The Riders of Rohan depart for the Fords of Isen, while a great heaviness grows in the air. As they ride, Legolas perceives a cloud rising from Isengard but cannot explain it. Before they reach the ford, a messenger warns of a vast army on the way, so they turn aside to the fortress of Helm's Deep. Gandalf rides off alone to gather news and men while the army defends the fortress, which has never fallen. Thousands of orcs besiege the Deep. Aragorn and Éomer fight bravely at the gates, while Legolas and Gimli compete to see who can kill more orcs. The fighting is hard but not hopeless, until an explosion blows a hole in the wall and orcs overrun the defenses. Théoden resolves to make a desperate charge. As he rides out at dawn, the orc-host discovers a mysterious wood has sprung up behind them. Then Gandalf arrives with more men. Attacked from two sides, the orcs flee into the trees, never to be seen again.
With the battle ended, Gandalf leads Théoden, along with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, to Isengard. As they ride, Gimli describes the marvelous caves behind Helm's Deep, and he agrees to visit Fangorn with Legolas if the elf will visit the caves. When Ents appear, Théoden marvels that children's stories have come to life. The trees depart Helm's Deep and leave behind two mounds over the buried orcs. The king's party passes a pillar with a white hand, now thrown down, and are amazed to find the walls of Isengard in shambles. On a pile of rubble next to the gate, they find Merry and Pippin eating, drinking wine, and smoking Longbottom Leaf from the Shire. The hobbits send Gandalf and Théoden on to Treebeard, but Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli stay to talk to their friends.
The Ents had attacked Isengard as soon as the army set out for Helm's Deep, and Treebeard and the others quickly reduced the walls to rubble. From Orthanc, his tower, Saruman sent fires out of the ground to burn the Ents, but they diverted the river Isen and drowned the entire area. Saruman is now trapped in the tower, which the Ents cannot damage. Gandalf arrived in the night to ask for the trees to be sent to Helm's Deep, much to the hobbits' surprise. The next day Wormtongue arrived, dismayed by the destruction, but Treebeard allowed him to join Saruman in the tower. Merry and Pippin found a stash of food and pipeweed in the guardhouse and took up their post to await the return of Gandalf with the king.
After lunch, the friends join Gandalf and Théoden to confront Saruman. Gandalf warns them that Saruman's voice can enchant, so they must be wary. Saruman appears in a robe of rainbow colors, and he speaks so reasonably and fairly that everyone feels sorry for him, forgetting that he attacked first. The watchers expect Théoden to side with Saruman, but the king resists the spell. Gandalf offers Saruman a chance to repent and go free, but the wizard's pride refuses. Gandalf breaks his staff and with it the spell of his voice. Wormtongue throws a crystal ball at Saruman's head, missing completely, which Pippin fetches before it rolls into the water. Gandalf quickly takes it, remarking that the stone is probably the most valuable item in Orthanc. As they leave Isengard, Gandalf asks the Ents to watch Saruman and continue flooding the valley.
On the ride back to Edoras, Pippin becomes obsessed with looking again at the stone from Isengard. He steals it from Gandalf that night and uncovers it. When he cries out and collapses, Gandalf revives him and interrogates him. The stone, known as a palantìr, allows communication across distances, and Pippin found himself speaking to the Dark Lord himself. Fortunately, Sauron did not learn of Frodo's quest because he assumed that Pippin is the Ringbearer and is imprisoned in Orthanc. Gandalf leaves the stone with Aragorn and rides immediately with Pippin to Minas Tirith.
Armies clash for the first time in the trilogy at Helm's Deep. The battle marks a transition in Middle-earth: the Rohirrim, fighting from their previously impregnable fortress, use traditional weapons, including swords, bows, and, when possible, their horses, but Saruman has fielded a modern army. The explosives that take down the Deeping Wall appear to be the first use of gunpowder in Middle-earth, and along with Saruman's new super-breed of orc soldier, the hybrid Uruk-hai, constitute a new, industrial, and highly destructive mode of combat. The Rohirrim prevail, but the high cost dramatizes the cost of waging modern warfare.
Tolkien uses a flashback to describe the fall of Isengard, shifting the narrative away from the third person to the voices of the hobbits. The little people have moved away from the center of the narrative — Frodo and Sam have not made an appearance yet in this book — and the technique gives them some voice. This comes at the expense of pacing, because a flashback tends to slow the storyline down, even if it describes an exciting conflict.
For the first time since Gandalf described his imprisonment at the Council of Elrond, Saruman appears, garbed in his robe of splintered color. Saruman tries to tempt his audience; the power of his Voice is the power of seduction, telling each what he most wants to hear, convincing each to accept its twisted reasoning as his own. The most dangerous evils in Tolkien's world are not the orcs, who are visibly deformed and repulsive, but the evils that insinuate themselves through a false appearance of reason. Only when Gandalf strips Saruman of illusion do the onlookers see him truly: corrupt and twisted.
dotard a senile person.
embroiled involved in conflict.
gibbet gallows; scaffolding for hanging criminals.
palantìr one of eight crystal balls, linked to each other, that enable communication across great distances.