Éowyn finally gets her moment of renown (with a little help from Merry), but it still remains to be seen whether she’s truly escaped her “cage”.
Théoden charges the Haradrim (aka the only real cavalry Mordor sent) and cuts down their captains as the Rohirrim seem to be en route to a rout…until the Witch-King of Angmar shows up again.
But lo! suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king his golden shield was dimmed. The new morning was blotted from the sky. Dark fell about him. Horses reared and screamed. Men cast from the saddle lay grovelling on the ground.
‘To me! To me!’ cried Théoden. ‘Up Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!’ But Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side: a black dart had pierced him. The king fell beneath him.
Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nâzgul. To the air he had returned, summoning his steed ere the darkness failed, and now he was come again, bringing ruin, turning hope to despair, and victory to death. A great black mace he wielded.
But Théoden was not utterly forsaken. The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away. Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father.
Thus it happens that Merry and “Dernhelm” alone are left to defend the King, and even Merry is stricken with terror – but Dernhelm still stands in the midst of despair.
‘Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!’
A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nâzgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’
A sword rang as it was draw. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.’
‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’
Not quite as zingy as “I am no man”, but the laugh really sells it!
Éowyn it was, and Dernhelm also. For into Merry’s mind flashed the memory of the face that he saw at the riding from Dunharrow: the face of one who goes seeking death, having no hope. Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.
Éowyn has faced more despair on the homefront than the other soldiers have on the battlefield – even Merry can’t initially bring himself to face the Ringwraith, but she never faltered. She still doesn’t seem to have much hope, but she learned to live without it long ago, and now she’s glad just to be able to accomplish something she considers meaningful. Her society celebrates warriors and feats of arms – women are just around to keep house and bear children for them. And especially since Aragorn, her presumed first love, went away to his (presumed) death, she saw no point in waiting around for another man to come rescue her from her cage, especially when the fate of the world was already at stake.
Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider, tall and threatening, towering above her. With a cry of hatred that stung the very ears like venom he let fall his mace. Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees. He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.
But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry’s sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.
‘Éowyn! Éowyn!’ cried Merry. Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Éowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.
Éowyn is knocked out cold, but Merry isn’t affected too badly – even his sword seemed to take the blow better than hers, seeing as it didn’t shatter (even if it was still ultimately destroyed). Thus he’s left to crawl over to Théoden and hear his last words.
‘Farewell, Master Holbytla!’ he said. ‘My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!’
Merry could not speak, but wept anew. ‘Forgive me, lord,’ he said at last, ‘if I broke your command, and yet have done no more in your service than to weep at our parting.’
The old king smiled. ‘Grieve not! It is forgiven. Great heart will not be denied. Live now in blessedness; and when you sit in peace with your pipe, think of me! For never now shall I sit with you in Meduseld, as I promised, or listen to your herb-lore.’ He closed his eyes, and Merry bowed beside him. Presently he spoke again. ‘Where is Éomer? For my eyes darken, and I would see him ere I go. He must be king after me. And I would send word to Éowyn. She, she would not have me leave her, and now I shall not see her again, dearer than daughter.’
Éomer actually manages to reach him before he dies, but Merry is unable to tell him about Éowyn. And as heartwrenching as this little farewell is, I cannot blame the filmmakers for letting him actually speak to Éowyn at the end, and it certainly alleviates the sting of her never getting to say goodbye here.
And [Éomer] looked at the slain, recalling their names. Then suddenly he beheld his sister Éowyn as she lay, and he knew her. He stood a moment as a man who is pierced in the midst of a cry by an arrow through the heart; and then his face went deathly white, and a cold fury rose in him, so that all speech failed him for a while. A fey mood took him.
‘Éowyn, Éowyn!’ he cried at last. ‘Éowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!’
So the battle moves elsewhere while they carry Théoden and Éowyn, away, but it’s not until they run into one Prince of Dol Amroth (captain of Gondor’s meager cavalry) that anyone realizes that Éowyn isn’t dead yet. Merry, as it happens, seems to be following them in a daze and has generally gone unnoticed.
Said battle has started to go sour again, as now that the Black Captain is defeated, the second-in-command seems to be more of the “send in all the troops and overwhelm them” school of strategy, which isn’t exactly a good mix with Éomer in such a reckless mood. Then the Black Ships show up on the river.
Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.
Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.
And of course it’s actually Aragorn arriving with reinforcements! Unlike the movies, the Army of the Dead didn’t come so far from their home in the mountains, but he did bring along the armies that had been left behind on the coastlands to defend against the Black Fleet.
‘Thus we meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us,’ said Aragorn. ‘Did I not say so at the Hornburg?’
‘So you spoke,’ said Éomer, but hope oft deceives, and I knew not then that you were a man foresighted. Yet twice blessed is help unlooked for, and never was a meeting of friends more joyful.’ And they clasped hand in hand.
Several more named characters were killed, but the only one who even got a line of dialogue was Halbarad, the captain of the Dúnedain.
But where was Gandalf in all this? That’s a question for…