In the seventh chapter of The Two Towers, BY GANDALF’S BEARD THIS IS SO INTENSE. If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER SEVEN: HELM’S DEEP
I ASKED FOR A BATTLE, AND THEN I GOT ONE, AND THEN I SORT OF REGRETTED ASKING FOR ONE BECAUSE THE ONE I GOT MAKES MY HEART FEEL LIKE IT IS GOING TO BURST.
I will forever be unable to understand how I never read this book before now, and I will forever refuse to forgive myself for thinking it was terrible. I am now in complete awe of this book and how frightening, shocking, and entertaining the first seven chapters are. Tolkien is not taking any breaks here, and in chapter seven, we get perhaps the most tense scene in the whole novel. The riders press on for hours in their journey towards Isengard, and I could sense their determination in Tolkien’s words. They might already be too late to help out what men they have. We’re reminded of this constantly right up until the moment that they arrive. Oh, and of course there’s this:
‘I can see a darkness. There are shapes moving in it, great shapes far away upon the bank of the river; but what they are I cannot tell. It is not mist or cloud that defeats my eyes: there is a veiling shadow that some power lays upon the land, and it marches slowly down stream. It is as if the twilight under the endless trees were flowing downwards from the hills.’
‘And behind us comes a very storm of Mordor,’ said Gandalf. ‘It will be a black night.’
Just what the fuck? What the fuck is that? What has Saruman done? WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? Also, can I just say that I’m really starting to appreciate how Tolkien uses the weather to signify evil and darkness? It’s such an appropriate step towards setting an atmosphere. I know that it’s using the familiar trope of lightness and darkness, but sometimes I just like how an author uses an archetype in their own way, and this is one of those times.
It takes just two days for doom to come upon the Riders when one of the guards/soldiers of Rohan arrives on horseback to tell them of the bad news: things are not looking well for those opposing Saruman. They’re overwhelmed, and Ceorl recommends they return to Edoras immediately. So Théoden does what any good king should do: reveal himself right after this to give the man hope, and order the Riders to continue on. FUCK YEAH. Does this strike you with hope? Of course it does! So now we all get to watch as that hope is slowly and definitively crushed from here on out. The first time it’s chipped away is when Gandalf orders them all to ride to Helm’s Deep to meet him there, and then fucking leaves. Gandalf, oh my god, please stop doing this. Every time you leave, I am convinced you are going to die. And you can only come back from the depths of the middle of the earth ONCE before it becomes permanent. Plus, what the hell is more important than helping your friends and the men of Théoden? Ah, I DON’T LIKE THIS. I mean, I totally get how it gives a new tension to the story and I find it brilliant, but I’m already stressed enough about this book at this point. Why are you adding more to that?
Helm’s Deep is a fascinating place to me, and it’s clear Tolkien wanted to up the stakes here. Every description of the place and of the Riders moving into that valley adds an element of danger. They’re essentially riding into a self-set trap because there’s nowhere to escape. While it will provide a much safer form of defense, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. But, again, they’re desperate to defeat the armies of Saruman now before heading to Isengard. Does it help that they’re news that Gandalf is riding to and fro across the plains? No, because what the holy fuck are you doing Gandalf? Actually, wouldn’t it be hilarious if he departed from the Riders just because he wanted to spend more time riding Shadowfax? Like, he clearly loves that horse and he wants to take Shadowfax on one last frolic before battle. Look, this is my own personal head canon and I refuse to let you take it away from me.
What’s actually terrifying to me, though, is that the “rumour of war” grows behind them. (God, I love that term. Not the sound, but the “rumour.” THAT IS SO BRILLIANT. I love your vocabulary, Tolkien.) They are heading into a closed valley and bringing their enemy behind them. Not only that, but this is AT NIGHT. How horrifying is this? Sure, in the caves, there’s food , but with just over a thousand fighters against a host of untold number, up against a cliff in a gorge, how is this going to end well? Tolkien’s set this up to be a slaughter, and I started worrying. PLEASE DON’T LET THIS ADD BADLY. (PS: The Deeping Wall reminded me of The Wall. Obviously they’re not the same, but I can see where GRR Martin may have been inspired.)
I became increasingly worried when Tolkien started writing cuteness into the book. Look, Legolas and Gimli’s bromance is just one of the most beautiful things in all of fiction. I won’t apologize for loving this:
‘But you comfort me, Gimli, and I am glad to have you standing night with your stout legs and your hard axe. I wish there were more of your kin among us.’
Just stoooooppppppp. Stop it, you two! Stop being cute! I DON’T WANT TOLKIEN TO TAKE YOU AWAY FROM ME. Granted, it’s not like this is a GRRM novel, and Joss Whedon certainly had nothing to do with it. But in face of one of the most brutal battles in the novel so far, this sort of stuff sets off every one of my alarms. It’s like my heart is telling me STOP SHIPPING STOP LIKING JUST STOP IT THIS WILL ONLY HURT STOP IT MARK. But for now, I will allow myself this one moment of wanting to reach through the pages and just hug these two so tight.
That moment is brief. Very brief. The battle of Helm’s Deep arrives just a few paragraphs later, and from this moment until the end of the chapter, I simply held my head in my hands, waiting for the inevitable tragedy. It’s written in such a way that nearly all hope is impossible to experience. The only time I felt it? That brief bit of pure silence after the first attack by the Orcs. The immensity of the gorge is just so frightening in that moment of time. Having it answered with the cries and screams of the enemy is even more upsetting because of how uncertain this feels. The storm of darkness is literal in this case, too, another example of the use of weather to denote evil. Oh god, and the flashes of lightning that accompany it, lighting up the whole valley. The imagery of this assault is so important to the storytelling, and it’s how Tolkien is able to make it so emotional for the reader.
When it comes time for Éomer and Aragorn to fight, I just lost it. I felt terror. I felt joy. I felt fear. I felt the thrill of the battle. I felt confused by the lightning. Did the Orcs bring that, too? How is it striking them? Oh my god, they’re trying to ram down the great gate to enter the wall. Oh shit, GÚTHWINË and ANDÚRIL ARE CUTTING DOWN ORCS OH FUCK THIS IS SO INTENSE.
They turned and ran. At that moment some dozen Orcs that had lain motionless among the slain leaped to their feet, and came silently and swiftly behind. Two flung themselves to the ground at Éomer’s heels, tripped him, and in a moment they were on top of him. But a small dark figure that none had observed sprang out of the shadows a gave a hoarse shout: Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu! An axe swung and swept back. Two Orcs fell headless. The rest fled.
GIMLI YOU BIG LOVABLE DWARF. YOU ARE MY HERO. YOU ARE THE WIND BENEATH MY WINGS. I DON’T EVEN HAVE WINGS AND YOU ARE STILL THE WIND BENEATH THEM.
‘Two!’ said Gimli, patting his axe. He had returned to his place on the wall.
‘Two?’ said Legolas. ‘I have done better, though now I must grope for spent arrows; all mine are gone. yet I make my tale twenty at the least. But that is only a few leaves in a forest.’
I swear to Gandalf, I will write you the angriest letter that has ever been written if you separate these two, J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t fucking care. I will install a headstone next to yours wherever you are buried that says, “THIS DUDE WROTE SOMETHING THAT UPSET ME,” and everyone will know this forever. Seriously, this is like the blueprint for all bromances to ever come.
And it’s right about here where this chapter just takes a nosedive into pure awful: the battle starts to turn sour for the men of Rohan. Out of arrows, tired, aware that they really don’t have anywhere to go, and with the threat of Orcs behind the wall, I felt so terrible reading this. Sure, it was reassuring that Gimli slaughtered NINETEEN MORE ORCS, but what’s nineteen to the hundreds more that arrive afterward? What about the half-orc and goblin-men? I mean, I can’t get over the fact that Sarumen BRED THESE CREATURES FOR WAR. Like, what kind of fucked up existence is that? You are created by a wizard to do his evil deeds. What the hell?
OH RIGHT. THEN THE ORCS USE SOMETHING TO BLOW A HOLE IN THE WALL. What does this?? Is this like wizard dynamite? Either way, WHAT THE FUCK. Oh my god, the orcs are raising ladders to the wall. A HUNDRED OF THEM. HOW. HOW ARE THEY SUPPOSED TO FIGHT THIS? OH MY GOD THIS IS SO AWFUL. Oh fuck, Legolas only has one arrow left. OH MY GOD ARAGORN JUST TRIPPED AND THE ORCS ARE ON HIM OH MY GOD HE WAS SAVED BY A BOULDER HELP ME THIS IS TOO MUCH TO BEAR.
‘Where is Gimli?’
‘I do not know,’ said Aragorn. ‘I last saw him fighting on the ground behind the wall, but the enemy swept us apart.’
‘Alas! That is evil news,’ said Legolas.
I SWEAR. I WILL DO IT, TOLKIEN. YOU BETTER NOT DO THIS. STOP IT. JUST STOP IT. GIMLI IS FINE AND THAT IS THE END OF IT.
Aragorn now passed into the citadel. There to his dismay he learned that Éomer had not reached the Hornburg.
AH, YOU’RE JUST FUCKING WITH ME NOW. Éomer as well?!?!?!?! DAMN IT, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME? WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS?
When Legolas and Aragorn speak with Théoden inside Hornburg, the news is grim. No Gimli, no Éomer, and almost no hope that the enemy is close to stopping. I respect the fact that given this news, Théoden decides he isn’t just going to sit back and go out while hiding. He recruits Aragorn to ride out of Hornburg at dawn for one last attack against the Orcs swarming outside. But before this happens, Aragorn teases the Orcs below the wall for a bit. Bless his heart. I’d forgotten that Orcs could talk, though, so for like half a second, it was like this was a brand new development for me. But the real importance of this scene is how Aragorn can create fear in others just by talking with confidence in his voice. He can be such an unassuming character sometimes because he’s not quick to speak, so it’s one of the reasons why he’s so impressive when he does.
Then the great horn of Helm rang out. And all hell breaks loose. It’s one of the most chaotic scenes I’ve ever read in literature, and Tolkien handles it so well. Théoden rides out in a splendor on the back of Snowmane, with Aragorn at his side, and all the men of Rohan that are still alive pour out of Hornburg behind him to make one last assault. It’s just so impressive. But it is pretty much nothing to what they all discover in the Deeping-coomb:
The dale is gone. THERE’S A FOREST IN ITS PLACE. WHAT THE FUCK!?!?!? HOW CAN THE LAND CHANGE OVERNIGHT? Is that even fucking possible?
There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun. Over the low hills the horns were sounding. Behind him, hastening down the long slopes, were a thousand men on foot; their swords were in their hands. Amid them strode a man tall and strong. His shield was red. As he came to the valley’s brink, he set to his lips a great black horn and blew a ringing blast.
HOLY SHIT!!!!!! Gandalf, you got Erkenbrand and a thousand more men? YOU BEAUTIFUL GODDAMN WIZARD. I don’t know how you did it, and I don’t care. BLESS YOU. BLESS YOU FOREVER. Oh my god, just when I thought this was going to be a disaster, you save everyone. The Orcs have fled and the way is now clear to head to Isengard.
Just holy shit, y’all.