Theoden’s army sets out without being sure what they face:
“The host rode on. Need drove them. Fearing to come too late, they rode with all the speed they could, pausing seldom. Swift and enduring were the steeds of Rohan, but there were many leagues to go. Forty leagues and more it was, as a bird flies, from Edoras to the fords of the Isen, where they hoped to find the king’s men that held back the hosts of Saruman.”
But there is darkness both behind them and ahead of them:
“There were no clouds overhead yet, but a heaviness was in the air; it was hot for the season of the year. The rising sun was hazy, and behind it, following it slowly up the sky, there was a growing darkness, as of a great storm moving out of the East. And away in the North-west there seemed to be another darkness brooding about the feet of the Misty Mountains, a shadow that crept down slowly from the Wizard’s Vale…
“[Asked by Gandalf, Legolas says] ‘I can see a darkness. There are shapes moving in it, great shapes far away upon the bank of the river; but what they are I cannot tell. It is not mist or cloud that defeats my eyes: there is a veiling shadow that some power lays upon the land, and it marches slowly down stream. It is as if the twilight under endless trees were flowing downwards from the hills.’
“’And behind us comes a very storm of Mordor,’ said Gandalf. ‘It will be a black night.’”
Things go from bad to worse. Once again we have a twisted landscape, this time changed by the power of Saruman:
“As the second day of their riding drew on, the heaviness in the air increased. In the afternoon the dark clouds began to overtake them: a sombre canopy with great billowing edges flecked with dazzling light. The sun went down, blood-red in a smoking haze… In the last red glow men in the vanguard saw a black speck, a horseman riding back towards them. They halted awaiting him.
“He came, a weary man with dinted helm and cloven shield. Slowly he climbed from his horse and stood there a while gasping. At length he spoke. ‘Is Eomer here?’ he asked. ‘You come at last, but too late, and with too little strength. Things have gone evilly since Theodred fell. We were driven back yesterday over the Isen with great loss; many perished at the crossing. Then at night fresh forces came over the river against our camp. All Isengard must be emptied; and Saruman has armed the wild hillmen and herd-folk of Dunland beyond the rivers, and these also he loosed upon us. We were overmastered. The shield-wall was broken. Erkenbrand of Westfold has drawn off those men he could gather towards his fastness in Helm’s Deep. The rest are scattered.
“’Where is Eomer? Tell him there is no hope ahead. He should return to Edoras before the wolves of Isengard come there.’”
Since the Rohirrim are mostly riders, why do they also use a shield-wall? Regardless, they have lost more since the earlier battle in which Theoden’s son died. But Theoden himself being there cheers the man:
“Theoden had sat silent, hidden from the man’s sight behind his guards; now he urged his horse forward. ‘Come, stand before me, Ceorl!’ he said. ‘I am here. The last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth. It will not return without battle.’
“The man’s face lightened with joy and wonder. He drew himself up. Then he knelt, offering his notched sword to the king. ‘Command me, lord!’ he cried. ‘And pardon me! I thought-‘
“’You thought I remained in Meduseld bent like an old tree under winter snow. So it was when you rode to war. But a west wind has shaken the boughs,’ said Theoden. ‘Give this man a fresh horse! Let us ride to the help of Erkenbrand!’”
Gandalf advises otherwise:
“’Ride, Theoden!’ he said. ‘Ride to Helm’s Deep! Go not to the Fords of Isen, and do not tarry in the plain! I must leave you for a while. Shadowfax must bear me now on a swift errand.’ Turning to Aragorn and Eomer and the men of the king’s household, he cried: ‘Keep well the Lord of the Mark, till I return. Await me at Helm’s Gate! Farewell!’
“He spoke a word to Shadowfax, and like an arrow from the bow the great horse sprang away. Even as they looked he was gone: a flash of silver in the sunset, a wind over the grass, a shadow that fled and passed from sight. Snowmane [Theoden’s horse] snorted and reared, eager to follow; but only a swift bird on the wing could have overtaken him.”
There is some mistrust among the Rohirrim at this sudden departure, but Theoden follow Gandalf’s advice. And here we also see how important it is that Theoden is there. He not only boosts morale: he is a much better commander:
“Let us be swift,’ said Eomer. ‘Let us drive through such foes as are already between us and the fastness. There are caves in Helm’s Deep where hundreds may lie hid; and secret ways lead thence up on to the hills.
“’Trust not to secret ways,’ said the king. ‘Saruman has long spied out this land. Still in that place our defence may last long. Let us go!’”
We next get the words “Aragorn and Legolas went now with Eomer in the van”, which an old t-shirt made a joke of. It is of course ‘van’ as in vanguard, the forward section of the army. Not ‘van’ as a vehicle and deriving indirectly from ‘caravan’ and what we now call ‘covered wagons’.
They see the enemy, and the outer defences of their stronghold:
“On through the dark night they rode, ever slower as the darkness deepened and their way climbed southward, higher and higher into the dim folds about the mountains’ feet. They found few of the enemy before them. Here and there they came upon roving bands of Orcs; but they fled ere the Riders could take or slay them…
“The rumour of war grew behind them. Now they could hear, borne over the dark, the sound of harsh singing. They had climbed far up into the Deeping-coomb when they looked back. Then they saw torches countless points of fiery light upon the black fields behind, scattered like red flowers, or winding up from the lowlands in long flickering lines. Here and there a larger blaze leapt up.
“’It is a great host and follows us hard,’ said Aragorn.
“’We need not fly much further,’ said Eomer. ‘Not far ahead now lies Helm’s Dike, an ancient trench and rampart scored across the coomb, two furlongs below Helm’s Gate. There we can turn and give battle.’
“’Nay, we are too few to defend the Dike,’ said Theoden. ‘It is a mile long or more, and the breach in it is wide.’
“’At the breach our rearguard must stand, if we are pressed,’ said Eomer.”
Later events show that Theoden was right. Had Eomer commanded, they would have died bravely, but they would almost certainly have died. No help could then have been sent to Gondor, and Aragorn with his extra unexpected army might have been too late to save it.
They arrive safely at the Hornburg, the central fortress of Helm’s Deep. They find more Rohirrim there, but news is mixed:
“They now learned to their joy that Erkenbrand had left many men to hold Helm’s Gate, and more had since escaped thither.
“’Maybe, we have a thousand fit to fight on foot,’ said Gamling, an old man, the leader of those that watched the Dike. ‘But most of them have seen too many winters, as I have, or too few, as my son’s son here. What news of Erkenbrand? Word came yesterday that he was retreating hither with all that is left of the best Riders of Westfold. But he has not come.’
“’I fear that he will not come now,’ said Eomer. ‘Our scouts have gained no news of him, and the enemy fills all the valley behind us.’
“’I would that he had escaped,’ said Theoden. ‘He was a mighty man. In him lived again the valour of Helm the Hammerhand. But we cannot await him here. We must draw all our forces now behind the walls. Are you well stored? We bring little provision, for we rode forth to open battle, not to a siege.’
“’Behind us in the caves of the Deep are three parts of the folk of Westfold, old and young, children and women,’ said Gamling. ‘But great store of food, and many beasts and their fodder, have also been gathered there.’
“’That is well,’ said Eomer. ‘They are burning or despoiling all that is left in the vale.’
“’If they come to bargain for our goods at Helm’s Gate, they will pay a high price,’ said Gamling.”
Dwarf and Elf have very different reactions to this human stronghold:
“The Deeping Wall was twenty feet high, and so thick that four men could walk abreast along the top, sheltered by a parapet over which only a tall man could look. Here and there were clefts in the stone through which men could shoot. This battlement could be reached by a stair running down from a door in the outer court of the Hornburg; three flights of steps led also up on to the wall from the Deep behind; but in front it was smooth, and the great stones of it were set with such skill that no foothold could be found at their joints, and at the top they hung over like a sea-delved cliff.
“Gimli stood leaning against the breastwork upon the wall. Legolas sat above on the parapet, fingering his bow, and peering out into the gloom.
“’This is more to my liking,’ said the dwarf, stamping on the stones. ‘Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones. I felt them in my feet as we came up from the dike. Give me a year and a hundred of my kin and I would make this a place that armies would break upon like water.’
“’I do not doubt it,’ said Legolas. ‘But you are a dwarf, and dwarves are strange folk. I do not like this place, and I shall like it no more by the light of day. But you comfort me, Gimli, and I am glad to have you standing nigh with your stout legs and your hard axe. I wish there were more of your kin among us. But even more would I give for a hundred good archers of Mirkwood. We shall need them. The Rohirrim have good bowmen after their fashion, but there are too few here, too few.’”
Unlike the Jackson film, this remains only a wish. To be exact, they are reinforced by archers from Lorien, which is technically the south end of Mirkwood, but unlikely to be what Legolas meant. He’d have wished for his own people – but from the Appendices we learn that they had their own regional war.
If you’re wondering how the wood-using Rohirrim could have made such fine stonework, it is actually a former fortress of Gondor.
But the enemy are formidable:
“A slow time passed. Far down in the valley scattered fires still burned. The hosts of Isengard were advancing in silence now. Their torches could be seen winding up the coomb in many lines.
“Suddenly from the Dike yells and screams, and the fierce battle-cries of men broke out. Flaming brands appeared over the brink and clustered thickly at the breach. Then they scattered and vanished. Men came galloping back over the field and up the ramp to the gate of the Hornburg. The rearguard of the Westfolders had been driven in.
“’The enemy is at hand!’ they said. ‘We loosed every arrow that we had, and filled the Dike with Orcs. But it will not halt them long. Already they are scaling the bank at many points, thick as marching ants. But we have taught them not to carry torches.’
“It was now past midnight. The sky was utterly dark, and the stillness of the heavy air foreboded storm. Suddenly the clouds were seared by a blinding flash. Branched lightning smote down upon the eastward hills. For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and the Dike lit with white light: it was boiling and crawling with black shapes. some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff. Thunder rolled in the valley. Rain came lashing down.”
It is not just orcs: there are also “the wild men of the Dunland fells”.
Eomer and Aragorn make a sortie, which goes badly. Eomer is nearly killed, but Gimli saves him, killing two Orcs. He reports this to Legolas:
“’Two!’ said Gimli, patting his axe. He had returned to his place on the wall.
“’Two?’ said Legolas. ‘I have done better, though now I must grope for spent arrows; all mine are gone. Yet I make my tale twenty at the least. But that is only a few leaves in a forest.’”
They now compete at killing enemies:
“’Twenty-one!’ cried Gimli. He hewed a two-handed stroke and laid the last Orc before his feet. ‘Now my count passes Master Legolas again.’…
“It will be drier above,’ said Gimli. ‘Come, Gamling, let us see how things go on the wall!’
“He climbed up and found Legolas beside Aragorn and Eomer. The elf was whetting his long knife. There was for a while a lull in the assault, since the attempt to break in through the culvert had been foiled.
“’Twenty-one!’ said Gimli.
“’Good!’ said Legolas. ‘But my count is now two dozen. It has been knife-work up here.’
It is still night:
“Aragorn looked at the pale stars, and at the moon, now sloping behind the western hills that enclosed the valley. ‘This is a night as long as years,’ he said. ‘How long will the day tarry?’
“’Dawn is not far off,’ said Gamling, who had now climbed up beside him. ‘But dawn will not help us, I fear.’
“’Yet dawn is ever the hope of men,’ said Aragorn.
“’But these creatures of Isengard, these half-orcs and goblin-men that the foul craft of Saruman has bred, they will not quail at the sun,’ said Gamling. ‘And neither will the wild men of the hills.’”
I’m not keen on the moon ‘sloping’, even though it would correctly describe the moon setting or rising at an angle. To me it has overtones of ‘sloppy’ – yet it is what the man said. A rare error, in my view.
Theoden now regrets listening to Gandalf. But he still intends to end well:
“’It is said that the Hornburg has never fallen to assault,’ said Theoden; ‘but now my heart is doubtful. The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate? Had I known that the strength of Isengard was grown so great, maybe l should not so rashly have ridden forth to meet it, for all the arts of Gandalf. His counsel seems not now so good as it did under the morning sun.’
“’Do not judge the counsel of Gandalf, until all is over, lord,’ said Aragorn.
“’The end will not be long,’ said the king. ‘But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. Snowmane and Hasufel and the horses of my guard are in the inner court. When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song-if any be left to sing of us hereafter.’
“’I will ride with you,’ said Aragorn.”
Aragorn then confronts and warns the enemy
“At last Aragorn stood above the great gates, heedless of the darts of the enemy. As he looked forth he saw the eastern sky grow pale. Then he raised his empty hand, palm outward in token of parley.
“The Orcs yelled and jeered. ‘Come down! Come down!’ they cried. ‘If you wish to speak to us, come down! Bring out your king! We are the fighting Uruk-hai. We will fetch him from his hole, if he does not come. Bring out your skulking king!’
“’The king stays or comes at his own will,’ said Aragorn.
“’Then what are you doing here?’ they answered. ‘Why do you look out? Do you wish to see the greatness of our army? We are the fighting Uruk-hai.’
“’I looked out to see the dawn,’ said Aragorn.
“’What of the dawn?’ they jeered. ‘We are the Uruk-hai: we do not stop the fight for night or day, for fair weather or for storm. We come to kill, by sun or moon. What of the dawn?’
“’None knows what the new day shall bring him,’ said Aragorn. ‘Get you gone, ere it turn to your evil.’
“’Get down or we will shoot you from the wall,’ they cried. ‘This is no parley. You have nothing to say.’
“’I have still this to say,’ answered Aragorn. ‘No enemy has yet taken the Hornburg. Depart, or not one of you will be spared. Not one will be left alive to take back tidings to the North. You do not know your peril.’
“So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies, that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky. But the Orcs laughed with loud voices; and a hail of darts and arrows whistled over the wall, as Aragorn leaped down.
“There was a roar and a blast of fire. The archway of the gate above which he had stood a moment before crumbled and crashed in smoke and dust. The barricade was scattered as if by a thunderbolt. Aragorn ran to the king’s tower.”
But then everything reverses:
“But even as the gate fell, and the Orcs about it yelled, preparing to charge, a murmur arose behind them. like a wind in the distance, and it grew to a clamour of many voices crying strange news in the dawn. The Orcs upon the Rock, hearing the rumour of dismay, wavered and looked back. And then, sudden and terrible, from the tower above, the sound of the great horn of Helm rang out.
“All that heard that sound trembled. Many of the Orcs cast themselves on their faces and covered their ears with their claws. Back from the Deep the echoes came, blast upon blast, as if on every cliff and hill a mighty herald stood. But on the walls men looked up, listening with wonder; for the echoes did not die. Ever the horn-blasts wound on among the hills; nearer now and louder they answered one to another, blowing fierce and free.
“’Helm! Helm!’ the Riders shouted. ‘Helm is arisen and comes back to war. Helm for Theoden King!’
“And with that shout the king came. His horse was white as snow, golden was his shield, and his spear was long. At his right hand was Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, behind him rode the lords of the House of Eorl the Young. Light sprang in the sky. Night departed.
“’Forth Eorlingas!’ With a cry and a great noise they charged. Down from the gates they roared, over the causeway they swept, and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass. Behind them from the Deep came the stern cries of men issuing from the caves, driving forth the enemy. Out poured all the men that were left upon the Rock. And ever the sound of blowing horns echoed in the hills.
“On they rode, the king and his companions. Captains and champions fell or fled before them. Neither orc nor man withstood them. Their backs were to the swords and spears of the Riders and their faces to the valley. They cried and wailed, for fear and great wonder had come upon them with the rising of the day.
“So King Theoden rode from Helm’s Gate and clove his path to the great Dike. There the company halted. Light grew bright about them. Shafts of the sun flared above the eastern hills and glimmered on their spears. But they sat silent on their horses, and they gazed down upon the Deeping-coomb.
“The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. Between the Dike and the eaves of that nameless wood only two open furlongs lay. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees. They streamed down from Helm’s Gate until all above the Dike was empty of them, but below it they were packed like swarming flies. Vainly they crawled and clambered about the walls of the coomb. seeking to escape. Upon the east too sheer and stony was the valley’s side; upon the left, from the west, their final doom approached.
“There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun. Over the low hills the horns were sounding. Behind him, hastening down the long slopes, were a thousand men on foot; their swords were in their hands. Amid them strode a man tall and strong. His shield was red. As he came to the valley’s brink, he set to his lips a great black horn and blew a ringing blast.
“’Erkenbrand!’ the Riders shouted. ‘Erkenbrand!’
“’Behold the White Rider!’ cried Aragorn. ‘Gandalf is come again!’
“’Mithrandir, Mithrandir!’ said Legolas. ‘This is wizardry indeed! Come! I would look on this forest, ere the spell changes.’
“The hosts of Isengard roared, swaying this way and that, turning from fear to fear. Again the horn sounded from the tower. Down through the breach of the Dike charged the king’s company. Down from the hills leaped Erkenbrand, lord of Westfold. Down leaped Shadowfax, like a deer that runs surefooted in the mountains. The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.”
Though the Orcs had earlier showed at least a little respect for Laws of War when Aragorn sought a parlay, they don’t think of surrendering. Of course they are inherently evil: a powerful being like Gandalf the White terrifies them as much as supernatural evil creatures scare good people. The wild men are otherwise, hoping for mercy from this stranger. We learn later that they had not expected it from the Rohirrim, though of course they receive it.
In the film we only see Orcs. And those Orcs mistakenly see the wood as a lesser peril: they have got away with violence against trees for a long time.
The first-time reader might guess what the mysterious wood is, but a proper explanation is left to the next chapter.
The film shows the woods quivering and devouring the enemy – the very worst Special Effect in the film, in my view. So much more could be done with it.
Note also that Saruman has not gone with his army. He is no longer trying to pretend he is a friend, giving his Orcs the White Hand he has chosen. But he is also imitating Sauron, who sends out armies and stays safe in his tower.
One interesting extra: after five poems in Treebeard’s chapter, and three for The King of the Golden Hall. There are none in this chapter about a very grim fight.