Lord of the Rings: Fords of Isen


In Chapter VII of the Two Towers, a sharp battle at the Fords of Isen between the Riders of Rohan and the forces of Saruman as a prelude to the Siege of Helm's Deep is alluded to:

...As the second day of their riding (the Eorlingas led by Theoden to Helm's Deep) drew on, the heaviness in the air increased.  In the afternoon the dark clouds began to overtake them: a sombre canopy with great billowing edges flecked with dazzling light.  The sun went down, blood red in a smoking haze.  The spears of the Riders were tipped with fire as the last shafts of light kindled the steep faces of the peaks of Thrihryne: now very near they stood on the northernmost arm of the White Mountains, three jagged horns staring at the sunset.  In the last red glow men in the vanguard saw a black speck, a horseman riding towards them.  They halted awaiting him.

He came, a weary man with dinted helm and cloven shield.  Slowly he climbed from his horse and stood there a while gasping.  At length he spoke. 'Is Eomer here?' he asked.  'You come at last, but too late, and with too little strength.  Things have gone evilly since Theodred fell.  We were driven back yesterday over the Isen with great loss; many perished at the crossing.  Then at night fresh forces came over the river against our camp.  All Isengard must be emptied; and Saruman has armed the wild hillmen and herd-folk of Dunland beyond the rivers, and these he has loosed upon us.  We were overmastered.  The shieldwall was broken.  Erkenbrand of Westfold has drawn off those men he could gather towards his fastness at Helm's Deep.  The rest are scattered.  Where is Eomer?  Tell him there is no hope ahead.  He should return to Edoras before the wolves of Isengard come there.'

Theoden had sat silent, hidden from the man's sight behind his guards; now he urged his horse forward. 'Come stand before me, Ceorl!' he said. 'I am here.  The last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth.  It will not return without battle.'

A fuller account of the Battle at the Fords of Isen is contained in JRR Tolkien's "Unfinished Tales".  In summary:

  • The Fords were important as the western frontier of Rohan as it protected Westfold from the men of Dunland - enemies of the Rohirrim.  However, with Saruman's treachery (Isengard straddles the Isen in the north), the strategic importance of the Fords diminished as Saruman's forces could advance on both sides of the Isen simultaneously.

  • The Fords was the only place south of Isengard that large bodies of formed troops could cross the Isen.

  • Despite the diminished importance of the Fords, Theodred - the King's son - resolved to hold the place against Saruman.  Levies of Westfold and 3 eoreds of Riders garrisoned the Fords while Theodred rode north (on the west bank) with 8 eoreds of Riders, and 1 eored of Archers to seek out the enemy.

  • 20 miles north of the Fords, Theodred scatters the vanguard of Saruman's army.  Pursuing them, Theodred finds himself faced with entrenched pikemen.  After a sharp fight, Theodred's forces withdraw.  At this point, they notice Saruman's forces on the eastern bank as well moving at speed for the Fords.

  • When Theodred reached the Fords, he stiffened the western defences (men of Westfold in 2 earth forts) with 50 riders (half an eored?).  Theodred and  his personal household eored remained on the small island in the middle of the Fords.  The rest of the Riders were sent across the river to the eastern side (6.5+3 eoreds, and 1 eored of archers).

  • As soon as this was done, Saruman's Eastern forces arrived on the field.  They were much smaller than the forces on the western side, but they were an elite of wolfriders, Dunlending cavalry and 2 battalions of Uruk-hai.

  • The sudden arrival of Saruman's eastern forces surprised the Riders, and they were driven back in disorder across the Fords.  At this point, a company of Orc axemen (ferocious and mail-clad) arrived and assaulted Theodred's position. At the same time, Grimbold on the western side was assailed by the main Orc army.  Theodred fell to an axe blow.  Grimbold's forces hold - stout men of Westfold.

  • At this point, Elfhelm with 4 eoreds of riders arrive from the east at the rear of the Uruks and scatter them.  None of the Uruks stand their ground.  All flee northwards.  Elfhelm dismounts his Riders to garrison the east bank.

  • 5 days (?) later, Saruman assails the Fords a second time.

  • Grimbold held the western side of the fords with the men of Westfold.  The remnants of Theodred's cavalry he kept in reserve on the eastern bank.  Elfhelm held a ridge, running west to east - several miles north of the Fords on the eastern bank.

  • Saruman throws a large force of Orcs against the western defences.  While the earth forts were engaged,  a battalion of Uruks attempt to cross the Ford, but are thrown back by Grimbold's dismounted Riders.  A fresh battalion of Uruks are thrown in, and the Rohirrim are thrown back across the Ford.  The west bank falls.  Grimbold holds the eastern bank and the Uruks hesitate to cross over and climb the steep slopes to assault him.

  • During the night, a fresh Orc host - the vanguard of the invasion force - arrive.  Grimbold forms a shieldwall around his camp.  But the situation is hopeless.  Grimbold decides to break out from his surrounded position and leads his scattered companies to Helm's Deep.  At the same time, Elfhelm's forces are outflanked by wolfriders in the darkness.  Likewise, Elfhelm decides to break out towards the east, and to Helm's Deep. 

  • The heroic defence of the Fords buys valuable time for Rohan to complete their muster and reinforce Helm's Deep with the King's forces.

Wargaming the Battle for the Fords:

The battle of the Fords is basically unwinnable for the Rohirrim.  According to Tolkien, the army arrayed against Rohan was only the Vanguard of a larger invasion force.  Ultimately, the question is how long can the Rohirrim hold out, thereby winning time for the muster of Rohan and the reinforcement of Helm's Deep to proceed.  A subsidiary objective would be to preserve Theodred, the King's son.

Complete - Hold islet and Theodred lives
Decisive - Hold islet
Marginal - Theodred lives
Defeat None of above
Complete - Hold Islet and Theodred is dead
Decisive - Theodred is dead
Marginal - Hold Islet
Defeat - None of above

Order of Battle:

The following order of battle is conjectural and is extrapolated from Tolkien's books.  The problem is that Tolkien did not give exact figures for the numbers and types of troops used by both sides.  The following is our best guess.  For other guesses, go to:

Grimbold's command at River  Theodred's Riders West of River Elfhelm's Reinforcements from East
1 base Grimbold’s Riders
8 bases Westfold militia
1 base Household knights

10 bases Riders

1 base Horse archers

4 bases Riders

* To be released by Umpire any time after Wolfriders/Uruk Hai are engaged at the Fords.

Orc West bank army Orc East bank army   
Attack from North 
30 bases Orc Warbands

4 bases Orc bows

4 bases Orc skirmishers

* Umpire may release up to 10 additional bases of Orc Warbands as fresh reinforcements.

Attack from East

10 bases Wolfriders

4 bases Dunlending Cavalry

8 bases Uruk Hai

2 bases Orc Axemen


Our Battle:

Grimbold's dismounted knights form a shieldwall.

Theodred's knights scatter the Orc west bank army

Wolfriders charge Grimbold's knights at the Fords

A confusing melee ensues


Men of Westfold defend their Earth fort.


Elfhelm arrives


Elfhelm charges into the nearest group of Orcs

To no avail.  The Fords are overwhelmed!

Figures used:

  • Rohirrim cavalry - mainly generic 15mm Dark Age cavalry from Essex.  They should be dressed in mail, have long flowing hair, carry a lance, a round shield, and wear a spangenhelm.  Normans would not be right as the shield shape is wrong.
  • Men of Westfold - unarmoured generic Dark Age infantry.  Some nobles in mail.  All should carry round shields.
  • Orcs, Uruk Hai - various fantasy manufacturers.  Mainly Alternative Armies.


We used our own house Ancient Rules designed by Napnut Boon.  However, you could easily modify DBA or Warhammer Ancient Battles to play the game.  Make sure you modify the number of bases according to the rules you are using.  The numbers given above are 1 base = 100 men.