Back in Rohan, Aragorn and Merry are each contemplating what part they have to play in the coming battle (or not).
‘Well, for myself,’ said Aragorn, ‘it is dark before me. I must go down also to Minas Tirith, but I do not yet see the road. An hour long prepared approaches.’
‘Don’t leave me behind!’ said Merry. ‘I have not been of much use yet; but I don’t want to be laid aside, like baggage to be called for when all is over. I don’t think the Riders will want to be bothered with me now. Though, of course, the king did say that I was to sit by him when he came to his house and tell him all about the Shire.’
‘Yes,’ said Aragorn, ‘and your road lies with him, I think, Merry. But do not look for mirth at the ending. It will be long, I fear, ere Théoden sits at ease again in Meduseld. Many hopes will wither in this bitter Spring.’
Merry’s kind of in the same funk Pippin was at the beginning of the last book, feeling useless because he hasn’t really had much of a say in what happens, and I think it’s worse for him because he did have some measure of authority (or at least respect) back in the Shire. At the beginning, he was the leader of the “conspiracy”, but before the end of Book I he was already well out of his depth, and even in Book III he didn’t do anything apart from Pippin, with Pippin taking matters into his own hands on more than one occasion (even when he arguably did the wrong thing, like with the Palantír, at least he was making an impact). Merry’s been kind of lost ever since Frodo left, and now that Pippin’s left, it’s starting to overwhelm him.
And then they run into the titular company – a group of thirty Dúnedain, plus the sons of Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir. They came looking for Aragorn in response to a mysterious “summons”.
‘Word came to Rivendell, they say: Aragorn has need of his kindred. Let the Dúnedain ride to him in Rohan! But whence this message came they are now in doubt. Gandalf sent it, I would guess.’
‘Nay, Galadriel,’ said Legolas. ‘Did she not speak through Gandalf of the riding of the Grey Company from the North?’
‘Yes you have it,’ said Gimli. ‘The Lady of the Wood! She read many hearts and desires. Now why did we not wish for some of our own kinsfolk, Legolas?’
Legolas stood before the gate and turned his bright eyes away north and east, and his fair face was troubled. ‘I do not think that any would come,’ he answered. ‘They have no need to ride to war; war already marches on their own lands.’
While Aragorn takes counsel with his brethren from the North, Théoden invites Merry to ride with him, since they’ll be taking a mountain pass where a pony would travel just as fast as a regular-sized horse.
‘I have a sword,’ said Merry, climbing from his seat, and drawing from its black sheath his small bright blade. Filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it. ‘May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap, Théoden King?’ he cried. ‘Receive my service, if you will!’
‘Gladly will I take it,’ said the king; and laying his long old hands upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him. ‘Rise now, Meriadoc, esquire of Rohan of the household of Meduseld!’ he said. ‘Take your sword and bear it unto good fortune!’
‘As a father you shall be to me,’ said Merry.
‘For a little while,’ said Théoden.
Again we see clear parallels between Denethor and Théoden, with both taking a hobbit “esquire”, but under significantly different circumstances. Where Merry is moved by affection (and to some degree that desire to be useful) in a very impromptu ceremony, Pippin was moved by pride (and a degree of guilt about Boromir) in a much more rehearsed and formal situation.
Then Aragorn finally returns to the party and announces his intent to take the Paths of the Dead (and with a name like that, I’m sure Éomer & co are just overreacting!). So Merry heads off with the Rohirrim while Aragorn catches up Legolas and Gimli about how he came to such a conclusion.
‘Come!’ said Legolas at last. ‘Speak and be comforted, and shake off the shadow! what has happened since we came back to this grim place in the grey morning?’
‘A struggle somewhat grimmer for my part than the battle of the Hornburg,’ answered Aragorn. ‘I have looked in the Stone of Orthanc, my friends.’
‘You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!’ exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. ‘Did you say aught to – him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter.’
‘You forget to whom you speak,’ said Aragorn sternly, and his eyes glinted. ‘What do you fear that I should say to him? Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras? Nay, Gimli,’ he said in a softer voice, and the grimness left his face, and he looked like one who has laboured in sleepless pain for many nights. ‘Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough – barely.’
So basically, Aragorn introduced himself to Sauron as the heir of Isildur before he was finally able to take control of the Palantír and actually use it for its intended purpose (that is, seeing things happening around Middle-earth). He took that into consideration before he tried it, though, and figured it would only cause Sauron to make his move prematurely under the suspicion that Aragorn might have the Ring. Meanwhile, Aragorn saw the fleet approaching the southern coast of Gondor and realized that if he could cross the mountains and drive them off, he could take the substantial forces that had stayed back to protect their homes to Minas Tirith. And the Paths of the Dead just so happens to be such a pass – and said path just so happens to begin in Dunharrow, where Éowyn has been staying with the rest of the people of Rohan. She’s happy to see Aragorn, until she starts to suspect where he’s going.
‘Nay, lady,’ said he, ‘I am not astray; for I walked in this land ere you were born to grace it. There is a road out of this valley, and that road I shall take. Tomorrow I shall ride by the Paths of the Dead.’
Then she stared at him as one that is stricken, and her face blanched, and for long she spoke no more, while all sat silent. ‘But Aragorn,’ she said at last, ‘is it then your errand to seek death? For that is all you will find on that road. They do not suffer the living to pass.’
‘They may suffer me to pass,’ said Aragorn; ‘but at the least I will adventure it. No other road will serve.’
She assumes that no one would attempt the Paths of the Dead unless they were truly seeking death (and to be fair, the people of Rohan have never been able to survive it in all the years they’ve called Rohan home), so it seems to her that the greatest of captains is just throwing his life away (which doesn’t exactly improve her own outlook). So she comes to Aragorn and asks to come with him, but he shuts her down by reminding her that she’s supposed to rule the people of Rohan while Théoden and Éomer are away. She doesn’t take this well.
‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ he asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’
‘And yet you counselled me not to adventure on the road that I had chosen, because it is perilous?’
‘So one may counsel another,’ she said. ‘Yet I do not bid you flee from peril, but to ride to battle where your sword may win renown and victory. I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly.’
‘Nor would I,’ he said. ‘Therefore I say to you, lady: Stay! For you have no errand to the South.’
‘Neither do those others who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee – because they love thee.’ Then she turned and vanished into the night.
She was forced to watch her uncle deteriorate physically and mentally, not to mention endure an unspecified degree of sexual harassment from Wormtongue, all while anyone who might have helped her were driven away. Then all of a sudden Théoden got better, and he promptly rode off to war with her brother, leaving her to pick up the pieces of her old life while everyone else was actually accomplishing stuff. She’s more lonely now than ever, because at least they were all suffering together before. And now she’s all but confessed her love to Aragorn, not knowing he’s already spoken for, and been rejected. She’s already in a cage, not one built of iron, but of societal expectations, because in her culture which values “renown” and prowess in battle, she has nothing to do but wait by herself for the menfolk to save the day (or not). She feels useless, because all her life she’s only been able to wait for other people to improve her lot while her life continues to spiral out of control, and she has no assurance that will ever change.
But Tolkien instead chooses to focus on Aragorn’s mission, and I’ve got to admit, I prefer the (theatrical) film’s choice to leave some doubt as to whether he made it through and accomplished his goal, which involves summoning an undead army of people who vowed to Isildur to fight against Sauron, but ultimately refused because they used to worship him (why yes, this does all seem vaguely racist). Also they had Elrond show up to deliver Andúril and exposit something about Arwen dying in the movie, which never made a ton of sense to me on any level.
Anyhow, the main difference here is that Aragorn leads all the Dúnedain (and their horses) through the Paths of the Dead, besides Legolas and Gimli. Gimli once again serves as our POV character as they travel beneath the Haunted Mountain, where they discover a surprisingly well-preserved skeleton that’s been sitting there for hundreds of years (for the record, it’s one of the kings of Rohan, Brego, after whom they named one of the horses in the movie).
Aragorn did not touch him, but after gazing silently for a while he rose and sighed. ‘Hither shall the flowers of simbelmynë come never unto the world’s end,’ he murmured. ‘Nine mounds and seven there are now green with grass, and through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know!
‘For that is not my errand!’ he cried, turning back and speaking to the whispering darkness behind. ‘Keep your hoards and your secrets in the Accursed Years! Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!’
And that’s about it – aside from being creepy and undead, they don’t actually do anything to hinder the Grey Company and speak with Aragorn when he summons them to fulfill their oath. But honestly, now that Aragorn’s path is clearly laid out for him, I feel like he’s one of the least interesting characters. Like, this is supposed to be a major step for him coming into his own and all that, but it doesn’t have much impact when he wins over these people we never even heard of until this chapter. Apparently there was a prophecy about this, but none of that was alluded to earlier, either. I guess Tolkien just wanted another of his Christ figures to metaphorically conquer death.
Until next time..