Chapter VII: Helm’s Deep
As the chapter opens, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Theoden, Eomer, and a lot of other warriors are riding across the plains of Rohan toward the fortress of Helm’s Deep. Why aren’t they holing up in Edoras, where the king normally lives? Location, location, location. Edoras is in a great location if you want to find a place, but being in the middle of a plain, it’s hard to defend. The Anglo Saxon culture the Rohirrim was based upon didn’t have stone walls like we associate with castles of the middle ages. They had wooden palisades and earthen walls to keep out their few attackers. These defenses aren’t enough to hold off the hordes of orcs coming for Rohan. So Helm’s Deep it is.
Situated near the end of a narrow canyon with its back to the mountains, Helm’s Deep has an earthen dike as its first defense, and after that the Deeping Wall, a twenty foot tall mass of stone wide enough at the top for four men to walk side by side, cutouts for archers, and a smooth front that is unclimbable. It has been Rohan’s last and greatest defense for centuries. The warriors are retreating there in the hopes that the orc army will follow them long enough to give the women and children time to retreat to Dunharrow, another natural fortress.
Though Gandalf begins the journey with them, he departs unexpectedly, bidding Theoden to continue on to Helm’s Deep where Gandalf will meet him again. Many of Theoden’s men mutter about the wizard leaving when they need him most, and that Wormtongue might have predicted this, but of them, Hama is willing to wait for Gandalf.
Other Riders meet up with the company as they journey on, and the news is bad. The orc army is vast. The Rohirrim will be vastly outnumbered and have little hope of holding out, even in Helm’s Deep itself. Theoden soldiers on, though, and refuses to give in to despair again.
They finally reach the fortress and quickly ready their defenses. Gimli loves it there, “Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones.” But while their friendship has deepened, Legolas is not inclined to share Gimli’s opinion of stone buildings and deep caverns.
Night has fallen. A storm is brewing. Away down by the Dike, there come the sounds of battle, and soon Riders come back to the Deeping Wall. The battle has begun, and though the archers used up all their arrows and filled the place with dead orcs, it’s barely made a dent in their numbers. All the Rohirrim can do is wait for the enemy to arrive.
Now, many fantasy writers have battle scenes. Many of them have incredible, epic fight sequences. But relatively few of them have had first-hand experience in combat. Tolkien had that experience. As a young officer in the British army, he fought at the Battle of the Somme, one of the worst battlefields of World War I. Probably the only reason he survived it is because he contracted Trench Fever (a disease carried by lice), and grew so ill he was sent back to England. It saved his life in a roundabout fashion, but it destroyed his health for years afterward. And he was one of the lucky ones. Half of his graduating class from Oxford died, including several of his close friends. Tolkien always rejected the notion of biographical analysis, that an author’s life directly informs his/her work, but we can find echoes of his battlefield experiences in the visions of old corpses in the Dead Marshes– nightmares out of the French No-Man’s Land– and the slow dread of an oncoming and unavoidable battle. And when that battle arrives, it is chaotic and terrifying, and not at all like the glorious Thing the old songs and stories say it is.
And yet, in spite of Tolkien’s hatred of war and the things it does to people, his battle scenes never fail to send chills down my spine. Whether it’s the characters’ determination to fight on in the face of overwhelming odds or the unexpected turn in the tide of battle that ultimately brings our friends victory. I have read a lot of battle scenes in my time, but none ever affect me the way Tolkien’s do. He never wrote battles for the sake of action or excitement, but because they were necessary to defeat evil.
So the Battle of Helm’s Deep begins, in the black of night with a storm thundering overhead and the Deeping Wall lit with torches and flashes of lightning. It’s a scene out of hell, for the orc army is vast, “…and the men of the Mark amazed looked out, as it seemed to them, upon a great field of dark corn, tossed by a tempest of war, and every ear glinted with barbed light.” It seems like a hopeless fight, but they fight all the same. They have the women and children at Dunharrow to think about, and the faint hope that even if they fall, they will be remembered in song for generations to come.
The armies exchange arrows for a time, but then the orcs get close enough to the Deeping Wall to start raising ladders and climbing up them. The first of them will fall, sure, but eventually, enough ladders will go up and enough orcs will be on them that the Rohirrim won’t be able to hold them back. Plus, another set of huge orcs is battering at the gates with a tree trunk. Aragorn and Eomer slip out of the postern door and manage to push them back for a little while, and in the nick of time. The gates are badly damaged. But they can’t stay there forever, as the orcs are massing again. They turn to go back to the postern door when they are attacked. Eomer trips and is nearly killed by two orcs when they are beheaded by an axe. Gimli had followed Eomer and Aragorn out the door and was waiting in the shadows. Eomer isn’t sure if he’ll be able to repay Gimli, but they don’t have time to banter. They have to get back inside. There they find Legolas who wants to check in with Gimli. The two of them are having a contest to see who can kill more orcs. Gimli has two to his name, but Legolas’s count is twenty at least.
The storm clears. The battle continues. The men of Rohan are getting tired and have used all their arrows. No matter how many times they drive the orcs back, there are more where that came from, and eventually, a contingency of orcs slips through a culvert and attack the Rohirrim from within. As tired as they are, the Rohirrim push the Orcs back for a time. Gimli sees Legolas again and discovers that his count has drawn even with the Elf’s.
Finally, there is a break in the action. Aragorn and Theoden have a moment to rest. The battle continues, but the Hornburg, the great tower of Helm’s Deep, is still in Rohan’s hands, but it seems like dawn will never come and Aragorn asks, “How long will the day tarry?”
“‘Dawn is not far off,’ said Gamling, who had now climbed up beside him. ‘But dawn will not help us, I fear.'”
“‘Yet dawn is ever the hope of men,’ said Aragorn.
Good guy Aragorn always holds onto hope. It is the greatest defense against despair.
That great hope will be sorely tested because they are barely done with their conversation before something really crazy happens: the orcs blow up a section of the wall.
‘What?!’ you say, ‘It’s a story set in a Dark Ages setting! How can they blow things up?’. Well, incendiary devices have been around since just after we figured out how to make fire, and Saruman is the one in charge of this army. He has ‘a mind of metal and wheels’. He likes learning things, and lately, he’s been learning about devices that do horrible things like blow up walls. So now orcs are pouring into the fortress and Theoden and his men have to withdraw. Our group of friends has been split up, and no one knows where anyone else is or even if they’re alive. Hope is fading again, and Theoden feels that old despair creeping up on him: “… 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?” Such a question is one we have to ask ourselves now when world events seem so dark and dire. We can succumb to despair, or we can do what Theoden eventually decides to do, to ride out and fight it no matter how hopeless it seems.
The Riders prepare their charge while Aragorn goes up to the wall and issues a warning to the orcs below: “No enemy has yet taken the Hornburg. Depart, or not one of you will be spared. Not one will be left alive to take back tidings to the NOrth. You do not know your peril.” The orcs laugh at him at first, but Aragorn is unafraid and they start to worry. And they’re right to, for suddenly the barricade the Riders had built earlier collapses and Theoden leads the charge.
Even a small army’s worth of charging horses is a terrifying thing for anyone to face, and with the dawn breaking, the orcs are losing their advantage. Their formation breaks as the Riders sweep over them those who do not flee are killed on the spot.
But Theoden’s force is small compared to the vast army of orcs that survived the night. How are they to win this battle?
The answer comes from two directions. A dark and frightening forest has appeared overnight, and the orcs who flee into it are never heard from again. There’s some sort of magic there, but no one knows what it means. Meanwhile, a rider clad in white appears at the top of the hill, shining in the new sunlight. Behind him, a thousand men let by the great captain of Rohan, Erkenbrand, rally to King Theoden’s aid.
Beyond all hope, the orc army is destroyed. Saruman has been defeated.
Next Week: We find out where all those trees came from, get caught up with all the gossip out of Isengard, and some friends get together for a picnic in ‘The Road to Isengard’ and ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’.