(Updated on 12/01/16)
“Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of war and the onset of the Shadow. And even as Pippin stood at the Great Gate of the City and saw the Prince of Dol Amroth ride in with his banners, the King of Rohan came down out of the hills.”
In the first paragraph, Tolkien makes it clear that the end point of all subplots – Gandalf/Pippin, Aragorn, Merry/Rohan, is at Minis Tirith. Everyone is heading in that direction, one way or another, and that’s where the big decision of the war is going to take place. The inexorable drag of fate is taking hold, pulling all of the characters – even Frodo and Sam eventually – towards that city. As it is so eloquently put later: “The board is set, the pieces are moving”.
Merry has been left all alone, split from the company for the first time in the adventure. Now he has his own crowd of people to hang around with, but the weight of being alone, in a strange country, surrounded by warriors going off to their likely doom, is crushing him a little. In a nice passage, he emotes on his stunned shock at simply seeing distant mountains, the realisation that he is so very far away from home and getting further: “He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth.”
It perhaps doesn’t help that there is an obvious connection of a sort between the Shire and Rohan, a connection that Tolkien only briefly, tantalisingly, comments upon. Merry understands a few words of the Rohan language, while the Rohirrim themselves have words for what Merry is, words that are eerily similar to “hobbit”. The Lord Of The Rings will never go into it much, but the Rohirrim are descendants of men from the north, so it isn’t all that strange that they might, at some point, have had interactions with hobbits, albeit interactions that are so distant they have become the origins of fairy-tales. So, Merry, already homesick, finds himself with many reminders of just what he has left behind, with enough differences to really emphasise the point of how far away from home he is.
The Rohirrim are mustering, gathering their strength from the four corners of the Kingdom. Really emphasising the whole “Rohan=horses” thing as the entire Rohan military force is cavalry. I’m not sure how realistic that is, or how it would actually work out in a real battle in these exact circumstances, but that’s what they have. The sort of “Steppe Peoples” element of Rohan will have a fully chance to shine from here on out, though Tolkien never takes it too far, to the point where it is quite possible that such an interpretation is entirely in the minds of 21st century readers. But certainly, the sight of massive cavalry armies riding hard across the continent for days on end brings the hordes of Mongolia to mind, even if Tolkien might have disagreed with the idea.
Théoden is still all but resigned to death, seeking it in point of fact. He is already foreseeing a glorious end. I’ve said before that the King of Rohan is one of my favourite characters, and I think it might be because he’s very real: the old man, his star fading, desperate for one last beautiful moment that will leave him remembered. Desperate for legacy. He has been robbed of his son by war, the traditional legacy for a King to leave. So, he acts out in two ways in a bid to make up for it: by treating Merry as a son in the brief time that they are together, and in seeking a way to die that will make poets busy for years to come.
He is steadfastly set on that course, fatalistic. “…what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength?” he asks. It’s convenient that Rohan has little choice at this moment but to go all in against Sauron, because it excuses the fact that Théoden may very well be leading most of his Kingdom to destruction. That fact does not escape the King, but it doesn’t give him much pause either. The coming fight really is being set up as all or nothing, with Rohan having precious little in the way of good options.
The hold of Dunharrow is an interesting enough place which, again, Tolkien offers very few details on. It’s an odd design, though easily defensible. It is clearly ancient, the odd statues testament to some old race of men that inhabited the area eons before, perhaps as old to Rohan as the Romans are to us. We’ll cover this little titbit once more before the end of Book Five, but that exploration it will only raise more questions.
Poor Merry is feeling more and more useless, and why not? He’s tiny, alone, a burden to this army. I really like these passages, as it shows something very human in this hobbit, caught up in the great affairs of Middle-Earth. Moreover, it shows that life in fantasy-land is not all epic fights and grand adventure. Life, especially in an army, can be harsh, cold and miserable. This is a long dark night of the soul in many ways: Merry is soon to be called to do something truly heroic, but first must face his own apparent smallness and insignificance, and must question his place among such warriors.
The Rohirrim have a feast, one that has all of the airs of a last one. Eowyn is obvious in her malaise, so even if we had not been witness to the events of the last chapter we could perhaps guess what is going on. In fact, much of the depression seems to stem from the fact that Aragorn is being dismissed by nearly all present, written off, a lost cause, with Eomer bluntly saying that they must all find a way to move on without him.
The discussion on Aragorn, aside from boosting his importance to the overall plotline by showing how much his absence affects people, allows Théoden to lay out a bit more about the Paths of the Dead, a few extra little bits of lore and myth. It’s fascinating stuff, but all rather pointless at this stage really, since we, the reader I mean, won’t be visiting that part of Middle-Earth again. It might have been better to hear these rather creepy words around ten pages back. Still, the talk of poor hapless Baldor, who made “a rash vow” – that is, probably, a drunken one – to walk the Paths and was never seen again, must immediately bring the skeletal remains Aragorn found to mind. But, as stated, this significant section seems very out of place considering that the Paths have already been left behind in the previous chapter. How much creepier would the Grey Company’s journey have been if they were the ones hearing that ghostly warning: “The way is shut…It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.”
The exchange also helps to showcase the Merry/Théoden relationship a bit more. It’s not hard to see the paternal elements here, the older figure regaling the younger with ghost stories. Later, Théoden seems pleased with Merry’s determination to run to Gondor if he cannot ride, even if it isn’t something he will personally allow. They ride together and share tales. Their time together is brief, but we come to understand Merry’s admiration for the King as a leader and mentor, of a sort, and so can better understand Merry’s insistence on coming along to the big battle.
A herald from Gondor arrives to let us know just how bad things are getting. Minis Tirith is on the brink and probably won’t last a week, which brings the fate of Pippin and Gandalf to mind. Tolkien keeps the three pronged plot going, leaving the reader guessing about the fates of other characters. Rohan will have to gallop just to get there and, even then, it will probably just find a pile of smouldering ashes. To top that all of Rohan itself is facing invasion from the East, and the King doesn’t have the men to adequately protect his flank while riding to Gondor’s aid. No good choices.
So, all in all, things are grim. Tolkien really lays it out in depressing fashion here, the fact that the good guys numbers situation is leaving them exposed everywhere. Hope dwindles, almost tangible from the words on the page. For the King it’s a tough enough call: he has a responsibility to make good on oaths to his liege-lord in Gondor, but a King is also a man who protects his own, otherwise he is not a King. Théoden is ready and willing to march into the jaws of Mordor if only because Rohan has no better option. This is a harder decision than it looks, and Tolkien perhaps should have made more of it, of a King having to choose between glorious battle or more pedestrian defences of his borders: “valour without renown” you might say.
Merry, already alone, feeling useless, and just about relegated to the role of the Kings entertainment, is devastated when informed that it won’t be possible for him to come along. He’s the man left behind, even if we know that it won’t be going down like this. He’s armed, by Eowyn, symbolically shedding his previous status as an outsider, and taking his first steps into the role of a warrior. In some ways, reading these sections, I was reminded of Bilbo’s thoughts before and during the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit, of feeling useless and unimportant in the midst of greater events.
The depiction of the departing army here, and the people that they are leaving behind, really does show Rohan as the grim kingdom, whose folk are hardened by war and loss, who simply stand resolutely as their loved ones ride off to their probable deaths. In the description of that one warrior, whose eyes are those of “a man seeking death”, we have all that we need in order to understand just how Rohan carries itself in the coming battles. They will be the reckless, do-or-die force, that have, perhaps not literally, their backs to the wall. For them, even though the fight is many miles from their homeland, it is a battle of annihilation or survival.
All that is mixed in with a lot of glorious blood-sacrifice themes, not uncommon to the kind of stuff that you would find around Europe pre-WWI, but with the kind of grim foreboding more in line with the WW2, the darkening sky in particular. Indeed, in the depiction of families watching their sons marching away to an uncertain fate, we might well imagine Tolkien inspired by seeing his own son marching away to join the ranks of the RAF. We get a snippet of song here, an epic ballad describing the leave-taking. While this confirms that there will be someone around to write such a song in the future, it does set the tone in a very definitive way.
Merry gets picked up by the death seeking warrior, a young man named “Dernhelm”. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this person is Eowyn, and she is now the warrior woman archetype to a tee, the kind of character you see throughout this kind of fiction: the woman who puts on a man’s clothes and goes out to war in disguise. She seeks glory and death, much like her Uncle. One wonders if Eowyn doesn’t simply need the right guidance to put her right. After all, she’s just a young woman spurned by a man she barely knows. Sure she feels bad, but that doesn’t mean that she has to throw her life away. Théoden hasn’t exactly set the best example in that regard, and her brother, less and less important to the narrative if we are being honest, is just as guilty.
As the army sets off, Tolkien makes it clear the amount of peril that Rohan is in, as the country is actually invaded from the east. Théoden has no choice but to continue, committed to the fight in the south, but the closing lines leave the reader in no doubt as to the bleakness that is pervading the narrative: “All the lands were grey and still; and ever the shadow deepened before them, and hope waned in every heart.”
This chapter is a short one, sort of an addition to “The Passing Of The Grey Company” in some respects. The main action, with the two giant chapters dedicated to it, is in Minis Tirith, but it’s good that Tolkien takes the time that he does to set-up the two forces that are coming to its relief. Aragorn and co are more of mystical quasi-Homeric force, going through the Underworld on their way to fulfil prophecy, and it’s appropriate in some ways that we don’t see them again for a while. But the Rohirrim are all oomph and bluster, the mighty force heading out to battle with as much fanfare and stirring words as can be found. They are ready to fight with their all – “And suddenly there rose a great chorus of trumpets from high above, sounding from some hollow place, as it seemed, that gathered their notes into one voice and sent it rolling and beating on the walls of stone” – but there is also the creeping doubt of any army riding off to an uncertain fate: “…their voices no longer sounded clear and brave as they had seemed to Merry the night before. Dull they seemed and harsh in the heavy air, braying ominously.”
But in the middle of all of that is the little figure of Merry, and it’s good that we see this Muster through his inexperienced eyes, so that the wildness of the country, the strength of the cavalry and the grimness of their mind-set becomes all too clear. Tolkien has also captured the effects of loss and the desire for glorious ending wonderfully in Théoden, and to a lesser extent with Eowyn. Not long now, before the armies clash and things get decided. We have the large-scale crisis – will Rohan get to Minis Tirith in time? – and the personal – will Merry survive? Will Théoden and Eowyn get what they want? At what cost? – to keep us pre-occupied, as things swing back towards Gondor. It’s a sombre chapter for sure, perhaps the most sombre in the entire story.
Next up, perhaps my favourite moment in literature.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.