As we proceed along in our quest across Middle-Earth, there are days when I’m reminded just how fortunate I am to have stockpiled a personal library. The well-prepared traveler need not lack for resources in this land. There are some weeks where I look around and wonder how it is that I thought the journey across this landscape in the fashion I’ve undertaken could be seen as anything other than folly. And there are days, like today, when I realize that perhaps there was no choice at all. Looking at the resources I’ve collected, I’ve been preparing for this inevitable journey for a long time indeed. Folly or not, it’s so very satisfying, especially now as we start heading into the truly epic stuff.
The newly-restored Gandalf arrives with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to Edoras, the golden hall of Théoden, King of Rohan. Having arrived with the first light of morning, the quartet make their way past the door only by surrendering their weapons and Gandalf making a great show of the need to keep his staff to lean upon. We know it’s a trick — of course it is! — and the guard knows it too, but in Middle-Earth, one can always trust the path of the just to be opened by the innocent and well-meaning. For me, the highlight of the bit is that Gimli will only surrender his axe when Aragorn surrenders Andúril. Only then, for the sword of the king is worthy company for his weapon if he must part with it. I love that.
When they arrive before Théoden, he is a bent, stooped, withered old man, twisted by the will of evil and the words of Wormtongue. It is revealed in the discourse that follows that Wormtongue has been aiding the armies of the Orcs for some time as an agent of Saruman. Gandalf the White, in all of his splendor, offers Théoden the opportunity to choose his path, illuminating the way ahead with rays of hope. As Théoden makes his choice, the age and withering seem to fall away from him, restoring him to some semblance of youth and vigor, slowly, deliberately.
The symbolism all about this chapter is thick enough to chew, which is to say that Tolkien got more than a little heavy-handed with it as he’s prone to do. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because that’s what sells this tale on its level of mythmaking. There’s a pomposity about it that can only be excused in the annals of myth and legend. Sometimes it goes a touch too far in a way I find inadequate to express. For example, I find that I’m a little uncomfortable every time someone says “Théoden King!” Maybe it’s just me, but I always feel like “King” becomes an accented title at this point. Then again, I’m American, so royalty is always a pompous accent from my point of view. But seriously, this is a subtle thing, this reversal of words that would have the title after the name. I don’t know what it is about it, but linguistically, it feels like a break in tradition. Usually it’d be “King Théoden” or “Théoden, King of Rohan, Lord of the Mark.” This has always seemed weird to me because I don’t ever recall it being used in this fashion anywhere else. You wouldn’t say “Arthur King” but rather “Arthur, King of the Britons.” I don’t recall off hand that Aragorn is ever addressed as “Elessar King,” but I also don’t claim my memory to be what it once was, so maybe he does at some point that I’m not remembering. Perhaps this is one way to distinguish Rohan from Gondor in their traditions. Perhaps it’s Tolkien having fun in his wordplay as Théoden is derived from Old English words meaning “king” and “horse people.” Or perhaps the reversal is to remind one and all who is really in charge here. Whatever the case, it calls it out in no uncertain terms that Théoden is well and truly free from the influence of Wormtongue.
In addition to aiding Saruman and the Orcs, we see that Wormtongue has his eyes on a prize of a different sort, the king’s niece, Éowyn, sister of Éomer. Something about the entire notion of Wormtongue and Éowyn is enough to freeze anyone’s blood, and everyone in this story seems to know it. Wormtongue is given the choice to ride into battle at the side of his lord or to walk away now in self-banishment, to be treated as a hostile should Théoden ever lay eyes on him again. Wormtongue, unsurprisingly, chooses banishment, and while that seems like folly, longtime readers know that, as with Gollum, he will yet have a part to play.
Théoden takes up his sword once more, claiming that he will lead his people into battle against Saruman. Éomer is released, his “treason” pardoned, and his service accepted once more as he is named heir to the throne. Éowyn, a warrior in her own rite, will lead in the absence of Théoden and Éomer, as chosen by the people.
Éowyn and Aragorn have an enchanted moment in the wake of all of this. This is foreshadowing of a path that was not to be. In the original drafts, the two were supposed to be intended to marry. In at least one version she is said to have died avenging the death of Théoden, and after her death is when Aragorn realized he loved her. in the end, Tolkien abandoned the entire idea, marking Aragorn as “too old and lordly and grim.” This is when Arwen was introduced into the story as the future queen of the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor, and the parallels were drawn with the tale of Beren and Lúthien.
Théoden bids Gandalf to take anything save his own sword as a gift, and Gandalf chooses Shadowfax, whom was only lent to him on previous occasion. Théoden grants it, and the King and the White Rider prepare to ride forth into destiny.
By now we know that we cannot enter into a new realm in Middle-Earth without some manner of world building poems or songs. This, of course, holds true in the Riddermark, whose history and culture is alive and well in the very design of their artful hall.
The first we get is the “Lament for the Rohirrim.” This is a verse of rhyme whose origins stretch back to some unknown poet, characterizing the people of Rohan. We learn when Aragorn recites it that the golden hall of Edoras was built some 500 years ago, which seems an incredibly distant time to the Rohirrim, but yet not so long for the likes of Legolas.
The second is “Gandalf’s Song of Lórien.” Gandalf sings this as a rebuke of Wormtongue’s accusation that “webs of deceit were ever woven in Dwimordene.” He follows it with the wisdom that “The wise speak only of what they know.” More of a character tribute, the song speaks of Gandalf’s reverence for the Lady Galadriel. It becomes a marked prelude to how Gandalf has returned from death itself by her aid to deal with matters far more important than the likes of Wormtongue.
As Théoden takes the offered hilt of his sword, the universal sign of power and kingship in the Middle Ages and apparently also in Middle-Earth, Gandalf issues his “Call to Arms of the Rohirrim.” This isn’t really a song or a poem, but Tolkien presents it in like pattern, marking it as an elevated delivery. Was there spellcraft lacing his words? It’s certainly possible. It’s also possible that Gandalf is merely a superior orator, but given everything else in this chapter, I’m inclined to believe he hedged his bets at every turn here. Speaking of magic, click that link above to hear Sir Christopher Lee deliver it as only he can.