Character: Théoden King of Rohan
Fandom: Lord of the Rings (book!verse)
Spoilers: Does this even apply to a book published in 1954-55? *g*
Author's Note: This essay concerns itself with the book, rather than the movies, for, while Peter Jackson will ever have my awed respect for his magnificent achievement, and while Bernard Hill was brilliant as Théoden, it is to the source text that my heart is given first, last and always. I read it first in 1966, and have re-read it at least once a year since. Each time it fills me with love and a renewed sense of wonder.
Honour, Wisdom, Kindness and Courage: Théoden King of Rohan
Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising
he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled and in hope ended;
over death, over dread, over doom lifted
out of loss, out of life, unto long glory.1
When we meet Théoden he is at the nadir of his fortunes. Thanks to years of war and of evil counsel the King is failing in mind and body, though only 71 - not a great age for one of his race. Théodred, his son and heir, has fallen in battle against the forces of Saruman; his nephew Éomer - next in line for the throne - is under arrest, falsely accused of malfeasance or treason. His people are losing hope, finding themselves virtually leaderless at this, one of the darkest times in the history of the Mark.
The tough competence we saw in Éomer and his Riders in their dealing with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli - and that Tolkien means us to apply to all the Rohirrim - makes the King's plight even more poignant. From the first, we are moved more to pity than to contempt. Théoden is querulous and distrustful of his visitors - a cranky, apparently feeble old man - not very kinglike. As Gandalf puts it, "The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Théoden son of Thengel." 2
There follows a thrilling scene wherein Gandalf frees Théoden from the entangling web woven about him by Gríma Wormtongue. Actually, I think it is more accurate to say that Gandalf tears the web and Théoden frees himself, shaking off the debilitating influence of the counselor now revealed to be Saruman's agent. His will, for so long leeched away, floods forth and revives him the way rain revives a drought-stricken field. His physical state echoes the workings of his mind - he stands taller and his strength returns.
Immediately, Théoden takes charge - freeing Éomer, passing judgment on Wormtongue, calling for a muster of local fighters for immediate action as well as a far larger gathering of all his warriors against coming battles, seeing to the needs of his guests, and taking counsel from Gandalf. Note well that Théoden is thinking for himself now - he solicits Gandalf's advice, but acts according to his own judgment. Never again will he surrender his will to another.
His people greet these developments with heartfelt joy. They love and respect him for the man that he was and his return to competence gives them renewed hope. His decision to ride forth at the head of his men is met with cheers. The folk of the Mark are a noble people - clear-sighted and true. Their devotion to this King says much about his good qualities.
Théoden knows well he may be riding to his death, but he deems that a far better end than to take the risk of falling once more into dotage. It is a courageous decision and a wise one. Théoden understands that, in the desperate straits in which the Rohirrim now stand, his men will fight better with their King to lead them.
During the subsequent Battle of Helm's Deep, the King finds himself once more behind walls and he chafes at it. To Aragorn, he declares that at dawn he will ride forth with the men of his household. "The end will not be long,' said the King. 'But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. Snowmane and Hasufel and the horses of my guard are in the inner court. When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm's horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song - if any be left to sing of us hereafter." 3 That decision took balls, to put it crudely; a courage all the more impressive coming as it does on the heels of doubt. Just a moment before, Théoden had questioned his own wisdom in following the now-absent Gandalf's counsel. Aragorn replies with grave courtesy, advising him to wait to judge until all is over. There, in a nutshell, is a beautiful contrast between the almost super-human fantasy hero and the fallibly human hero. I adore Théoden because he is so like us. He has moments of doubt and fear - and expresses them - and yet he forges on.
Théoden's charge - gallant and yet doomed unless help arrives from without - is indeed worthy of a song, as is the whole end of the battle. The appearance of the Ents and their Huorns, coupled with the timely arrival of Gandalf with Erkenbrand and his men, turns the tide and victory is the King's.
After the battle, they ride to Isengard on Gandalf's advice, where Théoden once again shows admirable strength and courage. Saruman's wily speech might have daunted a lesser man, but Théoden resists the wizard's last-ditch attempt to subdue him.
At Isengard Théoden meets Merry and Pippin - a welcome spot of humor - and we see what the King might have been like in peacetime. Pippin sums up their encounter in true Hobbit fashion, "So that is the King of Rohan!' said Pippin in an undertone. 'A fine old fellow. Very polite.".4 Cheeky, but true.
Back at the Hornburg, the King has Merry - lonely and depressed by recent developments that have separated him from Pippin - sit beside him as they eat and speaks kindly to him. Merry swears fealty to Théoden in a moving scene that shows them both to advantage:
"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 unto me,' said Merry.
'For a little while,' said Théoden." 5
(How great a contrast there is between this moment and Pippin's encounter with Denethor!)
On the three-day ride to Dunharrow, the King has Merry ride beside him and tell him of Hobbits and of the Shire, and the King in turn tells him tales of the Mark. How can one not love a man like Théoden? His kindness to his esquire, in the midst of all his cares, is endearing. And once again he shows the wisdom of a seasoned campaigner, taking his ease while he yet can in talk of cheerful and light-hearted things.
When they reach Harrowdale Éomer urges the King to sit out the coming battle in safety, but Théoden refuses, saying, "…never will I lean on a staff again. If the war is lost, what good will be my hiding in the hills? And if it is won, what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength?"6
The next morning, under the gloomy pall of cloud sent out of Mordor, the Riders of Rohan are marshalled for the great ride East to fulfill the oath to Gondor. "... the king sat upon his white horse, glimmering in the half-light. Proud and tall he seemed, though the hair that flowed beneath his high helm was like snow; and many marvelled at him and took heart to see him unbent and unafraid."7 Courage and honour and no trace of hesitation; it's a tough old man who leads the Rohirrim.
Five days later, after a perilous ride of over 300 miles, the Host of Rohan passes at dawn through the ruins of the Rammas Echor, the wall around the Pelennor, the townlands of Minas Tirith. There they pause, taking in the appalling sight of the besieged city afire. Théoden appears to quail, daunted no doubt by the miasma of despair that was one of the most potent weapons of the Lord of the Nazgûl. But in moments his hesitation vanishes as his will once more reasserts itself. Galvanized by the thunderous crash caused by the destruction of the Gates of the city, as well as by the perceptible shift in the wind driving back the darkness of Mordor, he springs erect, gives the battle cry, sounds the first horn, and leads the charge:
"Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
Suddenly the King cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old…" 8
In this exalted state he slays the chieftain of the Haradrim and cuts down their standard as his knights slice through the Southron cavalry and put it to rout. It is a glorious moment, if short-lived.
In an instant all is overthrown as the Lord of the Nazgûl, mounted on his winged beast, attacks. Théoden's horse is killed and, falling, crushes the King beneath, mortally injuring him.
Éowyn and Merry vanquish the Nazgûl (and isn't that a scene to make you cheer and weep at once?) and when it's over Merry turns to the King to find that he still lives.
Their speech is short. Théoden is at peace. And even in his agony, the King speaks kindly to Merry, forgiving his disobedience and bidding him farewell.
Théoden lives just long enough to pass the kingship to Éomer; so dies a grand and gallant warrior king. I weep every time.
Of all the Men in Lord of the Rings Théoden is perhaps the most like us. By that I mean that he is a man one could imagine knowing in the here-and-now. He is a good man, if not perfect, and he rises to greatness; a very accessible hero.
Unlike Aragorn - whose rise from scruffy and doubtful-looking Ranger to King of the West is checked only by external circumstances (that is to say he may be slain or defeated from without, but he will not stumble) - Théoden comes within a whisker of failing altogether through his own fear and doubt.
In Saruman, Théoden was pitted against a foe far beyond his strength and, but for some timely intervention, would have fallen. The wizard had been working against Rohan, at first in secret but later openly, since the King was five years old. Théoden's heroism lies most of all in the way he seized the chance he was given.
Everyone who first read Lord of the Rings as a child (and, no doubt, many who came to it as adults) have imagined themselves into Middle Earth at some point, I am sure. Many of us cast ourselves in the grandest of heroic rôles, of course. (I certainly did!) Yet, even then, I loved Théoden for his humanity and, more than forty years later, that love continues to grow. For now I have a better idea what it must have taken to act as he did, of just how rare and wonderful a soul he was. Think about it for a moment - really think, laying aside all the romantical role-playing make-believe - imagine what it must have been like to stand in his shoes and face what he faced. And then ask yourself: could you have done as well?
Ferthu Théoden hal!
Page references are for the Houghton Mifflin one-volume trade paperback (movie tie-in edition).
1. Book Six, Chapter VI: Many Partings, p. 954
2. Book Three, Chapter VI: The King of the Golden Hall, p. 502
3. Book Three, Chapter VII: Helm’s Deep, p. 527
4. Book Three, Chapter VIII: The Road to Isengard, p. 545
5. Book Five, Chapter II: The Passing of the Grey Company, p. 760
6. Book Five, Chapter III: The Muster of Rohan, p. 775
7. ibid., p. 785
8. Book Five, Chapter V: The Ride of the Rohirrim, p. 819