(Updated on 01/08/15)
The chase is on and our three multi-racial heroes are running day and night. The first paragraph of this chapter is one of my favourite pieces of descriptive writing in the whole book and sets up the entry into Rohan very well:
“Dusk deepened. Mist lay behind them among the trees below, and brooded on the pale margins of the Anduin, but the sky was clear. Stars came out. The waxing moon was riding in the West, and the shadows of the rocks were black. They had come to the feet of stony hills, and their pace was slower, for the trail was no longer easy to follow. Here the highlands of the Emyn Muil ran from North to South in two long tumbled ridges. The western side of each ridge was steep and difficult, but the eastward slopes were gentler, furrowed with many gullies and narrow ravines. All night the three companions scrambled in this bony land, climbing to the crest of the first and tallest ridge, and down again into the darkness of a deep winding valley on the other side.
There in the still cool hour before dawn they rested for a brief space. The moon had long gone down before them, the stars glittered above them; the first light of day had not yet come over the dark hills behind.”
Look at that vivid imagery there, of the “bony land”, the “cool hour before dawn”, the brooding mist, the waxing moon, and that awesome sense of three beleaguered figures muddling through a dark and desolate landscape.
Pretty soon into the chase the group finds a few dead Orcs, a mystery to contemplate. I went looking for a term to describe this kind of narrative device, where an important plot point is used in one timeline before the narrative jumps back in another timeline to show us the same plot device being created. There is no term for it, but it is rather neat, letting the reader try and put the clues together as we go along. In this case, the correct interpretation is kind of spelled out, unnecessarily, and does kill it a bit. The party of bad guys that captured Merry and Pippin contain Orcs of different allegiances, and they aren’t getting along. This is the first real example of the trouble between the erstwhile allies of Mordor and Isengard, who are strange bedfellows. We’ll see more of it in the next chapter.
The chase continues. Entering further into Rohan, the group catch a glimpse of Gondorian lands. It’s portrayed as a miraculous sight for Aragorn who is close now to the land that he is destined to rule over, provided he can stop it being destroyed first. This section serves as a reminder of where the story is going, and that this Rohan-focused book is just a detour. All roads lead to Gondor, but the good guys have to deal with Saruman first.
Of course, the larger narrative can be lost in comparison to what is actually happening in this chapter, which is the three friends running after the Orcs for most of three days. That’s a lot of non-stop running. My mind harkens back to ancient literature, things like the Illiad, which featured “god-like” characters, who were capable of extreme feats of strength, skill and endurance. The suspension of disbelief does take a bit of a hit here though, the idea that any living creature could run this long without, well, dying, being a tad unbelievable. The Lembas is the deus ex machina, providing Tolkien with the thing he needs to explain away the several marathons being run, but it still isn’t enough. One wonders if Aragorn and friends couldn’t have sprinted all the way to Mt Doom. I still find it a bit jarring after multiple reads.
More foreshadowing comes up in the sight of a far-off eagle, spotted before by Aragorn on Amon Hen. Eagles are a consistent image of hope in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, so seeing one here can only be a good thing. But certainly, first time readers cannot have much of an idea of what is to come, and what figure the eagles really represent.
More tantalising clues pop up as the chase continues. The discovery of one of the Lorien brooches, off the trail is another plot point in this timeline that will be explained in the following chapter. Aragorn demonstrates some more intelligence, by urging the others to keep away from the path so they don’t mess up the trail. Maybe he’s just better with a smaller group of people. Junior Officer seems to be the limit for him. The discovery of the leaf adds some impetus to the chase and this chapter, showing us that Merry and Pippin are, or were anyway, still alive in the company of the Orcs.
After running non-stop for an extreme length of time, the trio finally decide to call it a night. It seems crazy to have the debate over whether rest is needed at all. One thing that isn’t mentioned is water. We have no idea how much of it the three guys have on them, or if they are finding places to replenish that stock. It shouldn’t matter how much Lembas you have – dehydration would be the primary foe in a race like this.
Anyway, the smart choice is made as Aragorn, still penitent for his many mistakes in the previous chapters, chooses to get some kip, rather than struggle on in the dark and potentially lose the trail. It is the right choice, all things considered, but the mood is downbeat. There is an excellently portrayed sense of gloom about this company now, morale is low. “This is a bitter end to our hope and to all our toil!” It makes you think about what would happen if everything went right and the trio did catch up with the Orcs: what is it, three against a few hundred? This trio may be just a dog chasing a car.
Day comes, and Aragorn pulls off the Hollywood Indian trick, ear to the ground in order to try and hear the enemy. This is another reminder of Aragorn’s tracking skills, which are coming to the fore in this chapter after being reintroduced in the last. More foreshadowing, this time in the form of horses. There is a distinct impression of trouble in the land. There is silence in Rohan, a supposedly populated country. Something is clearly rotten here, and the tension is slowly racked up as a result. The question remains, is it Saruman’s will that is beating down the party now, as they tire and lose hope, or is the physical exhaustion that is doing it, with the Wizard being a convenient excuse?
Anyway, according to the heroes, they are now 36 hours behind the Orcs. That’s quite bad, and it’s the death knell of the chase really. 36 hours is a long time, but really, did the trio ever really have a chance of catching up to them? I blame Boromir of course, who had to go and die and get a proper funeral, delaying the starting pistol for these three.
Anyway, it’s time to introduce Rohan in a proper sense, as a group of horsemen approach. I like how Aragorn is basically too worn down and too pissed off to even attempt to hide, choosing to just wait for them: “‘We will wait,’ said Aragorn. ‘I am weary, and our hunt has failed”. He gives the other two, and by extension the reader, the quick lowdown on the Rohirrim, in a very rustic manner, painting them all with the same brush. They’re strong-willed, blonde haired, tough, outdoorsy people, with no books but lots of songs.
Rohan has drawn its share of discussion for just who Tolkien was basing it off. There seems to be a mix of Celtic, Saxon, Mongol and Norse elements within it, with the latter being especially strong as an influence. It’s easy to see the place as a Scandinavian style Kingdom (in terms of physical appearance), with an emphasis on horses instead of boats. It has that barbarian element to it, in that it is not a place of books, learning, grand buildings and large cities, but more of a settled people who still have the trace of a nomad culture. Real life peoples like the Goths and Huns, after they settled down, come to mind.
The horsemen get surprised by the trio, concealed by the cloaks, and what follows is an extended pissing contest, with the trio on one side and Eomer on the other. Eomer is our proper introduction to the Rohirrim, and he is aggressive and confrontational, clearly spoiling for a fight. The initial impression of Rohan is then, of a Kingdom that is nearing the breaking point and has become paranoid of anything strange.
Legolas and Gimli match Eomer in the raging dickhead stakes, which is somewhat crazy considering they are surrounded by a hundred armed angry horsemen. I really do find this scene a little hilarious, how Gimli and Legolas are basically, beyond all sense or reason, telling Eomer and his 100 guys to “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” over a fairly mild insult to Galadriel. Not for the last time either.
Aragorn is a little better, stepping in as the “calm down, leave it Gimli, he’s not worth it” guy, but is full of bluster himself, doing a big elaborate bit revealing himself to be the Heir of Elendil and rightful King of Gondor. It stands out to much maybe because it’s so new: this is a long way from the indecisive worrier of the last few chapters. Instead, Aragorn suddenly seems the man who will be King, as opposed to the man who might, maybe, I don’t know, perhaps be King. The death of Boromir and Aragorn’s last promise to him is apparently having a very stirring effect already.
Eomer doesn’t really seem to know what to say, and who can blame him? He’s coming back from a vicious fight with an Orc band and he runs into a fiery little Dwarf, an angry Elf, and some guy claiming to be the long-lost King of Gondor, who are running after the Orc band on foot, all alone, looking for some “Halflings”. My reaction would not be “Hail Lord of Gondor!” but “break out the cuffs, we’re going to the loony bin to drop these guys off.”
Eomer doesn’t do that, choosing to believe Aragorn. He namedrops Boromir here, reminding us again that we’re much closer to Gondor then we were before and that our dead party member was well known throughout these parts. It is perhaps because of Boromir’s strange quest for Rivendell, which Eomer is fully aware of, that this character is more trusting of Aragorn then he should be. Also, the fact that Eomer knows about Boromir and his dream-riddle, should be enough to tip us off that he is someone of some importance, though the fact that he is actually the heir to the Kingdom, like Aragorn is with Gondor, doesn’t come up yet (in actual fact, he isn’t at this exact point in the story, Thedon’s son still being alive fighting Orcs somewhere).
Eomer, calmed down a little, gives the reader the somewhat surprising news that the bad guys the trio were chasing after are all toast, kinda literally. It’s a major momentum shift in the tone of the chapter, with every point of the whole exercise gone in an instant.
It’s Eomer’s turn to be Mr Exposition, and he gives the lowdown on Rohans’ situation, and by extension, sets up the rest of Book Three. Rohan is a Kingdom is desperate trouble. It’s ruled by a weak, elderly man and Saruman is on the prowl from his nearby fortress of Isengard. The Kingdom has a clear morale problem, from what Eomer tells us, as Saruman’s forces take little bites out of the land, not engaging in any big battles yet, but forcing people to flee certain areas, depopulating the country, and taking full advantage of having far too much of a free rein:
“It is ill dealing with such a foe: he is a wizard both cunning and dwimmer-crafty, having many guises….His spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky. I do not know how it will all end, and my heart misgives me…”
Saruman’s strategy, from what we hear here, is a cautious one. He is content to raid and prod at Rohan, softening the place up, secure in his own capital which Rohan has no capability to threaten. The big blow is coming soon, since we know Saruman won’t be content to just raid. Eomer says that bigger clashes are taking place elsewhere (with big implications for the rest of the story) but what he and his group just fought was nothing more than a minor skirmish. I love this section of speech. While it’s a mini info-dump, it does add to the mood of a nation at war, and gives a basic strategic picture at the same time, eltting us know why Saruman’s land and army, as political entities, are dangerous, and why Rohan doesn’t seem to be in a position to stop them. It is a climate rife with suspicion, doubt and intrigue: Eomer mistook this party for Orcs initially, the Orcs have seemingly been killing each other, and every other word out of Eomer’s mouth adds to this narrative of fumbling through a dense fog of war. “It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. . . . How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”
Eomer also lets us know that Gandalf is actually quite unpopular in Rohan, for being a perceived doomsayer and taking off with the best horse in the Kingdom, previously mentioned. It’s an interesting point. Wormtongue isn’t brought up just yet, but we can guess that if the leaders of the land don’t like Gandalf, something is wrong with them. As I said, something is rotten in the state of Rohan.
Eomer is a reasonable character at heart, now that he has calmed down a bit. He’s a good man, who is being pressed hard by many burdens, not all of them stated at this point. His pleading for Aragorn to follow him back to Edoras is more than a little desperate sounding. His decision to give the trio some horses and set them on their way shows him to be trusting, maybe too trusting, but also shows him to simply be a military leader who does not have the time or energy to deal with this problem as he should right now. We’ll be meeting him again.
The trio arrives at the borders of Fangorn Forest, discovering the burned remains of the Orcs. The hopelessness returns in a big way as Gimli muses about telling Frodo or Bilbo about the apparent deaths. We get some more words on Fangorn and its danger, with the very apt comparison made with the Old Forest. Fangorn is even bigger though. A classic scary image is that of a gnarled old tree seemingly bending over a person with its branches in a threatening manner. Fangorn has that feeling in spades.
This chapter, quite long now that I think about it, comes to an end with the sudden appearance, then disappearance, of an elderly figure. It’s an unexpected and somewhat unnerving development. The obvious answer is that it is Saruman, and right now is does not appear that anyone else can fit the bill. Then again, why would Saruman come all the way out here for a glance at the trio, then disappear? It is a bit of a cliffhanger ending, and it’ll be a few chapters before we return. The final lines remind us of the eeriness of the old man, and the obstacle his sudden appearance has forced on the trio: “The old man did not appear again, and the horses did not return”.
This chapter needs to jumpstart the narrative again properly, after the strangely placed introduction that was “The Departure Of Boromir”. And it does that, in spades, being the true beginning of the great adventure tale that is Book Three. The reader is thrust into a brand new land, culture and situation, a Beowulf-style Kingdom on the brink of ruin, its brave people engaged in an apparently hopeless war with a cruel and unbending foe. But in the midst of all that is a much more personable tale: three friends, racing after their comrades, unsure if they will even get the chance to rescue them. “Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of this time.“ Eomer receives a strong character introduction, and is the perfect method to inform the reader about Rohan and its plight. Throw in some wonderful examples of descriptive writing, and some awesome mood setting elements, and you have yourself the kind of chapter that propels the reader into continuing the story of this war with Saruman, and the people caught in it, not to mention the continuing hunt for the hobbits. It’s strong stuff all round then, and more is to come. The reader might have been wondering where Frodo and Sam were, and why the narrative was seemingly unconcerned with them, but “The Riders Of Rohan” assuages these doubts, by assuring that this section of the branching narrative will be one worth following. It isn’t perfect – Legolas and Gimli remain undermined in terms of characterisation, the initial macho showdown with Eomer is really odd and the first half of the chapter has a bit of a pacing issue – but it’s still a major step-up overall.
Next time, we’re back in time with Merry and Pippin coming into their own as characters.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.