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Saruman isn't stupid. In fact, he's called Saruman the Wise, so he must have known a thing or two about strategy. In the Battle of Helm's Deep/Battle of the Hornburg, according to this wiki, 10 000 Uruk-Hai, 5 000 Orcs and 5 000 Dunlendings fought against around 2 000 soldiers (who probably weren't even trained to fight in the siege). This looks like a lost battle to me, especially if we assume that this enormous battle of fierce Uruk-Hai were led by Saruman the Wise. How could he lose?

I'm reading the book in English, and it isn't my native language, so I might have misunderstood something simple. Could someone help me understand what's led to this crushing defeat of Isengard? At which point the tables have turned?

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    He may be wise but he still used a sledgehammer to open that can of humans. Can't expect more from that tool... – Raphael Nov 27 '14 at 14:08
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    Note that he isn't called "Saruman the General" – Oldcat Dec 4 '14 at 18:30
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    In addition to the other answers, a siege is always harder for the attackers than the defenders, at least in a very short siege like this. Saruman is wise, but he has also fallen under Sauron's corrupting influence. His mind has been perverted and he isn't thinking as clearly as he should be. – Wad Cheber May 11 '15 at 21:56
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    Because even when disadvantaged, good overcomes evil. – Paul Draper Dec 9 '15 at 18:35

10 Answers 10

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The defenders had a bunch of things going for them. First, they had nowhere to run. This is the situation Sun Zu called Desperate or Death Ground. "死地則戰" or "on desperate ground, fight". A shaky army, such as made of civilian militia, may fight ferociously if they have no other hope. This is part of Theoden's gambit of taking his people to Helm's Deep. Prior to going to Helm's Deep, they are on "dispersive ground"; they may run to defend their individual homes, or think they can scatter and hide. Once at Helm's Deep (desperate ground) they cannot run, and if they surrender they will be slaughtered. They must fight.

The defenders were behind extremely good fortifications and they were very old. Old things, in Tolkien's world, are much better than new things.

The defenders knew the terrain very well. While Saruman might know the terrain generally, his armies would not.

The defenders had time to set up defenses and traps.

There was just one way in, and it was narrow, creating a bottleneck which greatly reduces the advantage of the attacker's numbers and greatly concentrates the defenders. And it was open, creating a killing ground. This is Sun Tzu's "hemmed-in ground" where "a small number of [defenders] would suffice to crush a large body of [attackers]".


The attackers had disadvantages. The obvious disadvantage was attacking an extremely well built fixed fortification down a narrow bottleneck.

They had to march a very long way with siege equipment and immediately enter battle. Despite Tolkien's depictions of huge feats of endurance, these are not the heroes. Many a battle has been lost by an army showing up exhausted.

The attackers were divided and contentious, held together by a hatred of the Rohirrim, a love of plunder and Saruman's will. Orcs of various tribes and varieties, trolls, humans and who knows what else. "Give me allies to fight against", attributed to Napoleon, meaning allied armies will prove quarrelsome and poorly coordinated and apt to splinter when the going got tough.

This leads to further problems for Saruman. The bottleneck could have been used to their advantage, they could have blockaded the fortress and starved the defenders out. Instead, they attack in haste. Tactically, it is a mistake to make a frontal assault on a strong defensive position. Strategically, Saruman had little choice; it is unlikely he could have held his army together for a boring siege of many months with little fighting or plunder.

Morale-wise, the attackers were in the opposite situation of the defenders. They were in strange territory. They were fighting for conquest and plunder, not defending their homes. They had a long, vulnerable supply line behind them. They had the option to simply walk away from the fight (until the Huorns show up).

Finally, Saruman may be The Wise, but that does not make him a great commander. He is an amateur and makes amateur mistakes. He has no trained command staff to advise him and point out flaws in his plans, instead he has sycophants like Wormtongue and obedient servants who would not dare question him. He is not a military leader, and would not have the experience to successfully lead troops into pitched battles. He has disdain for his soldier's abilities, confidence in his superior numbers, and will happily throw them away rather than use good tactics. Saruman continuously demonstrates contempt for his enemies and arrogance in his superiority.

I may be mistaken on this as it's been a while since I've read the books, Saruman commits a classic blunder and is absent from the battle. He is not there to exert his will on his squabbling armies and shore up their morale. He is not there to personally observe the battle moment to moment and make the necessary small adjustments. Many a battle has been lost by absentee commanders interfering using out of date or incorrect information.


As it turns out, the reckless, frontal assault does its job. Rather than a weeks long slog, the walls are breached quickly (I don't recall how many days) and the defenders are forced to their last bastion and must use their last reserve. Theoden's ride is a desperate last attempt to push the attackers back. Even if successful, it would have left them exposed on all sides and slaughtered. With their leader dead, their best troops dead, their defenses breached, the battle would have been lost.

Two things save the day. Saruman's army is surrounded by the Huorns. No army likes to be surrounded in the open, never knowing which way the attack may come. They like it even less if they're surrounded by an army of creepy, vengeful trees. This shakes their morale. They've already taken great casualties. Some will question why they are here.

The second is Gandalf's attack on their exposed flank at just the right moment. The attackers are entirely oriented toward Helm's Deep, and are totally exposed. This is a massive failure of scouting on Saruman's part, a classic mistake of inexperienced or overconfident generals who think the enemy is incapable of a counter attack.

In warfare, to win a battle you do not need to kill the enemy, you only need to break their morale. The attackers are surrounded deep in enemy territory. They are divided in their purpose. They have taken huge casualties. The defenders they thought were on their knees have now counter attacked. And now a fresh army appears on their flank. Once a few start to run, the rest will go quickly. Their morale cracks and they flee.


Many parallels can be drawn to The Battle Of Stalingrad. This featured a superior army attacking deep into enemy territory lead by an interfering and overconfident amateur (Hitler) to attempt a rapid assault of a heavily defended position (Stalingrad) for political rather than military reasons. The defenders cannot retreat, they have their backs to the River Volga and there are no further natural barriers. There is nothing else to stop the Germans. The day is saved by Operation Uranus, the massive Soviet attack on the weak German flanks; an attack Hitler (though not his generals) thought the Soviets incapable of. The attackers become surrounded and destroyed.

Another is the defense of the Mannerheim Line during the Finnish/Soviet Winter War. The tiny Finnish army, made up of mostly reservists but with a very professional core, excellent leaders, and good defensive positions, holds off an enormous and lavishly equipped Soviet army of ill-trained soldiers and incompetent and unimaginative commanders who are forced to fight in bad terrain and bottlenecks. Unfortunately for the Finns, Gandalf does not appear, and there is no flank attack to save the day.

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    This is an incredibly in-depth analysis of battles in general, I like how you mentioned the Huorns and Stalingrad in one answer. – Joe Nov 26 '14 at 10:23
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    +!: I wish I could vote this up more than once. Excellent analysis, thanks. – Binary Worrier Nov 26 '14 at 13:06
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    @Schwern also add the battle of Thermopylae where 7000 held up an army of 100,000 - 150,000 which is even closer to the type of weapons used in LOTR ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Thermopylae ) – Halfwarr Nov 29 '14 at 2:40
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    "Unfortunately for the Finns, Gandalf does not appear, [...]" - a fate shared by many an army through the years. – zenzelezz Dec 26 '14 at 11:51
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    He directly controlled the birds that were watching the Gap of Rohan and reporting to roving patrols. Gandalf several times indicated magical opposition at every turn. Saruman incited the storm giants on the top of Caradras at the moment it meant the most. The palantir was a 2-way device, communicating more than information. We see that when Aragorn interacts with it, and when the father of Faramir self-immolates. Gandalf himself longed to see the mind of Faramir in the crafting of the Palantiri. – EngrStudent - Reinstate Monica May 1 '15 at 19:07
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The battle was all but lost until Gandalf turned up with the forest of Huorns, who proceeded to swallow up the Orcs altogether and scare the Dunlendings into surrender.

The defenders themselves had no hope that they would win: Theoden remarks before setting out that it "seems like to be my last riding", is he would probably be killed.

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    +1, and also: "The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness". – user8719 Nov 24 '14 at 18:16
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    +1, and also they we crushed between Theoden's charge and the Rohirrim & Huorns, so they were basically surrounded. That seems fairly demoralizing to me. – James Khoury Nov 25 '14 at 5:29
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    Also remember that Tolkien just doesn't like orcs. The Uruk-hai could break into the Hornburg because of their courage and determination. However, Tolkien was never going to give them the time of day, let alone a fabulous party featuring Isengard-style BBQ of Aragorn, Eomer, Legolas and all your favorite characters. He's not George R.R. Martin. – La-comadreja Nov 25 '14 at 16:34
  • Just remember one thing, while Orcs can be wise, they arn't very bright. – Virusboy Nov 25 '14 at 22:12
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    @La-comadreja - I think that's Tolkien's way of saying, "Orcs have survived to the present day". :-) – Bob Jarvis Nov 26 '14 at 12:47
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The odds could have gone both ways

Looking at historical examples, 10-to-1 numerical advantage when assaulting a fortress (without heavy artillery or air support) is a reasonable match with no clearly guaranteed results - if everything else is equal, then it's a good advantage for the attacker but usually everything else is not equal it all comes down to how good are the individual units (which usually is a subjective comparison) and how the fight strategies succeed.

In such cases it's likely that before the fight both parties have wildly different expectations about their odds, especially as they lack solid information about the opponent and misinformation is commonly used, so only in the actual fight they find out who's right. And, of course, luck also plays a part - with such odds as described there is never a sure winner.

Assaulting a fortress with 2-to-1 or even 3-to-1 advantage would generally be considered futile and succeed only in very favorable circumstances; and even extreme advantages such as 100-to-1 don't guarantee success, as even such cases have historically been solved by sieges, not by a successful assault.

Bookmakers probably weren't giving favorable odds for Saruman losing this fight, but it should not have seemed totally improbable.

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    this is a very interesting approach for answering the question. However, do you have specific historical examples to back up your assertions? What are your thoughts about the relative strengths of the specific parties? – La-comadreja Nov 25 '14 at 3:02
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    @La-comadreja: I'd be interested to hear about any medieval assault where a fortress has fallen to an attack that didn't have heavy artillery, without resorting to either siege or coup de main (sneaking in at night, treason, exploiting a structural weakness). I don't know of a single case where "storming the walls" has succeeded. (Not saying there wasn't any, just saying that I'd like to know about it.) – DevSolar Nov 25 '14 at 8:16
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    @DevSolar Have a look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Kenilworth - Siege of Kenilworth castle with approx 1200 defenders against the army of Henry III of England. The assaults failed for 6 months, with the castle only being surrendered due to lack of provisions. There are other examples. Sieges were difficult even with huge numbers. – Kami Nov 25 '14 at 9:32
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    @Kami: That's a victory by siege, of which there are many in history. I asked for an example of a successful assault. – DevSolar Nov 25 '14 at 10:05
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    @Taemyr I disagree - The British Assault on Ahmednuggur? Widely regarded as the strongest fortress in India (and, in fact, almost two fortresses in one). Assaulted by Sir Arthur Wellesley's army almost immediately after they arrived in the area using only ladders and taken. There were approx 1,000 defenders and 10,000 in the attacking army (of whom not all took part in the assault) – Jon Story Nov 26 '14 at 10:35
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Well I was thinking about this (and obviously kept reading the book) and I came up with my own hypothesis. Maybe we're forgetting about the most important thing: the ring.

We know that Saruman sent the group of orcs to kidnap the hobbits, and throughout the book we often read that Saruman has his spies everywhere (ravens, wolves etc) so he probably knew about the successful capture and assumed that those hobbits had the ring.

Then the orcs carrying the hobbits were slain near Fangorn by Rohan horsemen, and there was no trace of hobbits, so from Saruman's point of view it was obvious that Rohan now is in the possession of the precious ring. His spies (Wormtongue perhaps) told him that Rohan marched to Helm's Deep - a perfect place to hide the ring and study its power. This would explain the haste Saruman was in. He was afraid that if the siege took too long, then the defenders would learn the secrets of the ring and turn its power against Saruman.

Since we know that Saruman was obsessed with the ring, I think this isn't such a far-fetched theory. He was so sure of the power it would bring to him, that we would sacrifice all of his army just to get it.

  • Interesting hypothesis. However, Saruman wouldn't have known about the capture of the 2 Hobbits, since at the end of Chapter 3 of The Two Towers it says that word does not reach Isengard. – La-comadreja Nov 25 '14 at 15:40
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    @La-comadreja "So ended the raid, and no news of it came ever back either to Mordor or to Isengard; but the smoke of the burning rose high to heaven and was seen by many watchful eyes". Kind of implies that the enemy could guess what's happened and feared the worst. – Dunno Nov 25 '14 at 16:10
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For someone called "the Wise", Saruman certainly made a great deal of stupid decisions, possibly starting with "Hey, the One Ring corrupts absolutely everyone who tries to use it, and actively works to ruin whoever wears it in order to get back to Sauron, but surely if I get my hands on it first I'll be just fine. Perfect plan!"

Gandalf even alleges to this in a conversation that isn't in the movie but is in the books (and is partially quoted here):

"For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!"

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

"I liked white better," I said.

' "White!" he sneered. "It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken."

' "In which case it is no longer white," said I. "And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."

(Whether this is an entirely fair argument -- a great deal of science, biology, engineering and philosophy involves taking things apart to see what they're made of and how they work, for instance -- could be an interesting discussion, but since we're talking about this in the context of Tolkien's writing it's not relevant; it's a direct warning from Gandalf to Saruman that he's being dangerously unwise)

And like most of the other answers here already point out, even if you are a genius at one thing, or even several things, does not mean you are a genius at all things. I admire Picasso's work and find his approach to life interesting. I have nothing but respect for Isaac Newton, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, but I wouldn't expect any of them to lead an army to victory in the same way that I wouldn't expect Sun Tzu to successfully conceive and perform a groundbreaking open-heart surgery.

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    Arguably, his worst mistake was ordering the orcs to harvest unsustainable numbers of trees. The catastrophe with the Ents/Huorns was entirely avoidable and they were instrumental in both prongs of his defeat. (If the orc army were allowed to flee to Isengard after the battle, they might have had another chance to assault the Hornburg and possibly maintain a siege.) It seems his overconfidence led him to underestimate Fangorn forest's power. – La-comadreja Nov 26 '14 at 16:08
  • @La-comadreja: he probably needed a lot of wood for fuel... being a wizard doesn't mean you can violate conservation of energy, Gandalf explicitly states so on Caradhras: "'If Gandalf would go before us with a bright flame, he might melt a path for you,' said Legolas. ... 'If elves could fly over mountains, they might fetch the sun to save us,' answered Gandalf. 'But I must have something to work on. I cannot burn snow.'". — What Saruman should at least have avoided is to let orcs just hew trees down and leave them dying, as Quickbeam laments. – leftaroundabout Nov 27 '14 at 22:16
  • @leftaroundabout, the majority of trees were actually used for what the Ents called a poor excuse. However, there are lots of ways to be energy efficient and Saruman doesn't seem to have cared about these. – La-comadreja Nov 28 '14 at 17:29
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    He should have had the orcs mine coal. "Coal Ents", if they exist at all, wouldn't have arms and legs to destroy his army. – Oldcat Dec 4 '14 at 18:19
  • not clear if there was coal around. but he could have obtained fuel from a pillage of the surrounding areas, while besieging the Hornburg. – La-comadreja Dec 5 '14 at 19:14
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It's not just about the number of soldiers.

There is a famous battle that is celebrated each year among the French foreign legion. It is the Camerone battle. In 1863, 62 soldiers from the French foreign legion were trapped in a building in a small village and were being attacked by 2000 Mexican soldiers. They resisted during one full day, with nothing to eat, no water to drink, and they were fighting under extreme heat.

That is 1 legionnaire against 32 soldiers in average (and in extreme weather conditions) !! They surrendered when they were 6 soldiers left. This was a real battle that happened for real, not a book or a movie.

Winning a battle is not just about sending a big troup of soldiers straight to the ennemies. In the battle of Helm, after several hours of fighting, when Gandalf and the knights arrive, fresh and a morale at their top, and attack Saruman's army from the side, Saruman's army has no chance. They have to fight on one hand against one army which still has the advantage of being in height, on another hand, at the same time, one army which is fresh, rested and motivated on another side. No chance !

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I agree broadly with the above answers, but I'm surprised to not see so clearly the role the Ents and Huorns (let's call them generically 'the Forest') play on Saruman's demise.

So, let me state it: Saruman lost because he despised the Forest and the Forest eventually took revenge. This is the case on Helm's Deep and too on the final fall of Isengard on which the Ents destroyed everithing on the valley and disbanded the whole of Saruman's army.

And this makes a lot of sense considering Tolkien's 'deification' of nature or perhaps 'devotion to ecology' as we could name it today. Remember Saruman is a wizard that has lost any common sense and has gone so far as to consider himself capable of tricking men, being above Nature and even above the divine powers that invested him. And it has a lot of meaning for the story that these are the instruments for his fall: it all begins when king Theoden bans his spy from his court, the Ents ruin his army and his land and Gandalf strips him of his staff and powers. And, as a final insult, the one who finally kills Saruman is despicable Wormtongue. If you ask me which could be the most ill-fated character on the story, the title would go to poor old Saruman.

  • That's why he lost the war, but not the battle of Helm's Deep. – Oldcat Dec 4 '14 at 18:24
  • Yes, without Fangorn Forest Theoden could have disbanded Saruman's army, but then the orcs could have struck back shortly later, so I agree with you. But my point was more that, being a work of fiction, the symbolic aspects are so significative as logical ones. So it's ok to consider number of soldiers, height position, etc, but also the story elements behind the two factions. I just wanted to point this out, on the line that @Aith does too on his answer. – LoRaier Dec 10 '14 at 7:05
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A different take on the question—Saruman had to lose because of Tolkien's views on what constitutes a "Fairy Story."

In Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories", he defined the genre as one in which the stories have "the Happy Ending":

I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it...Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairystory...I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function...The joy of the happy ending...is not essentially “escapist”...[but] In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf

Tolkien's argument is quite powerful—although many bad "fairy stories" have been written, all moods and feelings should remain within the provenance of good art.

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There are many historical examples of vastly outnumbered forces withstanding siege and assault for long duration behind fortification, for example it took a 10,000ish man Mexican army 13 days to defeat less than 200 Texans at the Alamo and that was a half built mission converted to a fort.

The 300 Spartans, aided greatly by geography and the technological advantage of spears that were 4ft longer than their enemies' spears, withstood an army of 1,000,000 (let's face it probably only 100 or 200k but legendarily that large) long enough for Athens and other cities to evacuate and their armies to mobilize and move out of the way of the invading horde and invite them into a region in which they could be cut off from supplies by the Greeks' superior naval forces.

Also as is written in Tolkien's other writings and expanded upon by his son, Saruman was never greater than Gandalf (the Maia Olorin) and if allowed to maintain power would feed an evil line much like the Sith in Star Wars (Morgoth trained/corrupted the Maia Sauron who in turn was doing so to Saruman or, as was described in histories of Middle-Earth, Saruman was simply Sauron's man) and in continuing the master/apprentice role Saruman already had Grima Wormtongue who had eyes on the throne of Rohan.

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I would like to propose that winning or losing the battle at Helm's Deep cannot be looked at in a 'logical' and 'rational' matter.

Rather, the answer is likely found through inferences and from what is suggested by the books is that Saruman's defeat came around because he underestimated (Gandalf) and because good is supposed to ultimately triumph over evil as was shown in the major case of 'deus ex machina' or, 'god from a machine' moment (when Gandalf made his appearance on the battlefield and scared everyone away).

I will quote an answer I gave in another related question about Gandalf breaking Saruman's staff because I believe it is relevant in explaining how Saruman with his enormous army could be defeated (link to quoted answer and the question HERE):

===========

In the books, it is very heavily and even directly implied that the breaking of another Wizard's staff is both a show of another Wizard's authority and a symbol of the 'bad' Wizard's expulsion from both the order and the Council.

In The Two Towers, Gandalf says to Saruman (Houghton Mifflin, paperback, p. 569):

...'Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no color now, and I cast you from your order and from the Council.'

He raised his hand, and spoke in a clear cold voice. 'Saruman, your staff is broken.'

Bearing this in mind, Gandalf was specifically given power and duty in the book as part and parcel to his resurrection to cast Saruman out of his order and the Council and part of that power included the hand-in-hand destruction of Saruman's staff.

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The bolded part is especially important for this discussion.

Gandalf was brought back to life with one of his duties being the casting out of Saruman.

Given that Helm's Deep was all about Saruman's forces - his orcs and Uruk-hai, his planning, banners and insignias bearing the White Hand - Gandalf the White (resurrected) bringing back his own small army of the Rohan riders to aid in the battle of Helm's Deep could be seen as another attempt to 'cast out' Saruman from his position of power.

In the same way that he was able to cast out Saruman from his position and remove him from the council, he was able to similarly terrify and 'cast out' the minions of Saruman on the battlefield.

It isn't that Saruman lost because he was a horrible leader; as we all know, the army WITHOUT Gandalf involved was certainly about to be overrun by Saruman's army.

Rather, he lost because he underestimated what Gandalf could do (and would be given power to do), what the halflings could do unwittingly (Ents/Fanghorn), and because according to those who sent Gandalf back from the dead, Saruman needed to be punished for his treachery - once good/White and becoming bad - and therefore lost to Gandalf who was sent back to cast him out of power.

If Gandalf the White was able to break Saruman's staff and throw him out of power despite him originally being supposedly 'weaker' in color than Saruman (originally Grey while Saruman was White), it would make sense to say that Gandalf the White and his own army would be able to overcome Saruman (who wasn't even on the battlefield to 'battle' against Gandalf) and his army.

  • I disagree - the battle of Helm's deep is a classic siege. The defenders held out until a relief army arrived and broke the siege. Even the Ent army wasn't required to win the battle, as Saruman's army likely would not have rallied very soon with Saruman absent. The Huorns just made the casualties higher and left the army of Rohan free to ride to Gondor. – Oldcat Dec 4 '14 at 18:23

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