The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The White Rider

(Updated on 30/05/2023)

We’re back with the three hunters, stuck on what seems, to them anyway, like a hopeless quest. The reader is well aware that Merry and Pippin are safe and sound of course, but Tolkien won’t leave this thread dangling in front of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas much longer anyway.

The trio are heading into Fangorn, but before that they’re going to find something to give the search a little bit more impetus. Added to this is the surprising revelation from Legolas that the bolted horses from “The Riders Of Rohan” weren’t scared, but happy. Such a description seems a little strange, and doesn’t seem to make much sense: they still ran off. A sense of watchfulness prevails, the common feeling with Fangorn it would seem.

Aragorn is again in his element, using his tracking skills and honed senses to find out what happened with Merry and Pippin. It’s done logically, Aragorn following the trail of evidence to a reasonable conclusion. That is, he doesn’t just decide Merry and Pippin are alive from a piece of cut rope, he goes through what must have happened in a smart way, noticing the trample of grass, blood stains, crumbs of food. He gets it dead right and the whole scene has this great sense of believability to it. Aragorn is a good detective and now the group has the hope it needs to continue, and it doesn’t feel forced or tacked on. The chase has not been in vain, even if Legolas’ sarcastic summation of the situation indicates things are still gloomy: “After that, I suppose, he turned his arms into wings and flew away singing into the trees. It should be easy to find him: we only need wings ourselves!

This chapter takes us back to the Legolas/Gimli dynamic properly. Legolas, in describing the forest as something that isn’t that bad, something with a soul, comes off as more liberal and flowery then Gimli, the stoic realist, who keeps the axe handy for any trouble. It’s your atypical odd couple playing off each other again, but with a friendly air: “Where you go, I will go” proffers Gimli, indicating a bond that has grown to a great strength already. The trio eventually come to the conclusion that, indeed, Fangorn can’t be that bad really, somewhat surprising after the previous references of doom and gloom. In fact, the three of them really do interact really wonderfully in this opening section, most notably in Legolas’ amusing summation of how the hobbits “must” have escaped.

Looking at this situation as a whole, it does seem as if Aragorn is still looking for redemption for his previous mistakes. The sentiment he expresses here, that if all the trio can do is find the hobbits and starve to death with them, then they have to do that, is a bit extreme. I get the sense that Aragorn is overly-penitent now, convinced that only in saving Merry and Pippin will he be able to look himself in the eye. Being loyal and staying true to the chase is one thing, but it’s possible to do it smart as well. You could also read much into the fact that it is Gimli who brings up this apparent likelihood, like the more realistic dwarf is already seeking a way out of a seemingly hopeless errand (though we also have to note his desire to have an “argument” ready if the trio happen upon Saruman).

Much like how Merry and Pippin were barely in Fangorn before bumping into Treebeard, the trio soon run into the main focus of the chapter. An apparent threat arrives in the form of an old man, perhaps the old man from the conclusion of “The Riders of Rohan”. The (first time) reader, like the trio, can’t really have any kind of idea as to what’s going on. Some old man, in rags, turning up in Fangorn? Being all friendly? Doesn’t seem like Saruman from what we know of him so far, but the threat is still there. I found it interesting that Gimli was the one best able to actually enact a defence, even if it only went so far as retaining the element of speech. Legolas can’t bring himself to raise his bow at the guy (Aragorn, very nicely, sparing his blushes by essentially going “You’re right! We shouldn’t just kill the old man!”)

Of course, the old man is sort of asking for it, turning up out of nowhere, and not saying who he is. A real sense of tension is here, but just what it is all about is too hard to call. Until we get the revelation.

So, Gandalf is back. It is undoubtedly the biggest deus ex machina in the entire epic and I have always had very mixed feelings about it. In the end, even after so many re-reads, I do still feel that it is kind of a cop-out, especially from the perspective of story-telling in 2023. Tolkien famously didn’t have much of a plan for The Lord of the Rings, and I feel that this may be an example of the weakness of that. Gandalf is thrust back into the story in a very weird, almost ham-fisted way, with a very vague and almost nonsensical explanation for those who are not inclined to read copious footnotes and explanations outside of the narrative. The emotional weight of his fall back on Book Two gets trashed, and the story as a whole suffers from what I would dub Heroes syndrome: You bring characters back from the dead, and death no longer works as a dramatic device.

It seems Tolkien got to a point where he needed Gandalf back. Maybe writing Aragorn as a sort of underwhelming leader got him thinking about the leadership of the group, or maybe he just simply regretted killing the wizard off (but not enough to re-write that whole section). Or maybe he always intended to pull this angle, with its obviously Christian overtones and nods to eucatastrophe, but that doesn’t make it a good choice. So, in the end, I’m not a huge fan of the resurrection. I’m not entirely convinced that it is really necessary, and it takes much of the spotlight off Aragorn for a large amount of the rest of the story. And it has come rather out of nowhere. But that’s not my only problem with Gandalf’s return.

Gandalf, initially, acts almost stoned, as if he doesn’t know who or where he is. It’s fairly bizarre, and it certainly adds to the atmosphere of “what the hell is going on?”. He doesn’t do the obvious thing, and explain just how he got from falling into a pit with Balrog to Fangorn. No, he wants to know all of the trio’s news. He doesn’t seem to understand how him rising from the dead should warrant some explanation. Aragorn recovers from the shock the quickest, and he is firmly on mission. His first inquiry is about the hobbits, Merry and Pippin, whom Gandalf has only mentioned in vague terms. The confirmation that those two are safe must come as a huge relief for Aragorn.

Gandalf gives off an air of being all-seeing and all knowing, describing the Fellowship’s movements since his fall, showing off that he knows where the hobbits are, where Frodo is gone. But he doesn’t know everything, as he appears to be thrown for a loop when Aragorn tells him Sam has also joined Frodo on his trip to Mordor. It’s an interesting moment that only adds to the confusion. Is Gandalf all there? He’s come back from death, but can’t pick up on the little details? Is he really more powerful or is he just putting it on? Is he Godlike, or is it just a facade?

The four continue to talk and Gandalf continues to not explain how he got there. The trio all seem to accept his return without too much shock, recovering from his initial reveal quite quickly. That’s all a little odd and ties back in to the general shoddiness of Gandalf’s return. They all just buy it without too much comment. Sure, Gandalf is a wizard, and sure he has lots of strange powers but come on: he’s come back from the dead, and now everyone is just standing around the forest chatting.

Time for some exposition anyway, and some more set-up for the latter part of this book. Gandalf has helped Frodo out when he “strove with the Dark Tower”, but what that actually means goes unsaid: we can infer enough to remember the voice in Frodo’s head back on Amon Hen. He knows about Boromir (and what Aragorn is holding back, with the wizard untactfully questioning what is left out of Aragorn’s recollection) and he also mentions that Galadriel had her suspicions too. I find that concerning, the Elven Queen happily sending a guy she knew was going to make a play for the Ring off with the group without telling anyone. What is with these “good guys” and holding cards to their chest?

Gandalf lays out some politics for us after this. Mordor is nearly set for its big war against the free peoples, Gondor being the main target. In this, Mordor is actually being, as Gandalf so wonderfully puts it, a “wise fool”, focusing on the main military threat, but ignoring the actual proper danger with the Ring heading to Mt Doom. Mordor has allied itself with Isengard, but it’s a false alliance. Saruman is very obviously after the Ring and the growth of his own power, and is teaming up with Sauron more out of default-type thinking then anything. They both have orc armies, so they should be allies. I’m not sure this little recap was all that necessary, since most of it has been well-established already, and not in such an obviously declaratory way. Anyway, as Gandalf makes clear, the whole situation is to Mordor’s benefit. Saruman hasn’t a hope of getting the Ring, and while he might be tough enough to take Rohan on, he’ll never be able to match Mordor. He’s being used by Sauron to take out Gondor’s best ally, and he’s playing that part to a tee.

Gandalf also gives us some more info about the “Fell Beasts” of the Nazgul, confirming that they are the new winged steeds of the Ringwraiths. It’s terrifying enough that the most physical of the enemy’s minions are coming back into play, but they’ve got one hell of a ride to help them along: notwithstanding Legolas’ instant slaying of one back in “The Great River”. The last part of this little exposition gives us some more on the ents, the last faction to consider in this part of the war. It’s good to see that the ents, while being mysterious and solitary, are known about by people. It’s only natural that Legolas would know the most, being the most attuned with nature and all. But this part seems oddly misplaced, almost as if Tolkien is building the ents up, even though we’ve already been introduced to them in the story. We know the ents are strong and a force to be reckoned with, so even though this chapter is operating on a different timeline, it all seems a little stale. The cryptic nature of Gandalf talking about the ents adds to this, since it isn’t that cryptic for the reader.

This section does do one thing right, which is to emphasise the legendary nature of the ents, and it’s done well through the reactions of Aragorn and Gimli, who treat the ents like some kind of fairy tale that may not even be real (interestingly, much like the Rohirrim did towards the hobbits earlier. It’s all a matter of relativity I guess). Moreover, this whole exposition section builds up that feeling of impending war, to the extent that we can almost hear the drumbeats sounding. But, again, it was all done better before.

A new quest for the trio is laid out, with Merry and Pippin having been dealt with. They’re no longer the problem and neither are Frodo and Sam, gone too far in the other direction. So, it’s off to the war for these guys, which will be their task for the remainder of the story. After all, “the great storm is coming“. Edoras, the capital of Rohan, is the new goal, and with it, the household of Theoden. Some interesting imagery here, with Aragorn as the great King, and Gandalf as the mysterious power:

The others gazed at them in silence as they stood there facing one another. The grey figure of the Man, Aragorn son of Arathorn, was tall, and stern as stone, his hand upon the hilt of his sword; he looked as if some king out of the mists of the sea had stepped upon the shores of lesser men. Before him stooped the old figure, white; shining now as if with some light kindled within, bent, laden with years, but holding a power beyond the strength of kings.”

These odd flashes serve to remind us of Aragorn’s destiny – in many respects this section is about an angelic figure in Gandalf giving Aragorn a divine blessing to go off to war: “The light of Anduril must now be uncovered in the battle for which it has so long waited – and Gandalf’s true nature. They’re both going to be coming into those roles in a bigger way as we go on: “…the Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”

It is only now that we finally get Gandalf’s story but all it really does is raise further questions. It’s a pained memory clearly, which may explain the limited recollection, but it’s still crazy sounding. It starts out as the standard epic fantasy stuff, but then veers sharply into other territory. He fought the Balrog up and down a mountain, beset by “nameless things” that have something of a Lovecraftian vibe, and was able to strike it down, but then…I’m not sure. Having defeated the demon, Gandalf underwent some sort of cosmic, out of body, experience, one that makes little sense to me. He was “sent back” from death and infinity to finish his task, but where he went, who sent him back and so forth, is not explained.

It is, in conjunction with the resurrection, a major weakness in the story. I’m not a fan of this sort of writing. I can almost hear Tolkien saying to the reader “Just go with it.” Gandalf’s return is badly explained and crudely executed, and we won’t be focusing too much on it again in the story.

As we near the end of the chapter, Gandalf relates some words of warning and prophecy from Galadriel. The snippets of rhyme that are presented to Aragorn and Legolas are doom-laden and depressing, not exactly morale boosters. While Aragorn’s has some useful info in it, albeit info that won’t be useful for a while yet, Legolas’ is the opposite, being little more than “If you hear the sea, you’re finished”. Seriously, what is the point of telling the guy that, other than to mess with his head? Gimli gets a few words too, but it’s almost like Gandalf forgot about him, and made up a crappy rhyme on the spot.

The trio head onward to Edoras, adventure and war but not before the proper intro for Shadowfax. If there’s one thing to take away from Shadowfax it’s this: why does everything in Middle-Earth have to have a King? Even horses? At least the chapter ends on a strong note, with Gandalf urging the group to “Ride on!” in the face of “Battle and war!

This chapter is certainly one that I dislike, and in fact I dislike it more and more every time that I read it. The central problem of the resurrection of Gandalf, and what it means for the rest of the story thematically and structurally, cannot really be ignored. More than that, the chapter on its own merits isn’t all that great either. After a promising opening it divulges into reams of exposition and awkward dialogue, with a lot of the exposition being of the unnecessary kind, stuff that the reader already knows or could reasonably been expected to infer. The explanation behind Gandalf’s resurrection only comes near the end, inexplicably, and isn’t all that satisfying when it does come. And Gandalf’s demeanour throughout the chapter is strange and off-putting. I’ve always been a bit thrown by other reactions to this chapter: I wouldn’t say that Gandalf’s reappearance is universally praised, but certainly I find myself in a distinct minority of those who feel it weakens the story. Gandalf is so beloved it seems that even an unsatisfying resurrection can be accepted.

Having come to the mid-point of Book Three, it’s like Tolkien had to stop and take a metaphorical break in his narrative, feeling the need to get his other characters up to speed before he could keep going with the relative awesomeness that the rest of Book Three contains. In order to do that, there has to be an unnatural four way conversation featuring a dead guy come back to life, in the middle of an enchanted forest, and I just don’t feel, and have never felt, that it works all that well. As a character and in terms of actual words, Gandalf will improve a hell of a lot as we go forward, which will help to cover over what I see as the weaknesses introduced by this chapter. But it will never entirely go away.

For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here. 

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6 Responses to The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The White Rider

  1. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. NFB says:

    I just want to say, it’s always nice to see someone get to that stage in their lives when you they take their first stuttering steps into fandom and serious literary thinking, in this case marked by an overly defensive attitude to the slightest criticism of their idol and lashing out in the most childish manner possible. Don’t worry. One day you’ll think back on this and laugh.

    For the meantime, as per site policy, your abusive posts will be deleted, and anything else you write will be deleted unread.

    Good luck with that high school graduation in a few years.

  3. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The King Of The Golden Hall | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Voice Of Saruman | Never Felt Better

  5. Shane says:

    Agreed that resurrecting Gandalf sticks in the craw. I have often wondered if Tolkien wanted rid of Gandalf in a similar way to the Hobbit, needing to break up the fellowship, show some indecision from Aragorn and have Boromir serve his purpose. It was weakly done. I would have preferred ‘i need to go investigate something mark II’ than what he gave us. It really has not aged well.

    Love your analysis by the way!

    • CR says:

      Gandalf’s resurrection wasn’t random. He represents Christ, so he returns as such and in a new form. Nevertheless, death doesn’t lose it’s power because of it, but it doesn’t always need it anyway. Death itself can be a cop-out for emotional drama. If anyone knows anything about Tolkien, he is not about hero-syndrome. He’s written essays about that.

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