The Battle of the Five Armies has a movie named after it, but is it not immediately obvious to anyone watching it what the five armies are. We have the dwarfs – a mixture of Erebor and the Iron Hills, we have the wood elves of Mirkwood, the humans of Lake Town, ors/goblins, but who makes up the fifth army?
The Battle of the Five Armies is between humans, elves and dwarves on the side of good, and goblins and wild wolves on the other. They are not alone, however, there are eagles and bats, plus individuals like Bilbo, Gandalf, and Beorn.
“So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible. Upon one side were the Goblins and the Wild Wolves, and upon the other were Elves and Men and Dwarves.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
The fifth army of the Battle of the Five Armies is an army of wolves. In the movie that is not obvious at all and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the second army of orcs from Gundobad or the eagles carrying Radagast and Beorn. Let’s take a deeper look at the five armies and that movie adaptation.
1. The forces of good
The dwarven forces are divided into two groups. The first is the small band of dwarves who followed Thorin into Erebor. They spend the first half of the battle inside the mountain.
In addition to this are the dwarves of the Iron Hills led by Dain. They came originally to defend Thorin from the elves and humans, but eagerly join the fight against the goblins. That being said it takes Thorin’s charge to rally them.
Thranduil’s wood elves are in the area to recover jewels held by the dwarves in Erebor. They are the first to charge the goblins and deal much damage to them. The most poignant passage in the battle is noting how long a life the fallen elves could have had.
Smaug has destroyed Esgaroth, so the humans of the Long Lake go north for help and due payment from the dwarves. They are descended from Dale and so join the battle, taking many losses, but killing goblins with their long swords.
2. The forces of evil
As a philologist, Tolkien may have regretted using the term goblin. In The Lord of the Rings, he used the term orc – one which can be found across his other works. The goblins are motivated by their hatred for the dwarves who killed their great leader Azog (in the movie he leads the army).
The goblins come en mass in uncountable numbers. They come from the north and charge into the forces of good without discipline or organisation. Some do climb the mountain slopes in order to cast stones down on the good guys – one of whom knocks out the invisible Bilbo.
Time and again the goblin army are pushed back but have the numbers to out flank and push the forces of good backwards. Despite their disorganisation, it is clear Bolg is the leader and his bodyguards are the largest of goblins.
Wolves – the fifth army
The wolves are not mentioned so much as an individual force and their leader, if they have one, is not named. You’d assume they were led by Bolg.
It seems to me that there were two distinct types of wolf units – those which are ridden by goblins and those which are not. The latter are a force unto themselves while the former are mere cavalry.
3. Other forces at the battle
Bilbo started off with his companions in Erebor, but was allowed to leave by Thorin after admitted to have burgled them of the Arkenstone. He then spends the battle as an observer, with his ring on to make him invisible, beside the Elvenking. By chance a goblin stone knocks him out and he missed the rest of the battle.
The role of Gandalf in the battle, as usual, is a bit mysterious. He was definitely there, but his magic was found wanting and he’s not linked to the arrival of the eagles or of Beorn.
After coming to, Bilbo learns that while the eagles turned the tide, it was the fearsome rage of Beorn who routed the goblins and killed Bolg. The narrator is clear that Beorn came alone, but in an even bigger bear-form than he’d been seen in before. It was he who scooped up the mortally wounded Thorin and took him to safety before killing Bolg.
The tide of the battle turned eventually by the arrival of the eagles. After reading about Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc and how Frodo and Same leave Orodruin, you might be forgiven for thinking Tolkien translated deus ex machina as ‘saved by eagles.’
They swoop in, both in the book and in the movie, in significant enough force to turn the tide of the battle in the favour of the forces of good. The narrator says they had noticed the goblin forces building up and had gathered into a great force led by the Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains.
At the start of the battle, after the bats act as a sunscreen cloud to help the goblin army led by Bolg reach the battlefield. They remained above the goblins to help them during the battle, but while dreadful do not seem to have attacked anyone. No doubt they were driven off by the arrival of the eagles.
In the beginning of the battle, the narrator notes that even the ravens did not see the goblins coming for they came underground. They also ferried messages between folks along with other birds including between Thorin and Dain. While not a fighting force, the ravens were a reconnaissance unit in the battle.
What constitutes an army?
Given the numbers of protagonists and how they act in the battle, it is worth asking what constitutes an army as opposed to say a warband. The biggest question is what differentiates the eagles, ravens, and bats from the wolves. Why are the wolves an army and the others are not?
Let’s look at what an army is. Etymologically speaking it’s an armed expeditionary or defensive force. According to modern definitions, an army is a force fighting on land. Therefore we can see Tolkien excluded the eagles, bats, and ravens because they were air forces not land forces. So there you have it the five armies.