Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part V: Ladders are Chaos

This is the fifth part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. VIII) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. In our last two parts, we looked at the organization of the two opposing forces. In particular, we noted that while Saruman had built what appeared to be a professional force capable of complex operations, in practice he had not done the legwork in organization or training to actually facilitate those complex operations. This week, we’ll see those flaws in action, as we look at the conduct of Saruman’s host’s siege operations, along with Théoden’s last minute defensive preparations. How can an understanding of medieval siege warfare inform the catastrophe that is Saruman’s fortress assault? And how do the organizational failings of his army lead to their tactical failings on the battlefield?

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Investing in Preparation for your Prepared Defenses to be Invested

But before we get to ladders and explosions, we ought to talk about the steps Théoden is taking to prepare for a siege. And I know it feels like we are taking forever to get to the actual assault, but that is really the point: effective siegework, on either the offense or the defense, depends mostly on preparation. Film tends to elide away this element, but even an assault that ends a siege often comes as the result of months of careful planning and preparation.

And in the film, Théoden has some work to do. The Helm’s Gate fortress complex as we see it is clearly old and hasn’t been well-maintained, particularly the Hornburg itself – a lot of the crenellations (the term for the zig-zag stonework at the top of castle walls, which is designed to provide effective firing cover and hinder attackers attempting to scale the wall) are clearly cracked or worn, as is a lot of the general stonework. There is just generally a lot of disrepair here and not nearly enough time to fix it all with good masonry.

Pictured: A whole lot of elves not fully protected by this wall. And what purpose do the firing slits serve if you are just going to shoot over the wall anyway?

(A brief aside as this goes nowhere else. While normally I think Jackson’s set team did an excellent job, the defenses at Helm’s Deep are actually a rare exception, especially on the Deeping Wall. When viewed at a distance, it looks fine enough – there are merlons with firing slits in them. Terminology note: in that zig-zag stonework pattern, the merlon is the high part of the design, the crenel is the open space between the merlons to allow for firing, and the entire system is known as crenellation, which for some reason spellcheck believes is spelled with one ‘l’ but is in fact spelled with two). The slits are wider facing outward to allow a wider range of firing angles and narrow on the inside to protect the archers. So far so good. Except that when we get close, we see these merlons are only about chest high; no part of the Deeping Wall’s crenelation reaches head-height (except for Gimli). Consequently, the archers on the wall are exposed from the chest up. That in turn makes the crenels useless, because you aren’t fighting through them, but over the merlons. This is not how castle walls were designed; rather, the merlons should offer complete cover for the archer, who can then step around to the lower crenels to fire, while still shielding his body behind the merlon.)

Gimli, making correct usage of the Merlon while a bunch of Elves randomly stand out with most of their vital organs exposed to enemy missile fire.

Disrepair was a common problem for defenders. Maintaining major fortifications like this is expensive and difficult. Earthworks – like dry moats (essentially trenches) used to block approaching infantry and crucially siege equipment – need to be re-dug regularly, as the natural action of wind and erosion will erase them from the landscape quite quickly. Buildings, trees and other obstructions need to be removed to clear sight and firing lines (which often means rendering some of the most valuable land completely unproductive). And even stonework is vulnerable to erosion and damage, especially stonework that is part of a living working city (and may also be scavenged for usable masonry by less scrupulous types). The frantic rush to repair city fortifications when it becomes clear that a town or city might find itself in a war zone is a common-place of ancient and medieval war narratives for good reason!

Théoden probably has the labor for many of these tasks, but nothing like the time to do them in. Instead we see him focusing, quite sensibly on what he can do before the main enemy force arrives; he may well still be hoping that they will settle in for a longer preperatory phase which will buy him the time to reinforce some of the stone defenses as well. The gate is quickly reinforced with heavy timbers, and we see the construction of wooden hoarding (temporary defensive enhancements atop walls that usually project outwards from the stonework, designed to allow the defenders to drop or fire things at attackers at the foot of the wall safely) over the gate.

Men of Rohan, reinforcing the gate of the Hornburg. In the books, once the gate is breached, they construct a makeshift barricade in its place, something we do not see in the film.

He also marshals all of his available manpower and sets watches. That second issue may seem trivial, but actually keeping watch over even a moderate circuit of walls – especially at night – is hard. You need watchmen and a system to make sure they are awake and attentive. Remember, at this point, Théoden thinks he may be in for a long siege, rather than a quick assault. Many castles fell because a lapse in the watch routine or a traitor inside the fortress allowed the attackers to sneak even just a small force of soldiers into a single tower; Antioch (1098) famously fell this way. So delegating a trusted subordinate the job of making sure the watch rotation is ample and regular is a key task, as is making sure that there is enough manpower available to stand all those shifts without exhausting your defenders.

For any army somehow, inexplicably facing assault within the day – no, I am not going to stop complaining about the film’s nonsense operational timeline, thank you – this is the right set of priorities and Théoden sets about them with energy and determination. If he had a week or two, we might expect fresh stonework or earthwork fortifications, but he hasn’t the time. We’ll deal with the Aragorn-vs-Théoden undercurrent of this scene a bit later in this series, but I want to note that Peter Jackson has – quite unintentionally, I think – captured Théoden’s workmanlike generaling well. His defense plan – lay provisions, set watches, assume that 10,000 Uruks cannot be maintained in the field for any length of time – is simple, solid and effective. It isn’t the flashy, defense-in-depth effort by Denethor, but it doesn’t need to be. Especially since the terrain in front of the fortress has little natural defense, Théoden’s plan is a good one – trying to get ‘fancy’ would likely only lead to unnecessary losses in the open ground before the fortress.

Book Note: Book!Théoden has both more and less to do in the run-up to the battle. He has less to do, in part, because his infrastructure position is much better. The book version of the Hornburg isn’t badly run-down, but has in fact been recently renovated by Théoden’s local commander in the field (good choice of leadership there; Erkenbrand takes over quite well when Théodred is slain). We are told that Erkenbrand, “as the days darkened with the threat of war, being wise, he had repaired the wall and made the fastness strong” (TT, 157). As noted above, this kind of renovation under the threat of war occurred all the time – there simply were not enough resources to keep every major fort and population center’s fortifications up to spec at all times. It shows some foresight that Erkenbrand had reinforced the one fortress that would matter (though as becomes clear in the Unfinished Tales, the Ford at the Isen had also been given moderate fortifications). Saruman ought to have had this place under observation, and the renovation of its defenses rightly should have concerned him a great deal.

But the biggest change here is in the topography, in particular the existence of an outer layer of fortification: Helm’s Dike, an earthwork rampart which was located some distance out from the fortress. Éomer gives the distance as two furlongs, which is 440 yards; he also describes it as ‘ancient’ (TT, 159). The distance between the dike and the main fortress always puzzled me. Lower secondary outwalls were a fairly common way of strengthening a defense, as they prevented siege equipment from closing with the wall, provided a safe skirmishing position for advanced troops and could be built to both prevent artillery fire (catapults and later cannon) from being directed against the base of a wall – the ideal spot to produce a breach – while not disrupting the lines of missile fire from soldiers atop the primary wall. You can see these sorts of elements combined, famously, in Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls. But the dike is too far out to be supported by the main wall; it might serve to allow an advance force to keep artillery away from the wall, but without supporting missile fire from the main defenses, it could not be long held (and isn’t, in the event). What it does do is protect the rearguard of a retreating army and enforce an early amount of friction on the approaching Uruks, but I can’t help but thinking that moving it back about 240 yards would have made it far more valuable as an outwork. If this were a historical fortress, I’d start probing older settlement patterns to try to find out if the Dike originally encompassed some (now abandoned) settlement, because that’s the only reason I can think of for placing it so far out.

Éomer, rather than Théoden, arranges the defense and here his information is better than in the film. Éomer benefits from the more ample scouting arrangements that Théoden has in the books – he knows an assault is coming very soon, so he immediately mans the walls, concentrating his strength on the weakest defenses (TT, 160). The rearguard is left at the Dike (TT, 161) which provides warning, a limited defense in depth and crucially creates a window for any stragglers from Théoden’s or Erkenbrand’s forces to regroup at the fortress. Meanwhile, Gamling had already seen to the provisions of the fortress, in case the assault turned into a siege (TT, 160). So although the circumstances – especially time, force and information – are different, in both cases, the Rohirrim set in and prepare effectively, focusing on the more immediate and important concerns first. That preparation will serve them well in the battle to come. Unlike…


The best way to talk about Saruman’s preparation is going to be to actually let the assault unfold and deliver comments as it goes. When discussing how the assault plays out, it is important to recognize that Saruman must have known he would assault this place for far longer than any of the Rohirrim (even book!Erkenbrand, who has evidently been repairing the Hornburg for what one assumes is at least months) could have known they would need to defend it. Saruman has had years to consider his assault – something the Rohirrim are well aware of (TT, 158). If his army hasn’t trained and prepared for this, that’s a terrible planning oversight, if they have trained and prepared for this, and this is the best he could do, then that is an even deeper failing in both developing capabilities but also in strategic judgment for opening this war so unprepared.

Because this is almost a textbook course on how not to assault a fortress.

Book Note: While in the film, the assault opens with the Uruk army making an unopposed approach, the more complex book topography makes this a battle in stages. Théoden has left a rearguard of Westfolders (TT, 161) at the dike; they “gallop” back, so he must have left horses with them. We are not told but may guess that Gamling was still in command there. As the rearguard reports as it returned, it “loosed every arrow” at the approaching force and then retreated in good order (TT, 161). The army had approached with torches, which had made them easy marks for the Rohirrim archers (TT, 162). What is then absolutely stunning is that Saruman’s host does not leave a force behind to defend the Dike. If the dispersion after forcing the ford is the first moment we might point to as a decisive, catastrophic failure, this is the second. Countervallation – making a wall around your siege lines facing outward – is a standard siege technique all the way from antiquity. We’ll talk about it more in just a moment. But when your enemy countervallates for you, to then not man those prepared defenses with even a token force is just stunning.

Given the preparation time, there ought to have been an advance unit (probably mounted infantry) which would have been specifically tasked to take the Dike – which as the text notes, was too wide to be defended effectively by Rohan’s smaller force (TT, 159) – and then hold it as a rearguard while the main army assaulted the fortress. Had this been done, Erkenbrand’s later rescuing force would have found themselves attacking a superior force against prepared defenses and likely without the benefit of surprise (as Saruman’s rearguard would have spotted them). But, as we established, Saruman’s host is not well led, and seems to lack the organizational capability to split forces over multiple tasks like this; it proves a fatal vulnerability.

Yes, Old Man and Adolescent Young Man – Hold your 80+lbs bows at full draw. And hold. And hold. And hold.
Seriously, holding a proper warbow at full draw is difficult and tires you out very rapidly; hunting bows, with their much lower pull weights, are not really a good proxy for what a warbow is like.

Saruman’s army approaches the fortress and initial begins demonstrating – making noise, banging spears and so on – in an effort to demoralize the defenders. Attempting to demoralize the defense is a good tactic and we’ll talk more about it in a later part in this series. Though I should note that if you are going to have your army demonstrate, you ought to do it either with shields raised or out of bowshot. As it stands, the Rohirrim archers knock arrows and draw their bows, apparently without orders and then…just hold them at full draw. For about thirty seconds (yes, I timed it); given what I’ve seen of modern warbow shooting, I wouldn’t expect an arrow to be held anymore than is necessary to finish aiming, perhaps 3 seconds at most. So, this fits nowhere else, but war bows feature very high poundage draws, far higher than hunting bows. This is a problem in all sorts of fiction where people point and draw war bows at each other like they are pointing guns – guns do not require you to exert 80+lbs of force to simply keep the arrow steady. I don’t blame this old fellow for loosing his arrow; I blame his commander for letting the men draw their bows too early.

Everyone acts like the old archer fellow has just fouled up, but seriously! He nails this Uruk in the neck in the rain from what must be at least a hundred yards away, in the dark! If Rohan had more of these old archer fellows and fewer Elves, I don’t think the Uruks would have even made the walls!

(I should note, this isn’t just a problem with the Rohirrim. Aragorn gives the order that gets subtitled “Prepare to fire!” – which, given that he has never seen gunpowder, one assumed he wouldn’t ever think to ask anyone to ‘fire’ a bow – and the elves respond by knocking and drawing arrows and then holding them, waiting about 15 seconds for the order to release (mercifully, not to ‘fire’). While clear information on medieval mass-archery tactics is very hard to come by (except for basic positioning) it doesn’t seem like volley fire was normal. It would have been very difficult, given the poundage of the bows, to hold for volleys like this. And it does no good to claim that these are elves – Legolas does not appear to be massively stronger than his companions.)

Book Note: The exchange in the book is a bit more complex. The defenders are hiding behind the ramparts as Saruman’s host approaches, and the latter begins attempting to suppress the defenders with arrows (TT, 162), but the defenders hold their response – presumably preserving arrows and stamina for when the arrows will be most useful. This unexpected lack of reply causes Saruman’s host to stall out for a moment “foiled by the silent menace of rock and wall” (TT, 162) which again speaks to insufficient drill, training and leadership. There ought to be a host of junior officers and NCOs already getting their troops moving, rather than standing dumbfounded because the enemy did not return fire as expected. But given what we’ve already discussed about Saruman’s lack of proper preparation, the fact that his army falls apart every time anything goes even a little bit sideways is not a huge surprise.

Saruman’s host then charges the wall, without any clear order, in one dense mass, in an effort to raise ladders against the walls. The technical term for this sort of assault is escalade – an effort to go over the walls with ladders or ramps. I’ve seen the presence of these ladders offered as evidence that this army was well prepared to assault this fortress; alas, no. Saruman’s forces are launching perhaps the worst version of what Clifford Rogers terms “hasty assaults” something he notes failed in most cases (Rogers, op. cit. 117). How does this go wrong? Let’s count the ways.

The dense, disorganized mass of Uruks charging through the arrow fire. While the film cuts neatly to make them get through this fairly quickly, bowshot – being about 200 yards – would typically take around a minute or so to charge through (remember, these fellows are moving on muddy ground, in armor, and they are not Usain Bolt); the archers might be averaging something like six shots a minute.
In short you do not want to give them this neat a target, especially if you are not using any kind of cover or shields.

First, the Uruks charge without any kind of cover and get torn up by the responding arrow-fire. Not only do they not carry shields, they also don’t carry any kind of portable cover or screens – commonly called mantlets – which were normally used for this kind of approach. Moreover, rather than approaching in clear specialist teams with specific jobs – ideally limiting the number of Uruks in bowshot and thus making it more difficult for the elven archers to hit their targets – they charge in a mass that is both dense and disorganized, which is a rare feat of bad soldiering. We see some brief attempt at suppression fire against the walls, but it begins far too late (after the initial, devastating volley) and is nowhere near sufficient to actually silence the incoming arrows.

And then they raise ladders. Ladder assaults on castles are an absolute staple of historical fiction and they did happen. As Rogers notes, such ‘hasty assaults’ were typically launched as soon as possible, in the hopes of catching the defender unawares and quickly gaining the wall. There would almost always be a backup plan, because ladder assaults usually failed. If you could do anything other than a ladder assault – use a siege tower (in the period generally called belfries), have a covered ram, sap under the walls, build a ramp over the wall, bribe a traitor, anything – you did that instead.

To be clear, the plan here is to run a 200m dash, then lift a heavy ladder, then rapidly climb that ladder and then be ready to immediately fight multiple Elven swordsmen. While probably still out of breath from the charge.
Good luck. With. That.

It takes just a moment’s thought to realize how vulnerable an attacker is when climbing the ladder – he can probably keep his shield above his head, but he has no easy access to his sidearm (needing his other hand to steady himself on the ladder). Moreover, he is fighting an opponent on firm ground, who benefits from the walls cover, who may simply drop rocks on him, while the attacker is stuck trying to defend himself in uncertain footing on a ladder. Such a plan might work against a wall that was thinly defended, where the attackers might be able to get someone over the wall somewhere and then force a cascading failure. But the Uruks are attempting this sort of assault against disciplined elves in heavy armor arrayed several ranks deep on the wall. To be honest, the biggest problem with this scene is that the Uruks get any purchase on the wall at all – most of which seems to involve unarmored Uruks cutting down multiple plate-armored elves with a single stroke, something that is deeply silly in ways that we will discuss next week.

What ought to actually happen is that every Uruk over the wall would be immediately beset by something like half a dozen different weapons (the elf to his front, right, left and the three behind them). The first Uruks, balancing atop the ladders, are unarmored and so will fall almost instantly, while the Uruks climbing up behind them in armor are unlikely to last much longer. Ask anyone who has ever done any amount of sparring with close-combat weapons what it is like to face even two opponents in confined quarters; these Uruks are facing six elven swordmen a piece. Even if they get a small toehold, the density of the elves means that they don’t benefit from the cascading failure we might see against a weakly defended wall. This was never going to work.

It is awfully sporting for this plate-and-mail armored Elven warriors, likely with decades if not centuries of experience on their weapons, to simply stand there and let this Uruk do his giant round-house swing, without making any effort to attack the unarmored portion of his body, which is all of it. Any one of these fellows might easily parry that sword, allowing any other one of these fellows to easily stab this Uruk to death.

Which is fine, because it was never intended to work. Looking forward, the ladder assault was clearly intended as a distracting demonstration so that the work of mining the wall with the ‘blasting fire’ could proceed unhindered. Except in that case, the ladder assault might well have been profitably done with far fewer Uruks and at only a few points in the wall. As it stands, Saruman’s host hurls much of its strength in high-casualty, low-impact assaults against the walls to little purpose in a wasteful display of poor generalship. One assumes Saruman thought this would be fine because his numerical superiority was so great that the losses would mean little; if so, he was obviously wrong.

What is most surprising is just how unprepared the Uruks are for even this sort of basic escalade operation. The ladder-bearers advance in dense order – rather than spaced out to limit the effectiveness of enemy missile fire. They have no cover. Basic movable cover – man-sized wooden mantlets on rollers, for instance – are just not that hard to make or difficult to transport and Saruman has had ages to get ready for this. And as we’ll see, their best ranged suppression option – primitive catapults – arrives too late to offer fire-support to protect the force attacking the wall. Consequently, the Uruks attacking the walls take far more casualties than necessary in an assault that was a diversion in any event.

Book Note: The initial stage against the Deeping Wall plays out much the same in the books, using ropes and ladders (TT, 165). Given just how much more competent the Witch King’s assault on Minas Tirith is, I don’t think this is error by Tolkien so much as an intentional contrast between Saruman’s arrogant presumption of strength and Sauron’s actual strength.

The major difference in the overall assault, both with the ladders and at the gate, is Tolkien’s description of it coming like waves, with Sarumon’s host charging, breaking, reforming and trying again (TT, 162). This is far truer to the nature of such attacks than the endless cresting wave of the film. Assaulting a wall is terrifying stuff and the attacker’s courage will only hold them so long in the face of stiff resistance. It is not uncommon, both in sieges but also in open battles, to hear of forces attacking, being repulsed, backing off to a distance, reforming and trying again, sometimes several times

Gimli, holding two ladders at the same time, by striking each Uruk before they can defend themselves. Imagine how much better he could do with a weapon with greater reach, like a spear!

Battering Rams

The next stage in the film is the attack on the gate of the Hornburg with a battering ram moved up the causeway (we’ll come to the mining effort in a moment, which is happening at much the same time).

Book Note: This reverses the order of attacks in the book, where the first effort on the gate of the Hornburg is made before we transition to the walls. This may in part be a consequence of Tolkien’s writing viewpoint centered on Aragorn and Éomer, as they begin on the Deeping Wall, but rush to the gate to perform a sally, then rush back to the Deeping Wall which is already heavily engaged (TT, 163-5), so it is possible the attacks were simultaneous. Whereas in the film, the ladders are already up the walls by the time the assault on the gate begins marching up the causeway.

The Uruks advance in a sort-of-testudo formation, keeping their shields above their heads to cover them from the missile fire coming off of the Hornburg. This is at least better and more organized than the charge against the walls. But here again, Saruman’s poor preparation work shows – Aragorn, spotting the column moving up the causeway, is able to redirect arrow-fire from the Deeping Wall into the vulnerable flank of the advancing orcs (the technical term for this fire-from-the-side is ‘enfilade fire’ – receiving enfilade fire is very very bad, particularly so in the gunpowder era. Even without gunpowder, it is hard to defend from attacks coming from the side and ranged troops firing at a dense mass like this can hardly miss).

Uruks bringing up the ram in the worst way possible, by knocking their fellows off of the high causeway to their almost certain falling death. Why wasn’t this planned for, with an interval left in the center so that the ram might be passed up?

Again, Saruman has had years to observe the Helm’s Gate fortress-complex and its defenses. The possibility of enfilade fire from the projecting tower beneath the Hornburg (on the Deeping Wall) should have been anticipated, if for no other reason that that producing enfilade fire is what projecting towers are for. The purpose of a projecting tower is so that men on it can fire down the length of the wall; it cannot have escaped an astute observer that this field of fire would include the very exposed causeway. Moreover, the Uruk team tasked with taking the gate ought to have been specially picked out, trained and prepared for this task. For a professional force like this one, it would not have been strange to learn that they would have built their own mock Hornburg and run assaults on it with that unit over and over again to get everything down. Surely someone, at some point ought to have brought up, “Hey, chief, maybe we should make sure to also have our shields out to the left side, towards the Deeping Wall, so we don’t take heavy losses from enfilade fire?”

And then this long line of Uruks reaches the top of the causeway and produces their great weapon: an uncovered battering ram. Naturally, it isn’t carried by some specialist unit near the front, but is rushed up the center of the causeway, throwing Uruks to their death by shoving them down as it goes, because if it isn’t already obvious by now, this entire attack is catastrophically poorly planned. Rams like this were almost always covered – that is they were protected by a movable shed, sometimes on wheels, sometimes carried. Men working a ram cannot protect themselves (because their hands are on the ram) and – as we see here – it is all too easy for men up on the gatehouse or on the hoarding to simply throw anything at them. Popular culture has seized on boiling oil, but more often cheap things were used – boiling water, heated sand, plain old heavy rocks – to equally brutal effect. Covering the ram wasn’t merely a question of casualty aversion – each ram-bearer who was scalded to death, shot or crushed under thrown rocks would disrupt the rhythm of the ramming action.

(As an aside, we see a lot of these rocks being thrown just bouncing off with almost no effect – because they are props made of light, safe materials. Actually having a thrown piece of masonry bounce off of your halmet would be far more unpleasant. Also very likely disabling or fatal – a heavy rock thrown from a wall can strike with a lot more force than a (far lighter) sword and there is a real limit to even what a solid helmet with a good helmet-liner (made of quilted textile) can do in terms of absorbing blunt force trauma; on this note S. James, “The Point of the Sword” in Waffen in Aktion, ed. A.W. Busch and H.J. Schalles (2010).)

This doesn’t fit anywhere else, but this is such a strange thing to do – one a small hole is made in the gate, the Uruks lean through it to fire crossbows at Rohirrim who are, at most, just a few feet behind the door (you can see one fellow just there to the left). Why use slow, heavy, difficult to reload crossbows, instead of just using a spear? And why don’t the Rohirrim respond with spears and swords, given that the Uruks are almost leaning through the gap?
This is another example of Hollywood treating bows and crossbows like modern guns when they very much are not. It’s almost as bad as those scenes of people being held at bow or crossbow-point, instead of at spear or sword point.

Nevertheless, by sheer weight of numbers – and the inexplicably non-lethal Rohirrim heavy rocks – the Uruk-hai reach the gate and begin battering it down, forcing Aragorn and Gimli to launch a daring sally attack from a hidden door on the side of the causeway. This is a good place to note that defenders in sieges were not just passively awaiting attacks. Parties might try to sally out to damage or destroy enemy works, inflict casualties, raid supplies, or just generally inflict fatigue and terror on the besiegers, as at the Roman siege of Lilybaeum (250-241 B.C.) or Avaricum (52 B.C.). Aragorn’s effort here is fairly modest; his aim is to disable the ram and clear the gate so it can be reinforced, which he does quite handily. The silly thing here is that the sally port – a common feature of castle design – requires jumping over a death-drop to actually get anywhere (odd choice) and that the sally is done with just two people, instead of siphoning off some of the mass of infantry Théoden has with him.

Book Note: The sally in the books (TT, 162-4) is more realistic. There is no leaping over a dangerous chasm and the sally consists of more than just two people. Instead, it is Aragorn, Éomer, Gimli and a small company of Rohirrim swordsmen. Whereas Aragorn and Gimli in the film actually hold the gate against a continous attack while it is repaired, the book is a bit more realistic: the sudden terror of the onset of the sally causes the enemies at the ram to flee, creating a momentary lull in the battle during which the sally party can return inside the gate and reinforce it. That a sally such as this – catching an enemy focused on the task before them in the flank – would panic and scatter them in this way is no surprise. Humans fight battles in a terrible balance of fear; it does not take much of a sudden shock to send them running, even if just for the moment. Especially when they are so poorly trained and led as Saruman’s host.

One of the largest differences in this analysis is the timing of the mine (which we’ll discuss in a moment). In the film, it comes before the sally (in part because the chronology of the entire battle is compressed, so Aragorn hardly has time to be running up to the keep, down to the wall and back again), which means that in the film, by the time the sally clears the gate, the Deeping Wall is already lost, and a result the gate falls moments afterwards. In the book, the mine comes well after the sally and is used to disrupt an effective stalemate where both the Deeping Wall and the Hornburg appear able to indefinately resist Saruman’s assaults, to the point that Aragorn, Éomer and Gamling stop to have a chat during a brief lull in the assault (TT, 167).

As with the ladder assault, the basic concept of this attack isn’t completely crazy, but it is performed in a wasteful manner. If the plan was to clear the wall first, then this attack should not have even begun before the completion of the mining effort removed the threat of enfilade fire. And given the time Saruman has had to prepare, it’s a wonder he didn’t have a specially built and measured movable shelter (on wheels) for the causeway. Hellenistic and Roman armies often moved shelters like this (either towers or rams) up earthen ramps of their own construction; fitting even a very basic, light-weight shelter (for easy transport) ought not to have been difficult for a wizard. The Assyrians used a mix of personal shields (made of whicker, so they could be large and light, but catch arrows) and movable shelters (and towers) in their siege-craft in the eighth century B.C. – that’s how old these techniques are.

Via Wikipedia, detail from the Lachish Reliefs, depicting the Siege of Lachish (701 BC). On the far right you can see a covered ram being moved up a ramp, supported by archers. In the center, you can see more infantry advancing up ramps, using movable cover and large wicker shields.
To give a sense of how old this is, there are no catapults here because the catapult wouldn’t be invented for another four centuries, give or take.

Blasting Fire

Now we come to the mining attack against the wall. While all of the rest of the battle is going on, Saruman’s Uruks – in what appears to be one of the only actions performed by a coordinated, prepared team – places what looks like a large black-powder charge underneath the wall and detonates it, creating a breach. We’re going to leave aside the use of a painted ‘berserker’ Uruk with a glowing white torch (made of magnesium strips? what is he burning?) to ignite the charge, rather than using some sort of fuse.

Sapping and mining were common tactics in ancient and medieval sieges. Prior to the development of gunpowder, the goal was typically to tunnel beneath key elements of the enemy fortifications and then collapse the tunnel by burning the wooden supports holding it up in order to collapse that key defense, as at Nicaea in 1097. The arrival of gunpowder brought the option of filling such a tunnel with explosives in order to blast a breach. While Saruman hasn’t done any tunneling, this is, in essence, what his host is doing: using a gunpowder charge placed under the wall (in the culvert through which the Deeping Stream flows).

You may ask why the powder-charge can’t be placed just anywhere; the reason is that a contained space – like underneath the wall – is required to channel the pressure and energy of the explosion into moving the material of the wall, rather than into a shock-wave through the air. This is especially true of black powder explosives, which burn quite a lot slower than the speed of sound. If you just set your bomb alongside the wall, the wall itself would redirect much of the force of the initial blast away, sending loads of as-yet-still-mostly-unburnt powder away from the wall, wasting much of the energy potential. Placing the charge beneath the wall, in a confined space (and in a metal container, where the pressure has to build to a certain level before the container bursts) is a good way to maximize the energy-delivery from your powder charge.

I feel I should note that the charge we are shown in two large metal pots doesn’t seem anywhere near large enough to release the necessary energy to move that much wall and throw huge stones what look to be at least 100 yards into the air, if what they contain is black powder (and since we actually see it in the film, as opposed to the books, we can see pretty clearly that it is corned black powder). But this isn’t a huge problem, since Saruman has magic, perhaps he has somehow enhanced his ‘fire of Orthanc’ as Aragorn calls it in the books. In either case, he overshoots the size of blast he needs by quite a bit, sending huge chunks of masonry mostly into his own forces, further demonstrating Saruman’s callousness with his own troops. It’s hard not to think that a smaller blast might have left his troops in a better position to rapidly exploit the breach, giving the defenders less time to meet them in good order.

Pretty clearly intended to be black powder. It even comes is nice round grains, which ought to indicate that it has been corned.

This is by far the single best-prepared element in Saruman’s attack; the charges were pre-measured, the target was pre-selected, and an elite unit was trained to deliver the bomb. Going back to my initial read of Saruman’s command style, this is clearly the element he focused the most energy and attention into, because it fits his nature as an inventor and craftsman. And in the film, we see that he is supremely confident that “if the wall if breached, Helm’s Deep will fall!” a confidence that, in the event, is wholly unwarranted (after all, the wall is breached, but he fails to take the fortress). It is hard to resist the conclusion that had Saruman put as much effort into low-tech siegecraft like movable shelters, better training and more careful planning, he would have been in a better position to take the Hornburg with or without his bomb.

Ironically, from what we see, the bomb was entirely pointless in the film. The Hornburg absolutely dominates the Deeping Wall; if the former is taken, holding the latter – exposed to missile fire from above without any protection – must fall. Saruman’s stated tactical plan for the attack, quoted above, is exactly backwards. And in the film (as opposed to the book), Saruman’s ham-fisted effort at the gate was – with some setbacks – succeeding by sheer dint of numbers (and the strange non-lethality of Rohirrim stones); had his causeway force continued the attack while the rest of the army simply dug in against potential relief forces, he would have won the battle. The contrast with the Witch King’s assault – which seeks to engage Gondorian defenses everywhere, but keeps a keen focus on the main blow to fall at the gate – is marked. Whereas the Witch King remained focused, Saruman dissipates his efforts, including his one key advantage (the bomb), all over the field, leaving insufficient forces to engage the only place that matters: the Hornburg. Blowing the Deeping Wall doesn’t speed the capture of the Hornburg in the slightest – if anything, it ensures that more of the defenders will be crammed within, making the capture of the one place on the field that matters more difficult (as it does in the event, since in the film, the loss of the Deep is the only reason Aragorn is available to make his daring sally)!

Had this mining operation occurred earlier, at a time when it might have prevented the force advancing up the causeway from taking that enfilade fire, it might make a bit more sense. Here, I think we should understand this as a consequence of Saruman’s poor organization. He has designed this clockwork plan of ladders->bomb->causeway->ram which is too complex for his poorly organized and prepared army to actually execute. This leads to elements occurring in the wrong order (the causeway effort coming before the bomb) or not being tightly grouped enough (with the ladder Uruks spending far too long sustaining far too severe losses waiting for the bomb to arrive). It’s not hard to imagine how this could happen – the catapults (we’ll get to them) can’t get forward early enough because the poorly organized infantry is in the way, while the assault begins before the bomb team is in position; the gateway team clearly just jumps the gun – perhaps because the limited command structure has made it almost impossible for each team to know what the others are doing. It reminds me of the failure of George McClellan’s over-complicated and poorly coordinated plan to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam. A good plan that is too complex to actually execute is not a good plan.

The destruction of the wall then triggers more close-combat fighting in the Deep itself, which we’ll get into in more depth next week.

Book Note: There are a few differences of note with the book version. The biggest is the timing – that the mining effort occurs as a clear reaction to the repeated failure to take the fortress with more conventional tactics. Charitably, I think we might assume that Saruman had provisioned his troops with the blasting fire in the expectation that it would be necessary to clear the caves (which are otherwise fearfully difficult to breach, TT, 169), but that in desperation, they first used some of these charges to clear the wall.

Moreover, this use of the blasting fire is a reaction to a setback, rather than such a clearly planned part of the assault. Initially, Saruman’s orcs had sapped their way through the culvert in secret and built up a small force within the Deep under cover of darkness (TT, 165). They trigger their attack too early however and are beaten back (TT, 166) and the culvert is sealed with whatever spare rock is available. It is only then, it seems, that Saruman’s host sets to the use of the blasting fire (TT, 167) to clear a path, which then finally dislodged the defense from the Deeping Wall. It also certainly doesn’t seem like the blast was nearly so large as in the film.

Most notably, book!Saruman at least deploys his Uruks with more than one set of charges, as we hear later that “blasts of fire leaped up from below [the Hornburg] shaking the stones” (TT, 170), presumably attempting to break the Hornrock itself, or blasting the tunnels (though the latter seems unlikely as they do not successfully seal the tunnels). In either case, evidently these charges were not fit for the task, at least in the time they were given, which somewhat diminishes the credit we might give Saruman for precisely measuring his charges to the task at hand.

Grapples, Catapults and Large Ladders

After the blasting fire, we do see the Uruks break out some new siege tools we haven’t seen yet, the most notable being oversized ladders capable of reaching all of the way up to the top of the Hornburg and grappling hooks fired from some sort of catapult. I’m hesitant to call the catapult a ballista – that term is, I think, more correctly applied to Greek and Roman engines which worked by torsion (the coiling up of sinew in a sort-of spring) rather than tension (the bending of a heavy bar). In essence a tension catapult functions like a gigantic crossbow; while a torsion device may look similar, it works by a different method. Tension catapults were used in the Middle Ages, but they tended to be some of the least sophisticated and effective types. The counter-weight or even traction trebuchets or torsion powered engines were both more complex, but also more powerful.

Uruk tension catapult. There ought to be some complex gear-mechanism to pull this back (like a crossbow’s windlass); if this weapon is to have a real advantage in power and range over a normal bow, it needs to have an absolutely tremendous pull-weight, well beyond the ability of an Uruk to simply pull by hand.

What’s striking is how late these weapons are revealed in the attack, and the purpose to which they are put; in particular they are only used to launch grappling hooks up to the Hornburg, which is quite frankly a waste of everyone’s time. If Uruks climbing ladders cannot take the walls, there is no chance that Uruks trying to shimmy up a rope will manage it – at least the fellows on the ladders can still cover themselves with a shield and climb fairly quickly. Although I should note that I really question the feasibility of lifting ladders with this many Uruks on them at this height, both in terms of the strength of ladder (against the bending and then compressive force), as well as the lifting mechanism.

It is very surprising that these engines did not appear earlier, in the assault on the Deeping Wall. I think the popular conception is that catapults were for knocking down walls – and against thin curtain walls, they might do this, though it was not their core purpose. Rather, the main use of catapults was to degrade the crenelation on the wall, exposing the defenders to arrow fire (and more catapult fire) in order to drive the defenders off of the wall. The reason you would do this is for the same reason ladder assaults are so wasteful: it is nearly impossible to successfully take a defended wall by escalade, so the defenders would have to first be driven off before escalade could be attempted with a reasonable chance of success. Of course, degrading the defenses like this would require catapults fit to fire stones (instead of grapples), which might be assisted by arrow-throwing engines attempting to pick off defenders on the wall. For the attack on the Deeping Wall, using even just a few of these engines to suppress the archers on the wall (by flinging stones and bolts at them) could have vastly lowered the casualties of the attacking Uruk force, and possibly even allowed the escalade to succeed, given their numerical advantage.

My own theory for the late appearance of these weapons relates to the relative disorder and poor leadership of the army: the rest of the army was in the way. When we see the broader Deeping Coomb in the long-shots, it is absolutely full of Uruks, which must have made moving cumbersome, specialized siege equipment from the rear to the front terribly difficult. Consequently, crucial artillery wasn’t available until the end-stages of the siege, far too late to be of any real use. Again. Poor organization and leadership there.

So I think Saruman gets relatively little credit for the late appearance of some actually capable siege weapons. He has brought inferior versions of the wrong artillery to accomplish the wrong task and worst yet, his poor preparatory planning and training has meant that it arrived late besides. It’s another example where the Uruks have the trappings of a fancy, professional army (look, big expensive specialized weapons!) but not the training, organization or discipline to effectively use those weapons. This is a common problem in the militaries of developing countries: resources and money are directed into flashy, ultra-modern weapon-systems (especially jet fighters; look at the militaries of the Middle East and all the flashy jet fighters they buy, while far more basic capabilities – rudimentary modern-system stuff – remain severely lacking) instead of into the boring, low-tech training and discipline which has a far higher return-on-investment in terms of developing actual military capabilities.

Book Note: These engines do not appear in the books (though the grappling hooks and long ladders do), which really heightens the contrast between the Witch King’s towers-and-catapults professional preparation and Saruman’s ladders-and-bows amateur-hour assault. Again, I think this is an intended element of the story, contrasting the real strength of Sauron with Saruman’s dilettantish incompetence and baseless pride, not an error on Tolkien’s part.

Hasty and Deliberate Assaults

Let’s return for a moment to Clifford Roger’s distinction (Soldier’s Lives Through History: The Middle Ages (2007)) between what he terms ‘hasty’ assaults and ‘deliberate’ assaults in medieval siege warfare. As Rogers notes, many armies on arriving at a fortified settlement that they needed to take – be it a fortified city or a castle – would engage a ‘hasty’ assault as soon as possible. Such attacks, made with perhaps some ladders, ropes and whatever else might be to hand, usually failed, unless they took the city defenders very much by surprise. But typically, since sieges were so long and arduous, and since so little a portion of the army was risked, it was worth rolling the dice on a small chance of ending the siege immediately. But no army was betting the farm (or the siege) on the hasty assault, because – again – they usually failed.

A hasty assault, in this case of the assault on Ribodavia, Spain, from the British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, Royal 14 E IV, f 252. The manuscript, written in French and probably produced in Flanders, dates 1470-1480.

When that typically failed, the army would revert to what was always the actual plan, which was either blockade (surround the place, wait for it to run out of supplies and surrender) or preparation for a deliberate assault (or both). Throughout, negotiation was a key tactic, as the defenders knew a city or castle taken by storm was likely to be very harshly treated (another reason why rampant backstabbing was a generally self-defeating tactic in medieval Europe; a reputation for trust was the sine qua non of such useful negotiations). Obvious, visible preparations for a deliberate assault could be used as leverage to negotiate the surrender of the fortress, thus avoiding the need to actually launch the assault.

Preparations for a deliberate assault might included extended bombardment with siege machines, or sapping efforts. The attackers might construct siege towers, which were – contrary to their pop-culture appearances – less for getting onto the wall as they were to get a firing platform above the wall, from which to shoot down at the defenders, clearing a set of wall for successful escalade (much like how catapults were not for demolishing the walls, but driving the defenders off of them). Armies might even use earthworks to build ramps up the walls, although this was a more common tactic of large ancient armies than smaller medieval ones (it required a lot of coordination, but mole-construction – the earthwork ramp was called a ‘mole’ – was a fairly sure route to success if the besieging army was much stronger than the defenders).

Crucially, while all of this was going on, the attacking armies faced two main threats: threats from within their siege lines (from the besieged garrison) and threats from without (from a relieving army). Consequently, one of the first things any good besieging army did was construct field fortifications facing the main exits from the besieged fortress to block sudden sallies or nighttime raids. And one of the very next thing any good besieging army did was construct field fortifications facing away from the besieged fortress, to hinder a relieving army. The term for the first kind of works is ‘circumvallation’ (Latin, lit: walling around [the fortress]) and for the latter is ‘countervallation’ (Latin, lit: walling against [an outside attacker]). At the very least, fortifying a secure camp near the target settlement would be done typically even before a hasty assault was launched, because it was so crucial.

Conclusions: Saruman Is Not Very Good At This

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for the most part, what Saruman has done is launched a ‘hasty’ assault without any backup plan if it failed. The best part of the plan is the concept: overtask the defenders by attacking at all points simultaneously. Presumably the effort on the Deeping Wall is to remove the enfilade fire against the causeway (though in that case, the effort on the causeway ought not to have begun before the Deeping Wall was either taken or so fully engaged that it could not respond). But the worst part of the plan is every part of the execution.

I am put in mind of Sun Tzu’s description of why siege warfare is wasteful, “the general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to assault like swarming ants, with the result that one third of his men are slain while the town still remains untaken.”

But so far, we’ve mostly focused on what Saruman’s forces have done. But the worst sin here is a sin of omission. Saruman’s force – completely focused on the assault and without the necessary leadership to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time – completely fails to engage in any defensive preparations of this sort. Consequently, when Théoden predictably sallies out of the main gate (how was that contingency not gamed out!? It’s the main gate!), he faces no prepared defenses at the base of the causeway and no Uruk unit formed up for open fighting ready to meet him. And like when Éomer (or book!Erkenbrand) shows up on the army’s flank, absolutely no preparation work has been done to secure the approaches. In both the book and the film, the relief force arrives over a ridge, on which apparently were posted no scouts or defenses. This is far worse in the books, because the work of preparing a defensive line behind Sarumon’s host has already been done for them. Helm’s Dike is perfect for this role, yet no force is left to hold it.

From the same manuscript as above, we see efforts by the attackers, left, to fortify their positions opposite the enemy fortifications. Note also, bottom center, the use of natural features (in this case, water features) to protect the camp.

Saruman’s massive army cannot possibly be brought to bear against the Helm’s Gate fortress complex all at once. This is clear in the book and the film – the army is simply too big and the frontage of the fortress too small, leaving most of the host simply standing around waiting for an opportunity to go into action. And yet none of these forces were spared to protect their position from a relief army. A relief army, I might add, that Saruman’s forces were in a position to be well aware of (they ought to know that much of Erkenbrand’s army is as yet unaccounted for), even if we forget that they are commanded by a wizard with a magic seeing-stone. It should not have been an impossible task for a few thousand of his troops to act as a rearguard, spending the night fortifying their position and scouting for potential relieving forces.

Book Note: The contrast with the Siege of Gondor, particularly in the books, is instructive. The Witch King’s forces immediately split into groups performing a multitude of tasks at once: digging lines of trenches to protect their siege equipment from sallies, deploying that equipment from wagons and so on (RotK, 104-5); they’re clearly working in many groups, since they engage the city at nearly all points along its outer wall. At the same time, he has dispatching a blocking force to hold the approaches from Rohan (RotK, 116) which Théoden only avoids through shrewd use of local guides.

Now this post may sound like one long critique of Jackson (and Tolkien), but I mean nothing of the sort. I actually thing this is brilliant storytelling and one of the most successful elements of Jackson’s adaptation of this battle. As we’ll discuss at the end of this series, Saruman is in way over his head; he is playing at being a Dark Lord like Sauron, but only playing. And his slipshod fortress assault expresses that same idea. Saruman has launched a child’s idea of a siege. It has all of the exciting things: ladders, explosions, great charging masses of troops! But he has neglected nearly all of the boring grunt-work that makes that work – the preparation, the construction of low-tech moveable cover, the digging and field fortifications necessary to secure a position.

But more fundamentally, the main failure here is deeper: the failure to properly organize and train this army. The failure of the fortress assault – and it really does fail, as the Uruks are in panicked retreat even before reinforcements arrive (something clearer in the books, TT, 172) – marks another moment, much like the dispersal of Saruman’s Host, where victory might have been secured even despite the intervention of the heroes. And both moments speak to a lack of exactly the sort of discipline good professional armies spend so much time building.

That doesn’t mean that every army needs to be built that way, but this army did. Saruman continues to devise complex plans on tight time-tables that would work wonderfully if his army was composed of robots (or disciplined professionals) instead of orcs and humans. This is, I must say, a common mistake of amateurs – to propose extremely complex battle plans which could win the day on a computer or in an armchair discussion, but which are so complex that actually implementing them in the fog of war is nearly impossible. No plan survives contact with the enemy – but Saruman’s plans are especially fragile and have no backups, which speaks to his amateurism.

While no singular mistake here is fatal to Saruman’s overall operational plan – his numerical advantage allows for his army to recover from grievous errors by sheer dint of numbers – they add up. Each sloppy assault tactic, each bit of poor organization diminishes his army (quite literally, in that it gets his Uruks killed), reducing, bit by bit, that margin of numerical superiority. And since his army lacks advantages in training or cohesion (or as we’ll see next week, equipment), massive numerical superiority is the only coin it has with which to buy success. Once that is exhausted, Saruman’s host, quite predictably, falls apart.

Next week, we’re going to zoom in a bit on the fighting itself and take a look at the armor and weapons. How well and realistically equipped are these armies and what does that say about them?

155 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part V: Ladders are Chaos

  1. It’s been a year since I started reading this blog, it was love at first sight and now is even better!
    I just want to say that I undertood that reference in the tittle jajaja and that you are doing an excellent work here, thanks for all your effort Bret.

  2. Another interesting point about Saruman’s flaw as a general – it’s the same thing that caused him to Fall in the first place. He saw his side losing to Sauron, and his reaction was “hey, we’re smarter than Sauron – the only reason he could be winning is that he’s willing to do what we aren’t”. He assumed “being smart” + having the same general attitude = winning, skipping over the part where you actually apply your full intelligence to the task.

  3. Another absolutely brilliant post. I recently discovered your blog and have already read it in its entirety. Thank you so much for all of it.

    You’re making me want to reread LotR again — I guess I’m overdue for it anyway.

  4. I came across the blog tuesday and have been binging it since. It is great to read about the operations and tactics analysis of The Lord of the Rings. It gives a whole new appreciation for Tolkien’s knowledge of the things he writes.

    Do you have any recommandations for introductory texts about warfare and statecraft in the early modern period? I play plenty of EU4 and would love to learn more about it. I get that this is a long period (400 years) and huge area (the whole world / all of europe), but if you have any recommendations I would greatly appreciate it.

  5. I feel rather bad for being so consistently negative, so I’ll add first of all that I’m really enjoying the contrast with the Siege of Gondor and Sauron. As a STEM person, yeah I can see myself doing that sort of thing.
    Now onto the typos:
    “preperatory” -> “preparatory”
    “in both developing capabilities but also in strategic judgment” -> “both in developing” (possibly personal preference)
    “initial begins demonstrating” -> “initially”
    “archers knock arrows” -> “nock”.
    “respond by knocking and drawing” -> “nocking”
    “six elven swordmen a piece” -> “swordsmen apiece”
    “bounce off of your halmet” -> “helmet”
    “one a small hole” -> “once”
    “able to indefinately resist” -> “indefinitely”
    “made of whicker” -> “wicker”
    “It even comes is nice round grains” -> “comes in”
    “Soldier’s Lives Through History: The Middle Ages” -> ” Soldiers’ ”
    “less for getting onto the wall as they were” -> “than they were”
    “clearing a set of wall for successful escalade” -> “walls”. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were a meaning of “set”, but thought I should mention it.
    “one of the very next thing” -> “things”
    “I actually thing” -> “think”

    1. Ha! Guess I should have read through all the comments before I duplicated most of your proofreading corrections.

      My apologies to you and to Bret!

        1. I’ve been super busy this morning and haven’t had a chance to go through and fix the noted edits; will do so a bit later. So it’s partly on me.

          1. I think we’re both just super-appreciative of your willingness to accept corrections as a necessary nuisance, rather than taking them as if they were intended as some kind of accusation against your work. We obsessive editors have had that experience, and it is rather unpleasant. But even editors need editors!

  6. I never noticed the mistakes Saruman’s army makes in the siege when I watched the movie, so it is really great to have someone with knowledge point them out. I wonder if this could have been conveyed to the casual viewer in some way.

    Also, could you imagine doing an analysis like this for the Battle of the Blackwater from Game of Thrones Season 2/A Clash of Kings at some point?

    1. I think even an amateur viewer could notice “Knocking over your own guys with a battering ram is bad strategy,” but we tend to read it as “This army is so vast that it doesn’t matter if a couple dozen orcs fall to their deaths for no reason” rather than “This army is so poorly organized that they literally trampled their own guys.”

      I think the answer is to show that this is Saruman’s *mistake* in some way rather than just something that tends to happen when an orcish horde is storming a castle. Say, a minion raising the objection that the causeway is exposed to enemy fire or that they need time to prepare siegeworks, followed by Saruman callously dismissing them and saying that a few arrows aren’t going to stop his horde.

      (Order of the Stick does this in the Azure City arc. We see Xykon dismiss the idea of planning for a siege – “We’ve got a big army, they’ve got a castle, I don’t see what’s so complicated about this.” And it’s contrasted with Redcloak’s more clever plan to breach the walls and draw the high-level characters out of position for Xykon’s attack.)

      1. I think even an amateur viewer could notice “Knocking over your own guys with a battering ram is bad strategy,” but we tend to read it as “This army is so vast that it doesn’t matter if a couple dozen orcs fall to their deaths for no reason” rather than “This army is so poorly organized that they literally trampled their own guys.”

        Yes, with (at least in my case) an element of “These dark lords don’t care about the lives of their soldiers, they just view them as totally expendable and don’t care how many they lose” as well.

  7. I don’t suppose you’ve ever read Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare? It’s a book I got for Christmas about a decade ago and it’s got a lot of good info about the kit and, to a lesser extent, tactics in the films. Relevant to this, it notes that there are commanders (the uruks with the massive crests), each of which are meant to have a distinct enough crest that their unit can immediately find them when lost, and that they are all from the first batch, which had time to grow properly and be trained. Would explain why they were so short on commanders; most of that batch went off hobbit-hunting. The rest of the army is (theoretically) drilled repeatedly for a single purpose, which would help explain why they keep doing the wrong thing (why are there crossbows at the gate? Presumably they were meant to come and suppress the defenders, and once the ram made a hole, WELL, WE’RE HERE AND ALL WE KNOW IS SHOOTING)

    The ladder assault may also have been meant to stop enfilading fire for the ram action, though that depends on if it went off at the right time. The berserkers could have been meant to do a primitive form of montante, which is exactly what you want at the top of a ladder, since it’s designed for one skilled man to beat several less skilled. Stripping them off makes some sense if you expect them to keep fighting continuously, as I know when I’m fighting I always overheat before my arms get tired. That said, expecting them to survive for long as an unarmoured man surrounded by enemies is optimistic at best. Likely it would have worked better if they were fighting Rohirrim levies. Finally, the ballistae (or giant crossbows, whatever you want to call them) do have some form of windlass, you can briefly see the handles being worked in one shot and they’re visible on the Games Workshop model.

  8. This is great post and really insightful. I think I brought this up before but I would love a contrast of the depiction in this movie with Kingdom of Heaven. In both movies, there is a small scale cavalry clash and then siege/fortifications assault.

    After reading through this, I’m thinking back on KofH and where Ridley Scott’s depiction of tactics and commanding differs and I think the contrast is pretty great.

    1. Also, when I was watching the movie, my impression was that the grappling hooks were there because they needed some way to leverage the large ladders up to erect against the wall. Those large ladders were huge, 3 or 4 normal ladders across and at least 2 times higher. You cant possibly stand them up like you would a normal ladder. What I thought was happening was that the grappling hooks were fired to lock to the top of the fortress and the Uruk was using the ropes that were passed through the end of the hooks to pull the ladders erect against the wall, IE pulling them vertical from the inside rather than push them vertical from the outside.

      1. Not really needed. Scaling ladders were heavy – at Bruges in 1127 the chronicler says that the smaller ones needed 10 men to carry them (plus escorts with shields), and were at least 10 metres long and wide enough for two or three to ascend. Yet they were lodged against the walls (the escalade failed). In general, a wall over about 15 metres was invulnerable to escalade, since the ladders would be too long and heavy to mount.

  9. RE: spellcheck on the word crenellation . . .
    Merriam-Webster gives the two-L spelling first, so I wonder which dictionary your spellchecker uses?

    Erkenbrand’s later rescuing force would have found themselves attacking a superior force against prepared defenses and likely without the benefit of surprise (as Saruman’s rearguard would have spotted them).

    Ye-e-es, but Erkenbrand’s forces still would have simply been present to deny the Uruks and Dunlendings an escape up the western side of the Deeping-comb (narrator says the eastern side is too steep) while the Huorns were shepherded into the mouth of the coomb to fill the valley.

    Here are some proofreading corrections for this post (as it appeared when I began reading):

    terms “hasty assaults” something he -> terms “hasty assaults,” something he (comma needed, as shown)
    from the walls cover, -> from the walls cover, (insert apostrophe)
    six elven swordmen a piece -> six elven swordsmen apiece
    with Sarumon’s host charging -> with Saruman’s host charging
    several times -> several times. (missing period added)
    reason that that producing -> reason that producing (delete one instance of the word that)
    bounce off of your halmet -> bounce off of your helmet
    Caption: one a small hole -> one a small hole (use either the article or the number, but not both)
    and a result the gate -> and as a result the gate
    able to indefinately resist -> able to indefinitely resist
    (made of whicker -> (made of wicker

    Comment on the art for assault on Ribodavia, Spain: Might illustrations like this suggest why Jackson’s team decided to design chest-high crenellations?

    assault might included -> assault might have included (or, change to include)
    behind Sarumon’s host has -> behind Saruman’s host has
    he has dispatching a blocking -> he has dispatched a blocking
    I actually thing this -> I actually think this

    Wow! I have to say, I am loving this series. Even more so than the series on the Battle of the Pelennor, because I had no clue how this battle exposes how poorly prepared Saruman’s troops are, how obvious it becomes to the astute reader that his mind of metal and wheels has not gone any further than planning a clockwork assault, without training the army—or appointing the officers—who might have handled it. And how all this is evidence of his pride puffing himself into equal to or greater than Sauron (yes they are both Miar, but Sauron had ages of training under Melkor). Thank you again, for these discussions!

    1. An-n-nd apparently I need to learn how to make my apostrophe curl the right direction: the walls cover

      1. Well, this is frustrating. Can anyone tell me how to mark the apostrophe for boldface without losing the direction of the curl?

        1. That’s likely a property of the font set used by the blog hosting system. The technical term is “misfeature.” 🙂

          There are a remarkably large number of web pages with really poor aesthetics. I don’t know how many issues are within our gracious host’s control.

          1. Yes, but there’s no problem with it when it appears within a contraction or a possessive. The problem appears when I attempt to surround it with the code for boldface font, that is, whether I try to code first and then add it, or create it without the coding and then surround it with the and either way, the system reads the apostrophe as coming before—an opening single inverted comma preceding text—rather than after text, i.e., a closing single inverted comma. Since the text box shows a sans serif font for writing the reply, one cannot see in advance the direction of the curl that will appear when it converts to a serif font. Is this what you’re calling a “misfeature”?

    2. I wonder if the crenellation thing might be one of those “let you see the actor’s face and/or tell people apart” matters. Why the stars often don’t wear helmets in historical or fantasy stuff, or have lights inside their space suit helmet.

    3. According to, “crenelate” was the original spelling, whilst “the double -l- seems to be from a presumed Latin *crenella as a diminutive of crena”.

  10. Thank you for confirming my intuitive feeling that ladder assaults are ridiculously dangerous.
    My personal measure for bad generalship is if I, an untrained woman with zero military experience can see the mistake there’s no excuse for the so called professional missing it. And I found McClellan’s behavior at Antietam utterly baffling.
    Tolkien knew war personally as well as intellectually, and as a WWI veteran he would have known ALL about bad generalship from the victim’s POV. The contrast between Saruman’s incompetence and the Witch-King’s skill had to be deliberate.

    1. I’ve always thought that scaling castles in fiction looked ridiculously dangerous. Like, everyone who’s in the first few sets of climbers should be like “You know we’re going to die right?” They always seem to be depicted in an easy “Whack-a-mole” fashion for the prepared defenders.

      Some interesting points about them being used as an attempted surprise strike makes more sense, along with the comment above that they were typically not used for very tall walls (15m stated above). They would seem too unwieldy, and the extra time spent trying to raise them would give extra opportunities for the defenders to use ranged weapons. I imagine after a certain point, everyone killed at the top of the ladders becomes unwitting ammunition against their allies further down the ladder or along the ground too.

      I think one of the more realistic representations in fiction is in A Clash of Kings when Yoren, Arya, and the rest of the Night’s Watch recruits are defending the holdfast against Ser Amory Lorch and his men. The walls there are only about 10 feet (~3m) high, which seems has a greater chance of success.

    2. The key to understanding McClellan’s behavior at Antietam is understanding McClellan himself: he had a pathological fear of failure combined with a massive superiority complex, and these combined to produce a willingness to believe himself utterly outnumbered in order to justify inaction. He almost certainly actually believed that Lee either was equal to him in numbers or outnumbered him at Antietam, and once you realize that, everything about the battle, especially his decision not to commit his reserves at the end, makes a lot more sense.

      (One should also note that he was very ill-served by some of his corps commanders that day. Burnside and Mansfield, in particular, though both had only become corps commanders in the past few days, so it’s somewhat understandable.)

  11. Dumping stuff on people with ladders, like rocks, boiling oil (which is wasteful; you may need that to feed people), boiling water, molten lead (costly), the contents of chamber pots (which may not bother orcs, filthy creatures that they are) and so forth. is a rather obvious technique for defenders. So is shooting arrows down on people climbing up the ladder. Even if there is fire support from the ground, the attackers are shooting up, which reduces arrow effectiveness.

    One would think that a forked stick to push the ladder away from the wall would also be handy. I’m sure somebody invented that item at some time in the past.

    One wonders if Saruman, with all his misapplied STEM knowledge, could have figured out that tossing a few disease-ridden corpses over the wall could have caused disease among the defenders. Or ceramic pots full of Greek fire (or flaming pitch mixed with saltpeter).

    Not only did Saruman miss all the human factors in organizing his army, he also missed half his STEM classes. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken physics for poets.

    1. He had no time to wait out until the Rohirrim are reduced by starvation or disease. As it was eloquently elaborated in the previous installments, Saruman needed to conquer Rohan before Sauron defeated Gondor and arrived with superior force,

      1. Don’t forget too, that he gambled big at Amon Hen, thought he had captured Hobbits with the Ring, but his force bringing the prisoners back to Isengard was intercepted and destroyed by the Rohirrim. The thought that Eomer or some other warlord might have it and use its power against him is a serious problem from his point of view, and another reason to strike quickly and brutally, to overrun all resistance before someone can figure out how to make the Ring work for him.

      2. Well, the pots full of flaming pitch then. There’s a lot of wood in pre-modern masonary construction. See, for example, the catastrophic fire at Notre Dame.

        The 12th Century Chinese used flame weapons against besieged cities; I’m sure that Tolkien knew this (Jackson may not have). I think both Jackson and Tolkien wanted to emphasize the basic inhumanity of Saruman, in his disdain for sentient life (orcs, trolls, and Uruk-hai may not have been human, but the were conscious, thinking beings) and his basic incompetence as a general.

    2. > Not only did Saruman miss all the human factors in organizing his army, he also missed half his STEM classes. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken physics for poets.

      Agree! Having read Bret’s post, I can’t imagine why someone would be this incompetent. Saruman is not even a human, but a Maiar (a lesser type of Ainur, created by Eru, Tolkien’s God; perhaps an angel equivalent). And we know he’s basically a nerd (a STEM person). You’d expect him to be literate, and well-read. Didn’t Middle-Earth have its equivalent of military treatises, ancient Greek and Roman texts? Weren’t some people literate? Where are all those appendices and chronicles supposed to come from? I can imagine a very arrogant person disregarding prior military knowledge IF HE’S CONVINCED HE GOT SOMETHING BETTER, but where exactly does his overconfidence come from? He doesn’t even have much in the way of tricks, so how can be so cock-sure he’s got better tools? A couple of spies here and there, a Palantir, Grima for misinformation and demoralization, enough treachery to mislead Gandalf, black gunpowder bomb he only brought forth after several failed attempts, a breed of orcs especially large and tough… for an orc; orcs are short by default. These would be impressive for an ordinary human, not for a supernatural being *leading* the council of Wizards. In the same league as Aragorn or Bilbo, not Sauron.

      His methods are largely psychological and underhanded. Why does he even bother with an army if he neglects military so much? Shouldn’t he be sending assassins instead or trying buy everyone off? He had no business leading an army, just like Mussolini who loved architecture and was an accomplished opera singer. Saruman was a manipulator. Alatar and Pallando are mentioned in The Unfinished Tales as the two remaining wizards, collectively called “The Blue Wizards”. They traveled east with Saruman, and only Saruman returned. It’s a long shot, but maybe Saruman arranged an accident, or imprisoned them, and this was his preferred method of handling opposition.

      You know what else Saruman reminds me of? Not a STEM supremacist, but a deity from Terry Pratchett. Pratchett argued that gods probably wouldn’t be very smart, because when you’re powerful and immortal you don’t have to be. He explicitly said for someone who can toss lightning intelligence is not a trait increasing chance of survival, or passing genes, etc. I can’t help but notice an analogy with “dumb blondes” and very attractive people in general. Saruman is immortal, but he can’t even throw lightning. What’s his excuse?

      1. It might have that he didn’t know he didn’t know. He read about it in books, might have even seen people doing it once or twice, but since he never had to do it himself, or learn from someone actually teaching him, he never learned the subtleties. He knew about ladders and siege towers and rams and catapults, and what they were supposed to do, but never really had a sense for how they interacted with each other or how how the enemy would try to stop them.

        He noticed that there were a lot of people who might have been less intelligent than he was manage to do it, so he assumed that it was easy, and there was nothing he needed to study.

      2. Never underestimate Saruman’s staggering contempt for humanity. He’s attacking mere *humans*, and humans of Rohan, at that (which is a wonderful culture, but declined greatly from the glory of Numenor, the “lesser sons of great sires”). As far as he’s concerned, he should barely even have to try here, and he pays for his arrogance. Well, ok, mostly his soldiers pay for his arrogance, but the same faults lead to his eventual death in what should have been his comfortable retirement.

  12. “Humans fight battles in a terrible balance of fear” is a wonderful bit of writing.

  13. it is nearly impossible to successfully take a defended wall by escalade,

    It was, in fact, one of the things the British Army would designate as a “forlorn hope.” (From the Dutch verloren hoop, literally ‘lost troop’, but the mangling also works. An officer who survived was just about GUARANTEED a promotion.

    1. Does hoop mean “troop”? I thought (given its etymological relation to “heap”) that it meant more like “throng”.

      But yeah not only did officers who survived forlorn-hope attacks get promoted, but rank-and-filers often got bonuses or even officer-commissions out of them. Of course the trick is surviving them…

    2. Didn’t promoting such an officer send a wrong message? If the escalade was the officer’s idea, it could *encourage* him to gamble solders’ lives in the future. Sounds fair if the officer was executing someone else’s order, but I’d rather get a promise no one will ask this of me anymore, ever.

      1. You had to lead such an attack to get it.

        And survive of course.

        Nor is there any reason to think that the officer who led was usually the one whose idea it was. As the Wikipedia reports, they would get volunteers because of the rewards.

  14. What I’m learning is that it’s been too long since I’ve re-read Lord of the Rings.

    1. This is going the be the first time I read it in English. I didn’t realize Tokien did so many things well compared to other fantasy/SF authors.

      1. @Borsukrates: “This is going the be the first time I read it in English.”

        Be sure to read the most recent edition, updated by Hammond & Scull. Many little details have been corrected according to Tolkien’s own wishes for edits and confirmation by the Tolkien Estate (i.e., Christopher Tolkien, that they were in keeping with his understanding of his father’s intent). Example: a minor change from comma to semicolon in the Prologue establishes the correct date for Buckland to be accepted as part of the Shire.

  15. It occurs to me that Saruman did in fact have a ridiculously good and effective plan to deal with Rohan, and it was working beautifully. Said plan consisted (in films) of magically controlling the king or (in books) of using a highly skilled political operative (‘Wormtongue’) to ensure that Saruman didn’t have to face any serious coordinated military resistance.
    Then Gandalf showed up and in both the films and books wrecked that plan.

    Regarding siege machines in the films, I think it might be explained that they’re brought in so late because they’re complicated, heavy, equipment which has presumably been brought in in pieces and which has had to be reassembled and tested before they can be brought into use.

    And the more I look at analysis of Helm’s Deep and the battle there, like that in these essays, the more certain it seems to me that Saruman intended to be observing and magically influencing events remotely with his seeing-stone… and then the Ents showed up and kind of distracted his attention.

    And yes, there’s probably a contrast intended by Tolkien between Saruman’s wet-behind-the-ears attempts at running an army, and that of Sauron’s lieutenants, who have in some cases been doing this stuff for centuries.

    1. Which are cases of what I assume is one of the common amateur mistakes, assuming everything will work as planned.

      1. Agreed, especially since it’s drilled into modern militaries to have a Plan B at all times.

        To compare Saruman to Admiral Yamamoto once again, both leaders assumed that the enemies would stick to the scripts that they had in mind. Yamamoto assumed that Pearl Harbor would force the Americans to stay out of Japan’s Pacific War, and when an outraged America struck back he assumed he could “lure out” the “demoralized” Americans to destroy their carriers at Midway. We all know how THAT turned out, and since Yamamoto was shot down in 1943 he didn’t even get to see the full magnitude of the disaster he’d inflicted on his own nation.

        Likewise, Saruman assumed that Theoden would be left harmless by Wormtongue’s psy-ops, ignoring the fact that Eomer (in the film) and Erkenbrand (in the book) were willing to stand up to him and willing to retaliate even against Theoden’s prohibitions. Even without Gandalf, if anything were to happen that got Wormtongue out of the way, disabled Theoden altogether or made him snap out of his languor (in the book, Theoden’s not being “possessed” by Saruman and Gandalf’s help is psychological more than magical) would cause Theoden to turn into a very angry threat. And as Bret pointed out, Saruman has had a long, LONG time and all the wisdom and craft of his divine heritage at his disposal to come up with a competent plan against Rohan, and gaming out all possible contingencies. For Saruman to bungle so badly shows how plain incompetent he is.

        1. @Thematus: The magical manipulation/possession of Theoden was a movie thing – in the book Theoden is being manipulated via Wormtongue, and Gandalf’s real contribution is to free him psychologically

          Because it’s a film medium, the movie showed us what the book hinted at. Maybe Saruman did not literally possess Theoden, but if you re-read the sections describing the effects and what Theoden himself says about it, it’s not that far off.

          1. I have read those passages, and what Theoden seems to be afflicted with appears less magical and more psychosomatic – he’s been lulled into forgetting his actual strength and physically and mentally sapped by despair more than being magically possessed or bewitched. Given Tolkien was a first-hand witness to what war does to the psychology of men, this would seem far more deliberate and in-character for him as an author. After all, an act of bewitchment or possession is an exertion of magical power, but the key element here is spiritual power, which is altogether different.

        2. First, Yamamoto didn’t think that pearl harbor would force the americans to stay out. He knew that the americans had a bigger fleet than he did, and thought Pearl Harbor was essential to cutting it down to size and giving the japanese the time they needed to seize their asian conquests. And he was largely right about that, pearl harbor did limit american options in the early war.

          Second, yamamoto DID lure the american carriers out at midway. his mistakes there was (A) being so over confident that he was ok launching the attack with 4 carriers instead of 6 (Shōkaku and Zuikaku were at coral sea. the former had its air group shot badly up, the latter was heavily damaged) (B) pointlessly dividing his forces. But even then, if yorktown had been sunk like he thought it had, those decisions wouldn’t look nearly as dangerous as they actually were.

          1. 1. Eri Hotta’s book 1941 pretty much covers the Yamamoto angle, as does Shattered Sword by Parshall and Tully – it wasn’t merely cutting down the American fleet to size, it was a matter of Yamamoto assuming that it would force the Americans to stay out of the war. Japan had fought opponents in short wars, opponents that were easily demoralized, and Yamamoto assumed the same. Pearl Harbor may have limited American options when it came to using battleships, but it educated Americans on the utility of carriers as nothing before ever did, and EXPANDED their options very effectively.

            2. Shattered Sword makes it evident that Yamamoto abjectly FAILED to lure the American carriers at Midway because the Americans had broken the Japanese Naval Code and were in a position to turn the ‘lure’ into an ambush that destroyed Yamamoto’s most precious assets. Yamamoto’s carriers were baited into their down destruction by his incompetence and autocracy. Prudence dictated that Yamamoto should have prepared for at least one of the carriers at Coral Sea to have survived and retained some of its fighting ability, or accounted for the possible existence of the USS Wasp or USS Ranger in lieu of Yorktown. For this, the simple act of letting Zuikaku out with Shokaku’s aircraft would’ve potentially changed everything (Yorktown’s own squadrons were depleted so Yorktown flew with Saratoga’s Fighter, Dive Bomber and Torpedo Bomber squadrons at Midway).

            Seriously, just read Shattered Sword if you haven’t, and you’ll see just how wrong the entire image of Yamamoto really is.

  16. Helm’s Dike, an earthwork rampart which was located some distance out from the fortress. Éomer gives the distance as two furlongs, which is 440 yards; he also describes it as ‘ancient’ (TT, 159). The distance between the dike and the main fortress always puzzled me.

    I read that as perhaps the dyke is far older than the Hornburg ? Like some of the old British Hill forts had later adaptions by others.

    1. With the apparent age of the Dike, and its distance from the walls, is it possible that Tolkien meant it as evidence of previous contravallation? As mentioned in the article, it is *perfectly* situated to protect the rear of Saruman’s army (despite their failure to use it); could that be the remains of a previous siege attempt, such as the one during Helm Hammerhand’s time that gave the whole valley its name, that has been co-opted and incorporated into the Rohirrim defense?

  17. A few months back when I was researching siege-engines, I was struck by how almost none of the medieval or ancient (European) ones were the tension-based, “giant (cross)bow” kind—almost all the ones I could find were the torsion-based type. If I recall correctly, the only examples of “giant crossbows” that I could find were actually Chinese (basically a giant version of the repeating crossbows traditionally attributed to Zhuge Liang, though they actually predate him by centuries).

  18. You should really watch this part of a video here by Cinefix about great moments of action in film. The segment is about 5 minutes long, and it details how Peter Jackson made the battle from a filmmaking perspective so that the viewer could understand which side was winning and not get lost in a mob of armies hitting eachother with no idea how it relates to the larger objective.

  19. Just one point in Saruman’s defence; when his army set out, he believed with reason, that the only army Rohan had in the field had just been defeated (at the Fords) and many of them were running around the Westfold in a panic and in small groups (not reckoning with Gandalf’s super-fast horse riding and morale boosting efforts to get them back together again to relieve the siege).

    Even more importantly, he believed that Gríma had essentially talked Théoden into giving up and cowering in Edoras, and that he had succeeded in having Éomer relieved of command and placed under house arrest. He didn’t know that Théoden was going to bring over 1000 (per the books) further defenders to Helm’s Deep before the siege began. Furthermore these were presumably among the best troops available, as they included the knights of the king’s own household. And all of them were mounted. Whereas Saruman expected ‘a thousand fit to fight on foot, but most of them have seen too many winters…or too few’ (as Gamling tells Éomer), he got a further thousand top class cavalry in the fortress. Plus an excellent archer, and two excellent leaders of Men (Aragorn and Éomer) who, as we see, do wonders for the morale of the defenders, and lead three assaluts which regain sections of the Wall from the enemy, not to mention a sally to defend the gate.

    Yes, Saruman’s planning is still appalling, but not quite as negligent as it would initially seem. It was planned with a different situation in mind, and of course (as you pointed out in a previous essay) as far as we know there wasn’t a single commander in his army who had ever seen a battle before that week, so it is unlikely whoever commanded the army would know how to modify Saruman’s plan.

    1. True, when all your intel says you’ll be facing National Guard infantry, and then the Air Force shows up in A10s, you aren’t necessarily a bad commander if it blows your plans to hell.

        1. “Olorin came back to life, and is stronger than me now so he can undo my manipulation of Theoden” is a fairly excusable intel failure…

          1. The magical manipulation/possession of Theoden was a movie thing – in the book Theoden is being manipulated via Wormtongue, and Gandalf’s real contribution is to free him psychologically and make him aware that he still has the strength and ability to strike back at Saruman. The real failure wasn’t one of intel, it was psychological – he thought there was nobody available who could snap Theoden out of his state, and ignoring the threat posed by Eomer and Erkenbrand who he couldn’t rely on Wormtongue to keep in check with “leechcraft” alone.

          2. Rallying the troops does not need supernatural abilities. When Early attacked Sheridan’s forces in the Shenandoah Valley, routing most of them, and driving them all back, Sheridan was able, alone, to rally them to a counter-attack of crushing proportions. (Assisted some by the way the troops that had not been routed were already preparing a counter-attack, and the way Early’s troops broke to loot the camp — but still mostly Sheridan.)

          3. I could’ve sworn it was implied in the book that Saruman was working through Wormtongue—Wormtongue wasn’t just manipulating Theoden on his own, through pure persuasive power, but channeling Saruman’s power, like a mini-Nazgul without a ring.

            And even if Gandalf’s only contribution was snapping Theoden out of it, Saruman still thought Gandalf was dead.

          4. I’ve just checked the relevant section of TTT, and whilst there’s no indication that Saruman is possessing Théoden like in the movie, the king’s recovery seems too sudden and complete to be just a matter of Gandalf reminding him that he’s not so helpless after all. I think we’re meant to understand that Saruman’s been sapping Théoden’s mental (and possibly physical) strength using some sort of magic, and that Gandalf is able to undo this and restore Théoden to his normal state.

    2. Bret covered this in the earlier blog posts, Saruman’s scouting is outrageously sloppy. Saruman additionally has superb dedicated scouting assets in the form of flocks of spying crows (Crebain from Dunland) and a magical seeing-stone, the likes of which his enemies do not possess, and yet assumes that his plan will go like clockwork and the enemy will turn up when and where he assumed they would.

      If Admiral Sarumoto (I think I’ll call him that!) really wanted to do a good job of aping Sauron he would’ve kept an eye on what his forces were doing. All he had to do was keep an eye on things and issue appropriate commands, and his forces would’ve intercepted and fought Theoden in the field rather than Helm’s Deep, and not even Gandalf would’ve been able to even the odds if Theoden was caught outside the fortress and attacked by a superior force.

      1. Saruman’s window of freedom was extremely narrow.

        March 2: Gandalf comes to Edoras and heals Théoden. The Rohirrim ride west against Saruman. Second Battle of Fords of Isen. Erkenbrand defeated. Entmoot ends in afternoon. The Ents march on Isengard and reach it at night.

        March 3: Théoden retreats to Helm’s Deep. Battle of the Hornburg begins. Ents complete the destruction of Isengard.

        Basically there are a few *hours* in which Saruman might have scryed or spied Theoden riding forth, and — lacking any way to command his servants mentally, that we know of — sent messengers to his forces. After that he was surrounded by Ents, and fighting for control of Isengard, which he lost. And orcish messengers might have been overtaken by Huorns. Angry walking trees move fast.

    3. I have to assume that main Saruman’s blunder was in not actually preparing to siege down *either* Helm’s Deep or Edoras. He assumed that he could just walk in and take over, with his Uruk-Hai/Dunlending army serving mainly to keep the Rohirrim populace in line long enough for him to thoroughly subvert the local authorities and weed out the malcontents who refuse to submit even in the face of overwhelming force. This is the strategy he executes later on in The Shire, after all.

      The secondary objective for his army is to deter Sauron from launching an invasion of his own until he can advance his ring-making endeavours to the point of challenging the One Ring. Partly, he plans to do this by currying favour — look, I took care of Rohan for you, what a great servant I am — but he probably also intends to defend the narrow strip of land between the White Mountains and Anduin that Sauron garrisons during his assault on Gondor.

      This still shows off his fundamental arrogance and lack of wisdom, of course. First of all, he could never hope to withstand Sauron with such a paltry force. And second of all, he had no contingency for taking Rohan in the event that Grima’s treachery is discovered and undone. (Which could have just as easily been accomplished by, say, Hama or Eowyn or just about any other Rohan loyalist getting sick of his nonsense and sticking a dagger in him.)

    4. Yes, excellent points. A lot of Saruman’s very effective strategic preparation and operational planning was undone by Gandalf’s intervention in miraculously timely fashion.

      1. No one who only has a single plan and no effective backups can be considered to have “very effective” preparation or planning.

        1. Yeah. Preparations can be “clever” or even “good,” but if they fall apart entirely as soon as anything goes wrong, it is very unlikely that they can be considered “effective.”

          Effectiveness must be measured by… effects.

  20. Standing on the walls of the castle at Beynac, looking through the crenels, I saw a flock of blackbirds swooping around below me. Blackbird in French is “merle”, so “merlon” must come from the similarity to birds sitting on the wall. Anyone reading this deep into a post about Tolkien must love etymology, right?

  21. Another very interesting post – I really like how you emphasise Saruman’s incompetence. There were bits that had always stuck me as rather badly planned (such as the battering ram), but I’d not really appreciated quite had bad it was.

    The only point that I’d disagree with you on is the comment about Elvish archers:

    > It would have been very difficult, given the poundage of the bows, to hold for volleys like this. And it does no good to claim that these are elves – Legolas does not appear to be massively stronger than his companions.)

    Tolkien was very against the “dainty” and somewhat effeminate versions of Elves that we often see. To quote from Christopher Tolkien in the Book of Lost Tales, Part 2:

    > Ultimately, of course, the Elves shed all associations and qualities that would be now commonly considered ‘fairylike’, and those who remained in the Great Lands in Ages of the world at this time unconceived were to grow greatly in stature and in power: there was nothing filmy or transparent about the heroic or majestic Eldar of the Third Age of Middle-earth. Long afterwards my father would write, in a wrathful comment on a ‘pretty’ or ‘ladylike’ pictorial rendering of 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.

    1. Except the Noldor *still* lost to Morgoth and his mere orcs, repeatedly. Yes, there was the odd balrog and dragon thrown in, to slightly spare their blushes, but the body-count that orcs were able to rack up against the Noldor makes no sense at all if the elves were all god mode Mary Sue super-beings.

      However, it might be possible to do some back of the envelope calculations about the strength of ‘typical’ Mirkwood elf if we had a scene where they are carrying out feats of strength, and fortunately, we do, in the book version of The Hobbit, where they’re emptying the cellar of wine casks and other food barrels.
      So if we can figure out how much an empty barrel should weigh, and how much a dwarf-filled one should weigh, we get some idea of how strong a ‘typical’ Mirkwood elf is.
      At this point, it’s over to someone else, since I don’t have information on typical barrel weights, or not unless I can dig out my old AD&D manuals and find something which looks halfway relevant in them.

        1. In ‘Barrels out of Bond’ they seem to be rolling those casks around perfectly easily, despite being drunk, and these are ‘normal’ Mirkwood elves. If the comment one elf makes about ‘idle toss-pots’ is a reference to the action going on then or at other times, apparently they may be used to throwing casks of that size and weight around too.
          It looks to me like at this point that the elves *are* a whole race of Mary Sues. (Actually, the scenes in the Silmarillion where we see elves going one-on-one with balrogs without a problem (including ‘Ecthelion of the Fountain’ mutually taking out Gothmog, the Lord of the Balrogs) should be a major warning of this, plus there’s the earlier scene where Fingolfin only loses to Morgoth because Morgoth is bigger than him and manages to step on him.)
          It does repeat and underscore the question of how the Noldor ever managed to lose the war against Morgoth (again: an elf, who Tolkien scarcely thinks worth more than a name check in The Silmarillion, other than to note that he is one of Turgon’s captains is the equal of what is presumably Morgoth’s best balrog, in combat, at Gondolin), but there was a lot of elf-on-elf fighting going on, which might be supposed to account for most of the casualties, and possibly even elves are flammable if a dragon sneezes on them at range having somehow sneaked up on said elves or if the elves forgot to pack their bows this morning. (Maybe the Noldor having been cursed by Mandos helped the dragons.)
          Not very gruntled here at the moment. Mary Sues tend to leave gaping plot-holes and questions everywhere, unless the Mary Sues are by inclination incredibly lazy, and I’m now having to reevaluate the smouldering wreckage that Middle-earth history looks like to me now.

          And yes: I’m afraid it looks like Peter Jackson would probably be justified in having a Tolkien designed elf draw one of their super-bows and hold it until the bow either came apart or the day of the last battle arrived withoutthe Tolkien designed elf breaking a sweat. It’s like asking Superman to hold a car over his head – ridiculously easy for a character that insanely strong.

          1. If the comment one elf makes about ‘idle toss-pots’ is a reference to the action going on then or at other times, apparently they may be used to throwing casks of that size and weight around too.

            “Tosspot” is British slang for a habitual drinker, and by extension a useless or contemptible person. It has nothing to do with throwing barrels around.

          2. The originalmrx said: “Tosspot” is British slang for a habitual drinker, and by extension a useless or contemptible person. It has nothing to do with throwing barrels around.”

            I suspect Look More Closely Later is perfectly aware that the meaning is other than tossing barrels. Nonetheless, the comment speaks to the fact that while they are moving these heavy barrels around, they are being told that this “light work” makes them no better than “idle tosspots.”

          3. Elves, especially first age Noldor, are in fact very powerful. But:
            – The Balrogs of Lost Tales are not the same as the Balrogs of the later writings. There were thousands of them, and even Tuor, a mortal, slew multiple. They were conceived to be much weaker in this early phase of development.
            – Elves can be roasted by dragons. And dragons have armor that can not be shot trough with bows. Their undersides are soft (like Smaug), but since first age dragons go sliding on the ground, not flying, it is inaccessible.
            – There was elf-on elf violence (the three kinslayings), but it definitely did not account for most of the losses. These remained isolated and abnormal events. The main effect of the Doom of Mandos was preventing the Noldor from properly cooperating with each other.

          4. Worth reading the fall of gondolin book on this – morgoth didn’t just (or even mostly) send orcs, he sent giant robot dragons made of steel and all kinds of other crazy stuff. It’s worth noting that early on when he did just send mostly orcs, they gout easily slaughtered.

        2. Not sure why Legolas doesn’t join in the Hobbit-carrying or the improvised snow-shovelling at Redhorn Gate in the books given how ridiculously powerful he almost certainly is; maybe he figures that as the son of a king such work is beneath him?

          1. Coming back to this much later- appropriately given LMCL’s screenname ( 🙂 )…

            Legolas is the only member of the Fellowship who can move freely across the snow. He is also the Fellowship’s best archer, and the best prepared to rapidly take down any single enemy who appears at any range, as at least one of the Nine learns to his cost over Anduin.

            Rereading the text closely, Aragorn and Boromir both seem very eager to pit their strength against the situation by carrying the hobbits and earlier by smashing through the snow, a task they performed admirably (though commenting, themselves, on how much easier the job would have been if they’d brought shovels).

            Legolas might well have decided that his skills and strength were best reserved as scout and security for the overall operation, with his hands free to defend himself and others in case any actual threats arise beyond the weather of the mountain itself.

        3. You don’t lift barrels – you tilt and roll them. Even big drums are quite easy to move that way.

      1. “Except the Noldor *still* lost to Morgoth and his mere orcs, repeatedly. Yes, there was the odd balrog and dragon thrown in, to slightly spare their blushes, but the body-count that orcs were able to rack up against the Noldor makes no sense at all if the elves were all god mode Mary Sue super-beings. ”

        This seems meaningless unless you take the relative numbers into account. Not that we *have* good numbers, but “lots and lots” seems to apply for orcs. And the balrogs, dragons, and “rivers of fire” do in fact matter.

        Boromir alone killed many orcs. So did Legolas and Gimli:

        > ‘Alas!’ said Legolas, coming to Aragorn’s side. ‘We have hunted and slain many Orcs in the woods, but we should have been of more use here. We came when we heard the horn – but too late, it seems. I fear you have taken deadly hurt.’

      2. That’s like saying the Great Disaster proves Hive Thralls and Acolytes are not grossly outmatched by Guardians. They are; indeed so are most Knights and Wizards. They just also had Crota the Eater of Hope.

        The First Age battles between Noldor and the minions of Morgoth only saw Orcs in a supporting, cannon-fodder role, like low-caste Hive. The heavy-hitters were all Ainur—Morgoth, Sauron, Balrogs, dragons—comparable to Ascendant Hive like Crota and his family.

        1. Sorry Tom, I’m completely lost by this. What book / film / whatever do the Great Disaster and the Hive come from?

          1. The fantasy (even though it’s set in space) MMO-FPS game Destiny, whose protagonists, the Guardians, are dead heroes raised up by a space-god, the Traveler, to fight in defense of cosmic order. The Hive are one of the enemies, arguably the worst one; they’re undead witches that were originally zooplankton from the oceans of a gas giant on the other side of the galaxy. The Great Disaster was an event in the game’s backstory, where hundreds of Guardians were killed, in the former colonies on the Moon, by the Hive god Crota, Eater of Hope, the son of the ruler of all the Hive, Oryx the Taken King.

  22. “In short you do not want to give them this neat a target, especially if you are not using any kind of cover or shields.”

    To be fair, they are wearing plate armour, so it is not exactly the worst idea. Now if only that armour worked as it historically did…* but of course it doesn’t, and we get nice shots of breastplate being pierced by arrows. Which makes a joke of Legolas’ (otherwise rather sensible) warning that “armour is weak at the neck and under armpit”.

    *I will note here that at Agincourt, while arrows did tire out French men-at-arms, primary impact of warbows was to *unhorse* them – as insufficient barding was available, they were forced to attack on foot in any case – which played into English strengths, being mostly infantry. But they were not defeated by missile fire, they were defeated in hand-to-hand combat which they – thanks to arrows, but mostly thanks to mud – they entered exhausted. But Saruman’s host is on the foot, so they must have expected to advance on foot in any case. And what mud there is does not appear very deep.

    1. I do wonder how much of the ‘arrow through breastplate’ stuff you see in film and TV began with safety considerations. In a time before widespread (and cheap) CGI, filming someone being shot in the neck by an arrow would be a risky business. Having it hit them in the breastplate would be much safer.

      Aware that this very battle has someone getting shot in the neck and one of the first large-scale uses of CGI (most of the Uruk horde are CGI duplications), but it was still quite an expensive venture at the time.

  23. In keeping with the rest of the series, this was a fantastic post. I recently showed your blog to a historian friend of mine and he’s loving your work too!

    There’s a beautiful expression in Spanish – meterse en camisa de once varas, i.e. “breaking into a 30-foot-tall section of wall”. In modern usage it means unnecesarily forcing yourself into a difficult situation in which you have little to gain. So, both literally and figuratively, exactly what Saruman does with his haphazard assault on Helm’s Deep. 🙂

    Unrelatedly, I presume Gríma Wormtongue’s name comes from English “grim” or its Germanic origins, but I wonder if Tolkien knew about the (possibly related) grima, which is roughly translatable as “cringe”, “disgust” or “shiver”. To a Spanish-speaking reader, the character’s name is absolutely spot-on, and not entirely lost in translation.

    1. Tolkien’s Gríma comes from Old English for “mask” or “secret,” whereas our more common use of grim, meaning (among other things) “ghastly, repellent, or sinister in character,” has been traced all the way back to Greek. Though, knowing Tolkien, he was quite happy with the “pun.”

  24. As I was reading this, it occurred to me to wonder if the stupidly long charge with the ladders was yet another case of, as you put it somewhere else, The Somme In Medieval Fantasy Depictions. We expect assaults to involve charges across no-man’s-land, because, again, that’s what WWI brought us, on film, and against bullets you can’t advance under cover or the like. (And I’m not even sure how common that was as an actual trench assault. The no-man’s-land, sure. The big charging mass? That seems less likely, but I don’t know the material for that war terribly well.)

    1. Coming back to this much later…

      Tolkien himself was a World War One veteran who had lost far more than his share of friends in the war. We can bear in mind that he saw the entire concept of industrialized armies as a sick and twisted thing, to the point where all the villain factions were in a way metaphors for industrialized war of all sides (“we were all orcs in the Great War”).

      It is entirely plausible that he would have written a scene in which large numbers of orcs are sent to their death fighting mighty heroes or storming mighty fortresses, commanded by rulers who are unspeakably distant from the event and who have no real personal understanding of what they’re dealing with, quite intentionally based on that.

  25. The one thing that I think should be taken into account is the physiology of orcs themselves. The orcs are behaving in a very stupid and primitive way suggesting that not only do they have next to no experience of life outside their home area, but that their intelligence is substantially poorer than any human. This gives a social structure where just managing to make them wear clothes, use weapons and not start fighting each other is about the limit of what can be done for army discipline.

    The soldiers all seem to be male, so the behaviour seems on a par with chimpanzee territorial patrolling and fighting; once they get going they’re partly about social display, partly about killing the enemy but they are not at all thinking of being in a team; what you see are painstakingly trained dunces acting out roles that have taken months to drum into their thick skulls. I would also suppose that orcs, given the right conditions, breed very fast indeed and reach adult size very quickly; the army of Saruman is big but the individuals are early teenagers in years and experience.

    This demonstrates that Sauron doesn’t trust Saruman with good troops, since he rightly is convinced that Saruman is truly bad as a commander. So, Saruman gets gifted an army of extremely stupid and extremely expendable orcs to basically act as one huge diversion.

    1. I don’t think that tracks with what we see of orcs interacting with orcs, especially in the books. There’s no sense in, for instance, “The Uruk-Hai” that they are especially stupid, even if they are brutal and mean.

      1. I agree. Especially since the orcs, in certain origins, are actually “corrupted” men and elves. While derivative works took the idea of orcs as an “always chaotic evil” race and ran with it, Tolkien himself seems to have treated the line between orc and man as being somewhat fuzzy. Mostly, he portrays men and hobbits behaving in rather “orcish” ways, particularly during the Scouring of the Shire (I think one of our heroes observes as much explicitly, but I don’t have my copy at hand to quote from), but that naturally leads to the question of whether orcs could become less “orcish” when removed from the corrupting influence of a Dark Lord.

        1. Which is rather tangential to the point, of course, which is that orcs aren’t portrayed as being particularly stupid on an individual level, although they exist within a social and political structure of extreme deference to authority and brute force, which makes them seem “stupid” to outsiders.

  26. “the sent giant robot dragons made of steel and all kinds of other crazy stuff”

    Though Fall of Gondolin is early stuff, along with weak Balrogs, and a Numenor that had steamships and cruise missiles. Not at all clear that older Tolkien would have stuck with dragon mecha; later Numenor had such high tech as “steel bows”.

  27. “Surely someone, at some point ought to have brought up, “Hey, chief, maybe we should make sure to also have our shields out to the left side, towards the Deeping Wall, so we don’t take heavy losses from enfilade fire?””

    Basic strategic common sense orc, forestry management orc ( and labor-agitator orc should get together and transform Isengard into a functioning anarcho-syndicalist commune.

    1. Maybe Sauron isn’t so much a STEM Supremacist as a mediocre b-school graduate who thinks management training supersedes the necessity of domain-specific knowledge.

      1. So maybe all the wizards except Olorin were actually overly qualified fools who were sent off to Middle Earth to get rid of them?

        1. I wouldn’t be too sure about Gandalf not being an overqualified fool, either, at least at first, to judge by the Lord of the Rings appendices. The notes on ‘The Third Age’ in Appendix B indicate that the wizards are apparently active in Middle-earth from year 1,000 of the Third Age onwards. This is at the time which includes the Loss of Arnor, Kin-strife in Gondor, Great Plague in Gondor, the ‘wrong king’ being picked by Gondor (instead of Arvedui) to succeed to the crown of Gondor…
          The disasters just go on and on. Gandalf was as much asleep in the driver’s seat as his fellow wizards for multiple centuries. (And despite whatever ‘restrictions’ he’s speculated to have been under, he surely could at the very least have mediated the Kin-strife, if nothing else, right?)
          You can make a case that Gandalf *finally* gets his act together in the third millennium of the third age, when he’s actually reported helping Hobbits in the Shire and goes to investigate Dol Guldur a couple of times (although several years too late on the second occasion to save Thráin II or the last dwarven ring) but even he has centuries of not doing much recorded as effective in the history of the third age in the Lord of the Rings appendices.)

          1. And despite whatever ‘restrictions’ he’s speculated to have been under, he surely could at the very least have mediated the Kin-strife, if nothing else, right?

            The thing about mediation is that it only works if both sides are willing. Since the wizards are apparently prohibited from using compulsion, if one or both sides didn’t want to listen to him, there’s not really much he could do.

          2. theoriginalmrx:
            Appendix B of Lord of the Rings plays around very cleverly with what restrictions they wizards may or may not have been under. Specifically it uses the phrase ‘…It was afterwards said that…’ putting it into the territory of rumour and after-the-fact speculation. Despite it having been ‘afterwards said that’ they were ‘…forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force and fear…’ we certainly see Gandalf put the frighteners on people at least a couple of times, intimidating Bilbo in ‘A Long-Expected Party’ over the matter of leaving the Ring for Frodo, and Théoden and his court in ‘The King of the Golden Hall’ when trying to break Théoden free of Wormtongue’s influence.
            At the very least Gandalf seems to have some leeway to intimidate people to try and ‘help’ them and to get them to see sense about something.

          3. Yes, but if Bilbo had flatly refused, we don’t know whether Gandalf could have escalated.

  28. Again, not buying it, Bret. Tolkien didn’t write Saruman to be an idiot and the bottom-line with the assault on Helm’s Deep – it’s not a siege, and you acknowledge that, eventually – is that it would have worked if not for the meddling kids supernatural intervention of Gandalf and the huorn/ent relief force.

    The nature of the battle – a “hasty assault”, as you put it – is that it precludes the heavy equipment that you imply was essential to take the fortress. Saruman’s army had smashed the Rohirric army of the Westfold on the night of 2nd March and then marched directly on Helm’s Deep to assault it the following night. That speed of operation was audacious but meant that extensive mantlets, protective sheds for rams, siege works etc. simply could not be carried by Saruman’s army and achieve its speedy coup de main. You fault this lack of equipment as proof of Saruman’s incompetence, and yet we know from reading the book that the combination of demonstrating ladder assaults, a ram against the main gate and – critically – the “blasting fire” provided by Saruman were effective in the assault. I’ll just repeat that point: it was working. Saruman’s assault plan worked. How do we know this? Read the following passage:

    ”It is said that the Hornburg has never fallen to assault,” said Théoden; “but now my heart is doubtful. The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate? Had I known that the strength of Isengard was grown so great, maybe l should not so rashly have ridden forth to meet it, for all the arts of Gandalf. His counsel seems not now so good as it did under the morning sun.”
    “Do not judge the counsel of Gandalf, until all is over, lord,” said Aragorn.
    “The end will not be long,” said the king. “But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. Snowmane and Hasufel and the horses of my guard are in the inner court. When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song-if any be left to sing of us hereafter.”

    This is Theoden’s assessment of his situation after the breaching of the Deeping Wall with blasting fire. He has concluded that his position is lost and defeat inevitable. He thus resolves to ride out and die in battle, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Byhrtnoth and Beowulf which Tolkien knew so well. And his assessment is correct, because soon after the enemy blows the gate and its barricade away with blasting fire. At this moment the reader is under no illusions that defeat is coming soon for the Rohirrim, and this is deliberate on the part of Tolkien. We are meant to understand that Saruman is on the point of victory, that his hasty assault was successful. That’s how Tolkien wrote it and it’s credible, because he wrote it well.

    But of course that doesn’t end the battle, because just at the moment of catastrophe Tolkien pulls out one of his characteristic eucatastrophes: the supernatural intervention of Gandalf and the Ents, i.e. an improbable miracle at the most opportune time imaginable.

    1. Books Saruman appears to be better organised, and to have an army capable of carrying out operations in his absence somewhat more effectively than films Saruman possesses.
      But both books and films version of Saruman deliberately sent their army out and left themselves out of the command loop unless they were using the Orthanc Stone to remote monitor and some combination of will & homemade magic-ring to exert control over a distance, at least until the ents showed up. (Although Saruman, it has to be said, strikes me as seriously upset about those ents. in ‘The Voice of Saruman’ going so far as to call them ‘wild wood-demons’.)

    2. Tolkien didn’t write Saruman to be an idiot and the bottom-line with the assault on Helm’s Deep – it’s not a siege, and you acknowledge that, eventually – is that it would have worked if not for the meddling kids supernatural intervention of Gandalf and the huorn/ent relief force.

      I’m not so sure, actually. Looking at the relevant section, the defeat of the Isengard army happened in four stages:

      (1) “But even as the gate fell, and the Orcs about it yelled, preparing to charge, a murmur arose behind them, like a wind in the distance, and it grew to a clamour of many voices crying strange news in the dawn. The Orcs upon the Rock, hearing the rumour of dismay, wavered and looked back.”

      (2) Helm’s horn was blown; “All that heard that sound trembled. Many of the Orcs cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws.” Théoden launched his sally, as did the men who had been defending the caves, “and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass… Captains and champions fell or fled before them. Neither orc nor man withstood them.”

      (3) The orcs came across the Huorn wood and started cowering and running around in terror, trapped between Théoden and this new danger.

      (4) Gandalf arrived with Erkenbrand and 1,000 reinforcements.

      So, I think it’s a bit more complicated than just Théoden being doomed until Gandalf and the Huorns show up. The Huorns’ arrival undoubtedly disconcerts the orcs and weakens their morale (I take it that the “strange news” of stage 1 concerns the giant forest that’s appeared overnight), but it’s Théoden’s sally that actually breaks them, and it’s quite possible that the surprise of his sudden attack would have caused them to flee even without the Huorns. The orcs are clearly in disarray before Gandalf arrives. Without Gandalf and the Huorns, it’s quite possible that they’d have eventually rallied and been able to overwhelm Théoden using their superior numbers; then again, they might not have (Tolkien’s description certainly implies that they were in a complete rout). So, I think it’s going too far to say that Saruman was “on the point of victory” when Gandalf arrived; his forces *might* have been able to turn things around, but things were looking pretty dicey for them already when Gandalf showed up.

      1. Your own sequence of events shows that it’s the arrival of the supernatural host behind Saruman’s army that unnerves its troops. I’ll also reiterate that Theoden himself clearly states that his position is lost. On this basis the assault has succeeded. You can argue that it’s Theoden’s charge that breaks the enemy, but Tolkien didn’t think that was plausible either, which is why he has to pluck his deus ex arboria out of thin air to make Saruman’s defeat work.

        The overarching point is that, as Tolkien wrote it, Saruman’s assault on Helm’s Deep was at the point of taking the fortress when a literal miracle occurred to save the Rohirrim. Bret’s extended mockery of STEM’s noobery incompetence doesn’t refute this.

        1. You say; as Tolkien wrote it, Saruman’s assault on Helm’s Deep was at the point of taking the fortress when a literal miracle occurred to save the Rohirrim

          But, although the supernatural appearance of the Huorns flooding the entrance to the valley unnerves the assault, it is the “stout legs of the Westfold men marching through the night” who provide the actual military relief. The Huorns don’t attack anyone or anything, they just deal with whatever Orcs try to make a run for it to escape the MILITARY forces that have swept down the western ridge.

          1. It’s hard to attribute contributions to the victory, but even the arrival of the Westfold forces is arguably supernatural. I didn’t expand on this in my comment here, but did note it on Bret’s earlier discussion of the operational plan. That is, the arrival of Erkenbrand’s forces can also be seen as miraculous. Why? Because this was a small army defeated a day before and then scattered to the East of the Fords of Isen. Gandalf then uses the supernatural speed of Shadowfax to gather them up, and then guide them through the night – in darkness, you understand – and march a non-trivial distance (20 miles? 30 miles?), to attack Saruman’s army in the very early hours of 4th March. That’s simply extraordinary.

            Again, all of this is moot relative to the main point. That is, it doesn’t change the fact that Saruman’s defeat at Helm’s Deep is only clinched through the actions of relieving forces. Contra Bret’s assertions, the actual assault worked.

        2. > I’ll also reiterate that Theoden himself clearly states that his position is lost.

          He’s certainly at least very doubtful. OTOH Aragorn, who is older and more experience, is more optimistic, though partly from greater faith in Gandalf.

          > it’s the arrival of the supernatural host behind Saruman’s army that unnerves its troops

          Fuller quotes:

          But even as the gate fell, and the Orcs about it yelled, preparing to charge, a murmur arose behind them, like a wind in the distance, and it grew to a clamour of many voices crying strange news in the dawn. The Orcs upon the Rock, hearing the rumour of dismay, wavered and looked back. And then, sudden and terrible, from the tower above, the sound of the great horn of Helm rang out.

          All that heard that sound trembled. Many of the Orcs cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws. Back from the Deep the echoes came, blast upon blast, as if on every cliff and hill a mighty herald stood. But on the walls men looked up, listening with wonder; for the echoes did not die. Ever the hornblasts wound on among the hills; nearer now and louder they answered one to another, blowing fierce and free.

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

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

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

          There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees.


          So several things happen in close order:

          The orcs are confident, especially after blasting fire brings down the gate.

          There’s a murmur of dismay, presumably from back orcs noticing the trees.

          The horn of Helm rings out, terrifying many of the Orcs to point that they’re *prostrate* — not a good thing in the middle of battle!

          The king charges with his men, dawn comes, and the cave refugees leap forward as well. Cavalry charging into prostrate enemies could well be a rout by itself.

          But it’s extra easy, because with the light now all the orcs and men can see the trees and they’re not even facing the right way.

          It’s a total rout, or would be if they could flee, the hosts are trying to scrabble up the rock.

          Gandalf and Erkenbrand show up.

          The actual victory is overdetermined. Could Theoden’s charge have turned the day by itself, especially with the cave folk rushing out as well? Maybe! It could work better than he expected. But it certainly worked with Huorns. It would probably also have worked with Erkenbrand’s men, let alone Erkenbrand plus Gandalf together. As it happens, the charge got Huorns *and* Erkenbrand+Gandalf: double surprise reinforcements, either one of which would have worked.

          1. As pointed out by theoriginalmrx below, Theoden resolves to charge, expecting two outcomes: 1) cut through to escape; OR 2) death in battle. It’s a gamble with the best case outcome being flight from a superior enemy. There’s nothing in that to suggest that he thinks victory is possible – quite the opposite.

            Does Theoden need assistance to win? Of course, and that’s how Tolkien sets it up. Theoden’s forces are confined to a fortress and caves, with no space to spread out cavalry for a formed charge, against vastly superior numbers. It’s just not realistic for such a charge to succeed on its own, hence Theoden hoping for the best in cutting through and escaping. Tolkien has to inject a miraculous saviour in Gandalf to avert disaster for Theoden.

          2. When reading Tolkien, it is a good idea to take into account the likelihood that a character’s remarks are fully accurate. A character like Pippin Took is something of a fool; just because he says a thing, does not mean that it is true.

            Théoden is not a fool. He is a competent general and leader of men. But he is, in some sense, ‘merely’ an ordinary man. He was not strong enough to resist Grima’s evil counsel and Saruman’s (direct or indirect) mental domination without help.

            It is entirely understandable that after seeing an unknown and seemingly magical force shatter the Deeping Wall, Théoden would despair of being able to hold his position, decide that all was lost, and resolve on one last heroic charge in an attempt to cut a path through Saruman’s army and escape. Remember that morale is a factor that affects both allies and enemies! Théoden has good reason to have his morale shaken and his confidence (much like his fortress) undermined!

            If Aragorn seems to have more confidence in the situation, perhaps it is because Aragorn (like Faramir) proves repeatedly to be a very wise man. Perhaps Théoden’s assessment is somewhat less accurate, such that even if his proposed course of action is a well-chosen one, he is incorrect to assess the situation as hopeless.

        3. Actually Théoden gives two possibilities: “Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song-if any be left to sing of us hereafter.” So if we take his assessment at face value, it looks like there was a chance for Théoden’s men to cut their way through the besiegers, even without the Huorns and Erkenbrand’s reinforcements (of whom Théoden as yet knows nothing).

          Also, I disagree that Tolkien “has to” use the Huorns to rescue Théoden. For one thing, as Ed8r writes, the Huorns don’t provide the actual military relief; their main significance is to make sure no orcs escape the battle, turning what would have been a defeat into a total wipe-out. For another, Saruman’s defeat actually works perfectly well in the movie version without any Huorns whatsoever: Théoden charges out, catching the orcs off-guard and driving them back as a result, and then Rohirrim reinforcements unexpectedly show up and take them in the flank, causing Saruman’s army to flee. Tolkien could have easily written the battle to end like this, had he wanted to.

  29. It’s been a while since I read the book, and even though I read them a few times I had to resort to the LOTR wiki. About the Saruman, it stresses the fact he was a master of persuasion:

    “By far Saruman’s greatest power (and the only one he was able to retain after the downfall of Isengard), however, is speech. He seems to have the ability to bend any but the absolute strongest minds to his will, simply by speaking to them. Even with Isengard broken and Saruman’s treachery revealed, Gandalf had to be very careful, Saruman could ensnare almost anyone with the power of his voice, few can contend with his will. Gandalf was not drawn into this power when he confronted Saruman; in trying to enchant some in the company, he left others out of his designs, and thus could not ensnare everyone at once. However, even in this situation, it is said that only Gandalf himself remained totally unmoved. Aragorn stated during this time that few other than Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel could resist his voice, even at this point. Saruman later used his persuasive power to escape Orthanc, convincing Treebeard to let him go.”

    So yes, Saruman was definitely arrogant, but I’d say his doom was not over-reliance on “technology”, but on soft skills, mind games, and mind-control magic.There’s literally a chapter “Voice of Saruman”. He misjudged how much he can influence people. So yes, Bret is correct in calling Saruman incompetent in military matters, but his fault was not lack of plan B or C. The army was probably his plan B. I don’t think the book supports the idea that he was a STEM supremacist or a nerd. His vast knowledge and ring-lore enabled him to see the big picture and play the big game. But when it comes to dealing with people, he was more like HR(Human Resources) guy than a STEM guy.

  30. I am loving your posts, although you’ve ruined the little things I liked about the films! 🙂 I only have one issue with this post. I think you are being too harsh in one point with Saruman. You think that he has had ages to plan this assault but that is not true in the books or the film. Saruman was planning on using “someone inside” to defeat Rohan. He never thought that a battle would occur since the king was under Wormtongue’s spell. But even if he had planned for some resistance from Rohan, that would not have been in Helm’s Deep but either in Meduseld or Harrowdale (as you very intelligently point out in a previous post, Helm’s Deep is too close to Saruman).

    That is the reason for not having trained for the specific battle. That is why the battering ram is too wide and pushes the orcs to the side, etc, the planned siege (if he even planned a siege) was not to be here.

    Just my 2 cents

  31. Some of Saruman’s apparent incompetence in planning (especially regarding the lack of proper siege equipment) might simply be because he’s had to bring his plans forward and launch his attack earlier than he expected. I’ve just been flicking through my copy of LOTR, and in “The White Rider” Gandalf says the following about the bad guys’ actions (pp. 486 f. of the 1995 HarperCollins edition):

    – Sauron thinks that the Fellowship have been taking the Ring to Minas Tirith, and worries that, if he doesn’t strike soon, the men of Gondor will use the Ring’s power to overthrow him. “So the forces that he has long been preparing he is now setting in motion, sooner than intended.”

    – As for Saruman, “His thought is ever on the Ring… What if Théoden, Lord of the Mark, should come by it and learn of its power? That is the danger that he sees, and he has fled back to Isengard to double and treble his assault on Rohan.”

    So, that’s two very good reasons for Saruman to hasten his assault: he’s worried about Théoden getting the Ring and using it against him, and he needs to present the conquest of Rohan as a fait accompli to Sauron, meaning that he has to finish his war before Sauron’s finished dealing with Gondor. Given the circumstances, I think that launching his attack even before everything’s ready is actually reasonable: yes, it’s a gamble, but the potential downsides of delay are big enough for the gamble to be worth it.

    (Of course, you might say that Saruman was pretty dumb to join Sauron’s side in the first place, and even dumber to join Sauron’s side and then try and screw him over. And you’d be right. But given that those decisions have already been made, trying to take over Rohan and use it as leverage of some kind is probably the best of the bad set of options Saruman has available.)

  32. Bret:
    Anyway, thanks for the ongoing updates to this series. They’re certainly thought provoking!

  33. A small point, but I always interpreted the grappling hooks as being used by the orcs on the ladders to pull them up to the walls. It never occurred to me that they expected them to climb them, because as you say, that would be even more ridiculous than the ladders.

  34. I love this article (and all the rest of this blog!) it reminds me of a line from a great book I book on my first trip to Scotland 20 years ago called “The Medieval Soldier” by Gerry Embleton and John Howe. The authors write: “Sieges were a long and serious undertaking. No one but a Hollywood director would storm a a fortress by rushing undamaged defenses with scaling ladders in broad daylight.” I guess the Uruks did at least try it at night in the rain, though my impression is that this would have hampered the assault rather more than the defense….climbing a scaling ladder with the additional weight and slipperiness of being soaking wet seems like a terrible idea. Great book, btw, the Embleton and Howe work is beautifully illustrated with re-enactors in many sections showing off their armor, weapons and – yes!! – campaigning gear.

  35. “Éomer gives the distance as two furlongs, which is 440 yards”
    …. how does that help ?

  36. ” rather than approaching in clear specialist teams with specific jobs ”

    Recalls to me Thucydides when the Plataeans carefully organize their breakout attempt. With all types of differently equipped troops in different order and weapons down to some men with one or two bare feet to have a quite or sure footing for one part of the other. And also of course a long devised plan based on tiny details like working how high the the Spartan wall blocking them was carefully.

    1. An F-U-Z-E is ‘a device for communicating fire,’ a simple cord or other such object that burns down along its length until the fire reaches whatever it is you wish to ignite (in context, typically gunpowder or some kind of incendiary). An F-U-Z-E is some kind of mechanical or electrical device for triggering high explosives (not gunpowder). Many high explosives cannot be detonated by fire alone (C4, for instance, will burn very fiercely but does not detonate). Thus, high explosives (with a few exceptions) require a physical shock or electric current, delivered by a proper ‘fuze.’

      A Molotov cocktail, or a stereotypical blackpowder bomb (the kind on cartoons, with a round metal casing and a cord burning down from the top), has a fuse.

      An artillery shell designed to slam through a steel plate and detonate on the other side, or to blow up when a tiny built-in radar set tells it an enemy aircraft is close enough, or after a set clock timer inside reaches 1.25 seconds, has a fuze.

      I’m pretty sure Saruman’s bomb had a fuse, with an S, though I could be misremembering.

  37. I think crenellations of Helm’s Deep may be influenced by gunpowder-age fortresses (as in fact the general design appears to be). If you come to Dubrovnik, you will notice that there are no crenellations, and the battlements are only chest-high.

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