Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part IV: Men of Rohan

This is the fourth part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. In the last part, we looked in some depth at the organization of the host of Saruman and the seeds of ill-preparation, leadership and cohesion which will bloom as poor performance in the fortress assault at the Hornburg. This week, we’re going to keep that approach going, but turn our lidless eye on the army of Rohan: how is this army organized and what makes it function? How does it cohere? Why is it able to stick together, when Saruman’s more imposing army falls apart?

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To recap where we left off last time when we looked at the host of Saruman, we found that Saruman’s army was organized like a professional army, but without the layers of officers or the level of drill and training necessary to generate cohesion or to enable the complex tactics which are so often the strengths of professional armies. Like many modern efforts to graft a professional army onto a society with both insufficient training time and a lack of care for the underlying social structures, Saruman had created the appearance of a professional army, without any of the strength of one. We concluded that Saruman’s organization was fatally flawed: a being with little appreciation for people had fundamentally neglected the human (or orcish) aspect of his army, creating a force which functioned well on paper, but was likely doomed to fall apart in the face of adversity.

The Men of Rohan, preparing to defend the Hornburg. I actually really like these wooden defenses atop the wall. Such temporary enhancements – often called a hoarding – to a stone fortification are often left out of pop-culture imagination when it comes to siege warfare, but they were very common, allowing for a protected position from which defenders atop the wall could engage enemies at the very foot of the wall without leaning out and exposing themselves.

The Lords of Rohan

Ok, I hear you say – but is the army of Rohan any better? After all, in the film, Théoden’s army is mostly boys and old men pressed into emergency service; his force in the books is larger and has a core of experienced riders, but still relies heavily on armed peasants levied from the Westfold. Well, here is the thing: Rohan’s organization isn’t so much better or worse than the Uruk’s, as it functions on a completely different organizational principle.

And the difference can serve to demonstrate why the distinction between professional armies and non-professional armies is so important. While all armies replicate the structures of their society on the battlefield, in many important ways, professional armies often develop a parallel, often effectively deracinated (read:’uprooted’) social organization. It often involves – as we noted last week – more officers (creating a military hierarchy because the deracination has removed the professional soldiers from civilian society and thus from civilian hierarchies) and also typically greater use of corporal discipline (physical punishments). All of that is meant to replace the social bonds that might otherwise hold an army together – typically because there is a need for the state to have an army that can be permanently stationed on the frontiers.

But the army of Rohan is deeply rooted in its civilian society (or more correctly, peacetime society, as some of these fellows are military aristocrats and so not really civilians), to the point that the two are almost indistinguishable. In consequence, the men of Rohan are organized much the same in war as in peace. In the film, we actually do see several distinct groups of Rohirrim; the distinction between them gets more clear if we include the muster of Rohan in Return of the King. So we’re going to break down this army and see how it maps onto Rohan’s society and what might hold it together.

Let’s start at the top – with the king and his great lords.

Arrayed around Théoden are his personal guard; they wait on him in his court and ride with him in battle. We can spot them easily: they have distinctive and impressive scale armor and wear cloaks with embroidered borders. This is a retinue, a body of folks (mostly men) called retainers who are supported by the king (or another high noble) and follow him around. Rogers (cited below) gives an example from Petit Jean de Saintre of an extravagant, but not insane, retinue for a baron (a mid-level noble) which includes three knights, nine esquires (here also fighting men), and 34 assorted supporting personnel (many of whom also had combat roles); they bring with them ninety-nine horses. As Rogers is quick to note, those knights probably had retainers of their own – at least a valet and a page; these retinues can nest in each other. So a king’s retinue might include not only the fighting men of his own household, but his vassals as well – who in turn have their own retinues, and so on. This sort of army form is the retinue of retinues, which we’ve discussed before.

Part of the king’s personal retinue. These are probably the knights of his house, since we see them mounted later on. Notice how they all wear the same basic equipment, with the same colors and the same embroidered cloaks. Such uniformity was almost never the case in pre-modern armies (even those, like the Romans, that we sometimes imagine as uniform were not so), but a wealthy lord or king might clad the fighting men of his household all in the same livery to set them apart on the battlefield, though doing so was a considerable expense.

(Bibliography Note: If you want a better sense of the vertical and horizontal ties that created and bound these retinues together, Rogers, Solders’ Lives Through History: The Middle Ages (2007) has a good basic description. If you want to see a late version of that system in much greater detail, see if you can’t find a copy of D. Simpkin, The English Aristocracy at War: From the Welsh Wars of Edward I to the Battle of Bannockburn (2008)).

Now there’s a key separation between the king’s personal retinue and the retinues of his great retainers, and that’s where the cloaks come in. That cloak element might seem strange, but it is actually perfectly in keeping with historical medieval practice, where the giving of livery (read: clothes) was a key way of marking a noble’s retinue. A powerful noble’s retainers might be marked on the battlefield by all sharing that livery, assuming the noble had the wealth to so outfit his men (which might be considerable, basic clothing was a much bigger slice of household expenses, even for the elite, in the pre-modern world when it all had to be made by hand). Théoden has done this, marking out his elite retainers by equipping them, probably out of the royal armory. Note that these retainers are not all of the important men in the kingdom, or even most of them (in fact, a king’s retainers were often the sons of important magnates, not the magnates themselves); Éomer is not a member of this group and thus doesn’t wear the king’s livery, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

Book Note: This group of retainers around Théoden receive more clear development in the books. They are called the “knights of his house” (RotK 126-17), which clears things up immensely. This is an institution that we have no difficulty recognizing from medieval retinues. While some of the men who might serve a lord in his retinue would do so because they held land under grant from him (a fief), a noble of significance would also maintain some of these fighting men in his household, feeding, armoring and otherwise maintaining them directly out of his finances. In great noble’s household, we might expect to see both his own junior relatives fighting as knights of his house, but also petty nobles who lacked estates of their own, but had received the training normal to the nobility. Such men were a valuable military resource, because the skills necessary to fight well on horseback were difficult to obtain; if they performed well, the noble might establish them on a small fief as a reward, incorporating them (and their heirs) into his military system. More senior nobles (and especially kings) often seem to have taken the adult sons of their most important vassals as knights in their own house, both as a way of paying honor to their vassals (to ride at the standard of the king was, of course, an honor) and as a way to control them.

Háma, Théoden’s door-warden and apparently guard-captain, is a special case worth noting; he’s not a young up-and-coming aristocrat like we might expect of the king’s household, but clearly an older soldier. He’s clearly a member of Théoden’s household, rather than a vassal of some sort, as Théoden freely demotes him from his position as door-warden (TT, 142) yet keeps him in the household guard (where he falls at the Hornburg). He may be a member of what is sometimes called the ‘sergeantry’ – professional military men not of knightly social status; a full discussion of these fellows is beyond the scope of this series, but they become more important the later one goes in the Middle Ages. However, Théoden is clearly quite close to him and his burial – he alone gets his own mound at the Hornburg – would seem to argue against lower status (TT, 77); Théoden even singles out his death to Saruman. I think we might imagine Háma as either a member of the sergeantry, or more likely in my mind a petty aristocrat who in either case probably grew close to Théoden as a member of his house (possibly before Théoden became king or shortly after); royal retinues often seem to contain a few of these ‘old soldiers’ of the king. In practice, I think Tolkien is also being influenced by the role of a Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon king’s huscarls – essentially their version of the king’s retinue. Men like Háma could sometimes wield power well in excess of what their own limited lands or titles might imply, because their proximity to the king often gave them a high degree of access; at the same time, such men were valuable to kings because they were most closely tied to the king than to any of his powerful (and potentially dangerous) vassals.

Finally, I would note the position of Gríma Wormtongue in all of this. While he is clearly chiefly an advisor to the king, the book is more clear that this also puts him in the king’s retinue and he would be expected to ride to war with the king (TT, 146-8); Gríma’s refusal to ride to war serves as the obvious signal of his treachery. Because such a refusal likely forswears a central duty of Gríma’s oath of homage, it frees Théoden to act against him more directly without oath-breaking himself – thus the latter’s warning that if Gríma refuses to ride to war and they two should ever meet again, it would go poorly for Gríma.

Next, we have riders who, while mounted, are clearly not counted among the king’s immediate retinue. And here, Peter Jackson does, I think, a good job of telling these men out: their gear is not quite as resplendent, and they usually do not have the fine embroidered cloaks. But they do have proper armor and horses – things which would be of considerable expense in a pre-modern society. Who are these fellows? Many of them are likely smaller landholding aristocrats, wealthy enough to equip themselves and supply a horse, but not so wealthy as to afford their own retinues. Some of these men might arrive on their own (with perhaps a page or valet to handle their horses) or with very small retinues and then be grouped into full units centered on more important aristocrats. Alternately, they might arrive as part of the larger retinue of the great magnates – men like Éomer (who, lest we forget, is the nephew of the king rather than his son and thus probably the head of his own household). We don’t learn much about these guys in the film, but we see them, which is a welcome improvement from much of the pop-culture representation of these sorts of systems, which largely drop the great number of these ‘knights bachelor’ who made up the backbone of knightly armies.

Éomer leading a company of cavalry, earlier in the film. When we get a closer look at these fellows, we find that they do not have the uniform equipment of Théoden’s retinue. Likely they are drawn from a number of different retinues, or are smaller aristocrats themselves. One would expect the core of this company to be Éomer’s own retinue, including the fighting men of his own household.

Book Note: Again, our look at the books gives us quite a bit more on the lesser riders and at the magnates – the great lords – of Rohan. Éomer, we learn, was raised in the king’s house when he was orphaned, but appears to now be lord of the Eastfold, since he can order the people there to move to safer areas (his father was also lord of the Eastfold; ‘placing a son on the honor [read: titles and land] of his father’ is a standard signifier of good kingship in medieval texts, so Théoden is doing well by the standards of medieval kingship here) as well as the Third Marshal of the Mark; the position of marshal is a common medieval one, by which a king might delegate out some of his army-leading duties. Théoden’s marshals are himself (of course), his son Théodred (until his death) and Éomer.

We meet a number of other magnates in the books. Erkenbrand and Grimbold both seem to hail from the Westfold and given their command roles are likely major nobles with retinues of their own. Likewise, Elfhelm who was given command of one of the éoreds during the ride to Gondor (it is this éored that Merry and ‘Dernhelm’ are in) seems to be a fairly major noble. The Unfinished Tales have more details about what these fellows were doing in the run up to the assault on the Hornburg which supports the notion that they are leaders of significance in the Westfold. We should imagine that these magnates not only have retinues of their own, but that many of the aristocrats in their retinues are likely to have retinues of their own (a retinue of retinues). The general muster of the Rohirrim that occurs after the Battle of Helm’s Deep does appear to be led by these magnates, who are likely drawing on vertical lines of obligation – Elfhelm calls his retainers, many of whom call upon their family and retainers, who do the same and so on until all of the riders are mustered. With an aristocracy that is deeply interconnected by ties of fealty and family, this is an effective way to call up an army without needing the sort of extensive record-keeping and financial overhead that a formal conscription system requires. Or at least, it is a good way to call up all of the aristocrats and their retinues, but you may need a whole lot of non-aristocrats as well to serve as infantry. And that brings us to…

Ninth Century Rohirrim

Next, we have the infantry. As mentioned before, Théoden has a pocket of infantry with him in his marching column. These may also be his retainers (it’s hard to say as they don’t appear in the books). But it is clear in the shots of the keep that there is also a body of infantry who are relatively better equipped (and closer to prime age) than the general force defending Helm’s Gate. These fellows aren’t noble and don’t appear to be directly in a noble’s house or employ. Mostly importantly, many of them don’t seem to have horses (or at least, war horses; many well-to-do infantrymen in the Middle Ages might have fought as ‘dismounted infantry’ – riding to battle on far cheaper riding horses, but fighting on foot). Here I think we should think of these fellows as akin to the Carolingian select levy or the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. Let’s talk about those historical systems.

(Bibliography note: on the Carolingian levy system, see B. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire (2001) and G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West 450-900 (2003). And as an aside, oof, that is not the title I would have chosen. In any case, what follows is based on my readings of those. There’s also a fairly good ‘state of the subject’ section in W. Lee, Waging War (2016), 156-158.)

In essence, the Carolingian army was an odd sort of layer-cake, in part because it represented a transitional stage from the Germanic tribal levies of the earliest middle ages towards to emergence and dominance of the mounted aristocracy of the early part of the high middle ages (note: the Middle Ages is a long period, Europe is a big place, and it moves through a lot of military systems; to talk of a single ‘medieval European system’ is almost always a dangerous over-generalization). The top of the layer-cake consisted of the mounted aristocrats, in basically the same organization as the lords of Rohan discussed above: the great magnates (including the king) maintained retinues of mounted warriors, while smaller (but still significant) landholders might fight as individual cavalrymen, being grouped into the retinues of the great magnates tactically, even if they weren’t subordinate to those magnates politically (although they were often both). These two groups – the mounted magnate with his retinue and the individual mounted warrior – would eventually become the nobility and the knightly class, but in the Carolingian period these social positions were not so clearly formed or rigid yet. We ought to understand that to speak of a Carolingian ‘knight’ (translated for Latin miles, which ironically in classical Latin is more typically used of infantrymen) is not the same, in social consequence, as speaking of a 13th century knight (who might also be described as a miles in the Latin sources).

But below that in the Carolingian system, you have the select levy, relatively undistinguished (read: not noble, but often reasonably well-to-do) men recruited from the smaller farmers and townsfolk. This system itself seems to have derived from an earlier social understanding that all free men (or all free property owning men) held an obligation for military service; Halsall notes in the eighth century the term arimannus (Med. Lat.: army-man) or exercitalis (same meaning) as a term used to denote the class of free landowners on whom the obligation of military service fell in Lombard and later Frankish Northern Italy (the Roman Republic of some ten centuries prior had the same concept, the term for it was assidui). This was, on the continent at least, a part of the system that was in decline by the time of Charlemagne and especially after as the mounted retinues of the great magnates became progressively more important.

We get an interesting picture of this system in Charlemagne’s efforts in the first decades of the 800s to standardize it. Under Charlemagne’s system, productive land was assessed in units of value called mansi and (to simplify a complicated system) every four mansi ought to furnish one soldier for the army (the law makes provisions for holders of even half a mansus, to give a sense of how large a unit it was – evidently some families lived on fractions of a mansus). Families with smaller holdings than four mansi – which must have been most of them – were brigaded together to create a group large enough to be able to equip and furnish one man for the army. These fellows were expected to equip themselves quite well – shield, spear, sword, a helmet and some armor – but not to bring a horse. We should probably also imagine that villages and towns choosing who to send were likely to try to send young men in good shape for the purpose (or at least they were supposed to). Thus this was a draw-up of some fairly high quality infantry with good equipment. That gives it its modern-usage name, the select levy, because it was selected out of the larger free populace.

And I should note what makes these fellows different from the infantry who might often be found in the retinues of later medieval aristocrats is just that – these fellows don’t seem to have been in the retinues of the Carolingian aristocracy. Or at least, Charlemagne doesn’t seem to have imagined them as such. While he expected his local aristocrats to organize this process, he also sent out his royal officials, the missi to oversee the process. This worked poorly, as it turned out – the system never quite ran right (in part, it seems, because no one could decide who was in charge of it, the missi or the local aristocrats) and the decades that followed would see Carolingian and post-Carolingian rulers more and more dependent on their lords and their retinues, while putting fewer and fewer resources into any kind of levy. But Charlemagne’s last-gaps effort is interesting for our purpose because it illustrates how the system was supposed to run, and thus how it might have run (in a very general sense) in the more distant past. In particular, he seems to have imagined the select levy as a force belonging to the king, to be administered by royal officials (as the nation-in-arms infantry armies of the centuries before had been), rather than as an infantry force splintered into various retinues. In practice, the fragmentation of Charlemagne’s empire under his heirs was fatal for any hopes of a centralized army, infantry or otherwise, and probably hastened the demise of the system.

Beneath the select levy there was also the expectation that, should danger reach a given region, all free men would be called upon to defend the local redoubts and fortified settlements. This group is sometimes called the general levy. As you might imagine, the general levy would be of lower average quality and cohesion. It might include the very young and very old – folks who ought not to be picked out for the select levy for that reason – and have a much lower standard of equipment. After all, unlike select levymen, who were being equipped at the expense, potentially, of many households, general levymen were individual farmers, grabbing whatever they could. In practice, the general levy might be expected to defend walls and little else – it was not a field force, but an emergency local defense militia, which might either enhance the select levy (and the retinues of the magnates) or at least hold out until that field army could arrive.

Now, I’ve used the Carolingian system here because it offers a clean break-point between the cavalry of the magnates (and their mounted retainers) and the infantry of the select and general levy, since at Helm’s Deep we see that clear division in the army of Rohan. But the Anglo-Saxon fyrd (dates esp. 899-1066) – for which, I may add, we seem to have quite a bit better evidence – functioned much the same way, save that generally speaking Anglo-Saxon magnates also fought on foot (though they rode to battle). The king had his own immediate household retinue (the huscarls, equivalent to the ‘knights of the king’s house’); the great magnates (the earls and later also thegns) too would have their own retinues of household troops. These troops viewed themselves as full-time fighters and used high-quality equipment – much like our magnates and riders above. But beneath them was the fyrdsystem, in which each community was assessed, based on land, wealth and population (tabulated in a unit called hides, much like the Carolingian mansus) – a number of men it had to supply to the army each year. This body – which was simply called the fyrd – made up the main infantry component of the army. Crucially, this allowed the Anglo-Saxon army to stay in the field year-round; it’s the clear analog to the select levy. Beneath it was the ‘general’ or great fyrd – the body of all able-bodied free (land holding) men who could be called to arms in the event of a local crisis, to stand on walls; the clear analog to the general levy. This system worked very well until it was effective extinguished by the Normans after William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings in 1066 (a battle whose result was by no means certain!).

Men of Rohan!

And those systems actually provide a fairly good rubric for understanding what we are looking at when we see the infantry of Rohan (I should be clear here that we also see dismounted riders, both the fancy fellows of the king’s retainers and other riders). The infantry in Théoden’s column, who look to be mostly adult (but not old) men, with fairly complete equipment are likely some portion of the select levy or fyrd equivalent (though they may also be dismounted retainers; they don’t wear the king’s livery, which makes me think select levymen). At the same time, it’s clear that even before Théoden’s refugee column (which arrives before even his riders) gets to the Hornburg that there is already an infantry force there (we see them opening the gates to admit Éowyn and her refugees). These – given that they are well equipped (most of them are wearing mail or scale, with round shields, long spears and helmets – this is quite heavy) and prime aged – are likely also elements of the select levy, serving garrison duty in an important fortress (or, as in the books, elements of a field army that has retreated there ahead of Théoden’s column).

Some of our Westfolder select levymen opening the gate. Éowyn has just arrived at the head of the column, so these men did not come from Edoras, but are local members of the select levy. Note how their equipment is of a higher standard than what we’ll see of the general levy in a moment. If Rohan’s army works along the same sort of Carolingian or Fyrd-style system, these men were probably each outfitted with several poorer households pooling resources to make sure they had basic equipment.

Book Note: We get a far more complete picture of the select levy in the books. Erkenbrand’s army, as we noted in Part I, seems to be primarily an infantry force when it makes its appearance at Helm’s Deep (TT, 172). Erkenbrand arrives with a thousand men, which seem to be the reconstituted remains of part of his force at the Isen (he can hardly have had time to muster these troops); the original force must have been quite a bit larger. Clearly some of his troops made it to Helm’s Gate, some were set by Gandalf to bury the dead at the Isen (TT, 184), others were slain in the battle (but fewer than were thought, TT, 184 – this bit of carelessness in running down Erkenbrand’s army also suggests that Saruman’s host dispersed to pillage at least to some extent, given that (TT, 157-8) they had a wargry force with which to pursue and yet failed to do so effectively over the open ground of the Westfold), all in addition to the thousand he arrived with at Helm’s Gate at the end. Since this was originally a field force, attempting to hold the Ford of the Isen, it falls to reason this was the select levy – which also explains why it is in the field through February and March. One of the advantages of such a select force was that (because you were only drawing a handful of men from each town or village) it could stay out in the field while the rest of the fellows not selected did the farming and working.

And we also see the emergency general levy (or great fyrd) equivalent in action as well. In the film, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas note as much, “farmers, ferriers, stableboys. These are no soldiers” and “most have seen too many winters, or too few” even as weapons are being handed out to the otherwise unarmed refugees. We even see the young and old men being marshaled out of the refugees for the defense. Gamling describes it as “every villager able to wield a sword” which is an apt description of the general levy. I think Peter Jackson overdoes it a bit – some of these boys look too young to even be combat useful – but often the age-line for such general emergencies was very young and besides he needs us to understand just how young in very short shots. But it is clear this is a general levy – anyone who can serve in the defense. It’s interesting to note that, as we see this done, it is mostly in an attitude of cooperation or at least resignation; no one is surprised by this order. That tells me that Rohan probably has a long tradition of these sorts of levies, such that all of these men knew there might come a time when they would be called on to serve in this capacity (although perhaps not against such fearful odds).

The general levy being gathered and armed with whatever weapons might be available.

Book Note: We see a bit more of these fellows in the book. The main difference is that none of them come from Edoras; rather they are the general levy of the Westfold, drawn together to defend the non-combatant populace of the region, much of which has fled inside of the stronghold of Helm’s Gate. Gamling – one of Erkenbrand’s retainers in the book, rather than one of Théoden’s – notes that even before Théoden arrives in Helm’s Gate, “Maybe we have a thousand fit to fight on foot…but most have seen too many winters, as I have, or too few, as my son’s son here” and then later notes, “Behind us in the caves of the Deep are three parts of the folk of Westfold, old and young, children and women” (TT, 159-160). So by the time Théoden arrives, the general levy has already been separated from the non-military population, fitted with whatever weapons were available and posted on the wall. Some good organization by Gamling there.

I particularly like that we see a clear contrast between the select levy fellows who are fairly well-armored and clearly of fighting age – even if they are on foot and their cloaks are somewhat worn – and the general levymen who are mostly quite old or quite young and who have body armor made of organic materials (mostly leather it looks like; it ought to be quite a lot of textile rather than so much leather, but that’s for later in the series). For a poor man going to war, a quilted textile defense consisting of multiple layers of fabric quilted together – as a gambeson or aketon – might be the only sort of body-defense they could afford, especially on short notice. And, as we’ve discussed, it was quite a lot better than nothing, even if its protection fell far short of mail.

An older man and a younger man of the general levy. We’ll touch on a lot of the arms and armor in this sequence in a later post entirely dedicated to the topic. But for now, I want to note that while I think this is a pretty poor job of depicting what ought to be a gambeson (it doesn’t look very much like true hardened leather armor, cuir bouilli, which is such a commonly confused topic, I have no doubt I’ll discuss it in depth on its own one day), but I do like that the militia of the general levy is clearly set apart even from the infantry of the select levy.
But I have one complaint: PUT ON A DAMN HELMET.

Normally, we would expect a professional force, like the Uruks, to handily dispose of a levy force like this. A solid, well-organized and experienced professional force would be far more cohesive and capable of executing more complex tactics; at the same time, the levy force likely knows this, which may intimidate them and damage their morale. But there are a few very important weights on the scales. The first – that the Uruks are not a well organized or experienced professional force – we have already discussed. Like many armies even today, the Uruks have all of the trappings of a professional force with none of the reality of it, and perform about as one would expect. But why do the Rohirrim – especially the select and general levies – perform so well? This is the other part of the equation.

The key is cohesion – especially socially derived cohesion. We’ve discussed this concept here before (and will do so again) because it is so important for understanding why some militaries – especially pre-modern armies that engage in shock combat – perform so much better than you would expect given their relative levels of numbers, skill, training or equipment. Cohesion is a blanket term for the psychological forces which hold soldiers in the line under the stress of combat. These are often very different from the motivations that bring a soldier to the field (if you want a good example of how these motivations can differ, check out J. M. McPherson, For Cause & Comrades (1997) on motivation in the American Civil War). The thing that gets you to the battle may not be the thing that holds you in the line when the actual terror of battle takes hold. In particular, while a cause may get you to the battle, by and large it is the fear of shame, either before comrades or close social contacts (friends, family, neighbors), or the desire to protect those same people which keeps soldiers in the line under extreme stress.

Cohesion is so important because morale, not lethality, is typically the deciding factor in pre-modern warfare (and also, as an aside, in modern warfare too). Armies generally do not win by exterminating the enemy, but by making the enemy stop fighting, give up and run away. Consequently, an army that can better resist running away – even if it is less lethal (perhaps because its levymen are less well-trained on their weapons, or less well-armored) – is likely to win, except in cases where the technological or performance shear is really dramatic (and this is not one of those cases; for an example of that kind of very sharp technological/organizational overmatch, see for instance, J.F. Guilmartin, “The Cutting Edge: An Analysis of the Spanish Invasion and Overthrow of the Inca Empire, 1532-1539” in Transatlantic Encounters, eds. K.J. Andrien and R. Adorno (1991)).

Some Men of Rohan, preparing to defend the walls. This looks like a mix of the different troop types we’ve seen, with Théoden surrounded by his guard, with more select levymen up front, and a few of the general levy off to the sides. In practice, you’d want to focus the dismounted riders and select levy – with their heavier armor and better cohesion – at the most difficult or important points, like above the gates.

We’ve already noted how the Uruk army has not built the structures necessary to sustain a professional army’s cohesion – and of course, neither have the Rohirrim. But that is because Rohan’s military system draws that same cohesive force from civilian (or at least, peace time) social structures. It does not need to painstakingly construct that cohesion through drill because it derives cohesion from the preexisting, peacetime relationships among its members. And – just as this army is segmented into several parts (the riders, the select levy and the general levy) – it draws on different cohesive forces.

For the riders, the cohesive element is almost certainly the same sort of horizontal and vertical aristocratic bonds that held together medieval knightly conroi in battle. These men – as the word conroi we introduced last time implies – trained together and fundamentally lived together. The men next to them on horses were their peers who would judge them (and judge them harshly) for their bravery or cowardice.. Théoden (in the books; the film gives an abbreviated version of this line to Éomer) sums it up neatly, “Yet, though you fight upon an alien field, the glory that you reap there shall be your own forever. Oaths ye have taken: now fulfill them all, to lord and land and league of friendship!” Those bonds – glory, reputation, oaths and friendship and fealty, the ties from one aristocrat to another – are what hold the retinues of the magnates together. And with a relatively small aristocracy, no rider of Rohan can have any doubt that should they show cowardice, it will be noticed and noted by their friends and family members who ride next to them.

But what of the common soldiers? Whereas Théoden and Éomer think about reputation and glory in terms of deeds fit for singing minstrels, the common soldier cannot imagine his individual actions to be committed to cultural memory in this way. What holds the select and general levy together? Here, I’d argue, we see a similar cohesive principle to that which holds many citizen militia forces – like Greek hoplite armies – together (and which held 8th century Frankish infantry armies together at battles like Tours (732)). The units of the select levy, or the fyrd (and later medieval militias as well) would be drawn up from towns and villages, organized by geographic units. Men would stand in the line next to their neighbors and family, typically under the leadership of the leading men of their towns and villages. Peacetime magistrates, guildmasters, village chiefs and headmen, or just bigger local landowners often serve as the commanders of these, frequently irregularly sized, often impromptu units (if you want to see this kind of social bonding later in the European Middle Ages, check out L. Crombie, Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders: 1300-1500 (2016); Flanders was one of the relatively few places that continued to produce good infantry in this period and the high degree of social investment obvious in these guilds shows why and how Flanders continued to produce high quality infantry).

Marshaled together under the leadership of their own local leaders and organized along local and regional lines, the social pressure not to let your friends and family down was extremely powerful. In a touching moment from the books that makes it perfectly on to the big screen, Merry sums up the pressure this creates, “as all my friends have gone to the battle, I should be ashamed to stay behind” (RotK, 81). To break from the line, leaving behind your male family members, your friends, your neighbors to face peril alone – few could endure that shame. And perhaps the one thing humans fear more than death is shame. At the same time, there is the positive motivation too – by staying in the line, you are clearly, directly protecting your friends (who may well be standing next to you, in front of you, or behind you). There was also little problem following orders – your guildmaster or local magistrate gave you directives in peacetime, now the same fellow (or a close relative or friend of his) is giving you orders in wartime; following them without complaint seems natural and right. It is an extension of the peacetime hierarchy, so it does not require the creation of an entirely new, parallel wartime hierarchy (nor does it necessarily require the sometimes brutal use of corporal discipline pre-modern professional armies often did).

This image isn’t here for any particular reason, save that when – looking for good captures of Éomer’s cavalry company, I noticed that in this short cut when he is talking to Aragorn, his sword is clearly sliding right out of its scabbard. This is not a problem that should occur with a proper sword-suspension, which he evidently does not have. Combine this with the heroic work of the Rohirrim Propmasters, and Éomer just has so much trouble keeping his weapons!

Now I should note – looking forward, a bit, in real world chronology – that this kind of cohesion depends on the value that society places on this kind of soldiering. Take that same levy out on the field, but tell them they are much lesser and that their service doesn’t matter and the cohesive principle begins to fail. If the soldier in the line’s social value and reputation isn’t tied to his performance in the line, why risk anything? If there is no honor in standing the line because you are just a peasant, then there is far less disgrace in running away – because you are just a peasant and have no part in this nobles’ war! And if the battle is really supposed to be decided by the clash of heavy cavalry, of which the infantry takes little or no part, then it isn’t really me letting my neighbor down, is it if I run when it looks like our cavalry is losing. And there we see the roots of the decline of this system: it only works so long as the society using it sets great store on their infantry. Even by the time of Charlemagne, the Carolingian system was beginning to fray (though its Anglo-Saxon cousin, the fyrd, would have to be forcibly dismantled by the Normans), as the mounted aristocrats rose in social (note: not battlefield) importance and thus focused more resources and prestige on their own place on the battlefield, and less on the infantry. Charlemagne’s infantry still had plenty of fight left in them, but the value placed on them – and by and large their performance – would diminish, decade on decade afterwards.

How that process of infantry-decline proceeds is a topic for another series, but I want to note now that I suspect Théoden’s Rohan is already well on its way down that path. If you told me that the battle at Helm’s Deep would be the last great showing of the levies (who cannot come to Minas Tirith because they cannot move as fast as the cavalry) and that by the end of the reign of Éomer, Rohan’s levy infantry was mostly unreliable – or at least thought to be so by the riders who ruled the state and determined exactly which sort of fighting resources would be allocated to – I’d find that readily believable (with dismounted riders taking its place in the field when you needed good infantry). The one countervailing tendency I could see is that the success of Gondor’s heavy-infantry centered warfare style might spur Rohirrim imitation. But this too could lead to infantry decline, with Rohan’s kings trying to replace their effective (but low prestige) select levies with knock-off Gondorian-style heavy infantry, resulting in a less effective military overall (the way efforts at imitating European military systems in the early-modern and modern period sometimes seems to weaken rather than strengthen armies, especially where European military institutions melded poorly with local social institutions).

The Elves

And then the elves arrive and we reach one of Peter Jackson’s alterations to the source material that, so far as I can tell, very few people like very much.

Sigh. It was going so well Haldir. We were almost through an entire essay without me ragging on Peter Jackson. And then you had to show up and ruin it.

I assume the storytelling purpose of having the elves show up is to be able to show the free peoples of Middle Earth banding together on-screen. I think this is a product of the shift from written language to film language: in the books, the armies fade into the background a bit more, so Gimli and Legolas can more easily fill in the space as ‘representatives’ of their people. We read Gimli and Legolas fighting and think “Oh yeah, the Elves and Dwarves are in this fight too!” And we get lines to the point – such as when Gimli wishes for a force of dwarves and Legolas reminds him that neither of their people have need to ride to war, because the war is already heading to their homes (a line that makes it into the films). And for pedants like me, the appendices confirm in fact that the War of the Ring breaks out almost simultaneously all over Middle Earth – the war comes to Elves, Men and Dwarves almost everywhere. Lothlorien falls under assault on March 11th, the Mirkwood Elves on the 15th, and war comes to Dale on the 17th, with the Men of Dale and the Dwarves forced to hold out in the lonely mountain (Dáin Ironfoot, who you will remember from The Hobbit, falls in this battle).

For the film, I think there was a feeling that this action needed to be ‘on screen’ but honestly, I think that was mistaken. I suspect the audience could have understood well enough with just a few lines that the reason that the Elves and Dwarves weren’t riding over the hills was that they were busy fighting their own wars against the same enemy. If I’d have made any change, it might have been to insert some clearer reference to the fighting around Lothlorien (perhaps move it up in the timeline) to make clear that one reason that Rohan can fight Saruman and then aid Gondor is that the Ents and the elves protect Rohan’s northern flank, taking the brunt of the Moria orcs so that Théoden is free to help Minas Tirith confront Mordor directly.

The other purpose of this bit, of course, is to make Théoden wrong about something else, because Peter Jackson has inserted a subplot of Théoden needing to be told how to go about doing kingship by Aragorn. We’ll deal with that entire idea a few posts down the line, but I do not consider it an improvement to the source material. Most of Jackson’s efforts to add more conflict don’t really hold up very well.

As it stands, the arrival of the Lothlorien elves produces a really baffling situation from an operational perspective. First, these are clearly elves from Lothlorien: we met their leader, Haldir, as a captain of Lothlorien’s guards in The Fellowship of the Ring. And yet – for reasons relating to Aragorn and Arwen’s plot – he presents himself as being from Elrond, which makes about no sense at all. Peter Jackson likes to play with the mightier elves in particular (but also the wizards sometimes) being able to communicate at great distances, but I think that while it is clear that ‘the wise’ often see much, they cannot actually telepathically communicate with each other this way. If they could, what would be the point of the Council of Elrond at Rivendell, or Gandalf’s being called away to the White Council in The Hobbit? Moreover, it’s not obvious to me that Elrond can task elves from Lorien to do anything; the elves haven’t had a unified leader since the death of Gil-galad. The various elven leaders are not part of a single unified elven nation, something that should be perfectly obvious to anyone who has read The Hobbit and contrasted the behavior of Elrond with that of the Mirkwood elves.

Our operational map of the movie’s version of the Helm’s Deep campaign, with Haldir’s absolutely absurd long distance sprint to Rohan marked. The worst part is that the film makes fairly clear that Elrond only contacts Lorien after the wargry battle, so these fellows ran all that way in an afternoon.

Moreover, these Lothlorien infantry would have had very little time to get from Lorien to Helm’s Deep, over some difficult territory. They would have had to march south, either through Fangorn or through the thinly populated Wold; both are logistics nightmares. And they’d have to ford at least two major tributaries of the Anduin (the Limlight and the Entwash). And they’d have, at best, mere days to do that, on foot, with minimal baggage. The distance is about 200 miles, which ought to require about a month to march through and significant resupply (either through depots or by foraging, although there isn’t much of a population to forage from) along the way. Armies do not move like this.

That said, the arrival of Haldir and his elves do let me discuss the one final component we might expect in the sort of army Rohan has: auxiliary forces. The word ‘auxiliaries’ in this sense generally means troops fighting in an army who are foreign to it, a catch-all that can include indigenous colonial forces recruited into the armies of their overlords, mercenaries hired from abroad, sometimes domestic irregular forces and – as in this case – foreign allied forces serving within the army of their ally. The word has its origin in Latin; the auxilia (‘helpers,’ from auxilium, ‘aid’ ‘help’); the auxilia in the army of the Roman Empire were units composed of non-Roman citizens (whereas the legions, at least in theory, were citizen-soldiers) and were a crucial part of the Roman army. We will absolutely talk about the auxilia in more depth in the future on this blog; they deserve their own series.

“We come to honor that allegiance.” I hate this line, it drives me nuts every time. They don’t have allegiance, they have an alliance. These words are not synonyms! You owe allegiance to a superior, and something tells me that Galadriel does not consider Théoden her superior. Jackson does pretty excellent work matching the style and tone of Tolkien’s job for the most part, but you can tell he sometimes struggles with it, and this is one of the worse examples.

Auxiliary forces were very common in pre-modern armies of almost all kinds. Looking at the organization above, you can see part of the reason why: the socially embedded structure of Rohan’s army is great at furnishing a few basic kinds of troops – heavy cavalry, heavy infantry and perhaps a handful of archers furnished by communities that do a lot of hunting. But what if you need some other kind of fighting force? Perhaps something that has to be socially embedded but in a different sort of society (like horse archers) or something that requires a degree of professionalism your social structure lacks (like pike-squares or crossbows). Or maybe you simply need to draw on a manpower source that doesn’t fit into your regular army (like subordinated peoples in an empire). You look to auxiliaries.

While the Roman auxilia were generally recruited from within the empire (in contrast to the later foederati who came from beyond it), medieval auxiliaries could come from a bewildering array of places. They might simply be the forces of an allied, independent ruler fighting along with you, in which case the auxiliary forces, while organizationally distinct, might be very much like your core army. They might also be town militia, especially in situations where major towns were semi-independent enclaves (like medieval Flanders); a town might supply skilled archers, crossbowmen and heavy infantry that the rural levies available to the landed aristocracy do not. Those town militias often arrived with their own leaders and organizational structure and expected to be employed as a single unit on the battlefield. And, of course, there are foreign mercenaries of all sorts – especially those that provide some sort of foreign fighting style that is locally lacking (high and late medieval French armies liked Italian crossbowmen and later Swiss pikes, for instance, to supplement the fearsome French cavalry). While often mercenaries would be recruited in smaller groups, a large mercenary company might function effectively as an army within the army.

Now the organization system Rohan has – a retinue of retinues with a levy beneath it – does not have an abundance of officers to organize these auxiliaries and even if it did, the entire point of recruiting these fellows is that they do a kind of warfare the core army doesn’t, so the core army’s leaders probably don’t have the right skills (often the issue is language skills – you are relying on the auxiliary force’s bilingual leaders – often drawn from a bilingual social elite – to translate for their soldiers). So these auxiliary units tend to be organized under their own leaders, rather than being completely integrated into the army’s organization more generally. So the idea that Haldir and his elves (and for some inexplicable reason, Aragorn) might have effectively separate command structures from Théoden actually makes a lot of sense, as does the decision to deploy the two armies separately, with the elves holding the Deeping Wall and the Deep, and the men of Rohan holding the Hornburg. Trying to intermix the two armies may sound tempting, but it is likely to make a mess of things – they may not speak the same language and they certainly have not trained to fight together. And, as an aside, the decision to put auxiliary forces in necessary but particularly exposed positions, as here, is also a tried a true tactic: never risk your own men when you can risk the mercenaries instead (as with the crossbowmen at Crécy, for instance).

(Note that this is not always the case. The Roman auxilia were actually quite tightly tied to the organization of a Roman army, and had Roman officers. it’s quite clear that there was concern among the Romans that the auxilia not be in a position to challenge the legions, despite being (by 14 A.D.) roughly equal in numbers. Auxilia were broken into smaller units and kept more dispersed, in part because they often filled light infantry and cavalry roles which benefited from that dispersal, but also in part it seems, to make an auxilia mutiny difficult. At the same time, the legions remained the key heavy infantry force, giving the citizen-Roman forces an escalation dominance advantage against their auxilia support-units; while the legions needed the lighter and faster auxilia forces to function at full effect, in a stand-up fight between the two, the advantage would be to the heavier legions. That said, Roman auxilia units filled almost every battlefield role: archers, light and heavy infantry, light, heavy and missile cavalry and so on. For more on the auxilia, see I. Hayes, Blood of the Provinces (2013))

Haldir commanding his elves. I actually like that they deploy as a distinct, separate unit, in their own formations, under their own commanders, rather than being mixed into the general formation of the Rohirrim.
On the flipside: no pre-modern army was ever this uniformly equipped. Not even professional forces like the legions of the Roman Empire. The impression of uniformity we sometimes get, from things like the Column of Trajan (Romans) or the Terracotta Army (China) are propaganda; archaeology makes it abundantly clear there was still a lot of variety in equipment.

Consequently, that means that auxiliary units may operate on different cohesive principles than their parent army. If the auxiliaries are mercenaries, that may mean a unit operating under a professional ethos within a non-professional army (something that can produce nasty clashes of organizational culture…as with the crossbowmen at Crécy, for instance). Alternately, a professional army may well be using auxiliary units organized through tribal loyalty or personal leadership (including units organized as retinues, like we discussed above). Typically, so long as the leaders of those auxiliary units remain part of the organizational structure (so that, for instance, the chieftain of the tribe is also the leader of its militia or – as here – the captain of a group of effectively professional troops remains in command), the cohesion of the auxiliary force may function effectively on a completely different principle than the main force. As appears to be the case here, with an effectively professional elven auxiliary force supporting Rohan’s levies.

Conclusions

At the center of all of this – both our discussion here and last week with the host of Saruman – is the concept of cohesion. We’re going to return to this concept a bit later in the series when we discuss morale, but I want to note here that the effectiveness of unit cohesion is not a simple ‘given’ based on how these units are organized. For Théoden to harness the cohesive elements holding his army together, there are things he must do: he has to act the part of a king, he has to be present at the battle, he has to value and privilege the local leaders and units that hold his levy and his retinues together. Likewise, if Saruman wants whatever shred of cohesion his army has to hold together, he has steps to take too; given that he has made his Uruks and the Dunlendings swear to serve him personally, the first step here would be to actually be present.

But if this organizational comparison should bring out one thing, it is this: there is more than one way to organize an effective army. Even had it been effectively organized, Saruman’s host was never likely to look very much like Théoden’s army. The system of army organization which works for one society may not work for another because armies always replicate their social institutions on the battlefield. Divorcing an organizational systems from the social contexts, relationships and values which are its foundation often drain away its effectiveness. History is replete with examples of ‘knock-off’ versions of effective military institutions, transplanted into cultures where they just didn’t quite work and often under-performed indigenous systems of military organization.

Finally, I think this comparison is handy because it shows how a non-professional army might actually be a superior battlefield force to a professional army. In the decades since the Second World War, nearly all of the armies of the wealthiest countries have professionalized. This is not uncommon for long periods of relative peace where major conflicts are confined to ‘frontier’ wars. But that professionalization – and the frequent valorization of it – often leaves the impression that professional armies are just better somehow. And it is certainly true that the very best professional armies are often very good at what they do. A professional ethos can be an extremely powerful cohesive principle, further enhanced by the extensive training that professionalization provides.

And yet professional armies do not always win. Indeed, the Romans spent the first five decades or so of the second century B.C. using their non-professional citizen-militia army to absolutely mop the floor with the professional armies of the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean (and also beat Carthage’s largely mercenary armies as well). The disciplined, highly effective armies of 18th century Europe spent much of the early 19th century being flooded out of existence by the highly motivated armies of the French revolution created by the levée en masse until the remaining powers of Europe were forced to respond with mass-armies of their own. Britain’s small professional army – the ‘Old Contemptibles’ – for all of their considerable skill and professionalism, were simply too few to stop the German mass-mobilization in 1914, without the aid of a similarly mass-mobilized French army.

Military organization is more than just a “professional – good; militia – bad” dichotomy. Cohesion matters. How the army slots into existing social structures, the value placed on service and what kinds of service matters. No army – not even a fully professional one – can (or should!) ever be fully divorced from its society.

We’ll talk more cohesion a bit later in this series, but I think I have now kept you all from the clashing of swords and storming of walls for long enough. Next week, we look at the tactics and equipment of the assault and I explain why I think Saruman was badly underprepared for this.

90 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part IV: Men of Rohan

  1. Possible erratum: “They might also be town militia, especially in situations where major towers were semi-independent enclaves (like medieval Flanders)” – I think you mean “major towns”, not “major towers” here.

    Assuming that the Rohirrim are meant to represent cavalry from around the time of the Battle of Hastings, would surcoats have been in use at the time in telling vassals and retinues apart? Did aristocrats at this time have their coats of arms painted on their shields, or was that from a later time?

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    1. Arrayed around Théoden are his personal guard; they wait at him in his court and ride with him in battle.
      Wait at him or wait on him?

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    2. “assault on the Hornbrug” -> “Hornburg”
      “In the general muster of the Rohirrim” -> “The general muster”
      “Charlemagne’s last-gaps effort” -> “last-gasp”
      “how the system was thought to supposed to run” -> “thought to be”
      “body of all able-bodies free” -> “able-bodied”
      “as we noted in the Part I” -> “in Part I”
      “it falls to reason” – do you mean the rather more common “stands to reason”?
      “defend the non-combatent populace” -> “non-combatant”
      “committed to cultural memory this what” -> “this way”
      “this nobles war” -> ” nobles’ ”
      “Dáin Ironfoot, who you will remember from The Hobbit falls in this battle” -> “The Hobbit, falls”
      “Likewise, is Saruman wants” -> “if Saruman”

      Is there a format that would be easier for you?

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      1. No, this format is great – I can use the find feature to rapidly navigate to the problems and fix them.

        I actually did intend the rarer “it falls to reason.” I prefer it; reason metaphorically storms the problem, which falls. It isn’t a terribly uncommon usage; I see it a fair bit in academic writing.

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    3. Fixed!

      Also, surcoats over mail are about a half-century later than Hastings, as I follow such things (though this is outside of my strict area of specialty, so my dating may not be precise).

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      1. Thank you! One more point – if I understand you correctly, lower-ranking aristocrats wouldn’t always have been able to afford expensive livery for their retinue – so how would those retinues distinguish each other apart? Heraldic devices painted on their shields?

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  2. At least in the books, another thing Rohan has going for it, on the ‘cohesion’ front, seems to me to be the reputation of the Hornburg & Helm’s Deep. It is a fortress of which it is said ‘no foe has ever taken the Hornburg, if men defended it’ (Two Towers, ‘Helm’s Deep’), and at least according to the appendices, it’s seen quite a bit of action. Oh a psychological front, that should count for something for the defenders, it seems to me.

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  3. > often the issue is language skills – you are relying on the auxiliary force’s bilingual leaders – often drawn from a bilingual social elite – to translate for their soldiers

    It’s explicitly confirmed in Fellowship that Haldir is one of the few Lothlorien elves to speak the common tongue, so that would be an issue here.

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    1. It was a great advantage in WWII that the US and the UK both spoke English, though there was that incident about “tabling.”

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      1. I think it was Somerset Maugham who described Britain and America as two great nations separated by a common language.

        A reputed point of friction was that the British labelled equipment that was out of service as “U/S” for “unserviceable,” which annoyed many Americans.

        On a more serious note, US Army leadership wanted the British to declare restaurants, pubs, etc as “whites only,” to maintain US (regional) racial segregation policies.

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  4. Couple of points:

    Jut to jump on Peter Jackson a bit more, the one thing that really pissed me off in the Two Towers was the depiction of the decision of the ents to go war. In the books its argued through in their parliament (the ent-moot), and is a considered decision of the whole people. It may be their doom, but they will aid the free peoples even so. In the film it’s at best an emotional stampede driven by the sight of the destruction wrought by Saruman, at worst a cheap trick – a parallel to Bush II’s Iraq War flim-flam. It’s a major ethical dissservice.

    On auxiliaries, correct me if I am wrong, but I think even early Empire auxiliaries were sometimes drawn from outside the empire – cf Arminius’ Batavii. A draft of young men for service was a usual demand on tributary tribes.

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    1. “In the film it’s at best an emotional stampede driven by the sight of the destruction wrought by Saruman, at worst a cheap trick – a parallel to Bush II’s Iraq War flim-flam.”

      Yeah, this vibe makes it almost impossible for me to go back to watch the film of TTT these days. It’s just full of little deviations from the source material that parallel the pro-War rhetoric of the time. Small wonder that Tolkien is so beloved by neo-Nazi types, despite the fact that he would have hated their guts.

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  5. “the common soldier cannot imagine his individual actions to be committed to cultural memory this what”

    I would dispute that implication, gossip and long-standing stories in villages and small towns is legendary even today.

    And in past, with much more limited mobility and larger importance of personal reputation? Maybe it would be much lower-scale memory but still ruining reputation would be problematic.

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    1. I know it’s fiction, but the St Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V is all about reputation gained by even the lowliest infantryman. These are the last few lines. It’s definitely better when proclaimed by Laurence Olivier.

      “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
      Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
      This day shall gentle his condition:
      And gentlemen in England now a-bed
      Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
      And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
      That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

      —-
      SCENE III. The English camp. [Online]. Available: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/henryv/henryv.4.3.html. [Accessed: 26-May-2020].

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      1. So – yes, he says that. But the play as a whole is a lot more ambiguous. Note the end of Act 4, Scene 8, where Henry actually reads the report of his losses and gives them as:

        Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
        Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
        None else of name; and of all other men
        But five and twenty. O God, thy arm was here;

        Fine speeches are all well and good, but when it comes to it, those common men are reduced to “None else of name…but five and twenty.” I don’t know that I entirely agree with his take, but Kyle Kallgren brings this out very strongly his his discussion of the chances Laurence Olivier made to the text and the meaning of the original text here: https://youtu.be/76_Q9ruJfrE . He gets to this very point around 12 minutes into the video.

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  6. “The distance is about 200 miles, which ought to require about a month to march through and significant resupply”

    I would at least note that for Elves superhuman endurance, toughness is standard and usual.

    And note lembas-powered pursuit of Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas

    Often in their hearts they thanked the Lady of Lurien for the gift of lembas, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran. All day the track of their enemies led straight on

    and that gave Gimli and Aragorn power to go

    This deed of the three friends should be sung in many a hall. Forty leagues and five you have measured ere the fourth day is ended!

    So they made 225km on foot in four days (if I am converting units right). And Legolas was limited by them!

    200 miles (67 leagues) would be at this rate done in just 13 days.

    And likely Elves could go even faster! See:

    The sun was sinking when at last they drew near to the end of the line of downs. For many hours they had marched without rest. They were going slowly now, and Gimli’s back was bent. Stone-hard are the Dwarves in labour or journey, but this endless chase began to tell on him, as all hope failed in his heart. Aragorn walked behind him, grim and silent, stooping now and again to scan some print or mark upon the ground. Only Legolas still stepped as lightly as ever, his feet hardly seeming to press the grass. leaving no footprints as he passed; but in the waybread of the Elves he found all the sustenance that he needed, and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called
    by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.

    Even for mortal hobbits:

    The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

    Exact numbers are not given, but lembas are ridiculously efficient. Single “very thin cake” is enough for full day of a march. It is also outright stated as

    lembas is more strengthening than any food made by Men, than cram, by all accounts.’

    and everything in text supports that.

    As further note, elves do not require sleep (or require extremely limited amount of it). Not sure about marching impact, but note little bits like Legolas during passage of snow-covered mountains.

    the Elf had no boots, but wore only light shoes, as he always did, and his feet made little imprint in the
    snow.

    And note that three striders made their quest even with opposing

    will that lends speed to our foes and sets an unseen barrier before us: a weariness that is in the heart more than in the limb.

    I am not claiming that movies did right think here, but elves are superhuman by default. The elite soldiers may be completely absurd. And lembas are explicitly amazing and may change required logistics.

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    1. “200 miles = 1 month marching time” assumes a large unit of human soldiers that camp each night and break camp and form up each morning. This consumes a lot of time – I was impressed by how much time with the earlier article on the logistics of marching forces around Westeros.

      If the elves didn’t have to camp each night (or perhaps only every second night or something – let’s not get carried away) then a lot of this organizational time disappears.

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      1. Plus, of course, the elvish force is a very small one — a few hundred, it looks like in the film — and such forces can move pretty quickly anyway, for the reasons laid out in the “How quickly do armies march?” post.

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      2. but in the waybread of the Elves he found all the sustenance that he needed, and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.

        So sleeping and camping can be skipped, possibly achieving 24h/day march times!

        So Elves may sleep while walking. Note that it is not completely absurd, IIRC there are birds capable of sleeping in flight (it was described as sleeping with part of a brain in some popscience article).

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      3. The elves may not have to camp at all, since they don’t seem to need to sleep, but can keep walking while in a state of meditation. (They do have the ability to sleep, since the Mirkwood guards go to sleep when they get drunk, in The Hobbit, but it seems like normally they can do something like dolphins and some birds, only sleeping with half their brain at a time.)

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    2. Forest of Fangorn is on the direct line of travel between Lórien and Helm’s Deep as far as I can see from the map in the copy of The Two Towers I have open at the moment. Even if Peter Jackson elves can sleep-run, in full armour, whilst carrying weapons, they’re detouring around that forest to my mind, because you cannot afford not to be alert in woodlands since it’s much too easy to put a foot wrong even without the possibility that some of the trees themselves (the huorns) may be trying to kill you if there aren’t any ents around to shepherd them.
      I think there comes a point where it’s necessary to shrug and say ‘Peter Jackson fudged the distances and travel-times in the name of cinematic spectacle.’ (I remember getting the distinct impression at one point watching the films that he had moved Barad-dûr in the Mordor scenes in the name of cinema too, as it looked to be the wrong side of Mount Doom to me from where Frodo and Sam were looking across Mordor at one point.)

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    3. Yeah, it really can’t be stressed enough that elves are really, really not human, and not even really bound by the laws of real world physics in a number of ways. Their physical bodies are utterly subordinate to their spirits, which are permanently bound to the world in a way that those of humans are not. They don’t age physically and aren’t subject to disease. Their equipment is either sufficiently advanced technology or straight-up magic. The exact workings of their economy are opaque, but it seems in some respects almost post-scarcity. The individuals in a fighting unit have presumably for the most part lived together for at least hundreds and in many cases *thousands* of years, and fought together in multiple wars; they are also psychically connected and aware that they will be offered the chance to be physically re-embodied if killed, which all presumably adds up to a level of cohesion completely unheard of in any real force. I’m not sure what the operational capabilities of a late Third Age elven army are, but I am certain they can’t be usefully approximated by real world humans of any time or place.

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  7. I think you might be interested to look at the Swedish allotment system. They had never been financially able to go for full feudalism, and had retained the old Germanic levy system. The allotment ststem was, in essence, the Carolingian select levy: every three or four houses (Swedish: rod) equipped an infantryman who was paid by the rote in nature: the soldier received a cottage and fields large enough for survival. Sometimes, the system also required supernumerary soldiers, who would work as farm hands during peace time. And larger farms were able to get a tax rebate by equipping a cavalryman. Every län equipped a regiment. The Swedes used the system until 1901’s, and in the Russian-conquered Finland, the system was used until 1868. The last “allotted” soldier drilled regularly until 1971.

    This was really an interesting system, because also the NCOs and officers received their pay in nature: every officer had a farm, the size of the fields and the residential house corresponding the rank. (A hall and two chambers for a lieutenant, two large rooms and two chambers for a captain, six rooms for a colonel.) This transferred the risk of bad crop years from the crown to the individual military persons at all levels. The military system was really integrated in the social system: most moderately well-off private farmhouses followed the prototype drawing of a captain’s house for two centuries.

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  8. Just two comments.
    First on the use, or refusal, of a professional army.

    I think one of the main argument for a professional army has alway be that, beiing at least partially cut off from it’s original society these kind of armies could be used against it.
    We know that for most of history leader had as much problem ruling there own contry than warring wich each other. Perhaps even more in the feodal system. On the other hand politicians have often been wary of some kind of military coup made by a professional military. As in some way Denethor is wary of a Rohirim backed Aragorn usurping his throne.

    Then on the cohesion of the Rohirim militia.
    i would say that beeing literaly back to the wall should help Rohan’s army here. Should they loose this battle there will be no coming back for anybody. No more king, no more kingdom, and the orc will eat any survivor of the battle.
    Thats part of the problem with the kind of total war Saruman and Sauron indulge in.

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    1. On professional armies: One of these days, when I am rather more drunk than I am now, we will talk about my views on the United States’ All-Volunteer Force. For now, let’s say that the potential for a professional army to subvert a republic has long been on my mind as a subject of concern (even though it is also clear that it was a concern that the architects of the all-volunteer force sought to address).

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      1. Don’t get drunk over that question. I think it’s rather horrifying that the current all-volunteer force seems more politicized than the conscript-based force of the 1950s and 1960s ever was, possibly as some politicians seem to think that the government’s sole reason for being is to support the military. Even the nascent states which existed during the early medieval era knew that their role was more than to just support the army.

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      2. I can see why a self selected force representing only some elements of society could become a problem. The US has a very strong tradition of civilian control over the military, strong enough to prevent attempted take overs during our civil war. But a disconnect between the people who govern and the people who fight could definitely lead to trouble.

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    2. Yes, I thought of that too, when you mentioned that the men in the levy are protecting the lives of their family and friends – and earlier you quoted that part that in the caves of the Deep the women and children are hiding – so a very good reason to fight, no matter glory.

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  9. A question about auxiliaries, like Rome’s: would these be akin to the Indian Army of the British Raj or the “native” troops, such as the Senegalese and Tunisian units of the French Army?

    I’ve not read the books with the intent of analysis (so I wasn’t doing so with multiple notebooks and index cards), but it would seem that the levies or militia of the Rohirrim would be much better in border areas, with recent history of conflict. Certainly, this was true of the militias in the colonies of British North America, where the New England (the oldest military units in the US Army or National Guard are both from Massachusetts) and New York militias, which faced direct combat in the North American branch of the Seven Years’ War, were reportedly better equipped and more skilled than the militias which were far from this type of fighting.

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    1. Yes, ‘Sepoy’ or Gurkha troops are a sort of auxiliary, though such colonial units are not the only kind (but they are a very common kind).

      And you’re right that the quality of militia forces is often closely tied to how often they’re likely to have been needed. We see that with a lot of empires: defense forces on the frontier are often a hard-shell, with under-prepared defenses in the interior representing a vulnerable core.

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  10. Great article as usual, but I do feel a need to disagree with this statement

    “I assume the storytelling purpose of having the elves show up is to be able to show the free peoples of Middle Earth banding together on-screen. I think this is a product of the shift from written language to film language: in the books, the armies fade into the background a bit more, so Gimli and Legolas can more easily fill in the space as ‘representatives’ of their people.”

    One of the things that gets emphasized in the books is that by and large, the free peoples DIDN’T band together, or present much of a united front. Rohan is unique of an actual nation’s forces going somewhere away from their backyard to go fight the forces of evil, (I suppose you have the rangers of the north as well, but they’re weird). Pretty much everyone else, they fight Sauron’s forces because they themselves are attacked, and a lot of the elves at least are deciding that the game isn’t worth the candle and just leaving west for Valinor.

    Even Legolas and Gimli’s participation in the battle is less about their contribution to the greater cause of fighting Suaron and more about their personal rivalry, now largely softened into a game, in making sure each one outperforms the other.

    But back to the original point, I don’t think it’s primarily an issue of shifting from the books to a movie format, except perhaps very incidentally as how PJ’s movie training has him look at a story. Rather, the difference is one of focus. Peter Jackson’s movies are primarily about the story of the War of the Ring. How the Free Peoples get together and fight Sauron is the primary narrative purpose. Concerning the books, I would however argue that while the War of the Ring is a huge subplot, it is in fact a subplot to the main plot of concerning the Hobbits and their rise to prominence despite how unlikely that would seem. That’s why, for instance, so much of the books is narrated from a hobbits-eye point of view, and often large sections of the text are unrevealed to the reader until a hobbit finds out about them. It’s why you have things like Tom Bombadil (You’re not in proverbial Kansas anymore), and the Scouring of the Shire, both of which are absent from the movies. It’s why the Hobbit trilogy had that extended digression to the assault on Dol Guldur, sometjing only barely mentioned in the novel, and why the movie version of The Hobbit is framed as an extended narrative of “how Bilbo got the ring and by extension how we got to here”.

    Now why exactly that focus shift happened is a bit beyond my speculative abilities, but you could have easily seen a book analogue with the differing, more epic primary focus. I really don’t think it’s about converting them to films per se.

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    1. Tolkien used the conceit of the book being a translation of the book started by Bilbo and extended by Frodo, so it would necessarily be a hobbit’s eye view (somewhat lower than a human’s…)

      Jackson got a half billion dollars with a three film deal. This requires a certain epic scope , both to draw the audience to pay that back and also so the investors think they got their money’s worth. A number of the incidents in the book would not look nearly as impressive on film (not looking at Tom Bombadil).

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      1. Regarding the found manuscript conceit: You say that, but a brief look at the Hobbit clearly indicates that someone else has been editing whatever Bilbo might have fictionally written. Consider the following passage right near the start of the book.

        “The mother of our particular hobbit– what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us.”

        Which is explicitly written by a human with an intended audience of other humans. You also have references to things that Bilbo probably wasn’t familiar with, like trains coming out of tunnels and firearms.

        And while I understand the need to make something epic and visually appealing, I’m just saying that I don’t think PJ’s departure from that is framed primarily by the constraints of film vs the constraints of a book format. You can still do a hobbit-centric epic of the journey, of the sudden upheaval into prominence, of how wild and terrifying it all is, and you can still make it look good. Granted, I wouldn’t really know how to do so myself, I’m not in film, but I am pretty certain that the alteration on that point has more to do with PJ feeling a need to consolidate the trilogy into one big story and eliminate the others, rather than a kind of loose constellation of differing sub-plots whirring in and out of each other the way the books that were largely modeled after mythological tales.

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    2. “the free peoples DIDN’T band together, or present much of a united front. Rohan is unique of an actual nation’s forces going somewhere away from their backyard to go fight the forces of evil”

      Rohan is kind of unique in having a logistically accessible neighbor to go help. Most others are separated by hundreds of miles of wasteland. Closest are the Mirkwood elves to Lake-town and Erebor — and they *did* come out to help in the Hobbit. I think they all had their own attackers in the late Ring war.

      Rohan is next to Gondor, Theoden brings a pure cavalry force, and counts on supplies in Minas Tirith, so he can ride fast (with Druedain guidance) to get to the battle in time for relevance.

      tl;dr leaving your backyard is hard.

      The Huorns go way beyond their usual range, though I’m not touching the logistics of tall magical trees.

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      1. Actually, Dale and Erebor make a great example during the War of the Ring. My recollection is that both settlements fought alongside each other and then retreated under the mountain together to last out the siege. I believe Thranduil’s elves were busy assisting Lothlorien in the defence of Mirkwood, though.

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      2. We are, in fact, told in Unfinished Tales, that Dain died fighting over the body of Brand, Bard’s grandson, until he too was slain, so they were definitely fighting together.

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  11. In response to the 200 miles remark:

    There are records of British light infantry covering 75 to 100 miles in a day during the Napoleonic Wars. These were fairly small units — no more than battalion size — and probably accepted a significant loss of troops during the march. Given the superhuman endurance of the elves, it’s not inconceivable that the elves could cover 200 miles in under a week.

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    1. The supposed record is Crauford’s march to Talavera – 62 miles (100 kms) in 26 hours (there are doubts this is factual). The fastest sustained move I know of is Nicholson’s Pathan force – about 4,000 strong – that went from Peshawar to Delhi in 60 days total, fighting two battles along the way. That’s 1000 kms, so they must have made over 20 kms a day.

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      1. I read about this long march when I was in college, which was about 4 decades ago. I’d not be surprised if there was a conversion error, either in the text or in my memory.

        I know small groups can move fast, but having hiked (carrying very little equipment) 24 miles in 6 hours, “100 miles in 24 hours” should have triggered my BS detector.

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  12. I think I’ve got a rationalization for Haldir citing Elrond as his authority not his actual rulers. Glass and the Golden Wood have a really, really awful reputation among Men as both Boromir and Wonder make plain in the books. If Haldir is aware of they he might assume Elrond, who is half Man after all, would be less feared. In fact it is unlikely that anybody but Theoden, who had a Gondorian mother, knows Elrond’s name and reputation.

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    1. I doubt that only Theoden knows of the Last Homely House of Rivendell.

      But you’re right, the elves of Rivendell, who occasionally welcome even thirteen armed dwarves and a hobbit, likely have a better reputation than the elves of Lothlórien, who chase away even humans.

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  13. Bret said:
    Peter Jackson likes to play with the mightier elves in particular (but also the wizards sometimes) being able to communicate at great distances…

    I was coming here to dispute this point as being a failing of PJs, but then I realized, you’re right. Although Tolkien did show mind-to-mind communication at least once, it was as Elrond and Glads (as Roxanna has it) sat in each other’s presence when they camped as they traveled back North to their homes.

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    1. There are other instances. Gandalf (returned) communicates to Frodo when the later is Amon Hen, about to be revealed to Sauron; Gandalf is an Ainu (spirit), better at such than even elves, and tired by the effort. He also mentally summons Shadowfax from the south of Rohan, a power also attributed to men in Numenor. Faramir got his dream from some divine entity. Galadriel sends Gwaihir to pick up Gandalf, how did she contact him?

      OTOH Gandalf doesn’t seem to call for help from Orthanc, Sauron uses Radagast not telepathy to summon Gandalf to Orthanc, Aredhel doesn’t touch thoughts with her brother while she’s living with Eol…

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  14. Consider also, though it is a lot later, Falstaff’s raising of a required number of soldiers off his lands in Henry IV PT 2.

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  15. I read the Rohirrim as formerly steppe nomads who moved off of the steppe but still try to maintain that heritage. In this sense, they’re more like medieval Hungary than France or England.

    Looking at http://tolkiengateway.net (I don’t have my copy of LotR with appendices on hand):

    The people who would become the Rohirrim were allies of Gondor who lived east of Mirkwood. This is a large area without forest and with few rivers, so it plausible that they were steppe nomads, although Tolkien doesn’t say so explicitly. In 1856, they are conquered by the Wainriders, a group of Easterlings that are definitely steppe nomads, who then overrun much of Gondor. The Eotheod fled to the Vales of Anduin west of Mirkwood (not steppe) and lived there until 2510, when Eorl rode south to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant and founded Rohan.

    At some point, the Rohirrim transition from mostly light cavalry to mostly heavy cavalry. In the books, there are a few horse archers. We see them when Aragorn first meets Eomer and then they pass some orcs with arrows in their necks as they approach Fangorn. I guess this transition happens in the Vales of the Anduin – despite valuing the steppe nomad lifestyle, it’s too hard to maintain for most of the population off of the steppe.

    This opens up the question of where the infantry come from. Were they part of the Eotheod who moved south with Eorl? Or are they people of Gondor who lived there before the Rohirrim came?

    The cavalry and infantry might not have the same societal history. The infantry are undervalued men of Gondor. The cavalry are foreign aristocrats who still try to maintain steppe culture.

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  16. Great Post. Strictly speaking from a film perspective, I can understand the issues people have with the elves showing up, but I think as the battle is set up in the film it’s necessary.
    The film language throughout the two towers does a lot to suggest that, outside Eomer’s forces, the army of Rohan is not a very intimidating force, beset by doom and exhaustion. In contrast, the Uruk-hai are supernatural murder demons. By the time they arrive at Helm’s Deep, the atmosphere is one of complete despair. I think it’s really effective to sell the stakes, but it’s almost too effective; it’s like showing the lead up to boxing match where one fighter is roiding up and the other dying of cancer. There needed to be something to even the scales to bit, to give the sense that the fight might “just” be winnable for the good guys, otherwise i don’t think you get as exciting or thrilling a final battle. Maybe there was a way to do this that didn’t fly so much in the face of continuity with Tolkien world, but honestly with the time they had and the forces they established i think it’s one of those choices that was a best worst decision,

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    1. They could have made the Rohirrim less supine. After all, they’d be sending 6,000 troops to Gondor after all of this, so they can’t be that weak. All they need to do is make Eomer’s rogue force a bit smaller and have more troops either with Theoden or in the fortress already.

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    2. “honestly with the time they had and the forces they established”

      So the movie had to deviate from the books to make up for their earlier, unforced, deviations from the books? I’m not very impressed.

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      1. I don’t think any deviations were forced, but if you start going down the path of making helms deep the climax rather than just a chapter in a bigger story, it’s going to ripple through the whole screenplay. Basically I think a lot of what Brad said in the operational context post on the film changes can be applied to this decision too.

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    3. I rewatched the films over the last week because of this series of posts!

      I agree on the elves; both in that I like them showing up and the dramatic need to do something to counteract the fact that they overdid the imagery of desperation with pre-teens and geriatrics grabbing weapons. I think it works to set the stakes so high, and the odds so low; then at that low point add in a band of elite warriors to give a sliver of hope.

      But god are the timelines messed up. Even not knowing where the elves started from when I watched this scene, I swear they appear to set out *and arrive* within a window of hours. Aragorn spots Saruman’s horde and rides in implying they are close behind, then somehow the elves just march in past this enemy army unmolested?

      It’s annoying partly because it’s such an unforced error. You don’t lose *anything* in the pacing of the film or the suspense if you run the scenes in the same order but say something to clearly indicate the timeline is a few days.

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  17. “the common soldier cannot imagine his individual actions to be committed to cultural memory this why” do you meant this way?

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  18. The probleme here is what is I think the biggest error of Jackson in his movies.

    He’s a fuzzy elves lover and get the place of men wrong.
    In tolkien’s book men are a powerful race, individually taller and stronger than orc or elve, with the numbers the elves are lacking and the courage so absent in orcs.
    And the same for their kingdoms, Gondor, even in its weakened state is still by far the strongest kingdom in middle earth. Able to stand off the witch king for the best part of a millenium. Rohan is also a powerful kingdom in his own right. Far more than the Shire or the men of Dale for exemples. So it is no surprise that in the end the brunt of the fight against Isengard then Mordor had to be done by the armies of men.

    But Jackson want to show us despair, weakness and last minute salvation, and I think a different version of Aragorn. So he downplay most of the characters who would show this strength, first of whom Denethor who fell from great lord to madman. Only Boromir escape this because Boromir shows us the weakness of men against the ring.

    So the problem isn’t in the elves showing off. He’s in Rohan needing the elves to show off in the first part. And later Gondor needing the army of the dead to survive the siege of minas tirith. Whereas in the books it would rather be, the rest of the world is still free because of Gondor and it’s ally Rohan. Without them the shire would have been destroyed long before the fellowship departure.

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    1. Tatane said:
      In tolkien’s book men are a powerful race, individually taller and stronger than orc or elve

      I’m sorry . . . where do you get that information? True that Tolkien is trying to show a transition from the time of the Elves to the time of Men, but never does he suggest that Men are taller than Elves. Just the opposite. In terms of strength, I don’t remember any comparison of Orcs to Men, but maybe you can point me to a source? Or are you referencing one of the Tolkien games?

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      1. Interestingly in the Lost Tales elves are smaller than men, but it’s true that that changed in the actual trilogy. Elves are tall, but so are Numenorians, and men who aren’t Westerners seem to be huskier even if somewhat shorter.

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      2. In the Battle of Helm’s Deep, the orcish battering ram is escorted by the hillmen and the largest of the orcs.
        After Eomer and Aragorn disperse the escort in a sortie, Gimli rescues Eomer from an orc ambush. He explains that he didn’t take part in the sortie earlier by saying that he found the hillmen over large for him, so he left Eomer and Aragorn to it. Even allowing for some self-deprecation on his part, that again implies that hillmen are individually more formidable than orcs.

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      3. It’s mentioned on several occasions in the Silmarillion – elves were originally physically about as strong as men, but decline and became “less strong and great” over the ages. By Turin’s time (still in the first age), it mentions that a teenage Turin easily outfought an elf in a duel because he was as agile as an elf (unusual for a man) and strong (normal for a man). It’s less clear whether or not elves are taller than men.

        Orcs are repeatedly shown to be much smaller than men (and probably little larger than dwarves or hobbits) – e.g. in Moria it’s mentioned that an extremely massive orc-chieften was “almost man-high”, and the hobbits Frodo and Sam successfully dressed up as Orcs in Mordor.

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    2. Personally I adhere to the party that believes To Err is Human. To Really Foul Things up Takes an Elf. Especially a Noldorin Elf, fresh from Aman.
      As I recall Book Boromir’s case of burnout is directly related to the lack of help and support Gondor gets from anybody but Rohan. Aragorn correctly points out that others are fighting in their own way, but Gondor can’t see them and isn’t told anything. They may not be alone but they feel alone and that matters.

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    3. “men are a powerful race, individually taller and stronger than orc or elve”

      Being individually taller and stronger than elves is really not at all clear. Tolkien said Legolas was immensely strong and the most tireless of the Fellowship, and we see the latter, though we don’t see him moving snow at Caradhras. Some individual heroes of the First Age like Turin might have been stronger than most elves — I think only Turin could bear the Dragonhelm — but I don’t think the average goes that way. The tallest of all the Children of Iluvatar was the elf Elwe Thingol, king of Doriath.

      Orcs are short, though seem decently strong; Grishnakh runs off with two hobbits easily enough.

      Numenor was vastly more powerful than the Second Age elven kingdoms, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because they were individually better; rather they were nearly as good, and in much greater numbers.

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      1. Which leads to the need to make a distinction between the Orcs of the Misty Mountains (including Moria Orcs) and the “fighting Uruk-hai” of both Sauron and Saruman.

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      2. “I think only Turin could bear the Dragonhelm”

        Not *only* Turin – it was also worn by the previous three generations of his paternal line, Hador, Galdin and Hurin. But it was certainly a Big Damn Heroes Only item.

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  19. I hate the elves being there, but some comments:

    * The essay on osanwe-kenta says that unlimited range telepathy was a thing, though hard to do for Incarnates. And near the end of LotR we see the Wise doing short-range telepathy over a campfire. Galadriel talks of mind-wrestlingling Sauron. Elrond and Galadriel communing would be plausible… except Tolkien never seems to write such long range communication in any clear or consistent fashion.

    * Tolkien on Legolas: “He was tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, able swiftly to draw a great war-bow and shoot down a Nazgûl, endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies, so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship.”

    So if we imagine an all-elven force, running tirelessly at 10 MPH, and carrying lembas for supply, they could make the run in 20 hours, though not an afternoon.

    More broadly, this raises the fantasy issue of forces with supernatural levels of cohesion and stamina; some of the travel options in the RPG Exalted include boats or ‘horses’ that don’t move super fast but keep going without stopping. Shadowfax seems to be both somewhat fast but also crazily high stamina.

    * Elven uniform equipment could be another way of showing that they’re better, not constrained by ‘realistic’ medieval economy. Either improved craft and production, or just a much large peacetime to war ratio, allowing for everyone to be equipped withthe best.

    I figure Noldor and Numenoreans both benefited from a trifecta of high morale and cohesion, superior bodies (both height and strength), and great equipment. OTOH we know the Greenwood elves showed up to the Last Alliance with poor equipment. Galadriel’s Lorien elves, who knows? She’s a high lady of the Noldor herself, I’m sure she at least values it. But Tolkien says nothing about their rare field forces.

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    1. Elves having good endurance is one thing. Being able to maintain a 10 MPH pace for 20 hours without anyone lagging behind is really stretching it though. That’s a 2 hour 37 minute marathon pace for 20 hours. Not even the best ultra marathon runner in the world could come REMOTELY CLOSE to that on a flat track.

      For the slowest elf in the force to do that without injury and without being utterly and completely exhausted would imply a massive incredible degree of elvish superiority over humans that I don’t think the text supports at all.

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      1. “incredible degree of elvish superiority over humans that I don’t think the text supports at all.”

        I agree that 10 MPH for 20 hours may be too much. But incredible superiority is clearly supported.

        Sleep is optional:

        but in the waybread of the Elves he found all the sustenance that he needed, and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.

        Weight is apparently optional (or low eight has for some reason no disadvantages during fighting, smithing as it had nothing mentions problems caused by low weight there):

        the Elf had no boots, but wore only light shoes, as he always did, and his feet made little imprint in the snow.

        After 225 km on foot – in 4 days:

        Only Legolas still stepped as lightly as ever

        (and Legolas was limited in speed by Aragorn and Gimli, so it is a lower boundary of speed of marching Elves)

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  20. The thing that gets you to the battle may not be the thing that holds you in the line when the actual terror of battle takes hold. In particular, while a cause may get you to the battle, by and large it is the fear of shame, either before comrades or close social contacts (friends, family, neighbors), or the desire to protect those same people which keeps soldiers in the line under extreme stress.

    Cohesion is so important because morale, not lethality, is typically the deciding factor in pre-modern warfare (and also, as an aside, in modern warfare too).

    I found this very interesting, and I think that “stand with your friends” motivation has great dramatic value in film and literature.

    It also reminded me of WW1. If I remember correctly, at some point (I think near the beginning?) the British army organized the new recruits geographically, with men from each town or region being in the same unit. This was done with the intention of encouraging motivation to join the army as well as battlefield cohesion. However, it backfired in the high-lethality industrial warfare environment, where an unluckily well-aimed artillery barrage or a futile infantry charge could wipe out the entire male population of a small town…

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    1. It was noticed a bit before that. State units, such as the famous 20th Maine, recruited from communities. While the American Civil War was nowhere near to the meat grinder as was the Western Front in WW1, many communities would have seen all the sons in a family killed.

      While there are benefits to community-based regiments, I suspect there’s a disadvantage, in that they may tend to maintain loyalty to their communities, versus to the country as a whole.

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  21. You talk about the decline in infantry quality due to the rise of cavalry.

    1. Are you going to blog about this? It sounds like a fascinating historical topic.

    2. Did it happen just in Carolingian and post-Carolingian Europe, or also elsewhere? I guess Rome maintained its high-quality infantry to the end – why did it not suffer the same decline as Early Medieval Europe?

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    1. In many ways, the right way to think about it is not the decline of infantry due to the rise of cavalry, but rather the rise of cavalry due to the decline in infantry. We’ll talk about this in depth one day, but for now, the short version:

      The combination of political fragmentation with the emergence – politically, mind you, not militarily – of a rural, manor-dwelling aristocracy largely divorced from the cities made it difficult for much of Europe to field good infantry. Those mounted, aristocratic elites steadily direct resources and social investment towards themselves, weakening the infantry further and leading to an advantage in the cavalry arm that has less to do with the superiority of knightly cavalry and more to do with the collapse of infantry.

      You can see this most clearly in the places where infantry didn’t decline as sharply, or recovered – Flanders, Italy, parts of the HRE – which are able, here and there, to resist the ‘unstoppable’ heavy cavalry.

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      1. I seem to remember reading somewhere that for a long time the English appreciated longbow infantry, to the extent that the rulers imposed imports taxes which could only be paid in wood for making longbows, and there may have even been periods where archery practice was mandatory for at least some of the population.

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      2. Reading about the decline and fall of the roman empire (starting with the eponymous title, but modern authors as well), there seems to be a consensus that the horse nomad “barbarians” relying primarily on their cavalry gained prominence on the battlefield (as allies and enemies both) first, and the Roman infantry declined as a result.

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  22. Really interesting issue this week – made me think about the Battle of Assaye in 1803. Something like 50,000 – 70,000 Maratha forces made up of local infantry hastily trained in European drill, and then a heaping of irregular infantry and cavalry that had the veneer of a cohesive army but nothing really to underpin that. In the end it was defeated by c.9,500 British and local EIC troops. It’s often, like so many battles of the time, not remembered very well, but it would be really interesting to see it through the lens of army cohesion. There seemed to be a big emphasis on making the huge Maratha numbers appear to be well-drilled but it just didn’t stand up to the stress test.

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    1. Actually the core infantry on the Maratha side – several battalions originally from the Army of Hindostan (raised first in the Moghul and then Jat service) gave Wellington’s army a very hard fight. They retreated in good order when the Maratha cavalry and irregular infantry gave up. And most of Wellington’s force was sepoys. By this time European-style drill and infantry tactics had been practiced in India for over a century, and there were several forces (Mysore, later the Sikhs) who were the equal of any. Lack of political cohesion was their downfall.

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  23. Maybe a post on these military units that attempted to copy foreign units without the right social context and ended up sucking horribly is in order? I’m not sure that people are very familiar with them except for very recent ones.

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  24. Now I should note – looking forward, a bit, in real world chronology – that this kind of cohesion depends on the value that society places on this kind of soldiering. Take that same levy out on the field, but tell them they are much lesser and that their service doesn’t matter and the cohesive principle begins to fail. If the soldier in the line’s social value and reputation isn’t tied to his performance in the line, why risk anything? If there is no honor in standing the line because you are just a peasant, then there is far less disgrace in running away – because you are just a peasant and have no part in this nobles’ war! And if the battle is really supposed to be decided by the clash of heavy cavalry, of which the infantry takes little or no part, then it isn’t really me letting my neighbor down, is it if I run when it looks like our cavalry is losing. And there we see the roots of the decline of this system: it only works so long as the society using it sets great store on their infantry.

    Coincidentally, I was just reading up on Belisarius’ first Italian campaign, and the Battle of Rome in 537 provides a perfect illustration of this principle. Belisarius was in the habit of leaving his infantry behind to guard his camp whilst doing all the real fighting with the cavalry, but before this particular battle two of his guardsmen, Principius and Tarmatus, asked him to bring them along, saying that the infantry had performed poorly in the past due to bad leadership and offering to take command themselves. Belisarius agreed, although he deployed the infantry to the rear of his cavalry. In the event, most of the infantry ran away as soon as the cavalry did, except for the regiments under the personal command of Principius and Tarmatus, which fought on and covered the retreat of the rest of the army despite taking heavy casualties. Apparently the presence of two commanders who had expressed such confidence in them was enough to stiffen the infantry considerably, but where this factor was lacking the infantry were of little value.

    How that process of infantry-decline proceeds is a topic for another series, but I want to note now that I suspect Théoden’s Rohan is already well on its way down that path. If you told me that the battle at Helm’s Deep would be the last great showing of the levies (who cannot come to Minas Tirith because they cannot move as fast as the cavalry) and that by the end of the reign of Éomer, Rohan’s levy infantry was mostly unreliable – or at least thought to be so by the riders who ruled the state and determined exactly which sort of fighting resources would be allocated to – I’d find that readily believable (with dismounted riders taking its place in the field when you needed good infantry).

    When you put it like that, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened already. Rohan is famous throughout Middle Earth as the land of great cavalry, and horses and horsemanship are clearly very important in their country. (In fact, are we quite sure that Erkenbrand’s reinforcements aren’t really dismounted cavalry? That would seem to fit in better with the overall martial culture of Rohan.)

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    1. theoriginalmrx said:
      are we quite sure that Erkenbrand’s reinforcements aren’t really dismounted cavalry?

      My thoughts exactly. Or maybe a mix of both? We know that Gandalf directed Grimbold to take what was left of his command to meet up with Erkenbrand, but we’re also told that Erkenbrand was recruiting in the Westfold and gathering the scattered forces from the Second Battle of Isen. How many of the thousand men were dismounted and how many were never mounted? Gandalf says they all marched through the night, but does he mean a combination of riderless cavalry as well as those they gathered in on the way?

      Truthfully, one of my hopes for this new series is that Bret will analyze all the information Tolkien provides in Unfinished Tales as well as LotR and apply his knowledge to suggest how it all fits together “cohesively” (see what I did there?).

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  25. General question about all of this military tradition and structure: Who are the Rohirrim typically fighting and why is their society set up this heavily martial way?

    We know they encounter occasional orcs and bands of Dunlendings (from the west only), but these are typically irregular skirmishes up until this point aren’t they? The Rohirrim are allied with Gondor, and I don’t know of any inter-Rohirrim conflict (something shown constantly in ASOIAF and GOT). Theoden is a veteran of many wars, but against whom and why?

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    1. We don’t see this at all in the films and very little in the books, but the Dunlendings are implied to be a fairly sizeable group. Moreover, they’re not just raiding for plunder, they’ve got a feud with the Rohirrim over the land of the Riddermark, which they view as their ancestral territory that the Rohirrim stole from them. (Correctly, as far as I can tell.) So that actually suffices to answer the question of why Rohan has the kind of military aristocracy it does.

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    2. From Appendix B:

      2510: Eorl wins the battle of Celebrant; Rohirrim migrate to Rohan.

      2545: Eorl falls in battle in the Wold.

      2758: Rohan attacked from west and east and overrun. Gondor attacked by fleets of the Corsairs. Helm of Rohan takes refuge in Helm’s Deep. Wulf seizes Edoras. 2758–9: The Long Winter follows. Great suffering and loss of life in Eriador and Rohan. Gandalf comes to the aid of the Shire-folk.

      2759: Death of Helm. Fréaláf drives out Wulf, and begins second line of Kings of the Mark. Saruman takes up his abode in Isengard.

      2800-64: Orcs from the North trouble Rohan. King Walda slain by them (2861).

      2885: Stirred up by emissaries of Sauron the Haradrim cross the Poros and attack Gondor. The sons of Folcwine of Rohan are slain in the service of Gondor.

      Then nothing until 3018.

      Appendix A, Aragorn: “He rode in the host of the Rohirrim, and fought for the Lord of Gondor by land and by sea; and then in the hour of victory he passed out of the knowledge of Men of the West, and went alone far into the East and deep into the South” — not very specific.

      “The House of Eorl” has more.

      “Of the Kings of the Mark between Eorl and Théoden most is said of Helm Hammerhand. He was a grim man of great strength. There was at that time a man named Freca, who claimed descent from King Fréawine, though he had, men said, much Dunlendish blood, and was dark-haired. He grew rich and powerful, having wide lands on either side of the Adorn. Near its source he made himself a stronghold and paid little heed to the king. Helm mistrusted him, but called him to his councils; and he came when it pleased him.”

      Freca asks for Helm’s daughter, gets angry at refusal, Helm murders/executes him, Freca’s son Wulf flees. Then:

      “Four years later (2758) great troubles came to Rohan, and no help could be sent from Gondor, for three fleets of the Corsairs attacked it and there was war on all its coasts. At the same time Rohan was again invaded from the East, and the Dunlendings seeing their chance came over the Isen and down from Isengard. It was soon known that Wulf was their leader. They were in great force, for they were joined by enemies of Gondor that landed in the mouths of Lefnui and Isen.”

      “The Rohirrim were defeated and their land was overrun; and those who were not slain or enslaved fled to the dales of the mountains. …”

      By the way, regarding Saruman’s timeline:

      “Certainly after the last White Council (2953) his designs towards Rohan, though he hid them, were evil. He then took Isengard for his own and began to make it a place of guarded strength and fear, as though to rival the Barad-dûr. His friends and servants he drew then from all who hated Gondor and Rohan, whether Men or other creatures more evil.”

      Then the list of the Kings of the Mark has more asides. Eorl falls to another attack of Easterlings (I never understood the logistics of that), Aldor drives out or subdues the last Dunlendings east of Isen, Deor has to deal with Dunlending raids, Brytta “In his time there was war with Orcs that, driven from the North [the big orc-dwarf war], sought refuges in the White Mountains. When he died it was thought that they had all been hunted out; but it was not so.” Folcwine reconquers the west-march from Dunlending occupiers.

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