Saruman’s Skills (Or, Hey PJ, That’s Not How Wizards Fight!)

Quite a few strange decisions were made during the making of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, most of which were skewered pretty well by CinemaSins. But watching The Battle of the Five Armies for a second time – admittedly with frequent use of the skip function – I came across something that struck me as quite odd. During the Smackdown at Dol Guldur sequence I found myself asking why Saruman fights like a 1980s D&D cleric.

It’s one of those scenes that looks cool, but makes little sense to me. Gandalf has lost his mojo and is at the mercy of a single orc. Then from nowhere, the Avengers turn up (well, the Tolkien equivalent) and a desperate battle ensues. Elrond slices and dices, Saruman gets stuck in and Galadriel rushes to Gandalf’s side, despite possessing the most powerful offensive sorcery in the team. The latter point didn’t bother me too much, beyond her power eventually being revealed as OP to the point of absurdity, since there’s an undertow of romance between her and the hapless wizard. What bothered me was Saruman’s fighting style.

He’s clubbing and jabbing with his staff skilfully enough, but that’s the problem. In the LOTR movies he flings Gandalf around with flicks of his staff, using it to accentuate his magical power, and whilst he’s still clearly using the stick to channel sorcery against the Ringwraiths, the process here seems to require him to bludgeon his opponents too. He might as well take a spear to the fight and not bother taxing his little grey cells on spellcasting if their application requires him to thump foes in the chest.

It just felt wrong to see a wizened mage ducking and weaving like Ezio Auditore da Firenze, battering ghosts with a stick instead of hanging back and assailing with waves of sorcery. What’s wrong with fireballs or thundering gyres of kinetic force? What’s wrong with magic missile? Even the mage in HeroQuest had Fire of Wrath, and that could attack anyone on the board. Saruman’s a world-renowned spell-slinger. You’d think he could kill foes from his armchair.

There’s no rule that says a wizard shouldn’t perform like a common-or-garden berserker in battle, but warriors don’t usually spend the better part of their lifetime in attics, libraries and mysterious shrines, immersed in dusty tomes that only a magic-obsessed mind can penetrate. They tend to be out on the grass, swinging their sword and conditioning their bodies. Which limits the time available for learning Muncie’s Supernal Mist Moccasin in Vlamodyr’s peerless Journal of Marginally Useful Shoe-related Spells of Antiquity. Not that I’m a warrior, or a mage, but this scene violated everything I learned from RPGs about magic use in a party setting.

The lesson, I suppose, is don’t play D&D with PJ. He’ll be the wizard and he’ll charge from the front, swinging his magic stick, and the warriors will get stuck mopping up the kobolds while he prances about, cracking ogre skulls with the gemstone-end and sucking up the XP like a vacuum cleaner in a toga.

Giving your mages the martial arts skill of David Carradine isn’t cricket. It’s game-breaking, is what it is. And we can’t have that. This isn’t Nam, this is Fantasy. There are rules.

C.

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