In the Two Towers film adaptation (it has been about a decade since I read the book, so if there are differences, I'd like to know about them), Gandalf derisively sneers:

They flee to the mountains when they should stand and fight!

This refers to Théoden running away to Helm's Deep instead of staying and fighting the army of Saruman.

Pardon me, but that sounds like a great idea.

In the movie, we see Théoden's town, Edoras: Edoras

It's essentially a bunch of thatch-roof houses, surrounded by a wooden fence. It's exposed on all sides. Everything in sight is flammable--and each gate is probably about the structural equivalent of a barn door keeping the hand of Isengard at bay. Contrast this with Helm's Deep:

enter image description here Helm's Deep is a huge stone wall joining another stone wall, behind which is (another) stone wall, behind which is (yes another) stone wall, and then finally a fortified cave with exactly one point of entry. All up and down these walls are spectacular defensive positions, with the only way in being narrow, easily guarded choke points.

Not only this, we see that Helm's Deep works amazingly well in practice. It took an entire army loaded with state-of-the-art weaponry, including bombs, siege ladders, and genetically engineered orcs as soldiers on the order of twelve hours to break through the defenders, which comprised mostly untrained women, children, old men, and a last-minute platoon of elves, all outnumbered probably 100 to 1.

Note also that during that time, Gandalf managed to summon the riders of Rohan, which were the people in Rohan that actually, you know, could fight. The siege of Helm's Deep bought the good guys valuable time.

Under the circumstances, I'd say it's ludicrous to consider going anywhere but Helm's Deep. Why did Gandalf think otherwise?

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    He's a wizard, not a tactician. Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 8:05
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    *Last minute platoon of Rangers. Then again, the only reason this question is even being asked is because you're relying on the movie's version of events.
    – Wlerin
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 11:03
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    It was actually Gimli that said that particular line.
    – Dennis_E
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 9:15
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    @JamesSheridan Yes, he is a tactician. Wizards do everything right. "Though one Wizard that I knew took up the art long ago, and became as skilful in it as in all other things that he put his mind to." (Lord of the Ring Prologue, talking about smoking, but can be applied to everything else).
    – Flamma
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 17:23
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    @JamesSheridan That doesn't sound like Gandalf to me. (Maybe it sounds more like Jackson).
    – Flamma
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:43

4 Answers 4


That's just another example of Peter Jackson getting it wrong. In the book, leaving Edoras is Gandalf's idea:

‘Now indeed there is hope of victory!’ said Éomer.

‘Hope, yes,’ said Gandalf. ‘But Isengard is strong. And other perils draw ever nearer. Do not delay, Théoden, when we are gone. Lead your people swiftly to the Hold of Dunharrow in the hills!’

‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the king. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

(Book III Chapter 6: The King Of The Golden Hall)

And later, changing the plan to go to Helm's Deep is also his idea:

‘Ride, Théoden!’ he said. ‘Ride to Helm’s Deep! Go not to the Fords of Isen, and do not tarry in the plain! I must leave you for a while. Shadowfax must bear me now on a swift errand.’ Turning to Aragorn and Éomer and the men of the king’s household, he cried: ‘Keep well the Lord of the Mark, till I return. Await me at Helm’s Gate! Farewell!’

(Book III Chapter 7: Helm’s Deep)

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    I've added a quote from when Gandalf recommended they leave Edoras and hide in the hills in the first place. The plan was changed to Helm's Deep when they were already on the road.
    – Plutor
    Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 12:24
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    I cannot remember if this is part of the movie or the book, but I think someone pointed at the fact Rohirim's strength is their cavalry, they have the strongest horses and they learn to ride them as soon as they learn to walk. You cannot use horses in a siege. Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 12:46
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    I suppose Jackson thought that retreat is for cowards. He may be the one that is not a tactician.
    – Flamma
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 17:27
  • This doesn't really answer the question. Unless you count "How can you do X?" - "You can't (at least don't know how)" as an answer. Essentially, it boils down to "Peter Jackson got it wrong" or, if you translate it to in-universe, "'cause Gandalf is dumb". The reasons might be less convincing than in the book, but this answer doesn't even bother to look for them and instead piggybacks purely on dislike for the screen version.
    – Malcolm
    Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 1:24

Neither Gandalf nor Theoden wanted to fight at Edoras, in the books or movies. It is obviously indefensible. The evacuation of Edoras to Helm's Deep in response to invasion of the noncombatants is a done deal, as that is the only shelter.

What Gandalf really wanted was for Theoden to call Rohan to mobilize all its forces, so that they could eventually go on to Minas Tirith against Sauron. Theoden wasn't into that, and put his guards and himself into Helm's Deep rather than call on his subordinates for reinforcements. When Saruman's army turned out to be so huge that the fall of the Hornburg was probable, Theoden realized his mistake.

Luckily, Gandalf had gone out on his own and called up reinforcements without authority from the king. In the books, they were led by Erkenbrand, in the movie, Eomer. They drove off the orcs and salvaged the battle, which was turned into a war-winning move when the Huorns unexpectedly arrived in the rear and destroyed the Orc and Uruk-Hai contingent.

This removed the threat of Saruman, but now time was running low as Sauron was on the move and Rohan still had not collected their army together. This took some days more, and Gandalf had to ride ahead to stiffen the resistance of Minas Tirith. And (in the books) the delay was nearly fatal, as Rohan was blocked from the city and only the intervention of Ghan-buri-Ghan allowed them to bypass the roadblock. Even in the movies, you can see that it was a close run thing, as the city nearly fell. How much better would it have been to have the Riders waiting to attack the armies of Sauron crossing the river?

If Theoden had called the muster, all or some part of the Rohan forces might have been available at the Hornburg battle or Minas Tirith battle, and thus these might not have been such a close-run thing. Events and the author conspired differently.

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    I don't know, that surprise charge of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields seems to have been pretty effective...
    – Spencer
    Commented Jun 11, 2022 at 16:07

The books and the movies differ somewhat. This answer is based my understanding of medieval military strategy and what is seen in the movie.

Helm's Deep is a great fortress for defending against an assault, but against a siege it is actually pretty poor.

A besieging army can easily block all paths leading to the castle, making it impossible for the besieged to bring in new supplies or try to escape when they run out of supplies.

Furthermore there is relatively little space in the caves, diseases could become a serious issue.

Saruman was too impatient, he could pretty much have waited the enemy to death. He would of course still have to deal with the army Gandalf brings, but it should be possible to take that encounter elsewhere and thus avoid fighting against the two enemy armies at the same time.

All that said, it doesn't seem that Théoden had any great alternatives.

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    Another thing Jackson changed. In the book: "‘Behind us in the caves of the Deep are three parts of the folk of Westfold, old and young, children and women,’ said Gamling. ‘But great store of food, and many beasts and their fodder, have also been gathered there.’"
    – cjm
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 14:12
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    The caves were indeed huge – perhaps not the nicest place to sit in besieged after a while, but certainly possible and safe. — I suppose Saruman could have besieged Helm's Deep, while Sauron's army took Minas Tirith without being disturbed by nasty Ghosts/Riders... but would Saruman have been happy with that course of events? I doubt it. Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 14:19
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    @eBusiness: Yes - The caves aren't described directly but we see them through Gimi's eyes - The Glittering Caves of Aglarond (book III ch 8)
    – Joe L.
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 15:26
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    @eBusiness: [Gimli, Bk.III ch.8] ‘Strange are the ways of Men, Lego­las! 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. Aye in­deed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance!’
    – Joe L.
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 15:27
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    "The books and the movies differ somewhat." I believe the similarities end at there being a ring.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 17:54

It can be understood differently than a misunderstanding in military tactics by Gandalf or Peter Jackson altering the book.

I always thought what Gandalf wanted to say was: Grima Wormtongue should not have been let to divert Rohan from its watch, and so in normal circumstances, Eomer and his horsemen should have been there to fight the troops of Isengard in a real battle, not a siege, which is kind of a last hope.

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