(Updated on 24/2/16)
Tolkien, having done the same to an extent in the last chapter, decides to split this one up, dividing it between an unexpected love story in the first half and then a joyous homecoming for the King in the second.
But he starts it all off pessimistically: “Over the city of Gondor doubt and great dread had hung.” Gondor is in a depressed mood, in what is to be the last timeline skip in the narrative. Tolkien lays it all out very clearly as to why, that just as things were looking up with the return of Aragorn, away he went to what seems a certain doom. In doing so he creates just the sort of mood he is looking to express: that of a city that is holding its breath, refusing to even hope for a happy ending.
And that takes its human form in Eowyn, last seen waking up in “The Houses Of Healing”. While she seemed to be perking up then, she’s clearly fallen back into old habits. While the subplot around her love for Aragorn is symbolically over (when Eomer called her back to life instead of him) she’s still moping like a teenager dumped by her first boyfriend. And that horrible strain of glory-hunting is yet to pass, as she gets into an argument with one of the healers. She wants to get up and be useful, he wants her to go back to bed.
The healer is somewhat annoyed at all of this carry on, using surprisingly strong language to decry all who carry swords and inflict wounds, including the “good guys”: “…the world is full enough of hurts and mischances without wars to multiply them”. We encountered this anti-war thinking previously in the same location, and it’s interesting that Tolkien comes back to it now. He did spend some time in a hospital during World War One: perhaps he encountered this viewpoint there repeatedly and this influenced its repeated placement in the narrative?
Eowyn takes the opposite, traditional view, that sometimes such violence is necessary, and that sometimes such deeds may even be glorious (a nod to World War Two perhaps?). She’s still looking for a way out, and is still trying to find a way to follow her Uncle. Théoden’s death in such glorious circumstances mean that this idea has firmly taken root in her head, and now she is actively trying to go off and join in the fight. Eowyn still doesn’t have any hope of her side actually winning the war, so all she wants is to go down swinging, in as memorable a fashion as possible. What she does not want is to be left here in a hospital to meekly accept her fate. She’s a wounded soldier just trying to get back to her regiment.
The actual argument with the healer doesn’t go far enough for my liking, a rare opportunity for a debate on this subject matter. But Tolkien has other plans for this chapter, and the time has largely passed for such discussions to be truly relevant to the plot.
Instead, it’s time for some traditional courting. Faramir and Eowyn, now isn’t that a good combination? Almost an obvious one when you think about it, the Prince of Gondor and the Princess of Rohan. Both characters have that similar fire, the ability to inspire others, to encourage friends to fight alongside and die with them. Both have been wounded horribly, both have lost father figures and, as far as they may be concerned in this moment, both have lost brothers.
Eowyn goes to Faramir like a spoilt child, whining about her desire to die with a sword in her hand. Faramir, about as learned and wise a character as there can be aside from Gandalf, gives her a rueful smile and lays out quite logically why her request is not only dumb, but impossible to grant. Eowyn, usually the firebrand, just sort of gives in, evidence that her heart may not really be in it, or perhaps that coming up against actual authority in the form of Faramir has made her come to her senses. Tolkien lays out the sudden attraction between the two in a straightforward, almost clumsy, manner:
“He looked at her, and being a man whom pity deeply stirred, it seemed to him that her loveliness amid her grief would pierce his heart. And she looked at him and saw the grave tenderness in his eyes, and yet knew, for she was bred among men of war, that here was one whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle.”
Faramir turns this conversation on its head by being bluntly upfront with his sudden admiration for Eowyn, though his wording is certainly flowery (and romantically “epic”, as is the style Tolkien is going for): “…Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful.” Clearly Faramir has had little experience talking with women, because he isn’t exactly subtle. Of course, Eowyn is soon taken aback by his comments as to be smitten, so I guess it all works out. He’s also throwing around a bit of his authority, promising to get her a new room more to her liking. Someone’s showing off.
I actually really like the romantic narrative that Tolkien creates here, especially the image of Faramir no longer looking to the east, but casting glances back in the direction of Eowyn. Something about that just seems so real to me, in-between all of the poetry and grand pronouncements, the guy fascinated to distraction by this beautiful girl who just walked into his life.
Tolkien continues on with the romantic tone, as he narrates the two getting closer. The outcome of this little subplot is increasingly obvious, but it doesn’t quite feel thrown together, even if it is kind of has been (maybe they should have met each other sooner, in “The Houses Of Healing”?). As the two lovebirds spend more time together, Eowyn predictably begins to detach herself from the memory of Aragorn, even if she has trouble admitting it. She feigns ignorance when Faramir becomes more suggestive with her and still talks about the new King like she’s the only one for him. Her words sound increasingly hollow, as if the character has suddenly realised that there is more to life then replicating an epic poem: “I stand upon some dreadful brink, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell.“
Perhaps it is simply Eowyn’s sheltered life. The only real men we have seen her interact with up to this point are either relations or Wormtongue, and then Aragorn comes along. Eowyn’s feelings for him appear increasingly to just be an intense infatuation, and suddenly here comes Faramir to show her that other options, more suitable perhaps, are available.
After an interesting moment where Faramir relates his dreams of the fall of Numenor, the two get close for the first time, and this happy point coincides with the transition from romance to crowning. An eagle arrives to announce the fall of Mordor in song, and the city rejoices: “The days that followed were golden, and Spring and Summer joined and made revel together in the fields of Gondor”. That is eclipsed however, by Faramir and Eowyn initiating some real physical contact, as if the downfall of Mordor has removed the last block from Eowyn’s mind. There is precious little left for her in the old way of thinking: there no longer exists a powerful enemy to die heroically against.
She remains honest about her attraction to the King, but Faramir seems to take that in an oddly happy way. He’s totally fallen for the Rohan shieldmadain clearly, to the extent that he doesn’t care that she openly talks about how she really wants another guy. Perhaps he’s just wise enough to see through it, and just blows through whatever objections Eowyn has. Finally, Eowyn makes her final acceptance of reality: Aragorn doesn’t love her and she doesn’t really love him, but a much better choice is standing right next to her: “Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”
Faramir might actually be your classic “nice guy” in a way, who initially appears to be pursuing a lost cause, the woman he loves only interested in the guy with bigger muscles and a nicer sword. But he pulls through, which can only invoke happy feelings from the reader. Aragorn can have the personality-less Elf Queen. Faramir, a much more sympathetic and likable character than Aragorn in some ways, gets the only girl worth talking about. This while section ends in this kind of awesome flirty sequence where Eowyn mockingly chides Faramir for going after a barbarian from the hills, which was kind of neat. These two get a happy ending at least, after a lot of sorrow:
“‘Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?’ she said. ‘And would you have your proud folk say of you: “There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Númenor to choose?”’
‘I would,’ said Faramir. And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many. And many indeed saw them and the light that shone about them as they came down from the walls and went hand in hand to the Houses of Healing.”
Eowyn’s rejection of the shieldmaiden path in favour of that of a healer might seem a bit of a cop-out, especially to modern audiences, but I never really minded it all that much. Faramir is a character that has previously preached the philosophy that war, while necessary at times, is not something to be sought after for its own sake, or celebrated: in some ways, this courtship is about Faramir convincing Eowyn of this, and showing her that there is more to life than dying gloriously fighting foes, a mindset that is wrapped up with the infatuation of Aragorn. There’s something better for her out there, for life generally, and romantically.
We come to the actual point of the chapter, and the book as a whole: the real, official, return of the King. This is all pomp and ceremony, with the arrival of the King at the head of his troops, Faramir handing over his authority, Gandalf doing the actual crowning etc. Tolkien interjects some humour into proceedings with Ioreth and her frequently cut-off attempts to talk down to her cousin, which is the last we see of her. Not sure it really works for the occasion either.
Aragorn is humble, yet glorious, everything that you want the King of the world to be and more. He acknowledges that it is the work of others that have got him to this point, looking to Faramir, Gandalf and Frodo in equal measure. Aragorn has come an extremely long way from the depressed looking Ranger that we first met at The Prancing Pony, and not all of it in a good direction. He has been indecisive and bone headed at times, but he’s proven himself on the field of battle. He’s come into his own, looked Sauron dead in the eye, and won. Aragorn is the King, the traditional hero of the story. His crowning, in majestic circumstances, recalling the Kings of old, just adds to that.
Aragorn gets round to the proper business of ruling officially, which in the narrative takes the form of judgement on those that need judging. This includes prisoners of war and Sauron’s slaves, who get the softball treatment (a commentary by the author on post-World War I treatment of Germany perhaps?) and Beregond, Tolkien unable to leave his little sub-plot loose end in its untied state. Beregond receives proper justice, dismissed from the city to be the Captain of Faramir’s new realm in Ithilian. I wonder if the families of the men he killed would be entirely happy with that, but Tolkien isn’t going to dwell too long on it.
Then there is the meeting of Eomer and Aragorn, the battle brothers who rule most of Middle-Earth between them now. Eomer is yet to be crowned, but he is an equal of Aragorn in the Gondorian’s eyes. There is a nice soldierly bond feeling from this scene: “Since the day when you rose before me out of the green grass of the downs I have loved you, and that love shall not fail.” The last bit of sorrow in this long farewell to the story, or so it may appear to the characters present, is the sorting out of Théoden’s final resting place, which will be the focus of the following chapter. The Rohirrim don’t have much left to do in the story, but then again, neither does Aragorn.
Everybody is, on Aragorn’s instruction, waiting for something to happen, and days and weeks pass in a few sentences, a rarity for The Lord of the Rings. The reader can easily guess what that thing is – this happy ending for Aragorn is just missing one crucial element – but this passage provides a way to show the hobbits becoming increasingly restless and homesick. The journey back to the Shire will take place soon, as this quest that should never have been theirs is complete.
Gandalf takes the new King on a trip to the mountains as the chapter draws to a close. One aspect of this relationship that I admit I have never considered is that of an Arthur/Merlin dynamic, the mighty warrior with his magical advisor at his side. This kind of sequence, with Gandalf imparting lost knowledge to the new King, reeks of this kind of sentiment, and this is one of the last real impacts that Gandalf will have on the story.
It is a memorable scene, as Gandalf gives Aragorn a big wide look at his whole Kingdom, at the beginning of a new age of the world.
“This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.”
The long defeat is coming to its fruition with the passing of the One Ring. The time has come for men to claim their final victory in this battle and inherit the world that the Elves and others no longer have a taste for. The War of the Ring is the cauldron in which that age has begun, and the Elder races have played their parts in the saga.
Aragorn seems unconcerned by all this, his mind firmly on his succession, always a thought for Kings to dwell upon. Gandalf gives him his last real gift, a new white tree for a new Gondorian Kingdom. The tree, the Kingdom, and the royal line have been renewed, and the time has come to cement and seal that process.
So Arwen and a host of other Elvish character thus far met upon the journey and arrive, and the fairytale wedding takes place. All is as it should be. The age of man has come at last, marked by an Elf rejecting immortality and the happily ever after’s ring loud and clear: “Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment”.
This chapter is a mixed bag. The celebration/journey back series, that begins with “The Field Of Cormallen” and ends with “Homeward Bound” is now in its second chapter, and the sense that the narrative has stalled a bit is growing. Aragorn actually getting crowned and then married makes for some dramatic and happy reading, but it’s all just a bit of story housekeeping in a way, something that comes with few surprises. Tolkien tries to make up for this, perhaps, with this sudden Faramir/Eowyn interaction. There’s something undeniably charming and sweet about it and, notwithstanding its suddenness, it provides a nice way to round off the character journeys of both participants. It’s a mite better than the extended crowning/judgement sequences, and it’s a damn sight better than the Aragorn/Arwen romance, which has been a distant, little-noticed thing: the only scene the two will share where they actually talk is coming next. It’s a somewhat detached chapter from what we have seen before, as notably the four hobbits have barely any involvement behind wondering, like the reader perhaps, when they can finally go home.
Next up, that journey home begins with a hell of a lot of goodbyes.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.