Gandalf’s group rides south of the River Isen. Legolas sees shapes moving in the distance, but he is unable to distinguish them clearly. The next day, Gandalf becomes alarmed, and with a word to his trusty horse, Shadowfax, speeds off, ordering the group to proceed to Helm’s Deep and to stay far from the plains of Isen.
Obeying Gandalf without knowing his reasoning, the group goes to the Deep, a narrow gorge in the mountains on the far side of the Westfold Vale. Théoden reveals that Saruman knows the region very well, and he foresees that there will be a great battle between the Orcs and the armies of Rohan. Théoden and his Riders arrive at the Deeping Wall, a great fortification near Helm’s Deep. They do not have enough provisions for a long encampment, having prepared for a quick battle rather than a long siege.
Suddenly, the battle begins with a great thunder, as the area around the Deeping Wall is flooded with Orcs. Many arrows are launched on both sides, and Legolas and Gimli fight valiantly. After many hours, the forces of Rohan grow tired. Aragorn is worried to see that the Orcs have crept beneath the Wall and have lit a flaming trail of Orc-liquor below the Riders. Aragorn goes into the Hornburg, the nearby citadel, to find that Éomer has not arrived. Aragorn learns that the Orcs have used their flaming liquid to blast through the Wall and seize it. Aragorn feels demoralized even though he is told that the Hornburg has never once been taken. The Orcs jeer at the Riders in the citadel, telling them to come out and meet their fate at the hands of the Uruk-hai. Suddenly, the roar of trumpets is heard, and King Théoden appears in martial splendor. The Orcs, gripped with fear, begin to retreat, dispersing throughout the land surrounding Helm’s Deep. The Hornburg yet again remains safe. Suddenly, a horseman clad in white appears in the distance. The Riders of Rohan hail Gandalf, the White Rider, on the back of Shadowfax.
Éomer, Théoden, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn all gather on the plain near Helm’s Deep after the victory over the Orcs. Éomer expresses wonder that Gandalf came at just the right time. Though the men are weary from battle, Gandalf urges the King to assemble a party to ride with him to Isengard to meet Saruman. Théoden chooses Éomer and twenty Riders to accompany them. Gandalf rides in the company of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. They sleep in preparation for the journey the next day. The slain Orcs are gathered on the fields.
The party sets out for Isengard the next day, passing through a forest of strange trees along the way. Gimli praises the beauty of caves to Legolas, who prefers the woods. Legolas is surprised to see eyes among the trees, and Gandalf explains that the forest is full of Ents, who are not enemies. The Riders of Rohan grieve over their slain fellow warriors, whose bodies litter the fields around them. Eventually, they reach the Misty Mountains. They sense that the area known as Nan Curunír, or the Wizard’s Vale, is burning. They see a strange black liquid pass over the ground near them. Gandalf orders his men to ignore it and wait until it passes.
Riding on for several days, the group finally arrives at Saruman’s stronghold at Isengard. They see the great stone tower called Orthanc, where Saruman lies in wait, surrounded by a deep gorge on all sides. Once Isengard was abloom with gardens and orchards, but ever since it has been under Saruman’s control, it has been barren and desolate. At the gates of Isengard, Gandalf’s group is surprised to find Merry and Pippin lounging and smoking. It is the first time Théoden has ever seen Hobbits. After a brief chat, Merry and Pippin deliver the message that Fangorn is waiting to meet with Gandalf on the northern wall of Isengard. Gandalf sets out to meet the Ent, accompanied by Théoden.
The appearance of Théoden at just the right moment to save the Hornburg from the Orc forces is the most dramatic battle scene in the novel thus far. Tolkien’s masterful depiction of the battle displays all the classic characteristics of narrative suspense. The scene unfolds with Aragorn’s sinking feeling that the Orc forces are too numerous to withstand. But then, with a clap of thunder and a roar of trumpets, Théoden appears, Gandalf guiding the king to the scene. The thunder and trumpets are less realistic details than mythic additions to the tale that enhance its legendary feel. Real battles may not take place in this somewhat melodramatic fashion, as the grim war scenes in great literature from Homer’s Iliad to Tolstoy’s War and Peace remind us. But in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien aims for the more abstract level of myth, in which events do not necessarily happen as they do in real life.
Tolkien symbolically expresses the universality of the struggle for the Ring in some of the physical details of his description of the defense of Hornburg. All of the four traditional mythical elements of creation—earth, air, fire, and water—are present in the battle scene. The air is full of Orc arrows, the earth is covered with slain bodies, and the Orcs attempt to undermine the wall of the Hornburg by pouring a flaming liquid underneath it. Danger threatens Aragorn’s men from above and below in what is not merely a fierce battle, but a mythical portrayal of the threat of total devastation, symbolic of the collapse of life itself. Only an overwhelming savior like Gandalf can counter such an overwhelming destructive force.
The natural beauty of the environment arises here as an important symbol of the state of the universe of Middle-earth. As Gandalf’s traveling party passes through a forest of remarkable trees on its way to Wizard’s Vale, Gimli and Legolas comment on the trees and then have a seemingly trivial conversation about whether caves or woods are more beautiful. The two disagree, as the dwarf naturally prefers underground rock formations to the leaves and greenery beloved to the elf. However, the conversation reveals more about what Gimli and Legolas share than about how they differ, as it is clear that both of them value the natural environment very highly. As it is hard to imagine a villain like the forest-destroying Saruman appreciating either caves or woods, an implied parallel is made between moral good and a love for nature. This connection is confirmed later, when the group rides through Isengard and finds that the once-blossoming realm, full of gardens and orchards, is now bleak and barren ever since it has fallen under the sway of Saruman. When evil takes over a place, natural beauty fades, as evil scars the earth itself.
The surprising appearance of Merry and Pippin at Saruman’s stronghold of Orthanc shows us the humor of which Tolkien is capable. Though The Lord of the Rings is famous for its grand epic tone and serious treatment of the nature of good and evil, it also includes its share of humorous, human moments. The humor in the scene at Orthanc arises from the juxtaposition of the solemn and dramatic setting—the immense stone tower standing amid a gorge of rock—and the leisurely, nonchalant attitude of the hobbits who sit there. Merry and Pippin appear oblivious to the brewing battle—lounging, smoking, chatting, and generally enjoying themselves as if in their natural element. They are more eager to talk about different varieties of tobacco than about the events that shake the world around them. Once again, the portrayal of the hobbits challenges traditional notions of what epic heroes should be like. Tolkien, as we have heard through the words of Gandalf, Elrond, and others, suggests that history may be in the hands of the little people, those who go unnoticed among the grander dealings of the world.
In the Sparknotes guide to The Lord of the Rings, on page 186 in the Character List for The Return of the King, Eomer is mis-identified as Theodan's son and heir. This is incorrect; Eomer is Theodan's nephew. Theodred was Theodan's son, and he was killed by Orcs, making Eomer, next in line for the throne, the new heir.
Is this error put in to trip up folks who aren't going to read the book, or is it a serious editing oversight?
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