(Updated on 29/08/15)
“The White Rider” is one of the worst chapters in the story, in my opinion, but we’re starting on a few brilliant chapters in a row, pretty much all the way to the end of Book Three. We’ve had our introduction to the Kingdom of Rohan back in “The Riders of Rohan” but this is where we get into the meat and bones of the “Horse-Lords” proper, getting up close and personal with their culture, customs and politics.
The four travellers journey on, the opening passage of the chapter emphasising their fleeting nature in the night. Tolkien does a good job of creating that sense of speed and urgency here, the description of the geography being limited: “Under the cold moon they went on once more, as swift as by the light of day.”
The main location of the chapter is the settlement of Edoras, and the titular hall of Meduseld. Edoras is clearly a hill fort of some kind, a simple enough defensive settlement, not all that big. Its description reminded me somewhat of the old Celtic forts you see dotted around the west of Ireland, positions that were simple, small, defensive, designed to be built for the best tactical advantage possible in the quickest amount of time. Edoras is the perfect capital for this kind of Kingdom, a land that is not as geographically set as others. It’s rustic and free, lacking stone and permanence, but full of character and life.
Again, Rohan is described as the spoken record kind of place, a land that writes nothing down, and whose inhabitants live simple rural lives: “Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin”. Edoras, in its design, reflects that, its sole thing of value being the hall’s golden roof, the only thing that marks it as a royal residence. All of this will stand in marked contrast to our introduction to the capital of Gondor in “Minis Tirith“.
Aragorn is the one to give us the brief snippet of Rohan history, in the form of one of the better pieces of verse you’ll see in the story:
“Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”
You’d need to go into the Appendices to get the full story (and it is a good one) but we know from Aragorn’s notes on this enchanting and haunting piece of verbal remembrance that Rohan came to be from an ancestor called Eorl, who arrived from the north, won a battle in the region, and got it for his own from a grateful Gondor. In that regard, the Rohirrim strike me as a lot like the “barbarian” tribes of Goths, Vandals and others who started to pour into western and southern Europe in the third and fourth centuries, getting lands granted to them by Rome in exchange for military assistance (Gondor taking the Rome role in this story), then making their own Kingdoms and legacies. Now, they are the blonde-haired, almost Nordic, inhabitants of these plains. There is a clear sense of nobility and pride here.
But trouble also, which we’ve gotten brief glimpses of in previous chapters. Rohan is a Kingdom that is being pushed hard and that is reflected in the behaviour of its citizens. The gate guards who greet the protagonists are stand-offish and troubled. Gandalf is known to them and we get a mention of a figure who will be pivotal in this chapter: Grima, of the unfortunate nickname “Wormtongue”. We know from “The Council Of Elrond” that Gandalf has had some difficulties in this place before, but we now see that they’re bound up in a person who, judging by that nickname, is not going to be friendly. “Wormtongue” is a name that evokes immediate thoughts, such as liar and deceiver, or, if we’re being generous, someone with a way for words, used deviously. Something is rotten in the state of Rohan, and we can already guess that this character will be at the core of it.
Edoras is quiet, a town in crisis. If it were a person, it’d be on suicide watch. Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers actually does a better job, I think, of relating this, by having every other person wear black, as if they are in mourning (which they might be, there is a war on).
There’s more problems at the entrance to the great hall (perhaps nothing else shows how different Rohan is to Gondor then the fact that the group can get this close to Meduseld’s doors without too much difficulty, compared to the seven gates and levels of Minis Tirith). This time, a named character, Hama, is the one in the way, Middle-Earth’s version of an airport security checker. He wants the group to give up their weapons before they see Théoden.
See, I would consider that giving up your instruments of death before meeting the lands executive would be common sense, and it is for Legolas anyway, who gives up his bow without much protest, asking only that the gate guard look after them well. Gandalf gives up his sword, with a friendly air.
But not Aragorn, who wants a fight. At first glance he seems to be acting obnoxiously for no reason other than ridiculous pride, stating, in so many words, that his claim to Gondor’s throne, unverified and unearned to this point, should allow him to flout Théoden’s rules. Gimli decides to back him up – great line there, describing Hama “as if he were a young tree that Gimli had a mind to fell” – and suddenly it’s all “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” again.
But reading between some lines, and if you have read a bit into the inspirations for these sections of The Lord Of The Rings, you can begin to understand, with concepts of respect and perceptions of strength coming to the fore. Like a mighty Beowulf-esque warrior about to enter the hall of a great lord, Aragorn is challenged in a key way, a test of his authority, his masculinity, but also his wisdom. The chapter has already seen a bit of this at the gates of Edoras, when the guards indicated that the quartet’s horses are “like to our own” to which Aragorn replied, somewhat scathingly “For indeed these are your own horses that we ride, as you knew well ere you asked…”
To simply give up his famous sword without complaint would be weak, and so the guards of Meduseld would see him. Aragorn makes a fuss instead, directly calling attention to the apparent insult of a lesser lord dictating to him: after all, since Aragorn is rightful King of Gondor, Théoden is actually his vassal, and he has previously declared himself to Eomer. There is an assault here on the breaking of xenia and presumed guest-friendship, and we are perhaps meant to understand Aragorn’s scorn, that Théoden would treat him this way (Gandalf will hammer this point home in a moment: “The courtesy of your halls is somewhat lessened of late…“). In standing up for his right to bear arms, as a King-in-waiting, Aragorn both makes himself look impressive to these men, and levels a pointed insult at the Kind of Rohan, that might land quite hard with his soldiers, one of whom previously hoped “And may the Lord of the Mark be gracious to you!”
And he has the wisdom to accept the out that Gandalf gives him. Gandalf hands over his sword willingly, and this act allows Aragorn to do the same, following the older man’s lead, with Glamdring set up as the older, more valuable sword. But both save face: Gandalf in stating that Theoden’s request is “needless” and Aragorn in his statement that he will simply put his sword aside himself and none are to touch it.
But Gandalf gets to keep his staff. Hama is a character who gets little time in the story (he’ll be dead in 20 pages or so) but this moment makes him stand out. He presses the issue of the staff, but not really. He lets Gandalf go in with it, and I think it’s a very deliberate choice by the guard, who wants to see what the wizard will do with it. Aragorn does his part in this little deception too, as the good cop suddenly (…would you part an old man from his support?) but it’s unnecessary. Hama wants to see it play out. He’s a good man, who can see a way for whatever’s happening in Edoras to be undone.
Here, we will meet three characters, two of which are absolutely pivotal to the remainder of the story.To be honest, Théoden is probably my favourite character in the whole tale, simply because his sub-plot is so excellently told. He begins as a Methuselah, the ancient King, clinging to life in an almost trance like state. From there, we will see a man rejuvenated but haunted, obsessed with seeking glory and death on the battlefield, not just to save his Kingdom and defeat the bad guys, but to ensure his own legacy and acceptance in the next world. His dynamic with Eowyn and Eomer will be brilliant, and he will have one of the books stand out relationships in his friendship with Merry. He is the old man going on his last adventure, Gran Torino style, and it begins here.
His first dialogue is bitter, wary sounding and gives an impression of a broken man, mourning the loss of his son, a death that makes him (and his subsequent quest for a good legacy) all the more tragic. He does not lash out angrily, but almost calmly rejects Gandalf’s arrival and offers of help. He’s seeing his Kingdom collapse, and its very existence slipping away. Why should he rejoice at the arrival of Gandalf and his cronies?
Enter the “Wormtongue”. If you haven’t guessed from his nickname, his description will confirm him as a villain: black clad, large peering eyes, and a voice with power (much like Saruman in fact). He is the Iago of the story, the betrayer with knowledge of “leechcraft” and manipulation. Grima is an interesting bad guy, if a little under-developed. I would have liked to know just how he got into the position of chief courtier in the first place, whether he was once loyal. As it is, we will know him as Saruman’s patsy, though one with his own tragic side.
That’s to come. Now, it is clear he is the resident liar, and an obstacle on the road to victory. He twists Gandalf’s words with ease, throwing his gift of assistance back at him, implying treachery in his association with Lothlorien and accusing the wizard of being, with delicious wordplay, akin to “pickers of bones, meddlers in other men’s sorrows, carrion-fowl that grow fat on war.”
Gandalf, of course, isn’t going to stand for that. He is “the White” now, truth incarnate, and he faces the very essence of lies in this room. Hama’s gamble pays off, and whatever Gandalf does exactly (as with much of the story’s magic it isn’t clearly defined), it works. Meduseld is struck by a thunderbolt, and a haze is lifted. Grima is left crawling on his belly, the worm, while Théoden rises.
His transformation is an intriguing one, as he seems to lose decades off his appearance. Some form of witchcraft has clearly been at play (or maybe it’s all Gandalf’s doing) and Théoden is better for Gandalf’s intervention. His mind is cleared, his worries decreased. He rises, the King of a besieged land, suddenly ready to lead the comeback. Gandalf has had lots of bad moments in the story, but he’s pulled off quite the coup here. One could argue that he may simply been doing the same as Grima, using his power to influence the King, but that doesn’t seem like his style does it?
This section of the chapter has been the subject of much discussion, especially in relation to its depiction in Jackson’s trilogy, where Théoden was portrayed more overtly as being under Saruman’s power, through Wormtongue. I suppose, for this specific moment, I prefer Jackson’s vision, which is more understandable and clear-cut without damaging the foundation of the story being told.
Eowyn gets her introduction at this moment, the caring niece worried over his Uncle’s health, but it is a worry that is no longer viable. She is the maiden of Rohan, the blonde haired princess of the barbarian land. She catches Aragorn’s, and the reader’s, eye immediately:
“Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.”
She will be the most important female character in the entire story, though she appears to have little importance right now.
Gandalf has brought hope to the beleaguered land, and Théoden appears in front of his people, full of sudden fire and determination. It is the turn of the tide in Rohan, that Gandalf spoke of earlier, portrayed as that lone splinter of sunlight through the clouds. “It is not so dark here” as the King says.
Gandalf quickly gets round to the important points, catching Théoden up on what’s been happening in the world. Some brief thoughts for the Ring-bearer from the company are included, reminding the reader that Frodo and Sam are still out there somewhere, fighting the true fight. Théoden is full of beans now, assembling his forces, mustering his men, getting ready for the fighting that should have taken place ages ago. We already get signs of his blood-sacrifice thinking, encouraged by Aragorn, as the King is prepared to fall at the forefront of battle if he must, the image of the chivalric Middle-Age monarch. But first, we come back to one of the common threads of the story, xenia, as Théoden realises that he has been an appalling host to this point. He acts as if he has committed a grave offence, which shows how seriously this stuff is taken in Middle-Earth.
Grima gets his comeuppance, and while we have only known him for a few pages, we are left in no doubt that it is long past due. His role is quickly taken by Eomer and Gandalf, who fall over each other to stand beside the King. Grima is suddenly trapped and desperate, his deceits thus far laid bare for all to see. He adds lies and falsehoods on top of others, in a clumsy attempt to escape what is coming. Nothing will stop that now though. Wormtongue is all alone in this place, so he decides to book. We also see an even more sinister side to him, his not-so-secret desire for Eowyn, a creepy trait.
I also find it interesting that even in the third person narrative, Tolkien calls Grima “Wormtongue”. It is a measure of how much we are supposed to recognise the man as a bad guy, when even the author of the story will not address him by his actual name.
The events of “The King of the Golden Hall” lay bare the failures in Saruman’s plans for taking on Rohan. The wizard clearly has little mind for strategy. He was content to work covertly, going after Théoden in an underhanded manner, seeking to debilitate him from within his own circle. In the meantime, his military actions, while gaining more frequency, have been small and piecemeal. Rohan, before this chapter, was a nation demoralised and ripe for slaughter. Now, thanks to the failure of Saruman’s anti-Théoden tactic, his entire plan will unravel. He has lost the initiative thanks to Gandalf, an initiative he will struggle to get back. And he has also failed to adequately prepare for another obvious threat, one much closer to his doorstep than Théoden.
Rohan is arming up, and suddenly the story has become very military. Eowyn gets her place in the tale set as Théoden leaves her in charge of Edoras while he is gone, something that is all the more remarkable for her sex. Some clear sparks fly between her and Aragorn as the ranger heads out, and that will be important later.
I’ll talk more at a further point in the narrative, but I think that Aragorn and Eowyn would have made a far better love story then the one we do get. Eowyn, aside from being more prominently featured, is just a better character then Arwen, and the plot points of this romance, the tragic maiden giving in to hopelessness, only to get help from outsiders and ride off to battle with them, is just much better than the unspoken implications and hearsay of the books actual romantic sub-plot.
But, instead, Eowyn and Aragorn’s subplot becomes one of a hopeless infatuation, a plot designed to further make Eowyn a tragic figure. She will become the warrior queen, a Boudicca for Rohan, but for now she is just a girl who has been struck by Cupid’s arrows. And unfortunately for her, the guy is taken. Moreover, her other desires are also frustrated, illustrated eloquently by the chapter’s last lines:
“Far over the plain Éowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.”
This chapter needs to be a serious step up from the more questionable stuff that came in the last, and I think that it is. Our introduction to the people of Rohan was good enough earlier on, but getting in-depth with them and their country works a treat at banishing any residual doubts over Gandalf’s return to the story. Some really great, vivid characters are introduced, and some plot-critical events take place, the whole chapter filled with that mix of foreboding, epic storytelling and a sense of grand designs coming together. Tolkien’s immense skill at creating mood and atmosphere are at the forefront here, from Edoras’ initial state of mourning and despair, and the later joy at Théoden’s return to prominence. Gandalf’s power is displayed to the utmost, and everyone else also gets serious moments to mark themselves out and for the reader to savour.
Now, everything is set up for what is to come. The War of the Ring is on, the first battleground that the reader will get to see upcoming, and Tolkien has laid the groundwork very nicely. We have a Kingdom in peril, but now beginning a comeback, an enemy both deadly and deluded, and surprise allies yet to show all that they can do. The action-heavy narrative of “Helm’s Deep” is only possible because of the work done in “The King Of The Golden Hall”, which accomplishes a wide-range of introductions and exposition without any of it feeling unnatural or forced.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.