Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
I’m always interested in the intersections between Tolkien’s Middle-earth and our medieval Middle-earth, which is so often his model. This includes the military element. There is a moment in Jackson’s The Two Towers, however,which recently caught my attention because—well, I hope you’ll see why.
We’re at Helm’s Deep,
(by the Hildebrandts)
private orc army, when suddenly, there’s a horn call and, at the gateway appears a uniformly-clad detachment of Elf archers,
led by Haldir, who, in The Fellowship of the Ring, commanded elves who watched the borders of Lorien and intercepted the Fellowship as it fled away from Moria and the fall of Gandalf. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 6, “Lothlorien”)
I’m not clear, in terms of the narrative, why these elves have been added to the garrison (or even, practically speaking, how they’ve gotten there, as the countryside between their home in Lorien and Helm’s Deep is infested with orcs, as Eomer would be the first to testify) as the author saw no reason to employ them, but what I noticed most of all was the drill-ground precision of their movements, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqIMhrS14B0 .
As someone who had first been introduced to such movements as a member of the King Edward’s School Cadet Corps in 1907,
and then, at Oxford, both as a trooper in King Edward’s Horse
(This is from the very informative website for the long-disbanded regiment: https://kingedwardshorse.net/ )
and then as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers,
Tolkien would have been very aware of close-order drill of the sort which had become part of the life of any soldier in the British army all the way back to the later-17th century, if not earlier.
The original point of such drill was two-fold. In the 17th century, infantry units were formed of musketeers and pikemen mixed
and 16-18-foot-long pikes (about 5-5.5m.)
would be dangerous not only to the enemy, but to their own side, if not methodically handled.
The musketeers’ weapon, both the earlier matchlock
and the later flintlock,
were very short-range weapons (under 100 yards—about 90m.) and so had to be massed to have much punch and, since they were single-shot weapons, loading and reloading had to be carefully organized, as well.
The pike was replaced by about 1700, all infantry then being armed with muskets, but, otherwise, the drill would have remained the same, and battles would be fought by long lines of carefully-trained men firing at each other through the Napoleonic Wars of the late-18th and into the 19th century.
Even as weapons changed, and, more slowly, tactics, throughout the 19th century, older drill was still practiced, more for learning discipline—to obey commands without question—
by Tolkien’s time than for firepower.
(If you’d like to see the reenactment of actual drill, have a look at: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/NrwbjzxSIHA/maxresdefault.jpg )
Although there is a hint of something like gunpowder, both at Helm’s Deep and at the Rammas Echor (see, for instance, “Fourth Age—Big Bang Theory” 17 February, 2016), in general, everyone uses sword, axe, lance, and bow, just as western soldiers did before bombards
appeared first at sieges
and hand gonnes
began to appear with any regularity on battlefields.
Such battles as there were in our western medieval world lacked the disciplined structure of later times, as soldiers were more like armed crowds than drilled infantry and cavalry in regular units.
As an easy example, and one which Tolkien would have known well, there’s Agincourt, fought between English and French armies in northwestern France in October, 1415, the third battle in the Hundred Years War in which the English relied upon their firepower to beat the French.
The French were a mainly cavalry-heavy army, although mostly dismounted for the actual engagement.
These would have been various levels of the nobility and their followers, only roughly organized into divisions.
The English, in contrast, were a mostly longbow-armed infantry
with a much smaller contingent of nobles and their followers, also dismounted.
Just like the French, they would mainly be very loosely organized into troops of noblemen’s retainers.
When it came to the actual fighting, the French attacked the English across open, muddy fields in several waves and great numbers were shot down by the English longbowmen before much hand-to-hand combat took place. When it did, the English had already so punished the French that there wasn’t much fight left in them and they soon left the field to the English, along with great numbers of their dead and wounded.
Warfare in The Lord of the Rings has the two sieges—Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith–both of which are conducted pretty much as one would do in our Middle Ages. As for battles, if we don’t count the attack of the Rohirrim against the besiegers of Minas Tirith,
(by Denis Gordeev)
or the ambush of the Southrons by Faramir,
there’s really only one–at the Morannon–
and, like the sieges, its model in western medieval battles is clearly evident.
We aren’t given much detail, unfortunately, as to dispositions, but here’s what the text says:
“…Aragorn now set the host in such array as could best be contrived; and they were drawn up on two great hills of blasted stone and earth…Little time was left to Aragorn for the ordering of his battle. Upon the one hill he stood with Gandalf, and there fair and desperate was raised the banner of the Tree and Stars. Upon the other hill hard by stood the banners of Rohan and Dol Amroth, White Horse and Silver Swan. And about each hill a ring was made facing all ways, bristling with spear and sword. But in the front towards Mordor where the bitter assault would come there stood the sons of Elrond on the left with the Dunedain about them, and on the right the Prince Imrahil and the men of Dol Amroth tall and fair, and picked men of the Tower of Guard.”
By this description, I wonder if one medieval model might have been that of it King Harold and his Anglo-Saxons in their last moments on Senlac Hill, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, facing the Norman cavalry.
We’re given much less of the other side, only:
“The orcs hindered by the mires that lay before the hills halted and poured their arrows into the defending ranks. But through them came striding up, roaring like beasts, a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth…Reckless they sprang into the pools and waded across, bellowing as they came. Like a storm they broke upon the line of the men of Gondor, and beat upon helm and head, and arm and shield, as smiths hewing hot iron.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”)
Even without more description, it’s clear what Tolkien had in mind: mass meets mass, with a certain amount of previous arrow fire on the part of the orcs, which we can often see in medieval battles, even without the three great English longbow victories of Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). The Norman use of bowmen at the aforementioned Battle of Hastings, for example, may even have caused the death of King Harold himself and the subsequent Anglo-Saxon defeat.
(The Latin reads: “Here King Harold has been killed”. There is scholarly argument, however, about which figure represents Harold, the warrior holding the arrow or the one being struck down by the Norman cavalryman. The first written source, which appeared about 4 years after the battle, doesn’t mention the arrow, which only appears in a poem from about 40 years later.)
If there’s no such discipline to be seen in JRRT’s usual models for warfare, what is it—not to mention those elves—doing at Helm’s Deep?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Keep your helmet closed at all times on the battlefield,
And remember that there’s always