Some time ago, I began a series of blog posts (over at Queerly Different) that was a detailed exploration of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t quite chapter-by-chapter, but it was close. Now that I’ve moved most of my fantasy writing to this blog, I thought I’d pick up where I left off, with the arrival of the Rangers from the north and Aragorn’s journey to the Paths of the Dead, as well as the significant exchanges between Merry and King Théoden and between Aragorn and Éowyn.
I’ve always found this to be one of the most fascinating chapters in The Return of the King, in that we actually get to see Aragorn as a powerful king in his own right. Up until now, much of his most glorious and miraculous powers have lain beneath the surface. Now, we know that he has the power to command the dead themselves to come to his aid. And, unlike in the film version, the dead largely hover out of sight; it is thus the mere description of their presence that inspires horror, both in the reader and in the people in the novel.
Though Tolkien excelled at conveying sweeping grandeur in his description of place, he also excelled at capturing the stifling power of the deep places of the earth, and that is on conspicuous display here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Tolkien is unmatched in fantasy for his power to describe physical settings in such a way that you feel as if you are actually there.
The emotional heart of it, though, lies in two characters: Merry and Éowyn. I challenge you not to feel at least a little choked up when Merry offers his sword in service to Théoden. Though always the most mature of the four hobbits (next to Frodo) this sequence really shows how far he has come, and how much he has begun to grow into the stature of a true hero out of the old tales. It would be easy to dismiss him as someone who’s gotten a bit too big for himself, but that would be a fatal misreading. There is, I think, an innate bravery and, just as importantly, nobility, in the hobbits that this sequence showcases to great effect. What’s more, it shows that there is a great deal of kindness in Merry’s spirit, a kindness that leads him to see the old king as a father figure that he would love to serve.
Éowyn, of course, is a very different character. She is, without question, one of Tolkien’s finest creations. She’s the only woman who gets to play an active role in the unfolding events of the War of the Ring (Galadriel, while powerful, is in many ways only incidental to the narrative of the story, though obviously her cleansing of Dol Guldur, related in the Appendices, is vital), and as such it is all the more tragic that the men in her life seem determined to keep her at home.
The brilliance of her her exchange with Aragorn is that both of them are right in their own way. Éowyn has every right to chafe at the bounds imposed upon her, which are both gendered and societal (gendered in that women aren’t expected to fight; societal in that, as the king’s niece, she’s expected to take care of the people in the king’s absence). However, Aragorn is right to remind her that even those whose lot it is to stay at home may still perform deeds of valour, even though they may not be recounted or celebrated in song.
For both Merry and Éowyn, their essential nobility of spirit is what drives them ever onward, and it will ultimately prove to be the crucial aspect of their characters, one that will also have profound effects on the doings of the war to come. Though to some they might appear secondary, Tolkien clearly intends for them to be seen as crucial as any others to the fortunes of their world.
Next up, I’ll be discussing the twinned chapters that detail the slowly tightening siege of Gondor and the mustering of the Rohirrim. I do hope that you’ll join me!