Writing a battle scene is undoubtedly a thrilling prospect for a fantasy writer. Whether it’s the climactic battle that seals your main characters’ final fate, a muted fight scene that kicks off the entire conflict, or a symbolic struggle that reflects the protagonist's internal conflict, battle scenes allow for a wealth of creativity, symbolism, character development and – let’s be honest – heart-racing action.
That being said, fight scenes that should feel like huge showdowns can fall a little flat in some fantasy novels. So how can you make sure big battles are as exhilarating for your reader as they are for you?
In this blog post, we look at some of the big battles of literature (spoiler alert duly given!) and consider their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll be writing epic battle scenes in no time!
Why do some battle scenes feel anticlimactic?
The battle scenes in the classics of Tolkien and others are often a bit of a letdown.
There’s a long walk, a lot of fine talk, plenty of awe then either the human hero finds an exit and postpones the battle or there’s a divine intervention which crushes evil a tad unfairly I think.
So, we have a complete rout, or evil sneaks off. There’s not much in the way of real prolonged suffering, no lingering in the mud of the trenches here.
But hey ho. We’ve all been surprised by our first punch, and children milk-fed on reading books are no doubt the most sucker-punched of all.
But we all know there’s no alternative without completely compromising the experience of wonderment.
Tolkien’s linguistic choices before battle scenes
Tolkien approaches the battle in short sentences. You will know one’s coming because his word count between full stops drops dramatically. This seems to me to prove that discretion really is the better part of valour.
Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.
No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark. Straight over Gollum’s head he jumped, seven feet forward and three in the air; indeed, had he known it, he only just missed cracking his skull on the low arch of the passage.
Gollum threw himself backwards, and grabbed as the hobbit flew over him, but too late: his hands snapped on thin air, and Bilbo, falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel. He did not turn to see what Gollum was doing. There was a hissing and cursing almost at his heels at first, then it stopped. All at once there came a blood-curdling shriek, filled with hatred and despair. Gollum was defeated.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Wow. 261 words. Done and dusted. The average word count per sentence in The Hobbit is 16.3. In this piece, it’s 10.9. This is closer to a book like Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, closer to modern ‘hard-boiled’ fiction and to dystopian fiction. It’s an effective way to build tension.
So that, my bullies, is a battle. A touch of breathy rhetoric. A quick despatch. Some chicanery, a soupçon of mockery and animal sounds from the defeated.
Other battles are similarly disappointing, so don’t imagine you need to brush up on your military history for this genre.
There was a howl of anger and surprise from the goblins. Loud cried the Lord of the Eagles, to whom Gandalf had now spoken. Back swept the great birds that were with him, and down they came like huge black shadows. The wolves yammered and gnashed their teeth; the goblins yelled and stamped with rage, and flung their heavy spears in the air in vain. Over them swooped the eagles; the dark rush of their beating wings smote them to the floor or drove them far away; their talons tore at goblin faces. Other birds flew to the tree-tops and seized the dwarves, who were scrambling up now as far as they ever dared to go.
Poor little Bilbo was very nearly left behind again! He just managed to catch hold of Dori’s legs, as Dori was borne off last of all; and up they went together above the tumult and the burning, Bilbo swinging in the air with his arms nearly breaking.
Now far below the goblins and the wolves were scattering far and wide in the woods. A few eagles were still circling and sweeping above the battleground. The flames about the trees sprang suddenly up above the highest branches. They went up in crackling fire. There was a sudden flurry of sparks and smoke. Bilbo had escaped only just in time!
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
The exclamation mark can sometimes feel as if it’s the wrong way up with Tolkien. And The Lord of the Rings series is billed as:
Tolkien’s epic story of the battle for Middle-earth .... The three-volume tour de force follows Frodo the hobbit and his loyal protectors as they journey to Mount Doom to destroy a dangerous and powerful ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron to rule all of Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s personal history with war
Yet, Tolkien was no stranger to the reality of war.
He served on the front line as a battalion signals officer for the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers from June to October in 1916. While there, he fought in the Battle of the Somme which lasted from 1st July to 13th November, costing more than one million lives.
Perhaps it was because of this, he defined in his work the ‘battle’ versus ‘war’.
In the books he meant to do as Milton had done in Paradise Lost and:
assert eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
How Tolkien’s experience of battles colours his descriptions of death
He lost two of his three closest friends on the Somme, a loss he talks about in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings. The books then dignify their deaths, rather than documenting the manner of their dying.
So, he keeps it tidy, and allows for an almost divine interference:
Then the battle began. Some of the dwarves had knives, and some had sticks, and all of them could get at stones; and Bilbo had his elvish dagger. Again and again the spiders were beaten off, and many of them were killed. But it could not go on for long. Bilbo was nearly tired out; only four of the dwarves were able to stand firmly, and soon they would all be overpowered like weary flies. Already the spiders were beginning to weave their webs all round them again from tree to tree.
In the end Bilbo could think of no plan except to let the dwarves into the secret of his ring. He was rather sorry about it, but it could not be helped.
'I am going to disappear,’ he said. ‘I shall draw the spiders off, if I can; and you must keep together and make in the opposite direction. To the left there, that is more or less the way towards the place where we last saw the elf-fires.’
It was difficult to get them to understand, what with their dizzy heads, and the shouts, and the whacking of sticks and the throwing of stones; but at last Bilbo felt he could delay no longer - the spiders were drawing their circle ever closer. He suddenly slipped on his ring, and to the great astonishment of the dwarves he vanished.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
The epic battle as seen in the film
In the video clip from the Peter Jackson movie, we see a clean rout, a few seconds of the long build-up to action, which isn’t bad as an interpretation of what Tolkien intended.
The Battle of the Five Armies involved some 6,000 or so players in the book, whereas the movie depicts an estimated 100,000 CGI-generated goblins, orcs, dwarves, men, elves, eagles, hell bats and other random monsters. Moreover, that relatively small skirmish spans just five pages in the book, but in the movie, it clocks in at over an hour of combat.
Really, you just need an exemplary wizard and a sword to make sense of the mosh pit.
The yells and yammering, croaking, jibbering and jabbering; howls, growls and curses; shrieking and skriking, that followed were beyond description. Several hundred wild cats and wolves being roasted slowly alive together would not have compared with it. The sparks were burning holes in the goblins, and the smoke that now fell from the roof made the air too thick for even their eyes to see through. Soon they were falling over one another and rolling in heaps on the floor, biting and kicking and fighting as if they had all gone mad.
Suddenly a sword flashed in its own light. Bilbo saw it go right through the Great Goblin as he stood dumbfounded in the middle of his rage. He fell dead, and the goblin soldiers fled before the sword shrieking into the darkness.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Battle scenes with less gruesome fighting
The more quickly this horror is disposed of the better.
—J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy
A chivalrous bout with a villain is a far cry from a battle with evil, and farther still from war.
Think of it more as The Lobster Quadrille in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Think of any crisis, where conflict becomes FURY in your work, as a dance.
Choreograph your conflict
From J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy:
‘Down, boys, and at them!’ Peter’s voice rang out; and in another moment the clash of arms was resounding through the ship. Had the pirates kept together it is certain that they would have won; but the onset came when they were still unstrung, and they ran hither and thither, striking wildly, each thinking himself the last survivor of the crew. Man to man they were the stronger; but they fought on the defensive only, which enabled the boys to hunt in pairs and choose their quarry. Some of the miscreants leapt into the sea; others hid in dark recesses, where they were found by Slightly, who did not fight, but ran about with a lantern which he flashed in their faces, so that they were half blinded and fell as an easy prey to the reeking swords of the other boys. There was little sound to be heard but the clang of weapons, an occasional screech or splash, and Slightly monotonously counting—five—six—seven eight—nine—ten—eleven.
I think all were gone when a group of savage boys surrounded Hook, who seemed to have a charmed life, as he kept them at bay in that circle of fire. They had done for his dogs, but this man alone seemed to be a match for them all. Again and again they closed upon him, and again and again he hewed a clear space. He had lifted up one boy with his hook, and was using him as a buckler, when another, who had just passed his sword through Mullins, sprang into the fray.
‘Put up your swords, boys,’ cried the newcomer, ‘this man is mine.’
Thus suddenly Hook found himself face to face with Peter. The others drew back and formed a ring around them.
For long the two enemies looked at one another, Hook shuddering slightly, and Peter with the strange smile upon his face.
‘So, Pan,’ said Hook at last, ‘this is all your doing.’
‘Ay, James Hook,’ came the stern answer, ‘it is all my doing.’
‘Proud and insolent youth,’ said Hook, ‘prepare to meet thy doom.’
‘Dark and sinister man,’ Peter answered, ‘have at thee.’
Without more words they fell to, and for a space there was no advantage to either blade. Peter was a superb swordsman, and parried with dazzling rapidity; ever and anon he followed up a feint with a lunge that got past his foe’s defence, but his shorter reach stood him in ill stead, and he could not drive the steel home. Hook, scarcely his inferior in brilliancy, but not quite so nimble in wrist play, forced him back by the weight of his onset, hoping suddenly to end all with a favourite thrust, taught him long ago by Barbecue at Rio; but to his astonishment he found this thrust turned aside again and again. Then he sought to close and give the quietus with his iron hook, which all this time had been pawing the air; but Peter doubled under it and, lunging fiercely, pierced him in the ribs. At the sight of his own blood, whose peculiar colour, you remember, was offensive to him, the sword fell from Hook’s hand, and he was at Peter’s mercy.
‘Now!’ cried all the boys, but with a magnificent gesture Peter invited his opponent to pick up his sword. Hook did so instantly, but with a tragic feeling that Peter was showing good form.
Hitherto he had thought it was some fiend fighting him, but darker suspicions assailed him now.
‘Pan, who and what art thou?’ he cried huskily.
‘I’m youth, I’m joy,’ Peter answered at a venture, ‘I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.’
This, of course, was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.
‘To’t again,’ he cried despairingly.
He fought now like a human flail, and every sweep of that terrible sword would have severed in twain any man or boy who obstructed it; but Peter fluttered round him as if the very wind it made blew him out of the danger zone. And again and again he darted in and pricked.
Hook was fighting now without hope. That passionate breast no longer asked for life; but for one boon it craved: to see Peter show bad form before it was cold forever.
Abandoning the fight he rushed into the powder magazine and fired it.
‘In two minutes,’ he cried, ‘the ship will be blown to pieces.’
Now, now, he thought, true form will show.
But Peter issued from the powder magazine with the shell in his hands, and calmly flung it overboard.
What sort of form was Hook himself showing? Misguided man though he was, we may be glad, without sympathising with him, that in the end he was true to the traditions of his race. The other boys were flying around him now, flouting, scornful; and he staggered about the deck striking up at them impotently, his mind was no longer with them; it was slouching in the playing fields of long ago, or being sent up [to the headmaster] for good, or watching the wall-game from a famous wall. And his shoes were right, and his waistcoat was right, and his tie was right, and his socks were right.
James Hook, thou not wholly unheroic figure, farewell.
For we have come to his last moment.
Seeing Peter slowly advancing upon him through the air with dagger poised, he sprang upon the bulwarks to cast himself into the sea. He did not know that the crocodile was waiting for him; for we purposely stopped the clock that this knowledge might be spared him: a little mark of respect from us at the end.
He had one last triumph, which I think we need not grudge him. As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab.
At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved.
‘Bad form,’ he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile.
Thus perished James Hook.
—J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy
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