‘The last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth. It will not return without battle.’
So this is the part of the story where I imagine your enjoyment is greatly enhanced by some knowledge of military strategy. Unfortunately, that’s never been an interest of mine, so it’s more a matter of watching a battle play out where there’s never much doubt that the characters I care about will survive.
Basically, Saruman’s emptied Isengard (and armed some disenfranchised native peoples for good measure), which scattered the forces of Rohan that had been holding his army at bay. Once Gandalf hears about this, he counsels Théoden to retreat to Helm’s Deep, a fortress in the mountains which is a) highly defensible, b) well provisioned in case of siege, and c) has a significant number defending it already, because Erkenbrand, the marshal of the Westfold which had seen the worst of Saruman’s orcs, had most of his people retreat there beforehand. And yes, Erkenbrand is another one of those characters who is important for one chapter and then fades into the background – except he doesn’t even show up until the end, so you don’t even get to see him doing cool stuff, like with Glorfindel. Then Gandalf runs off on an unexplained errand and only says that he’ll meet them at Helm’s Deep later.
‘What does that mean?’ said one of the guard to Háma.
‘That Gandalf Greyhame has need of haste,’ answered Háma. ‘Ever he goes and comes unlooked-for.’
‘Wormtongue, were he here, would not find it hard to explain,’ said the other.
‘True enough,’ said Háma; ‘but for myself, I will wait until I see Gandalf again.’
‘Maybe you will wait long,’ said the other.
This little exchange shows that Théoden wasn’t the only person Wormtongue was influencing – even if they mocked or distrusted him, he still had an effect on others in Edoras.
Honestly, the best part of this chapter is the banter between Legolas and Gimli (and their orc-slaying contest).
‘Two!’ said Gimli, patting his axe. He had returned to his place on the wall.
‘Two?’ said Legolas. ‘I have done better, though now I must grope for spent arrows; all mine are gone. Yet I make my tale twenty at the least.’
If nothing else, I suppose I have to give Tolkien credit for bringing to life the monotony of a siege – always some sort of attack, and only occasionally surprising. Another interesting element is how communication (or lack thereof) plays a role in tactics. Half the dialogue is just asking who’s where at any given time – not just the much-touted Erkenbrand, but Éomer and Gimli get separated from Aragorn and Legolas at points, too.
‘There are many that cry in the Dunland tongue,’ said Gamling. ‘I know that tongue. It is an ancient speech of men, and once it was spoken in many western valleys of the Mark. Hark! They hate us, and they are glad; for our doom seems certain to them. “The king, the king!” they cry. “We will take their king. Death to the Forgoi! Death to the Strawheads! Death to the robbers of the North!” Such names they have for us. Not in half a thousand years have they forgotten their grievance that the lords of Gondor gave the Mark to Eorl the Young and made alliance with him. That old hatred Saruman has inflamed.’
So here’s another situation where some people actually have a legitimate grievance, but Tolkien glosses over it by making them “evil” or “wild”. I guess the argument against them must be that their ancestors refused to submit to the Numenorian kings, so they must not have joined the fight against Sauron? And because of that, Gondor took their land and gave it to the Rohirrim. And now they’re treated almost the same as the Orcs, with only the bare minimum amount of empathy.
Anyhow, Saruman brings explosives into the equation, which finally allows the orcs to breach the wall, forcing our heroes to retreat to the inner keep or the mountain caves.
‘It is said that the Hornburg has never fallen to assault,’ said Théoden; ‘but now my heart is doubtful. The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate? […] But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. […] When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song – if any be left to sing of us hereafter.’
I’ve got to admit, whatever its flaws in depicting Helm’s Deep, the movie did a much better job of making the situation feel dire (but Théoden’s speech here is fantastic in both).
But when they actually ride out with the dawn, they find that the orc army is suddenly surrounded…
The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. Between the Dike and the eaves of that nameless wood only two open furlongs lay. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees.
And then Gandalf shows up with Erkenbrand to put the final nail in the coffin.
Now I suppose I can discuss the Two Towers movie (or at least the parts dealing with Book V), since it kind of ends at Helm’s Deep. They made Helm’s Deep the big finale, because it’s a battle and it’s really easy to play up a battle, make the stakes clear, etc. Like I said last chapter, they added a ton of stuff to flesh out the Rohan characters, mainly by making Théoden really stupid and having him try to take all of the people of Edoras to Helm’s Deep. At least Éowyn gets to come along for the ride, and we even get some extra character development for Aragorn by way of flashbacks (seriously, why couldn’t Tolkien find a way to include the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen within the pages of the story proper?)! The theme of the movie is basically about the need for unity in the face of evil, hence the lengthy(-er) debate of the Ents, and both the added subplots with the Elves and even with Faramir. I can say with certainty that The Two Towers Extended Edition is easily the best of the Extended Editions (Fellowship was perfectly paced in the theatrical and the added scenes mess that up, while Return of the King was just way too long already), with the new scenes helping to flesh out the characters even more (who doesn’t want to spend more time with Éowyn and co?).
Here in the books, Helm’s Deep is just one more step in the actual plot of Book V, which is addressing the treachery of Saruman.
Next time: Another step toward Isengard…