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Rómenna Meeting Report - October 20, 1985
October 20, 1985
Our discussion of the battles between Saruman and Rohan (the Battle of Helm's Deep from The Lord of the Rings and the Battles of the Fords of Isen from the Unfinished Tales) began with a study of the map of Helm's Deep in The Atlas of Middle-earth. Margaret commented that she'd never been able to figure out the layout of the place from the text alone. The tacticians among us noted that the orcs were in a lousy tactical position, being forced to charge uphill. They suggested that climbing the cliffs behind the fortress and attacking from there might have worked. Whether the cliffs were climbable wasn't evident from the map.
The orcs' main advantage in the battle was their strength of numbers, which was overwhelming. The reason the Rohirrim were able to rout them at the end was that their morale was destroyed by the combination of the horn, the charge made out of the Hornburg and the caves, being attacked on the flank, and the rumors they were getting from the rear about the Huorns.
We wondered why Saruman chose this particular time to mount his attack on Rohan. He knew that the Ring was abroad, of course, and as we pointed out last time, he didn't know yet that it was beyond his reach. Economic considerations may have been a factor; it may have begun to get difficult to feed all those orcs. (True, they can eat each other, but that rather decimates your troops.) Early spring is also a good time to start a war, especially a siege, because the enemy's winter stores will have been depleted. Another possibility was that Sauron had implanted the suggestion in Saruman's mind through the palantír because his own war effort was getting into gear and he wanted to close off the Gap of Rohan. This would effectively separate Eriador from the rest of the West and make Sauron's job that much easier, as well as removing the possibility of the Rohirrim aiding Gondor.
We noted that Saruman did not have artillery or siege engines such as were used at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. The orcs were also under-equipped (they had no shields, for instance). Nevertheless Lissanne, who has played Middle-earth wargames, made the observation that when you play out the Battle of Helm's Deep, the ores always win if they have a halfway-decent tactician running them. We speculated that Saruman didn't have any decent tacticians among his troops, probably because he was afraid of the threat that a competent commander might pose to his own authority. The Germans in World War II were cited as a possible source for this attitude, as well as Stalin's purges in Russia. It was argued that Tolkien wouldn't use such sources. On the contrary, others contended, Tolkien read the newspapers and was aware of current events. Just because The Lord of the Rings isn't an allegorical representation of World War II doesn't mean that what was going on in the world at the time of its writing had no influence on Tolkien whatever. This led to a general hunt for sources. Medieval battles were considered more likely than modern ones; Constantinople and Harfleur were among the possibilities cited.
The suggestion was made that Tolkien's World War I experiences contributed the absolute stupidity of both attackers and defenders. How intelligent is it to send your generals out on sorties, someone said, referring to the charges made by Aragorn and Éomer. But, it was argued, Aragorn and Éomer weren't generals. Tolkien himself makes clear in the Unfinished Tales chapter that both Aragorn and Éomer at this time were in the position of independent knights helping out Théoden. Théoden is the general. Of course, he ends up leading a charge too. . .
It was pointed out that there's a difference between real battles and literary ones. Furthermore, even in the real world it is often better for a commander to say not, "You guys go and do that," but rather, "Follow me." With the poor communications between a commander and his forces on a battlefield, it is easiest to get troops moving by having them follow a leader. The Wars of the Roses were cited as an example; medieval commanders led charges all the way up to Richard III's final attack on Henry Tudor in the battle of Bosworth Field (which might actually have succeeded if not for the treachery of the Stanleys). It is only in relatively modern times that generals have begun to lead from the rear. It was pointed out that the Romans did hold back their commanders. However, the Rohirrim (and Tolkien) favor the Anglo-Saxon idea of a battle. Their soldiers were bred for battle and actually liked fighting. If they won, they would get gold and praise (the orcs would get dinner), and even defeat might be worth a song. Heroism, succeeding in the face of overwhelming odds (or at least going down fighting), was an ideal that predated Christianity, and one that was very much a part of the Anglo-Saxon culture that Tolkien was drawing from.
At the end of the chapter the cavalry, in the form of Gandalf, Erkenbrand, and the Huorns, comes over the hill, but otherwise the supernatural is kept to a minimum in the description of the battle. It was noted that Tolkien writes good battles, with lots of personal vignettes to break up the monotony of the fighting. Among the nice touches is the interplay between Legolas and Gimli. Last time, in Fangorn Forest, we had Legolas being fascinated by the forest, while Gimli said he didn't like the place, that Legolas was strange (a wood-elf, you know), but that the elf's presence comforted him. Here we have Gimli saying that he likes the place (good solid rock and all that), Legolas saying that it makes him uncomfortable and that Gimli is strange (like all dwarves), but that he is comforted by Gimli's presence. Another favorite bit was Legolas being "cool" about Gimli; when he hears that the dwarf hasn't made it to the Hornburg but was last seen fighting his way back to the caves, Legolas is obviously concerned, but tries to sound casual about it--"Oh, I only wanted him to come this way so that I could tell him how many orcs I've killed." Legolas and Gimli both serve as representatives of their respective peoples; the scenes with them were compared with the scene in Henry V where the disguised king talks with an assortment of common soldiers from different ethnic groups. Legolas, for instance, is a competent enough fighter, but you get the impression from him that the elvish idea of a good time is wandering through the woods singing, and that battles are minor interruptions.
Getting onto the subject of sources again, the suggestion was made that Théoden was like Neville Chamberlain in the early days of World War II, with his notion of "peace in our time." Théoden's attitude, of course, was fostered by Wormtongue's treachery. It was noted that treason has not been a major factor in real wars (though diplomatic lying has), but that it is more common in literature (cf. Ganelon's treachery in the Chanson de Roland). Unlike Ganelon, Wormtongue was not motivated by personal enmity toward Théoden, but rather by greed--he wanted the power and rewards that Saruman had promised him. We figured that Wormtongue's psychology was understandable given his background-- after all, here's this little ratty guy growing up among all these tall blond viking types. It would make anybody feel inferior and want to compensate. Wormtongue and Théoden were also compared with Delaval and Pétain in France in World War II.
We passed on to a discussion of the Unfinished Tales chapter, after determining that most of those present had indeed read it. We noted that Tolkien is interested in strategy. He takes some trouble to depict what a terrifically strategic location Isengard is in with respect to the Gap of Rohan. The Rohirrim's big mistake in the war with Saruman was not attacking Isengard immediately once they knew that Saruman had become evil. Saruman, of course, had provided against this possibility through Wormtongue. Théodred's last stand reminded us of The Battle of Maldon. Théodred is smarter than Beorhtnoth (he doesn't go all "chivalrous" and set himself and his men up to be slaughtered), but he gets killed anyway, which is Saruman's goal in the first battle.
In the second battle, Randolph noted that Grimbold acts like he wants to live up to his name, whereas Elfhelm is more intelligent. Fortunately they are friends and don't fight among themselves, but the disadvantages of a divided command are still evident. Grimbold wasn't the original commander of the Westfold-men anyway; he was "kicked upstairs" by the death or absence of everyone above him and can perhaps be forgiven for his lack of grasp of strategy. In any case, all the strategy in the world would have been unable to stop Saruman's massive forces, as Elfhelm realizes.
Final comments included the observation that Tolkien has an English idea of distance--50 miles is considered a long way for the Rohirrim to ride. (Eileen agrees with him.) He was also not much of a driver (there is mention in the Carpenter biography of his wild driving habits when he did get behind the wheel--"Charge 'em and they scatter!" Cf. also Mr. Bliss). On that note we adjourned, after determining time, place and chapters for the next meeting.