“On the Southern spur, in its lower slopes and in the rock at its feet, the Elves were set; on the Eastern spur were men and dwarves. But Bard and some of the nimblest of men and elves climbed to the height of the Eastern shoulder to gain a view to the North. Soon they could see the lands before the Mountain’s feet black with a hurrying multitude. Ere long the vanguard swirled round the spur’s end and came rushing into Dale…As Gandalf had hoped, the Goblin army had gathered behind the resisted vanguard, and poured now in rage to the valley, driving wildly up between the arms of the Mountain, seeking for the foe.”
From The Hobbit, Chapter 17, The Clouds Burst, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
In Fantasy Warfare Part 1, we discussed ways to add elements of realism to combat by considering the difficulty of communicating between soldiers and leaders. With Part 2, we’re going to look at what happens when you have military forces move to, and across, the battlefield. In a realistic setting (meaning, in your fantasy world that the physical world is largely similar to the one the reader exists in), moving a great number of souls from Point A to Point B isn’t usually as easy as all that. By adding some of the obstacles that would actually impact the movement of armies, you can add a certain “grittiness” to fantasy writing. Personally, I love this kind of flavoring.
I’ll go ahead and add the same disclaimer as with the first installment of this series: the below tips are only if you’re trying to add a certain kind of realism. I’m not suggesting that they are required for a good story, or that they are exhaustive. As an author, you know what you’re trying to convey with your battle scenes.
So, without further delay, when your armies are gathering for war, keep in mind:
Large forces need to traverse geography. Roads are critical to facilitating this movement. Forests, rivers, swamps, hills, and especially mountains are massive headaches when it comes to moving armies, and even more so if these are the actual battlegrounds. Mountain passes tend to be narrow, and when coupled with steep inclines and declines, these channel forces into harrowing ambush points. Wide rivers have a similar channeling effect (as we see in Game of Thrones), in that armies are forced to cross at bridges, which makes your movement predictable to spies. And no one likes to fight or traverse a swamp.
Don’t forget weather. A battle becomes immensely complicated by the inclusion of inclement weather. Mountain passes become less traversable, and cavalry gets bogged down in anything less than clear skies and solid ground. This can be said of the use of archers as well. Even modern military forces are often confounded by heavy fog and snow.
Not everyone moves at the same speed. If you’re calculating the movement of a combined force of infantry and cavalry, keep in mind that your unmounted forces will be a drag on the speed of the moving forces. Tolkien accounted for this in the above scenario, where the vanguard was the first into the valley, and was followed by the slower riders and Goblin infantry.
Impact to villages and urban areas. If you’ve got a small military force, this isn’t necessarily an issue (unless you want the force to go unnoticed). But when you start moving hundreds or thousands of troops, along with their animals, you’re essentially moving a bunch of locusts across the land. You’ve got to feed these bellies, and rather than draw on scarce foodstuffs, the military will likely draw on the food from these urban areas. This will stress even the most supportive of populations. I bring this up here because addressing this not only gives a shade of realism to the narrative, but the resulting instability and resentment of the population can also create an interesting subplot.
As I said, these elements are not exhaustive. What have I left out? If you’re an author, what have you included in your writing to add realism to your fantasy warfare? If you’re a reader, what do you like to see?
I’m not good at visualizing stuff on a grand scale, so if I’m going to write (or read and understand!) a section like the except from Tolkien you have here, I’d need to sit down with a pen and paper and sketch out what he is describing. Otherwise it just becomes ‘these go there, and the other and the other and… okay, people are moving.’ As a reader, this still adds an element of realism for me. Even if I don’t fully grok it, the feel of that kind of detail adds to the mood. Which is why I do take the time to figure out geographic detail and whatnot for my stories.
But the details that make combat real to me are small things and sense details. Tell me the scent of that many men and beasts gathered together (especially if they didn’t take care with their latrines!), the sound of marching feet, the surgeons preparing the healers tents with tubs for amputated limbs. What does it feel like to stand in the ranks surrounded by your fellows on all sides, with thousands of men and monsters coming at you across the battle field?
That’s what makes a battle scene real for me.
You did a wonderful job of addressing something I entirely left out of this article, Jessica. Adding elements that are more “realistic” will likely fall flat if you fall into an uninspired “telling” of these elements, versus the creative “showing.” Telling the reader it’s raining is one thing, but describing a soldier slogging through the mire is much more involving. I’ll have to remember this when I update this series. Thank you so much for the comment!
You’re welcome, glad you found my thoughts helpful.