Gandalf is rather cryptic as he leads Théoden, Aragorn, and the others to a parlay with Saruman.
[Éomer] turned and gazed in wonder, first at the wood and then at Gandalf. ‘Once more you come in the hour of need, unlooked-for,’ he said.
‘Unlooked-for?’ said Gandalf. ‘I said that I would return and meet you here.’
‘But you did not name the hour, nor foretell the manner of your coming. Strange help you bring. You are mighty in wizardry, Gandalf the White!’
‘That may be. But if so, I have not shown it yet. […]’
Then they all gazed at Gandalf with still greater wonder. Some glanced darkly at the wood, and passed their hands over their brows, as if they thought their eyes saw otherwise than his.
Gandalf laughed long and merrily. ‘The trees?’ he said. ‘Nay, I see the wood as plainly as you do. But that is no deed of mine. It is a thing beyond the counsel of the wise. Better than my design, and better even than my hope the event has proved.’
They immediately assume the forest is the result of some person’s actions, but it’s basically a “natural disaster” – just one that works in their favor, since it’s guided primarily by malice towards the Orcs. And this is Tolkien’s version of “Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane”, the event in Macbeth which both he and Lewis thought was a copout from Shakespeare (and each provided their own epic reimaginings – Lewis in Prince Caspian).
Legolas is entranced by Fangorn, but Gimli fell in love with a different natural wonder.
‘Strange are the ways of Men, Legolas! Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the cavers of Helm’s Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. […]
‘Do you think those halls are fair, where your King dwells under the hill in Mirkwood, and Dwarves helped in their making long ago? They are but hovels compared with the caverns I have seen here: immeasurable halls, filled with an everlasting music of water that tinkles into pools, as fair as Kheled-zâram in the starlight.’
Eventually, the two of them strike a bargain: If they both survive, they’ll go together to visit Fangorn Forest as well as the Caverns of Helm’s Deep, so they can share what they each find beautiful.
Then they encounter some Ents, come to round up the trees.
‘They are the shepherds of the trees,’ answered Gandalf. ‘Is it so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question. You have seen Ents, O King, Ents out of Fangorn Forest, which in your tongue you call the Entwood. Did you think that the name was given only in idle fancy? Nay, Théoden, it is otherwise: to them you are but the passing tale; all the years from Eorl the Young to Théoden the Old are of little count to them; and all the deeds of your house but a small matter.’
[…] ‘You should be glad, Théoden King,’ said Gandalf. ‘For not only the little life of Men is now endangered, but the life also of those things which you have deemed the matter of legend. You are not without allies, even if you know them not.’
‘Yet also I should be sad,’ said Théoden. ‘For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?’
‘It may,’ said Gandalf. ‘The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been. But to such days we are doomed.’
That may be part of the reason Gandalf wants to speak to Saruman: To attempt to cure one who was bent by the evil of Sauron. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Gandalf by now, it’s that his instinct is toward mercy, even toward the most treacherous creatures, if only because they once were good.
A strong place and wonderful was Isengard, and long it had been beautiful; and there great lords had dwelt, the wardens of Gondor upon the West, and wise men that watched the stars. But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived – for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he had made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.
And when they finally reach Isengard, it looks like another “natural disaster” tore through the gates…
The king and all his company sat silent on their horses, marvelling, perceiving that the power of Saruman was overthrown, but how they could not guess. And now they turned their eyes towards the archway and the ruined gates. There they saw close beside them a great rubble-heap, and suddenly they were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease, grey-clad, hardly to be seen among the stones. There were bottles and bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had just eaten well, and now rested from their labour.
[…] ‘Welcome, my lords, to Isengard!’ he said. ‘We are the doorwardens. Meriadoc, son of Saradoc is my name; and my companion, who, alas! is overcome with weariness’ – here he gave the other a dig with his foot – ‘is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the house of Took. Far in the North is our home. The Lord Saruman is within; but at the moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or doubtless he would be here to welcome such honourable guests.’
I’ve missed the hobbits. Merry is fascinated to learn that the people of Rohan have actually heard of Hobbits (they call them “Holbytlan”), and Théoden is fascinated by their practice of smoking.
‘You do not know your danger, Théoden,’ interrupted Gandalf. ‘These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience. Some other time would be more fitting for the history of smoking.’
‘I will come with you,’ said Théoden. ‘Farewell, my hobbits! May we meet again in my house! There you shall sit beside me and tell me all that your hearts desire: the deeds of your grandsires, as far as you can reckon them; and we will speak also of Tobold the Old and his herb-lore. Farewell!’
The hobbits bowed low. ‘So that is the King of Rohan!’ said Pippin in an undertone. ‘A fine old fellow. Very polite.’
Théoden is really just a sweet old man at heart.
Until next time…