Welcome, dear readers, as always!
In this posting, we are going to do something a little different: speculate. It’s about a possible military development in the years after the War of the Ring and, if you have enjoyed our past postings on military issues in Middle Earth, we hope that you will enjoy this one.
Our inspiration for this posting came from two sources: The Lord of the Rings and the history of the later western Middle Ages and it began like this–
“Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping-stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in.” (The Two Towers, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”)
Aragorn calls this “the fire of Orthanc”, but I think that we can guess that it was an explosive device and our immediate thought was the use of mines over the centuries of siege warfare. Originally, the idea was to undermine an enemy’s wall by digging a tunnel below it. The next step was either to use the finished tunnel as a passageway into an inner courtyard or, alternatively, to prop up the wall, fill the area below with flammable materials, torch the materials, then clear out to watch the section of wall tumble down when the fire burn away the props before charging in.
Once gunpowder was available, this technique could be improved upon by tunneling under a wall, planting a large stock of explosives, setting a very long fuse, clearing out, then watching it blow a large hole in the enemy’s fortification.
Two of the most spectacular such mines in our experience are during the American Civil War, at Petersburg, on 30 July, 1864—
and the first day of the Somme, 1 July, 1916, in World War 1—
Sauron’s orcs appear to use the same technique when facing the protective wall around Gondor, the Rammas Echor:
“The bells of day had scarcely rung out again, a mockery of the unlightened dark, when far away he saw fires spring up, across the dim spaces where the walls of the Pelennor stood. The watchmen cried aloud, and all men in the City stood to arms. Now ever and anon there was a red flash, and slowly through the heavy air dull rumbles could be heard.” (The Return of the King, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)
As we thought about the future, we considered what had happened in our Middle Ages. Although gunpowder had been mentioned in the mid-13th century, our first illustration of a weapon based upon it dates from about 1327.
By the mid-14th century, there appear to have been cannon of some sort used against the Scots in 1327 and at the Battle of Crecy (1346) against the French and, by the early 15th c. they are becoming a regular feature of battles and sieges.
Very early cannon were very simple, being a tube of any length fastened to a wooden bed of some sort.
The tubes were made of long bars of iron hammered together and then secured with a series of iron rings.
The technology for this looks like it came from barrel-making: long staves of wood pressed together, then wrapped with iron bands
When we think of barrels in Middle Earth, what better evidence do we have than this, one of our favorite JRRT illustrations from The Hobbit?
A well-known technical skill in the Middle Ages was that of casting church bells: making molds, pouring in metal, letting it cool, and producing sometimes quite large ones.
This led to making cannon the same way.
Sometimes, early cannon were so large that they were cast at the site of their first use, as large bells occasionally were. For the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453, this was said to be true.
You’ll notice here, by the way, that this isn’t an iron gun, but a bronze one. After the first iron guns, gun-founders had begun experimenting with bronze and for several centuries, until all guns would be made out of steel, there was discussion among both gunners and military theoreticians over the value of each metal.
As for Middle Earth, well, we know that there were barrels and the ability to cast large (going by medieval bells) objects in metal. Now the speculation begins. Suppose, when Saruman was defeated and later left Orthanc, he had left behind his papers (he doesn’t appear to have anything like them when he is met on the road by Gandalf and the others in “Many Partings”). In those papers would have been the recipe for gunpowder. Sometime after Isengard had been taken over by the allies, those papers had come to Minas Tirith and someone, remembering what he had heard about the attack on Helm’s Deep, went through them, found that recipe, and, just as in medieval Europe, soon these began to appear—
What do you think, dear readers?
Thanks, as always, for reading.