Could Be Worse
Charles Stross takes a serious look at China’s new and controversial Citizen Score. A dystopian dream made into a creepy reality. [Thanks to Jim for sharing this.]

Holy City Of The Wichitas
My favorite blog, Atlas Obscura, looks at a little piece of old Jerusalem smack in the middle of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. Bonus points for their use of the pun: faux-ly land.

Monty Python Releases 14 Minutes Of Unseen Animation From Holy Grail
I have always really enjoyed those weird little animations in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So I was extra excited when the A.V. Club shared this look at never before scene footage from the classic movie.


Taman Shud Case
“The Taman Shud or Tamam Shud Case, also known as the Mystery of the Somerton Man, is an unsolved case of an unidentified man found dead at 6:30 am, 1 December 1948, on Somerton beach, Glenelg, just south of Adelaide, South Australia. It is named after a phrase, tamám shud, meaning “ended” or “finished” in Persian, printed on a scrap of paper found in the fob pocket of the man’s trousers. This turned out to have been torn from the final page of a particular copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of poems attributed to 12th-century poet Omar Khayyám. Following a police appeal, the actual book was handed in – six months after the body was found, a businessman (given the name Mr. Francis) said his brother found it in the back footwell of his car at about the time the body was found. The book was handed to Detective Leane who made the decision to keep the finder’s real name out of the papers. Imprinted on the back cover of the book was something looking like a secret code as well as a telephone number and another unidentified number.”


The Call Of Cthulhu
So, oddly, I don’t think this has ever been a featured story of the week. This is one of the biggest (and some might argue one of the best) of Lovecraft’s story. Also, the only tale to feature the tentacle-faced monstrosity himself, Cthulhu.

When you’re done reading this, make sure you go and read my Guest Geek editorial, Cthulhu The Wimp.



Middle Earth and The Perils of Worldbuilding

Middle Earth And The Perils Of Worldbuilding

I’ve long been a fan of Evan Puschak’s YouTube channel, The Nerd Writer. I like to be challenged, and I appreciate his scholarly approach to all manner of topics. So when I saw he did his most recent episode on world building—something near and dear to my own heart—I knew it’d be something I shared. Give it a watch below:

The comments on the video are really good (yeah, I know!) and I recommend reading some of the discussion happening over on YouTube. Also, I highly encourage you to read M. John Harrison’s essay on worldbuilding as it serves as a basis for a lot of Pucschak’s argument.

So, what do you think? Is world building the “the great clomping foot of nerdism” as Harrison alleges? Do you agree with Puschak’s assessment; is world building potentially dangerous? Or do you have a different take? Leave a comment below, or, better yet, join in the discussion on YouTube →