1. Kind of reminds me of a comment my Dad made while we were watching Lord of the Rings. He wondered why the ring wraiths bothered using those dragon things to fight when the dragons were only scooping up one or two people at a time to kill. I thought about it and decided that it was primarily a psychological thing. No one knew who the dragons would pick up, so when they swept through the area, the soldiers scattered and became terrified.

    Of course, there are other uses, such as giving the ring wraiths the ability to survey the battlefield or pass messages along to subordinates quickly.

    One thing that seems to be a factor, at least in fantasy battles, is a matter of the unknown or something that can’t be fought. If an army of scary looking fantasy creatures comes along, one that has never been seen before, their enemies might be like ‘Oh no, ghosts!’ and retreat. But after the enemy learns that the scary creatures aren’t ghosts at all, and learns how to defeat them, making them a known factor rather than an unknown one, the enemy is less likely to retreat from the scary creatures from then on.

    As for things that can’t be fought…things like the ground crumbling under one’s feet are an example. Or things like the ring wraith dragons and the trees in Prince Caspian. Of course those last two can be fought with the right equipment and preparation, but when they first swoop in people are just trying to get away from them because they’re big and fast and the soldiers are afraid and instinctively run because they don’t know how to fight them immediately.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I would actually say that the Peter Jackson movies failed to capture the dread that the Ring Wraiths created, their psychological impact. Oh, they don’t seem like nice guys, but the 1978 animated Lord of the Rings, while full of serious problems, made the Ring Wraiths terrifyingly creepy in a way I think Jackson failed to do.

      In fact, it’s just so common for the effects of morale to be missed by movie makers, including in fantasy films. A much more realistic take on battles is found in the Bible–which consistently portrays people fleeing in the aftermath of battles and being hunted down. Example, Judges 4:15-17.

      This post is probably more important than most people reading it realize. It’s just impossible to account for how battles turn out without thinking about morale and psychological impact.

      • Great point Travis. I continue to prefer the animated version; agree that interpretation of the Nine was very well done. In my opinion they also got Aragorn closer to my internal interpretation from the books.

        Funny how after the fact I keep rethinking of new examples from literature and cinema, “Good example…Great example…awful example…awful example…not even close…OK example…” While Hollywood can get it close, or get it really far off, I also think of the purpose they are trying to achieve, and all too often it’s not realism but excitement and entertainment.

        • Travis Perry says:

          Travis, I agree that sometimes Hollywood doesn’t care about realism–but I think at times they are trying for realism, but have no idea what that looks like.

          In fact, I’d say that’s what you and I are really hoping to cure with these posts. It’s one thing if an author deliberately chooses to abandon all sense of reality for the sake of artistic expression. We may or may not agree with such a decision, but at least we can understand it.

          However, it’s tragic for a story to attempt to be realistic and then fall short of that goal due to lack of understanding of what actually is real.

  2. Great thoughts Autumn! I feel the same as you about the Nine. Steeds that give them amazing advantages (perception of the battlefield, speed, a mount that fights back) and one that compels fear in their foes. Maybe it’s because of their inhumanity that the Nine never stop in front of Gondor and just wait for the people within to give up. Their only logical choice is to run.

    I also agree that fear of the unknown is a significant driver in good fantasy and sci-fi. I’m still completely freaked out from watching Annihilation and fear the woods; too much unknown. We are truly speculating when we mix humans, especially humans in our world’s settings & environs, with the unknown. In hindsight I think I should have let my characters stew with their emotional responses more in my current series: 12th century knights, combat veterans, thrown against an army of demons broken loose into England. I may use this example in the future, but the latest season of Game of Thrones shows us the expectation of dragons. All through the early books people know there were dragons, hundreds of years ago, and there are skulls underneath King’s Landing, but no army has ever faced on (and history says every army that faced one burned). So when 3 get unleashed on Westeros, it’s a huge, HUGE, impact on the morale of the troops and the storyline.

    Make you realize just how much it took for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to walk into a fiery furnace. I think HBO made a misstep in having two of the nobles refuse to surrender and get torched. Nope. When faced with a dragon, you’ll bend the knee. At least if it’s for a temporal cause.

    • Demons would probably definitely have an impact on human emotion, though I’m biased toward saying that since I write them a lot. If they’re actually a genuine first generation demon(the original angels that got kicked out of heaven) and trying to be intimidating(instead of trying to deceive people) yeah, they’d probably be downright terrifying, regardless of whether they’re the ‘ugly’ version of demons or the ‘cool/attractive’ version. Part of it probably depends on the psychology and behavior you chose for your demons, though.

      And yeah, people underestimate what it’s like to be faced with an actual threat. Fear can be overcome with the right psychological conditioning(whether it be cultural, based in personality, life circumstances, or combat training) But it’s difficult, or even unpredictable as to who can overcome their fear enough to face it.

      Though I suppose everyone’s fear is different. I wouldn’t skydive unless my life depended on it, but other people quite happily go into careers that expect them to skydive all the time.

      The woods one is fun. I love the forest, which is why I write in forest settings a lot. But if you’re out in one in the middle of the night where it’s pitch black and deathly quiet…yeah, freaky.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I think specific individuals showing great acts of courage, including facing up to a dragon, is realistic enough. Though rare in practice, such courage happens.

      But when you consider how even if everyone is laughing, a human is much more likely to laugh, too, or if everyone is crying, a human normally feels sad–when everyone is terrified, running in panic, that puts a tremendous pull on even a courageous human being to do the same thing. Crowds of soldiers in ancient and medieval battles, once morale broke, often panicked at a level that’s hard for us to imagine.

      I remember reading an inscription of an Assyrian emperor (I don’t remember which one right now), talking about the chariots of his enemies fleeing from him after they lost a battle. He mocked them specifically for the “dung” that flew from their bodies as their chariots raced away…i.e. they were so terrified, they lost control of their bowels. That’s something that can actually happen, but which fantasy writers rarely think of.

      • I appreciated Grossman’s discussion of pre-combat responses:

        “In the lower abdomen in every human being is a toxic waste site,” he says. “The body’s response is to dump that toxic waste before a life and death event, because if there’s trauma to the abdomen that stuff will leak out and infect the wound. So, before the event, there’s often stress diarrhea.”

        I know of no fantasy writer who captures that type of response, before or during combat, very well. Maybe some of the Glen Cook I’ve read.

        • It’s probably one of those things where people don’t write about it even if they know about it because it either sounds gross or too comical for a serious situation.

          The closest thing I usually hear to that in stories is people being like ‘Ha, they p*ssed themselves!’ I think that happened in Wolf’s Rain, actually. Not in a battle, but when one of the humans saw a character turn into a wolf or something. It’s been a long time since I saw it, so I don’t remember for sure, and it may have only been in the dubbed version. Wolf’s Rain is a good anime, though. You’d probably like it, assuming you haven’t seen it already.

  3. Jay DiNitto says:

    The mention of the “intimidation factor” reminds me of the Polish winged Hussars. Their uniform was highly impractical but it looked fearsome in large numbers and made quite the racket.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Hussars are a great example! Though there are lots of examples–the Hessians who fought in the American Revolution (already taller on average than most Americans), wore very tall, gold-colored hats…

    • Travis C says:

      Also reminds me of the Potsdam Giants, though purely ceremonial, all selected/captured/bred for height, then add to that a height-enhancing uniform kit….

  4. Alan says:

    Two things. I think that also influencing the fight or surrender part is unit cohesion and camaraderie. If someone is someone you consider a brother or sister, you will be influenced by what is best for them as well. That makes you fight harder, but also might, depending on your rank and authority, make you consider surrender, especially to non-kill em all enemies.

    Also, discipline and training made me think of something. During the Revolutionary War, Washington despaired of winning with his (to use a term tv tropes likes) ragtag group of misfits. They were untrained, undisciplined, ignorant on the use of weapons in a military context, so on. Washington fought fire with fire, so to speak, and hired the Prussian military man Baron Friedrich von Steuben, to whip them into fighting form. Amazingly enough, he succeeded. Granted we still would have lost the war without other powers’ aid (especially France), but we’d have likely been screwed before then without Steuben’s training.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Alan, great points!

      In fact, we intend to address the issues of unit bonding and training on military unit morale in future posts. But thank you for bring it up now.

      Washington is a great example, by the way, of someone able to resist the panic that seized the rest of his troops. On more than one occasion his men broke and were running away as he stood in place, shouting at them to hold their positions and fall back in.

      In the end, Washington’s own courage wasn’t enough to inspire his men. As you pointed out, they required better training to really improve.

    • Alan, double down on what T-1 says; hopefully we can provide a nice progression from individuals’ reaction, to small unit reaction, to larger unit reaction, to national/cultural/whole-force reaction.

      Hopefully you’ll appreciate this: I was duty officer yesterday and watching our 24 hour “screener” for a summer training opportunity for the midshipmen to do a mini-training with the SEALS. Talk about selective: about a hundred or so trying out to narrow down to about 40-60 who will get downselected again after that to train with the SEALS, who might be competitive for about 30 spots to then go and actually attempt BUDS after graduation and becoming a real SEAL.

      Anyhow, all of them are teamed up lifting heavy rubber rafts and giant logs, soaked and cold, sandy from crawling across the beach, and getting yelled at. The SEALS are looking for individual effort; they will only select those who have a real shot. But the whole thing is couched in the context of your boat team. If you fail the team, you’re done. Seeing that element (which all midshipmen are indoctrinated in) as part of the earliest selection process for an elite fighting unit is fascinating and really demonstrates the degree of teamwork necessary to prepare warriors facing some of our most challenging missions.

What do you think?