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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
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Two Towers!