The Battle of the Hornburg is over.
Among the dead is Háma, Théoden’s personal guard, his body hewn by Orcs. He is buried with honors in a shallow grave at the Hornburg. The Orcs are all dead and buried in a hill, their Huorn assailants gone by morning. The Dunlendings are given amnesty and allowed to return home following the repair of the fortress, which surprises them. They were told by Saruman that the Rohirrim would burn all survivors, a convenient bit of misdirection no doubt based on the earlier encounter with the Orcs who nabbed Merry and Pippin.
Gimli, though injured, reveals that his count bests Legolas’ by one. Though injured, Gimli cannot be held back, lamenting more that his axe has a notch in it due to the iron collar of its last victim.
As the party journeys to Isengard — not to fight, but to parlay — they pass through strange forests, which Legolas comments upon and gets Gimli talking of the beauty of caverns in reply. It seems like such an inconsequential discussion, but when you consider how important it is compared to how little graphic detail is given in the previous chapter’s combat, it’s easy to get a sense of what’s truly important to Tolkien. The natural wonders of the world hold more sway than the brief and trivial concerns of man and civilization.
The secrets of the forest become known to all as they witness the passing of Ents, the tree herders. Being only four lines, it’s not much on the surface to analyze, but click here for Christopher Lee reciting “Gandalf’s Riddle of the Ents.” What little analysis I can provide is exactly what it sounds like: the Ents are older than old. By now we readers already know this, but it’s another matter entirely for the characters to catch up.
En route, they also learn of the fate of several Riders of Rohan as Gandalf tells of the action he took during the Battle of the Hornburg.
As they reach the Misty Mountains, they discover the area known as the Wizard’s Vale is burning. There is a black liquid passing over the ground, which Gandalf says to ignore. All things considered, I’m not certain I could were I in those boots. Weirdness. Again, this section serves to illustrate Tolkien’s love of nature and how the despoiled lands mark evil. Tolkien is giving us a connection to moral good and natural beauty that’s not unlike what is found at Rivendell or Lothlórien, where the preternatural beauty outshines any darkness surrounding it. Here, the reverse is true, as we see just how far Saruman has fallen in his moral obligations, manifest in the destruction all around.
Days pass, and the party arrives at Orthanc, the tower stronghold of Saruman, now under the management of Treebeard. The group is greeted at the gates by Merry and Pippin, who surprise Théoden with their very existence. The two are lounging, smoking, and in good spirits as they as relate the history of pipeweed, of the presence of Saruman inside, along with Wormtongue, and that Fangorn (aka Treebeard) is waiting to meet with Gandalf on the northern wall.
The takeaway for me here is, yet again, Gimli, whose relief and happiness at seeing the Hobbits alive and well can scarcely be contained. With all of the grave and dire circumstance all around, the reunion of friends injects a necessary humor into the story. This is the sort of thing that keeps me coming back time and again to this tale, where many of its knock-offs would attempt to impress with unnecessary amounts of grimdark. There’s more than enough grimdark in Middle-Earth, as we have and will continue to see. Indeed, Gandalf remarks that the fullness of the evils of Sauron cannot be undone, that there shall always be reminders of it even if they are successful in their quest. But it’s the spark of hope at the character level that keeps our heroes — and the reader — going to the end.
It’s also worth the reminder in the reappearance of the Hobbits that, as Gandalf and Elrond have both remarked, the fate of Middle-Earth rests in the hands of the little folk, who largely go unnoticed. They are the most unlikely of heroes, especially in an epic setting as this. After so many chapters without word of Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin serve as touchstones to the greater quest.