Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Muster of Rohan” and “The Siege of Gondor”

Welcome to another installment of “Reading The Lord of the Rings,” in which we take a leisurely stroll through J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, dwelling on the beauty, the majesty, and sometimes even the sadness in these wonderful pages.

In these two chapters, Merry contends with the fact that he’s been left behind by Gandalf. Though he offers his services to King Théoden, his offer is refused and it is only due to the intervention of the mysterious Dernhelm that he’s taken along to the rescue of Minas Tirith. For his part, Pippin must contend with the duties attendant upon serving the Lord Denethor while also witnessing the tightening siege.

Reading it this time, it was hard to put aside my awareness of the fact that Dernhelm is, in actuality Éowyn, to think back to the very first time that I read it and wonder who, exactly, was this young soldier that decides to take an interest in Merry and ensures that he comes to the battle. It’s hard not to feel tremendously touched, both by Dernhelm’s actions and by Merry’s desire to serve his king in whatever way he can. Merry, like all of the hobbits, shows a surprising strength and courage, a willingness to put himself in harm’s way, to do his own part (however small) in the great and terrible deeds that are shaking the foundations of his world.

On the other side, we finally get a more in-depth glimpse of Gondor and Minas Tirith in particular For some reason, I’ve always found myself drawn to the faded majesty and grandeur of Gondor. Perhaps it stems from my love of Byzantium (and Late Antiquity more generally), which the fading might of Gondor so clearly resembles. There is something irretrievably melancholic about this noble city, poised on the brink of utter oblivion yet refusing to give in to the pressure from the East. Relatedly, I’ve also always thought that the chapter on the siege of Gondor contains some of the most visually vivid of all of those in the book. Every time I read it, I can almost imagine that I’m sitting on the ramparts of Minas Tirith, looking out over the fields below. Certainly, my image of this terrain has been shaped by Jackson’s interpretation of the novels. Even before I watched them, though, I always found myself utterly immersed in this world and this city.

Narratively, the sequence of chapters here are some of the most brilliantly conceived in the entirety of the novel. At each conclusion of each chapter, we are left wondering exactly how matters shall transpire. While the Rohirrim come to save Gondor? Will Gandalf be able to save Faramir from the suicidal madness that has overtaken Denethor? Scholar Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement, and it is a narratively brilliant move, showing us how actions can frequently have unexpected consequences, ones far beyond the ken of those who undertake them.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Denethor. This is a man, after all, who has spent his entire life trying to keep the darkness of Mordor at bay, even as he’s aware that it’s a losing battle. There is a noble spirit in him, but it’s a sort of nobility that has been corrupted because of its inability or unwillingness to see anything beyond itself. This is most conspicuous in his confrontations with Gandalf, with whom he maintains an ongoing antagonism.

These chapters are interesting for another reason. For the first time since The Fellowship of the Ring, we finally get to see the Witch-king in action. As with so many of Tolkien’s villains, the Witch-king draws us to him precisely because there’s so much that we don’t know about him. Even in this, his moment of greatest victory, he remains literally invisible. One of the most fascinating parts of this chapter is the unanswered question of who would have won the contest of wills between Gandalf and the Witch-king. While it’s tempting to think that Gandalf might have done so–considering how he was able to chase away the Nazgûl in other parts of the chapter–I’m inclined to think that the Witch-king would have won. This chapter makes it clear that, in this moment, the power of Mordor is in the ascendant,

Next up, we’ll continue exploring the intertwined fates of the Rohirrim and the Gondorians, and we will also see some of the most beautiful and tragic scenes in an epic that’s full of them.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings: “The Passing of the Grey Company”

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!