A tall figure loomed up and stumbled over [Merry], cursing the tree-roots. He recognized the voice of the Marshal, Elfhelm. ‘I am not a tree-root, Sir,’ he said, ‘nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit. The least you can do in amends is to tell me what is afoot.’
The Lord of the Rings doesn’t give us much on the mighty, mysterious Horse-lord called Elfhelm. He is mostly remembered because of his peculiar name, Elfhelm, a bold choice for a mortal Man of Rohan. Those who don’t know any better might scoff, yet even the loremasters are left scratching their heads on this one. What we do know is that Elfhelm battles with his kinfolk at Helm’s Deep, travels through the Drúadan Forest, then leads a group of riders to glory in the epic Battle of Pelennor Fields. Afterwards, King Éomer grants him his own title, Marshal of the East-mark.
As a card, Elfhelm has been around for a while, first as an ally and now as the heroic linchpin of emerging “Mount Decks”. Is there more to know about our newest hero on horseback? By riding on into the Unfinished Tales and beyond, we learn a great deal more about his bravery and prowess, and why he has such a funny name. Mount up! Let us charge together in search of Elfhelm!
EXPLORE THE LORE
Elfhelm is one of those tertiary characters who could easily fall into the background. These types of characters are a large part of the texture that makes The Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion to an extent, so appealing. They are the questions, with or without answers, that point to the wider scope and history of the world; background characters populating the land, but still with lives and stories of their own. Elfhelm is first mentioned in passing by Gandalf. The White Wizard describes his machinations to Théoden King after the battle at Helm’s Deep:
Some men I sent with Grimbold of Westfold to join Erkenbrand. Some I set to make this burial. They have now followed your marshal, Elfhelm. I sent him with many Riders to Edoras.
These were the Rohirrim that Gandalf found in the interim between the Battles of the Fords of Isen and Helm’s Deep. The Fords are another scene in the periphery of Rings, but expanded upon in Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. That story describes the treachery of Saruman fully unleashed in a gambit meant to take out Théodred, son of Théoden. While he hands out resources as a go-to Leadership hero in our game, in Tolkien’s tales Théodred was a doughty and fierce captain and, along with his cousin Éomer, the single greatest threat to the White Wizard’s advance. In the unfinished tale set prior to Lord of the Rings, we learn that Théodred, as marshal of the West-mark, kept an ever vigilant watch on Isengard and all its doings. When scouts reported a force mustering at its gates, the young prince sent word for reinforcements and sallied forth to hold the Fords, the natural boundary between Rohan and Isengard.
Armies clashed around the islet on February 25, 3019. Middle-earth historians would mark this day as the first battle the great War of the Ring. In the fighting, the soldiers of the White Hand were specifically instructed to find and kill King Théoden’s son at all costs. In spite of the best efforts his lieutenants, Théodred was mortally wounded. Standing over his fallen captain, Grimbold defended Théodred. When it seemed his forces were not enough, that Rohan would lose the Fords outright, Elfhelm arrived with three companies of Riders, slaying the Isengarders and retaking the Ford. This was the first direct blow in armed combat of Isengard against Rohan, to disastrous results. The aftermath was even shot for the extended edition of the Two Towers film:
The protruding difference is that Théodred was not removed to be buried in Edoras,. Instead, his dying wish was this: “Let me lie here – to keep the Fords till Éomer comes!” Though I suppose they circumvented that charge by sending Éomer to collect his fallen cousin, rather than Elfhelm and Grimbold, and then Gandalf. The more accurate part is when Théoden is pressed to defend the land, and Grima disallows it through his treachery. In any case, there is a second skirmish at the Fords. Warg riders and mounted Dunlendings and Uruks strike by night and the Rohirrim, including Elfhelm, are driven off to be intercepted by Gandalf. The majority of those veterans are sent to bolster the effort at Helm’s Deep, and arrive with Erkenbrand in his glorious, eucatastrophic route, a moment gifted to Éomer in the films.
But had Elfhelm and Grimbold not remained at the Fords, the armies of Saruman would have swept through Rohan sooner, leaving Edoras wide open to attack. Had they not boldly stamped out the enemy in the first battle, the momentum of Isengard might well have rendered the arrival of Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas at the Golden Hall too late.
So, Elfhelm rides to defend Edoras while Helm’s Deep is rocked by battle. Soon after, the Muster begins and all able Riders make for Gondor. It is at this point that the Marshal Elfhelm gets more face time in the books, and emerges as more than just a name in the background. He is there with Théoden as he negotiates with Ghân-buri-Ghân and, more importantly, leads a full éored into the flanks at the battle of Pelennor Fields. “Elfhelm, lead your company to the right when we pass the wall!” ordered the King. This moment is the inspiration for his hero card, the flavor text of which taken directly from the battle itself:
Ahead nearer the walls Elfhelm’s men were among the siege-engines, hewing, slaying, driving their foes into the fire-pits.
In short, the fearsome Marshal comes to kill orcs and chew bubblegum, then promptly runs out of gum. Thanks to his efforts, and those of many other illustrious heroes, the day is won, and the combines hosts of Mordor, Harad, and Umbar are destroyed.
Part of the gamble involved in cutting through the Drúadan Forest was leaving Rohan open to attack from a smaller force from Mordor sent to burn and pillage. When the larger battle was won, and the siege of Gondor lifted, cleanup was left to none other than Elfhelm. He was lent 3,000 Riders to fly northwest, back to Rohan, to eliminate the threat of rovers now cutoff from their army. As we learn in The Last Debate: “the main strength of the Rohirrim that remained horsed and able to fight, some three thousand under the command of Elfhelm, should waylay the West Road against the enemy that was in Anórien”. Indeed, he was successful, and for his valor both there and at Pelennor, Éomer King created a new title for the brave leader: Marshal of the East-mark. Previously tied to Edoras in the military organization of the Rohirrim, Elfhelm became the first in a new organization of the top ranks of the Riders. One can easily imagine him riding forth with Éomer King of the Mark, and King Elessar of the Reunited Kingdom, on one of their many ventures south and east, routing out the last vestiges of darkness from Middle-earth in the Fourth Age of the Sun.
That name, though. Taken literally, the name is obvious: a helmet having something to do with elves. But there’s a little more to it than that. First, as has been mentioned here and in other, perhaps more scholarly work, the Rohirrim are heavily based upon the historical Anglo-Saxons of the Middle Ages. They’ve been called the Old English on horses many times, and much of their culture reflects this parallel, names and language in particular. For example, the Old English word of horse is “eoh”, which becomes the root of many Rohirric words like éored, or a company of riders. Many of the names are taken directly from Anglo-Saxon. Eorl, as in Eorl the Young, is simply the word for “earl”, or leader. Then there’s Elfhelm.
Though we are a few centuries removed from our Old English speaking counterparts, many terms remain familiar. Helm is one of these. Elf is too, though we changed the spelling and pronunciation a bit, cutting it down from “ælf”. Don’t forget that “elf”, up until Tolkien, was synonymous with faeries and sprites, rather than the lanky, moody Eldar we know and love. Ælfhelm was, in fact, a very popular name back in the olden days, at least according to Ann Williams of the University of East Anglia. The most well-known and documented is one Ælfhelm of York, who lived over a thousand years ago. Even under such parallels, the name can still be taken literally. Maybe Elfhelm owned a helmet that used to belong to an elf. Interesting as that might be, it’s probably not the most accurate interpretation, given the historical backdrop. For, you see, “helm” doesn’t just mean “helmet”, but also suggest protection. So “Ælfhelm” could have its roots in a title for someone who was believed to be protected from or by elves, as is suggested here in The True Elves of Europe. Or the name could be a wish that the child will be protected by elves. It could also mean protection against magic, as the terms are often synonymous, and certainly the Rohirrim held their fair share of superstitions surrounding the Fair Folk.
Whatever Tolkien’s intention, the name is rife with meaning, as are most names in Middle-earth. The Marshal of the East-mark certainly seems to be charmed in some way, to have achieved such success in the many battles of the War of the Ring.
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
Sergey Glushakov, a young artist from Belarus who has done a lot of work for both The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones, did an outstanding job in creating a Horse Lord of renown in the art he produced for Elfhelm’s hero card. My only complaint is that it seems to be one of those pieces that the card formatting hinder. We don’t get much of the detail of the character or the breadth of the scene he’s been put in. There are trees and he’s mounted; a clear sign that the artist was probably depicting the journey through the Drúadan Forest. His armor is richly detailed, his face is determined, and there is battle ahead.
But, we can’t avoid Magali’s bright and mysterious art for the ally version, which was released as part of The Dead Marshes pack. For some, the scene may be too dramatic, too alike her elves. But the effect is undeniable.
DISCUSS THE CARD
Elfhelm effectively creates a new deck type with his global boost to all mounted heroes. It’s not a groundbreaker, but it has the potential for greatness. There are a good number of mounts in the game already, and the concept will be expanded in future packs, so I’m excited to see which direction this horsey goodness will take us. I’ve created a deck here that takes a tri-sphere mount deck that Beorn created, and pushes it into support territory. Having two Leadership heroes, including Theodred, means more money to go around and effectively speeds the deck up. Then we distribute the horses, focus on pumping up Theoden King, and have a good time.
Since we’re using songs, the sideboard includes Tactics mounts to distribute to a partner utilizing a red deck. Theoden can potentially get a Rohan Warhorse as well. The Hobbit and Noldor mounts are there too, as is Shadowfax, the general idea being that the more mounted heroes we get, the better.
The lack of Lore support is annoying, but I love what Elfhelm represents, and I’m excited for the ever-expanding future of Rohan!