Stencil chicken

Watching films, I find myself very frequently annoyed with what I shall call The Aragorn Fallacy. The essence of the fallacy is to equate importance with invulnerability, especially in the face of random events.

Consider a battle that employs swords, spears, and bows and arrows. To some extent, your skill reduces the likelihood of getting killed with a sword (unless you are among the unfortunate individuals who find their line pressed into a line of swordsmen). No conceivable battlefield skill makes you less vulnerable to arrows (or bullets) once you are in the field of fire. As such, mighty King Aragorn is just as likely to be shot and killed as some forcibly drafted peasant hefting a spear for the first time. Sensible military leaders realize that their role is not to serve as cannon fodder, and that they needlessly waste their own lives and those of their men by putting themselves in such positions.

Of course, people will object, there have been military leaders who ‘led from the front,’ put themselves at points of great danger, and went on to high achievement. The problem with this view is that it completely ignores all the young would-be Rommels and Nelsons and Pattons who got felled as young captains or lieutenants by a stray bit of shrapnel or gangrene in a wound produced by a stray bit of barbed wire. With a sufficiently large starting population, you will always end up with examples of people who were reckless but nonetheless survived and thrived. The foolish conclusion to draw from this is that recklessness is either justified or likely to produce success.

Clearly, storytelling and life are different things. We admire superhuman heroes who shake off bullets and arrows like awkward drops of water. We may rationally accept that nonsense like throwing all your best commanders into the front line of a battle is strictly for the movies. The fallacy here is less that we believe these things to be true, and more that we feel them to be excellent. The grim fact that war is a brutal and largely random business sits poorly with our general affection for the things.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Kushnir April 21, 2008 at 11:48 am

i think there’s already a name for it: the character shield.

Neal April 21, 2008 at 8:20 pm

I think it’s quite fitting that you chose a Tolkien character to exemplify this effect, because it seems to me, at least, that the romanticism of medieval warfare in his works is a direct result of his firsthand experience of the meatgrinder of modern industrial warfare. Tolkien witnessed the horror of the Somme from the trenches, only to come down with trench fever. While recovering away from the front, all but one of Tolkien’s closest friends perished in the war. It was during this time, while recovering from his illness in an army barracks, that he wrote the first story of what would become Middle Earth, the Fall of Gondolin. In this first account, unlike his later revisions, the fire breathing dragons which destroy the hidden Elven city are made of metal, powered by an internal fire, and have crews of orcs inside them.

While Tolkien may have blamed the horrors he saw in WWI on modernity and industrialization, I agree more with Wilfred Owen. This invulnerable martial hero concept is just another mindless exaltation of what is perhaps the most profound failure of civilization. That this insane lionization of people for the ease with which they can slaughter others has remained more or less constant across time and nationality shows just how comfortably societies and the individuals within them can erase the humanity of some other group.

Anon April 21, 2008 at 11:03 pm
Rob April 24, 2008 at 9:15 am

Wouldn’t a better name be the Boromir fallacy, since Boromir does actually get killed by arrows?

Milan April 24, 2008 at 10:06 am


Boromir is a different manifestation of the fallacy: the idea that someone can be tough enough to survive an absurd amount of damage. Look at Jack Bauer: he gets shot, limps for a few minutes, and is running and jumping again by the next episode.

Milan April 29, 2008 at 12:46 pm


Very well said.

Milan June 2, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Having just re-watched The Return of the King, I am struck by how strategically incompetent and physically impossible/implausible it all is.

I hope there aren’t any children out there who derived their understanding of war from these films…

Tristan June 3, 2009 at 2:03 am

I think in medieval hand to hand combat, there very well could have been a very strong relation between how strong a fighter one is and how long one lives. Having wits and skill 10 times better than average perhaps could mean living 30 times longer than average. Of course, arrows ruin this – and there are examples of battles in history where the loosing army lost its general to a stray arrow – often with dire consequences.

The Return of the King is a film which contains a lot of magic. The logic of battles when magical forces are at play in some ways is similar to real warfare, because there are difficulties in deploying magical troops, but since these difficulties are so different, its hard for us to see those as having anything to do with the battle. But, I think Return of the King deals with this as well as any fantasy film – the two (main) stories, of the massive battle and of Frodo sneaking into Mordor, both have the common goal, both absolutely require each other (for distraction and for victory, respectively). It probably would have been better to leave out the Ghost Ships, but without them it would be difficult to get rid of Sauron’s army after he has lost. People tend to say “But what if the ghost ships just arrived a few minutes sooner, then Frodo would not have been required”, but since magic is swung over towards the dark side at the time, their power would not have rivaled Sauron’s anyway.

Milan June 3, 2009 at 8:53 am

One of the things that really bugs me about The Return of the King is how unrealistic army movements are. In particular, the human armies always seem to consist of one big block with a flat front line. They never seem to use the terrain to their advantage or reconnoiter. The major heroes tend to be right at the front, but never get hit by random arrows. Somehow, when the commander shouts an order, the entire army hears and responds to it instantly, without any kind of signaling system or subsidiary commanders…

The fact that the capital of Gondor seems to have been built out of poorly assembled styrofoam blocks is also annoying; you hit a solid stone wall with one catapult-hurled projectile, and a huge section of it falls away. Given that the walls are far more massive, and backup up against an actual rock face, it seems implausible that hitting them with other pieces of stone would be so damaging.

R.K. June 24, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Weird fact: ‘shrapnel’ is named after a man.

. July 13, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Plot Armor

The main reason the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy is still in business (along with a handful of other tropes). Just by being the main character, the laws of the world seem to bend around the character in a more than figurative way. For some reason (and not even an explicit ability), just being main character or on his team protects you from death, serious wounds, and generally any sort of harm. Unless you’re explicitly marked for death, or Tempting Fate.

Well, at least until the big finale. But sometimes even then.

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