Now we turn to Rohan, its people, and its language.
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?
Tolkien clearly loved Rohan, and fortunately, so did the filmmakers who adapted the story. The movies really go out of their way to flesh out the characters in this chapter (except maybe Éomer, who gets plenty of development anyway). As for Tolken, as I mentioned, he had a soft spot for horses, and he also showed his favor by making the language of Rohan Old English (there is a worldbuilding-related reason for it, but it’s clear Tolkien mainly wanted to associate the Rohirrim with the Saxons).
‘Stay, strangers here unknown!’ they cried in the tongue of the Riddermark, demanding the names and errands of the strangers. Wonder was in their eyes but little friendliness; and they looked darkly upon Gandalf.
‘Well do I understand your speech,’ he answered in the same language; ‘yet few strangers do. Why then do you not speak in the Common Tongue, as is the custom in the West, if you wish to be answered?’
‘It is the will of Théoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends,’ replied one of the guards.
Language is, first and foremost, a means of communication, but it can also be used to isolate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s helpful to preserve culture and heritage! Here it’s being weaponized, a way to distinguish “us” from “them” (even if both Gandalf and Aragorn know the language).
When they mention that Éomer lent them the horses and invited them to the Golden Hall, the guard suddenly becomes a lot more helpful, mentioning that it was actually one Wormtongue who had delivered that order – not long after Éomer would have returned. They’re finally allowed to enter, under the condition that they leave their weapons at the door. All four of them buck at the order – except Gandalf, who surrenders Glamdring as an example to the others…but refuses to give up his staff.
‘Foolishness!’ said Gandalf. ‘Prudence is one thing, but discourtesy is another. I am old. If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will sit out here until it pleases Théoden to hobble out himself to speak with me.’
The doorwarden remains unconvinced, but he chooses to trust them anyway.
At the far end of the house, beyond the hearth and facing north towards the doors, was a dais with three steps; and in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair. Upon it sat a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf; but his white hair was long and thick and fell in great braids from beneath a thin golden circlet set upon his brow. In the centre of his forehead shone a single white diamond. His beard was laid like snow upon his knees; but his eyes still burned with a bright light, glinting as he gazed at the strangers. Behind his chair stood a woman clad in white. At his feet upon the steps sat a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes.
Here’s yet another case where the movies made someone barely coherent when he was actually quite well-spoken in the book! Théoden is portrayed as much older here (or at least more aged), just parroting the thoughts and policies of his counselor, Wormtongue. In the movie he’s been possessed by Saruman or something, but the books portray a much more believable situation where a crooked advisor is able to immobilize a country by controlling the narrative its ruler hears. Wormtongue rules Théoden (and in turn all of Rohan) through fear and despair.
But Rohan represents the first human realm we see, both in the books and the films, and their mortality is immediately apparent – the first thing they encountered before the gates of Edoras were burial mounds, and now they find an aged king.
‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf. ‘Do you ask for help?’ He lifted his staff and pointed to the high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.’
So Gandalf had Théoden go outside to speak with him anyway…
Wormtongue’s control is symbolized by a black staff that Théoden leans on – something he doesn’t actually need to get around, but by continually leaning on it, he becomes weaker and less able to stand on his own. Wormtongue encourages him to be on the defensive, to stay locked up in his hall and protect it with all his forces (which conveniently keeps them out of Saruman’s way). He’s convinced that’s all he can do.
‘Dark have been my dreams of late,’ he said, ‘but I feel as one new-awakened. I would now that you had come before, Gandalf. For I fear that already you have come too late, only to see the last days of my house. Not long now shall stand the high hall which Brego son of Eorl built. Fire shall devour the high seat. What is to be done?’
‘Much,’ said Gandalf. ‘But first send for Éomer. Do I not guess rightly that you hold him prisoner, by the counsel of Gríma, of him that all save yourself name the Wormtongue?’
‘It is true,’ said Théoden. ‘He had rebelled against my commands, and threatened death to Grima in my hall.’
‘A man may love you and yet not love Wormtongue or his counsels,’ said Gandalf.
Gandalf fills him in on the Quest (as well as other pertinent events, like the death of Boromir). This is where the film really shines, doing things like taking lines Théoden says concerning Boromir and instead applying them to Théodred, his son who was only recently killed. I mean, I understand that Tolkien has enough trouble developing the characters he already has, but the death of a son is a pretty big deal to just have a throwaway line and forget about. Even if we never really meet Théodred (even in the extended edition), his death becomes an important event that informs a lot of Théoden decisions in the films.
As [Éowyn] passed the doors she turned and looked back. 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.
Éowyn gets barely two lines of dialogue this chapter (and not much more before Book V); most of what we learn about her has to do with her situation, but Tolkien is actually surprisingly good at imbuing situation with meaning. She’s been minding Théoden, her uncle, watching as Wormtongue poisoned his heart and turned him against her brother – and she may not have been entirely immune to Wormtongue’s influence herself. When you hear the same ideas over and over, even if you know in your head that they’re not true, they can lodge in your heart and fester. She seems somewhat detached, probably as a way of coping with a bad situation.
‘Nay, Éomer, you do not fully understand the mind of Master Wormtongue,’ said Gandalf, turning his piercing glance upon him. ‘He is bold and cunning. Even now he plays a game with peril and wins a throw. Hours of my precious time he has wasted already. Down, snake!’ he said suddenly in a terrible voice. ‘Down on your belly! How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price? When all the men were dead, you were to pick your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire? Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps.
‘[…] Éowyn is safe now,’ he said. ‘But you, Wormtongue, you have done what you could for your true master. Some reward you have earned at least. Yet Saruman is apt to overlook his bargains. I should advise you to go quickly and remind him, lest he forget your faithful service.’
‘You lie,’ said Wormtongue.
‘That word comes too oft and easy from your lips,’ said Gandalf. ‘I do not lie. See, Théoden, here is a snake! With safety you cannot take it with you, nor can you leave it behind. To slay it would be just. But it was not always as it now is. Once it was a man, and did you service in its fashion. Give him a horse and let him go at once, wherever he chooses. By his choice you shall judge him.’
This is at least the second time Gandalf has advocated for the life of someone who could justly have been executed, even when he doesn’t show the least bit of gratitude. His only defense is that he was once a man.
Much like Treebeard, Théoden immediately moves to action once he’s aware of the stakes of the conflict with Isengard – not just mustering his army, but actually going to war himself.
Théoden drank from the cup, and [Éowyn] then proffered it to the guests. As she stood before Aragorn she paused suddenly and looked upon him, and her eyes were shining. And he looked down upon her fair face and smiled; but as he took the cup, his hand met hers, and he knew that she trembled at the touch. ‘Hail Aragorn son of Arathorn!’ she said. ‘Hail Lady of Rohan!’ he answered, but his face now was troubled and he did not smile.
I mean, it’s a step up from Wormtongue, but he’s kind of already engaged…
‘Hail Gimli Glóin’s son!’ [Éomer] cried. ‘I have not had time to learn gentle speech under your rod, as you promised. But shall we not put aside our quarrel? At least I will speak no evil again of the Lady of the Wood.’
‘I will forget my wrath for a while, Éomer son of Éomund,’ said Gimli; ‘but if ever you chance to see the Lady Galadriel with your eyes, you shall acknowledge her the fairest of ladies, or our friendship will end.’
Théoden appoints Éowyn to lead the rest of the people while he and Éomer are off fighting.
Far over the plain Éowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.
Until next time…