Chapter V: The White Rider
After two chapters following Merry and Pippin into Fangorn Forest, we go back to Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. They’re just inside Fangorn, investigating the area where they saw the old man the night before. There are no tracks, though. This creeps Gimli out, but Legolas says it’s because the grass is deep and springy. Boots won’t leave a trace. This doesn’t reassure Gimli but he doesn’t have too much time to ponder the mystery because they find traces of someone else: hobbits! There are cut cords, lembas crumbs, and a dried mallorn leaf.
Legolas shows his snarky side here, “Well, here is the strangest riddle that we have yet found!… A bound prisoner escapes both from the Orcs and from the surrounding horsemen. He then stops, while still in the open, and cuts bonds with an orc-knife But how and why? For if his legs were tied, hoe did he walk? And if his arms were tied, how did he use the knife? And if neither were tied, why did he cut the cords at all? Being pleased with his skill, he then sat down and quietly ate some waybread!… After that, I suppose, he turned his arms into wings and flew away singing into the trees.” Real funny, Legolas. Aragorn’s amused, but he’s a better tracker than Legolas and sets the story straight. They decide to follow the hobbits’ tracks into the forest to see what they can find of their friends.
They don’t find much. A few tracks here and there, but even those come to an abrupt end at the bottom of a hill. They climb to the top of the hill for some fresh air and spot an old man dressed in gray. Is it the man from the night before? Gimli urges them to draw their weapons, but Aragorn and Legolas are reluctant to do so. The old man approaches and speaks, asking them to come up and talk to him. He wants to know what they’re doing there, and he acts like they should know who he is. They think it’s Saruman and move to attack, but the old man is too quick. Gimli’s axe flies out of his hand, Aragorn’s sword is too hot to touch, and Legolas’s arrow disappears in flames. And then they realize who it is. It’s Gandalf!
One of the neat things about Gandalf is that he’s not human. He’s a Maiar, an angelic-type being whose mortal body is like the Elves’– a physical raiment for the undying spirit. Many, many, many years ago, Gandalf was sent to Middle-earth for a great task, to deal with the Rings of Power. His task is not yet complete, and he doesn’t get to leave Middle-earth until that task is complete. So he has returned, but now he is Gandalf the White, taking Saruman’s place in the hierarchy of the wizards.
He tells them what happened after he fell in Moria, how he fought with the Balrog in the untold deeps of the world, how he climbed the Endless Stair, and how Gwaihir the Windlord found him again and took him to Lothlorien not long after the company left. He tells of how he watched events unfolding, and how Sauron nearly found the Ring. Remember in ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’, when Frodo put the Ring on and saw Sauron looking for him, and a voice told him to take the Ring off just in time? That was Gandalf aiding Frodo from afar. It was a close call, but they have been saved for the moment. Sauron, he says, “… does not perceive our purpose clearly. He supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place… That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream. In which no doubt you will see our good fortune and our hope. For imagining war he has let loose war…”, and in doing so, Sauron has shifted his forces toward Gondor, leaving a small opening that Frodo can slip through to get into Mordor and destroy the Ring. It’s a small hope, but that’s all they had ever expected of this venture. But things are shifting in their favor, as Merry and Pippin’s arrival brought Treebeard news that pushed him to act. Events are now moving better than expected, though they could still lose everything.
Gandalf tells Aragorn not to despair for his choices. Though Aragorn had thought they were all bad decisions, so far it has led them to the places they needed to be and will send them to the places they are most needed. Right now, that place is Edoras. King Theoden is subject to ill counsel and all of Rohan is affected by it. Aragorn, as heir to the throne of Gondor, must ride to battle and inspire others to do the same. He must also fulfill his oath to Eomer and return the horses that were loaned to them.
And speaking of the horses. Where are they? They had run away when we last saw them.
They found an old friend! Shadowfax, the horse Gandalf rode from Rohan the previous year had been nearby and Hasufel and Arod (the horses Eomer loaned Aragorn and the others) had heard him and went running to greet their friend. Gandalf calls Shadowfax back to them, and the other two aren’t far behind. Shadowfax is an amazing horse. He is white but appears silvery gray in the night. He can run faster than any living horse, needs neither saddle nor bridle, and will bear a rider only if he approves of them. He is one of the mearas, a type of near-mystical horse that could run farther and faster than any other and understood the speech of Men. Basically, he’s the best horse there ever was. We can only wish we had horses like Shadowfax.
Chapter VI: The King of the Golden Hall
Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas now ride for Edoras where King Theoden makes his home in this windswept country. The golden hall of Meduseld is reminiscent of Heorot, the great hall of Beowulf. In fact, everything about Rohan is reminiscent of Beowulf, as Rohan is Tolkien’s version of Anglo-Saxon England if the Anglo-Saxons had lived upon the plains and ridden horses into battle. And as much as he tried to pretend that it was, the speech of Rohan is Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English). The language, Legolas says, “…is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.” I think that describes Tolkien’s feelings regarding the loss of the bulk of the Anglo-Saxon language and nearly all of its stories following the Norman invasion in 1066. I think he was bitter about the French language coming in and taking over and annihilating England’s native stories. I’m kind of bitter about it, too. That and the Library of Alexandria.
By the by, the poem that Aragorn recites is ‘The Wanderer’, which is an Anglo-Saxon poem Tolkien translated for The Lord of the Rings. Most of the time, the source material is obscure. Other times it’s less so.
Anyway. They ride up to the gates of Edoras and are stopped by a guard. His orders are to only admit those who are familiar and speak Rohirric. And sure, Gandalf and Aragorn speak the language, but they look weird. Aragorn assures him that they are there at Eomer’s behest, but even that doesn’t get them inside. Wormtongue has told them the king wants no strangers coming in. The guard is unsure, but he senses that Gandalf and the others are indeed friends, and he decides to let them in, warning them that they won’t be able to take their weapons into the hall with them.
This proves to be a problem. After all, Aragorn carries the most storied weapon in Middle-earth. There is a power in this sword, thanks to who carried it and the deeds it was used for. Aragorn doesn’t want to put it on the ground, though the door warden of Meduseld, Hama, says it is Theoden’s will. “It is not clear to me that the will of Theoden son of Thengel, even though he be lord of the Mark, should prevail over the will of Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elendil’s heir of Gondor.” That is, Aragorn comes from a higher lineage than Theoden does, and should have special privileges that allow him to carry this sword with him. And it’s this particular sword. If he had any other blade, then a farmer in a humble hut could bid Aragorn put his weapon aside, and Aragorn would do it. But not Anduril. It nearly comes to blows, but Gandalf talks sense into them. A king has a right to make the rules of his household, even if they are silly rules. And Theoden will need Aragorn’s sword ere long. Aragorn relents, and they all leave their weapons at the door. Except for Gandalf’s staff. Because he’s an “old man” who needs his walking stick. Hama doesn’t quite buy it, but like the guard at the gate, he is able to make his own decisions and he feels that Gandalf’s intentions are good. This is a kingdom, after all, not a tyranny.
The golden hall of Meduseld is beautiful, filled with color and carved stone, its walls lined with tapestries detailing the history of Rohan. For a people whose wealth is in horses and songs, it’s a fabulous building. But its king is not so well. Theoden is bent with age and weariness, and his advisor, Grima Wormtongue, constantly whispers poison in his ear.
Grima, as it turns out, is the worst kind of advisor a king could have. His words sound like wisdom but have a chilling effect on Theoden. He has forbidden strangers from walking in his lands, has moved his warriors to guard borders they shouldn’t be guarding, and has otherwise done everything to make Rohan weaker instead of stronger. He has even imprisoned Eomer, his own nephew, for speaking out against Wormtongue and for riding north against that company of orcs, instead of guarding the Eastern border (as Wormtongue had so slyly suggested). But while Grima gets in the way and tries to keep Gandalf from speaking directly to Theoden, Gandalf is having none of it. “The wise speak only of what they know, Grima son of Galmod. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.” Gandalf raises his staff. There’s a flash, and Grima falls to the ground.
So now Gandalf can talk to Theoden uninterrupted. Thanks to age, his son’s recent death, and Grima’s poison words, Theoden has given in to despair. He is mourning the death of his house and the darkness upon his lands. But one of Gandalf’s chief abilities is to bring hope to those who have none. He bids Theoden stand and walk outside, where he will see the light of day and his lands stretching out before him. He can see the sun and the beauty of his lands, throw aside his walking stick and stand up tall for the first time in a long time. Theoden is an old warrior, after all, and it doesn’t take long for him to remember his old strength, especially when his people are hailing him. Theoden is one of two great and aging lords who have fallen into despair, but unlike Denethor of Minas Tirith, Theoden finds hope by riding into battle against the forces of Mordor. They may die on the field, but they’ll make an end that will be worthy of song. Denethor, however, despairs completely. His end is entirely different, but we’ll talk about that later.
Theoden and Grima are not the only important characters we are introduced to in this chapter, though. Eowyn is largely silent through most of the goings-on, attending her king as best she can while her own hopes die. She is tall and beautiful, but she is stern as steel and obviously the daughter of a noble line. ‘Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Eowyn, Lady of Rohan, and though her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt.” They see strength in each other, but where Aragorn is free to ride to battle and do great deeds, Eowyn is trapped by her feminity. She wants to do great deeds that will be remembered in song, but she is doomed to be the caretaker of an ailing old man. She wants to find love, but there is no one worthy of her high rank and noble birth. And now she has met Aragorn, whose noble character shines through. For the first time, she can imagine falling in love. A lonely young woman’s thoughtless desire? Perhaps. But it will have dire consequences later on.
For the moment, though, Theoden is quickly regaining his strength and wisdom. Eomer is released from prison and offers Theoden his sword, while Hama is sent to find Theoden’s actual sword. Much as Theoden would like to punish these two for acting against his orders, Gandalf advises mercy. “A man may love you and yet not love Wormtongue or his counsels,” he says, and goes on to lay more truths on Theoden. “‘You are come into a peril greater even than the wit of Wormtongue could weave into your dreams. But see! you dream no longer. You live. Gondor and Rohan do not stand alone. The enemy is strong beyond our reckoning, yet we have a hope at which he has not guessed.” What this hope is, Gandalf will not say, but Theoden is willing to listen now. The days are dark, but now he is ready to fight. He calls out to his people and bids them prepare themselves for battle. All men who can fight will go to war as quickly as they can.
Grima again tries to talk Theoden out of going to war, but Theoden is no longer deceived. He is willing to listen to Eomer’s harsh truths now. It’s a lesson that we should all take to heart: “Faithful heart may have forward tongue.” It might hurt to hear those hard truths, but your best friends say them to keep you on the straight and narrow. Theoden realizes it now. He’s no longer willing to listen to Grima. We shouldn’t listen to our personal Grima Wormtongues, either. That is a voice that promotes fear, isolation, and despair.
So Theoden realizes his error and discovers that if Eomer had not disobeyed him to destroy those orcs, then two of Gandalf’s companions would have been hostages of Isengard, as all their hopes would be in ruins, for Sauron would know Gandalf’s plans. He would know about the Ring.
Blindly following the rules without thought to what was right and just was never really part of Tolkien’s worldview.
But with Thoden and his heir, Eomer, riding to war who will govern the people who remain? Theoden asks who among them is willing to stay and lead the people now and if both he and Eomer fall in battle? No one speaks up at first, but then a suggestion is made: Eowyn. “She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone.”
Theoden agrees without a second thought. Let that sink in. All the men of rank are standing there, and Theoden asks for volunteers to lead the people in his absence. Not a single one speaks up. Instead, they put forth Eowyn’s name because they all think she’s awesome. And Theoden’s all, “yeah, she is awesome, isn’t she? Very well. Eowyn’s in charge while I’m gone!”
Eowyn would rather ride to battle with the men, but she accepts this new responsibility. “A year shall I endure for every day that passes until your return.” When she says this, she’s not looking at Theoden. She’s looking at Aragorn. No one seems to notice this except Aragorn, though.
Now that the men have gathered and everyone is armed and armored, they ride out of Edoras. The people are cheering for their king and his warriors as they ride west.
Eowyn watches them go, a lonely figure before a silent house.
Next week: Things get epic in ‘Helm’s Deep’