Few worlds are as in depth as that of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien believed that authors had a special obligation to create worlds that were believable, that readers could invest in, that readers could get lost in. He spent most his life building the mythos of Middle Earth, such that it is perhaps the most complete fictional world ever built, while still remaining unfinished.
It's no surprise that this philosophy of storytelling is reflected in his works. It is possible to read his stories in a vacuum, to let them stand on their own feet and enjoy them as they are. It is also possible to dive deeper into the underlying lore and mythos that inform those stories. There is enough content to fill a lifetime. What follows, is the first (of probably many) explorations of that mythos.
Even casual readers of Tolkien’s works, or the Peter Jackson adaptations, are familiar with the fortress of Helm’s Deep. It is the setting of one of the central battles of The Two Towers. The Battle at Helm’s Deep, also called The Battle of the Hornburg, held significance not only in the greater struggle of the War of the Ring, but also in cementing the fledgling friendship of Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf, mending a longstanding divide between their two peoples. It also, obviously, held special significance in the history of the Rohirrim.
In order to understand the weight of both the geographical location of Helm’s Deep and the events that took place there, you first must understand the history of the area and its many peoples. Let’s set the stage.
The Dunlendings and Rohirrim:
“Riders of Rohan” you’ve heard them called. The Rohirrim were descendent of The Edain, men of the first age who allied with the Elves in the War of Wrath, the final push against the dark lord Morgoth (Melkor). In reward of their service against Morgoth The Edain were granted the island of Numenor by the Valar. Though the Edain were much appreciated by the Valar, they were forbidden to sail so far westward that Numenor was no longer visible. In this way they were kept from ever reaching the undying lands. In their frustration at what they saw as a slight upon them they sailed East, eventually spreading into Middle Earth and breaking into many factions, some of the descendants of these men would become The Rohirrim.
Likewise, the Dunlendings were also descendant of The Edain. Known also as the Wild Men of Dunland, they were shorter in stature and vicious to behold. The Dunlendings and Rohirrim were at odds in a land dispute for Calenardhon. During the Third Age, a dark plague wind came forth from Mordor causing untold death across the continent, reaching even into The Shire. The Dunlendings were impacted less than others due largely to their isolation and when the dust settled they repopulated Calenardhon.
During the Third Age, the Dunlendings were driven from Calenardhon by the men of Gondor and the lands were given to the Rohirrim in payment of their assistance in stopping an invasion of Men and Orcs from the north east. The Dunlendings didn’t take kindly to being forced from their homes. They henceforth saw the Rohirrim as usurpers to a land that was rightfully theirs.
Freca, Hammerhand, and the Long Winter:
During the reign of Helm Hammerhand, Freca was a lord of Rohan with his own plans of grandeur. When called by King Hammerhand to council, Freca arrived with a retinue of men in tow, requesting that Hammerhand marry his daughter to Freca’s son Wulf. The King declined the offer, scorning Freca before the assembled party. Freca became enraged and during the altercation, the king struck Freca with his fist so forcefully that Freca later died. The events of this day are the origin of the king’s name, Hammerhand. After Freca had died, the king declared all of Freca’s relatives enemies of the throne. Exiled, Wulf fled across the border into Dunland where he lay in wait for four years gathering his strength.
In the year 27558 of the Third Age the armies of Rohan were drawn to the east. Wulf, seeing an opportunity, brought his forces into Rohan from Isengard in the west where he killed the prince and claimed the throne of Rohan. This left King Hammerhand exiled outside his own walls. The situation was compounded by the effects of an unusually long and harsh winter which buried Rohan in snow for the better part of five months. Unable to return and reclaim his throne, Hammerhand and his people took refuge in the Hornburg where they survived the long winter. During this time, Hammerhand would often sneak out under the cover of winter, dressed all in white, blow his horn, and kill the enemy troops with his famed bare hands. On one particular excursion, Hammerhand blew his horn, but when his men came to find him, he was dead, standing upright in the snow.
Despite the death of the king, the Rohirrim survived the Long Winter in the refuge of the keep. Thereafter it was known as the Hornburg and the surrounding valley called Helm’s Deep in remembrance of their fallen king. During the Long Winter Hammerhand’s two sons also perished, once the snow had retreated, Helm’s successor, his nephew Frealaf Hildeson, made his way back to Edoras, slayed Wulf, and took back Rohan.
The Battle of the Hornburg and The War of the Ring:
This brings us to the portion of the tale most of you are familiar with, The Battle of the Hornburg, more popularly called the Battle of Helm’s Deep. On the evening of March 3, T.A. 3019 Theoden led the army of Rohan toward the Fords of Isen to fight the forces of Saruman who at this point had been revealed as an ally to Sauron. While on the way, they received word of defeat at the Fords and changed course toward Helm’s Deep. Shortly thereafter Saruman’s forces, comprised of orcs, his specialized Uruk-hai, and Dunlendings arrived and began their attack on the keep.
Though Theoden’s forces, which included members of The Fellowship, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, were vastly outnumbered, the keep’s incredible architecture kept the enemy forces at bay for a time. Saruman however, had no intention of fighting a fair fight, he employed machines of war and explosives that allowed his forces to breach the wall, forcing the Rohirrim and their allies to retreat to the Glittering Caves.
Just then, the horn from which the Hornburg gains its name sounded. Aragorn and Theoden lead a push back into the enemy forces. Just then, Galdalf arrived with reinforcements and when the invaders turned to run, they found their way blocked by Huorns, a sort of semi-sentient trees perhaps related to the Ents, able to move of their own accord but without true sentience. Having seen Gandalf the Dunlendings gave up the fight and were given amnesty in exchange for giving up any future hostilities with Rohan. Thus ended the ages long rivalry between the descendants of The Edain and solidified the importance of Helm’s Deep and the Hornburg in the history of Middle Earth.