Chapter VIII: The Road to Isengard
The Battle of Helm’s Deep is over. The sun has risen, Gandalf has returned, our main heroes have survived, and now there’s a forest. Everyone is confused. There wasn’t a forest there last night. Everyone things Gandalf is responsible for that, but no, it’s not his doing: “Gandalf laughed long and merrily. ‘The trees?’ he said. ‘Nay, I see the wood as plainly as do you. But that is no deed of mine. It is a thing beyond the counsel of the wise. Better than my design, and better even than hope the event has proved.’
This answer isn’t helpful, but Gandalf isn’t letting anyone in on the secret unless they remember their own children’s stories, and he has better things to do than sit around and tell campfire stories. He needs to go to Isengard, and fast.
Theoden decides to go with him. He’s loathe to be without Gandalf’s counsel now that war has come to Rohan, and Saruman needs dealing with. So they make plans to round up a company of men who are healthy enough to ride and head out as soon as possible, with Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Eomer accompanying them. But first, they have to deal with the survivors of the battle. There are no orcs left, but many Dunlanders survived. The men of Rohan take their weapons from them and make them swear to repair the damage they’ve done and to never threaten Rohan again. The Dunlanders are shocked by this. They believed Saruman when he said the men of Rohan burned their prisoners alive. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t just believe a leader without proof that they’re telling the truth.
By the end of the day, the company is ready to depart. They have to ride through those weird trees, though, and it’s eerie as hell to do it. The trees are wrapped in shadow in spite of the sunlight, and the trees feel angry.
Yes, you’d better believe those trees are angry.
Legolas is fascinated by the trees and wishes he could walk among them. Gimli thinks he’s weird and tells him about the Glittering Caves of Aglarond, a series of caverns behind Helm’s Deep that are beautiful beyond reckoning and would be beloved among the Dwarves if they knew of their existence. Legolas is moved by Gimli’s description of the caves and promises to go see them if Gimli will go to Fangorn with him. They’ve come a long way, haven’t they? They used to snark at each other, and now they’re making travel plans together.
They continue on down the road and turn toward Isengard. The path takes them back into Fangorn. Legolas almost wanders off into the trees again (he’s a sucker for a pretty birch) and Gandalf calls him back just before three Ents appear. They sound some sort of call, and a few more appear. The Riders are alarmed, but Gandalf tells them to calm down and tells them what they are. “‘They are the shepherds of the trees,’ answered Gandalf. ‘It is so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question.'” The folktales they tell their children have a seed of truth after all like all good folktales do.
Theoden is taken aback by all of this. “‘We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.'” I wonder how much Theoden now regrets being so insular and lacking curiosity about what lay outside his lands. The Ents lived next door, and he knew nothing of them. What other wonders has he missed? What wonders do we miss by lacking curiosity about the world around us?
Gandalf bids them ride on. As wondrous as the Ents are, they have to keep moving. They ride out of the woods and down out of the hills toward the Gap of Rohan. The land has changed. There used to be a river to cross, but when they reach the Fords of Isen, there’s no river! Now there’s just bare rock and sand. What is going on around here? Forests are appearing overnight, mythical creatures are appearing out of story, and now rivers are disappearing. And, as the weird last straw, a wall of gloom appears with strange voices within. It moves past them into the night without troubling them.
When the morning comes, the river has come back, too. Theoden and company are getting used to weird things by now, so they just pack up and continue on their way. After they’ve ridden for miles, they come to the land around Isengard. It’s a dreary, barren place full of ugly buildings and uglier machines. Within the ring of Isengard’s outer wall, the land is flooded and wrecked. Isengard was a mighty stronghold once, but no longer.
Suddenly, they notice a couple of small people waiting on a rubble-heap. One is sleeping, and the other appears to be breathing smoke. The smoke breather jumps up, bows low, and welcomes them all to Isengard. He introduces himself as Meriadoc, son of Saradoc, and the sleeping one is Peregrin, son of Paladin.
Gimli yells at them both for leading them on such a hunt so they can find the two of them eating and smoking at their ease. Their banter assures the Riders that these odd little people are friends and that they must be the ones Aragorn was looking for when he, Legolas, and Gimli entered Rohan all those days ago. The Hobbits introduce themselves to Theoden, who marvels about the appearance of yet another people out of ancient stories.
Chapter IX: Flotsam and Jetsam
So Gandalf and Theoden head off to do Very Important Things, leaving Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the two hobbits to enjoy their reunion. There is plenty of food and drink, Longbottom Leaf from the Southfarthing of the Shire (which seems odd to Aragorn when he thinks about it). For the first time in ages, they can relax and relax they do- especially Aragorn, who flops back in the grass and resembles nothing more than the vagabond ranger the hobbits first met in Bree.
Once they’ve rested for a bit, it’s time for some answers. Legolas and Gimli want to tease Merry and Pippin for feasting and smoking, but the hobbits declare that they’ve earned it after their ordeal with the orcs. They reluctantly recount that story up to the point where they enter Fangorn Forest, and are much more cheerful when they talk about meeting Treebeard and the other Ents.
What Tolkien does next in the story is something that contemporary writers would never, ever do: he tells the story of the Ents’ attack on Isengard as a flashback, and not in ‘real time’ as he did with the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Telling this story from a perspective that’s once removed, writing instructors might tell their students, separates the reader from the story. But I don’t think that’s the case here. The Ents are so far removed from humans that it would be difficult to understand their motives and methods without the interpretations of characters who are much closer to us in their worldview. And thanks to Tolkien’s detailed writing, I find the story of the fall of Isengard to be just as compelling as Helm’s Deep.
But anyway. The Fall of Isengard.
Once the narration reaches their arrival in Narn Curunir, the valley Isengard is located within, Merry tells them about the Huorns, ancient Ents that have become ‘tree-ish’. They’ve lost that higher sense of intelligence that separates them from the Ents. They’re prone to acting upon their base instincts and acting on their anger. It’s rather like Old Man Willow way back in the Old Forest- an angry old tree that hated anything walking about on two legs, looking for vengeance on those who threatened the forest. The Huorns are like that, but angrier, far more numerous, and mobile. They move off to deal with the army of orcs that left Isengard (remember the forest that appeared overnight at Helm’s Deep? Those were the Huorns). Treebeard just lets the Huorns pass. He’s not telling them what to do. He has his own plans, “My business is with Isengard tonight, with rock and stone.”
As soon as Isengard is emptied of orcs, the Ents move in. Have you ever seen a stone or a wall that a tree has split in half just by growing? That usually takes decades. Now think of that process happening in seconds or minutes, and you have an idea of what the Ents do to the wall circling Isengard and the buildings within that wall. This ancient wall and the much newer construction is torn apart in short order, and there isn’t much that the remaining few men and orcs can do about it. If you’re going to attack an Ent with swords or axes, you’d better have an army with you, because you won’t be able to hit him more than once. Maybe you can set the Ent on fire, but they don’t just go up in a puff of smoke. If there’s water nearby, the Ent will put the fire out and then come back for you. The walls of Isengard don’t stand a chance. They fall in short order.
Isengard’s tower, Orthanc, is another story, though. It’s an incredible tower with sides that are smooth as glass. There’s nothing for the Ents to grab onto to tear it down, and so no matter how the Ents throw themselves at it, they don’t make a scratch. Treebeard orders them to fall back before they hurt themselves, and they move to dam up the river and flood the plain to wash away the machinery and other awful things Saruman had built there.
In the midst of this flood, Wormtongue returns. He whines and complains, but Treebeard isn’t fooled by him. Gandalf had been by to warn Treebeard of outside events, and so the old Ent sends Wormtongue to join his master in Isengard. Thanks to the flood and the small army of angry Ents, Saruman isn’t going anywhere.
Once Isengard has fallen, Merry and Pippin are largely left to their own devices for a while. They end up finding Saruman’s storehouses where he kept the best food and tobacco leaf, and once they’ve eaten their fill, Ents arrive to tell them to prepare Man-food for twenty-five. Someone’s on the way here, and the Ents are okay with their arrival. Soon enough that is revealed, and Merry’s story comes full circle. So Gimli and Legolas have all their answers, but Aragorn still wonders something. How did Saruman come by Longbottom Leaf? There is a lot of empty land between Isengard and the Shire, so Saruman must have a contact there. It seems a small matter in the grand scheme of things, but Aragorn plans to mention it to Gandalf anyway.
This will come back into the story, but not for a long time. But it bears remembering.
At any rate, Saruman has been defeated, Isengard has fallen, and our heroes have been reunited. For the moment, everything’s grand.
Next Week: Our heroes have a little chat with Saruman, and Pippin once again lives up to the soubriquet, ‘Fool of a Took’ in ‘The Voice of Saruman’ and ‘The Palantir’.