The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Road To Isengard

(Updated on 12/09/15)

This is a short “deep breath after the storm” chapter, whose purpose is mostly to just get the central characters from point A to point B without too much fuss. But whereas other authors might have a lack of care for such a narrative requirement, Tolkien sticks some of the very best prose of the entire story right in these few pages.

It’s a scene of victory outside Helm’s Deep, but Tolkien writes it in a very joyful tone, between the gladness that the battle has been won and the major players survived, and the wonder at the trees that gave the fighting its last act.  Gandalf is, true to form, back to being as snarky as possible, though he did just save the day so I guess we can let him away with it. There is that element of jubilation in it, to an extent, of the friendly joshing following a moment of great happiness.

Everybody (important) gets to live as Eomer and Gimli emerge from the caves alive, if a little bruised. I sometimes wonder, considering that he doesn’t really have a great deal more to add to the story, if killing the dwarf off at Helm’s Deep might have been a good move. It would certainly increase the emotional weight of the battle and give it more meaning, of the kind that “The White Rider” has sort of robbed from “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum”. But Tolkien clearly wants to spend more time exploring the dynamic between Gimli and Legolas, so he gets out alive, the two immediately going back to their “game”. The dwarf has come out the stronger in this one.

Gandalf, after some suitably bague mutterings about the trees, wants to head off to Isengard which, in the context of the scene, is pure insanity. Again, Gandalf is being all mysterious, unnecessarily so, but he is ever the showman. Besides, there is no real tension here. The reader knows more, and we can already guess as to what the Ents have been up to in Saruman’s stronghold. All doubts about Gandalf have been destroyed within the minds of the Rohirrim. It has taken a lot to do that, which is good evidence of Grima’s effective work. But, if one thing ever makes people loyal to you, it’s being the shining figure that saves the day.

The aftermath of the battle gets some attention next, which is good because it is all too easy for writers to ignore the pressing issues that follow conflict. The captured Dunlenders receive the shock of mercy from their captors, illustrating their position in the story as Saruman’s easily manipulated slaves, while increasing the perception of Rohan as heroic, the noble barbarians who are good to their enemies once the fighting has ceased. The “ancient grievance” of the Dunlanders has not really been resolved, anymore than it can really be resolved, but this is a little glimpse of the kind of possible reconciliation that occur in Middle-Earth politics, directly against the aims and desires of Sauron.

The issue of disease is central, a lot of dead and decaying bodies left on the field. I think the fear of this is important to illustrate, that victory can often lead to future defeat due to the pestilence that armies inevitably attract. Tolkien is going to, basically, magic this way, but it is good that he brings it up.

Hama, the doorkeeper, is dead. While hardly an important character, he was named, so his death (and more importantly, the way that Théoden reacts to it) does create some more emotional weight for the story. “Great injury indeed has Saruman done to me and all this land,’ he said; ‘and I will remember it, when we meet.”

Off the heroes set, the small strength of the company further evidence that they actually have little to worry about. They do have a fear of the forest though, and why wouldn’t they? This mysterious wood has appeared from nowhere and swallowed the enemy whole. Gandalf would do a little better if he didn’t act like this stuff was no big deal, and this is one of those chapters where the wizard’s personality does grate a bit.

What follows is Gimli’s speech on the caves of Helm’s Deep, which is a beautiful bit of dialogue for the Dwarf:

“And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities. such as the mind of Durin could scarce have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come. And plink! a silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes: they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass on into another chamber and another dream. There is chamber after chamber, Legolas; hall opening out of hall, dome after dome, stair beyond stair; and still the winding paths lead on into the mountains’ heart. Caves! The Caverns of Helm’s Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes me weep to leave them.”

It’s a bit out of character for him, to describe anything in such emotional and loving terms as he does and I do think it’s a brilliant passage. Gimli has an appreciation for the better things of the world, but what’s important is that Legolas takes notice of this as well, the two cultures interacting in a very memorable way, discussing cave art and stones while in a magic wood. The deal that the two friends strike – to visit the respective natural wonders that their races cherish – is a nice moment for the two, and gives some hope that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.

It is then that company meets the Ents, another of Rohan’s fairytales come to life. There is a fair bit of that kind of thing within the Kingdom of the Horse Lords, we’ve seen it with the hobbits already. Rohan is entering an important time in its history, clearly, one where the stories of its past come to life before its eyes.

The sight of the tree shepherds leads to Théoden bringing back up the concept of “the long defeat”, becoming the first of the newer mortal characters to actually sympathise and regret the inevitable passing of the Elder days, the loss of things like the Ents. One of the big themes of the coming chapters, especially “The Voice of Saruman” is that of addressing unjust losses, and Théoden’s reaction to the Ents is a part of that. The war that he has been fighting, that his Kingdom and its allies have been fighting for a long time, has deadened their perception of such things as the Ents, and that too is a loss. Théoden grieves for these things that are lost and will be lost: Gandalf can only offer the comfort of, essentially, “it is what it is”: “…to such days are we doomed”.

The company travels on to the Fords of Isen where we discover that Gandalf has pulled a real Revere-style job over the course of the previous night, galloping everywhere. The mounds to the fallen are a very emotive image, as any war memorial must be, the idea of them guarding the Fords ceaselessly being one that we know will create ghost stories for generations to come. They are Middle-Earth’s unknown soldiers, buried together.

The “Huorns” pass by, their task being to eliminate all of the messy aftermath of battle, namely the bodies of the dead.  Tension does remain within the story, due to a number of mysterious signs that are witnessed, most notably the Isen River being found dry, only to swell back to life mysteriously during the night. A very good sense of “What the hell is going on here?” prevails.

The description of Isengard over the course of the following pages is another of my absolute favourite bits of descriptive writing. I might go so far as to say that it is my single most favourite section of the book in those terms, and I believe that it can only speak for itself:

Beneath the mountain’s arm within the Wizard’s Vale through years uncounted had stood that ancient place that Men called Isengard. Partly it was shaped in the making of the mountains, but mighty works the Men of Westernesse had wrought there of old; and Saruman had dwelt there long and had not been idle.

This was its fashion, while Saruman was at his height, accounted by many the chief of Wizards. A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, from which it ran and then returned again. One entrance only was there made in it, a great arch delved in the southern wall. Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron. They were so wrought and poised upon their huge hinges, posts of steel driven into the living stone, that when unbarred they could be moved with a light thrust of the arms, noiselessly. One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl: a mile it measured from rim to rim. Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake. But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman. The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron, joined by heavy chains.

Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunnelled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors. Thousands could dwell there, workers, servants, slaves, and warriors with great store of arms; wolves were fed and stabled in deep dens beneath. The plain, too, was bored and delved. Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead. For the ground trembled. The shafts ran down by many slopes and spiral stairs to caverns far under; there Saruman had treasuries, store-houses, armouries, smithies, and great furnaces. Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapour steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.

To the centre all the roads ran between their chains. There stood a tower of marvellous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills. A peak and isle of rock it was, black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives. Between them was a narrow space, and there upon a floor of polished stone, written with strange signs, a man might stand five hundred feet above the plain. This was Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning; for in the Elvish speech orthanc signifies Mount Fang, but in the language of the Mark of old the Cunning Mind.

A strong place and wonderful was Isengard, and long it had been beautiful; and there great lords had dwelt, the wardens of Gondor upon the West, and wise men that watched the stars. But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better. As he thought, being deceived-for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress. armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.

This was the stronghold of Saruman, as fame reported it; for within living memory the men of Rohan had not passed its gates, save perhaps a few, such as Wormtongue, who came in secret and told no man what they saw.

If anyone ever wants to know the benchmark for describing a place, that’s it. Its look, its history, its tone, all in a few paragraphs. The sheer power of this segment is simply self-evident, and this description does more than anything to make the reader anticipate the arrival of the protagonists at its gates.

But when that happens we discover, as the reader suspected, that Saruman has been overthrown. The gates and tunnel have been wrecked, the walls turned down and the great plain beyond turned into a lake. It is a joyous moment, and I suppose a bit of a twist ending, in that it comes as a shock as to how much the wizard has been overthrown. Isengard has not only been defeated, but utterly wrecked by the Ents. The chickens, as they say, have come home to roost for Saruman and his own destructive tendencies.

And the three hunters are reunited with the two hobbits, the fulfilment of the books main quest. It’s good to finally see some closure for that chase and good to see the two still alive. What follows is some of the best comedy in the book, the two well-fed, drunk hobbits greeting the King of Rohan and his retinue, like Falstaff greeting Hal. It’s the start of a relationship with the King that will become extremely important to Merry. Meanwhile, one cannot help but be amused at Gimli’s rant about how they have come to inherit such plenty. The whole scene is a bit surreal, this very personal moment occurring in a setting of the most unimaginable importance. It’s a feeling encapsulated by the strange casualness of the very last lines: “So that is the King of Rohan!’ said Pippin in an undertone. ‘A fine old fellow. Very polite.” Surely, the heroes of The Lord Of The Rings, those who have been there since near the very start, are not quite what fantasy has produced up to now.

This is a transition chapter, right from its very title. It could have been a throwaway section of the novel, one meant to just tidy up a few loose ends before we get into the more stirring showdown between Gandalf and Saruman (that we still won’t get too for a little while longer). But the chapter is simply overflowing with greatness: the sense of joy after the end of the previous battle, Gimli’s and Legolas’ interaction, the introduction of the Rohirrim to the Ents, the astounding description of Isengard, and the reunion with Merry and Pippin. In just a few pages, Tolkien crams in some of the stories must memorable moments, dialogue and prose and does a sterling job at setting up what is to follow. The reader wants to know what happened at Isengard, how the Ents were able to annihilate the wizard’s fortress and his remaining forces, and they also want to see that promised encounter between Théoden, Gandalf and Saruman himself. None of these things would have quite the same emotional power without the work that went into “The Road To Isengard”.

For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.

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4 Responses to The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Road To Isengard

  1. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: Flotsam And Jetsam | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Voice Of Saruman | Never Felt Better

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