308 – The Road to Isengard

The Road to Isengard

This chapter is all about reunions.  The story slows and cools after the great excitement of Helm’s Deep.  But it also adds ‘hooks’ for the next chapter – you know something interesting has happened, but not what.

It begins with the scattered defenders of Helm’s Deep: Eomer and Gimli had been separated from the others.

Gimli is also boastful about the killing-game he and Legolas had begun:

“’Forty-two, Master Legolas!’ he cried. ‘Alas! My axe is notched: the forty-second had an iron collar on his neck. How is it with you?’

“’You have passed my score by one,’ answered Legolas. ‘But I do not grudge you the game, so glad am I to see you on your legs!’”

Eomer credits their victory to Gandalf magic:

“’Once more you come in the hour of need, unlooked-for,’ he said.

“’Unlooked-for?’ said Gandalf. ‘I said that I would return and meet you here.’

“’But you did not name the hour, nor foretell the manner of your coming. Strange help you bring. You are mighty in wizardry, Gandalf the White!’

“’That may be. But if so, I have not shown it yet. I have but given good counsel in peril, and made use of the speed of Shadowfax. Your own valour has done more, and the stout legs of the Westfold-men marching through the night.’

“Then they all gazed at Gandalf with still greater wonder. Some glanced darkly at the wood, and passed their hands over their brows, as if they thought their eyes saw otherwise than his.

“Gandalf laughed long and merrily. ‘The trees?’ he said. ‘Nay, I see the wood as plainly as do you. But that is no deed of mine. It is a thing beyond the counsel of the wise. Better than my design, and better even than my hope the event has proved.’”

Gandalf’s task has been to encourage the Free Peoples to do the right thing, not to do the fighting for them.  He uses his full powers only occasionally: to fight Nazgul, and twice to rescue Faramir.  His full power also would have been uncertain against the Lord of the Nazgul: but his encouragement of men paid off with the arrival of 6000 Rohirrim who had set out while he was in Minas Tirith.  (It is only in the film that he sends the signal.)

Saruman had tried to control everything.  Gandalf is delighted when good things happen independently of his instructions.  As has happened here:

“’Then if not yours, whose is the wizardry?’ said Théoden. ‘Not Saruman’s, that is plain. Is there some mightier sage, of whom we have yet to learn?’

“’It is not wizardry, but a power far older,’ said Gandalf: ‘a power that walked the earth, ere elf sang or hammer rang.

“Ere iron was found or tree was hewn,
“When young was mountain under moon;
“Ere ring was made, or wrought was woe,
“It walked the forests long ago.’

“’And what may be the answer to your riddle?’ said Theoden.

“’If you would learn that, you should come with me to Isengard ‘ answered Gandalf.”

He is delighted with old powers revived.  This and his later description of Treebeard as ‘oldest of all living things’ is consistent with Tolkien’s background story at the time – the Valar and Maia as gods.[A]  From that viewpoint, they might have their own children as well as children from marriages to mortals.  You could imaging Gandalf as a being born to Maia parents, well after the beginning. Perhaps after the poisoning of the Two Trees.  He later says he’d have liked to use a palantir to watch the work of Feanor. This rather suggests he was born after Feanor was dead, or at least after he had ceased to be creative.

All of this is out of tune with the final published version of The Silmarillion, in which all Maia are angelic spirits who existed before the world was made.

Gandalf also tells them that they will not need to bring their weary army with them when they visit Isengard.  Holds back on an explanation, which would make little sense if you view the story as real events.  For the sake of the first-time reader, long before there were films to give them the basics, it must indeed work well.  You left the Ents marching towards Saruman’s stronghold, with Treebeard expecting defeat.  Signs of great disturbances in that direction leave it open who won.

But first they must bury their dead, and even the enemy dead.  This is something Tolkien always has his good characters attend to.  Reflecting his Great War experience, probably, when there was often nothing much to bury.  Where bodies were left lying for weeks between the two lines of trenches.

But there is also a sharp distinction between the men of Dunland, who are granted mercy, and the Orcs who have all been killed:

“The Orcs were piled in great heaps, away from the mounds of Men, not far from the eaves of the forest. And the people were troubled in their minds; for the heaps of carrion were too great for burial or for burning. They had little wood for firing, and none would have dared to take an axe to the strange trees, even if Gandalf had not warned them to hurt neither bark nor bough at their great peril.”

Gimli also shows a more cultured side, amazed that the Rohirrim have shown no interest in the caves of Helm’s Deep:

“Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm’s Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be…

“There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities. such as the mind of Durin could scarce have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come.”

He also dislikes the new forest, which they ride through.  All of them find the place alarming.  And are not much reassured when they meet the local powers:

“Even as he spoke, there came forward out of the trees three strange shapes. As tall as trolls they were, twelve feet or more in height; their strong bodies, stout as young trees, seemed to be clad with raiment or with hide of close-fitting grey and brown. Their limbs were long, and their hands had many fingers; their hair was stiff, and their beards grey-green as moss.”

As I said in my comments on the chapter Treebeard, Tolkien probably imagined Ents as troll-like: woodland giants rather than walking trees.  Though they are in charge of Huorns, who do indeed look like trees that can walk.  Are dangerous, and are presumably Big Brothers to the trees of the Old Forrest.  The trees that Merry recalls his Brandybuck kin fighting and winning a war against: the hobbits are not that much better than ‘Big People’.  Their pleasant farmed land must have been carved out of ancient woodlands.

It is worth adding that Old Man Willow, the core of hostility in the Old Forrest, dates back to Tolkien’s 1934 poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

Gandalf points out to the Rohirrim that these Ents are hazily recalled in their children’s stories.  At the time he wrote the book, he was struggling to rescue ‘fairy stories’ from the tradition that had confined them to works for children.  Had gained an adult audience for The Hobbit, written for children, as J K Rowling was later to do.  But in the 1950s, the struggle to have such stories taken seriously was much harder.

Being for adults, the story shows shadows even in bright victories:

“’You should be glad, Theoden King,’ said Gandalf. ‘For not only the little life of Men is now endangered, but the life also of those things which you have deemed the matter of legend. You are not without allies, even if you know them not.’

“’Yet also I should be sad,’ said Theoden. ‘For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?’

“’It may,’ said Gandalf. ‘The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been. But to such days we are doomed. Let us now go on with the journey we have begun!’”

And upholding moral standards.  There is concern about the dead from earlier battles that Saruman’s forces won:

“’Alas!’ said Theoden. ‘Must we pass this way, where the carrion-beasts devour so many good Riders of the Mark?’

“’This is our way,’ said Gandalf. ‘Grievous is the fall of your men; but you shall see that at least the wolves of the mountains do not devour them. It is with their friends, the Orcs, that they hold their feast: such indeed is the friendship of their kind. Come!’

“They rode down to the river, and as they came the wolves ceased their howling and slunk away. Fear fell on them seeing Gandalf in the moon, and Shadowfax his horse shining like silver.”

The Riders have been buried in a mound, presumably by the Ents.  But Theoden, noting that the river Isen has been changed, fears what Saruman may have ready.  Gandalf chooses to remain obscure.

Meantime we have a second mention of the Orcs killed by men and Huorns back at Helm’s Deep:

“Away south upon the Hornburg, in the middle night men heard a great noise, as a wind in the valley, and the ground trembled; and all were afraid and no one ventured to go forth. But in the morning they went out and were amazed; for the slain Orcs were gone, and the trees also. Far down into the valley of the Deep the grass was crushed and trampled brown, as if giant herdsmen had pastured great droves of cattle there; but a mile below the Dike a huge pit had been delved in the earth, and over it stones were piled into a hill. Men believed that the Orcs whom they had slain were buried there; but whether those who had fled into the wood were with them, none could say, for no man ever set foot upon that hill. The Death Down it was afterwards called, and no grass would grow there. But the strange trees were never seen in Deeping-coomb again; they had returned at night, and had gone far away to the dark dales of Fangorn. Thus they were revenged upon the Orcs.”

Far away from all this, Theoden and the others now arrive at Isengard.  And we are reminded of what it was before Saruman become corrupted:

“They had passed into Nan Curunir, the Wizard’s Vale. That was a sheltered valley, open only to the South. Once it had been fair and green, and through it the Isen flowed, already deep and strong before it found the plains; for it was fed by many springs and lesser streams among the rain-washed hills, and all about it there had lain a pleasant, fertile land.

“It was not so now. Beneath the walls of Isengard there still were acres tilled by the slaves of Saruman; but most of the valley had become a wilderness of weeds and thorns. Brambles trailed upon the ground, or clambering over bush and bank, made shaggy caves where small beasts housed. No trees grew there; but among the rank grasses could still be seen the burned and axe-hewn stumps of ancient groves. It was a sad country, silent now but for the stony noise of quick waters. Smokes and steams drifted in sullen clouds and lurked in the hollows. The riders did not speak. Many doubted in their hearts, wondering to what dismal end their journey led…

“This was its fashion, while Saruman was at his height, accounted by many the chief of Wizards. A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, from which it ran and then returned again. One entrance only was there made in it, a great arch delved in the southern wall. Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron. They were so wrought and poised upon their huge hinges, posts of steel driven into the living stone, that when unbarred they could be moved with a light thrust of the arms, noiselessly. One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl: a mile it measured from rim to rim. Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake. But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman. The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron. joined by heavy chains.

These are the changes that Jackson chose to show happening much more suddenly after Saruman imprisons Gandalf.  A neat and dramatic way to do it in a film.  Also more logical – would not the changes to Orthanc have made Gandalf mistrust Saruman much more than he reports doing?

More generally, Tolkien was offended by the spreading industrialism.  One of many, both radical and traditionalist, to be appalled at some of what was happening.

Isengard as Saruman had reworked it counts as a grand assembly of visible and material power:

“Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunnelled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors. Thousands could dwell there, workers, servants, slaves, and warriors with great store of arms; wolves were fed and stabled in deep dens beneath. The plain, too, was bored and delved. Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead. For the ground trembled. The shafts ran down by many slopes and spiral stairs to caverns far under; there Saruman had treasuries, store-houses, armouries, smithies, and great furnaces. Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapour steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.

“To the centre all the roads ran between their chains. There stood a tower of marvellous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills. A peak and isle of rock it was. black and gleaming hard: four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns. their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives. Between them was a narrow space, and there upon a floor of polished stone, written with strange signs, a man might stand five hundred feet above the plain. This was Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning; for in the Elvish speech orthanc signifies Mount Fang, but in the language of the Mark of old the Cunning Mind.

“A strong place and wonderful was Isengard, and long it had been beautiful; and there great lords had dwelt, the wardens of Gondor upon the West, and wise men that watched the stars. But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived – for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own. came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress. armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dur, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.

“This was the stronghold of Saruman, as fame reported it; for within living memory the men of Rohan had not passed its gates, save perhaps a few, such as Wormtongue, who came in secret and told no man what they saw.”

But now all of that ‘hideous strength’[B] has been wrecked:

“But the doors lay hurled and twisted on the ground. And all about, stone, cracked and splintered into countless jagged shards, was scattered far and wide, or piled in ruinous heaps. The great arch still stood, but it opened now upon a roofless chasm: the tunnel was laid bare. and through the cliff-like walls on either side great rents and breaches had been torn; their towers were beaten into dust. If the Great Sea had risen in wrath and fallen on the hills with storm. it could have worked no greater ruin.

“The ring beyond was filled with steaming water: a bubbling cauldron, in which there heaved and floated a wreckage of beams and spars, chests and casks and broken gear. Twisted and leaning pillars reared their splintered stems above the flood, but all the roads were drowned. Far off, it seemed, half veiled in winding cloud, there loomed the island rock. Still dark and tall, unbroken by the storm, the tower of Orthanc stood. Pale waters lapped about its feet.

“The king and all his company sat silent on their horses, marvelling, perceiving that the power of Saruman was overthrown; but how they could not guess.”

And are unexpectedly greeted:

“There they saw close beside them a great rubble-heap; and suddenly they were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease, grey-clad, hardly to be seen among the stones. There were bottles and bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had just eaten well, and now rested from their labour. One seemed asleep; the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head, leaned back against a broken rock and sent from his mouth long wisps and little rings of thin blue smoke.

“For a moment Theoden and Eomer and all his men stared at them in wonder. Amid all the wreck of Isengard this seemed to them the strangest sight. But before the king could speak, the small smoke-breathing figure became suddenly aware of them, as they sat there silent on the edge of the mist. He sprang to his feet. A young man he looked, or like one, though not much more than half a man in height; his head of brown curling hair was uncovered, but he was clad in a travel-stained cloak of the same hue and shape as the companions of Gandalf had worn when they rode to Edoras. He bowed very low, putting his hand upon his breast. Then, seeming not to observe the wizard and his friends, he turned to Eomer and the king.

“’Welcome, my lords, to Isengard!’ he said. ‘We are the doorwardens. Meriadoc, son of Saradoc is my name; and my companion, who, alas! is overcome with weariness’ – here he gave the other a dig with his foot – ‘is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the house of Took. Far in the North is our home. The Lord Saruman is within; but at the moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or doubtless he would be here to welcome such honourable guests.’

“’Doubtless he would!’ laughed Gandalf. ‘And was it Saruman that ordered you to guard his damaged doors, and watch for the arrival of guests, when your attention could be spared from plate and bottle?’

“’No, good sir, the matter escaped him,’ answered Merry gravely ‘He has been much occupied. Our orders came from Treebeard, who has taken over the management of Isengard. He commanded me to welcome the Lord of Rohan with fitting words. I have done my best.’

Hobbits like hierarchy and formality, and Merry makes a good showing.  And has more to say:

“’It is past noon,’ said Gandalf, ‘and we at any rate have not eaten since early morning. Yet I wish to see Treebeard as soon as may be. Did he leave me no message, or has plate and bottle driven it from your mind?’

“’He left a message,’ said Merry, ‘and I was coming to it, but I have been hindered by many other questions. I was to say that, if the Lord of the Mark and Gandalf will ride to the northern wall they will find Treebeard there, and he will welcome them. I may add that they will also find food of the best there, it was discovered and selected by your humble servants.’ He bowed.”

Gandalf explains who Treebeard is:

“When you see Treebeard, you will learn much. For Treebeard is Fangorn, and the eldest and chief of the Ents, and when you speak with him you will hear the speech of the oldest of all living things.’”

Most of them go to meet Treebeard.  But not all, as we learn in the next chapter.

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.

[A] See for instance The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: Letter 156.  Written in 1954, after Fellowship had finally been published.

[B] I borrow the phrase from C. S. Lewis, who took it from an old poem and used it for his own condemnation of Modernist values.