The Riders of Rohan reach the borders of their territory after three days’ hard journey. Théoden’s sister-son, Éomer, urges the king not to take his men further east, but Théoden is determined to go to war. He opts to ride to the Hold of Dunharrow, where the people of Rohan are sheltered by Éowyn. The Riders rest for the night after the king enquires after Aragorn and “that path.”
Théoden explains to Merry over dinner the legend of the Paths of the Dead, and it seems that beyond the suggestion of higher destiny, most are concerned that they have seen the last of Aragorn. When a messenger arrives from Gondor, his armor reminds Merry of Boromir. The message he bears is a Red Arrow, a summons sent only in times of great peril, from the Steward of Gondor. Théoden honors the pact, ordering that 6,000 Riders will set out for Minas Tirith in the morning, though it will be a week before they reach their destination.
A little aside here for some world building…
The Red Arrow is a reference to Borondir and his five Riders sent by Steward Cirion in 2509 of the Third Age to aid Gondor when it was overrun by the Easterlings. Borondir was the only one of his party to make it there alive. He presented the Red Arrow to the Éothéod King Eorl the Young, ancient allies of Gondor. In 2510, the Éothéod suddenly appeared at the Battle of the Field of Celebrant, long since unexpected by friend or foe. The Éothéod turned the tide of battle and saved Gondor. It is believed this original Red Arrow was a black Orc arrow with a bloody tip that proved the severity of the situation. It’s uncertain if this became a tradition in the years to come, but likely it’s simply a matter of legend of which kings and stewards would be extremely mindful and see as a desperate omen.
Back to the tale…
The Darkness of Mordor covers the land, and there is no sunrise. Théoden tells Merry to stay behind, and when the Hobbit protests, the king proclaims that the ride ahead will be hard and fast, and none of his Riders can bear him as a burden. Even so, Éowyn leads Merry aside and outfits him as well as possible in the armor of the King’s Guard.
Losing all hope of being of service at Gondor, Merry is offered the chance of a lifetime. A young Rider introduced as Dernhelm offers to carry the Hobbit secretly into battle under cloak. Merry is overjoyed to accept as the host rides for Minas Tirith.
As the chapter comes to a close, Tolkien offers a poem that begins “From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning,” known to fans of The Tolkien Ensemble as “Lament for Théoden.” Careful reading of the poem tells of the ride to Gondor and foreshadows the battle to come in much the same manner as the legend of the Red Arrow, though with different details.
If you would like to hear The Tolkien Ensemble’s haunting version of “Lament for Théoden” performed as like a Medieval choir, you can find that right here.