This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next week, something different!