This is is the seventh part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV, V, VI) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. Last time, we looked at the weapons and armor of the film sequence (and to a lesser extent, the books). But as you all remember from our Siege of Gondor series weapons are often not the determinant element in our battles and they never are in the battles of Middle Earth; battles turn on morale.
Now, we have already discussed many of the factors that go into morale and cohesion, in this series and the previous one. So this week, what we’re going to take a look at a perennial trope of war literature and the most obvious way that commanders are shown to intervene in their troop’s morale: the battle speech. Where do these speeches come from? Do they have historical precedents? What was the normal structure of such a speech? Do they work? And how does morale play into the conclusion of this battle?
As always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
The Battle Speech
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is studded with a set of notable pre-battle speeches, or spots where the dialogue fills in for one. The most notable is the “Men of the West” speech given by Aragorn towards the end of Return of the King, but there’s also Théoden’s “Arise, Riders of Théoden” speech (book version discussed below) before his cavalry charge, and of course Saruman’s “To War” speech in The Two Towers. We also have a couple of cases where dialogue fills the same purpose, like Faramir’s “Where Does My Allegiance Lie” line to Gandalf in RotK and (as we’ll discuss in a moment) the interplay between Théoden, Gimli and Aragorn prior to the Battle of Helm’s Deep in TT.
Which is remarkable because there are no traditional battle speeches in The Lord of the Rings (by which I mean the books). If that statement strikes you as strange, don’t worry – we’ll look at what takes the place of battle speeches and why Tolkien doesn’t seem to have any after we’ve discussed the speeches in the film. But for now, we have to ask if these speeches are not coming from the books (although some of them are adapted from the books), where are they coming from?
The modern pre-battle general’s speech is quite old. We can actually be very specific: it originates in a specific work: Thucydides’ Histories [of the Peloponnese War] (written c. 400 B.C.). Prior to this, looking at Homer or Herodotus, commanders give very brief remarks to their troops before a fight, but the fully developed form of the speech, often presented in pairs (one for each army) contrasting the two sides, is all Thucydides. It’s fairly clear that a few of Thucydides’ speeches seem to have gone on to define the standard form and ancient authors after Thucydides functionally mix and match their components (we’ll talk about them in a moment). This is not a particularly creative genre.
Now, there is tremendous debate as to if these speeches were ever delivered and if so, how they were delivered (see the bibliography note below; none of this is really original to me). For my part, while I think we need to be alive to the fact that what we see in our textual sources are dressed up literary compressions of the tradition of the pre-battle speech, I suspect that, particularly by the Roman period, yes, such speeches were a part of the standard practice of generalship. Onasander, writing about the duties of a general in the first century CE, tells us as much, writing, “For if a general is drawing up his men before battle, the encouragement of his words makes them despise the danger and covet the honour; and a trumpet-call resounding in the ears does not so effectively awaken the soul to the conflict of battle as a speech that urges to strenuous valour rouses the martial spirit to confront danger.” Onasander is a philosopher, not a military man, but his work became a standard handbook for military leaders in Antiquity; one assumes he is not entirely baseless.
And of course, we have the body of literature that records these speeches. They must be, in many cases, invented or polished versions; in many cases the author would have no way of knowing the real words actually said. And many of them are quite obviously too long and complex for the situations into which they are placed. And yet I think they probably do represent some of what was often said; in many cases there are good indications that they may reflect the general sentiments expressed at a given point. Crucially, pre-battle speeches, alone among the standard kinds of rhetoric, refuse to follow the standard formulas of Greek and Roman rhetoric. There is generally no exordium (meaning introduction; except if there is an apology for the lack of one, in the form of, “I have no need to tell you…”) or narratio (the narrated account), no clear divisio (the division of the argument, an outline in speech form) and so on. Greek and Roman oratory was, by the first century or so, quite well developed and relatively formulaic, even rigid, in structure. The temptation to adapt these speeches, when committing them to a written history, to the forms of every other kind of oratory must have been intense, and yet they remain clearly distinct. It is certainly not because the genre of the battle speech was more interesting in a literary sense than other forms of rhetoric, because oh my it wasn’t. The most logical explanation to me has always been that they continue to remain distinct because however artificial the versions of battle speeches we get in literature are, they are tethered to the ‘real thing’ in fundamental ways.
Finally, the mere existence of the genre. As I’ve noted elsewhere, we want to keep in mind that Greek and Roman literature were produced in extremely militarized societies, especially during the Roman Republic. And unlike many modern societies, where military service is more common among poorer citizens, in these societies military service was the pride of the elite, meaning that the literate were more likely both to know what a battle actually looked like and to have their expectations shaped by war literature than the commons. And that second point is forceful; even if battle speeches were not standard before Thucydides, it is hard to see how generals in the centuries after him could resist giving them once they became a standard trope of ‘what good generals do.’
So did generals give speeches? Yes, probably. Among other reasons we can be sure is that our sources criticize generals who fail to give speeches. Did they give these speeches? No, probably not; Plutarch says as much (Mor. 803b) though I will caution that Plutarch is not always the best when it comes to the reality of the battlefield (unlike many other ancient authors, Plutarch was a life-long civilian in a decidedly demilitarized province – Achaea – who also often wrote at great chronological distance from his subjects; his sense of military matters is generally weak compared to Thucydides, Polybius or Caesar, for instance). Probably the actual speeches were a bit more roughly cut and more compartmentalized; a set of quick remarks that might be delivered to one unit after another as the general rode along the line before a battle (e.g. Thuc. 4.96.1). There are also all sorts of technical considerations: how do you give a speech to so many people, and so on (and before you all rush to the comments to give me an explanation of how you think it was done, please read the works cited below, I promise you someone has thought of it, noted every time it is mentioned or implied in the sources and tested its feasibility already; exhaustive does not begin to describe the scholarship on oratory and crowd size), which we’ll never have perfect answers for. But they did give them and they did seem to think they were important.
Why does that matter for us? Because those very same classical texts formed the foundation for officer training and culture in much of Europe until relatively recently. Learning to read Greek and Latin by marinating in these specific texts was a standard part of schooling and intellectual development for elite men in early modern and modern Europe (and the United States) through the Second World War. Napoleon famously advised his officers to study Caesar, Hannibal and Alexander the Great (along with Frederick II and the best general you’ve never heard of, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden). Reading the classical accounts of these battles (or, in some cases, modern adaptations of them) was a standard part of elite schooling as well as officer training. Any student that did so was bound to run into these speeches, their formulas quite different from other forms of rhetoric but no less rigid (borrowing from a handful of exemplars in Thucydides) and imbibe the view of generalship they contained. Consequently, later European commanders tended for quite some time to replicate these tropes (examples to follow).
(Bibliography notes: There is a ton written on ancient battle speeches, nearly all of it in journal articles that are difficult to acquire for the general public, and much of it not in English. I think the best possible place to begin (in English) is J.E. Lendon, “Battle Description in the Ancient Historians Part II: Speeches, Results and Sea Battles” Greece & Rome 64.1 (2017). The other standard article on the topic is E. Anson “The General’s Pre-Battle Exohortation in Graeco-Roman Warfare” Greece & Rome 57.2 (2010). In terms of structure, note J.C. Iglesias Zoida, “The Battle Exhortation in Ancient Rhetoric” Rhetorica 25 (2007). For those with wider language skills, those articles can point you to the non-English scholarship. They can also serve as compendia of nearly all of the ancient battle speeches; there is little substitute for simply reading a bunch of them on your own.)
So how does that formula work?
A Battle Speech By the Numbers
If we wanted to investigate this formula, ideally we’d look to some battle speech so typical, so absolutely normal that it could serve as our model. Normally, when we try to use such models, we have to create them (you can see this method with VDH’s ‘ideal hoplite battle’ in The Western Way of War; obligatory notes on the author), because there is no typical this-that-or-the-other-thing. Fortunately for us, we do not have to do that with battle speeches, because Sallust already did. Leaning into the black satire of having his arch-villain deliver a textbook general’s speech and generally performing Roman generalship flawlessly (even going down in a blaze of glory at the end) while still being a practically mustache twirling villain, Sallust has his Catiline deliver the near-perfect formulaic general’s speech. It is remarkably by just how blandly typical it is and that was clearly Sallust’s intent.
It has a few basic parts: I) an opening that focuses on the valor of the men rather than the impact of the speech (the common trope here is to note how “brave men require few words”) II) a description of the dangers arrayed against them, III) the profits to be gained by victory and the dire consequences of defeat IV) the basis on which the general pins his hope of success and finally V) a moving peroration; the big emotional conclusion of the speech. You can read through Catiline’s speech it yourself at the link above; it’s not long and it follows the formula precisely. That order of elements is not rigid; they can be moved around and emphasis shifted. But I don’t just want to show that this trope existed in the ancient past, I want to show that it is projected through military tradition to the present. So let’s look at another very standard and somewhat more recent example, appropriate for June:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-1. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6th, 1944
I’ve highlighted an image of the signed document itself to show the various components of the ancient battle speech (following my numbering above):
Apart from a slight alteration of the order, it is not hard to assign this speech to the same genre as Sallust’s Catiline speech or even Thucydides’ speeches at Delium (Thuc. 4.92-95). As we’ll see, it is certainly not the case that there is no other way to structure a pre-battle exhortation (although, I should note that the standard text of the other famous pre-D-Day General’s speech, Patton’s speech to the Third Army, hits the same notes, but with more words – mostly profanity). But this is the standard structure of a battle speech in the Western literary canon, and speeches with this standard structure, or variations of it, appear frequently.
I think a reader might particularly be caught by the emphasis on a section stressing how formidable the enemy is and how great the danger is (‘He will fight savagely’). That seems an odd thing to stress! But it is an important part of the structure of these speeches; it is almost never left out. When paired with the general’s own cause for hope, acknowledging the fearsome nature of the enemy and the general terror of battle is a way to inoculate the soldiers against the seizing fear of battle. The Greeks saw the fear of battle as two distinct elements, deimos (δεῖμος) – the creeping dread before a battle, and phobos (φόβος) – the sudden paralyzing panic in combat, the sharp fear that causes men to flee. If the encouragement of the speech (and the general’s presence) is meant to defuse deimos, openly discussing the fearfulness of the enemy (but couching it in terms of how it may be overcome) is meant to rob phobos of his sting. You do your soldiers no favors by concealing from them the terror they will experience regardless.
Now the bulk of Eisenhower’s D-Day order is dedicated to the fourth part, stating the ground for encouragement, generally framed by the reasons the general is confident despite how fearsome the enemy is. One form of encouragement is a recounting of the noble deeds of the soldiers themselves. One of the marks of good generalship for the Romans was if a general could go up and down the line, calling out individual soldiers and reminding them of great deeds they had performed (Caesar does this, for instance; note Catiline’s opponent, Marcus Petreius encourages his soldiers this way, calling out each one – his is an army of veterans – by name, 59.4). Alternately – especially for a fairly green army where no one has done any great deeds yet – the general might stress the great valor of their forefathers, or the honor of their city or state. The emotion being touched here is pretty clearly pride, tapping into a desire not to let one’s self, one’s community or one’s comrades down. That’s an effective rhetorical tactic; as we’ve discussed, the fear of shame is an effective combat motivator (where so many other motivations fail). Appealing to pride is a good way to arouse that fear of shame, as the two emotions are deeply connected. Alternately, a general may note a superiority in numbers, materiel, tactical position; he may discuss his battle-plan and how it is likely to bring victory. For forces defending on their own ground, the home-field advantage may be stressed.
You want to understand the ‘fearsome enemy’ motif and the ‘grounds for encouragement’ motif working best as a pair.
Consider it this way: you are about to take a very important test. If I, having already taken the test, tell you “oh, don’t worry, the test is easy,” that will help dispel your dread (deimos) before it, but when you sit down with the test paper and read the (quite difficult) questions, the seizing fear (phobos) hits you, and your overall performance is reduced. That seizing panic clouds your thoughts and costs you vital time; in a battle, it might cause you to flee or get you killed. But if I tell you “the test is hard, but (you’ve studied effectively/you can pick up points on XYZ section/etc.)” it not only diminishes the dread before the test, but serves to mentally prepare you for the shock of seeing the real thing. Indeed, I turn your fearful mind into my friend – when the real thing fails to live up to your worst nightmares, you’ll draw confidence from that. When the test turns out to be exactly like I said, the encouragement carries more weight because of the reliability of the warning. I am not dispelling your fear – because this is battle and everyone is afraid and no words can take that away – I am mentally preparing you for your fear. There’s an element of CBT in this: validate the emotion, suggest more helpful ways to think about it, and direct the mind towards behavioral solutions.
Finally, I think it is worth noting what is not generally here. While the speaker is likely to reflect on glorious deeds of the soldiers, or other soldiers like them, or their ancestors, there is generally not a focus on how fearsome or scary or strong they are because no one feels scary or strong when they are terrified. “You’ve done this before” is a good line (so is “our people have always beaten their people”) but “Remember, we are lions” is not. No one feels like a lion when they are receiving indirect fire and cannot fire back; no one feels like a lion when their buddy just went down next to them and there’s nothing they can do about it. Remember: the purpose of the speech isn’t to pump someone up before the charge, it is to emotionally prepare them for the moment when the emotional momentum of the charge is spent and the fear of death comes crashing in to replace it.
Likewise, while ‘the cause’ often figures into such speeches, it does so as a subordinate element; some kind of group membership – the nation, the polis, the legion, comrades-in-arms – is often more prominent (note how Eisenhower’s speech crafts concentric circles of groups that the listener belongs to, watching and depending on the listener; ‘liberty-loving people everywhere’ -> ‘the United Nations’ and ‘our Allies’ -> ‘our homefront’ -> finally ‘us’ and ‘we’). While it took until the late 1940s for group-cohesion-theory to really emerge on its own, these sorts of speeches show an awareness of what seems to be a timeless truth: the cause may get you to the battle, but only comrades will hold you in it when the dying starts (on this, note especially J. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades (1997)).
Hollywood Battle Speeches
The Hollywood battle speech derives from this tradition; it sits in the narrative place it does because of the role of battle speeches in Greek and Roman literature and the lasting influence that has. These are supposed to be the same speeches. But, by and large, they do not follow the same patterns in modern movies. Movie-makers are not generally classically trained (unlike many of the officers of the early modern and modern period) and thus aren’t familiar with the originals. They’re not generally military historians, even at an amateur level (unlike many officers now) and thus not likely familiar with modern versions of this kind of speech.
And so the Hollywood battle speech, despite sitting in the place of the classical battle speech, does not imitate it. It typically features no acknowledgement of the enemy menace and no remembrance of deeds to stir the pride. Not being a modern literature specialist, I don’t know the lineage of these sorts of speeches. I can’t help but suspect that the St. Crispin’s Day Speech of Henry V has a part (written, we must remember, nearly 200 years after the event). But that speech is a thesis-statement for a play that is fundamentally about memory and commemoration (seriously, read the opening chorus), not battle motivation – consider how the speech’s thesis of “when we live through this, it’ll be nice to talk about it” would play to men who do not expect to live through this. Henry V is, in no small part, Shakespeare musing on how important people like Shakespeare are (or aren’t) for writing plays; much like Game of Thrones Season Eight, except good. There’s also quite a bit of influence, it seems, from modern motivational speaking, but the fact is that the purpose of a motivational speech – to pump up the emotions of the recipient – is simply not the purpose of a battle speech (which again, is designed as a salve against terror – if anything, it wants to calm the emotions and replace them with a dose of reason, which it often does through argument, rather than emotional appeal).
(As an aside, I hope that mentioning the St. Crispin’s Day Speech makes clear that a speech in a film can be very effective as a matter of storytelling, even if it is a poor battle-speech; that is, it can be good in the context of the play, without being good in the context of an actual battle. While, to be perfectly honest, the vast majority of beloved film battle speeches seem very weak to me, poor rhetoric carried almost entirely by film score, there are speeches that usefully serve character and emotion, despite being relatively poor ‘real world’ battle speeches. That said, it is possible to deliver an effective, doctrinaire battle speech in a film; Master and Commander: Far Side of the World (2003) – a film that marinates lovingly in the realia of its period – has Captain Aubrey deliver a textbook classical battle speech to his crew before the final, successful battle. The only real deviation is that he ends the speech by cutting the tension with a joke.)
One of the common pitfalls of this sort of speech-making is the speech that focuses entirely on how badass the recipient is. Saruman’s speech to the Uruk-hai in Fellowship of the Ring fits the bill quite clearly (“You do not know pain; you do not know fear; you will taste man-flesh!”). Likewise, Saruman’s big general speech to his host in The Two Towers:
A new power is rising; its victory is at hand!
This night, the land will be stained with the blood of Rohan! March to Helm’s Deep! Leave none alive!
It’s hard to see how this sort of brittle courage would be likely to do much to fortify the spirit in the face of the actual terror of battle. How is an Uruk – who you have told does not feel fear (in the previous film) – likely to respond when the terror of battle actually hits him? And to be clear, they do feel fear; this is not some instance where Saruman has designed a literally fearless creature – not only does the Uruk army run away in the films, but the ‘fighting Uruk-hai’ of their eponymous chapter in the books are also quite clearly capable of fear. You have not prepared them for that emotion by telling them they will not experience it.
As much as I’d love to set this out as another example of Saruman being bad at his job, I don’t think it is intended that way. Speaking, after all, is the one part of Saruman’s job that he is clearly, explicitly the best at. And I think the chapter, “The Voice of Saruman” is actually fantastically well-written to give a sense of how wise and reasonable-sounding Saruman can be, even when he is peddling lies and foolishness. No, I think the reason these speeches fall so flat is because they don’t serve the role of battle speeches really, rather they serve to emphasize the threat of the Uruk-hai to our heroes. Saruman isn’t telling his orcs anything, he is telling us the audience that his orcs are far more dangerous and scary than those Moria-orcs our heroes have been fighting so far, and that we ought thus be very worried for the good guys.
Combined with the soundtrack and the visual callback to Nazi propaganda, it does that job – intimidating the audience – quite well. This speech isn’t really meant to inspire, but to inform the audience of the stakes of the battle we are about to watch. That said, as a marker of Saruman’s overconfident arrogance – a theme we will pick up next week – it also serves to develop his character further. So this is one of those “a good movie speech, but a bad battle speech” instances.
The Unintentional Battle Speech
More interesting, I think, is the point at which Jackson has accidentally replicated the ancient battle-speech, clearly without meaning to or – so far as I can tell – understanding what he has done.
Théoden has been told that a host “ten thousand strong, at least” is coming and he goes to make preparations. He gives some basic orders and then lays out a plan (“we’ll cover the causeway and the gate from above”). Then he gives some ‘grounds for confidence’ which double as ‘past deeds’ (“no army has ever breached the Deeping Wall, or set foot inside the Hornburg”). Then Gimli interrupts, stressing how fearsome the enemy is (“these are Uruk-hai, their armor is thick and their shields broad”). Théoden brushes him off and continues with his plan and his opinions of its success (“they will break upon this fortress like water on rock…within these walls, we will outlast them.”) Aragorn then interrupts and explains the stakes of the battle (“they come to destroy [Rohan’s] people, down to the last child!”).
You can see the basic core building-blocks of the classical battle speech: a description of the fearsome enemy, a set of reasons to expect success anyway, rooted in past deeds, and a laying out of the high stakes (in this case, the dire peril of defeat). It’s a bit dislocated, but all of the elements are there. Except that Théoden immediately jumps down Aragorn’s throat for scaring his men of whom he notes (accurately, I’d guess) “their courage hangs by a thread.” But Aragorn’s comments should be motivating, not scary: fight hard, they’re coming to murder your children. That’s something to steel the courage, not sap it; think of your families who are in this very castle, counting on your bravery. It is small wonder this tiny army will fight with such ferocity, given the stakes.
And it brings us to the Aragorn-Théoden conflict that runs through this battle which I suppose we ought to comment on. Throughout the film, Peter Jackson sets these two characters in opposition, with Théoden, the actual king, being upstaged in kingship by Aragorn, the would-be-king who is better at kingship. Except I don’t buy it. As we discussed in the first post in this series, the initial advice to ride against Saruman was stupid given the very different operational situation in the film (the Westfold already penetrated, no Erkenbrand, no Éomer). Théoden’s decision to use the fortress is pretty obviously vindicated, given that he wins against overwhelming odds in a battle he would certainly lose in the field.
In the context of this argument, Aragorn advises Théoden send out riders to ask for aid, and Théoden points out that this is an obviously stupid idea. Aragorn declares that ‘Gondor will answer’ which, given that Gondor is about to be invaded by the much larger armies of Mordor in about a week, is pretty nearly pure lunacy (not to mention that Helm’s Deep is much too far away for even a Gondorian cavalry force to arrive in time). Théoden is right that Rohan has to win this battle on its own, even if he does (to use the book’s phrasing) have “allies, even if you know them not” (TT, 182) who will aid him after the battle is won. But of course, a whole bunch of Elves materialize out of the thin air to make Aragorn right against all reason as a way of underscoring the intended resolution of this conflict. I dislike this added character tension and quite frankly think that Peter Jackson’s drive to add conflict is one of his weaker storytelling impulses, marring an otherwise incredible adaptation.
Book Note: Just to reiterate, this operational stupidity is simply not an issue in the books, where Gandalf initially advises Théoden to group up with Erkenbrand and hold the Fords, and when it becomes clear that is impossible, tells him to head to Helm’s Deep. At every stage, save for some brief worries at the very lowest part of the siege, Théoden and Gandalf (and Aragorn) are in general agreement and make far wiser decisions.
The thing is, if we move past the odd implementation of his speech, Théoden is right. His men probably are scared and they probably do need encouragement and (in the logic of the film) Aragorn and Gimli sure aren’t helping. At the very least, the fact that Aragorn and Gimli are offering their critiques out in public, in front of the common soldiers is just terrible soldiering. Théoden is right to chew both of them out and unlike either Gimli or Aragorn, he has the good sense to do so quietly, rather than shouting it to the entire garrison. Praise in public, critique in private.
But I think, more broadly, is speaks to the general Hollywood misunderstanding of what these interactions are for that Théoden – and indeed, I think, the audience – is meant to understand Gimli and Aragorn’s comments as potentially dangerous and demoralizing. As we’ve seen above, that basic structure (here is our plan -> here is why the enemy is scary -> here is why we will beat them anyway -> and here are the high stakes of this battle) is exactly what a good general would say to his army. The information Gimli and Aragorn are relaying is necessary, the soldiers should be told it, but in a controlled environment, by their own leader (read: Théoden) and in a context where the steps they need to take to prevent that dire outcome (prepare! stand fast!) are clear.
I’ll come back to this dynamic in our last post, next week, but suffice to say that I think Peter Jackson has done Théoden’s character a pretty grave disservice by painting him as this ineffective of a leader who is continually despairing and making bad decisions.
Speaking from the Page
Book Note: Now, I said above that Tolkien doesn’t use battle speeches. That may have struck you as odd, because some of the most famous film speeches are adapted from Tolkien’s text. Particularly “Arise, Riders of Théoden” from the third film is a nearly direct lift of lines from the book.
Except that in the books, these lines aren’t presented as a speech (in prose), but as a poem. They are pulled out, italicized and indented to mark that they are verse, but it would be hard not to notice that they aren’t exactly normal speech anyway (Jackson has, in the event, edited them to remove their meter; by intent or otherwise, I do not know). Why do the Rohirrim sing out poetry instead of give speeches?
Well, let’s look at the form. We get a number of these Rohirrim poems, both longer songs (“Where now the horse and the rider?” TT, 132; “We heard of the horns” RotK, 136) delivered out of combat and short 4-5 line poems before military action that fill the space of a battle speech (two versions of “Arise, Riders of Théoden,” TT 144 and RotK 123; and “Out of doubt, out of dark” RotK 122). You may note a tendency in these poems to divide nearly all of the lines (save typically for the last line, last couplet or first line, which are often tricolons) in two. Typically both grammatically (that is, a conjunction or a preposition splits the line into separate phrases), but also often thematically or in general meaning. That halfway line division is characteristic of the Old English scop (pronounced ‘shop’) type of poetry, the most famous example being Beowulf. The lines are divided into half-lines by a caesura (a break mid-line) that is both metrical and meaningful; in the scop, the line is held together by meter but also often by alliteration, with the second half-line often picking up the alliteration of the first in a key word. By way of example (focusing on line-divisions, but I’ve bolded alliterations as I follow them; I do not read Old English, so please bear with any mistakes):
Bēowulf maðelode, bēot‐wordum spræc (Beowulf spoke made a formal boast)
nīehstan sīðe: ”Ic genēðde fela (for the last time: “I risked my life)
gūða on geogoðe; gȳt ic wylle, (often when I was young. Now I am old)
frōd folces weard, fǣhðe sēcan, (but as the king of the people I shall pursue this fight)
mǣrðum fremman, gif mec se mān‐sceaða (for the glory of winning, if the evil one will only)
of eorð‐sele ūt gesēceð!” (abandon his earth-fort and face me in the open.)
(Beowulf, 2510-2515. Translation Seamus Heaney, available in a number of editions)
Now we can compare some of our Rohirrim poems:
Arise, Arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake; fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor! (RotK, 123)
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day‘s rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope‘s end I rode and to heart‘s breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall! (RotK, 134)
Because while Greeks and Romans deliver prose orations, Anglo-Saxon warriors sing and so do the Rohirrim. They are, I should be quick to add, not the only ones; if these short poems remind you of haiku, they probably should – extemporaneous poetry is prominent in the literature of Japan’s Samurai class, like the Heike Monogatori (the Tale of the Heike). The sharp line divisions and the heavy use of alliteration seem straight out of Beowulf. Note that the line division is not always perfect – but contrast the divisions in the original Old English of Beowulf with Heaney’s translation; modern English just isn’t as well formed for this sort of thing. And Tolkien may want us to imagine that what we are reading is Rohirric (rendered as Old English in The Lord of the Rings), translated into Westron (which is delivered as regular English in the text). Note that while I say they sing, they may be chanting the lines or what have you; the division between ‘spoken poetry’ and ‘sung songs’ is very modern and most ancient cultures don’t seem to have had it (that the distinction is arbitrary is made clear by the very popular musical-spoken-poetry-genre, which you have heard by its common name, ‘rap.’).
What I do not know is where Tolkien’s habit of capping off these short poems with a tricolon (a succession of three balanced phrases; an important variation of this is where the phrases get longer or more complex, called a ‘rising’ tricolon) in the final line comes from; I am not anywhere near widely read enough in Norse or Old English poetry to tell you if this is a feature of it. It does, however, provide a very strong closure to the poems. One thing oddly missing is the kenning, Old English poetry’s habit of evocative two-word metaphors used in place of common nouns; the normal example is “whale-road” (hron-rad) to mean “the sea.” Tolkien generally does not have the Rohirrim use these. I’m not sure why, he was absolutely familiar with them (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936); yes, Tolkien wrote academic lectures on this poem).
This sort of poetry is less an exercise in leadership (like the general’s battle-speech) and more one of self-definition and aristocratic display. Poetry was, in many pre-modern cultures, an essential skill for the aristocrat. It was almost always a ‘high’ art-form, suitable for formal and important occasions; prose played second fiddle. Being able to compose such verses as to fit the occasion was a mark of accomplishment and refinement. Thus, poetry was one of the core skills of knighthood (along with the more directly martial skills). This this sort of aristocratic ethos – where showing off to the other aristocrats is more important than carefully rallying the common infantryman – seems in keeping with Rohan’s horse culture, especially if I am right to think that the levy infantry is in the process of atrophying away.
At the same time, it’s clear that this kind of poetic composition is part of Rohirrim aristocratic culture; not only Théoden but also Éomer compose such short verses in battle. In that case, seeing the king doing so might well be reassuring in a different way. Soldiers going into battle often look to their leaders to perform leadership. After all, the infantryman on the line has little sense if the battleplan is good or not (this is not a Total War game – he cannot view his line from above and get a true sense of the field; on the ground, what he can see is very limited), but he’s likely to be reassured if his leaders look like how he imagines good leadership to look. Enacting that sort of leadership can be very culturally contingent and seem quite random to us looking from a distance – an American general who slaughtered a goat in front of his army before battle would not reassure his men; a Greek general who failed to do so might well panic them. It’s reasonable to suppose then that composing these short poems ‘on the fly’ (or having them prepared) may well be part of the Rohirrim’s expectations for what good kingship, generalship and general martial excellence look like, in which case, seeing their king performing that role with excellence could be confidence building – “I may not understand the plan, but we have a good general and thus a good plan.”
I am honestly a bit flummoxed as to why Jackson removed the poetic nature of these lines in so many cases. He mixes and matches the poems (pairing “Out of doubt’s” final line with “Arise, Arise’s” middle line) but even when “Arise, Arise” gets delivered in Return of the King as a prose speech, rather than as a poem. Perhaps Jackson thought that having characters randomly break out into poetry and song would have been distracting to a modern audience unused to such things, and so chose to go with the much more standard ‘Hollywood Battle Speech’ twisting the lines into that form. It strikes me as an unfortunate loss.
The Breaking of the Host
We’ve spoken already at length about morale and cohesion, discussing why the Rohirrim are likely to hold together to the last and why Saruman’s host is likely to crumble if it faces serious difficulties. I don’t want to belabor that point (overmuch). In the event, the Rohirrim hold together, even as things look increasingly desperate, whereas Saruman’s host falls apart the moment things go even a little bit pear-shaped. But I want to draw out two things here; the cause of the host’s collapse and how that fits into the contrast between how J.R.R. Tolkien imagines a battle and how Peter Jackson does. Let’s look at how that plays out, starting with the film.
After film!Théoden is done breaking character despairing and giving up, he resolves to charge when Aragorn suggests riding out. This is a pretty terrible plan given the terrain in the courtyard and the winding stair between them and the causeway (note below the contrast in topography; by making the situation more desperate, Jackson has made this charge a bit more foolish; he’s also removed the reason it works). Gimli then blows the horn, which sounds cool, but has no apparent effect on the battle (note the contrast with the book). The Uruk-hai are not stopped or dismayed, but break down the door and charge in.
Théoden then charges and somehow, in tight quarters, against densely massed infantry, begins sweeping all before him. The Uruks do not break or run away, they are just plowed down as Snowmane (Théoden’s horse) just battering-rams through them; this is not, I must stress, how cavalry works. The next we see, they are apparently in the Coomb, at a stop, slashing down from their horses which, I must stress, is the worst possible situation for cavalry – stopped and completely enveloped by heavy infantry. I think the frequency with which we see cavalry in film doing this has something to do with stunt safety (especially since these scenes are often shot such that I’m fairly sure the actor can be on a prop-horse), but also something to do with the video-game distortion, since this is how cavalry works in many (but not all) Total War games.
Éomer then arrives with a body of cavalry at the top of a steep hill of loose gravel with Gandalf and he charges down it. This charge is, to be brief, absurd. For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, one stumbling horse – easy in the loose gravel and dirt on a steep slope – is going to cause a chain reaction through the cavalry body and get dozens of horses killed or lamed, along with their riders.
Moreover, the Uruks get into a dense formation, with their pikes down. Éomer should be pretty roundly crushed at this point; he can’t stop because of the slope and his momentum and he’s facing a solid wall of Uruks in good order with pikes down. Nevertheless, Gandalf has apparently timed this charge to blind the Uruks with the rising sun. We see them slightly lift their pikes (but not break or retreat) and then they are instantly swept away.
Book Note: In the book, Théoden, not Aragorn suggests riding out (TT, 170). Peter Jackson’s efforts to create conflict in every scene really serve to undermine quite a lot of the supporting cast and Théoden is one of the worst done-by (although I think the worst-treated character is Gimli, by far).
In any event, the set of events is more complex: the good guys deliver a rapid series of morale shocks which overwhelms the cohesion of Saruman’s host, causing it to retreat from a fight it could have won. First, Aragorn delivers his parlay, a demoralizing warning about the dawn, enhanced by the almost-supernatural awe of his heritage (TT, 171). This worries the Dunlendings, but not the orcs, who press on, bringing down the gate with another round of blasting fire. Then the orcs become aware of a murmur of dismay behind them (doubtless because they are now able to see, in the growing light, the Huorns behind them in the Coomb). As they waver, before they can recover, the horn of Helm blasts, “many of the Orcs cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws” (TT, 171).
The horn serves two purposes here. First, it momentarily panics the Orcs, providing an opening for Théoden’s charge. Second, it’s a clever bit of signal work. Théoden is not going to cut his way through the entire Orc army; the numerical disparity is too great. But a series of sudden shocks, delivered close together, might rout the army. That means he needs to coordinate his blows so that the shocks come fast enough that the Orcs have no time to regroup and regain composure; the horn provides a way of signalling Éomer – who with Gimli and a good amount of the Rohirrim, is holed up in the caves – to also attack at the same time. That in turn also means that when Théoden reaches the bottom of the causeway, there’s a good chance Éomer’s force will be close behind, making it less likely that the king will be cut off.
Unlike the film’s charge, where Théoden just tramples all before him, here we have an explanation for why the Orcs collapse before the charge – they are already worried by word that an enemy has shown up behind them when the horn blast and then the shock of the charge itself sends them to flight. They are, in fact, casting themselves to the ground before Théoden begins his attack. Consequently, Théoden isn’t charging head-on into a solid mass of Orcs, but rather pursuing a retreating body of Orcs down the causeway.
It is, I must note, at this point that Saruman’s host collapses into retreat (TT, 172). Even before Erkenbrand arrives, or the Huorns have killed a single Orc, “there cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees…vainly they crawled and clambered about the walls of the coomb, seeking to escape” (TT, 172). The army has been done in not by a flanking maneuver, not by the might of the trees, but by the collapse of morale and cohesion, brought on by the appearance of a new force (which has not yet attacked) and the dismay at the horn-sounding and Théoden’s charge. It is only then that Erkenbrand’s force – infantry, not cavalry – arrives and, moving down the slope, ends the battle by shoving the collapsing Orcs into the trees, where they are destroyed.
I wanted to be fairly thorough in these recaps to as to make clear one thing that has been coming up in the comments: the Huorns’ role in actually winning the battle is minimal in both versions (though more substantial in the book than the film). In the film, the Huorns only destroy an army that is already routing, having been defeated in melee with Éomer’s cavalry. Since in this version Éomer has arrived with a large body of horse that could have as easily pursued and destroyed the Uruks themselves, the effect of the Huorns is almost non-existent. Saruman’s host wouldn’t have been able to make it back to the ford, much less Isengard, in any event. Smashed by trees in the coomb or ridden down by horses in the Westfold makes very little difference at the strategic level.
In the book version, the Huorns are more significant, because they serve as the initial concern that starts the Orc morale wavering. Yet even here, their effect should not be overstated. They are quite distant, beyond even Helm’s Dike and at no point do the Orcs turn to engage them (probably fortunate for the Huorns; as strong as they may be, Saruman has had little problem killing and burning them so far – it seems likely, as Treebeard supposes (TT, 106) that had they met an Orc army that turned to fight them, the Huorns would have been defeated. But here, they arrive to mop up Orcs who are not fighting them and who have thrown away their weapons).
It seems to me that the arrival of any force in the rear of Saruman’s host would have been likely to effect the same morale shock. This is a damning comment on the army’s siege preparations. Had this siege been set up properly, there ought to have been units specially tasked to fortify any rear approach (in the books, they’d simply repair and man Helm’s Dike) and watch for enemy relief forces. In both the book and the film, there was plenty of reason for Saruman’s host to worry about such a force, even if they had no inkling of the Huorns’ existence (either Erkenbrand’s scattered army in the books or Éomer’s body of cavalry in the film; both exist and ought to be known to a wizard who can scout with birds). And we need not speculate on the possibility of such a force, because it comes over the hillside only minutes later. Without the Huorns, it seems to me that the likely result is that Théoden and Éomer’s joint attack (aided by the horn, which still has its effect of stunning the Orcs best positioned to keep Théoden from reaching open ground with his force) would have ‘pinned’ the Orcs from the front and Erkenbrand’s infantry force would then have delivered the fatal attack from the rear, which would have scattered Saruman’s host all the same.
The main difference, which we’ll touch on next week, would be the casualties suffered by both armies. In the books, Théoden is mounted but Éomer is not (and neither, it seems, is much of Théoden’s men streaming from the Hornburg); Erkenbrand has brought entirely infantry and not enough to seal the exit from the Coomb. It seems likely that without the Huorns, the Rohirrim would have still won, but a good portion of Saruman’s host would have escaped, the (significant!) strategic implications of which we’ll consider next week. More to the point, Erkenbrand arrives later (though likely only a short time later), so while I think that Théoden and Éomer’s joint attack probably would have pushed into the coomb all the same, the delay would have meant far more severe casualties among the Rohirrim. This could be absolutely catastrophic, strategically, if those casualties were Théoden or Éomer’s (or Aragorn).
Cohesion and Failure
But zooming back in to look at only this battle, I think it’s not hard to conclude, given the balance of forces (book or film), that Saruman’s host vastly underperformed. Opposed by an army perhaps one-third of their size in a fairly favorable operational environment (they face few problems moving over the terrain, despite several operational mistakes) they not only failed to achieve the operational objectives, but lost the entire army in the process. And that raises a crucial question: why?
Both of these armies experience serious setbacks that test their cohesion. The Rohirrim begin the battle badly outnumbered (about five-to-one in the books). From there, the fords are breached, Erkenbrand’s army is scattered in the field, the defenses at the Dike are driven in, the Deeping Wall is swarmed, then destroyed, the Deep is lost. Here, the book’s narrative really shows some of its value in that it expresses this as sweeping waves – again and again the Rohirrim are driven back, put on the back foot and again and again they regroup and push back. In each setback, the Rohirrim cohere, they stick tightly together rather than scatter, which is what enables their recovery, time after time. Meanwhile, Saruman’s host, after experiencing one success after another, hits a brief run of bad luck – a situation where they still hold quite substantial numerical superiority against a mostly exhausted foe – and immediately fall apart.
Saruman’s army looks formidable: it is large, the Uruks are well-armed and very confident. The weakness isn’t in their weapons (though the relatively poor operational and tactical art does not help), but in their minds. I don’t mean that they are stupid. Rather, the Uruks aren’t motivated towards strong group loyalty, or much regard for their masters, or even a strong sense of themselves as professionals-who-don’t-run-away (this is perhaps clearest in the chapter “The Uruk-hai”). Each Orc schemes for his own advantage at the expense of all of the others and frequently his master besides. That principle – mutual gain in victory, the promise of loot – can get an army to the battlefield, but it cannot sustain it there when things start to go wrong (and things always go wrong in war). After all, it is in no Uruk’s interest to go down with the ship to save his comrades. And hatred – for men or Rohan – is also a weak motivation; once the prospect for dealing fatal harm to the kingdom of Rohan melts away, so does the motivation. Hatred is a poor salve for fear.
Meanwhile, Saruman’s host has no real leadership to cohere around. Even compared to the Witch King’s army, which even from outside has clearly identifiable leaders in it, broken into small companies which have likely served together for years (e.g. RotK, 104). Not so for Saruman’s host, as we’ve discussed. And given the kind of leadership we see from Uglúk , it is little surprise the all-too-few Uruk officers fail to get control of their army once things start going wrong. Uglúk after all, callously disposes of his men in the face of a threat where he needs every good fighter he can get; he takes credit but freely dodges blame (particularly in the books, where he swiftly dumps his failures on his scouts, Snaga, the Mordor orcs, and so on). With such a lackluster officer class, it’s not hard to see why this army falls apart. No help comes from the top, as Saruman sends his army out to fight and die while he hides in his tower. There are many reasons why a general might need to ‘lead from behind’ (typically coordinating multiple armies), but none of them apply here, and a savvier leader ought to have known that an army this green and this weakly organized would need to have its charismatic leader with it to function effectively. It’s no surprise that Saruman’s army mirrors his own cowardice. Why die for a wizard who won’t take even the slightest risk for you? Even Sauron sallied out of Barad-dur to contest Elendil and Gil-galad in person.
In contrast, disaster after catastrophe, the Rohirrim, bound by strong sets of vertical and horizontal social ties (that is, ties between leaders and followers and ties between equals, be they aristocrat-to-aristocrat or levyman-to-levyman), regroup around their leaders, recover and push back again. Doubtless, some of that cohesion comes from the fact that Saruman in his arrogant overconfidence has left these men no way out, in either the book or the film. There’s no effort by Saruman’s host to get the fortress to surrender under terms and their campaign of devastating seems engineered to harden rather than soften the Rohirrim’s resolve. The Witch King, focused on inflicting supernatural and regular despair on Gondor, was much savvier.
But we can also see the effect of leadership in this system, particularly leaders who are embedded in it, Erkenbrand, Théoden, Éomer and Gamling (and to a lesser extent, Aragorn). Time and again, when everything is confused and no one knows what to do, the Rohirrim respond by bunching up into little shield-walls around these men, because that is what their society has conditioned them to do. They’ll do it again, I might add, on the Pelennor fields (RotK, 134), bunching up around Éomer for one last shield-wall.
While – as we’ll discuss next time – it is the intervention of the Ents and the Huorns that wins the war, it is the cohesion of the Rohirrim that wins the battle.
In the Hand or in the Mind?
And it is here that I think that Tolkien’s vision of war shows some advantages over Jackson’s. As we’ve discussed before, Peter Jackson imagines battles as fundamentally contests between weapon-systems, with each system ‘countering’ others, while Tolkien imagines battles as fundamentally mental and spiritual contests where morale is the decisive factor.
In Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, Gandalf’s sun-based disruption of the pike line ‘counters’ the Uruk pikes and thus Éomer smashes through them. Except, of course, horses aren’t battering rams, and even without the pikes, the Uruks are still heavy infantry, in good close order. Nevertheless, Éomer’s cavalry charge through and spend some time killing Uruks before we cut away. When we cut back, the Uruks have been put to flight by all of that slaughter, retreating into the trees (Huorns, though that word doesn’t appear in the films, I think) and getting smashed. It really does feel like video-game logic; Gandalf used his magic spell to disable the Uruk formation bonus and without that +200% attack-and-defense vs. cavalry, Éomer’s unit swept in and chewed them up. In an actual battle, had the Uruks stood and fought (as they appear initially to be doing) the Rohorrim cavalry would have been unhorsed and slain very rapidly; the riders may be armored but their horses are not and each rider is enveloped by a half-dozen Uruks. It only takes one to kill the horse.
But in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, it is the will to resist that enables the victory of the Rohirrim, not superiority in arms. That fits into the metaphysics of Tolkien’s broader worldbuilding effort which I think are often badly misunderstood by readers and viewers alike. I have encountered this assumption that Tolkien’s world is one in which the good guys win because that is how the story is structured or because they get ‘lucky,’ but that’s not quite right. Middle Earth is a world animated by spiritual forces that exist beyond the physical world but are no less real than it. If you want a longer discussion of this framing, I suggest M. Dickerson, Following Gandalf (2003), where he assembles the evidence for this. In essence, Tolkien’s world is one where Vergil’s line, possunt, quia posse videntur (“they are able, because they think themselves able”) is an actual physical law; the heroes triumph as a direct, supernatural result of their resolve to resist evil.
We may leave aside the theological question of if our world is animated by spiritual forces, but the battlefield is animated by morale forces and Tolkien’s spiritual world-construction captures something of this rather better than Jackson’s almost purely materialist focus on the interactions of weapons (which alas, he understands somewhat poorly).
Next week, we’ll zoom out again and look at the overall strategic position and try to render a final assessment on Saruman’s leadership. Spoiler alert: he’s a big dummy with a terrible plan. Details to follow.