Anatomy of Battle: Helm’s Deep

Another Hobbit Day is upon us, and so Bryan and Francis have indulged in our time-honored tradition: an analysis of historical inspirations for the works and adaptations of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. This year brings the second installment in our “Anatomy of Battle” series (the first of which can be found here on Concerning History), this time focusing on one of the most iconic moments of Lord of the Rings: the siege of Helm’s Deep.

The Last Refuge of Rohan

First off, in both the book and the movies, Tolkien’s depiction of the Kingdom of Rohan is an imitation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of early Medieval England (as Bryan discussed in one of our previous Hobbit Day posts). From their names, language, architecture, and material culture, the Rohirrim represent Tolkien’s homage to the civilization that conquered Roman Britain, bequeathed to the world Beowulf, and brought a unified kingdom to the British Isles in the 800s. It is fitting then that Tolkien and Jackson’s depiction of how the Rohirrim go to war matches the way the Anglo-Saxons prosecuted their own conflicts, particularly with the invading forces of Danes in post-Roman Britain. 

Prior to the inception of feudalism in England, control over the isle of Great Britain was even more decentralized than the more “classic” systems of vassalage known to popular culture. Thanes, who were essentially warlords, controlled vast areas of land and would call upon the warriors who owed them allegiance to fight for them in times of war. These warriors, however, were not professional soldiers akin to the knights of the High Middle Ages. They were landholders who participated in agriculture as much as the slaves they controlled. Thanes also generally had loose alliances with one another so rather than having an ultimate king who controlled a kingdom, such as in Charlemagne’s empire, thanes would fight with one another and against common enemies. In fact, it was only in the face of common enemies, namely the Danes, that the Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles were able to unite and face down a common threat. 

In The Two Towers, this concept of raising a decentralized military force comprised of landholders who could fight (rather than professionally trained knights) fits perfectly with the defense of Rohan against Isengard. Firstly, the only true professional warriors in Rohan are those of Theoden’s immediate household and the most important thanes, or marshals, underneath him. In the movies, these are Theoden himself, his grievously wounded son Theodred, and his nephew Eomer. It is for this reason that Theoden is left with so few defenders too. The other Riders available toTheoden were actually residents of Edoras who joined Eomer when he was exiled. Rohan’s army and its people were one in the same. 

More importantly, Theoden’s decision to retreat to Helm’s Deep echoes the way that Anglo-Saxons used the ruins of Rome as strongholds in the Early Middle Ages (AD 500-1000). In this time of transition in Western Europe, knowledge to maintain Roman architectural achievements disappeared. Thus, any Roman edifice could constitute a surer defensive holdout than motte-and-bailey forts. Helm’s Deep fulfills this exact role as a former Gondorian fortress. While Theoden may ask in anguish, “Where was Gondor when the Westfold fell?”Aragorn could have replied, “It is from Gondor that these very stones came!” 

Helm’s Deep itself is also a combination of many different styles of castle-building from the Medieval Era. Unlike the motte-and-bailey structures of the Early Middle Ages, Helm’s Deep reflects the stone edifices constructed at the height of medieval European civilization. First, it is strategically positioned near a defensible location in the mountains that controls a channel of invasion into Rohan. Furthermore, the fortress employs a tiered or leveled style of defense aimed at slowing any army wishing to breach it. For instance, detonating bombs in the Deeping Wall did not lead to the fortress’s collapse. Each section provided spaces where heavily outnumbered defenders could fight off superior forces,exactly as depicted in The Two Towers

The Fighting Uruk-Hai

The hosts of Isengard issue forth to ensure there will be no dawn for men. Saruman has built himself a host of ten thousand uruk hai, and as they march across Rohan’s Westfold to besiege Theoden King at Helm’s Deep, their most obvious trait as portrayed by the movies is the uruk’s massive pikes, turning their columns into bristling hedgehogs. They may look fantastical, but these polearms actually have a historical antecedent in the sarissae of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx. These spears were so long that other, more traditional formations, could not come to grips with Macedonian forces, and the rear ranks’ spears (held upright) might even have been able to deflect incoming arrows.These pike would likely be even more effective fighting Rohan in the open field: horses will not charge a disciplined mass of soldiers, and there are none more disciplined than the fighting uruk hai.

Once the forces of the White Hand arrive at Helm’s Deep, however, the uruks reveal all the materiel one expects from a wizard with a mind of metal, and they come into their own as a dark fantasy mirror of the legions of Rome. Siege warfare is probably most famous when it comes to the medieval era, but it actually originated in the Helenistic Near East under Alexander and his successors, and was later elevated to a science by Rome. While its legionnaires are often pictured fighting the Celtic and Germanic tribes of northern and western Europe, the most important theater of Rome was always Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, especially after the rise of Sassanid Persia in the third century AD. Here Romans put their engineering skills to great use as both besieger and besieged, constructing massive siege engines (not unlike the uruk hai ballistae seen in the movie). The uruks even mimic two distinctly Roman military features: a wide lateral crest on commanders’ helmets, and the classic testudo formation, here used to shield a battering ram on its approach up the causeway to Helm’s Deep’s gate.

Lasting the Night

Both great sieges in Lord of the Rings (Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith) last only one night, but this was hardly typical of most historical sieges. Until the invention of gunpowder, stone fortifications offered such an advantage to defenders that vastly outnumbered defenders could still hold a city indefinitely, especially if their supplies were well-stocked beforehand. Indeed, some mountaintop fortresses in Armenia and Anatolia during the early medieval era were so strong they were considered essentially impregnable except by betrayal from within. Even more modern sieges could drag on if the city was not adequately cut off; in one extreme example, the (unsuccessful) siege of Gibraltar during the American Revolution lasted for nearly four years.

In light of how long a siege could take, armies throughout history have attempted to speed up the process through assault or ingenuity, just like the Uruk Hai at Helm’s Deep. Ladders are of course a straightforward way of coming to grips with the defenders, as with battering rams and an exchange of missiles. If a fortress was not built on a solid enough foundation, attackers might be able to dig underneath its walls and light fires, causing the ground to sink and the walls to collapse in a process known as “undermining.” If located outside the walls, water sources or the passages to get to them were often the weak points of ancient citadels, not unlike how Helm’s Deep’s culvert gives the uruks a golden opportunity to do some undermining of their own; just like in the real world, black powder renders even the best medieval defenses obsolete.

Even as the besiegers might try to take their target by force, the defenders in historical sieges were hardly helpless. Aside from defending the walls and gate in any way they could, the besieged often made spoiling attacks and sallies outside the walls to disrupt and even drive off the attackers, especially if there was some parity between both forces. In one classic example, the frequent sorties of the East Roman general Belisarius and his cavalry from Rome against their Ostrogothic besiegers in AD 537-8 killed so many Goths for so few Roman casualties that the siege eventually became untenable. At Helm’s Deep, the forces of Rohan counterattack after the Deeping Wall is breached, and the heroes Aragorn and Gimli even sally out of a postern to defend the causeway and buy Theoden time to repair the failing main gate. Ultimately, however, the Rohirrim cannot resist the black tide of Isengard, and in one last desperate effort they sally forth in what appears to be a doomed cavalry charge down the causeway.

First Light on the Fifth Day

Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers builds cinematic tension when Gandalf tells Aragorn to wait for the first light on the fifth day after the White Rider’s departure to rally the Riddermark’s forces. That promise gives viewers an expectation of the plot: if the Three Hunters can help Theoden retreat to and defend Helm’s Deep for five days, Gandalf will save them! While a great storytelling technique, it is also a historically accurate summary of the strategy for breaking sieges in medieval warfare. Sieges traditionally end in one of four ways: the besiegers force a negotiated surrender of a city with a mix of threats, incentives, and little bloodshed; the attacking army gives up after a fortress or city proves too difficult to capture; the besiegers take the city after a prolonged siege and massacre the city’s population out of spite for the defenders’ supposed foolhardiness and to send a strategic message to other would-be enemies; or a relief force arrives and attacks the besieging army, which is driven off (especially if the defenders also sally forth and attack the besiegers). The course of Helm’s Deep obviously follows the fourth outcome, with Gandalf and Eomer providing the allied relief force that turned Theoden’s final charge into a rout of the Uruk-hai.

While the movie’s epic cavalry charge provides stunning visuals, Tolkien’s narrative depicted a much more accurate engagement. In the book, Gandalf arrived with a heavily armed infantry force from the Westfold and led them (in a shieldwall) to drive off the Uruk-hai while Theoden’s cavalry burst forth from the keep. Nevertheless, the major thrust of Helm’s Deep holds true to siege warfare up through the Early Modern Era. Just as the Uruk-hai planned to annihilate the people of Rohan within Helm’s Deep if it fell (as the Mongols did in Baghdad or the Crusaders in Jerusalem; a standard tactic of warfare up until the last few centuries), so too did a relief force break the siege of Helm’s Deep and save the beleaguered defenders whose best defense was both their courage and the thick walls and defensible tiers of the Hornburg.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.