Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VII: Hanging by a Thread

This 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, VII. VIII) 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?

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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.

Aragorn giving his speech at the end of Return of the King. This speech is actually not too bad; it acknowledges the fear of the men, but then explains a reason for confidence (albeit somewhat flimsy). Aragorn being on a horse delivering this is fine, but he paces around in circles, rather than riding up or down the line. Generals might sometimes give the same speech over and over as they moved down the line, to speak to the entire army (e.g. Thuc. 4.96.1).
As for the army, the one strange thing is that the Gondorians and Rohirrim are intermixed almost at random, which undermines their cohesion. They ought to be in pretty identifiable groupings, since you want to keep the men who know each other close together.

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.

Via Wikipedia, the Augustus of Prima Porta, a statue of the first emperor from his wife, Livia Drusilla’s villa (first century AD). It shows Augustus in the pose of the orating general (though mixed with religious iconography). Of course, it’s important to remember this statue would originally have been painted.
The stance here is an ‘adlocutio‘ a standard stance in Roman sculpture and painting used to show a general, typically an emperor, delivering an address to his army. Roman oratory included a fairly rigid system of standard stances, of which this was one.

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.

Via Wikipedia, Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), by Jacques-Louis David. Note how this painting echoes the stance of the Augustus of Prima Porta (though note, not the statue itself, which was only discovered in the 1863), with the upheld arm and the gesture of the fingers. David is calling on the classical tradition to tell us that Napoleon is preparing to address his army. Since the portrait faces the view, we become the audience for that impending speech from Napoleon, to quite powerful effect.
A good example of how that classical tradition of generalship rooted in oratory finds later expression.

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!

To War!

Saruman delivering his speech. I don’t know if the magical voice of Saruman includes some sort of volume control, but it must for him to deliver this speech as presented. There are real limits to the human voice and research suggests that, absent areas with carefully design acoustics, a few thousand is the most that can hear an unaided speaker.

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.

This is a great shot, only somewhat undermined by how silly Saruman’s shout of ‘To War!!’ sounds when you’ve watched it a couple dozen times in the past month grabbing screen captures for your silly blog.

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!”).

Aragorn, opting to undermine the king in front of his household guard and a whole bunch of regular soldiers on a large stone outcropping, visible to basically everyone.
Théoden is right to shut him up harshly. Having concerns is fine, but this is so obviously not the place for them. Peter Jackson ends up having to twist the plot pretty hard (with the arrival of the Elves) to make Aragorn right in this instance. Honestly, given what comes later, I wonder that we didn’t have Théoden despairing and then have Aragorn giving the ‘no, we can do this’ speech. They do that character beat anyway, just with Gimli and Legolas.

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.

Théoden about to chew Aragorn out for being an idiot. I love the three fellows in the back turning to each other as if to say, “oh man, the Northerner over there is about to get it now!”

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.

Getting a good screen-capture of this moment was quite difficult. Jackson keeps the camera moving and usually avoids wider shots like this (much less a wide of the entire keep), I suspect because a wide shot would not treat the stunt-work very well.
Even though I am complaining a bit about this sequence, the mix of stunt-work and CGI work here is really impressive. It’s incredible to remember that this film was made in 2002 and still looks quite a bit better than much more recent films.

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.

The Uruks in this bit really seem positively weightless as the horses just effortlessly throw them aside. The riders are swinging their swords to their side at nothing in particular, often into empty space. Perhaps the riders here are a practical stunt whereas the Uruks are (of course) CGI, so the riders had to ride down swinging into space, not knowing where the CGI Uruks would be added? In any event, doing this against enemies trying to actually hinder you, rather than either CGI puppets or – as in the books – broken, fleeing Orcs – would be very likely to get everyone killed.

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.

Horses are native to the steppe, an expense of grassland noted for its aridity and also its relative flatness. Now I don’t want to overstate that, the steppe is not endlessly flat like the Great Plains. But horses, unlike, say, goats, did not evolve to handle sharp inclines like this. Especially since the ground is very loose – there’d be a lot of horses spilling their riders, followed by a pretty massive pile-up.

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.

Obviously, it does not matter if the sun is on your side, the catastrophic collision of relatively fragile but heavy horses and thousands of armored bodies is going to crush and kill pretty much everyone involved, including the horses.

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.

Unlike in the books, in the film we never see the Uruks daunted by or concerned by the forest which suddenly appeared on the grassland behind them (farmland in the books). They act as if they had never noticed anything strange about it.

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.

Fine formations are often used as visual shorthand for effective cohesion, but the overlap is far from perfect. There are quite a number of armies that look fine in parades and drills which have fallen apart in combat. And many very cohesive non-professional armies look disorganized in drills and parades, but hold together fiercely in battle, due to family, tribal or civic ties.

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.

No doubt, Saruman’s later Lessons Learned Program would heap a great deal of scorn on Uruk-what-Sword-Points-at-Things, but this isn’t his fault (blaming field commanders for logistical and strategic failures is a venerable military tradition, as is blaming staff and the home-front for tactical failures); he was set up to fail here, with an insufficient command system and a poorly drilled army.

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.

185 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VII: Hanging by a Thread

  1. You briefly mention the negative effects on cohesion of having different forces mixed together. I have been curious about how this translates to the recent protests and responses in Washington DC.

    I’ve seen videos in which a line of police is pointed out as coming from a mix of different agencies, with Park Police, Metropolitan Police, and Arlington County Police all jumbled together. In one of these videos, some of these police start advancing towards the protesters, but the Arlington County Police stay where they are (presumably because the command-and-control structures haven’t been sufficiently integrated). This opens up gaps in the line, which would be dangerous if the protesters actually were violent hooligans (but they aren’t).

    To me, intermixing these different groups seems like an obviously bad idea (and not even one which would develop naturally). Am I missing something? Is this as bad an idea as it seems?

    1. Bret explained this last week – perhaps in a comment. Different groups in an armed force are valuable if a splinter force has some sort of unique ability. For example a SWAT team is specialized in a unique type of threats. But I think you’re right it’s a liability when different groups are all asked to perform the _same_ task together. I don’t know much about police but I think counter-terrorists team don’t usually act in concert with more police.

      1. I guess I forgot the point. The police forces were combined not because it’s a great idea overall, but because of an emergency.

        1. The police are also much better armed than the protesters, the vast bulk of whom are not likely to be planning on violence.

          1. The consequence of having the police forces opposing the protestors in Washington, D.C. be a mass of separate units all jumbled up together is not necessarily ‘military defeat.’ It is *poor cohesion.*

            Since the protestors are (as you note) not revolutionaries and are not rising up in a mass to attack and defeat the police in open battle, the consequence of the poor cohesion is unlikely to be military defeat in the traditional sense. But the effects will still make themselves visible, in that (as noted) different individuals in the same body of men and women will be acting at cross purposes.

    2. I mean the protesters are certainly willing to get violent with unprotected shops, but given that the protesters have even worse cohesion I doubt they can take advantage of it.

  2. Gandalf (‘The White Rider’, page 101, 1987 hardback impression of The Two Towers) does actually claim in the books that Saruman *had* sallied from Isengard to link up with the raiders returning from the fight at Amon Hen, but that ‘…he came too late, for once, and the battle was over and beyond his help before he reached these parts. He did not remain here long. I look into his mind and I see his doubt…’
    Books Saruman does occasionally get out of Isengard to do stuff, if he’s not otherwise occupied and he considers the situation important enough to deserve his personal attention on the spot.

    1. Saruman seems to head out fairly frequently, although less as a frontline army commander and more like an independent wanderer, much like Gandalf but with nefarious intentions in mind. He headed out in this case only because as Gandalf says in the same passage you quoted (which for me is page 487 of the 1995 paperback edition of Lord of the Rings) “He was so eager to lay his hands on the prey that he could not wait at home, and he came forth to meet and to spy on his messengers.” The point apparently being that Saruman had been waiting at home and then sallied forth on his own to see if his raiders had brought the hobbit that carried the ring – the temptation of the ring being greater than his desire to be safely inside his headquarters in Orthanc.

      There’s more to suggest that Saruman wanders like Gandalf. On page 426 of the same edition, Eomer informs Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas that Saruman “walks here and there, they say, as an old man hooded and cloaked, very like to Gandalf” and on page 432 he makes a brief appearance (presumably en route to his meeting with the orcs) and then vanishes, having either stolen or driven away their horses (confirmed to be Saruman by Gandalf on page 487). Even if he had intervened in battle, it would probably not be through direct generalship of the Uruk force but rather by using his formidable powers of speech to deter the Rohirrim.

  3. Without meaning to excuse all of Jackson’s choices or recast them as good ones, I do think film suffers a real handicap compared to prose when it comes to depicting morale, which is that it can easily show the effect of morale or its lack (through what the characters do), but it can’t really show you why. Visual media suck at interiority, i.e. the representation of what’s going on in someone’s head. If the orcs had suddenly cowered in fear at the horn, that would have looked goofy to the audience, because we’re not privy to their inner states. By contrast, Tolkien — especially since he’s writing from an omniscient perspective — can give you the whole tapestry of how each shift in the tide of battle affects the overall cohesion, until it’s possible for something that looks, on its own, to be quite trivial, to in fact shatter the army’s will to fight.

    1. It’s definitely harder, but I think it the Pelennor fields battle did a decent job with the charge, showing the orcs getting nervous as the cavalry just kept coming. take the same movie, cut out the stupid bits with Aragon falling off a cliff, and use the time saved to have an orc commander. He makes some early orders that let the audience know that he has to take the fort quickly.

      on the morning of the third day someone comes into his tent and tells him a forest grew behind him. He disbelieving he goes out, sees it, and gets told it’s making the men nervous. they hear a commotion and turn to see aragorn on the walls, he does his thing, and includes a line to the effect of “You have until you hear this horn, then I am coming for you.” the final assault is ordered, and some orcs grumble about how many more of them will die taking this stupid castle.

      Inside the walls, they’re preparing to sally, because they know that Erkenbrand is supposed to be here and they have estel. Gandalf shows up with Erkenbrand, and someone nervously tells the orc commander “we’re surrounded” . commander says “we still outnumber them 2:1 ” and orders a pivot to face the new attackers, pulling men off the attack on the gate. more shots of panicky orcs, as the Erkenbrand starts to charge, his men blowing small horns. then gimli blows the big horn, theoden rides out, and the orcs run. the commander tries to rally them and fails. You still cut to the shot of Gandalf the white charging into the orcs, but orcs that have turned and fled.

      1. But as Bret pointed out, Aragorn’s warning is “enhanced by the almost-supernatural awe of his heritage.” You could put Aragorn on the walls, sure — but how do you convey to the audience that there’s more going on than just the words he says? “Then I’m coming for you” sounds like empty braggadocio without that additional layer which conveys why it’s scary and demoralizing. And that additional layer is what’s much harder to convey in film than on the page.

    2. Mass emotions are infectious precisely because you can read them on other people. You can show orcs looking around nervously, seeing that other orcs are nervous, wondering if some of the other orcs are going to run and THEN startle them. You can show orcs running because they fear that other orcs have started to, or are about to, run.

      1. Yes, but that still doesn’t convey the why. As I said, you can show the actions — like looking around nervously — but how do you get across things like “Aragorn is frightening to them simply by dint of who he is?” Visually, that looks like “this one character stands up and says some stuff and for some reason it makes a whole army start looking nervously at the guy next to them.” Without the inner state, that very rapidly becomes corny, because you’re not getting the context of why those words work.

        1. That’s easy: have the orcs start whispering about the tall kings out of the sea.

          They do it a whole bunch in anime (in part because, in Japanese history, you would genuinely worry if you abruptly heard that you were up against someone like the War-God of Echigo).

          1. Potentially — though as Alex commented below, that would be out of character for the way the Uruks have been presented so far, and also “the tall kings out of the sea” is meaningless to an audience that doesn’t actually know the deeper context of the worldbuilding. They’ve heard that Aragorn is one of the Dunedain and lives for a long time, but I think that’s all the movie attempts to convey on that front (because exposition is another thing movies have a hard time with — witness the need for voiceover prologues to explain stuff to the audience).

            Anyway, I’m not claiming it’s impossible to do. Just that it’s more difficult, and that the workarounds can often be clunky or take screen time that might be in short supply.

      2. I think the issue in the movie is that Jackson has been setting up the uruks as fearless killing machines. They’re supposed to be death-machines only focused on killing (see the uruk birth scene where the first thing the uruk does is strangle one of the orcs that got him out) that can’t feel fear.

        It makes more sense to show the Mordor orcs in ROTK being afraid because they haven’t been set up as fearless like the uruks have been.

  4. I’m loving this series. Thanks for all the good work you put in for this side project. I wanted to make a suggestion of some potential future work that I would find interesting. I’d love to see a review of the military tactics in the Powder Mage books written by Brian McClellan, since they take place in an era with gun technology present (I think the author was going for the late 1700’s – early 1800’s.) Another niche series that at least aims for accurate world building (and succeeds according to my novice view) that would lend itself more to medieval daily life and economics is Ascendance of a Bookworm, the plot being focused in the early stages on the development of paper technology.
    At any rate, these are just things I’d enjoy seeing; you just keep presenting what you’d love to present and I’ll just keep reading it.

  5. This was an interesting run through of the western tradition of the pre battle speech.

    You touched briefly on Samurai poetry, but I was curious what happened with pre battle speeches in non Western contexts.

    India has a massive tradition of epic poetry. Islam puts a great deal of emphasis on oratory. China has an equally long, (and well recorded) martial tradition as the West, and the pre battle speech figures prominently in some popular works. (Romance of the Three Kingdoms has several, though the novel was written 1200 years after the events. The actual Records of the Three Kingdoms was written contemporaneously, but I don’t know if it has the same speeches.)

    1. Although I don’t know of any speeches in Indian epic poetry that deal with a general motivating his troops, it has the single most epic pre-battle speech of them all, the Bhagavad Gita from the Mahabharata(the world’s longest epic). In it, the incarnate god Krishna motivates the distraught prince Arjuna to do his duty as a warrior and fight his evil kinsmen for the sake of cosmic good. From what I’ve read, the core of the Gita was originally in 18 verses, although I have no idea if these formed the basis of a traditional pre-battle speech given its spiritual and religious aspects.

      Interestingly, the Greek epic poetry tradition has a fine instance of a motivational speech being done entirely wrong in the Iliad, when Agamemnon delivers a bizarre speech meant to test the resolve of his men and shame them into staying and fighting at Troy, but instead causes them to stampede towards their ships (even the watching gods are taken by surprise at this development).

  6. Do we know anything about what pre-battle speeches Tolkien would have heard (or given) in WWI?

  7. What Saruman needed was a network of commissars (or, in the Spanish tercio tradition, priests) – guys who are told the plan and whose job is to motivate the troops and keep the officers pointed in the right direction.

    1. Why would a network of commissars be necessary when you could just get the officers to do that job, as they did in Rome? I know that the Soviets had to use commissars because of a fear of former Tsarist officers backsliding into their old imperial ways, although I have no idea what the tercio tradition was like.

      1. The Soviets (and the Spanish) had to manage heterogeneous forces – in the Soviet case hastily raised and rapidly trained, in the Spanish case officered by quarrelsome independent nobles. The binding element in the Spanish case was religion – the Catholic cause – hence lots of priests, regular masses, crosses everywhere and a cadre dedicated to the cause rather than noble honour or loot. The commissar’s job was similar – he kept up morale, gave the socialist education sessions, taught the illiterate, led the charge or stiffened the retreat and made sure the officers stayed on point. Saruman’s army has no common cause and the orcs no motivation other than blood-lust – it needs something more than commanders.

    2. Call me cynical, but I think Church keeps priests in armies to keep tabs on things. To make sure nothing is done without Church’s knowledge and they get to influence people everywhere.

      1. Except that the Church would have equal incentive to have priests in all armies, but not all armies had equal numbers of priests per capita.

        [I am excluding Protestant armies from consideration in this era, for obvious reason]

        Furthermore, regardless of why the Church keeps the priests there, the *armies* have uses for the priests and they serve functions. The priests probably wouldn’t be there if the armies didn’t want them there.

      2. I think you may have fallen into the trap here of assuming that people in the past didn’t believe their own religion. For a priest moving with an army, each soldier is a soul to be saved for Christ – by a priest whose very calling to that vocation is divinely inspired and deeply tied with his own salvation.

        The past generally makes more sense as you assume that religious concerns are paramount.

        1. Bret you make very good points, but I think you can have both when it comes to the past. Yes, people were much more serious about religion but you also had monks acting as highway robbers (the “The Monk”, the documentary by the Monty Python historian…Terry Gilliam?), paid absolution, bishops who bought their way into Church hierarchy, two popes warring with each other, Pope John XII and a couple of other wicked popes, and so on. The first crusaders were given absolution in advance, so they exploited it before they hit Muslims! The religion gave clergy great power precisely because most people believed their own religion. And some of the clergy abused it shamelessly – their actions were most likely less questioned! Can you even have power without corruption?

          Also, people are really good at rationalizing their actions. This means it’s perfectly possible some popes were pretty wicked (multiple cases of incest…) while really believing they were fulfilling God’s will somehow.

          Low level priests may genuinely believe they’re acting to save soldiers’ souls, while still behaving as ears and eyes for bishops. Confession is supposed to be secret, but human memory is fallible and when a priest X hears 26 times that the mayor Y is an adulterer, he may no longer remember who he heard it from, and if it’s okay to share that bit of gossip. As to why bishop and cardinals would be more corrupt than simpler priests… perhaps because less scrupulous people tend to raise in rank? And even if an idea was conceived by someone with pure intentions, it may be approved/rejected by more calculating people.

          1. Sure, there were corrupt and power-hungry prelates, but I don’t recall reading any evidence to suggest that they regularly used chaplains as spies.

  8. (General positive sentiment I’m not nearly eloquent enough to express)

    I tried to cast a slightly wider net than usual, so you’ll probably disagree with a few.
    “real worlds actually said” -> “words”
    “relatively formulaic. even rigid” -> “formulaic,”
    “in the 1863s” -> well it’s hard for me to say.
    “It is remarkably by just how” -> “remarkable”
    “a general may not a superiority” -> “note”?
    “it’s victory is at hand” -> “its”
    “I don’t know of the magical voice of Saruman” -> “if”
    “How is an Uruk… actually hits him.” -> “him?”
    “As much as I’d love… but I don’t think” -> “I don’t think”
    “his opinion’s of its success” -> “opinions”
    ” who he notes (accurately, I’d guess) “their courage hangs by a thread” ” -> “of whom”
    “is much to far away” -> “too”
    “You may not a tendency” -> “note”
    “Old English of Beowulf with Heaney’s translation” (the underlining extends to the space afterwards)
    “with a tricolon… in the final line” -> “in the final line came from” (or equivalent)
    “That this sort of aristocratic ethos” -> “This sort of”
    “It is, I must note at this point that” -> “I must note,”
    “the Huorn’s role” -> ” Huorns’ ”
    “the Huorn’s existence” -> ” Huorns’ ”
    “the weaknesses isn’t in their weapons” -> “aren’t” (or “weakness”)
    “it is the intervention of the Ents and the Huorns who win the war, it is the cohesion of the Rohirrim that win the battle.” -> “that wins the war”, “that wins the battle”
    “as they appear initially do be doing” -> “to”

    1. Thanks for the article. My nitpicks, which I am not as confident about as usual, but just in case:

      In the books, Théoden is mounted but Éomer is not (and neither, it seems, is much of Théoden’s men streaming from the Hornburg); -> In the books, Théoden is mounted but Éomer is not (and neither, it seems, are many of Théoden’s men streaming from the Hornburg);

      This could be absolutely catastrophic, strategically, if those casualties were Théoden or Éomer’s (or Aragorn). -> This could be absolutely catastrophic, strategically, if those casualties were Théoden or Éomer (or Aragorn).

  9. I think Tolkien’s belief in supernatural providence is mediated through a consequent psychology. He thinks the primary spiritual flaw is arrogance. Arrogant leaders make arrogant mistakes. He also thinks that arrogant leaders assume everyone is motivated as they are: both Saruman and Sauron assume that their opponents’ strategic goals are the same as theirs.
    Tolkien also admired his reading of the North European mythology, in which the giants are going to win, but the heroes stand with the gods despite that.
    If the good guys win battles in Tolkien because they’re good, part of that goodness is not realising that. And no matter how good the good guys are in the end Sauron would win the military game.

    1. I wouldn’t call it arrogance, but hubris. For Tolkien, everyone has a place in a strict hierarchy, and disobedience is the worst offense. With a very old-fashioned Catholic upbringing, I instantly recognized that theme in his work.

      1. I’m not sure we should read LOTR this way. Maybe in the Silmarillion, where it’s made clear that Morgoth and Sauron are rebelling against Eru Illuvatar, but this strict hierarchy is really not a part of LOTR.

        A big part of LOTR is how the weakness of the hobbits brings them strength. It’s Frodo’s weakness and small ambitions that makes him resistant to the ring’s temptations. He’s not arrogant enough to covet the ring. Faramir, Aragorn, Gandalf and all of the wise characters are not arrogant enough to covet the ring. But Saruman is. Boromir as well (although he later realizes his folly). If Frodo had stayed in his strict hierarchy, he would have never dared to leave the Shire.

        1. “If Frodo had stayed in his strict hierarchy, he would have never dared to leave the Shire.”

          And would not go alone, with just Sam into Mordor without authorization from Aragorn.

          1. How the hierarchy in the Shire worked is never quite explained, but both Bilbo and Frodo would likely have been highly placed in it: they would probably be in the Shire’s 1%. Bilbo was wealthy at the beginning of The Hobbit and, if I recall, came back with a bit of loot from his stint as a burglar.

            Certainly, no one from the Shire seemed to need internal passports or travel permits. Of course, the hobbits were stereotypically homebodies, with the number of hobbits wishing to gallivant around Middle Earth was sufficiently small for the government of the Shire, such as it was, to consider free travel an efficient method of gently ridding itself of malcontents. If they get eaten by a grue, so be it. If they come back, well, we saw what happened to Bilbo, whose properties were pretty much scattered among his heirs when he was thought to have died intestate.

          2. @yankee1635

            Remember that Historynoob’s claim was that “For Tolkien, everyone has a place in a strict hierarchy, and disobedience is the worst offense.” A good-faith reading of this claim, in keeping with the principle of charity, would be “obviously, Historynoob does not mean a strict *political* hierarchy.” The Shire, as you say, clearly has no strict political hierarchy and hobbits are free to do more or less as they please so long as they aren’t hurting anyone.

            The hierarchy that Frodo and the other hobbits would have been obeying by staying in the Shire would not be the internal political hierarchy of the Shire itself. It would be the ‘natural/cosmic’ hierarchy of the world in which beings like wizards, elf-lords, and the kings of men are so much more important than they are.

            In the ‘natural’ order of things, the hobbits remain in the Shire; they are allowed to leave but do not choose to do so. They certainly do not presume to go out and make independent consequential decisions that will alter the course of world events! It is *this* order that the hobbits upset by going out, especially Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who unlike Frodo aren’t acting under direct orders from Gandalf to anything like the same degree.

      2. And yet the most heroic figure in many ways is Frodos gardener, the Shire is a sort of conservative anarchy, and an appendix states that Pippin, of all people, is thought in Gondor to be some kind of prince, as he so rarely uses honorifics when addressing the Lord of the City.

        Did Beregond commit the worst offence when he disobeyed the command of Denethor to incinerate his son?

        Authority is a slightly different concept from hierarchy.

        1. Ironically Pippin actually is the nearest thing hobbits have to a prince. He’s the only son of the Thain, and becomes Thain himself. Merry himself is too, only son of the Master of Buckland, and set to become Master himself, as he does. The main text isn’t at all clear about this: the Prologue mentions their later ascensions and Pippin makes quiet reference to his father, but the family trees spell it out: they were basically the Crown Princes of the Shire and Buckland.

          Who quietly disappeared one day (from the Shire’s POV) not to return for nearly a year. And Frodo never asked them whether their families would miss them or if they had responsibilities or such…

        2. And yet the Shire, Tolkien’s vision of a traditional English Arcadia, does have very clear social stratification, which isn’t ever challenged by anyone – and that’s the only reason why it never needs a real government and the only job of the only official authority figure, the Mayor, is to provide at feasts. Yes, Sam becomes a hero, but he never ceases to be the servant of his Master Frodo. And we learn, in a throwaway sentence in The Scouring of the Shire, that In this ideal happy Shire, just a few yards from the palatial residence of the rich Bagginses, there have been whole lanes inhabited by impoverished families who have been accustomed to shivering in the cold and wet through the winter because they can’t afford bricks to line their holes well enough to keep the river from flooding them. And it’s very clear that Tolkien thinks this is all very right and proper.

          1. “the only job of the only official authority figure, the Mayor, is to provide at feasts”

            Not true. He runs the postal system and is head of the Watch, meaning the Sheriffs and Bounders. It’s right there in the Prologue. In a letter, Tolkien writes that Mayor Sam got a rule changed about when property could be considered intestate; Bilbo’s disappearance and reappearance had traumatized the legal system.

            “And we learn…”

            This is a gross extrapolation. The actual line in its entirety is

            > Before Yule not a brick was left standing of the new Shirriff-houses or of anything that had been built by ‘Sharkey’s Men’; but the bricks were used to repair many an old hole, to make it snugger and drier.

            followed by

            > One of the first things done in Hobbiton, before even the removal of the new mill, was the clearing of the Hill and Bag End, and the restoration of Bagshot Row. The front of the new sand-pit was all levelled and made into a large sheltered garden, and new holes were dug in the southward face, back into the Hill, and they were lined with brick. The Gaffer was restored to Number Three; and he said often and did not care who heard it:

            > ‘It’s an ill wind as blows nobody no good, as I always say. And All’s well as ends Better!’

            “And it’s very clear that Tolkien thinks this is all very right and proper.”

            No, it’s not.

          2. Aleko, note the operative words: snugger and drier. The comparative degree is used, not the positive degree snug and dry.

  10. Typos
    “Where Does My Allegiance Lie” line to Ganalf in RotK should be Where Does My Allegiance Lie” line to Gandalf in RotK

    “This speech is actually not too bad, it acknowledges the” should that be a semi-colon, not comma after “bad”?


    Commentary & Question

    I wonder how Nelson’s battle “speech” before the Battle of Trafalgar falls in the genre of pre-battle oratory. Because of the limitations of signal flags, it was quite short: “England expects every man will do his duty.” Some of the captains read it out to their crews (most of whom were inside the ship, and none of who could read the coded message); some thought it was superfluous.

  11. >That 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.

    I was a bit late off the mark last time (, but I don’t think that the levy of infantry is in the process of atrophying away, at least if you’re going by Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon standards. Instead, the process of levying infantry is probably on the rise as the age of the aristocrat dominating warfare gives way to the participation of the common man as towns become more powerful and serfdom is slowly abolished.

  12. “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”

    Not sure what this is saying? While I assume we would have to be alive, was this meant to be “privy to the fact”, “aware of the fact”, or is this some colloquial version of using alive that I’m not aware of?

  13. “It’s incredible to remember that this film was made in 2002 and still looks quite a bit better than much more recent films.”

    Slightly better than that, actually. It was released in 2002, but filmed in 1999 and 2000. Some of the post-processing would be done closer to the release date, but the stunt work and filming was long completed.

  14. “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 – …”

    But it’s not only for showing off, is it? Being able to create witty, catchy, inspiring poems seems a useful skill for a general that expects to sing/chant/rap his pre-battle speech. In videogame terms, the general’s poetry stat increases morale for his units.

    1. Could this also be related to the possibility that many of the common soldiers and even a significant portion of the knights would be illiterate? Supposedly, verse is easier to remember than prose.

      1. The illiterate knight is largely a piece of modern fancy. The knightly class of the high middle ages was broadly literate. Its important to separate here vernacular literacy (nearly all elites could read their own language) with Latin literacy (some knights may have struggled with Latin).

        1. Okay, so what’s the highest military position an illiterate person could raise to? Man-at-arms? Select levy? I can’t rhyme to save my life.

          1. To be fair, spontaneously composing poetry and rhyme is a *learned skill* and very few modern people spend nearly as much time learning it as would be typical in medieval Europe.

            When you are constantly exposed to poetry of all sorts, you develop a much stronger sense for how to fit the words together, and you have a larger “database” of stock phrases and bits of pieces that can be thrown together with slight modification.

          2. I feel the need to note that a great many modern Americans do actually practice spontaneously composed poetry, we just don’t call it that because it is generally people of lower socioeconomic status who do it. Freestyle improvised rap battles are exactly spontaneously composed poetry. The line between ‘spoken word poetry’ and ‘rap’ is mostly about status, not genre.

          3. Indeed rap battles have an ancient European name: “flyting”. Was a thing all over northern Europe.

  15. “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.”

    This is the moment that I have been waiting for since the series started. This scene always looked absurd to me.

        1. Also for me this was a bit too much and turned into something utterly ridiculous and absurd. Gimli/Aragorn related stuff was not ideal but survivable.

          This charge? I suspect that most of horses would die just from running on such slope (my knowledge about horses is limited, but AFAIK horses are not capable of antigravity).

          1. No horse could go down anything nearly as steep as the crudely-CGI’d slope; and in all of the shots that are obviously of real horses and riders you can see that they’re on a far less extreme slope. In fact, horses can be ridden down *short* slopes quite a bit steeper than the film production could risk doing, *provided they are used to steep terrain* (many real mountain horses and ponies can almost sit on their haunches to go down a bank) and they have room to slither and swing their backsides around about a bit. You definitely wouldn’t try it in close formation.

            Here are a couple of examples:

      1. The scene also reminds me of another charge down a slope that’s both cinematic and absurd in a good way: the climactic scene in Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925).

        1. Dear god, that looks hideously dangerous. I wasn’t sure whether I should be impressed by the incredible cinematography or horrified at what danger they put people in to film that.

          1. @Bosh Buster Keaton is a legendary actor for a reason. I also recommend the movie ‘Safety Last!’.

  16. I love Rohirric war poetry, it gets my pulse pounding. Tolkien speaks of the joy of Battle and laughing at despair. This is what he calls the Northern spirit, the ethos of of the Gemanic and Nordic cultures in which the world is doomed, even the gods will die, but what they hey? We’ll give them a good fight and go out on an adrenaline high.

    1. Absolutely! – and that’s why I really hate it when Film!Theoden just caves in, and it takes Aragorn to brace him up and suggest sallying forth in a last death-or-glory charge. A Saxon-Frankish-Scandinavian warrior king like Theoden would have taken it for granted that “will should be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens” (Tolkien’s own translation of The Battle of Maldon).

  17. On the topic of morale, I think that Tolkien made it pretty clear how much FEAR is an important part of his world.

    I would even say it is one, and pehaps the, defining character of the bad guys.
    People says, and the nazgul show how fear is often used as a tool, a weapon for Sauron armies. But we are told that resisting fear is a part of heroism, one that the forces of darkness uterly lack. From a lonely moria orc to gods like Sauron and Melkor. Morgoth, probably the strongest of the gods is also the only one to truly know fear.

    And here is their doom as being fearful they wll lose any battle where they aren’t overwhemingly superior.

    Heck Aragorn is able to push back several immortal wraith with a few flamming branchs because “they fear fire”

    PS: as character disservice I still think Theoden doesn’t hold a candle to Denethor.

    1. Well, the *forces* of darkness — the orcs and recruited men — are supernaturally bolstered by the will of the Ainu they serve. And while the side of light doesn’t have “spirits of terror”, a glowing elf-lord often terrifies the opponents.

      Aragorn uses the Dead Men as a weapon of terror at Pelargir.

      Melkor started off as among the strongest of the Ainur (co-eval with Manwe) and revised to being stronger than all the Valar together, but dispersed his power to the point of having something to fear from one suicidal elf.

    2. With the Nazgul, apparently the distance from Sauron and their own rings doesn’t help their strenght.

    1. I used to tease my coworkers saying Rap is almost exactly that! And how country Disco music actually requires more skill, because you need the ability to sing and play an instrument instead of doing copy&paste.

  18. Bret, here are additional proofreading corrections. I believe I’ve culled out of my list the ones that AthenaeGalea has already provided above.

    Catiline’s speech it yourself -> Catiline’s speech yourself (deleted pronoun it)
    makes clear that a speech -> makes it clear that a speech
    Caption for Saruman’s speech: areas with carefully design acoustics -> areas with carefully designed acoustics
    Aragorn advises Théoden send out riders -> Aragorn advises Théoden to send out riders
    also Éomer compose such -> also Éomer composes such
    has little sense if the battleplan is good -> has little sense of whether the battleplan is good
    could be confidence building -> could be confidence-building
    blasts, “many of the Orcs, -> blasts, “Many of the Orcs
    were Théoden or Éomer’s (or Aragorn). -> were Théoden or Éomer (or Aragorn). (delete apostrophe and s In Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth,
    But in Tolkien’s Middle Earth,-> But in Tolkien’s Middle-earth,
    right. Middle Earth is a world -> right. Middle-earth is a world

  19. Comment:

    It is only then that Erkenbrand’s force…moving down the slope

    I just want to note—again—that Tolkien indicates this is the western slope, not the eastern as shown in the film.

    More to the point, Erkenbrand arrives later

    Really? Later than who/what? He and his infantry arrive in sequence with Théoden and Aragorn and Éomer, pretty much the same as the film version, don’t they?

    1. * Aragorn speechifies
      * Gate blows
      * murmurs from the back
      * HORN
      * Theoden charge, day breaks
      * cave charge

      All of that is a pretty tight sequence, one moment after another. But then

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

      > So King Théoden rode from Helm’s Gate and clove his path to the great Dike. There the company halted. Light grew bright about them. Shafts of the sun flared above the eastern hills and glimmered on their spears. But they sat silent on their horses, and they gazed down upon the Deeping-coomb.

      > … There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees. They streamed down from Helm’s Gate until all above the Dike was empty of them, but below it they were packed like swarming flies. Vainly they crawled and clambered about the walls of the coomb, seeking to escape. …

      And then Gandalf and Erkenbrand. So there’s a delay, both for the reader who has to get through a mass of text, and in the events described, where there’s time for a ride and rout. Theoden can make it to the Dike then look around at orcs wishing they’d brought pitons.

      1. Got it. Thanks for the recap!

        As for the Orcs . . . as the Elves would have told them,”Never travel far without a rope”!

  20. I’m thoroughly enjoying this series and the previous one on the Siege of Gondor. I shall look forward to seeing your final thoughts on Saruman the allegedly Wise. It would definitely be interesting to compare Saruman’s performance to what you might expect of a moderately competent commander *given all Saruman’s advantages*.

    To whit – he has reconnaissance abilities undreamed of by Middle Ages armies – he has aerial spying via the crebain, ground espionage via largely unexplored human and half-human spies, and even has a direct telephone line to his erstwhile ally via the Palantiri, enabling instantaneous exchange of military intelligence in a world where a beacon system is otherwise the cutting edge of technology. Furthermore, it is suggested he has a link to the Rings of Power via his homemade Ring (, which may grant him insight into their positions, or the disposition of their wearers.

    He has apparently legal possession of Orthanc – in the books a formidable fortress ( with a curtain wall in the form of the Ring of Isengard he has ample time to fortify.

    He has supernatural speech and persuasion – which should be a great advantage, but also possibly a critical weakness for one who himself has little knowledge or interest in a matter but the arrogance to believe one’s own uninformed take the best.

    In both the book and the film he seems to have considerable industry and inferred agricultural capacity (‘hard grey bread’ is mentioned – presumably a form of hardtack) – able to outfit, equip and sustain a large army in the field. Conceivably he has greater industrial capacity (that we see) of any power except Mordor; which should give him a huge advantage.*

    * This may be misleading however – in the films we see only a fraction of the presumed scope of Rohan and Gondor; the combined capacity of every smithy and armoury of the Free Peoples may be considerably larger than is contained in Isengard’s small demesne. This may actually continue the theme of Saruman believing he has greater power because he has considerable *centralised* power, whereas a big theme in Tolkien is the quiet mass power of good, simple people.

    He also has his Fire of Orthanc, which is presented in the films as gunpowder, but which in the books seems more flexible, behaving like Greek Fire when it is used to fill ditches and repel the Ents with its flames and fumes.

    He also has the opportunity with his fighting Uruk-hai that very few other commanders in history have had – an entirely deracinated stock of fighting men whose loyalty goes directly to Saruman himself; and who apparently do not require or expect pay (though this does not seem to be true of Mordor orcs, who long for ‘good loot’, and it is at least suggested that Isengard Uruk-hai seek ‘pay and praise’ for a job well done – TT Chapter 3). Unlike other Orcs they are said to be able to stomach battle during the day but we can also see they have no issues fighting at night.

  21. An excellent article, as always. The brief dip into the St Crispin’s Day speech made me keen to see your take on one of the biggest medieval military films of recent years: ‘The King’ starring Timothée Chalamet. On rewatching the pre-battle speech at Agincourt, it’s just as lyrically inferior to Shakespeare’s original as I remembered (“England is you. And it is the space between you… Fill that space. Make it tissue” etc etc), but may conform marginally better to the classical structure you describe. In that case, it might be one small area where the film manages to outdo the play for historical accuracy, but as I say, I’d love to read a more in-depth analysis of the whole thing in a future post (or posts).

  22. “the heroes triumph as a direct, supernatural result of their resolve to resist evil.”

    I am a bit cautious about saying that. The most direct supernatural connection between evil and human will, is the One Ring, and its influence on people’s minds. Sauron also seems to have a similar power, given that his orcish armies collapse when his will is no longer present to drive them on. In those cases, the supernatural power is on the side of evil.

    In fact, it seems that evil is naturally weak. Time and again whole armies of orcs fall apart at a sudden reverse. And you can see why. If shame is the strongest force to drive men forward into battle, then there must always be a terrible weakness in the heart of all armies of those without shame. The moment some of their number find themselves forced to choose between death and dishonour, they choose the latter, exposing their neighbours to the same choice, who choose the same way. Individual evil creatures may be powerful, but collectively they are weak, precisely because there is nothing to hold them together but fear, greed, and opportunism.

    The point about the world Eru has built is not that he is constantly playing whack-a-mole with the forces of evil, but that it’s nature means that evil requires supernatural assistance to triumph for any length of time. As heat tends naturally to flow away from hotter bodies, so evil empires tend naturally to collapse. The forces of evil are just not keen to fight for each other. To take an example from Tolkien’s era, look how long the Hitler-Stalin pact lasted, or at the mutual rivalries and treacheries of the Axis powers.

    From that point of view, unit cohesion is one of the forces built into the world to ensue the (eventual) triumph of the Better Angels of our Nature.

      1. And for example resurrection of Gandalf is outright intervention of a God.

        In this world Sauron, Saruman, Morgoth and other failed powers made really dumb decision to go against active and all-powerful God.

  23. I wonder if much of the strength of La Marseillaise as a national anthem is because it’s far more a historical battle speech than a Hollywood battle speech (which most national anthems tend towards). It’s pretty unique among national anthems in detailing what horrible things the enemy is about to do to us while being silent about how great and wonderful we are.

    1. The Star Spangled Banner on the other hand asks ‘Did we make it?’ after a long and night of hanging on by the skin of our teeth. We found out in the second, seldom sung stanza that the answer is yes. But both songs have really kick-ass tunes.

      1. Don’t forget the third, also seldom sung stanza, in which we gloat about how our slaves thought they could escape by joining the British and taking up arms against us, but instead we defeated the British and punished the slaves for their audacity with death. (“No refuge could save / The hireling and slave / From the terror of flight / Or the gloom of the grave.”)

        Also, I’ll never cease to be amused that the original melody of the Star Spangled Banner (the Anacreontic Hymn) was composed as the early modern equivalent of a frat-house drinking song, with the lyrics to the final cadenza (“And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine / The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine!”) just a classically-educated way of saying “let’s get wasted and screw.”

        1. I have grown quite tired of this interpretation of that line. The “our opponents are comprised of men who fight only because they’re paid to/forced to” trope has been a standard line in propaganda since at least Ancient Greece.

        2. I always assumed it was just referring to the British soldiers: they’re subjects of a monarch (“slaves”) who are fighting for pay as part of a professional army (“hirelings”). (Though, as I gather, the British withdrawal was rather more orderly than the poem suggests.)

          1. I think this is certainly just as possible as the other interpretation; but if you think about it, it is perhaps even more repellent,. If Scott Key really was capable of using ‘slave’ as a standard trope for ‘the docile subjects of a tyrant’ while failing to notice that the army he was using it to describe included real, literal slaves fighting for their freedom, it implies that he didn’t really see those slaves as part of that army at all, and registered their presence and their role as no more significant than, say, some strayed pack animals found by the British and being used by them.

  24. Reading through the linked passage of Onasander, I was a bit surprised to see the arguments presented against merchants, bankers, and other people in the middling classes since I had been under the impression that the Roman aristocracy was more accepting than others of mercantile activity. Did the military activities of pre-industrial merchant republics exhibit any particular qualities (good or ill) of wartime leadership and generalcy different from their landed aristocracy dominated peers?

    1. Ah. So, the Romans may be relatively more accepting of fortunes made in trade than some, but they still expected the upper-crust that made up the Senate (and thus commanded the armies) to be large landowners. If you wanted to transition from being a wealthy merchant to being a Senator, you’d need to use that wealth to buy a bunch of land (which does seem, in the event, to be what Romans who got rich did). Income from trading and banking was still regarded by the Roman elite as fundamentally morally suspect and going from being a merchant or a banker to a ‘respectable’ aristocrat might take a generation or two.

      That said, I have found no real difference in the quality of leadership based on occupation. Napoleon quipped that Britain was a ‘nation of shop-keepers’ to imply that they wouldn’t produce good armies or generals and then promptly lost to them at Waterloo. Some of the United States’ best generals have come from failed merchants, businessmen and speculators.

      So no, it’s just raw, Roman snobbery there. The Roman elite could be very snobbish.

      1. “Some of the United States’ best generals have come from failed merchants, businessmen and speculators.”

        Or even a firewood peddler.

    2. Did the military activities of pre-industrial merchant republics exhibit any particular qualities (good or ill) of wartime leadership and generalcy different from their landed aristocracy dominated peers?

      Not sure about the rest of the Italian merchant republics, but the Venetians, at least, seem to have enjoyed generally (ha) good leadership for most of their history. And in ancient times, the Carthaginians put up more of a fight against the Romans than most of the other Mediterranean powers.

  25. “Now, I said above that Tolkien doesn’t use battle speeches…in the books, these lines aren’t presented as a speech (in prose), but as a poem.”

    Theoden’s speech upon approaching the Pelennor Fields seems to fit the model, except with an appeal to duty in place of a basis for hope:

    “Now is the hour come, Riders of the Mark, sons of Eorl! Foes and fire are before you, and your homes far behind. Yet, though you fight upon an alien field, the glory that you reap there shall be your own for ever. Oaths ye have taken: now fulfil them all, to lord and land and league of friendship!…[instructions to army]…Other plans we cannot make, for we know not yet how things stand upon the field. Forth now, and fear no darkness!”

  26. I apologize if this double-posts; I was having login trouble.

    “Now, I said above that Tolkien doesn’t use battle speeches…in the books, these lines aren’t presented as a speech (in prose), but as a poem.”

    Theoden’s speech upon approaching the Pelennor Fields seems to fit the model, except with an appeal to duty in place of a basis for hope:

    “Now is the hour come, Riders of the Mark, sons of Eorl! Foes and fire are before you, and your homes far behind. Yet, though you fight upon an alien field, the glory that you reap there shall be your own for ever. Oaths ye have taken: now fulfil them all, to lord and land and league of friendship!…[instructions to army]…Other plans we cannot make, for we know not yet how things stand upon the field. Forth now, and fear no darkness!”

  27. I hesitate to rush to interpret it, but it seems fairly clear to me that in the books the forces opposing Sauron during the ‘War of the Ring’ at the end of the Third Age only fail to lose because – at critical points – the Valar have their backs.
    The wind which enables Aragorn to get to Minas Tirith (in ‘The Return of the King’) with his commandeered sailing ships in time is one which suddenly, miraculously, comes out of the west (Implication: sent by the Valar), and which incidentally blows away the clouds of volcanic ash or whatever the heck it is which has been overshadowing Minas Tirith and the battlefield there.
    And the whole ‘Gollum trails Frodo across Mordor, somehow surviving getting shot by orcs, seizes the Ring and then conveniently trips and falls into the volcano with it, because nobody has the willpower to intentionally destroy the thing’ smacks of Valar intervention.
    Plus there’s Gandalf’s quote somewhere in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ about something else having been at work and making sure that it was Bilbo who stumbled over the Ring, in the first place, and not some orc or servant of Sauron.

    That’s getting aside from the consideration of morale, though, it seems to me, unless you want to consider it as a sort of Middle-earth version of ‘The gods are with us’ (or at least archangels or whatever the Valar are equivalents for.)

    1. If nothing else, Gandalf was returned to life with even more power “until my task is done”, which implies someone was closely watching events and putting his thumb on the scale (I believe it was even implied in the books that this intervention was by the chief god and not “merely” one of the Valar).

      1. In books it is only implied, but it was Eru, capital g God.

        He was sent by a mere prudent plan of the angelic Valar or governors; but Authority had taken up this plan and enlarged it, at the moment of its failure. ‘Naked I was sent back – for a time, until my task is done’. Sent back by whom, and whence? Not by the ‘gods’ whose business is only with this embodied world and its time; for he passed ‘out of thought and time’.
        — Tolkien’s Letters, Letter 156

        in books:

        “Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.

        “Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. […] I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened snow.”

        — The Two Towers, chapter 5: The White Rider

    2. “And the whole ‘Gollum trails Frodo across Mordor, somehow surviving getting shot by orcs, seizes the Ring and then conveniently trips and falls into the volcano with it, because nobody has the willpower to intentionally destroy the thing’ smacks of Valar intervention.”

      No, it is not. It’s actually Frodo using the Ring’s power, and in an extremely ironic way. From the third chapter in Book 6, right before Frodo and Sam enter the Cracks of Doom.

      “Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.

      “‘Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the
      Fire of Doom.'”

      “The crouching shape backed away, terror in its blinking eyes, and yet at the same time insatiable
      desire. ”

      A;so, it’s far from clear that Gollum was actually shot by orcs, and even if he did, he managed to nab the mail shirt that Sam discards. When Frodo and Sam hear the orc tracker and the warrior orc accompanying him bickering:

      “‘I don’t know. Nothing, maybe. But he’s up to no good, nosing around, I’ll wager. Curse him! No sooner had he slipped us and run off than word came he’s wanted alive, wanted quick.’

      ‘Well, I hope they get him and put him through it,’ growled the tracker. ‘He messed up the scent back there, pinching that cast-off mail-shirt that he found, and paddling all round the place before I could get there.’

      ‘It saved his life anyhow,’ said the soldier. ‘Why, before I knew he was wanted I shot him, as neat as neat, at fifty paces right in the back; but he ran on.’

      ‘Garn! You missed him,’ said the tracker. ‘First you shoot wild, then you run too slow, and then
      you send for the poor trackers. I’ve had enough of you.’ He loped off.

      1. Sam just happened to discard a mail shirt and Gollum just happened to pick it up and put it on, and when Gollum (lacking an elven cloak for camouflage purposes) ran into orcs searching the area for trouble the mail shirt just happened to save Gollum’s life… There are a few too many ‘just happeneds’ there for me for some power not to be putting their thumb on the scales as another response to this update has put it. Also, the mail shirt business is before the Frodo & Gollum ‘cast into the fires of doom’ scene; the events take place the wrong way around for the ‘fires of doom’ scene to be what saves Gollum’s hide from the orc searches Frodo & Sam’s escapades have stirred up.

        I used to be a supporter of the ‘Frodo using the Ring!’ theory regarding the ‘fires of doom’ scene, but these days it seems to me much more probable that it’s yet another of the prophecies/foretellings which are strewn throughout the books and which are sometimes conditional and come with an ‘if’. These include (but are by no means necessarily limited to) Glorfindel’s ‘not by the hand of man’ regarding the Witch-King’s end (appendices), Aragorn’s ‘if you pass the doors of Moria’ to Gandalf (‘A Journey in the Dark’), Aragorn’s ‘though all the hosts of Mordor’ to Éomer (‘The Passing of the Grey Company’), the prediction of Malbeth the Seer (‘The Passing of the Grey Company’), and Saruman’s ‘I merely foretell’ to Frodo (‘The Scouring of the Shire’.)
        Sometimes events are preordained and sometimes they are certain unless someone turns aside from a path having been warned. (And this is all over the place in The Silmarillion, too; Tolkien absolutely loves prophecies/foretellings when it comes to Arda/Middle-earth.)
        I think Frodo, in his increasing state of Ring-induced insanity, is making a prophecy in the ‘fires of doom’ scene, and Gollum is getting a warning from the Valar or Eru of what he’s heading for, possibly so he can choose to be slain as a consequence and of his own free will instead of being just arbitrarily killed as a disposable pawn in the games of the Valar and Eru.

        1. >Sam just happened to discard a mail shirt and Gollum just happened to pick it up and put it on, and when Gollum (lacking an elven cloak for camouflage purposes) ran into orcs searching the area for trouble the mail shirt just happened to save Gollum’s life

          Now you’re being ridiculous. Gollum has been following Sam and Frodo for ages, drawn by the pull of his precious, which he wants, and wants badly. Of course he’s going to be in the same general vicinity, which is also the same vicinity as Orcs tracking them after the gigantic fracas at Cirith Ungol. There’s no “just happened”, there’s a series of rather logical decisions by the actors in question that is quite clearly laid out in the books.

          >Also, the mail shirt business is before the Frodo & Gollum ‘cast into the fires of doom’ scene; the events take place the wrong way around for the ‘fires of doom’ scene to be what saves Gollum’s hide from the orc searches Frodo & Sam’s escapades have stirred up.
          Yes, it is , and I did not mean to imply that the two are directly connected. But you made several claims of providence which I do not think are supportable, and I took them in turn. Perhaps I should have put the mail shirt bit first, but I did not mean to connect them. Those orc searches are when they’re around the Morgai, not all the way deep into Gorgoroth near Mt. Doom.

          >I used to be a supporter of the ‘Frodo using the Ring!’ theory regarding the ‘fires of doom’ scene, but these days it seems to me much more probable that it’s yet another of the prophecies/foretellings which are strewn throughout the books and which are sometimes conditional and come with an ‘if

          And you can add things like the Doom of Mandos, or Morgoth’s curse/prophecy to the house of Hurin, Frodo’s prophecy at the very end before leaving for Valinor about the names of Sam’s children. I think you’re working with a somewhat false to Tolkien’s rendition of how supernatural events of this caliber work. That foretelling, prophecy, and influence are all basically the same thing, and when someone puts their will and their magic to ‘foretell’ they DO influence, whether they mean to or no.

          1. Frodo predicted that Sam’s children would have very predictable names, including one that Sam had already told him they wanted to use. I would call that more a forecast than a prophecy.

      2. I’ll add that I’d have liked to have found a phrase which makes them sound less potentially callous and manipulative when referring to ‘the games of the Valar and Eru’ in my previous comment. Gollum wouldn’t have a warning and a choice to be slain, to my mind, if they were callous manipulators and he was an undeserving disposable agent. I couldn’t think of a more neutral way to phrase it though, I regret to say.

  28. “Smashed by trees in the coomb or ridden down by horses in the Westfold makes very little difference at the strategic level.”

    WIthout the Huorns Saruman’s host is still defeated and routed. But my impression is that the Huorns accomplish the actual killing of all of the routing soldiers. Given the size disparity, I don’t think chasing cavalry is going to manage that so completely. A routed army can reform, and the risk of that means that Theoden would have to leave a larger force behind to defend against that possibility and thus offer less help at Pelennor Fields. Maybe that doesn’t matter if Theoden thinks his foot is enough to defend Rohan since he can only take his cavalry anyway, but maybe it’s significant.

  29. The orcs flee into the trees.

    For the next few moments, the tree limbs waver and rustle, as if in a mighty wind.

    Then they lie still. And from the midst of the forest, there comes a single distant, but very loud, belch.

  30. “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.”

    It’s a bit late to ask, but could your citations include a chapter number, or a short phrase that would identify the text? The page numbers don’t help me, and I have no idea where or what this citation is. Searching on ‘Huorn’ didn’t help.

  31. ” Even Sauron sallied out of Barad-dur to contest Elendil and Gil-galad in person.”

    Though only after a 7 year siege! And somehow the conflict moved to the slopes of Mount Doom, some 30? miles away…

    1. Given large size of Mount Doom it is not so surprising. Also sally that was including Sauron itself would not crumble quickly, so it could move a bit before final part of the fight (maybe Sauron wanted to move closer to Mount Doom, where power of the ring was the greatest? Or was attempting to escape?).

  32. re: the poems, i generally really like and agree with much of what you’ve said here of they’re being a demonstration of “proper culture for a general” or however you say it.

    but they do also seem to have definite elements of a “battle speech” but in shortened and less literal form.

    “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. ”

    “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!”

    the subject matter is meant to be referential to the situation at hand, ad the subject matter is…. rather grim. so it highlights the dangers faced and it also highlights that the general or leader, theoden is well aware of those dangers. to use a haiku metaphor, you generally don’t write poems about fall leaves in april.

    however, the same leader / general obviously has his wits and sharp mind about him well enough *despite all this* to be able to fit this into a poem with the proper meter and the proper form for the occasion. and is in a decent enough state to have not left what their culture sees as worthwhile in the face of what might be coming. aka as the union song goes “bread and roses”. and he’s got his game face on.

    ” that composing these short poems ‘on the fly’ (or having them prepared)” …. it seems like this what you’ve talked about battle being like? either having the right sort of plans prepared for the situation or to be able to do it “on the fly” as circumstances come up.

    so there’s a pretty decent basis to pin a potential success on. we’ve got somebody who has his stuff together and is able to pull off the right thing for the occasion when it comes up. plus he’s just reminded us of our swords, spears, shields, and horses which we’ve prepared. and if we’re hearing this we must be considered “good enough at this” to listen and understand, “in the circle” as it were, so we probably aren’t so bad either.

  33. Editing:

    “the Rohorrim cavalry” — typo

    “In contrast, disaster after catastrophe, the Rohirrim, bound by” — I feel like an ‘in’ or ‘through’ could go before ‘disaster’



    “or even a strong sense of themselves as professionals-who-don’t-run-away (this is perhaps clearest in the chapter “The Uruk-hai”)” — I dunno, the core band of Uruk-hai seemed to have quite a strong sense of themselves, both in their jeering of the Moria goblins and in their last stand:

    > Most of the raiders that were left alive then broke and fled, this way and that, pursued one by one to the death. But one band, holding together in a black wedge, drove forward resolutely in the direction of the forest. Straight up the slope they charged towards the watchers. Now they were drawing near, and it seemed certain that they would escape: they had already hewn down three Riders that barred their way.

    > ‘We have watched too long,’ said Merry. ‘There’s Uglúk!

    > So it was that they did not see the last stand, when Uglúk was overtaken and brought to bay at the very edge of
    Fangorn. There he was slain at last by Éomer, the Third Marshal of the Mark, who dismounted and fought him sword to sword.

    Not sure why Eomer got off his horse for this, I’d guess he feared for his horse or respected Ugluk a lot.

    And earlier: “Uglúk’s words were enough, apparently, to satisfy the Isengarders; but the other Orcs were both dispirited and rebellious.”

    Overall, Ugluks’s band of Isengarders seem highly trained, coherent, and self-consciously proud of their training in contrast to the other orcs. The overall group has poor cohesion, but there’s a strong core. Saruman did *something* right.

    1. Uglúk and company may be the very best of Saruman’s forces, mind you, if Saruman considered the mission sufficiently important. These may be the equivalent of ‘special forces’, and not indicative of the general quality of the troops.

  34. I’ve really been enjoying this blog since someone pointed me to it. The writing is informative and entertaining as ever. I am particularly amused today with the discussion of how cavalry DON’T work, because just a day ago I had occasion to read in a chapter in Randal Munroe’s book “How To” where he explained why the Rohirrim couldn’t just plow through ranks of orcs … with a physics equation. It’s worth it if only for the phrase “by treating the orcs as a uniform gas with very large molecules”. By his calculations, the energy to ride through a crowd of orcs works out to 97 kilowatts, which converts to 130 horsepower. While a horse can in fact produce peak power output in the 10 to 20 horsepower range, it is well short of 130. Even setting aside the orcs weapons (very well suited for dealing with charging cavalry), a horseman cannot cavalierly (pun intended) charge through a mass of unarmed infantry standing at attention if they hold their ground. Physics matches with history. Who knew?

    1. That chapter of How To has come to mind often while reading this series. (Now imagining the Brownian motion of orcs when in contact with Rohirric infantry.)

    2. I’m repeating myself, but take a look how the Chess knight piece moves! It never attacks head-on.

  35. Just a note on Old English poetics, iirc from reading Tolkien’s notes to his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a fair few years ago – there are four main stresses in the line, and at least two, the one in the first half and the one in the second half, must alliterate on the stressed syllable. So “Alliterating literary buffoons lay \ Soundly sleeping hacksaws snoring …” because we stress “Alliterating” on the second syllable in, not the first, so it alliterates with “literary”, which is stressed on the first syllable.

    And a note on chanting and singing – I can’t be the only person who has started chanting a line of verse only to wind up singing it at the end. FWVLIW, I found that happening when i was learning Te Reo Maori and Homeric Greek. Both employ syllable length in versification, though the Greek is more codified than the Maori, which is more free flowing, with attention paid to the number of stresses rather than the number of syllables. Compare “Menin aeide Thea, Peleiadeo Akhileos \ oulomenen, myri’ Akhaiois alge etheke” with “Tera taku waka ko Mataatua \ Ka u ki te tai Rawhiti”. You pick up the flow and the rhythm and soon you aid a little melody of five or so notes to help the words stick in your mind.

  36. This is a nice informative treatment of the part of military science I understand least. Bravo!

    One alliterative pair has been overlooked in the Beowulf quotation (“ge” at the beginning of an Old English word is like the “y” in “y’know”):
    nīehstan sīðe: ⁠”Ic genēðde fela

  37. “If they come back, well, we saw what happened to Bilbo, whose properties were pretty much scattered among his heirs when he was thought to have died intestate.”

    Bilbo was a doubly unusual case, a Baggins (they don’t do that) who ran out the door without making any preparations or notifying anyone. Most adventurous hobbits we hear about are Tooks (as Bilbo is on his mother’s side); the clan probably has procedures for handling such things, and I imagine even most Tooks usually tell someone that they’re leaving.

    Tolkien writes in Letter 214 about hobbit ‘headship’ of families; Bilbo was head of the Bagginses, and his sudden return traumatized the legal system so much that he was considered to be head long after the Birthday Party and his second disappearance, until Mayor Samwise made a rule about hobbits going Over Sea Before Witnesses.

  38. Excellent post; I have nothing to add but one general comment. You keep repeating that “horses are not battering rams”, but historically, that is just wrong. And we see this over *a very wide period of time*:
    – at Carrhae, it was Persian cataphracts which demolished Roman legions after latter formed testudo to resist missile fire
    – Byzantine military manuals outright state that kataphraktoi utilize their heavy armour to physically smash spear shafts – therefore Byzantines deepened infantry lines (from 7-deep to 16-deep) and introduced heavy menaulion spears, essentially baby trees capped with a massive iron or steel point
    – at Battle of Dyrrachium, it was Norman cavalry charge which broke Byzantine *center*
    – at Falkirk in 1298, a combination of longbow barrage and successive heavy cavalry charges broke Scottish schiltrons
    – At Battle of Swiecino in 1462., Polish cavalry used their horses as battering rams to smash through pallisade erected by Teutonic knights – putting a lie not only to a myth that cavalry will not charge prepared infantry but also to a myth that horse will not charge a solid object

    Heavy cavalry can break heavy infantry deployed in close order – whereas heavy infantry supported by missile troops is all but immune to missile cavalry such as horse archers. I listed more examples here:

    To conclude, your statement that “horses are not battering rams” would come as quite a surprise to any commander leading fully-armoured cavalry (“fully-armoured” in sense that both man and horse are armoured).

      1. That is why I noted it is a “general comment”. But even so, you will notice that two of the examples I gave (Normans, English at Falkirk) did not ride armoured horses. And if you want, you can find videos of horses today running straight into crowds, and even solid objects.

    1. I think Bet uses “battering ram” in a more technical sense than it is generally used in English. See for example his previous posts on cavalry charges in battle:

      Bret isn’t saying that a cavalry charge can’t break through the enemy, but that they can’t (almost always – he has mentioned exceptions before) just by charging into and physically knocking over dense infantry formations.

      In the examples you give, AFAIK the descriptions we have of Carrhae, Dyrrachium, and Falkirk all say that the heavy cavalry broke the enemy, but these aren’t detailed after action reports. We don’t know whether the tired and frightened infantry broke formation at the sight of the oncoming cavalry charge, or stood their ground and were knocked over. Based on the more comprehensive surviving literature from later periods, it’s much, much more likely that the infantry broke and ran before the cavalry came into contact.

      The battle of Swiecino is one I’ve never heard of and sounds interesting – can you recommend an (English) reference? I would ask though if these Polish cavalry actually galloped their horses into a palisade, or whether they walked (the horses walking, not the riders) up to the palisade and then pushed it over. There’s a big difference between persuading a horse (or human or elephant) to lean into and push against an obstacle, or run into a spiky obstacle.

      1. It is hard to find references for Swiecino because most of the literature is in Polish; in fact, I cannot give you any because I only learned of it through discussion, but it was interesting enough to include. Impression I got is that, yes, cavalry actually galloped their horses into a palisade.

        The best I am able to give in English are some blog and forum posts:

        But the guy discussing hussars in latter is Pole.

        At any rate, it is not impossible to train horses to charge into solid walls, and they definitely will jump *through* fence if motivated. Following video, near the end:

        I believe I have mentioned Byzantine manuals and how Byzantines, after Arabs introduced cataphract cavalry, introduced menavlion spear as well as deepened infantry lines. In fact, reason given for introduction of menavlion is: “If it should happen, and we hope it does not, that the three deep spears of infantrymen are smashed by the enemy kataphraktoi, then the menavlatoi, firmly set, stand their ground bravely to receive the charge of the kataphraktoi and turn them away. Their menavlia must not be made from wood cut into sections, but from saplings of oak, cornel or the so-called atzekidia…”. (Presentation and Composition on Warfare of the Emperor Nikephoros, in Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth by Eric McGeer, pg 19)

        This description only makes sense if heavy armoured cavalry will charge enemy infantry and physically collide with them – that is the only way spears can be broken.

        1. Shame about the sources, I don’t read Polish and don’t trust Google translate to be accurate on historical documents 🙁

          Looking at the forum discussion, again there is the difference between military battles being summarised for a general audience and the detailed description. In the forum, when I read Polish hussars “smashing” or “breaking through” the enemy, the words are being used in the same way as Usain Bolt “smashing” the world record or a “scientific breakthrough” in astronomy.

          Individual humans will run into walls or other obstacles, I’ve done so myself. Individual horses will run into people, Bret in the earlier articles provided video evidence of just that. But a battle requires dozens or hundreds of horses and riders to all do the same thing, not by accident or panic.

          I do not think that video shows what you think it shows. I see either a poorly trained horse (and I have my doubts about the rider too) or one having such a really bad day that no warrior with any sense would ride into battle. The horse goes out of control and tries to jump the fence, which to me seems low enough that most horses could do so. Here the horse smashes its legs into the top rail of the fence, either because it isn’t used to jumping with the weight of a rider and has misjudged, or because the rider is hauling back on the reins to try and stop it, preventing a full jump. (My horse riding experience isn’t much, but I was taught that if a horse bolts, pull one rein only so it runs in a circle, not a straight line.)

          There’s also a good chance that the horse broke a front leg hitting the fence, which is usually a death sentence for horses. (A wild horse with a broken leg quickly gets eaten by something, so they don’t seem to have evolved good healing responses. Even with modern vetinary medicine, race horses that break a leg very often have to be euthanised.) And again this ties back to cavalry in battle: horses are expensive and valuable and actually running into infantry to try and knock them down will lead to lots of dead horses.

          On to the Byzantines.

          The wording used is interesting. The menavlatoi must *stand their ground bravely* and *turn them away*. That fits what Bret has been describing in the earlier articles, it’s mostly about morale. Oncoming horses and riders are frightening, and the single most important thing for the infantry to do is not break and run. If the infantry stand their ground and have long spears (or later bayonets), the cavalry will slow down and turn away.

          However this source specifically mentions kataphraktoi, cavalry with fully armoured riders *and* fully armoured horses. (My source for this is Phil Barker writing about ancient warfare.) With all that weight, the kataphraktoi can’t canter or gallop, so charge into contact at a slow trot or walk. At a slow speed this becomes more like an infantry vs infantry fight, so here the menavlatoi do need long, solid spears. (I can’t find the source, but there was a battle in the Napoleonic era where this happened. There was so much rain that nobody could use firearms. An infantry square was broken by lancer cavalry who walked their horses up to it, and used the longer reach of the lance over bayonet to stab the infantry until they broke.)

          So when cavalry are being described as a “battering ram” it is in the general sense, the shock force that goes straight for the enemy to overwhelm them. That’s fine. What Bret is objecting to is the interpretation by filmmakers and others that cavalry are used literally as battering rams.

          1. Just noticed that I wrote “horses are expensive and valuable” which is kind of redundant. I actually meant “valued” as in the owners (usually) care about them and treat them well.

          2. Actually, horses being in a large group makes them more, not less, likely to charge into pikes. They are herd animals, which means that herd gives them a sense of safety; and it is human controlling the horse, either outside or within the herd. And humans can be trained to do crazy things, such as march straight through musket fire, while horse unnerved by noise of battle will more readily give control over to human on his back. So I don’t buy the idea that descriptions of cavalry “smashing into” or “smashing through” infantry is figurative.

            As for Byzantines, “stand their ground bravely” and “turn them away” can fit either infantry turning away enemy charge before it impacts or doing so in hand-to-hand combat. What matters here is description of cataphracts *smashing* spear shafts with their armour, which clearly speaks of a physical collision resulting from cavalry charge.

            Yes, cataphracts generally trotted towards enemy lines – though it had little to do with armour, as fully armoured knights in 15th century were fine with full-gallop charge (that being said, they did have larger horses *and* lighter armour than kataphraktoi). But point still remains that they used their horses to physically break enemy spear shafts. That means that we are talking about physical impact here – a.k.a. cavalry being used literally as battering rams – and not morale impact or a stabbing match. Neither of these result in broken spear shafts; only impact of a rider or a horse (especially if armoured) can cause that.

          3. There was a case in the Netherlands where a herd of horses was trapped by flood waters. It was fixed by having two teen-aged girls ride their horses out to the herd, hang out a bit, and start back. The other horses joined them. (Some foals were exhausted by the swim, but they all made it.)

      2. Battle of Swiecino (Polish: Bitwa pod Świecinem) (declension) doesn’t have great descriptions in Polish language in the internet. One of the best I found is this article in a reputable newspaper, mentioning various sources although only one by name (Jan Długosz)–17-wrzesnia-1462-roku.html

        One paragraph mentions the Teutonic camp was “fortified with a palisade”, another that Polish cavalry “tore through the palisade”. This is a bit unclear. The word used can also be used to force your way through bushes etc. and that doesn’t necessarily mean you destroy something in the process.

        Another piece: here on a message board for historians A few people are pondering the phrase “sforsowała palisadę” and what does it exactly mean. No one offers a clarification, but someone mentions the cavalry suffered heavy losses while doing so.

        So I thought I’d reach for the sources. Surprise, Jan Długosz (a.k.a. Johannes Longinus) wrote in Latin. He’s considered the Poland’s first historian, he was among other things the king’s advisor, and his nephew distinguished himself at the battle. Scans:

        The top link (Roczniki) is the Annales, the main work. The middle one are manuscripts and handwritten copies.

        There are Polish translations and libraries are currently open, but I won’t be able to devote that much time for the next few weeks. But most likely I will, eventually, because the topic keeps popping up on this blog!

        1. I’m stoopid. The website also has an English version (Hamburger Menu in the top left). If you switch, it also switches transcript pop-ups (while viewing individual pages) from Polish to Latin.

  39. In ROTK (book) Tolkien states that Sauron achieves cohesion and morale through some sort of mass mind control. When Frodo puts on the ring in Mount Doom Sauron can see him. And Tolkien, in a very well written passage, describes how he knows he is (potentially) mega fucked. But Sauron is now distracted and his army loses their morale. I think Gandalf recognizes what is happening and tells his side to advance.
    You mention Jackson seeing battles as a contest between weapons systems. I find myself thinking the army of the dead could have defeated the entire host of Mordor at the battle of Gondor. But probably only if Angmar were destroyed first.

  40. As somebody basically familiar with Gustav II Adolf of Sweden, I’m not sure whether to regard your point with flattery or insult. :p

    The points about what makes a good battle speech makes me interested in looking back at one in the first half of the first season of the anime Attack on Titan. I’m pretty sure that it at least had the “acknowledge the fears of the troops while motivating them with what’s at stake and what the plan is” part down.

  41. Regarding horns, some of the orcs encountered in the books seem to have a definite problem with horns being blown, being intimidated by the sound – or at least specifically by the sound of Boromir’s horn.
    In ‘The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm’: ‘…For a moment the orcs quailed and the fiery shadow halted. Then the echoes died as suddenly as a flame blown out by a dark wind, and the enemy advanced again…’
    And in ‘The Uruk-Hai’ Pippin recalls how: ‘…Boromir had blown his great horn till the woods rang, and at first the Orcs had been dismayed and had drawn back; but when no answer but the echoes came, they had attacked more fiercely than ever…’

    Regarding the battle at Helm’s Deep generally, the Synopsis of previous events for the 1988 impression of ‘The Return of the King’ mentions that: ‘…They rode then with the king and his host against the forces of Isengard, and took part in the desperate victory of the Hornburg…’ I’m not clear who write the synopsis, but if it was Tolkien himself, I find the use of the word ‘desperate’ as suggesting there were moments where despite everything going on the Rohan forces were in grave peril.
    (On a topic related to a comment made by another poster in response to a previous part of the series, the ‘The Return of the King’ synopsis also makes reference to Théoden having been rescued from ‘the spells of Wormtongue, his evil counsellor…’ although the synopsis writer may be being metaphorical with regard to ‘spells’ rather than literal.)

    (As a random aside on military music, there seem to have been several accounts of a piper, Bill Millin, being active with a set of bagpipes on one of the D-Day beaches (Sword) during WW2.)

    1. With regard to Boromir’s horn, it seems like the orc’s is not so much the horn itself, but that it might be summoning reinforcements.

      1. Maybe at Amon Hen they might be wondering if there could be reinforcements. That doesn’t make any kind of sense at all in Moria. They can see the hall down to the bridge and that there aren’t any reinforcements anywhere in sight. And yet they stop in Moria, apparently unnerved or intimidated – even the balrog. There’s something about horns blowing generally, or maybe some horns in particular.

        1. Or maybe they are born fearing the thing that signifies the approach of Orome, Huntsman of the Valar.

    2. Orcs are nocturnal creatures, and yes I know they’re not evolved, but it would still make sense for them to have better hearing than humans. Maybe the loud horns are causing them physical pain.

  42. By this point it should be clear for everyone that (video) games over-emphasize the superficial, material aspects of a battle. Especially weapons and weapon upgrades. On one hand, it’s rather understandable – morale is difficult to implement convincingly, even at a higher level of abstraction. On the other, the snake is eating its tail now – people draw their mental image of “medieval” era from video games, and misconceptions spread farther and farther.

    You made me wonder which (computer) games have more realistic morale and battle systems. I’m using the term “battle system”, for the lack of a better term, for the idea that in a battle, entropy increases and everything goes to hell (There’s a famous quote by Helmut von Moltke: “No plan survives contact with enemy”, and I think you quoted it once without attribution). In a realistic battle game, player should gradually lose control, and even knowledge, of the situation. But vast, vast majority of them still present everything from the satellite view, orders reach destination instantly and are perfectly executed. Not only that, but battle is often hardest to control at the start (many units in a real-time game; a lot to think about in a turn-based game) and gradually becomes less and less chaotic.

    And I recall one game doing a resonable job. The low-budget fantasy strategy game serries “Dominions”. Armies are often routed in that one, based mostly on morale ratings of individual units and losses taken. It’s actually important to mix standard bearers and regular soldiers, as well as field a fair number of priests who can cast Sermon of Courage. Troops need regular morale support thorough a battle. At least until the mid-late game, where battlefield becomes utterly dominated by supernatural beings and artillery-like mages from the back row, and you don’t care what the front units are as long as they are reasonably durable and inexpensive cannon fodder.

    Also in Dominions games, you give each army a sequence of 5 orders in advance. Your commanders issue them and then your army defaults to autopilot. Your control deteriorates! Although the 2 developers are fans of Ars Magica and no stranger to complex simulations or history, I believe this effect was accidental. Dominions is a multiplayer game and can handle 17 players with ease due to its simultaneous turns. That’s why orders are given in advance, and commanders fail to second-guess each other, resulting in chaos. The number of orders is limited to 5 both because you can’t guess ahead very far, but also to limit micromanagement, which the games already have in ABUNDANCE.

    Note I’m presenting Dominions more as a curiosity and don’t want to endorse it. I tried to like the game, but failed. It’s a good simulation but a poor game. A minefield of ideas (spells, units, pretender gods, magic items) of which only some are strategically viable and the rest are best ignored because they’re inefficient. It has some factions balanced only by the fact everyone knows they need to gang up on it early or stand no chance. I had much more fun reading flavor texts in that game than actually playing it. Also, the game uses defense in depth against newbies ;-).

    1. This made me think of Eve Online in the old days (haven’t followed it in a while) which is a space MMORPG which could have truly massive wars over territory. In that game morale in the form of getting people to stand and die in a battle is obviously not an issue but morale in the sense of getting people to log in night after night to fight is a huge deal. A few psychological disasters without much actual physical importance can really sap turnout of one side’s army which in turn leads to more defeats, which in turn saps turnout, etc. etc. A lot of effective commanders were effective because they were entertaining enough to get people to turn out to hear them joke, tell stories, play the guitar, etc. over teamspeak.

      Morale can even matter in games like Diplomacy in which every player is the leader of a country. Especially in the case of England and Turkey, a country in a very weak position can often drag out the inevitable for many turns which keeps your armies occupied and your other flanks vulnerable. Trying to set up an attack psychologically so that they feel hopeless instead of a grim determination or angry enough to try to bring you down with them while leaving their other flanks completely unguarded can be an important part of the game.

      1. EVE Online is an interesting case. I guess you can simulate morale and cohesion in a game by forming an army of actual humans ;-). I suppose the ARMA shooter games use the same principle.

        Diplomacy doesn’t fit, that’s mind games and intimidation. Bret was talking about cohesion within a unit made of a large number of people.

    2. Shooters often have the rudiments of a morale system, though only on the individual or small unit level. At least Bungie shooters. Grunts and Jackals in Halo often run away, and Brutes, when the rest of their team dies or under certain other circumstances, go berserk and become much more aggressive but much less cunning. So do Elites, sometimes, if you wound them (“One of us must die!”). And in Destiny the lowest ranked Fallen and Cabal sometimes break off and hide from you—the lowest Hive don’t because they’re being eaten from inside by demon worms who also feed on the deaths of their enemies, so not fighting you is not self-preservation.

    3. A good number of strategy games have a morale system (Total War, Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron) – but there are very few with realistic fog of war (in the sense that you don’t get accurate info about your own army’s movements). My guess is it’s hard to implement mechanically in a satisfying way, without making it feel like the player is guessing blindly or getting screwed by the RNG.

      I know of two games that try this: “Radio Commander” and “Radio General”, both of which put you in a tent issuing orders over the radio. You can’t see your own units’ positions unless you radio them for a status report and then put a token on the map yourself. I haven’t played them so I don’t know if they’re any good.

      There’s also Tom Clancy’s Endwar, which is not at all simulationist but had some interesting ideas about the player’s POV. You can view the battlefield from the command vehicle, in which case you get a traditional overhead RTS view but with a lot of details stripped out (icons instead of individual units), or you can select an individual unit, in which case you get a full-3D view with all the details, but the camera is locked to that unit’s position (so you can only see what they see).

      1. I think a much worse problem with Fog of War is that AI really struggles with fuzzy information and making decisions without full knowledge. Monte Carlo and Las Vegas AI approaches are poor when there are hundreds if not more possible cards an opponent might have in hand. Machine learning techniques can work much better (Keldon AI for Race for the Galaxy, also Blue Moon AI by the same author), but 4X strategy games are notorious for having an enormous number of variables and are quite open-ended. Many machine learning techniques require ‘feature engineering’, which is basically telling computer which parts of a game board it should pay attention to when evaluating score of a potential outcome. Neural networks, which are a subcategory of machine learning, can determine ‘features’ themselves. They notice which parts are relevant for success if you feed it correctly labeled data to learn from. But they have their own issues – extra complexity, expensive calculations, and they’re a bit of a black box. You’re never sure how a trained neural network makes its decisions. For example there was a famous experiment where they taught computers to recognize tanks in forest photographs. It seemed to work well until they started testing it on new, real-world data. It turned out the aerial photographs with tanks were made on a sunny day. The network learned to recognize sunny days and not tanks.

  43. For another WWII reference — much Japanese propaganda assured their forces that Americans were weak and cowardly.

    It made it all the more unnerving to face pilots at Midway who were clearly determined to attempt their attack run until they died.

  44. For those interested in Saruman’s overall strategy, in the distant past around 1980 the company SPI sold a “War of the Ring” boardgame. There were a few possible setups, but the most interesting one for this collection is the three player strategic. Three players, representing Sauron, what the movie calls “the free peoples of Middle Earth”, and Saruman as an independent rather than subordinate of Sauron. Strategic, so as well as the quest to destroy the ring / hunt to capture the ring bearer there are armies and battles and sieges going on.

    The game in current terminology was a “sandbox” rather than “narrative” meaning that each player had (almost) complete freedom about what to do and when. And this included the possibility of Saruman capturing the One Ring, which was both interesting for all players and IMHO well designed and respectful of the books.

    Sadly I haven’t had access to a copy for nearly two decades. But if you’re reading these collections, I recommend asking around friends and acquaintances to see if you can play a game.

    1. There was an old TSR/SPI board game, ‘Wellington’s Victory’ (one of those board games with huge pre-printed hexagon grid maps and with hundreds of playing pieces), which featured morale at the level of individual units and of army level. As individual units took casualties their own morale fell (and their chances of holding if an enemy cavalry unit was even forming up for a charge in their vicinity dropped, whilst their likelihood of routing as a result of any further combat losses rose); but combat losses also bit chunks out of army morale, which when it hit zero resulted in the entire army losing combat effectiveness within an hour or so of in-game time. For that matter, though, simply having units ‘activated’ and ready to move around and fight drained army morale, and so if possible you wanted to force your enemy to have to activate as many units as possible, whilst keeping as many of your own as possible resting in position. (There was also stuff about command units, which had to be present to get units to move and voluntarily change formation, and which when damaged could only do their stuff over a reduced radius – and wave goodbye to more army morale if command units became damaged.)
      There were a couple of geographical locations which were worth small amounts of army morale to whichever side held them (Hougomont and Haye Sainte if my memory serves me correctly) but in general the battle really was about wearing down the other side’s army morale whilst being as careful as possible of your own.

  45. You may be touching on this in next week’s entry, but personally in the film version I do see one not-insignificant strategic difference between the already routing Uruks being smashed by trees in the coomb or ridden down by horses in the Westfold. Doesn’t affect the outcome of this battle in the least, but in the later case Éomer’s cavalry is tied up doing that; somewhat scattered to the west and his horses that much more exhausted. It takes time for cavalry to run down an army, even when offered no resistance.

    That’s a potentially critical difference since Théoden needs to pivot quickly and gather forces to march at speed to the relief of Gondor. Having a group of cavalry headed the opposite direction in a pursuit would seem to reduce how many forces Theoden can make ready in time to march.

  46. “In the ‘natural’ order of things, the hobbits remain in the Shire; they are allowed to leave but do not choose to do so.”

    I don’t think Tolkien would have agreed that was ‘natural order’. The insularity of the Shire is indicated as a flaw by both characters (Gandalf, Frodo, Gildor) and Tolkien ex cathedra. The Shire *exists* because some hobbits were adventurous enough to claim land west of Bree, and migration is a natural part of hobbit history: Gollum’s ancestors had moved from Wilderland to Rhudaur, and then back to Wilderland. Tooks have a tendency to adventure and while other hobbits look askance at it, the text doesn’t.

    It *does* seem natural for hobbits to be concerned with their own lives, and not *trying* to Do Great Things let alone have power over others. But that doesn’t mean leaving home is upsetting the natural order of things.

  47. This is the first time I heard the purpose of pre-battle speach explained so clearly and logically. Some of Bret’s articles are meandering and stuffed with disclaimers. Not this one.

      1. I’m not known for subtlety, in fact I once heard I’m subtle “as a drunken orc”. Some say American scholars have a tendency to repeat themselves in their works, compared to their European peers. Also, US is a much more tolerant country so I guess that’s the way it works. But yes it was meant as a compliment. I wish people weren’t so easily offended though.

  48. I thought that these pre-battle speeches were just historical flourish, but this article convinced me otherwise. Actually, I realised I have given this pre-battle speech, many times. My experience in premodern pitched battle is of course limited, but I have some (modest level) experience in coaching team sports, which is the closest equivalent. My pre-match team talk almost always contains the elements of the pre-battle speech.

    For example it could be:
    I- Right, listen up, guys. I don’t need to tell you how we play, we’ve practiced this, so you know how to play.
    II- Now, they are the best team in this league. We know they have good shooters, and they don’t really have weak links.
    III- If we want to challenge for the Championship, this is the game we need to win.
    IV- We’ve played against them before, and we know we can beat them, if we play our best game. Just stick to the game plan, and we got this.
    V- All right, let’s go!

    Of course, the talking up of the opposition (part II), is not to counter fear (you don’t really need to fear anyone), but to get your team to be prepared for the challenge (as in the example), or alternatively to not underestimate them (if it’s a weaker side). Still, it’s preparing your team mentally (morally?) for the match.

    Although I might play down the number III (what’s at stake). You don’t want your team to be thinking about the league table during match. And it’s better not to feel the pressure.

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