Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VIII: The Mind of Saruman

This is is the eight and last part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII) 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 overall impact of morale and cohesion, as well as the ‘general’s speech.’ This time, we’re concluding with a look at how the battle fits in to the overall strategic situation.

In particular, we’re going to look at how the battle fits into Saruman’s strategic situation and assess the quality of his strategic thinking. Has Saruman effectively tailored his means to his ends? Can we chalk up the eventual failure of his plan to bad luck or unforeseen consequences, or was this entire plan broken from the beginning?

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I think those of you who have been reading this series from the beginning already know my verdict on Saruman: Saruman is a dummy-wummy whose plans failed because they were bad. And don’t take my word for it! Gandalf says of Saruman, “You have become a fool…and yet pitiable,” one engaged in “folly and evil” who “gnaw[s] at the end of…old plots” (TT, 221-2). He “should have been the king’s jester” and Gandalf is “beyond [his] comprehension” (TT, 220). An “unhappy fool” (TT, 224).

Gandalf, to be clear, does not talk this way about everyone – note how quick he is to stop Frodo when he calls Barliman Butterbur stupid (FotR, 267). I pull that out because I’ve noticed in the comments a tendency to treat the dialogue of certain characters a bit more frivolously than Tolkien does; ‘wise’ characters are very careful with their words and functionally never lie (this is less true in the films; the point is drawn out explicitly and analyzed by Matthew Dickerson in Following Gandalf (2003)). Statements from Gandalf – the incarnation of Olórin, the wisest of the Maiar – may be taken as nearly true and reliable as statements by the narrator itself. When the quasi-divine spirit of wisdom tells you someone is a fool, it is because they are a fool.

Gandalf, marveling at the foolishness of Saruman.
As I note below, I actually think this scene is one of the weaker ones in terms of adapting its source material. Jackson has, I think, fundamentally missed the motivations of Gandalf, who is not here to gain intelligence for things he already knows (that Mordor’s next strike will fall on Gondor is presented in the film as a mystery, whereas in the books it is obvious to anyone who can read a map), but rather an errand of mercy, offering one last chance at redemption to a fallen colleague.

And we could end the analysis there (who am I to argue with Gandalf?), but what fun would that be? So we’re going to dissect Saruman’s strategy. This post is essentially one giant book-note; as we discussed at the beginning, the film’s changes to the source material mostly serve to confuse this sort of upper-level reasoning. Moreover, the books simply have more detail and insight into Saruman’s strategy (which, I would argue, remains fundamentally the same in both works). So I’m not going to split out my book-notes, because they’re all book-notes.

I should also note that I am going to reference The Unfinished Tales here. I have generally avoided doing this; the Tales are, after all, unfinished. They sometimes offer multiple versions of events or conflict with each other. And, in any case, they are not apart of the core narrative. I don’t think they can be taken as a way to gainsay the primary text (read: the books). But here, they can help to fill in some of the gaps, explaining some of the events we cannot see and clearing up the timeline in important ways.

That’s enough preamble, onward!

What is Strategy?

We should start by returning to our three levels of military analysis: tactics, operations and strategy. We’ve dealt with tactics (how you fight) and operations (where you fight, and how you get there). Strategy is an often misunderstood term: most ‘strategy’ games (especially real-time strategy) are actually focused almost entirely on tactics and operations; as a rule, if ‘don’t have a war’ isn’t an option, you are not actually doing strategy. Likewise, a lot of basic planning in business is termed ‘strategy’ when it really is tactics; not a question of goals, but of means to achieve those goals. Because strategy is the level of analysis that concerns why we fight – and thus also why we might not fight. Let’s unpack that.

(Attentive readers who know their Clausewitz (drink!) will recognize that I am being both broader and narrower than he in how I use the term strategy. Clausewitz terms strategy as “the employment of battles to gain the end of war” which is more nearly what we today mean as operations. In contrast, strategy as it is used today in a technical sense corresponds more nearly to what Clausewitz terms policy, the third element of his ‘marvelous trinity.’ A full exegesis of Clausewitz’ trinity is beyond the scope of this essay, but I wanted to note the differing usages, because I’m going to quote Clausewitz below. And as always, every time Clausewitz gets quoted you must take a drink; it’s the eternal military history drinking game).

At the strategic level of analysis, the first question is ‘what are your policy objectives?’ (although I should note that grand strategy is sometimes conceived as an analytical level above strategy, in which case policy objectives may go there). There’s a compelling argument common in realist international relations theory that the basic policy of nearly all states is to survive, with the goal of survival then suggesting a policy of maximizing security, which in turn suggests a policy of maximizing the military power of the state (which ironically leads to lower the security of other states who then must further increase their military power, a reaction known as the ‘security dilemma’ or, more colorfully, the ‘Red Queen effect’). I think it is also possible for states to have policy goals beyond this: ideological projects, good and bad. But survival comes first.

From there, strategy concerns itself with the best way to achieve those policy objectives. Is peace and alliances the best way to achieve security (for a small state, the answer is often ‘yes’)? Would security be enhanced by, say, gaining a key chunk of territory that could be fortified to forestall invasion? Those, of course, are ends, but strategy also concerns itself with means: how do you acquire that defensible land? Buy it? Take it by force? And then – and only then, finally – do you come to the question of “what sort of war – and what sort of conduct in war – will achieve that objective?”

You may note that this is not the same kind of thinking that animates tactics or operations. Military theorists have noticed that for quite some time, often suggesting a sharp separation between the fellows who do operations and tactics (generals) and those who do strategy (typically kings or politicians). As Clausewitz says (drink!), “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose…war should never be thought of as something autonomous, but always as an instrument of policy [emphasis mine].” In short, Clausewitz stresses – and leaders have long ignored to their peril – that of all of the factors in war, policy ought to guide action (although no part of the trinity may be neglected).

This creates subordination between the three levels of analysis (to get technical, this is because operations and tactics are part of a side of the Clausewitzian trinity which ought to be subordinate to policy). Operations is subordinate to strategy; an operation which achieves something that isn’t a strategic goal accomplishes nothing. And tactics is likewise subordinate to operations. Thus the thinking pattern should always proceed from the highest questions of strategy down to the prioritization of ends (still strategy), to the means to accomplish those ends (still strategy); only then to the execution of those means (operations) and then to the on-the-ground details of that execution (tactics). Of course what this tripartite division is mean in part to signal is that all three of these stages are tremendously complex; just because tactics is the subordinate element does not mean it is simple!

There are three great strategic sins, and Saruman commits all three.

I love this shot. Isengard changes more than almost any location in the films. It begins as a tree-filled walled garden, is turned into a smoke-pit of industry, and then finally given (violently) back to nature, becoming the Isenpond.

The first sin is the sin of of not having a strategy in the first place, what we might call ’emotive’ strategy. As Clausewitz notes, policy (again, note above how what we’re calling strategy is closest to policy in Clausewitz’ sense) is “subject to reason alone” whereas the “primordial violence, hatred and enmity” is provided for in another part of the trinity (‘will’ or ‘passion). To replace policy with passion is to invert their proper relationship and court destruction.

The second sin is the elevation of operational concerns over strategic ones, the usurpation of strategy with operations, which we have discussed before. This is, by the by, also an error in managing the relationship of the trinity, allowing the general’s role in managing friction to usurp the state’s role in managing politics.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; an operational consideration (the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet) and even the tactics necessary to achieve that operational objective, were elevated above the strategic consideration of “should Japan, in the midst of an endless, probably unwinnable war against a third-rate power (the Republic of China) also go to war with a first-rate power (the United States) in order to free up oil-supplies for the first war.” Hara Tadaichi’s pithy summary is always worth quoting, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”

How does this error happen? It tends to come from two main sources. First, it usually occurs most dramatically in military systems where the military leadership – which has been trained for operations and tactics, not strategy, which you will recall is the province of kings, ministers and presidents – usurps the leadership of the state. Second, it tends to occur when those military leaders – influenced by their operational training – take the operational conditions of their planning as assumed constants. “What do we do if we go to war with the United States” becomes “What do we do when we go to war with the United States” which elides out the strategic question “should we go to war with the United States?” entirely – and catastrophically, as for Imperial Japan, the answer to that unasked question of should we do this was clearly Oh my, NO.

(Bibliography note: It would hardly be fitting for me to declare these errors common and not provide examples. Two of the best case-studies I have read in this kind of strategic-thinking-failure-as-organizational-culture-failure are I. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (2005) and Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005). Also worth checking out, Daddis, “Chasing the Austerlitz Ideal: The Enduring Quest for Decisive Battle” in Armed Forces Journal (2006): 38-41. The same themes naturally come up in Daddis, Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017)).

The third and final sin is easy to understand: a failure to update the strategy as conditions change. Quite often this happens in conjunction with the second sin, as once those operational concerns take over the place of strategy, it becomes difficult for leaders to consider new strategy as opposed to simply new operations in the pursuit of strategic goals which are often already lost beyond all retrieval. But this can happen without a subordination failure, due to sunk-costs and the different incentives faced by the state and its leaders. The classic example being functionally every major power in the First World War: by 1915 or 1916, it ought to have been obvious that no gains made as a result of the war could possibly be worth its continuance. Yet it was continued, both because having lost so much it seemed wrong to give up without ‘victory’ and also because, for the politicians who had initially supported the war, to admit it was a useless waste was political suicide.

The Plan

We should start with Saruman’s plan, sketching it out as far into the future as we can. The key period is actually going to be February 3019, particularly February 23-28th. The events of these days should have caused radical reconsideration in Saruman’s plans as the conditions – as he knew them – changed. Instead, Saruman sticks to the strategy he had conceived of before February, creating a situation by March where even if he achieved operational and tactical success, he was still effectively doomed. But we want a sense of what the plan was before it began to go wrong.

Pictured: Gandalf, reviewing Saruman’s strategic planning work.
“And what should happen if the Ents show up on your flank while you are engaged against Helm’s Deep” asked Gandalf. “One touch of the armored gauntlet!” said Saruman. Gandalf face-palmed.

First, what are Saruman’s objectives? The ideological project is painfully direct: Saruman aims to “have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see” to achieve “the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends” (FotR, 311). While Saruman clearly imagines reordering quite a large amount of Middle Earth, he is clearly willing to accept lesser areas of control for the time being. Of course, for any of this to happen, the state Saruman controls – Isengard – must first survive. So we have a first-order aim (the survival of Isengard as a state and Saruman as a being) and then a second-order aim (the ordering of as large a territory as possible).

In pursuit of those goals, Saruman essentially opens his operations against Rohan simultaneously with his effort to obtain the ring: the first attack on the Isen Ford happens on the 25th and Uglúk’s forces reach the Fellowship and attack them at Emyn Muil on the 26th. Both forces must have been en route at the same time and it doesn’t seem like the success or failure of either was likely to have impacted the other. Saruman is thus running two operations in parallel: the effort to defeat Rohan and the effort to capture the ring.

The structure of the assault against Rohan is one thing Saruman does well, going to his strength in spying and PSYOP (psychological operations). Saruman’s spy network clearly stretches through Rohan and all the way to the Shire. In a strange way, these make his strategic failures all the more glaring, because he often cannot plead ignorance of the key conditions necessary to make better decisions.

Pictured: the only person in Saruman’s employ who comes even close to achieving his objectives.
I have to wonder if Wormtongue was in the loop on the plan to kill Théodred, or if it just completely blindsided him (I imagine the latter). Can you imagine? He’s executed this carefully, years-long PSYOP to studiously keep Rohan neutral while Saruman does provocative things and then wakes up one morning to realize that his boss just murdered the king’s son and he has to somehow smooth that over? I can’t say that the blame for the eventual failure of this operation falls entirely on poor Wormtongue.
Also, shout out to the actor, Brad Dourif, who just excels at playing creepy fellows and does a great job with Gríma. He was Piter De Vries in Dune (1984), but I noticed his face because of his single-episode appearance on Babylon 5, as the haunting Brother Edward in the truly excellent “Passing Through Gethsemane.”

But Saruman’s PSYOP efforts are the more influential. Through Wormtongue, he is able to effectively paralyze Rohan’s leadership as he prepares for a strike and it has to be remarked on how effective this is (if you are wondering why I give him little credit for this, it is because – as we’ll discuss – even if he succeeds at this, the rest of the plan is so poorly structured that he still looses). As the Unfinished Tales notes, he recognized that the key threats to this PSYOP operation were Théodred and Éomer (which seems about right, from the leadership we see the latter show). But here we run into trouble: the initial assault on the Ford of the Isen had the primary objective of removing Théodred (again, made clear in the Unfinished Tales). But this is putting the operation before the strategy: killing Théodred to enhance the PSYOP operation means making a strategic decision: war with Rohan. I should note that this is clearer in the book, where Théoden is merely tied down by bad counsel, not by obvious magic. By openly attacking the heir to the throne of Rohan, Saruman effectively guarantees there will be a war, even if Théoden remains effectively neutralized by Wormtongue.

Saruman has committed the second sin: asking how to go to war with Rohan, not if he should go to war with Rohan. His operational plan to neutralize Théoden has usurped the place of a strategic plan and dictated a strategic decision (war with Rohan) just to make an operation easier; as we’ll see, in doing this he’s closed down one of his most important opportunities for decision.

Saruman’s plan then is a very complicated three-pronged (technically four-pronged, given his operations in the Shire) effort where each prong operates on an independent time-table from the others (that is, the success or failure of each branch doesn’t influence the others). First he is sending out a party to get the ring and return, and he is using Wormtongue to disable Rohan and he is preparing open war against Rohan with the aim of capturing the kingdom. Ideally, he expects to have Rohan and the One Ring at the end of all of this. What he has actually done is created a clockwork system whereby the failure of any one part means the failure of the whole.

In practice, it ought to be conceded that every part of this plan was high risk, given that they all fail – but while the complete failure of Saruman’s plan was necessary for our heroes’ hail-mary pass to defeat the larger threat of Sauron, as we’ll see, the failure of any part would doom Saruman.

Certainty of Death? Small Chance of Success? What Are We Waiting For?

Let’s start with the effort by Uglúk’s force to capture the One Ring. The potential for failure here is immense but the strategic implications of even trying are huge. Much like the killing of Théodred, Saruman has crafted an operation that, succeed or failure, will dictate a strategic reality. Saruman ought to know that making a direct rush on the Fellowship would alert Mordor (in practice, his orcs end up grouped up with those loyal to Mordor); the very attempt will guarantee Sauron’s hostility.

And we don’t need to theorize very much, because Gandalf himself – being an immortal spirit of wisdom – figures this out and says it, noting to Saruman at Orthanc, “you have cheated your new master…when his eye turns hither, it will be the red eye of wrath” (TT, 221) and truth which is clearly confirmed by the Mouth of Sauron (RotK, 184). In fact (again, from Unfinished Tales) Sauron was already aware of Saruman’s duplicity, either due to Wormtongue or a stolen map letting out the secret of his search for the One Ring in the Shire (these conflicting stories are part of why I try to avoid relying too much on the Unfinished Tales – they are, after all, unfinished). But even had that not happened, succeed or fail, Uglúk’s mission was almost certain to disclose Saruman’s true intent – to gain the One Ring and use it against Sauron. Saruman ought to know this and it ought to factor into his plans.

Ironically, this is actually the decisive moment for Saruman’s survival and the survival of the Isengard state: Uglúk, insufficiently briefed on exactly what his mission is (he believes it to be ‘capture hobbits’ when in fact it is ‘recover the one ring’), grabs the wrong hobbits, closing off the only scenario in which Saruman could potentially win.

Given that such operation carried huge, almost entirely locked in risks which couldn’t be mitigated, what were the chances of success? Fairly poor, by my reckoning. The Uruk-Hai are sent to collect a high-value target they cannot recognize from among four possible decoys, facing significant opposition. They’re doing this over a very large geographic area and while Saruman clearly has good intelligence of the Fellowship’s route, there is hardly room for confidence here. Had the Mordor orcs not attacked from the eastern shore of the Anduin two days before (FotR, 455-6), Uglúk may well have arrived to find an impassable river between him and his quarry. Emyn Muil is not small and relatively easy to hide it (it is mountainous, rough-country split by an impassable river).

And that’s not even the end of the potential for failure. Of course there is the failure that did happen, which was grabbing the wrong hobbits. But Saruman can’t even know that the ring will be on one of the hobbits by this point – it was very nearly on Boromir. Since Uglúk and his minions have no idea what they are chasing, had Boromir taken the ring, Uglúk would have killed him, grabbed Merry and Pippin and then run off leaving the mission-critical item behind presumably to be recovered by what remained of the Fellowship. And of course, there is also the threat of the ring being commandeered by Mordor orcs (which doesn’t happen, but clearly could have) or the whole party being intercepted crossing Rohan, which obviously is a major risk, given that it happens.

In short, we can conclude that Uglúk’s mission had a high chance of failure. There are so many things that can go wrong. This is compounded by Saruman’s decision to send a small force, raising the risk that the Fellowship might escape, that Uglúk might simply get intercepted by the Rohirrim, or other failures. This is striking, because once Uglúk fails, Saruman has put himself in a situation where even if he wins, he loses.

Wizard Needs New Strategy, Badly

Now the argument I have seen in the comments is that Saruman isn’t really a dunderhead, he has merely been overcome by strategic complications outside of his control (wizards! Ents!). What I want to show here is that even if everything goes to plan, Saruman still loses. We can see this quite clearly if we ‘game out’ all of the possibilities.

Let’s start by completely removing the Ents and their Huorns. I am going to argue that it was unpardonably stupid for the Ents not to have factored into Saruman’s plans, but for now, let’s remove them from the table.

Once Saruman attacks the Ford and kills Théodred, he is essentially locked into a strategy of war with Rohan (and thus Gondor) and also because of Uglúk’s mission, hostility to Sauron and Mordor. Removing the Ents means that likely a major portion of Saruman’s army survives to defeat at Helm’s Deep. His diminished force might regroup and be able to hold the Ford in the near-term, prohibiting an immediate Rohirrim attack on Isengard. In the slightly longer term, the Muster of the Rohirrim still happens, leaving Théoden with at least six thousand cavalry and some number of infantry (presumably no less than the nearly two thousand he has from the Hornburg, RotK, 79). We’re actually under-counting here, because Théoden is clear when speaking to Gondor’s messengers that his army is quite reduced in size because he still has to garrison his own fortresses and that normally he might be able to ride to Gondor with 10,000 effectives, all apparently cavalry. But there’s no reason he couldn’t apply all of that force against Isengard, which is a more direct and immediate threat.

Pictured: Saruman’s almost literal crossing-the-Rubicon moment.

We can chart the branching possibilities, all of which are pretty good for Sauron and very bad for Saruman. Option 1: Rohan rides against Isengard; Saruman’s host is now badly outnumbered by a force it couldn’t defeat with 3-to-1 odds in its favor and demoralized by recent defeat. This could happen within a matter of days or weeks, so Saruman has no time to really prepare for the attack. Probably his host loses in the field, or else falls back to Isengard for a siege. Weeks later (with that siege perhaps still ongoing), the Witch King’s massive army – having taken Minas Tirith on the morning of the 15th of March – rolls up through Anorien and either conquerors or vassalizes Rohan and then crushes Saruman, if the Rohirrim haven’t already put his head on a pike.

Option 2: Rohan rides against Sauron. If they win, then Saruman holds out in Isengard with his few thousand remaining orcs for a couple of months, perhaps making a nuisance of himself (but probably being largely contained by Erkenbrand’s infantry force – remember, all of Rohan’s infantry is left behind in the ride to Gondor, so Rohan is not denuded of troops). A month or two later, the victorious combined armies of Aragorn II Elessar and Éomer King return from Mordor, the quest have succeeded, and smash Saruman flat. If they lose, then we’re back to the Witch king rolling out over Rohan was an unstoppable army.

But what if everything goes right? Saruman wins at Helm’s Deep. The immediate result is that he is…almost immediately crushed flat by Treebeard and the Ents, who blindside his army and his one fortress, because Saruman has failed to scout out the ‘nation’ of trees that he has been actively provoking for the better part of a year at least – but of course we’re not considering the Ents here (because Saruman sure didn’t). So let’s assume that, as per Saruman’s original plan, the Ents don’t intervene and Saruman wins at the Hornburg. Rohan is effectively removed as a military power; even if the Rohirrim retain military potential, it will take weeks for that potential to regroup around a new leader, since the king and all possible male heirs are dead (resistance might center around Éowyn, who we – having read the next book – might well know would be a far more dangerous opponent than Saruman might suppose).

Saruman will want to move quickly to make sure he can get control of as much territory as possible before that happens. Saruman’s host might reach Edoras, the political center, by the 6th or 7th of March. Minas Tirith, unaided, falls on the 15th. Remember from the Siege of Gondor that there was an entire column of Mordor’s troops in Anorien aiming to interdict the Rohirrim (because the Witch King seems to have planned on the assumption that Saruman would fail, because strategy recognizes lack of strategy, I suppose). Meaning that Saruman might be facing the advance guard of Mordor’s army rolling up through Anorien and into Rohan before the end of the month, with a main force an order of magnitude larger than his own.

The capabilities gap between Saruman’s vaunted ‘Uruk-hai’ and Sauron’s work-a-day army are just massive and deserve to be fully drawn out. Unlike Saruman, the Witch King has a cavalry force nearly the equal of Rohan’s, supported by elephants. He has several kinds of infantry (light corsairs, heavier Haradrim and Orcs) supported by trolls. He has siege artillery and the complex organization needed to dig works rapidly. He has nine magical, despair-and-fear-spreading wraiths. Saruman couldn’t beat 3,000 Rohirrim, while the Witch King’s army was on the verge of crushing 6,000 of them, while also engaging Minas Tirith. Saruman has no hope of doing this army meaningful damage, even with it depleted after a successful attack on Minas Tirith; I don’t think he even has enough forces to meet it in the field, especially with a force depleted by the losses at the Hornburg and the need to pacify Rohan. There’s simply no reason for Sauron to leave his treacherous underling in charge, so it seems fairly safe to assume that Saruman’s head ends up on a pike – probably presented to the remaining Rohirrim nobles as a way to incorporate them into Sauron’s new power-structure as obedient servants.

The only scenario in which Saruman survives, much less wins, is one in which he both defeats Rohan and captures the One Ring (it can hardly do Saruman much good if Uglúk returns with the Ring to a defeated or besieged Isengard, or if Saruman has the ring but no army), and that the ring does everything Saruman hopes it will do. Here

A strategy tree showing the position Saruman has locked himself into. Yellow outcomes are good for Saruman, purple outcomes are good for Sauron, and Green outcomes are good for the Free Peoples.

And here I have to note that last assumption: that the ring does everything Saruman hopes it will do. I am not convinced. I actually rather doubt that the One Ring works the way Saruman (or Denethor, or Boromir) imagine. Of these, only Saruman has any notable ring lore, and Saruman’s boast that he is a ‘ring-maker’ (FotR, 310) seems hollow. I tend to share CGP Grey’s understanding of how the ring works: the promises that it can be used to overthrow or replace Sauron are just lies, meant to lure a ring-bearer out of hiding to allow the ring to be recovered by Sauron. Saruman was a Maia of Aulë, like Sauron, so he may understand the ring better than most, but as I think we’ll see pretty clearly here, Saruman is deeply blinded by his pride and the real gap between his power and Sauron’s (ringless power, I might note) is enormous. Moreover, the one thing we do know is that having the One Ring does not render you unbeatable, because Sauron was – with tremendous effort – defeated while wearing it.

Indeed, in the final act of the War of the Ring, Sauron springs his army on Aragorn’s force of roughly 7,000 men assuming Aragorn has taken the ring and means to challenge him. Sauron plays with his prey before doing this. He is entirely confident of victory in this moment and but for Frodo he would have been right. There is one person in this entire story who actually knows how the One Ring works, and he does not think that the One Ring + 7,000 troops (higher quality and more cohesive troops, I might add, than Saruman’s forces, who even after a victory at Helm’s Deep, are unlikely to be much stronger than this) is actually a threat. I am inclined to believe that Sauron is right here and that even with the ring, Saruman is doomed.

Which in turn means that even if Saruman obtained the One Ring and defeated Rohan, he still loses, being smashed flat by the armies of Mordor only months later. And all of that is still without the intervention of Ents or wizards, but merely the conventional military assets already on the board. This is a terrible strategic plan.

Gnawing at Old Plots

Another way of demonstrating the weakness of the plan is to see how it could have been improved. The main problem of the plan is not that it can fail, but that it cannot barely succeed – a failure at any point causes a failure at all points in a plan where success is very often a low probability event. It is one thing if victory requires a hail Mary pass – that is Gandalf’s plan, after all. Desperate times sometimes call for desperate risks. It is quite another if success requires three hail Mary passes joined together by successful onside kicks. We may here again assume the first hail Mary: that the ring works as advertised and should Saruman get it, he would be in a position to ‘win’ so long as he could survive long enough to use it.

The main problem is actually the interaction of the two operations, because the results of the attack on the Fellowship fundamentally change the answer to the strategic question of attacking or not attacking Rohan. If Uglúk succeeds, the attack against Rohan makes sense: the Rohirrim represent the only uncommitted military force who might get to Saruman before he can use the ring to build his power. At the same time, he needs to broaden his resource-base so that he can utilize whatever powers of domination the ring give him to rapidly assemble enough force to oppose Sauron’s inevitable rush to defeat him.

If Uglúk fails but is not detected by Sauron, attacking Rohan still makes sense, as Saruman will both need a base of power but also a demonstrating of his loyalty and usefulness to Sauron. His goal at this point is mere survival as a vassal of Sauron in the near-term.

On the flip side, if Uglúk fails and is detected (the case in fact), Rohan suddenly becomes more valuable alive than dead to Saruman: he needs it (and Gondor) as buffers between him and Sauron. In this case, it is in his best interests to continue to be able to pretend to be a loyal ally of Rohan (using his agent, Wormtongue), a task which is fatally hindered by killing Théodred.

What ought Saruman do (assuming he’s still playing the bad guy)? It seems to me that Uglúk’s force needs to be both larger and also not carrying any distinctive markings indicating that they serve Saruman (whereas Uglúk’s force is liveried with Saruman’s insignia, TT, 20) and crucially it needs some way of signalling success or failure. Saruman can spy with birds and beasts, which might give him a way of having Uglúk signal. In order to signal, Uglúk of course needs to actually know what he is looking for – it does no good if Uglúk signals success on capturing only Merry and Pippin! If Saruman has no agents sufficiently trustworthy to be told what they seek, well then that speaks further to his errors of organization and training.

Pro-tip: When organizing your top-secret task force that is executing a mission where capture is likely, against a formal ally whose goodwill you absolutely must retain, do not paint them with your national emblem.

Saruman should then delay the action against Rohan until he knows with some confidence whether Uglúk has succeeded or failed. By holding off for a few more days, Saruman preserves his freedom of action; his force of 10,000 infantry is valuable/dangerous enough that should he suddenly declare neutrality or even throw in with Rohan and Gondor, no one is likely to look the gift-horse in the mouth. By retaining optionality, Saruman can continue to build strength and bide his time, rather than prematurely committing himself to a side in the conflict.

Instead, Saruman’s decision to simultaneously alienate both the Free Peoples and Sauron (within days of each other!) despite being the weakest local power is strategically catastrophic. It reminds me of Romania’s decision to enter the First World War on the side of the Allies, despite having only the weakest allied power (Russia) as a neighbor and otherwise being geographically beyond all help and far weaker than the Central Powers with which Romania shared a border. It’s not that Romania misjudged the ‘winning’ side (in the event, they didn’t!), but they charged aggressively into a room filled with enemies in hopes of securing the spoils before the war they were sure was ending ended. And to be fair, their war ended quite quickly, just not the way they intended – attacking in August, 1916, they were, by January 1917, effectively occupied and out of the war. To be fair to the Romanians, they lasted five full months; Saruman makes it only a handful of weeks.

The predictable consequences of alienating both sides in a two-sided war.

What we can see here is the third sin: the failure to update a strategy as conditions change. Once Uglúk fails – and Tolkien tells us “So ended the raid, and no news of it came ever back either to Mordor or to Isengard; but the smoke of the burning rose high to heaven and was seen by many watchful eyes” (TT, 74), which I take to mean that a watchful Saruman would have known it had been destroyed – Saruman ought to have known he needed to change plans. Rohan, a candidate for conquest if Saruman has the ring, becomes a valuable buffer-state if he does not, something to be preserved so that the angry claw of Mordor is that much weaker when it arrives at the Isen. This isn’t my idle speculation either. Gandalf says as much after after Saruman refuses his mercy. Whereas in the film, Gandalf is soley interested in intelligence gathering, book!Gandalf hopes to lead Saruman back onto a good path (though he knows it is unlikely) and alludes to the “great service” he could have rendered (TT, 224). Gandalf’s description of Saruman’s refusal as “folly and evil” (TT, 222) is more than apt.

The Power of Magical Thinking

To this folly we must now add the Ents. I want to make a few things clear. First, the Ents are not an outside-context-problem for Saruman; he is aware of them, knows their secrets and ought to have taken them into consideration. Treebeard himself tells us that Saruman used to walk in his woods and converse with him, and learned his screts (TT, 90). Moreover, they’re not unstoppable either; Treebeard, not knowing that Isengard is nearly totally emptied, thinks it very likely the Ents will be soundly defeated (TT, 106). Saruman has systematically antagonized this important regional power and yet never plans for them becoming a belligerent; indeed, he doesn’t even leave scouts near them and thus only becomes aware of their attack as they breach his fortress. I struggle to communicate how awful this is, as a matter of intelligence gathering and strategic thinking.

How do we account for this? After all, for all of my humor at the beginning, Saruman is not stupid. Why does he end up so deeply in error?

Clearly, part of the answer is overconfidence and arrogance. Saruman, armed with the power of his voice, is likely very used to his schemes and deceptions working and seems to have come to view all of the world, even figures like Gandalf and Sauron, as rubes to be fooled and exploited. That hubris born from easy success is sometimes called ‘victory disease‘ in military contexts (it comes from Fuchida Mitsuo, writing about the Imperial Japanese Navy; on this note Parshall and Tully (2005), 398ff).

Saruman simply assumes everything will go his way. He is blissfully unaware that his ruse to delay Sauron was detected almost immediately (Unfinished Tales) and his clockwork plan demands that every component part – even those likely to be opposed by direct enemy action – go perfectly or the whole thing falls apart, as we’ve seen above. The failure of any element causes the failure of the whole plan. Moreover, these vast clockwork plans make crucial assumptions about the intentions of key players (Théoden, the Ents, Sauron, the Witch King) which both turn out to be wrong in the event, but also betray a dangerously arrogant assumption that (to quote Parshall and Tully on the IJN’s strategic thinking) his oafish enemies, “never failed to go lowing obediently to their choreographed slaughter.” The plans have no failsafes and no contingencies if something should go wrong despite the fact that – as demonstrated above – such contingencies could have been added without changing the overall plan very much.

If I keep coming back to the IJN in WWII, it is because Saruman’s mistakes remind me so much of faulty Japanese thinking in 1941 and 1942. They allowed an operational consideration (‘how best to engage the US Pacific fleet’) to dictate strategic considerations (‘if, when and how should war with the USA be commenced’), produced dangerously complex clockwork plans with extremely narrow and demanding timetables where the failure of any one part could lead to disaster and generally worked under the arrogant assumption of qualitative superiority, which in turn produced a blind inability to accurately gauge their opponent’s resolve and intentions.

And getting to the level of character, what I think informs all of this is our first strategic sin: Saruman is in the end guided not by his planning, but by his anger. What we see in “The Voice of Saruman” is a manipulator who is at best only thinly in control of a deep well of anger. Briefly we glimpse Saruman’s mind, “they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave…then he spoke and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him” (TT, 221). Gandalf has, by offering to let Saruman leave, opened one last strategic decision to him – one it is clearly in his interest to take, and yet Saruman cannot do it. He knows his situation is hopeless, and yet the costs are too sunk and he is too deep in his own emotions – the pride and hate – to take the obvious path.

I suspect these emotional concerns were likely working on Saruman from a much earlier date. He has been Rohan’s neighbor for a long time and his outburst shows what he really thinks about them “What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” (TT, 219). That such ‘lesser’ beings had been given lordship, had been able to set the world to their sort of order, I think, gnawed at Saruman, for much the same reasons it clearly gnawed at Sauron. I have met a great many very intelligent people who imagine in their formidable mastery of a field that if they could just order the world to their whims, things would be so much better than the current system whereby regular people are allowed to make their own decisions; experience tells us it is not so.


When I discussed the Siege of Gondor, I ended the series by noting that, for all of the flaws of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, I still found it one of the most successful book adaptations in film history, and easily the best fantasy adaptation. In part, this was because while Jackson had missed many of the details, he had managed to capture some of the more fundamental themes of the work; he managed to grasp the spirit of Tolkien, even if he occasionally missed the letter.

I have much the same verdict here. For all of the mess that Jackson makes of the operational timetable, the equipment and the battle tactics, he retains some of the core themes. The temptation to ‘beef up’ Saruman as a second-film threat, to make Helm’s Deep the equal of the Siege of Gondor – especially since, as I understand it, Helm’s Deep was far more difficult and involved from a film-making perspective – must have been intense. And certainly Jackson’s “union of the two towers” title-drop line seeks to put Saruman on a par with Sauron (but of course, it is Saruman who is speaking, so it instead communicates his arrogance). As an aside, while Tolkien wavered initially on which ‘two towers’ are The Two Towers, he settled not on Orthanc and Barad-dur, but on Orthanc and Minas Morgul. Saruman, presumably, would have been upset by the choice.

I will admit, I will never understand the supernatural fortitude it must take to continue delivering your lines with your hair blowing in your face. Truly, Christopher Lee was himself one of the Maiar, with such Deep Arts.

For as much as gets changed or warps, the essential Saruman – the overconfident amateur, miles out of his depth, whose over-intricate clockwork plans are thwarted by the workman-like generaling of Théoden and Éomer – remains core to the text. Indeed, the visual medium gives Jackson opportunities to really show us that, and the contrast between the duel-of-masters of the Pelennor fields and Saruman’s bumbling incompetence still comes out (even if Jackson has done both Denethor and Théoden quite poorly, in my view).

Jackson has had to drop a great many of the details behind Saruman’s bumbling, although – as we’ve seen – traces of them remain. Saruman’s operations are sloppy, his attack is ill-considered and poorly prepared, his lack of scouting arrangements is unpardonable and the fact that his plan has no contingency for the army of trees he has patiently needled is nothing short of stunningly awful. Film is a compressed medium, as always, and much of this material simply couldn’t fit into a movie that is already incredibly long.

What I wish Jackson had retained more clearly is the conclusion of this sad story. “The Voice of Saruman” makes it into his films (as part of Return of the King in the extended edition), but it is a pale shadow of the book chapter; an uncharacteristically weak adaptation. Gandalf’s motivations are changed from attempting to save the soul of his fallen colleague to a crude effort to gain information – one in which is he is all too transparent (by contrast, the book is clear that Gandalf lets Saruman tempt Théoden, knowing he will fail and hoping that this failure will humble Saruman enough to get him to come down; quite the clever plan, even if he openly admits it has little chance of success – unlike Saruman, he has a backup plan).

What I think is encapsulated in the book version of that dialogue that does not quite make it into Peter Jackson’s telling is that more important than the decision how to fight is the decision if to fight. Jackson retains this message elsewhere in the films – Gandalf’s line in Fellowship about the perils of giving “death in judgement” is kept almost word-for-word – but it could have also appeared here. Gandalf, being wise, retains the ability to choose not to fight to the last, whereas Saruman, in his folly, throws that decision away far too early.

The opportunity to stress the limits of the utility of violence was also lost, I think, in the exclusion of the Dunlendings from the fighting at the Hornburg. While the orcs are presented as implacably hostile, Aragorn’s address gives the Dunlendings pause, while after the battle they are “amazed” by the kind treatment they receive from the Men of Rohan (TT, 177). Yet in the compression, Jackson has kept a bit of this spirit in the film too, in the form of Faramir’s lament for the fallen Haradrim. I am glad that Jackson has kept some of this in the story, though he has missed much more than I would like.

I am reminded of a critique of Game of Thrones I wanted, which blasts the show for indulging in the ‘cult of the badass’ as a deviation from the ‘spirit of Martin.’ I think this is a valid critique; you will not in some of my other writings, I have appropriated this term, the ‘cult of the badass’ because I think it so neatly sums up a set of broken ways of thinking. But I don’t think that, as a critique, it applies only to literary adaptations. I think it is a critique of our fiction, writ large, because it conceals the most important choices that we make; not how to fight, but when to fight. The ‘badass’ is always prepared to leap to violence, often eager to do so. But not Tolkien’s heroes; they enter violent only reluctantly, only having exhausted other opportunities. When an off-ramp from violence presents itself, they try to take it, every time.

I think that is part of the ‘spirit of Tolkien’ to be sure, but I also think it is simply good strategic thinking. Violence, especially modern violence, is so incredibly destructive that leaping to it is rarely the right choice. Part of what makes modern strategy so complex is the layers upon layers of violence avoidance built into it – credibility, deterrence, mutual dependence, and so on. Saruman’s leap to violence destroys him, and his unwillingness to give up violence as a means then dooms him. While Jackson has removed the most potent instance of this message in Tolkien’s work – the scourging of the Shire – he has retained this spirit, which is why I think that Jackson’s adaptations, for all of its flaws, is still a triumph of film-making. For all that was lost, the most important things were preserved.

I want to end on the same note I ended the previous series on, a sort of thesis statement for a lot of what we do here. Relatively few people are going to dig into operational histories, organizational culture studies, or deeply into the primary sources for other, wildly different cultures. What we often, as a culture, understand about these things is what our fiction teaches us. Popular culture is often how we, collectively, wrestle with these issues, so it is worthwhile to ask how much truth and meaning there is in it, and what that means for our discourse.

It is especially important when it comes to the topic of this last post: strategy. As Clausewitz notes (drink!) policy is the domain not of generals, but of the state. Clausewitz is writing in the Prussia of the 1830s and so he has in mind a state vested in a single king and his handful of elite ministers. But most of us, I’ll wager (I don’t actually have to wager, I can see my readership stats sorted by country) live in some sort of democracy. And so that policy – the choice not of how to fight, but when to fight and what is worth fighting for – is left not to a king but to us. We have to be prepared to make those decisions, or to select leaders who make them on our behalf.

Tolkien presents a world where it is often necessary to employ violence, but just as often necessary to restrain it. Jackson may miss some of the details and opportunities, but he captures this spirit – where most modern ‘war’ movies and certainly most adaptations (looking at you, Game of Thrones) miss it entirely. And that’s worth taking a deeper look at.

Yes, I am reusing this picture. No, I am not sorry.

Next week, something different!

186 thoughts on “Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part VIII: The Mind of Saruman

  1. “Saruman has no agents sufficiently trustworthy to be told what they seek”

    Hmmm —

    “I don”t think you will find it that way,” he whispered. “It isn’t easy to find.”

    “Find it?” said Grishnakh: his fingers stopped crawling and gripped Pippin”s shoulder. “Find what? What are you talking about, little one?”

    For a moment Pippin was silent. Then suddenly in the darkness he made a noise in his throat: gollum, gollum. “Nothing, my precious,” he added.

    The hobbits felt Grishnakh’s fingers twitch. “O ho!” hissed the goblin softly. “That’s what he means, is it? O ho! Very ve-ry dangerous, my little ones.”

    Pippin and Merry play on his knowledge of the Ring. To good effect if not exactly in the manner expected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grishnakh is a Mordor orc, not an Isengarder.

      Totally unclear if he was told about the Ring or information leaked somehow. The whole point of sending Nazgul to the Shire, despite terror-spirits being rather terrible at stealth missions, was that Sauron could trust only them to bring it back, having utterly enslaved them through their Rings.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Wel-l-l-l-l, they play on his knowledge that there is *something* valuable, and Pippin imitates Gollum because he assumes that Grishnakh knows it is the Ring they are looking for. But actually, it could be that Grishnakh doesn’t know . . . not until Pippin gives it away. Meanwhile, it remains true that it doesn’t seem as if Ugluk knows anything more than “capture hobbits, and bring them to me.”


      1. Actually, Ugluk is aware that there is *something* valuable long before then, as he knows hobbits have some sort of “elvish plot”, “something that’s wanted for the War” (that “deep voice” in the discussion is him).

        At the same time, Grishnakh clearly knows *a lot* about what is going on. Though as I describe here, even Mordor’s army is highly centralized, much more so than that of Gondor:


  2. Howdy Bret, The strategic reasoning here is amazing. I am working on a PhD and part of my dissertation is a model for adaptive rangeland management. Clausewitzen strategic thinking fits perfectly in defending why strategic visioning is required for successful adaptive management. Are the three strategic sins be found directly within Clausewitz’s works? They fit rangeland management perfectly but I have never found any reference to Clausewitz within my disciples literature. Do you have a recommendation for a translation of Clausewitz to read?


    1. Uh, wow. Ok.
      1) The three strategic sins as a set are of my own minting, though they appear and are discussed in other works. But as you note, they derive from Clausewitz – in particular the ‘trinity.’ So Clausewitz doesn’t discuss them directly, but I do think they are necessary corollaries of his work (see (3))
      2) My go to Clausewitz text is the Michael Howard/Peter Paret translation (here: ). But…
      3) Some caution with Clausewitz. On War (Vom Krieg), his great work, was unfinished at the time of his death. It is hard to read in English or in German and I don’t think anyone really ‘gets’ Clausewitz at first reading. The different sections are in very different phases of preparation – some are merely placeholder notes, others (particularly Book One) are effectively complete. The good news is that book 1 and book 3 are going to be the ones you want, and they’re the ones that are basically ‘done.’
      The bad news is that completion doesn’t make them much more readable. The Howard/Paret volume has a good deal of additional essays that can help explain a bit of the mess to a degree.

      I’ve jokingly compared learning Clausewitz to an introductory ritual into a mystery cult before, but it’s not far off for students of military history or modern strategy. You have that day where you read the sacred text of Clausewitz (are very confused) and then the professor reveals the multi-layered mysteries by which war, at once one is at the same time both two (ideal and real) and yet three (the marvelous trinity). So it may help, once you’ve read it, to see if you can’t sit down with a military historian at your institution to discuss and unfold it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I found your blog last week and have powered through three of your Collections already, taking feverish notes the entire time; your content is fantastic. I have to apologize in advance, since I can almost guarantee that you’ve gotten this question before. I can’t find it anywhere, so here we go.

    What video game(s) do you believe offer the most complete picture of premodern or medieval warfare? Things like realistic logistics, complete sieges, and logical cavalry behavior come to mind as things you’ve mentioned video games frequently do poorly. I’m a Total War player; are those games just about as good as it gets?


  4. To be fair Gandalf explicitly suggests that Aragorn lead venture not so much because the ring does not work, but because Sauron will feel he has not the time to master it (because he assumes Aragorn has it or maybe Gandalf). Big S plays because he is confident Aragorn is overplaying his hand, not so much that it would never work in the longer run Strategically the good guys were a in a pretty good situation when you add all the info in the appendixes. Realistically Aragorn or Gandalf could have sat back in Gondor made any number of moves that risked no key players (given the navy balance at the at point even attacked Umbar), they had a free seeing stone now. S was down one Nazgul and could not replace him (and the means to drop another). Really if Elrond showed up the River could have been made impassable. With Ents back in the game one assumes thay and Galadriel and the victorious wood elves could have cleaned up Mirkwood back to the Green Wood. No Balrog so really mithral is on the menu.

    I know JRRT tried to walk back the book’s claim’s by Galadriel. But she was second only to Feanor in power and her brother was not completely defeated by S in a one on one. So I tend to agree with Gandalf getting the ring was not a game type power up but a process.

    Overall I think the whole pray to Eru looks pretty doggy on Gandalf’s part strategically. Toss that thing in sea (not someplace S had much influence over) and the ‘west’ actually kinda looks like it had the power to win again without a uber risky plan that in fact more or less failed but for an odd bit of luck.


    1. In the books, Sauron had control over unspecified but apparently vast dominions to the east, so even if his first assault failed, he could just keep raising army after army until the Free Peoples were eventually overwhelmed. Also, several of the things you cite (loss of the Umbar navy, loss of the Witch King, Ents back in the game, killing of the Balrog) hadn’t yet happened when Gandalf formed his plan, and so couldn’t have factored into it, even assuming that they were big factors in the first place. We don’t know, for example, what proportion of the Umbar navy was lost to Aragorn, nor is it clear that the Ents would have been willing to go and fight in Mirkwood, or that the orcs there couldn’t have defended themselves even if they had (Saruman was taken by surprise when his entire army was away on campaign, that wouldn’t be the case with Dol Guldur).


      1. True but was Gandalf’s actual plan? It not like he left a check list. Than it is just a hail Eru pass.

        On East who it was all that well inhabited? JRRT does not say but humans are not orcs.

        Umbar navy. Not that big of a country. Using slaves. And all ships captured without damage and all crew destroyed and slaves free. Pretty hard to think Umbar had a plan B navy waiting around. This was after all the big push. I mean what 40 years earlier Aragorn was able to burn their docks and fleet in port, so its not like they had endless navy.

        Dol Guder Lets see the second most power Nolder ever with a ring against what exactly?

        The real question is why Elrond did not get his his lazy butt over to Gondor to use his ring to make the Anduin an impassible death trap and why Glorfindel was not killing some Nazgul [Or frankly why not 10 walkers because the plan looks a lot better with Glorfindel saying time go Gandalf don’t worry I got this been here done this before Balrogs and all, and now and tell Aragorn how you intend to get into Mordor and stop keeping it to yourself]- since S could not make any more ring slaves even though held some 9+ rings. Without the one he could not make more slaves.

        Ents they did go and destroy the blocking force that could have still threatens Rohan so they seem to have been all in. Which of course also means Rohan was in a position to send more men.

        Just saying really that JJRT set up a reasonably good situation to add final tension. If the ring was simply escorted to the deep of the sea (not Sauron’s milieu). The west looked to be having a good day and it could have been better. Still a cold war basically but one where things had not looked so good in a while.


        1. Elrond has a ring, called the Ring of Air, and Elrond has control of the river of Rivendell. The text never connects the two facts. The text suggests Elrond has control over *that* river, not rivers in general. Perhaps there’s a magical dam he can open.

          Glorfindel may have been committed to the defense of Rivendell.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. On East who it was all that well inhabited? JRRT does not say but humans are not orcs.

          Gandalf states in TTT that Sauron’s invasion is being launched prematurely, before he’s had the chance to build up his full strength, and after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields everyone seems to think that he’ll just send another, even bigger, army now that his first one’s been destroyed. So whatever the population under Sauron’s control, it’s apparently big enough to raise and support multiple huge armies.

          Umbar navy. Not that big of a country. Using slaves. And all ships captured without damage and all crew destroyed and slaves free. Pretty hard to think Umbar had a plan B navy waiting around. This was after all the big push. I mean what 40 years earlier Aragorn was able to burn their docks and fleet in port, so its not like they had endless navy.

          I don’t think we’re ever actually told how much territory is under Umbar’s control. Even if it’s not that big, relatively small countries can become naval powers if they focus on it — cf. Athens, Carthage, Venice.

          As I said above, Sauron’s attack is launched prematurely, so the Umbarites might not have had time to gather a big navy. Even if they did, states very rarely sent their entire naval force even on a major campaign — due to logistical constraints, the unwieldiness of vast forces, other commitments, the desire to maintain a strategic reserve in case something goes wrong, etc. So it would be very surprising if the ships captured by Aragon represent the entirety, or even the vast majority, of Umbar’s fleet.

          Finally, tere’s the issue of quality to consider. Umbar might use galley slaves, but judging by historical examples, their officers, marines, navigators, etc., would all be free men, who presumably won’t just turn round and enthusiastically embrace Aragorn’s cause. To launch a naval expedition, then, Aragorn would have to draft Gondorians or Rohirrim, and since neither people has a noted maritime tradition, they’d find themselves at a qualitative disadvantage against their enemies.

          The real question is why Elrond did not get his his lazy butt over to Gondor to use his ring to make the Anduin an impassible death trap

          I don’t think we’re given any indication that Elrond’s powers extend over rivers in general, as oppose to (that specific stretch of) that specific river. Even if they did, keeping an entire thousand-mile river indefinitely impassable is a much taller order than sweeping away nine individuals from a specific ford.

          Ents they did go and destroy the blocking force that could have still threatens Rohan so they seem to have been all in. Which of course also means Rohan was in a position to send more men.

          That blocking force was fighting for Saruman, whom the ents were angry at. Being willing to destroy Saruman’s army doesn’t equate to being all-in for the fight against evil in general. And even if they were, ents aren’t invincible. They were lucky in catching Saruman when his army had already left, and the orcs when they were already routing from Theoden. Had Saruman been forewarned of their attack, it’s quite possible that he could have beaten them off.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Bret,

    Having finished both Siege of Gondor, and powered through the Battle of Helm’s Deep, I’ve really appreciated them.

    Two things, though, about your conclusions. First, he COULD NOT TELL his Uruk about the Ring… because, given their outlook, on finding it, whichever found it would, immediately, put it on… and Sauron would know instantly, and there’s pteridactyl-riding air cavalry on the way.

    Secondly, I think Saruman *did* understand how to use it, though full use would require actually having it, and he would be the worst person other than Sauron to get it, because it clearly allows the wearer to persuade, to warp someone’s mind, or many minds at once… just as he could with his (super)natural abilities.


    1. > Sauron would know instantly

      Maybe, if they put it on with the full intent of claiming it for what it was, like Frodo at Mount Doom. Normally wearing the One does not notify Sauron, let alone locate the wearer for him. Sam wore the One, knowing what it was, right on the edge of Mordor, without Sauron noticing a thing. Sauron almost located Frodo earlier but I think Frodo being on Amon Hen, the Hill of Seeing, must have played a big role in that.

      The real problem wouldn’t be Sauron, it would be the orc running off with the One rather than bringing it to Saruman.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have no problems with the fantasy part of the article, but my history autism is triggered by the RL analogies.

    “The classic example being functionally every major power in the First World War: by 1915 or 1916, it ought to have been obvious that no gains made as a result of the war could possibly be worth its continuance. Yet it was continued, both because having lost so much it seemed wrong to give up without ‘victory’ and also because, for the politicians who had initially supported the war, to admit it was a useless waste was political suicide.”

    There was exactly one power, which would have needed to concede occupied territories for the sake of a status quo peace, which utterly refused to even consider an idea of peace without territorial gains (even when attempting to divide the enemy coalition by putting feelers for a separate peace to individual members), and which, coincidentally, was approximately 90% responsible for the war. Germany.

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  7. even if the Rohirrim retain military potential, it will take weeks for that potential to regroup around a new leader, since the king and all possible male heirs are dead (resistance might center around Éowyn, who we – having read the next book – might well know would be a far more dangerous opponent than Saruman might suppose).
    well now I want to read about that AU.


  8. >[The Romanians] were, by January 1917, effectively occupied and out of the war. To be fair to the Romanians, they lasted five full months

    Not to detract from the overall point, but this might not be the best example here. Romania actually stayed in the war as long as Russia (after indeed losing most of their territory in months), re-entered one day before the Armistice, and eventually made off like bandits at Versailles/Trianon. Their entering the war might be a better example of an action that was terrible at the operational level but quite successful at the strategy/policy level.


  9. I agree with alot of what you say but I’m not sure Saruman had a huge number of other options. He’s convinced that Sauron is going to destroy Gondor and the west will fall, so he really only has two options.

    If he defects to Saurons side then he needs some sort of bargaining chip to show his new master his loyalty, handing over the ring would be by far the best option, handing over a subjigated Rohan would be second choice, or at a pinch causing enough chaos to prevent Rohan riding to the aid of Gondor might do it as well.

    Obviously the second option, get the ring and try to use its power himself, is even better. If the ring has the power to bend the other ring bearers to its will then that might be enough to turn the Nazgul to Saruman’s service. The Nazgul lead Sauron’s armies so Saruman gets those by proxy as well and could use them to march on Mordor, crush Sauron and take his place. Of course if he can’t use the ring then he goes back to plan 1 and gives it to Sauron in exchange for power as a subordinate with the excuse that “I was going to give it to you all along master, honestly…”

    So by going for the ring and invading Rohan at the same time he hedges his bets well, and might have got away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky Ents, but they take weeks even to say hello, it will be years before they get organised enough to actually do anything. As long as no clever Hobbits trick them into acting hastily, obviously…

    His plan may not be the best, and he’s certainly not a military genius (or even competent) but its hard to see any other options that have a better shot of survival for him.


  10. What an intellectually entertaining series! Thank you very much for everything you wrote (and will write!).
    It is a rare pleasure to read!


  11. I think it’s worth noting that, while modern war us far more destructive in “absolute” terms than anything before the twentieth century, ancient warfare could be just as destructive in relative terms—sometimes more so. While a war between small tribes won’t have the raw body count if a World War, nor as many bombed cities, it can absolutely result in the destruction of important economic resources and an even greater proportional death toll.

    In my opinion, modern warfare is most distinguished from ancient warfare in how distant most people are from it. In the Roman Republic, much of the Roman population would have been soldiers (insufficient googling suggests that 10% of the entire population may have been in the army at some points), and most of its leaders would have seen (and often lead) battles.
    In much of the modern world, fewer people personally experience war (thankfully!), modern technology means that soldiers might not even see the people they kill, and our political leaders are usually better versed in politics than combat. People need to actively try to learn if they are to understand what war is like, and few people have the time.
    My nation has been at war for most of my lifetime, but the only way that’s directly affected me is news reports. The same is true, I think, for most Americans. That’s historically unusual, isn’t it?


    1. Yes and no? Azar Gat discusses relative levels of violence in different periods of history in his War and Human Civilization (which you should read instead of Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature because Gat is better).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. My nation has been at war for most of my lifetime, but the only way that’s directly affected me is news reports. The same is true, I think, for most Americans. That’s historically unusual, isn’t it?

      Not necessarily. I think the main distinction isn’t between modern and pre-modern warfare, so much as between countries that rely on long-service professionals to fill their ranks — early imperial Rome, 18th- and 19th-century Britain, etc. — and countries that rely on some sort of mass levy — republican Rome, most combatants in WW1 and WW2, and so on.


      1. I’m not saying that being at war is the unusual part, I’m saying that being unaffected by it is unusual. You only get that when states constantly project force outside their own borders without facing significant consequences or recruiting much of the population, which in practice seems to require a large state with plenty of buffer space. The only possible examples before the early modern period I can think of are the Roman Empire and China; Rome’s citizens were martial-focused enough that I’m not sure how unaffected the average citizen would be, and I just don’t know enough about Chinese history to say much about them.


        1. And I’m saying that being unaffected by it is not that unusual. In fact, it’s probably been the case with most large and stable empires through history.

          And Rome’s citizens — most of them, at any rate — weren’t really that martial-focused during the imperial period. After the first century AD, most of the army was recruited from frontier provinces, leaving the traditional heartlands of the empire quite demilitarised.

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