(Updated on 20/01/16)
This is one of the shorter chapters, the shortest bar “The Departure of Boromir”. One might wonder why, like “Journey to the Cross-Roads”, this slice of the tale deserved its own chapter heading, rather than simply being joined with “The Muster of Rohan”. However, I approve of the divide between those chapters, since it allows Tolkien to better set-up a cliff-hanger ending to the previous chapter, without having to rush into a conclusion. This is all just set-up, for the very big deal of subsequent pages.
Anyway, Merry is alone in a crowd, surrounded by Rohan riders too tired or too non-plussed to notice him. As with the previous pages devoted to Rohan, I really like the sense of fatigue and realistic military life being portrayed here, as men and horses walk around nervously, exhausted from the forced march, and with more to come. Merry is, for all intents and purposes, a mere spectator of this, a man considered to be just another piece of baggage. Tolkien is certainly hitting that theme very hard, but it is all just preamble to Merry’s big shining moment in the next chapter.
In the off-chance that someone out there hasn’t figured it out yet, we are also given indications that Dernhelm might be someone of import, from the way that his nominal commanders treat him. If he is a “him”. If it isn’t obvious enough already.
Aside from the growing terror due to the upcoming battle, Merry must also deal with the sudden fear of “The Wild Men”:
“They still haunt Drúadan Forest, it is said. Remnants of an older time they be, living few and secretly, wild and wary as the beasts. They go not to war with Gondor or the Mark; but now they are troubled by the darkness and the coming of the orcs: they fear lest the Dark Years be returning, as seems likely enough. Let us be thankful that they are not hunting us: for they use poisoned arrows, it is said, and they are woodcrafty beyond compare.”
The Forest natives receive a very short part of the entire text, and remain a rather odd enigma in the story: a strange nature dwelling people, alike and yet unlike the men they now bargain with. In that regard, they are not unlike Bombadil: they come out of nowhere, save the day, stick around for only a short time, then leave without ever being seen again. The influence appears to be native tribes of Africa and South America, in the way they dress, talk, act and wage war, but there is no indication in the text that they are anything but white.
They are that “noble savage” stereotype, the people who live close to the heart of Terra Mater, and shun the outside. I am particularly reminded of the sort of peoples who populate the inner most forests of Africa as described by Colin Turnbull, who act very much like Ghan-Buri-Ghan does. It’s an interesting direction for Tolkien to take, one that might veer uncomfortably close to condescension, if not outright racism. The depiction is not exactly offensive – in my opinion as GBG is a hero of the story – but there is an unsettling aspect to their inclusion. Maybe it is just the “deus ex machina” nature of their appearance, allowing the Rohirrim to easily overcome a tricky problem, before vanishing from the story without any more impact (bar a late, brief, look-in on the way home).
But the wild men are not that easy to dismiss, due to the apparent connection between them and the “Pukel-Men” of previous chapters, that Merry notes. Just what this means or implies is not expanded upon, but it is possible that Tolkien intended for the wild men to be seen as previous masters of the land, not just voluntary pariahs in a forest. Just what brought them low from the days of Dunharrow and statues is also not detailed. It’s all just another tantalising glimpse of Middle-Earth history, ancient history, that is denied to us, which I feel is unfortunate.
Anyway, the situation is pretty bad. Minis Tirith is on fire, and Mordor blocks the path to its salvation. Of course, the Witch King wasn’t just going to leave his rear unprotected. GBG and his comrades are the solution to this problem, one manufactured just to include them in the story I would wager, and they show off the “noble” part of the archetype by showing the good guys a quick way round.
One of the things I like about this chapter is the genuinely panicked way that things go in the Rohirrim camp, as they realise just how late they are to the party, the nervous calculating of how long it will take them to get there, and if there is even any point in continuing. An army like that of Rohan’s, all horsed, forced to use a small side road, isn’t going to go very fast. Of course, the reader knows exactly at what point the Rohirrim are going to arrive, but I think a decent effort is made at maintaining the tension in these sections. The apprehension being felt for the coming fight also helps a lot: “This was the last stage before the battle. It did not seem likely to him that many of them would survive it.”
It also helps when Théoden and company find the messengers of their previous chapter, minus some heads. That neatly ties up the little loose end of why Denethor didn’t know they were coming anyway.
We come to the deep breath before the plunge as the Rohirrim near the crucial point. GBG and the wild men depart, but not before one last note of optimism: “the winds are changing” the odd little man proffers, before vanishing. This would seem to mean nothing to the reader but for the wry smile that the wild man gives before his leavetaking. Just what a change in the air direction might mean can only be lost on us, as we haven’t heard anything about the people coming up the river in a long while now.
But still, anything for a bit of optimism, and the Rohirrim, a very superstitious lot, grab at it firmly, all full of false cheer and fake smiles before the fight. A nice moment occurs as Théoden calls Eomer, almost casually, “my son”, a ringing endorsement that actually rather important for everything that is to come. The Rohirrim don’t really have a plan, other than to divide into the classic three “battles”, centre, left and right, and charge for it. Everything else can come after. This is it. The entirety of Book Five, the whole story even, has been leading to this. Go time.
The cavalry crests the hill and sees Armageddon before them: “A smell of burning was in the air and a very shadow of death. The horses were uneasy. But the king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread.” Minis Tirith burns, the armies of darkness seem innumerable upon the field and all seems hopeless. Will Théoden slink away? Will he choose the course of discretion over valour? Is the old man all talk, will he fulfil his death wish? The moment is delicately poised. The old King’s journey is nearly done, as he nears the destination he set out for when he stood up from his throne in “The King Of The Golden Hall”.
Indeed, while The Lord Of The Rings makes little of it, this is actually a homecoming for Théoden, who was born and raised in Gondor before being called to the throne (the backstory was that his father, Thengel, quarrelled with his own father and so went into a self-imposed exile in Gondor, before having to come back and reluctantly take the throne of Rohan when Théoden’s grandfather died). With such knowledge, we might better understand Théoden insistence on an almost reckless speed, and his despair upon seeing Minis Tirith so beleaguered. It’s where he grew up.
From a distance, we see the gate break, the breach made, the hopes of all that is good and true balanced precariously on the edge of a knife. And Théoden, already risen as a hero, takes the plunge. He gives the standard speech you would expect, death, glory and more death, and away they go, him out in front, ready to face the destiny that he was always going to meet. The Rohirrim charge down the hill into their foes, like the French at Crecy, the Poles at Vienna, the French at Waterloo, the Light Brigade at Balaclava. It is a magnificent and beautiful moment, fully epic (and fantastical) in its depiction and scope, a preview of the kind of language that will be employed in the next chapter: “Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new tire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young”, as Homeric a sentence as Tolkien ever wrote. The fight for Middle-Earth is on, the tension breaks, as we enter “the battle of the age”. “For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and the darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”
A few last notes. First, some foreshadowing:
“Merry wished he was a tall Rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to his rescue.”
We’ll get there Merry. We’ll get there.
Secondly, Eowyn doesn’t get much in this chapter, but I think it’s fairly clear that “Elfhelm” must know who she actually is, since he acquiesces in her presence and Merry’s without showing much curiosity. The same for those around her. It’s a sign of her stature amongst the Rohirrim, that a section of the army will not only tolerate, but accept her joining them as they go into battle, even at the risk of disobeying Théoden’s orders by proxy.
Thirdly and last, the gloom emanating from Mordor is rolled back as the Rohirrim arrive and attack. On a logical level, it’s just a result of the changing winds, but you can plainly infer some divine intervention as well, the God’s across the sea getting involved just a bit to push things back in favour of the good guys.
This is another short transitionary chapter, a time skip meant to fill in a few blanks and whet the appetite just a little bit more before the huge climactic conflict that will dominate the next chapter. It most respects it’s quite good, and benefits from being so short: we get just a little bit more on Théoden, who does not blanch from the task before him, a bit more on Merry, who trembles at the coming trouble but does not retreat from it, and the tantalising mystery surrounding the strange men who lead the Rohirrim through to Minis Tirith, though I would have liked just a little bit more. A very definite hint has also been dropped about the other salvation of Minis Tirith as well, and everything is going to come together wonderfully in the next few pages. “The Ride Of The Rohirrim” needed to accomplish some important set-up, and did that. The payoff comes next.
Prepare for rumbling.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.