Chapter V: The Ride of the Rohirrim
Now that he’s been riding through the gloom for days, being carried along like a bit of baggage, ignored by the Marshal of the eored, Elfhelm and everyone else, Merry is completely miserable and questioning why he disobeyed King Théoden’s orders to stay behind. What can he do in battle, after all? He’s just a little hobbit. But he’s not so miserable that he’s lost his curiosity, and when he hears of strange goings-on, he goes to investigate.
It turns out that Théoden is meeting with the Wild Men of the Woods who live in the Druadan Forest and have long been hunted by men of Rohan when they wander into those woods. But while the Wild Men have reason to hate the Rohirrim, they’re not stupid. They know war is coming, and if Gondor and Rohan fall, they will be slaughtered. Their leader, Ghân-buri-Ghân has offered to show the Rohirrim a faster, safer path through the woods and hills to get them through Gondor faster, and if he betrays them, the Rohirrim can kill him. In exchange for this aid, the Wild Men wish to be left alone to live as they will in the forest. Théoden agrees to this, and so they depart, going by this secret road the Enemy is not watching.
Ghân-buri-Ghân leads them well, though, and the Rohirrim comes to the Pelennor Fields before dawn. But they can’t simply ride in and form up for the charge. Remember the wall Denethor demanded be built, spent too many lives defending, and then barely slowed Sauron’s forces? It’s in their way. The Rohirrim has to spend a bunch of time going out of their way to go through breaks in the wall. Fortunately for them, the Enemy is entirely focused on Minas Tirith, and they aren’t looking behind. This gives the Rohirrim time to get through the wall and form up, unchallenged. In the time this takes, the great gate of Minas Tirith is destroyed, many good men are killed, and the Lord of the Nazgûl rides into the city.
Dawn comes then. Dernhelm has ridden closer to Théoden, and so Merry can see him as he looks out over the fields and sees Sauron’s vast army spread out before them. Fires are burning, the horses are uneasy, and the king seems to shrink under the weight of all of this. For a moment, Merry wonders if fear has overcome him and if despair will drive him to turn around and flee.
But then Théoden sits up straight and calls out to the Rohirrim with a stirring call to battle. He takes a horn from his banner-bearer and sounds it, prompting the other men to sound their horns, which echo across the plains to Minas Tirith. Then he leads the charge across the plains, with his army following behind. Despair has haunted Théoden’s life, just as it has Denethor’s. But where Denethor has chosen narcissism and self-destruction (and to kill his own son in the process), Théoden has chosen to meet his despair head on and keep fighting so those who come after him might have a chance at life and freedom.
“…but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was born upon Snowmane like a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young… For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”
Chapter VI: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
Hang on. It’s about to get epic.
The Rohirrim is sweeping across the Pelennor Fields, wiping out the army standing before them. Orcs flee before them in terror, attracting the attention of the leader of the Haradrim who rallies his own forces against those of Rohan. He charges the line and Théoden meets him head-on. Though there are fewer of them, the warriors of Rohan break through the Haradrim lines. Theoden kills the Haradrim’s captain with his spear, then draws his sword and cuts down the banner and its bearer. The remnants of the Haradrim’s cavalry turn and flee.
But the battle is not won yet. The Lord of the Nazgûl heard Rohan’s horns just like everyone else and turned away from Gandalf at the gate of Minas Tirith to meet this new army on his winged mount.
And so, in the midst of his glorious moment, a shadow falls over Théoden. Dread falls over the Riders, and though Théoden calls to them their horses are panicked. The king’s horse rears up and is pierced by a dart. As it dies, it falls on Théoden. The Lord of the Nazgûl’s winged beast lands on the horse and prepares to tear the king apart. But Théoden is not alone. Though much of the king’s guard has been slain or scattered, one Rider remains: Dernhelm.
Merry is there, too. He was riding behind Dernhelm when he was thrown from their horse and is blinded by the Nazgûl’s overwhelming dread. But Dernhelm’s love for the king overcomes this fear, and now stands between Théoden and the Nazgûl. For many readers, this is The Moment. Their favorite point in all of The Lord of the Rings, when one person stands against a terrifying foe to defend someone they love though they believe that person is dead. Courage overcomes terror for the sake of love:
“Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known.
‘Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!’
A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in they turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’
A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.’
‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am… Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.'”
For the first time in centuries of existence, the Lord of the Nazgûl feels fear. There was a prophecy made, long ago, that said no living man would kill him, and so he felt secure for so long. Dead men cannot fight, after all. But now a woman stands before him, fearless and strong, and he is afraid. Merry, meanwhile, finds his courage and starts to move toward them.
The beast leaps forward towards Éowyn, but she steps to the side, sword drawn, and cuts its head off in one stroke. It collapses, and the Nazgûl steps forward, mace in hand, and strikes at Éowyn. She blocks his stroke with her shield, but it shatters and breaks her arm. He raises his mace again for the killing stroke, but suddenly he stumbles. Merry has crept up behind the Nazgûl and, using the sword of Westernesse he got from the barrow long ago on the borders of the Shire, he strikes the Nazgûl behind the knee.
Éowyn seizes the opportunity and plunges her sword into the space between the Nazgûl’s crown and mantle. The blade shatters, the crown clatters away, and the Nazgûl dies and disappears with a shrill wail that, according to the text, was not heard again in that age of the world. Which makes it sound like it could be heard again because Evil is not a force that can be defeated once and for all. Éowyn, meanwhile, collapses over the empty cloak.
Merry staggers toward Théoden and discovers that the king is still alive! He’s dying, though, and he knows it. He forgives Merry for defying his command to stay behind and apologizes for breaking his promise to sit and discuss herblore with him in Meduseld. He names Éomer as his heir and wishes that he could see Éowyn again. He was unconscious through her battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and did not see her triumph. Before Merry can tell him what happened, Théoden dies. But he dies with peace in his heart, “I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed.”
The battle continues around them, but when Éomer and his knights discover Théoden is dead, they stop and dismount. Even as he is hailed as the new king, Éomer grieves for Théoden. But then he sees Éowyn lying there, ‘He stood a moment as a man who is pierced in the midst of a cry by an arrow through the heart; and then his face went deathly white, and a cold fury rose in him, so that all speech failed him for a while. A fey mood took him.” He remounts his horse and in his rage and despair, charges back into battle ahead of his knights.
Merry, meanwhile, is still unnoticed. He follows behind the men taking Théoden and Éowyn off the field so they aren’t trampled. He can’t use his arm now, and the farther he goes the sicker he feels. But then Prince Imrahil rides up to them to see what’s going on, and when he sees Éowyn, he is amazed that a woman has ridden to battle. He’s even more amazed when he realizes that she is alive! He bids them take her to the healers so they might save her, and returns to the battle.
The breaks in the action do not indicate that the fight is dying off. Quite the contrary. Though the Rohirrim have cleared much of the field, their horses will not go near the mumakil, and the combined forces of the Haradrim and the orcs outnumber them. It’s only thanks to the Knights of Dol Amroth and Prince Imrahil that Éomer isn’t defeated then and there. His wrath overwhelmed his good sense, and new enemy forces from Osgiliath are swarming into the fields. And then they see black sails coming up the river from the sea, and their hopes are dashed. They believe them to be the Corsairs from Umbar, and that the outposts along the river must have fallen, too. Though Éomer has lost all hope, he still rallies his remaining forces. He is not about to give up.
“‘… To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!'”
These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of the battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them”
But just as he is preparing to die in battle, Éomer stares in wonder. The standard flying from the lead ship is not that of the corsairs. It has the White Tree of Gondor crowned by seven stars. This banner hasn’t been seen in Gondor for years beyond count, as it is the banner of the king. Aragorn has returned and brings with him a force the Enemy cannot stand against. With this renewed strength, the combined forces set upon the now rapidly-dwindling army from Mordor, and Aragorn and Éomer finally meet in the middle of the fields before Minas Tirith, just as they had once hoped to do. Finally, at the end of the long day, they gain the upper hand and drive away the last of the Enemy. “And in that hour the great Battle of the field of Gondor was over; and not one living foe was left within the circuit of the Rammas… Few ever came eastward to Morgul or Mordor; and to the land of the Haradrim came only a tale from far off: a rumor of the wrath and terror of Gondor.”
Next week: The king has (mostly) returned, but everything is not well within Minas Tirith in ‘The Pyre of Denethor’ and ‘The Houses of Healing’.