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.