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Tolkien and the art of the boss-fight: form & function; themes and typology


Jun 10, 8:49pm

Post #1 of 17 (1728 views)
Tolkien and the art of the boss-fight: form & function; themes and typology Can't Post

As part of a very interesting recent thread on Tom Bombadil (many thanks, Eruonen!) there was, among very many others, a very insightful point made by noWizardme about how some fans might regret what they see as a lack of ‘boss-fights’ in LotR. The context there was why powerful or indeed over-powered characters in Tolkien aren’t doing more heavy lift, when it comes to quests, for example. I love a good boss-fight in fiction, especially in fantasy and sci-fi books, in film, theatre, comic books and so on. And I love how creators can use an array of methods to capture those moments, from flashy and visceral to understated and minimalist. This all got me thinking about the concept of the boss-fight in Tolkien’s legendarium, along the lines of interrogating whether there is a lack of such conflict in Tolkien; how Tolkien’s story-telling can prompt us to think about what a boss-fight actually is (or could be) and what its purpose, plural or singular, might be within that story-telling framework; and how Tolkien’s literary style deals with such moments. And so, I’m going to have a go at pulling together a few of these thoughts, ideally concisely (best endeavours are important, I hear!).

A quick bit of methodology housekeeping: I’ll be branching out from LotR, as rich and varied as I’ll argue that work is in boss-fights. The Silmarillion and The Hobbit also have much to offer in this regard, as do, inevitably and inspiringly, other elements of Tolkien’s Middle-earth corpus unpublished in his lifetime. I won’t be offering up an attempt at logging every single boss-fight to be found in the legendarium (spoiler: there are lots and admittedly, a log would be fun to do). Instead, there’ll be a brief and very much non-exhaustive roll-call, including the setting out of an expansive, and eminently disputable, approach to what constitutes a boss-fight in the legendarium. For the most part though, I’ll be structuring the essay around the form and function of Tolkien’s boss-fights, and what, thematically, Tolkien may have been using these critical narrative moments to explore. And yes, it’s not lost on me that I’m already calling this an essay – so much for those best endeavours…!

a Middle-earth full of boss-fights

I can only imagine how Tolkien would have reacted if he’d encountered this particular neologism (perhaps not with delight…!) but its relative newness or slanginess doesn’t make it a bad frame of reference for some of the narrative set pieces in Tolkien’s secondary world. If we take ‘boss-fight’ to be a confrontation whereby a protagonist or protagonists confront a powerful foe or foes – more powerful than whatever grunts or trash mobs encountered previously – then Middle-earth features some of the grandest boss-fights in the fantasy genre. Éowyn and Merry against the Witch-king on the Pelennor Fields; Gandalf holding the Bridge of Khazad-dûm against Durin’s Bane; Fingolfin’s doomed challenge to Morgoth before the Gates of Angband; Huan and wolf-form Sauron tearing chunks out of each other; Túrin’s slaying of Glaurung; Eärendil casting down Ancalagon the Black – these are all iconic contests. And extending the parameters a fraction, Gandalf ‘s clash with the Nazgûl at Weathertop can, I reckon, also be seen as a boss-fight, as can the epic Hunting of the Wolf, featuring a veritable who’s who of Beleriand’s hero cohort. And turning to the humbler world of The Hobbit, we have Bard shooting Smaug out of the sky. In the case of the latter, in-world, Smaug may not have known he was even engaged in a boss-fight but from Bard’s point of view, everything is on the line as he seeks to defeat the destroyer of his forebears and current threat to Esgaroth.

Beyond the boss-fights that feature, and are dramatically resolved by, violence, I’d argue that there are other instances where the stakes and drama imbue a scene with boss-fight qualities or even equivalence. Where resolution involves the exercising of power, a test of wills and resolve, beyond the hurling of fireballs or the loosing of arrows. Finrod’s desperate ‘songs of power’ duel with Sauron is, to my mind, a boss-fight contest. More speculatively, I’m also thinking of Gandalf’s defenestration of Saruman in the aftermath of the Battle of Helm’s Deep and Treebeard’s storming of Isengard (‘The Voice of Saruman’). Unlike the depiction in Jackson’s adaptation, there’s no overt wizardly duel. However, a struggle for supremacy takes place and without Gandalf asserting his dominance, the power of Saruman’s voice poses a significant danger to the others present. Admittedly, it can also reasonably be argued that Gandalf is, by this stage, inherently dominant when it comes to his position vis à vis Saruman and that the contest therefore doesn’t constitute a boss-fight. I drop this one in merely as food for thought!

In the thread I mentioned at the outset, the stand-off between Gandalf and the Witch-king at the Gate of Minas Tirith gets a mention in the context of it potentially being a ‘missed opportunity’ boss-fight. I’d pose that what we have here is a version of a boss-fight. Resolution may be postponed and ultimately comes at the hands of others but in the time before the tide turns, Gandalf must hold the Gate. In video game terms, the boss-fight here is won when the timer runs down to zero! Turning back to The Silmarillion, Lúthien lulling Morgoth to sleep so that a Silmaril can be reclaimed could also be interpreted as a boss-fight. The original Dark Lord himself is confronted and bested, just not with a sword or spear. There is, in short, a range of contests where characters attempt to overcome, disrupt, or just survive an encounter with a powerful dark adversary. Such examples, I suggest, can be considered typologies within the boss-fight genre. Moreover, even casting aside such a maximalist framework there’s a plethora of boss-fights in the legendarium to be found.

less can be more; tell, don’t show

Tolkien’s writing style can tell us a lot about his approach to various boss-fights in his narratives. Takig a closer look at some of the biggest of the boss-fights outlined above, many of them are short, as measured by the page. There is also a distinction, when it comes to length, between the narrative styles deployed in LotR and The Silmarillion to render their respective boss-fights. The latter’s ‘epic’ style provides for a more austere word count than the narrative prose of the former. Éowyn standing before the Witch-king, with Merry in the wings, is the lengthiest boss-fight set piece, running to two and a half pages; and Gandalf’s struggle with the Balrog runs to two pages, split between ‘live action’ and a ‘retelling’ after his return from physical death. Compare this to even the most expansive reading of Fingolfin’s challenge to Morgoth before the Gates of Angband and the difference is stark. The build-up to the fight, providing for the particulars of why it took place and how the two combatants physically arrived at the location, is just over half a page. And the fight itself, from “Then Morgoth hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld…” to “Thus died Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor…” is described in less than half a page. It’s not ‘blink and you miss it’ stuff but it’s not a lot of text for one of the most epic confrontations ever to have occurred in Middle-earth: a lone Child of Eru facing off against the greatest of the Ainur, diminished though Morgoth was at that time.

I’ve remarked elsewhere in the Reading Room how much I admire and am moved by the austerity of Tolkien’s language when it comes to some of his most impactful scenes. It wasn’t the only stylistic tool in his kit bag (Tolkien could certainly do detail too) but it’s one that often has the most effect on me as a reader. The sparseness of a sentence or a passage is what sometimes gives Tolkien’s writing its potency, in action, reaction, stakes and effect – on the narrative and the reader alike. Conversely, I wonder whether it may be descriptive paucity that contributes to a view on the part of some readers that there are relatively few boss-fights in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Or, where they do exist, those moments are insufficiently fleshed out for the intended impact or drama. Again, personal taste is what it is.

Back to Fingolfin’s duel, the language used to narrate it, though sparing in word count, is incredibly rich when it comes to the sense of motion and drama it evokes. Figurative formulae and repetition very much help to underpin the power of the text. For example:

Then Morgoth hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, and swung it down like a bolt of thunder.

… And each time Fingolfin leaped away, as a lightning shoots from under a dark cloud.

… and Morgoth set his left foot upon his neck, and the weight of it was like a fallen hill.

… and he wounded Morgoth with seven wounds, and seven times Morgoth gave a cry of anguish…

Thrice he was crushed to his knees, and thrice arose again…

As brief as the passages dealing with Fingolfin’s battle with Morgoth is, it’s actually one of the ‘longest’ boss-fights, in terms of text, to be found in The Silmarillion. The duel of Finrod and Sauron on Tol-in-Gaurhoth does run to a page, albeit bulked out as it is by its stanza formatting. However, others are comprised of mere handfuls of words. The Nirnaeth Arnoediad includes several titanic clashes, with that between Fingon and Gothmog a standout boss-fight. In just over ninety words, another High King of the Noldor is slain. In a case of extreme understatement, that fight is described as “That was a grim meeting.” But then we get this:

Then Gothmog hewed him with his black axe, and a white flame sprang from the helm of Fingon as it was cloven.

… and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood.

Alright, this might only be a ninety-something word passage in total but it manages to convey some of the most visceral descriptions, in my view, to be found in Tolkien’s work. Nothing quite says ‘epic boss-fight’ like a scene where the kinetic force of a blow seemingly causes someone’s fëa to visibly fly out of their hröa. And nothing quite says utter, gut-wrenching defeat like the desecration visited upon Fingon’s corpse.

Other sparse treatments are to be found of similar or even lesser length, for example Fëanor’s own fatal encounter with Gothmog and Tuor’s fight with Maeglin on the walls of Gondolin, respectively. For me, what makes these work so powerfully, is Tolkien’s economy. We see this economy of style outside of boss-fight contexts, certainly. To this reader at least, this style is particularly effective when deployed to describe a protagonist facing off against a dire antagonist. Don’t get me wrong: I love the lengthier, equally dramatic depiction of Éowyn and Merry taking down the Witch-king and Gandalf’s mutually-assured destruction face-off with Durin’s Bane. However, less can indeed also be more.

Turning now to the well-trodden story-telling technique of ‘show, don’t tell’. YouTube is awash with video essays critiquing artistic content, particularly film, through the prism of ‘show, don’t tell’. To boil this down hopefully not to the point of inaccuracy, many such critics lament directors or authors relying on ‘telling’ us why a character is who she or he is rather than ‘showing’ us through that character actually doing things, making choices etc. It’s always struck me as a valid critique but, at least on YouTube, it’s (over)use can feel a bit knee-jerk and stale from time to time. Anyway, while reading over a large number of candidates for what I could reasonably propose to be ‘Middle-earth boss-fights’ in preparation for this post, it struck me that in some ways, many of these constitute a kind of inversion of this story-telling principle. Some boss-fight scenes are in fact a re-telling of the event by an in-world narrator, in which we may not be ‘shown’ very much at all concerning why a protagonist acted as they did. I don’t mean in the sense of the authors of the Red Book but rather a character explaining to another character in the narrative what happened when x fought y with result z. This narrative structuring isn’t uncommon with Tolkien and features heavily in LotR. Just think pretty much the entire Council of Elrond sequence or how the reader learns about the Passing of the Grey Company. However, embedded within this usage is a significant number of Tolkien’s important, in some cases epoch-defining, boss-fights. Sauron being defeated on the slopes of Orodruin by Gil-galad, Elendil and co. is not only incredibly brief in the telling (<50 words) but it’s related as a story within the story. Much of what we know about Gandalf’s struggle with Durin’s Bane is not shown to us ‘live’ but rather through Gandalf telling us, after the fact, what happened. The same can be said of Gandalf’s fight at Weathertop. Now, part of this is that the main story of LotR is set at a particular point in time and therefore some events, including boss-fights, in a secondary world as sprawling as Tolkien’s will be ‘historical’. In addition, with multiple story arcs underway in parallel, people relating contemporaneous but geographically distant events to each other will sometimes be a necessary narrative device. This technique doesn’t necessarily make it remote or inherently less impactful on the reader, in my view. But it does rely more heavily on something being ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’. One workaround for Tolkien, at least, was that in the case of the two aforementioned fights involving Gandalf, it is Gandalf who is telling the story, arguably allowing for more personalised recounting.

say it like a boss

A feature of boss-fights, across various media and genres, is denouement dialogue between protagonist and antagonist. Epic and serious, witty, hammy, poignant – these can all come up, aren’t mutually exclusive, and sometimes occur unintentionally (a film or two spring to mind where I’m pretty sure the ‘hammy’ wasn’t intentional…!). So, what about Tolkien then? Of the big, iconic set pieces I’ve tagged above, some feature some of the best dramatic lines you can find – certainly as far as the fantasy genre goes. And it’s not surprise that they’ve been transposed awesomely to the big screen. To gratuitously quote but a handful of incredible quotables:

Éowyn’s exchange with the Witch-king:

Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey!

But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.

Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.

Gandalf, on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm:

The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

Gandalf’s face off with the Witch-king at the Gate of Minas Tirith

You cannot enter here… Go back to the abyss prepared for you!

Old fool! This is my hour! Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!

Bard’s words to himself, knowing that they might be the last that he ever speaks:

Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!

And Lúthien’s ruthless threat to a cowed Sauron:

Ere his foul spirit left its dark house, Lúthien came to him, and said that he should be stripped of his raiment of flesh, and his ghost sent back to Morgoth; and she said ‘There everlastingly thy naked self shall endure the torment of his scorn, pierced by his eyes, unless thou yield to me the mastery of the tower.’

The spoken word is absolutely crucial, I reckon most would agree, to the dramatic impact of these boss-fight scenes and what the protagonist and/or antagonist is bringing to the table, in terms of characterisation. Looking back over the larger number of boss-fights that get briefer narration, there is rarely room for dialogue or internal monologue for that matter. Yet Tolkien does still deliver the drama, even without the kind of back and forth quoted above. Fingolfin’s duel with Morgoth is the peak of this delivery, in my view. There is zero dialogue or spoken word sentence structure in the passages that deal with this momentous scene. Instead, we are only told that Fingolfin speaks and shouts. Yet, what we have is Fingolfin’s voice, never technically ‘heard’ in a sentence by the reader, literally driving the narrative:

But he [Morgoth] could not now deny the challenge before the face of his captains; for the rocks rang with the shrill music of Fingolfin’s horn, and his voice came keen and clear down into the depths of Angband; and Fingolfin named Morgoth craven, and lord of slaves.

Despite an absence of tremendous lines of the sort that Tolkien crafted for Éowyn, the Witch-king and Gandalf, Fingolfin’s voice is arguably at the very heart of his confrontation with Morgoth.

the boss-fight as thematic punctuation?

While re-reading various passages that capture high stakes struggles between protagonists and antagonists in Middle-earth, I became increasingly interested not only in form but also function. And, in particular, whether a boss-fight’s function might extend beyond achieving dramatic action and resolution within a given scene. A regular function strikes me as being the underscoring of the heroism and nobility of the protagonist, often imbued with a sense of struggle against the odds. Éomer dismounting to fight Uglúk in single combat during his éored’s destruction of the latter’s Orcish warband helps to establish Éomer as both heroic and noble in the reader’s eyes – at a point where we otherwise know relatively little about the character (‘The Uruk-hai’). Éowyn and Merry couldn’t be in a more against the odds situation with the Witch-king if they tried, yet they heroically persevere, and their stalwartness is explicitly linked to their deep sense of kinship with and duty to the fallen Théoden. Gandalf’s refusal to allow the Balrog to pass is laden with heroic sacrifice. He insists on facing Durin’s Bane alone and in the context that he’s already admitted that he was nearly ‘broken’ in the shutting spell / counter-spell stand-off with the Balrog, earlier in the Chamber of Mazarbul (‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’). In each example, we learn something about our protagonists – what motivates them and how their reactions in extreme circumstances adds to our understanding of their respective character arcs.

Other themes also potentially come into play during these dramatic boss-fight moments. Fingolfin’s challenge to Morgoth is certainly heroic and certainly an act of self-sacrifice. But it can also be read as partly a triumph of irrational and self-destructive behaviour. The disaster of the Dagor Bragollach pushes Fingolfin to conclude that he has witnessed the “utter ruin of the Noldor, and defeat beyond redress”. Fingolfin thus gives into “wrath and despair”, so that “none might restrain him” and charges off alone to seek out what can only really end in his violent death. Other characters similarly actively seek out boss-fights against all better judgement and with self-inflicted, tragic consequences. Fëanor, in his haste to square up with Morgoth upon the return of the Noldor to Beleriand, charges ahead of his army and ends up surrounded and cut off from aid, and perishes at the hand of Gothmog. Fëanor, in his actions, is described as “fey” and “consumed by the flame of his own wrath” (‘Of the Return of the Noldor’). Eärnur, last King of Gondor, is repeatedly taunted by the Witch-king to face him in single combat. For a time, Eärnur’s Steward Mardil “restrained the wrath of the king” but in the end, Eärnur seeks out the boss-fight he craves, to his and Gondor’s heavy cost (‘Appendix A’). Túrin throws himself into two boss-fights with Glaurung. On both occasions, he’s actively trying to reverse or prevent dire consequences and even Glaurung, with more than a hint of manipulative malice it must be said, acknowledges him as ‘valorous’. Yet Túrin can’t help but be Túrin, and his valour is closely tied to recklessness and hubris, in my view, with tragic consequences following closely behind. Confrontations of this sort were likely used by Tolkien as a narrative device for communicating the rashness or hubris of a protagonist, and the price of despair, pride or blind rage. There’s no eucatastrophe on the cards for any of these characters. And in this specific boss-fight context, I fear that Fingolfin and Túrin – an otherwise extremely unlikely pairing in a sentence – can be interpreted as having erred in a similar way.

some final thoughts

Assembling passages and quotes from across Tolkien’s works and then declaring ‘point proven’ can be a pretty unrewarding methodology, for the reader and writer alike, if that’s as far as it goes. And comparing boss-fights and how they’re formulated, say between The Hobbit and text used to construct The Silmarillion, unsurprisingly throws up the obvious: they are written differently, for different audiences. However, this brief foray, I hope(!), has shown that we’re not just comparing apples with pears. There are, of course, significant stylistic and structural differences to be found when comparing the texts. LotR, as a novel, does lend itself more readily to boss-fight set pieces where there’s room for dialogue to breath. But that’s not to say that there’s zero instances of the spoken word in the more ‘epic’ analogues that feature in The Silmarillion. And certainly, even in the absence of such, there is no less energy or potency to the scenes therein. And overall, I don’t reckon it’s surprising that Tolkien uses dramatic set pieces like a boss-fight to not only drive forward the narrative from A to B, but also to further flesh out his characters and overarching themes.

Welcome to the Mordorfone network, where we put the 'hai' back into Uruk


Jun 12, 4:16pm

Post #2 of 17 (1634 views)
Game Over! And some thoughts about 'genre' [In reply to] Can't Post

What fun and how thought-provoking to read this excellent survey of Boss Fights in Tolkien, Felagund.

I agree with you - there are many! And they do matter!

I thought back to my Tom Bombadil point, and what about it (if anything) I still agreed with having been convinced by your many examples and thoughtful analysis.

And I think the point I was not making very well then is something I can expand upon now, by picking up upon a point you make in your essay.
I think that, in Tolkien, these fights are certainly exciting entertainment but they also have wider functions. In each case "we learn something about our protagonists – what motivates them and how their reactions in extreme circumstances adds to our understanding of their respective character arcs" (as you put it, Felagund).

That is in contrast to the kind of fantasy literature (or fantasy in other media) where the magical powers and the epic fight scenes are a key attraction -- maybe to the extent that that plot and character arcs exist to get you from fight to fight.

(And this was relevant to a point about Tom Bombadil. Tolkien can show us that Tom has magic and will on occasion use it, including in confrontation. We can infer if we want that Tom could use those powers more than he does, an perhaps did at other times. But if readers assume magical powers are going to be explored fully, then they are likely to be disapointed. If they stick to Tolkien, that is. I'm sure there is already fan-fiction with which a reader can scratch that itch. And who knows what the ROP script-writers might be going to do! But lengthy speculation, excitement or complaints about that obviously belong on the ROP board.)

Back to the discussion of what role boss fights play within Tolkien's work, and how that might differ from other fantasy works, or adaptations of Tolkien by other authors.

I realise that what I'm thinking here is based on Neil Gaiman's ideas about genre (as in 'genre fiction')...

I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel. I have a mad theory that I started evolving when I read a book called Hard Core by Linda Williams, a film professor in California. It was one of the first books analysing hardcore pornography as a film genre.

She said that in order to make sense of it, you need to think of musicals, because the plot in a musical exists to stop all of the songs from happening at once, and to get you from song to song. You need the song where the heroine pines for what she does not have, you need the songs where the whole chorus is doing something rousing and upbeat, and you need the song when the lovers get together and, after all the vicissitudes, triumph.

I thought, “That’s actually a way to view all literary genres,” because there are things that people who like a genre are looking for in their fiction: the things that titillate, the things that satisfy. If it was a cowboy novel, we’d need the fight in the saloon; we’d need the bad guy to come riding into town and the good guy to be waiting for him. A novel that happens to be set in the Old West doesn’t actually need to deliver any of those things – though it would leave readers of genre cowboy fiction feeling peculiarly disappointed, because they have not got the moments of specific satisfaction.

“Let’s talk about genre”: Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation

What "the moments of specific satisfaction" look like are also part of genre. Another part of that conversation between Neil Gaiman ("NG") and Kazuo Ishiguro ("KI") exlores ideas of what key fights are like in different traditions :

NG Yes. One of the things that fascinated me about The Buried Giant [a novel by KI that attracted a lot of unattractive literary gatekeeping because it was by a leading author of literary fiction, but involved elements redolent of fantasy -noWiz] is there are several places in it where people fight with sharp blades, and people are killed, and in each case it happens at the speed that it would have happened in real life and ends as abruptly and, often, unsatisfyingly: the character falls to the grass with what looks like a red snake slipping away from him, you suddenly realise, “Oh, this is blood,” and you’re thinking, “This is not how a reader of fantasy expecting a good swordfight would have expected this swordfight to go.”

KI If I was aware of genre at all during the fight scenes, I was thinking of samurai films and westerns. In samurai movies mortal enemies stare at each other for a long time, then there’s one flash of violence and it’s over. What do you reckon would have happened if I’d been a writer steeped in fantasy? Would I have had people talking while bashing swords?

NG You’d definitely have flashing blades. One of the pulp fantasy genres of the Thirties was “Sword and Sorcery”: there’d be mighty feuding warriors with large blades, talking, clashing, grunting . . . you would have got a solid half-page out of it, partly because the writers were paid by the word.

KI When I first came to Britain at the age of five, one of the things that shocked me about western culture was the fight scenes in things like Zorro. I was already steeped in the samurai tradition – where all their skill and experience comes down to a single moment that separates winner from loser, life from death. The whole samurai tradition is about that: from pulp manga to art movies by Kurosawa. That was part of the magic and tension of a swordfight, as far as I was concerned. Then I saw people like Basil Rathbone as the Sheriff of Nottingham versus Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and they’d be having long, extended conversations while clicking their swords, and the hand that didn’t have the sword in it would be doing this kind of floppy thing in the air, and the idea seemed to be to edge your opponent over a precipice while engaging him in some sort of long, expository conversation about the plot.

NG What we’re talking about here is jumping from one literary-slash-genre tradition to another.


The rest of their conversation about the idea of genre is also interesting, and LOTR gets a look-in.

But back to your essay Felaund! For me, your essay also brought out what I see as a theme in Tolkien - he is moved (and gets us moved) by someone doing the right thing regardless of the liklihood of failure and death. That is, of course, seen most sharply in high-stakes mortal combat. He's simultaneously aware of how easy it is to trick oneself (or to be tricked) into doing the wrong thing. There's no need for me to provide any examples of this- they are done so well in your essay.

"I am not made for querulous pests." Frodo 'Spooner' Baggins.


Jun 12, 6:23pm

Post #3 of 17 (1625 views)
I think this is key: fighting for others and/or for what's right [In reply to] Can't Post

In Reply To
he [Tolkien] is moved (and gets us moved) by someone doing the right thing regardless of the likelihood of failure and death.

I think the most moving boss fights for me are

1. Fingolfin vs Morgoth (Fingolfin hoping to stop the war once and for all by decapitating the enemy leadership, though admittedly it also feels like he's given up living and wants to go down in glory, and maybe he'd be happy winning or losing given that sentiment), and

2. Eowyn & Merry vs The Witch-king, because they were both fighting for the sake of the man who wasn't even their father but had become a father to Eowyn and a father figure to Merry ("as a father you shall be to me" -- "for a little while"), and Merry is ALSO fighting for Eowyn's sake, so somehow he gets +2 heroism.

So I said "moving" and I meant "emotional." I still feel that Gandalf vs the Balrog was emotional, but in a different way: more about a fantasy reader who's reading genre fantasy expecting a good wizard to fight a bad demon with magic--that is what we signed up for when we opened the book, right? And I'm not disparaging Gandalf at all, because he was fully heroic, and he fought for his friends and proteges, and he fought for the good of the Quest: all virtuous and laudable motivations. Maybe because, at least in my mind, they were roughly balanced in the power equation and Gandalf had a good chance of winning, and I daresay Gandalf thought so too, so that the feeling of desperation wasn't there which was present in the other two.

Oops! And this is no criticism of either Wiz or Felagund, but how are we forgetting Sam vs Shelob? That was an epic boss fight, and again, quite moving, because Sam was fighting on behalf of someone else, and the odds were terribly against Sam, but he was as fey as Fingolfin in his charge, completely disregarding how badly he was outmatched. And how is this for EPIC language:

No onslaught more fierce was ever seen in the savage world of beasts, where some desperate small creature armed with little teeth, alone, will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above its fallen mate.

That ranks up there with Eowyn & Merry in terms of devotion to fighting for a fallen loved one.

There is one commonality I just noticed in all 3 of these situations--anyone else? It is: the previous strategy for each boss (Balrog, Black Rider, Shelob) was to run away from it, run for your lives. I wonder how deliberate that was on Tolkien's part? Because deciding to stand your ground and fight something you previously ran from, well, that's a special kind of heroism, isn't it? It's in a different league from, hypothetically, "Let's enter Moria and explore it and kill trash mobs until we find the Balrog, then kill him and see what kind of loot drops. I hope I get a +20 agility gem!"


Jun 12, 6:47pm

Post #4 of 17 (1616 views)
We knew we could count on you, Felagund, to [In reply to] Can't Post

to give proper thought and weight to boss-fights in Tolkien. Merci beaucoup! And I especially appreciate the conclusion you so expertly built up to:

And overall, I don’t reckon it’s surprising that Tolkien uses dramatic set pieces like a boss-fight to not only drive forward the narrative from A to B, but also to further flesh out his characters and overarching themes.

I think that is so key to the whole Tolkien approach. It's not fighting for fighting's sake, to impress readers with action and/or impress them with how badass the hero's fighting skills are in a fight, nor to impress us with the witty one-liners and meme-worthy quotes a hero or villain might spew during the fight. None of those are bad things, but they are less impressive things, at least to my aesthetic. When Tolkien's characters are fighting for a cause, I get behind them as a reader because I see what wonderful people they are inside. And if they're not, or if the cause is superficial at best (looking at you, Turin), then I don't feel the same engagement (buh-bye, Feanor).

That's particularly how I'm wired, I will admit. I can still recall a forgettable movie I saw as a kid in theaters with friends called "Grizzly" (or close enough), which was a monster movie about a grizzly bear going around killing people until, as in Jaws, the experts showed up to hunt it down amid peril and excitement, and afterwards the part I told my friends I liked best was early on when a mother rushed out of her cabin WITH A BROOM to save her child from becoming a grizzly snack (no, she didn't win, but her heart was in the right place). But my friends liked it more when the grizzly was shot amid much bloodshed and gunfire, so, everyone's mileage my vary.

Anyway, back to the bigger issue: I know you didn't want to log every boss-fight, but you listed quite a few, and enough to change our perceptions of just what was that crazy Oxford prof up to when he dared to write a fantasy story lacking in the boss-fight department. Turns out, he wasn't so lacking, just a bit more subdued, and since the Balrog-Gandalf fight appears for a few hundred pages to be a net loss (the good guys needed that wizard, and who cares about an underground, unknown monster anyway?), and we only get the full story later, it makes a different impact, which is the Elves of Lorien singing songs of lamentation, rather than the good guys cheering for victory.

And that leads me to a further thought: the only "praise them with great praise!" mass crowd appreciation in the books goes to the mostly non-fighting Sam & Frodo. Remarkably little is said about Eowyn & Merry's triumph over Big Bad #2, and the resurrected Gandalf is called Gandalf the White, not Gandalf the Balrog Slayer, which is not unthinkable in a heroic fantasy. Sam gets no mention at all for defeating Shelob.

For that matter, there is no big crowd appreciation event for Aragorn showing up to save the day at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and there's more grieving over the fallen than praise for Eomer's arrival and charge. These aren't flaws in the story, but they do feed the perception that there are few boss-fights because there's next to no mass celebration about them. Sorta like, "How did your day go, Merry?" Merry shrugged. "Helped kill Sauron's #1 Bad Boy and demoralized Ultimate Evil in Middle-earth. Pass the tobacco."


Jun 13, 2:48pm

Post #5 of 17 (1545 views)
The boss-fight that wasn't: Gandalf vs the Witch-king in Minas Tirith, and Letter 156 [In reply to] Can't Post

I thought it worth adding this part from Letter 156, where Tolkien explains Gandalf's powers, mission, and how he is plugged into the book-universe. While I do think it's a valid reader question to ask who would win in that Gandalf-Witch-king duel that the book sets up, it also seems that the author says the whole point of Gandalf was not to win boss-fights and rather to set up boss-fights through others via all his planning, motivation, advice, etc. So I think "who would win the fight?" is a valid question, but "why did they disappoint fantasy fans by not fighting?" is not a valid question, not if you pay attention to the author's ethos.

When he speaks he commands attention; the old Gandalf could not have dealt so with Théoden, nor with Saruman. He is still under the obligation of concealing his power and of teaching rather than forcing or dominating wills, but where the physical powers of the Enemy are too great for the good will of the opposers to be effective he can act in emergency as an ‘angel’ – no more violently than the release of St Peter from prison. He seldom does so, operating rather through others, but in one or two cases in the War (in Vol. III) he does reveal a sudden power: he twice rescues Faramir. He alone is left to forbid the entrance of the Lord of Nazgûl to Minas Tirith, when the City has been overthrown and its Gates destroyed – and yet so powerful is the whole train of human resistance, that he himself has kindled and organized, that in fact no battle between the two occurs: it passes to other mortal hands.

Ethel Duath

Jun 13, 2:52pm

Post #6 of 17 (1537 views)
Well, somehow I never read that, or forgot it. [In reply to] Can't Post

That is really wonderful, this restrained conception of great power--used only in the service of "lesser" (in power anyway) beings. And very consistent, as far as I'm aware of it, with Catholic theology in terms of angels and their roles.


Jun 13, 7:39pm

Post #7 of 17 (1524 views)
in like Flynn! [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for your reply noWiz and very pleased you'd enjoyed the read. And thanks too for getting my little grey cells into gear in the first place. Once you used the term 'boss fight' in a Tolkien context, it was an irresistibly fun thought to play with and tease out.

I hadn't come across that Gaiman / Ishiguro interview-review before. What a great read! Thanks for posting the link to the full transcript. Ishiguro's characterisation of Errol Flynn sword-fights is hilarious - or sword-clicking, as I will henceforth say! Gaiman's comment on Terry Brooks and the Shannara series is a blast from the past. It's an assessment that's been around forever and I'm not surprised to learn that Gaiman subscribes to the view. I happen to agree, with the first entry in the series being peak 'clone', as Gaiman put it. I don't think I got past the third one but clearly I enjoyed the series enough to persevere for a bit. I'd already read LotR by that point and could spot the very obvious influence on Brooks but I recall being more disappointed in how 2D the world of Shannara felt than in the degree of emulation.

Shockingly, I digress. I reckon your reflection on genre fiction hits the spot, especially with the parallel you draw with the relatively economical use of magic in Middle-earth - whether through the medium of boss-fights or other scenarios.

Welcome to the Mordorfone network, where we put the 'hai' back into Uruk


Jun 13, 7:52pm

Post #8 of 17 (1521 views)
Middle-earth, as written by Faramir rather than Boromir [In reply to] Can't Post

I feel very bad for not including Samwise vs the last child of Ungoliant! I know I wasn't aiming to list every single boss-fight but that is a biggie. I hope the 7-time mayor of Hobbiton can forgive this oversight...

Shades (the good sort!) of Faramir in your own analysis, if I may be so bold as to offer such praise: "It's not fighting for fighting's sake". LotR as written by Boromir would have been, I reckon, a book shoved full of boss-fights, featuring Boromir vs the Balrog, Boromir vs the Witch-king, Boromir vs Smaug, Boromir vs Aragorn and, of course, Boromir vs food (probably roast boar. By the dozen). Instead, we got a trilogy written by Faramir, with some boss-fights and all that character development stuff (Boooooringgg! - shouts Boromir from the sidelines).

I have to admit to not having seen the Grizzly film although a VHS cassette cover does spring to mind, dredged up from my memories of browsing the shlock horror section of my local video store.

Welcome to the Mordorfone network, where we put the 'hai' back into Uruk


Jun 13, 7:59pm

Post #9 of 17 (1519 views)
love this [In reply to] Can't Post

That's such a great snippet from letter 156. As you say, there's so much of 'the point' of Gandalf invested in that one brief stand-off. Dramatic but drama for a purpose.

Welcome to the Mordorfone network, where we put the 'hai' back into Uruk

Ethel Duath

Jun 13, 8:03pm

Post #10 of 17 (1519 views)
Boromir Vs. [In reply to] Can't Post

Well that's my laugh for the day! Quite a list.Laugh Yes, I wouldn't be at all surprised.


Jun 13, 11:50pm

Post #11 of 17 (1512 views)
As any gamer will tell you, Boromir would have won all those boss fights, but [In reply to] Can't Post

he didn't have a decent healer, and the DPS always showed up late to the fight. You just never blame the tank; it's not his fault. (And what kind of healer doesn't rez the tank after a fight!?!?!?!)


Jun 14, 1:50am

Post #12 of 17 (1500 views)
The Party was Under-prepared [In reply to] Can't Post

In Reply To
As any gamer will tell you, Boromir would have won all those boss fights, but he didn't have a decent healer, and the DPS always showed up late to the fight. You just never blame the tank; it's not his fault. (And what kind of healer doesn't rez the tank after a fight!?!?!?!)

That's because the party had lost its magic-user and had foolishly set out without a cleric (or even healing potions)!

“Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.” - Tony Isabella


Jun 14, 3:32pm

Post #13 of 17 (1432 views)
Amateurs! Don't do PUGs in Rivendell, that's the lesson to learn. // [In reply to] Can't Post


Hamfast Gamgee
Tol Eressea

Jun 18, 12:11am

Post #14 of 17 (1270 views)
By boss fight [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm not really sure about the term. I take it you mean it is a bit strange that really the tale should have ended with say Sauron getting the Ring back, but then Aragorn gets upset and has a sword fight with Sauron in Barad-dur. I thought that once, but I think I now prefer the tale as it is. Didn't they think of doing something like that in the movies?


Jun 18, 6:13am

Post #15 of 17 (1257 views)
Boss fight is an online gaming term [In reply to] Can't Post

The idea translates pretty well to LOTR and Moria: you kill some orcs ("trash mobs" in games) which are the routine foes you encounter. Kill, kill, kill--this is most of the game. And then you work your way to the "boss fight," with the boss being not only the boss of the orcs/trash mobs, but having extra powers and being extra, extra hard to kill, so that would be the Balrog. Just think of that formula repeated over and over in an online game.

And boss fights are just about the only thing serious gamers care about because 1) they're exciting and require a well-coordinated group, and 2) they drop the best loot, usually special weapons and armor that give your player more power and more resistance to dying. (Trash mobs, by contrast, drop trashy things that you often just sell later.) So in an online game, killing the Balrog would give you Glamdring or one of the Three Rings or the key to summoning Shadowfax, etc. (I'm not being literal here, just using LOTR items as examples to illustrate.)


Jun 20, 5:49pm

Post #16 of 17 (1177 views)
The Boss of the Rings [In reply to] Can't Post

Apologies for the late reply and I reckon I couldn't do any better than CuriousG's response! In particular, I agree that Moria is classic 'boss fight' territory, in gaming terms. You could even say that the cave troll was a 'mini-boss' prelude to the boss fight between Gandalf and Durin's Bane.

When prepping for my original post, I did go down a bit of a fun rabbit hole on gamer slang. I've been a video game geek forever, from handhelds back in the '80s to MMOs in more recent years but I hadn't given much thought to the etymology of 'boss' and 'boss fight' before, despite using the terms instinctively. Anyway, I found this article from 2021 a pleasant and nostalgic read:

'Why Do We call The Hardest Video Game Enemies 'Bosses,' Anyway?'

And yes, Jackson, Boyens and Walsh did include an Aragorn v Sauron duel in an earlier version of the ending to The Return of the King film. You can find the bits that were filmed on YouTube easily enough and it includes a brief but interesting 'Annatar' take on Sauron.

Welcome to the Mordorfone network, where we put the 'hai' back into Uruk


Jun 20, 5:57pm

Post #17 of 17 (1174 views)
rez cover was a disgrace! [In reply to] Can't Post

The Fellowship were relying on some NPC called Eru to provide rez but he seemed to be otherwise engaged (the tavern?) for most of the quest and pretty selective on rez anyway when he bothered to put in the work!

And I agree, the Tank is sacrosanct!

Welcome to the Mordorfone network, where we put the 'hai' back into Uruk


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