(Updated on 10/09/15)
“Need drove them”. No better line, early in this chapter, to emphasise the drama, tension and purpose currently surrounding the narrative.
The army of good is on the march and the reader gets an objective to boot: the Fords of Isen, where the rest of the Rohan military is apparently holding Saruman at bay. While most editions come with maps for readers to pursue, it doesn’t take a massive leap to figure this out: fords over rivers are very important strategic points in any country, and it is only natural that both sides of this war would seek to control it. The fords are a definite point of defence for Rohan. That’s where the action is.
The Rohirrim, in their march, seems caught between two great expanses of darkness – the shadow of Mordor behind and a mysterious darkness ahead. Doesn’t bode well, and that’s when the hammer blow of bad news comes: disaster in the war, as the defence of the fords fails. The news is brought by a “black rider”, spied far off: the traditional view of such a thing is inverted when it turns out to just be a Rohan soldier, fleeing a losing battle. Isengard is “emptied” and suddenly things aren’t looking so great. Nicely portrayed mood of panic talking hold here, the previous burst of optimism is partly dispelled.
Erkenbrand’s defeat, he supposedly some sort of mighty warrior, is quite bad. If there was one thing that I would change about “Helm’s Deep”, it would be to give a more prominent role to this figure, whose odd name marks him out immediately, but who never gets all that much time in the subsequent story.
The force has to divert, and to the “Hornburg” it will go, but Gandalf isn’t coming along. After a few stereotypically cryptic words, he vanishes into the night. Considering that, as we’ll see, all he had to do was say “I’m going to take my super fast horse and round up Erkenbrand’s army to help you out”, his vanishing act is all the more amusing. In an excellent little snippet of infantry conversation, it’s clear that not all of the Rohirrim are so enamoured with Gandalf, seeing his flight as very convenient. Who can blame them, considering his behaviour? Wormtongue has done his job distorting Rohan’s morale and trust very well, and it is clearly a seed that keeps on sprouting.
We come to the titular fortress, and it is painfully out of place in this country. Ancient, stone, strong, it is very clearly not of Rohan’s making, with brief asides mentioning its Gondorian builders. Still, it is, from its description, an immense strategic asset for the Rohirrim, and one wonders why this easily defended keep is not the capital of the country. Perhaps, in its fixed character and towering appearance, it’s just not the Rohirrim’s preferred style.
But it is certainly good for war. The all-too-brief story of its history and naming (check it out in the Appendices if you can, because it is quite entertaining) give it more character in our eyes, making it that place of refuge that Rohan has always turned to. Good thing too, because Saruman is moving in for the kill, all clues pointing to a massive all-out assault. Seems that the evil wizard has shown his full hand, and is moving to take the whole pot with one sweep. It’s risky, but as we’ll see later, makes sense from what’s been going through the wizards head (thought that doesn’t make it smart).
Certainly, one could argue that using such a force, nearly all infantry, to take on a nation of horse-owners, is not the smartest option, especially if Théoden can confront it in daylight with his full army. It’s clear that Saruman is no strategic genius, but his move is based entirely around making the hammer blow as fast as possible with as much force as possible. He’s clearly been reading Clausewitz. But Tolkien does have a sort-of answer for this too, with Saruman apparently betting everything on a night attack, before Rohan has the light they need for a charge of cavalry. It doesn’t really convince does it?
The enemy army approaches Helm’s Deep, and in the darkness, all they see is fire, flaming torches, “countless points of fiery light upon the black fields behind, scattered like red flowers”, always an effective way of illustrating size in the absence of light (and it looked damn cool in the movie). Rohan is fleeing from the enemy, big time, Théoden’s big impassioned call to arms almost a distant memory.
That being said, the fortress is prepared, if understaffed. They have the provision and supplies to fight a siege, though it seems clear that the army of Isengard isn’t going to be just camping outside of the walls. A huge amount of tension now settles on the story, as the reader realises we are heading into our first major battle of the book. Tolkien places a heavy emphasis on the apparent strength of the walls of the Hornburg, which will be important later. He’s doing the standard trick of, in this case literally, building them up to knock them down.
Before we get into the fighting, we should take a second to talk about the continuing Legolas/Gimli dynamic, which gets plenty of time in this chapter. The two spend the time before the fighting discussing their respective cultures and the strengths of each. The ”odd couple” element of the relationship is in full force, though with that kind of unreality to it, the two calmly discussing such matters while they wait for the storm of iron outside to descend.
The attack begins in earnest. Lightning imagery, the brief flashes of light being used to illuminate, briefly, the gigantic mass of the enemy army, is used to emphasise a tone of horror and almost incomprehensible numbers in the bad guy camp, Saruman’s army like insects, the area beyond the walls described thus:
“…it was boiling and crawling with black shapes. some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff.”
Isengard throws itself at the walls, and the excitement builds. It’s the outnumbered defenders against the gigantic attackers, the kind of battlefield story we’re all familiar with.
Special attention is drawn to the men of Dunland, Saruman’s human troops, depicted as a sort of nomadic people from the borders of Rohan. The story of the enmity between the two is actually quite good, found, once again, in the appendices, and goes way back to the ancient history of Rohan (in fact, them being present at this fortress is somewhat of a full circle moment for them. I encourage anyone interested to look up the story for themselves). Dunland’s presence serves as a reminder that plenty of men are on the bad guy’s side, that Rohan has more than just the obvious enemy, and that historical animosity never really goes away. The Dunlanders are just another nomad tribe, like Rohan was, the only difference being those historical twists of fate. When described late on, even some of the Rohirrim aren’t totally oblivious to their “grievance”, and this lends a certain something to the Dunlanders, more interesting as a faction than the mindless Uruk-Hai.
The Dunlanders are involved in the mass attack on the gate, leading to Aragorn and Eomer’s sortie, made on their own. While crazy sounding, it emphasises their heroic nature, marking them both out as “god-like” in the Homeric fashion. At the desperate moment, they leap into danger, slaughter many bad guys, and (temporarily) halt the attack. The enemy, especially the Dunlanders, are marked out as somewhat cowardly, fleeing from the wrath of the warriors. In the counter-attack, Gimli, for the first time in a while, gets some martial attention, saving the day (and Eomer’s neck) in an almost casual “I was in the neighbourhood” manner. Gimli is having his own personal headcount contest with Legolas, that sort of amazingly macabre game that only soldiers could come up with to help pass the time. Some might not like this section too much, it being very bloodthirsty in a sense, but I never had much of a problem with it: the dehumanisation of an enemy in such a fraught moment is something that simply happens in war.
The battle continues, the description of the bulk of it coming quite quickly, with the focus on a number of images designed to be seared into the readers brain. This passage in particular is memorable, for the way it shows the desperateness of the defence and the rallying figures that Aragorn and Eomer have become:
The sky now was quickly clearing and the sinking moon was shining brightly. But the light brought little hope to the Riders of the Mark. The enemy before them seemed to have grown rather than diminished, still more were pressing up from the valley through the breach. The sortie upon the Rock gained only a brief respite. The assault on the gates was redoubled. Against the Deeping Wall the hosts of Isengard roared like a sea. Orcs and hillmen swarmed about its feet from end to end. Ropes with grappling hooks were hurled over the parapet faster than men could cut them or fling them back. Hundreds of long ladders were lifted up. Many were cast down in ruin, but many more replaced them, and Orcs sprang up them like apes in the dark forests of the South. Before the wall’s foot the dead and broken were piled like shingle in a storm; ever higher rose the hideous mounds, and still the enemy came on.
The men of Rohan grew weary. All their arrows were spent, and every shaft was shot; their swords were notched, and their shields were riven. Three times Aragorn and Éomer rallied them, and three times Andúril flamed in a desperate charge that drove the enemy from the wall.
The fighting is bloody and hard, the kind of no-quarter clash that the reader must have been dying for. Gimli has really come into his own in these pages, getting his own incredible battlecry to yell out.
In a battle of almost hopelessness, the defenders hold on for the dawn, even beyond sense. It’s always darkest, as they say. And this mention of the approaching light lets us know that something big will happen when the sun emerges.
The dam bursts, in the last great assault of the enemy (and the chapter is full of violent water imagery for the antagonist, describing them as a “dark tide” or “incoming sea” several times). The mention of “blasting fire” has gotten a lot of attention, as the mighty walls are reduced to nothing. Saruman ever had thoughts for science and the like, and this, along with a flamethrower weapon we’ll hear about later, is the pinnacle of that. This introduction of advanced military expertise is undoubtedly seen as an evil, as Saruman is negating the impact of Aragorn and Eomer, the heroes, with the great equaliser: technology. The defence, hard-pressed to begin with, gets swept away on the wall, and, horrifically, Gimli gets separated from the bulk of the good guys, Eomer as well. Oh boy. Really, the possibility of the good guys losing hasn’t really entered our minds, but this is stretching that belief a bit.
Things are bad, but the Hornburg, the citadel of Helm’s Deep still stands. We now cut to a quick confab that Aragorn is having with Théoden. Truth is, in the excitement of the last dozen or so pages, we’ve almost forgotten about the King, who hasn’t been doing anything. Poor Théoden, the cowering monarch being outdone by his nephew.
Théoden, previously overjoyed, has fallen back on bad thoughts, turning on Gandalf once more, almost getting ready for the end. It’s Aragorn who snaps him out of it and it isn’t that hard. Théoden only had to realise that he now has the opportunity to go out the way he wanted: in a glorious last charge. But, before the good guys are reduced to that, some actual productive fighting first.
The Hornburg is adrift, the tower in the sea of bad guys. As our weary heroes prepare for what has to be a coming end, Aragorn addresses the enemy, in a somewhat bizarre scene. Aragorn is the proud leader, the vision of chivalry and Kingship. But his discourse is with a bunch of grunts who sound like High School bullies, responding to Aragorn with jeers and crude taunts. They’re the bastards who know how close they are to victory, to annihilating the good guys, and they know that the defenders can’t stop them, exulting in that power rush.
We come, not for the last time, to the lowest and highest point. The final defence is breached, and the bad guys smell blood. Then, the charge, every bit the Light Brigade stereotype, as the heroes, at least the ones with horses, ride off into glory, hacking their way through the massed enemy. If you’re into that kind of thing, and I personally don’t not enjoy it, it’s fantastic.
Especially when it works. The final reversal comes, as Théoden, back in the big time at last, gets the reinforcement he needs, looked and unlooked for. The remnants of Rohan’s scattered army, gathered by Gandalf, storm down from one side. I think we can wave goodbye to any distrust of the White Rider now. From the other side comes the mystical element, the dark mass of trees that appears from nowhere, swallowing the stunned, defeated Isengarders greedily, “…and from that shadow none ever came again.”
Victory it is, and as epically written as you could want (though I have always appreciated the details of this battle, and how easily pictured it subsequently can be). Tolkien had a big thing for sieges (the very first thing he wrote for this universe was “The Siege of Gondolin”) and “Helm’s Deep” is an absolute humdinger. It ticks all the boxes and gives the reader some genuine, large scale action for the first time and it brings it home that a war is now in full swing. It’s full of fantastic heroism for the key players, and vivid imagery of an assault by the forces of evil. Yet still there is room for some nuance and complexity: the human members of Saruman’s army, the discussions on tactics and strategy for the Rohirrim to employ, the way that the protagonists force gets split in two. It is still all “epic” in form certainly, with little of the George R.R Martin blood and guts style of fighting description. That just wasn’t Tolkien’s thing, and “Helm’s Deep” doesn’t need it.
And there is also room for character. Legolas and Gimli’s friendship is solidified before and during the fighting. Aragorn and Eomer showcase their strength power and future ability to lead throughout the battle. Théoden falls back into dark thoughts and then rises once more. Amid all of the colossal prose about combat, swords and shields, we also have these smaller, character-driven moments. Having built up to this moment throughout Book Three (and beyond really), “Helm’s Deep” in the explosive pay-off that the reader has been long awaiting, an extraordinary battle sequence that left men like Peter Jackson chomping at the bit. The catharsis of the ending – Tolkien is classic “eucatastrophe” mode – sets us up nicely for the more low key remainder of Book Three, as we take a figurative breath.
That’s all to come. “Helm’s Deep” has given us our first proper taste of the War of the Ring, and it’s one to be remembered. Next, the heroes have to continue on their way.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.