The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers III.7, “Helm’s Deep”

Another week, another chapter of the Lord of the Rings re-read. Today we’ll consider chapter III.7 of The Two Towers, “Helm’s Deep.” Book-wide spoilers and comments after the jump.

What Happens

The Riders head toward the fords of the Isen, camping overnight, and are found by a single Rider who says they were driven away from the Isen by Saruman’s Orcs and the wild men of Dunland, and though Erkenbrand had collected some men and headed for Helm’s Deep, the rest had scattered. The man says that to tell Éomer to go back to Edoras, but Théoden comes forward and tells the man that they ride to battle. Gandalf tells them to go to Helm’s Deep, not the fords; he will meet them there.

The Riders arrive at Helm’s Deep that night, and a large force attacks. Aragorn and Éomer rally the fighters against a first attempt to destroy the gates of the Hornburg, a tower barring the entry to the Deep, and Gimli saves Éomer’s life. The assault continues: Orcs sneak under the wall connected to the Hornburg through a culvert, which is unsuccessful, but then blow up the culvert and rush through, which is successful. The Orcs take the wall across the Deep; Éomer and Gimli are separated from Aragorn and Legolas in the fighting. Théoden resolves to ride forth at dawn.

When he does, he cleaves a path through those blocking his way with no trouble, for they are staring away from him at a forest that appeared overnight. Trapped between the Riders, the forest, and the newly-arrived Gandalf and Erkenbrand, the wild men surrender and the Orcs flee into the forest, never to come out again.


I don’t know why, but I have a horrible time keeping track of what’s going on where in this chapter; yes, even reading slowly and making an effort. So I was pleased and grateful to find a useful map of Helm’s Deep, halfway down this page; I downloaded the image, put it on my PDA, and went back and forth between it and my e-book. If anyone else out there has this problem with this chapter, I highly recommend it.

* * *

Before we get to Helm’s Deep itself, a logistical issue: the Riders are riding traveling swiftly because “Forty leagues and more it was, as a bird flies, from Edoras to the fords of the Isen, where they hoped to find the king’s men that held back the hosts of Saruman.” And I stopped reading and said, “They did?!”

I went back and looked, and I couldn’t find any mention of those men or the Riders’ goal of finding them holding back Saruman’s forces. Was I the only one? Or is it this chapter—there’s a not dissimilar logistical issue at the end, which we will get to in due time.

Finally, does anyone have access to an OED? “Bivouac” sounds distinctly anachronistic to my ear, but that’s just instinct.

* * *

Okay, there are three main things I want to talk about with regard to Helm’s Deep proper: the metaphorical language used about the battle; the warrior perspective, for lack of a better description; and the Dunlanders.

First up, the metaphorical language, which is overwhelmingly drawn from nature.

  • The gathered Orcs and Dunlanders are consistently referred to as an overwhelming body of water: a “dark tide” that “flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff”; charging and advancing “like the incoming sea” (against “a storm of arrows” and “a hail of stones”); “the hosts of Isengard roared like a sea” (in which the Hornburg is “an island”); “the last assault came sweeping like a dark wave upon a hill of sand.”
  • The Orcs are twice compared to animals (“apes in the dark forests of the South” and “rats”). Once the Orcs and Men together are compared to “swarming flies.” The Dunlanders may also have a solo animal comparison when Éomer says their voices “are only the scream of birds and the bellowing of beasts to my ears,” depending on how you want to count that.
  • Aragorn desires before the battle to “ride down upon them like a storm out of the mountains.” When the King’s company rides out at dawn, “they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass.”

I don’t have any conclusions about this, but it really jumped out at me.

* * *

Second, the warrior perspective. I mean two things here, which may not actually fall under the same category but evoke the same reaction in me: Gimli and Legolas’s competition over their number of kills, and the Riders cleaving their way to the Dike through an unresisting and facing-away crowd.

Between my last re-read and now I’d seen people say that they couldn’t bear Gimli and Legolas’s competition in this chapter, which is something I hadn’t thought about until then. Now, well, the best I can say is that I cannot reconstruct the mindset that treats causing other people’s deaths as a rather light-hearted competition. I thought perhaps it was black trenches humor, but I do not get that impression from the text; instead it feels like some kind of pre-modern warrior tradition that I simply cannot connect with.

Then there’s the riding out from the Hornburg, which is clearly meant to be grand and heroic:

And with that shout the king came. His horse was white as snow, golden was his shield, and his spear was long. At his right hand was Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, behind him rode the lords of the House of Eorl the Young. Light sprang in the sky. Night departed.

‘Forth Eorlingas!’ With a cry and a great noise they charged. Down from the gates they roared, over the causeway they swept, and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass. Behind them from the Deep came the stern cries of men issuing from the caves, driving forth the enemy. Out poured all the men that were left upon the Rock. And ever the sound of blowing horns echoed in the hills.

On they rode, the king and his companions. Captains and champions fell or fled before them. Neither orc nor man withstood them. Their backs were to the swords and spears of the Riders, and their faces to the valley. They cried and wailed, for fear and great wonder had come upon them with the rising of the day.


So King Théoden rode from Helm’s Gate and clove his path to the great Dike.

(Emphasis added.) And I make a face because my heroes just killed a bunch of people from behind. Would this really have been not just acceptable but heroic behavior to the Anglo-Saxons, or any other historical culture that the Rohirrim might have been modeled on?

* * *

Finally, the Dunlanders. Gamling says the Dunland tongue

is an ancient speech of men, and once 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 Forgoil! 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. They are fierce folk when roused. They will not give way now for dusk or dawn, until Théoden is taken, or they themselves are slain.

Note, first, that Gamling is wrong: the Dunlanders do surrender.

Second, again we have my approaching the text from a completely different perspective than Tolkien. Because you say “someone who didn’t live here gave the land away to newcomers” and I say “colonialism, imperialism, and the oppression, forced displacement, and genocide of native peoples.” In other words, I doubt that the text wants me to sympathize with the Dunlanders—no-one in this chapter, at least, acknowledges that they have a legitimate reason to be upset—but you bet I do.

I think this is the point where I must add the ritual disclaimer about intent: no, I’m not saying Tolkien was an Eeeeeeevil person or that he consciously sat down and said “I’m going to create a world that echoes and perpetuates real-life injustices! Yay!” I am saying that he and I bring very different perspectives to the social situations in the book and that those differences mean that my sympathies are not aligned with the text’s. Further, I think it’s important to point out the assumptions and parallels in the text because (1) it’s part of a close reading, which is what I’m doing here and (2) stories influence the way we see the world, and if we don’t stop and examine the unspoken assumptions in stories, we’ll never be able to identify the present-day mindsets that support injustices.

* * *

Back to logistics. Do we know where Erkenbrand was? If I have the timeline right, he was at least half a day behind Théoden in getting to Helm’s Deep, and while he was starting from further away, no-one seems to think it unreasonable that he should have arrived at the same time as, or even before, Théoden. I skimmed ahead a bit and checked Appendix B, but didn’t see anything. (I also can’t remember what Gandalf was doing, but I feel more confident that that, at least, will be answered.)

On a minor note, should there have been messengers or something during the battle, so that Aragorn and Éomer don’t have to rely on their ears and a chance flash of lightning to notice the battering rams advancing on the gates, or on Gimli yelling that to discover that the Orcs are behind the wall?

* * *

I sound awfully cranky about this chapter, so I’ll end on two things I liked:

  • “And then, sudden and terrible, from the tower above, the sound of the great horn of Helm rang out.”
  • The revelation of the forest, which was just the right amount of strange and non-human to jolt me out of the battle and into wider considerations.

« Two Towers III.6 | Index | open thread »

Kate Nepveu is, among other things, an appellate lawyer, a spouse and parent, and a woman of Asian ancestry. She also writes at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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