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A historian's perspective on the Battle of Helms Deep

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  1. NaraVara
    Hot damn this section had me appreciating the book (and film) in a whole new way:

    Hot damn this section had me appreciating the book (and film) in a whole new way:

    One more thing before we get started in earnest. One of the running themes of my look at Helm’s Deep – which will soon become very apparent – is that Saruman and Saruman’s forces make quite a number of avoidable ‘rookie’ mistakes, both during the campaign and the actual assault. I don’t want this to be misunderstood at a criticism of the source material. Rather, I think it is a hidden sort of genius to the source material. In our last series, we saw two very experienced commanders, the Witch King and Denethor (and also Aragorn, Faramir, and Théoden), engaging in very complex and quite masterful operations. There is a lot to learn from an analysis of a masterful operation (even a fictional one!) even when it is eventually unsuccessful.

    But Saruman does not have a lot of experience. Théoden does. As Saruman himself notes, the house of Eorl has “fought many wars and assailed many who defied them” (TT, 218). Théoden himself had been a king even longer than Denethor had been steward (Théoden becomes king in 2980; Denethor becomes steward in 2984) and given what we know about the political situation, it is safe to assume he had some fighting to do even before he became king and much more afterwards. The film has Théoden say this, and at moments shows it on-screen in interesting ways, but the desire to insert some conflict between Théoden and Aragorn means that this characterization gets a bit muddled, as we’ll see. Nevertheless, it is clear that Théoden, in book and film, is an experienced and capable commander – he may lack the subtly and sophistication of Denethor (who, as an aside, I’d probably rate as the better pure tactician of the two, but the worse overall leader), but reliable workman-like generaling is often the best sort, and proves to be so here.

    But as to Saruman – there is no hint in the Silmarilion that Curumo (the Maia who would be Saruman) was a great warrior among the Maiar (indeed, I cannot find that he did any war-fighting before this; his Maia name comes from the Unfinished Tales – he does not appear in the Silmarilion save as a wizard); he was a Maia of Aulë the Smithlord, and it shows. Saruman is an builder, engineer, plotter and tinkerer. Given his personality, he strikes me as exactly the sort of very intelligent person whose assumes that their mastery of one field (effectively science-and-engineering, along with magic-and-persuasion, in this case) makes them equally able to perform in other, completely unrelated fields (a mistake common to very many very smart people, but – it seems to me, though this may be only because I work in the humanities – peculiarly common to those moving from the STEM fields to more humanistic ones, as Saruman is here). I immediately feel I understand Saruman sense of “I am very smart and these idiots in Rohan can command armies, so how hard can it be?” And so I love that this overconfidence leads him to man-handle his army into a series of quite frankly rookie mistakes. After all, the core of his character arc is that Saruman was never so wise or clever as he thought himself to be.

    7 votes