It seems that everyone remembers Éomer’s act of courage at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields as the high point of Rohirric culture. Théoden’s stand at Helm’s Deep, however, foreshadows that brave stand. This battle has always had a unique place in my understanding of Tolkien’s world. It is the place where I really understood for the first time what I would later understand to be ‘northern courage.’ The bravery to understand that defeat is certain, but not to cower and to fight on against overwhelming odds. This is one of the few major themes of Tolkien (e.g. ‘the machine’) that I perceived in my first reading.
Aragorn’s act of looking out from the gate and confronting the Uruk-Hai is an essential preface to this kind of bravery. My first reading of this scene, I thought that perhaps Aragorn was fay and reckless (although I would not have used these terms at the time, instead probably opting for the less-specific crazy, stupid, brave, until I learned better words to describe the action). This also bolstered the themes of honor and duty that I began to perceive starting with Frodo’s decision to carry the Ring in Rivendell.
I did not really understand the courage behind Aragorn’s words until the scene where he and Théoden lay their plans to ride out:
‘The end will not be long…but I will not end here, taken like a badger in a trap…When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song—if any be left to sing of us hereafter” (TT, III, vii, 539).
This brave face assumed at a time when hope seems lost always shocked me as a child and resonated with something inside of me. I could not describe it the, and I cannot describe it well now. It stirs in me a desire to be as brave and noble as these characters and to not fear death. This is, of course, a bizarre feeling for someone so privileged as I have been and it is nonsensical, but it is true. The riding out of the king and Aragorn with the horns blowing has always given me chills and stirred my sympathies.
Other important notes about my first read through of Helm’s Deep are:
This is the first time that I felt the eucatastrophic moment in LotR in the same way that I felt it in H.
I enjoyed the fighting game of Gimli and Legolas far more than I ought at such a young age. Perhaps this was because of my naivete as a child, and this game was reminiscent of the light treatment that authors frequently use of difficult ideas when writing for children. Tolkien himself used this same kind of technique in H.
As an interesting bit of ‘misreading,’ I always envisioned the causeway from the keep to lead into the part of the stronghold behind the battlements, not out from the battlements. I suppose I assumed this because it would make the keep a stronger fortress. I imagined that Aragorn and Théoden rode out into the host who had flooded past the battlements after the hole was blown open. This made more sense to me as to how they were cut off from the caves. Though I admit that it makes the pincer maneuver with the reinforcements harder to imagine later on.
As a side note: the description immediately following Aragorn’s words has been variously interpreted:
‘Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and smoke…’ (TT, III, vii, 537).
Jackson showed a runner with a torch igniting a stack of bombs. Others have suggested that this passage describes a projective weapon, like a missile. For my own part, I have always agreed that this was a bomb and not a projectile weapon. I feel certain that Tolkien would have described a projectile weapon in greater detail.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I want to talk about Gimli and Saruman before I head into book four.
What Do You Think?
How did you first interpret the bravery of Aragorn and Théoden?
Is this moment as impact as Éomer’s ?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!