The first great battle of the War of the Rings happens on home turf for the Rohirrim. Saruman empties Isengard of its vast armies, tens of thousands of orcs and half-orcs and warg riders, in a great push to end the inconvenience of the horse lords and to claim their lands. When King Théoden and his host wish to bring battle to Isengard and call Saruman, the traitor, to account, they are pushed back and forced to take refuge in the Hornburg at Helm’s Deep. There they are set upon by an ocean of enemies that come to strike down the last defense of Rohan. But it is said that Helm’s Deep could not fall, not if it was manned. Could the great fortress survive? Where did it come from and what came of it after the great battle? Let’s have a look and see what we can see!
When the Men of Númenor came out of the Sea, after the destruction of their home, and landed in Middle-earth they swiftly founded the mighty realms of Gondor and Arnor from the ‘colonies’ they had created in their seafaring days. To subdue their enemies and keep the peace, they built fortresses and outposts and these are seen throughout the journeys of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings: Isengard, the Towers of the Teeth, the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Minas Morgul, and of course Minas Tirith. Each time we reach one of these great buildings the narrator remarks about how they were built before the skill of the Men of Westernesse waned. What that means is not entirely specified, but it is tied to the mingling of the Dúnedain with lesser Men, and their lack of vigilance in keeping to the study of lore in the latter days of the Third Age. Faramir says that the men of Gondor have become more like their distant cousins in Rohan and the North, reveling more in battle than learning. That learning, from deep ages in the past when Men had better relations with Elves and gods, taught them to make great constructions of smooth, solid stone that seemed to be made from the very bones of the earth itself. Helm’s Deep was one such construction.
Rohan was once the Gondorian province of Calenardhon. In a great time of need, the Éothéod came out of the North and rescued the Gondorians from an attack of evil Men and Orcs. As a gift, the ruling Steward Cirion gave the land as a gift to Eorl the Young and his people for as long as they would help to defend Gondor. With it came the fastness of Helm’s Deep as well as Isengard, but that is another story.
At the time when we see it, TA 3019, Helm’s Deep is the seat of The Lord of Westfold. At this time, that lordship is held by Erkenbrand, a mighty man who later earns the title of Marshal of the West-mark. But Erkenbrand is not there when Théoden and his companions arrive at the Hornburg; he is off defending the Ford’s of Isen. And so the King and his companions, including Aragorn son of Arathorn and Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf, are left to defend themselves without aid and with only a small compliment of soldiery. When the full host of Saruman is unleashed, Erkenbrand must retreat and that is when he meets Gandalf the White and with the coming of the morning the two, along with 1000 footmen of Rohan, arrive at the battle of Helm’s Deep to win the day.
But let’s go back now to the fortress itself and talk of its make and what we might see in the forthcoming expansion. The Deeping Coomb, and then the Deeping Wall, Hornburg, and the caves behind it, were part of the great fortification that would so defend the Men of Rohan (along with their Elf and Dwarf guests). Most of this was man made, of course, but it’s the location that is key. Helm’s Deep is, as the name suggests, nestled deep in the shadow of the Ered Nimrais, the White Mountains. It’s the natural setting that provides its greatest defense, for there is only one direction enemies can attack from and that is northeastwards through the Deeping Coomb.
Breaking off the main path from the Deeping Stream and the road to Edoras, into a wide valley, one reaches the Deeping Coomb. Coomb is valley (just like Combe), and that deep expanse would take us along the stream to Helm’s Dike. This is the first construction meant to help against attackers, a wide ditch to funnel the enemies through a narrow bottleneck before they reach the fortress proper. This area is defended by Gamling the Old during the battle, but he and his men are soon forced to retreat to the Burg.
The Hornburg is the actual fortress-y bit of Helm’s Deep and it’s here that the architectural prowess of Gondor is best demonstrated. It is joined by the Deeping Wall that spans that gap in the mountainsides between the Burg and the further hill, preventing entry into the Caves beyond. There many men and stores could remain safe under a determined attack. The stone walls of both Burg and Wall are sheer and nigh unscalable. During the Battle, the armies of the White Hand have to use siege ladders and towers to make any attempt to climb over while they beat the door of the Hornburg. It all holds. Even the blasting powder of Saruman, enough to tear a hole in the Wall through the culvert where the stream passes, does not gain them entry into the Burg.
Within the Hornburg itself is a number of levels. King Théoden remained in the Great Hall during the attack until his glorious ride out in the morning, but there were more levels to be used in case of a final breech.
In the end, as we know, the Rohirrim win. It takes a little help from Gandalf and the Huorns, but what was meant as the final stroke by Saruman is turned against him and, coupled with the march of the Ents on Isengard, his power is swiftly broken. After the War, Helm’s Deep remains under the possession of the Rohirrim, their bond to Gondor now doubly renewed with the coming of the King and the marriage of Faramir, Prince of Ithilien, to Éowyn. But an unusual thing happens: Gimli the dwarf, so moved by his unexpected visit to the caves beyond Helm’s Deep, returns with a company of his folk. There he sets up a colony of dwarves in Aglarond, the Glittering Caves, and becomes a lord of his people. They remain their long, help to rebuild the Wall and the Hornburg, and presumably share the fortress with their counterparts in Rohan.
I think there is a lot of rich history, as usual, to be got into with Western Rohan and especially Helm’s Deep. We have a lot to look forward to with the next expansion! As the screenshots have already revealed, the Glittering Caves should be a sight to behold.