(Updated on 5/1/16)
We are back in time, as Book Five offers up the second of what will be three plot threads. Gandalf and Pippin are gone. Aragorn, in a very cynical and harsh turn of phrase declares that only “four of the company still remain”, as if the rest are dead or something. I dunno, I always find that choice of phrase weirdly final.
Aragorn, in point of fact, will be keeping the depression up for most of the chapter, starting out here with a very morose assessment that “many hopes will fade in this bitter Spring”. Yeesh. Remember how you just beat Isengard against incredible odds Aragorn? It was, like, two days ago. Cheer up. You’re doing pretty good, and after some considerable stupidity earlier in the story.
Suddenly, the Rangers of the north appear with the sons of Elrond in tow. Quite the momentum shift, as the reader wonders just what’s going on. The sons of Elrond are oft name-dropped characters for the rest of the story, but, like the Rangers, their impact is pretty minimal, their appearance serving one particular plot-important purpose as well as adding to that sense of all the races and folks of the free world standing against Sauron. Aragorn’s joyful welcoming of the group completes this feeling.
It is in this little bit of conversation that the Paths of the Dead are first mentioned. No one elaborates just yet, but even the stupidest reader knows it can’t be good. The word “dead” as a descriptive term added to a place rarely bodes well, after all.
The Ranger’s bring a gift from Arwen, the real purpose of their inclusion in the story. We might be able to guess from the description this it is a flag of some sort, but for now it suffices to know that it is something that has a deep meaning for Aragorn, as any token from a loved one would mean. This is one of the only ways that Arwen continues to be part of the story, I’m not sure if she has even been named since the Lorien chapters. She is, very much so, an absent love interest, and an uninteresting one for that.
The Rangers outline that they were just hanging around in the north, presumably just ranging, when they received a summons from Galadriel to go south and help out Aragorn. This begs the rather crucial question: Why hasn’t Aragorn summoned them before? He’s clearly delighted that they have turned up to lend a hand to the war effort and he is supposed to be a crack military mind. Yet, he leaves Middle-Earth’s version of Special Forces on the sidelines, when they could prove extremely useful. A large part of this chapter will be devoted to the fact that good guys are badly outnumbered in the coming fight with Sauron. Why were the Rangers not called beforehand? Defending the north from the forces of evil is apparently not so desperate a task that the Rangers were not willing to abandon it at the word of an Elven Lady half a world away.
Legolas is the latest to be depressing, remarking that all the peoples of Middle-Earth are facing war in a very downbeat manner, in an otherwise engaging conversation with Gimli. God, it’s spreading. I really don’t quite understand the sudden morale shift here, unless it is simply a case of the fight with the larger threat of Sauron getting them down. Maybe they are all just coming to the realisation that the hard part is still to come, with the reappearance of the Nazgul infecting their subconscious with fear.
Merry and Theoden share a nice moment where the old King makes him his squire. This is passed over pretty quickly in the narrative, but in the kind of world that Tolkien is describing, it’s a huge honour to bestow on someone that the King just met.
It’s clear that the elderly King is displaying a fatherly feeling towards Merry, a reaction to the loss of his real son perhaps. The Merry/Theoden relationship is also clearly designed to be a contrast to the relationship between Pippin and Denethor. One, based on love and trust, will result in Merry nearly giving his life for the King. The other, based on distrust and arrogance, will lead to open conflict and a tragic ending. In this, Tolkien lays it out clearly that the hobbit race are just naturally going to get along better with the rustic Rohan, rather than the stern urban Gondor. Oaths are required from Denethor, but not Théoden. Also clearly foreshadowed is Théoden’s exit from the story in a few chapters:
‘As a father you shall be to me,’ said Merry.
‘For a little while,’ said Théoden.
This isn’t Theoden’s chapter, but before too long we will really be getting into it with him. Book Five’s Rohan thread will be all about his last desperate gasp to prove himself worthy of remembrance and honour, and his death wish, so evident in parts of Book Three, has never really gone away.
After a trip back to Helms Deep and a night’s rest, Aragorn turns up in the morning like someone who has a had a few too many Jaggerbombs. His aged expression lends weight to his pronouncement that he intends to travel the “Paths of the Dead” as soon as he can.
While no one is yet to actually explain to the reader what’s going on, it’s clear that Aragorn has chosen a very dark road to travel. That being said, he has taken the plunge with gusto, so his bravery is certainly not in question. He and Eomer share a nice moment here too, as the Rohan warrior bids him a farewell he is sure is permanent (another sign that Aragorn is going to dark places). Aragorn leaves him with a prophecy – that they will meet again even if they must wade through “a sea of foes” that we know will inevitability come true.
He has looked into the Palantir, in what might be the most impressive character moment that never makes it into the story proper. What follows is basically just exposition, but the manner in which it is laid out excuses the info dump with its lyrical nature and high tone:
“It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me. Yes, Master Gimli, he saw me, but in other guise than you see me here. If that will aid him, then I have done ill. But I do not think so. To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now. The eyes in Orthanc did not see through the armour of Théoden; but Sauron has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for l showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.”
“The Palantir” chapter has made it crystal clear what a massive undertaking it is to look into the stone (Book Five will reemphasise that point later as well, through Denethor), and the news that Aragorn has actually had a stare down with the big bad certainly adds an extra layer of epic both to the overall war and to Aragorn himself. It is as close as an encounter between two great rivals in this war as we will get (after Gandalf and Saruman I suppose). That Aragorn did it to essentially goad Sauron is especially excellent, and there’s something very affecting about his declaration that “the strength was enough – barely”. And, as we will see, Sauron falls for it, hook, line and sinker. It’s also interesting to see Aragorn really step out of the protective shadow of Gandalf, insofar as he disregards the wizard’s advice not to use the stone. It’s his, and he wields the authority and the strength to use it, staring down Sauron. It’s a great way to show Aragorn as an heroic figure.
Finally, after several pages of build-up and apprehension, we get the lowdown on the Paths of the Dead. The idea of a cursed people is interesting enough, though the entire tale rings a little odd. It seems strange that Isildur had the power to do what he is remembered as doing, and that oath-breaking has actually had such drastic consequences as, what is essentially, eternal damnation.
It is the reaction of all those connected with Rohan that really nails it though. We all live near a ghost story. Every city, town, village and hamlet in the world has a ghost story, has an area that is supposed to be haunted, dangerous to the living, unwise to go to or disturb. The “Paths of the Dead” are that for Rohan, a dark place full of peril that the inhabitants of the land are only too happy to try and ignore. Its Rohan’s haunted house and the Rohirrim are utterly terrified of the place, even though they seem to have only a loose grasp on the actual history.
Legolas, being an Elf, is above such concerns and doesn’t seem to care about the ghosts of men. God damn, but this almost ruins it. I have no idea why Tolkien choose to put that in, because the Elf’s coolness when faced with such a trip simply serves to damage the actual terror of the place. Oh well.
Aragorn actually has a decent motivation for his suicidal declaration of course and it is one that the reader is already aware of from Beregond in the previous chapter. The Pirates on the coast are leading an army to attack Minis Tirith from the sea, and keeping them at bay is sapping a large portion of Gondor’s strength. Mordor’s tactics are decent: Using these puppet states and armies to distract Gondorian forces away from the main fight.
So, Aragorn has to sort that problem out before he can save the day proper. He has all the men he can get. That is, all the living men. I admire his ingenuity here, in going after the force available to him, even if it all seems a little convenient. Tolkien has written in a get out of jail free card to an extent. Well, just a little. He didn’t have to write in the Corsair threat at all and just have Aragorn head to the battle with the Rohirrim, but this way he gets a little extra space to do his “King of Kings” thing. Aragorn is headed towards being the leader of the free world, and he needs a task that will let him claim that position deservedly. This task, to go through the underworld like the Greek heroes of old before leading his forces to a bloody final battle, is part and parcel of that process (indeed, this chapters references to ancient songs and lore as sources of information is another nod to epic poetry of the Homeric bent).
Before all that though, the story throws some more romance at the reader. As stated before, it’s odd how Tolkien writes the whole “love” thing, giving the bulk of it to the doomed relationship between Aragorn and Eowyn, with Arwen being a near silent and invisible figure. She sends a flag, while Eowyn gets to actually bare her heart to Aragorn.
It is some good dialogue too, as Aragorn is forced to deal with affections that he reciprocates somewhat but has no interest in following up. Eowyn is the sheltered shieldmaiden, taken with the dashing foreign warrior. Now, he’s leaving and won’t let her come with him. It’s heart-breaking to see her begging, demeaning even, and today it does sort of rub me up the wrong way. Eoywn is, to a large extent, a stereotype of a reckless woman, who is willing to throw away everything she has for nothing much, but I still think she is written rather well for the most part. She’s seen her whole world crumble around her only to be miraculously saved at the last minute: but now, fate is seeing it all slip away again and she reacts in a somewhat manic, unreasonable manner, describing the rather honourable task of leading Rohan in a time of crisis as permission to “be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more”, rejecting Aragorn’s talk of “valour without renown”, as if such a thing is a truly awful fate.
Aragorn, for his part, is the stoic male hero stereotype, refusing to budge even when Eowyn is at her most tear filled. No, he has a destiny that he has to see to, and Eowyn doesn’t figure into it. He is cold towards her, but it is a necessary coldness. Aragorn is trying to get her to stay and forget him, but in truth, he doesn’t do that great a job. It’s clear to the reader that a character like Eowyn, obsessed with glory and battle, isn’t going to stay at home and keep the fires burning. She’s found love but had it spurned: from now on she follows her own path and puts that single-mindedness to another use, so that’s good at least.
The actual sections with the Paths are surprisingly short and action-lite considering that Tolkien has spent a large amount of words bigging them up in this chapter. Gimli is turned into comic relief as he balks at entering the dark entrance, which is maybe the inspiration for his movie portrayal. Aragorn is the leader, advancing through the Paths from the front, strong, silent, the whole thing set-up to make him into the man everyone wants to follow. It becomes almost supernatural, the indication being that only Aragorn’s will is keeping them all going. The writing might be a tad lazy at points, but the idea is being made: this is Aragorn becoming the leader he should be, the King coming home, the man stepping up to the plate to take on the bad guys. It’s the beginning of his final baptism of fire. I mentioned Homeric comparisons earlier, but there are also obvious Christ metaphors to be found here, not least in Aragorn’s successful movement from the world of the living to the world of the dead, and back again.
Creepy details abound, not least the discovery of the skeleton, next to a door it was hacking away at with a sword. It’s an intriguing little detail that the narrative will actually come back to briefly, and every time I read this chapter I always find myself surprised by it. Aragorn sums up the tantalising sight: “…all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know!” The “Dead” are only very loosely described, perhaps to emphasise their mystery and lack of corporeal form. What they are actually capable of is left to the imagination, and it is probably better that way. Legolas’ grim “The Dead are following” – “Dead” capitalised deliberately – is enough to make the point.
The “Grey Company” press on, with terror behind and empty lands ahead. It is another measure of how scary this ghost army is, that Aragorn finds only deserted homesteads ahead of him. It will be a while before we see Aragorn again, and the way that Tolkien leaves his part of the story is enough to get theheartbeat racing a little: a terrible meeting on a haunted hill. There is a bit of “A Knife In The Dark” in all of it, another encounter with ghostly threats in the ruins of long ago civilisations. Here, Aragorn stands in authority, with the locals fears of the “King of the Dead” perhaps applicable to his terrible visage as much as the actual spectre. He even has a black standard. Aragorn, the man who would be King, achieves a certain mastery over death here that is both captivating and a little creepy: he and his men march next to those long passed, and even the chapter title is a grim pun on death. The Grey Company carry on, and we won’t see them again until a climactic moment: “but the Dead followed them”.
This chapter is a reintroduction to Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Theoden, Eomer and Eowyn, last encountered a very long time ago in terms of the number of pages. In that regard, it’s a success: everyone gets the spotlight for at least a little while to re-establish character, and to establish the goals to come. Merry wants someone to give his loyalty to, Theoden wants a son to lead. Aragorn wants to prove himself beyond all doubt, Eowyn wants an ideal. The larger narrative of the chapter introduces a new fantasy element rather quickly and, dare I say, rather clumsily, but we can, perhaps, forgive Tolkien, since the closing pages featuring the actual “Dead” are the right mix of entrancing and unsettling. The Aragorn/Eowyn relationship could have used some fine-tuning in terms of dialogue, but also gives the chapter an added something, even if it shines a negative light on the way the Arwen character is treated, especially in terms of modern audiences. But, overall, “The Passing Of The Grey Company” does what it needs to do, giving us a crucial glimpse of the man Aragorn is and the man he wants to become, before his glorious arrival at Minis Tirith in a few chapters’ time.
Next up, back in time again with Merry.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.