Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of war and the onset of the Shadow. And even as Pippin stood at the Great Gate of the City and saw the Prince of Dol Amroth ride in with his banners, the King of Rohan came down out of the hills…
Merry is all alone with the Rohirrim now, and although Théoden is very welcoming, he’s still alone in a new culture surrounded by people whose language he doesn’t understand.
He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire. […] Most of the time, especially on this last day, Merry had ridden by himself just behind the king, saying nothing, and trying to understand the slow sonorous speech of Rohan that he heard the men behind him using. It was a language in which there seemed to be many words that he knew, though spoken more richly and strongly than in the Shire, yet he could not piece the words together. At times some Rider would lift up his clear voice in stirring song, and Merry felt his heart leap, though he did not know what it was about.
All the same he had been lonely, and never more so than now at the day’s end. He wondered where in all this strange world Pippin had got to; and what would become of Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli. Then suddenly like a cold touch on his heart he thought of Frodo and Sam. ‘I am forgetting them!’ he said to himself reproachfully.
This is how Merry is like Tolkien: He’s a linguist. I’ve done the same sort of thing, listening to people speak a language where I only recognize a handful of words and trying to make sense of it. But it’s more of a thought exercise for the most part, something that makes you feel like more of an outsider, not less.
This chapter is a stellar example of how Tolkien can weave together simultaneous events to increase tension. In this case, like how Frodo and Sam were operating under the assumption that Gandalf was (still) dead (and later that the entire Company was killed), the Rohirrim assume that Aragorn met his end on the Paths of the Dead when we know otherwise. It doesn’t help that they’ve never heard of whatever prophecy Aragorn was working off of, although they have evidently heard that the way will be open “when the time comes”.
‘Then why has Aragorn gone that way?’ asked Merry. ‘Don’t you know anything that would explain it?’
[…] ‘Greatly changed he seemed to me since I saw him first in the king’s house,’ said Éowyn: ‘grimmer, older. Fey I thought him, and like one whom the Dead call.’
Éowyn is in a particularly gloomy mood, as she seems more convinced than any of them that Aragorn went to his death.
But then a messenger from Gondor arrives telling them to hurry up and get over to Minas Tirith before the siege begins.
‘I will be ready,’ said Merry, ‘even if you bid me ride with you on the Paths of the Dead.’
‘Speak not words of omen!’ said the king. ‘For there may be more roads than one that could bear that name. But I did not say that I would bid you ride with me on any road. Good night!’
‘I won’t be left behind, to be called for on return!’ said Merry. I won’t be left, I won’t.’
Hmmm, that sounds kind of familiar, don’t you think? And then after Théoden confirms Merry’s suspicions, releasing him from his service and ordering him to stay behind, Éowyn suddenly “remembers” that Aragorn asked her to find some battle gear for him…
But when they had come almost to the end of the line one looked up glancing keenly at the hobbit. A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.
Yes, it’s Éowyn. I won’t even bother being coy about it, because as I’ve said before, she’s easily the most developed female character in the series and I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth. One thing that’s worth noting is that she finds a position near the royal guard – she still wants to look out for her uncle, knowing what small odds he gives himself for surviving the battle, possibly even because of that. She wants to win renown or die trying (probably both).
‘Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,’ he whispered; ‘and so I have found myself.’ Merry looked up and saw that it was the young Rider whom he had noticed in the morning. ‘You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes. I see it in your face.’
‘I do,’ said Merry.
‘Then you shall go with me,’ said the Rider. ‘I will bear you before me, under my cloak until we are far afield, and this darkness is yet darker. Such good will should not be denied.’
The main difference between Merry and Éowyn is simply that Merry has hope. He knows that he has plenty of friends who care about his wellbeing, and although Éowyn has her family, Théoden fully expects not to see the end of the war, while I imagine she might be a little resentful of her brother for his relative freedom while she was in her “cage”. The threat of that cage still looms large in her mind, and she’d rather die than go back. It’s not the place so much as her general inability to do anything to change her own situation, her lack of choice in the matter. Merry might not feel like he’s able to do anything, but he’s still one of the bearers of a secret hope that the Shadow won’t conquer. Théoden bears that hope in his heart, too – but not Éowyn. All she sees is the growing darkness.
Until next time…