Before we dive into this entry, make yourself comfortable. Grab a snack or do whatever else you need to do. This is going to be a long one, and hopefully you’ll find it worthy.
Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are in hot pursuit. Merry and Pippin have been captured by Orcs, and while the clues are few and far between, Aragorn is able to follow them… until the signs of their trail stop.
Days into their trek, the company is met by the Riders of Rohan and their leader Éomer. Éomer is, of course, confused as to why a Man, an Elf, and a Dwarf would be travelling together, in pursuit of Orcs, and without horses. When he insults the Lady of the Golden Wood, Gimli stands up for her honor. From here, Aragorn reveals himself in full, listing his names and titles, and holding up the Sword That Was Broken, Now Whole. There is a lot of moxie being thrown into the mix all around, and tensions rise.
Éomer informs them that they have already slain the Orcs, but there were no Hobbits among them. He is in turn informed that both Gandalf and Boromir have fallen. Éomer says that he and the men of Rohan are no friends of either Sauron or Saruman, the latter being the wizard who aided in the attack on Boromir’s people. He offers horses, asking only that once their deed is accomplished, they return. This seems counter to the express wishes of Éomer’s king, Théoden, who clearly didn’t want him to aid anyone.
The three hunters again pursue the Hobbits. They come to rest under the trees of the Forest of Fangorn, where Gimli takes the first watch. Gimli spies and old man in white, wearing a hat, but the old man disappears before they can discover his identity. The horses are likewise gone. Gimli tells the others that he thinks the old man was none other than Saruman, who has scared away their horses. What little hope they have of finding the Hobbits diminishes.
For a chapter that seems fairly straightforward, there’s quite a bit of world building to break down in this chapter. Let’s start with something small, Aragorn’s “Song of Gondor.”
Gondor! Gondor, between the Mountains and the Sea!
West Wind blew there; the light upon the Silver Tree
Fell like bright rain in gardens of the Kings of old.
O proud walls! White towers! O wingéd crown and throne of gold!
O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?
In what’s plainly a bit of nostalgia for Aragorn, this song gives us in a few lines some of the basic iconography of the land of Gondor, echoed in its cities and especially its capital, the citadel of Minas Tirith. There is majesty and grandeur here. Everything about this song points to it.
Now that we’ve got that nugget of the world of Men from song, let’s have our first direct encounter with that world, the Riders of Rohan. The first question to ask is, why did Aragorn sing his song here? It’s because Rohan and Gondor have a history (as all things do in Middle-Earth), and that song alludes to it. We already know that he’s the rightful king who will sit upon the throne of Gondor. That’s easy. Let’s stitch this together now, putting Gondor and Rohan in relation to one another.
According to “The Stewards” in Appendix A (which we cover again when we get that far), Aragorn served King Thengel of Rohan before traveling to Gondor proper to serve Ecthelion II under the name Thorongil. His time in Rohan and Gondor earned him support in Gondor on both sides of the civil war, Kin Strife, which was a struggle between those who loved the land and those who love the sea. In Rohan, Aragorn established his prowess on land; in Gondor he engineered important victories over the Corsairs at sea, before returning to the Wild in the North. In the majesty of Aragorn, we see the promise of (re)unification of the realms of Men being foretold.
So who are the Rohirrim?
Tolkien was of the firm belief that the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 — and thus, the whole of British history — would have gone very differently had England the resources of a mounted cavalry of knights. And who’s to say he isn’t right? In building Middle-Earth as the hidden histories of ancient Britain from the time before the Flood, the horse-lords of Rohan are his answer to that “missing” bit of otherwise pivotal history.
The Rohirrim, according to Tolkien’s lore, are the stuff of legend. And since the entire point of this project is to discover the lore that builds Middle-Earth, let’s peek in on the foundations of what Tolkien’s putting into place with the introduction of these great warriors. To find the lore, we turn to the Unfinished Tales, Part Three: The Third Age, II. “Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan.”
In 2509 of the Third Age, the Steward of Gondor, Cirion, sent summons to the Éothéod for aid. The mission: to stop a combined invasion of Men from the North East of Middle-Earth and Orcs from the Misty Mountains. Borondir, a soldier of Gondor, reached the king of the Éothéod, Eorl the Young. Eorl answered the call and arrived unexpectedly at the decisive battle of the Field of Celebrant. As a reward, Cirion invited Eorl on Amon Anwar, over the tomb of Elendil, there he swore a mutual alliance and cooperation between the two peoples. The Steward gave Eorl the area of Calenardhon, a province of Gondor that was previously devastated by the Great Plague of T.A. 1636, the survivors of whom were largely slain in this most recent invasion. There’s a lot more to this story, of course, but the bottom line is that Calenardhon rose again in the form of Rohan, founded T.A. 2510, and the Rohirrim — the Riders of Rohan — are the proud vanguard of their military.
It’s often said of epic storytelling that the through-lines and great arcs tend to rhyme. It’s no different in Middle-Earth. The events of the Field of Celebrant and its aftermath have massive repercussions and echoes through the War of the Ring, as we will see. The bottom line, of course, is that Gondor will expect Rohan to honor this old pact and save its butt from siege, and Rohan must be in a position to do so following its own desperate attempt to save itself from the forces of the Enemy.
This is our first real look at the world of Men after passing beyond the Argonath. Though we are not necessarily aware of all that history that Tolkien has built up within the context of what’s in this chapter, we can extrapolate some details. First, the Riders are a proud military tradition. Second, they prize their horses above all else. Those horses are worth their reputation, given that Mordor has tried to negotiate and then raided in order to obtain the black ones. Think back to the Black Rider that first pursued our Hobbit heroes in the Shire. Very likely that horse was bred in Rohan. If Mordor was so mighty, why would it need their horses? Because the reputation of the Rohirrim and their steeds was so entrenched in the lore of Middle-Earth so as to name those horses the best of the best. You could draw the parallels today of the Spanish Lipizzaners. If you’ve never seen these magnificent animals up close and personal, you’re missing out. It’s even more profound to see them when you know the story of what it took to rescue them and their tradition from the Third Reich. The echoes with the steeds of Rohan may or may not be directly influenced by this, but the parallels are noteworthy.
Our other bit of world building comes with the Forest of Fangorn. Aragorn warns not to cut down any of the trees or their limbs. Harvest for firewood only what is already dead and lying on the ground. The old lore speaks of Ents, or the Onodrim, but it doesn’t tell our heroes what these are, implying it’s been a while since anyone recognized them for what they are. But Tolkien provides some interesting hints. For example, when Gimli does build his fire, one of the closest trees seems to lean over, warming itself.
The forests are a huge part of Middle-Earth’s lore. As Elrond reminded us at the Council of Rivendell, “Time was once when a squirrel could carry a nut from tree to tree from Rivendell to the Great Sea…” Nearly all of Eriador was once a great forest, and part of Entish domain. But in the Second Age, these forests were cut down by the Númenóreans or destroyed in the War of the Elves and Sauron during the 17th century of that Age. The shrinking of the forest solidified the separation from the Entwives, a process that had begun in the First Age. The Fangorn Forest was just the Eastern End and one small remnant of the greater forest that used to be. By the Third Age, Fangorn is the only place Ents presumably still inhabit, although the Ent-like Huorns may still survive elsewhere, as in the Old Forest. The Ents have long since grown old without hope of having Entings with their Entwives, and as a result some have grown “treeish” and ceased moving or speaking. But not all knowledge of them has gone away. Some of it survives in lore. Recall back in the chapter “The Shadow of the Past,” Halfast Gamgee, Sam’s uncle, reportedly encountered a “Tree-man” near the Shire. Tolkien’s been dropping the seeds of Ents along the way here and there, letting them grow as a silent background in Middle-Earth that will symbolize the mighty wrath of Nature itself. We’ll get there in good time.
As to the man in white with the hat… I’ve always felt like this was a bit forced. Gimli calling out his belief that this is Saruman is one of the less subtle red herrings in the whole of Middle-Earth lore. But… I also think it’s designed that way on purpose. Tolkien wasn’t infallible, but he was very good at dropping clues, as we’ve seen. Who is most like Saruman and wears a hat? Gee, who else could it be? We know from our discussions of the wizards that the Istari are far more than mere wizards. They are the Middle-Earth equivalent of angels, and all that implies. The mystery isn’t the identity so much as the power behind it and the reason for its coming. Nothing gets my attention quite like tossing an angel or two into the mix, and Tolkien’s religious and spiritual views will come to the forefront as we move closer to the War of the Ring. More on that as we get there.