We come to the midpoint of the first book of The Two Towers with chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall.” After the jump, the usual spoilers for all of The Lord of the Rings and comments.
But first, a silly graph: Characters in The Lord of the Rings and Miles Vorkosigan, by Height. (It’s the last item that makes it for me.)
Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli ride to Edoras in Rohan. At the doors of Meduseld, the King’s golden hall, the Doorward Háma directs them to leave their weapons. Aragorn has to be persuaded to leave Andúril, and Gandalf cannot be persuaded to leave his staff, so Háma trusts his judgment and allows him to keep it.
When they enter the hall, they find Wormtongue counseling a bent and aged Théoden King not to trust Gandalf or Éomer. Gandalf bids him be silent and makes the hall darken through a storm, complete with lightning. Gandalf invites Théoden to come outside the hall’s doors. He does and, at Gandalf’s direction, casts away his own staff and stands straight.
Théoden tells Háma to bring Éomer, imprisoned for threatening Wormtongue. While they wait, Gandalf tells him something of hope for the future, though not of the Ring itself. At Éomer’s arrival, Théoden calls the Riders to arms. Gandalf tells him that he has already taken his counsel: “To cast aside regret and fear. To do the deed at hand.”—namely, by seeking to destroy Saruman’s power by riding forth immediately while the women, children, and elderly take refuge in the mountains.
Wormtongue is brought before Théoden and attempts to avoid going to battle by staying as a steward. Gandalf accuses him of having been bought by Saruman, in part by a promise of Éowyn, Éomer’s sister, and tells Théoden to judge him through his choice between riding to battle or leaving. Wormtongue spits on the ground and flees.
They eat, discuss Saruman’s treachery, and give and receive gifts: Shadowfax to Gandalf, and armor for the warriors. Aragorn is troubled by his interactions with Éowyn. Théoden names Éomer his heir, since his son was recently killed, and names Éowyn as leader in his absence at the suggestion of Háma. The men ride away as Éowyn stands alone and watches.
I don’t know if it’s the post-Readercon busyness and blahs, guys, but I’m not really excited by this chapter. A lot happens in it—I’ve been pleasantly surprised to realize that the pace of this book is quite brisk—and I have notes, but nothing that really fired me up to write. So let’s see how this goes.
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On the trip there, I infer that Aragorn must be preparing to deal with Théoden as an equal under his true name, to explain his staying awake after the hard journey when Gimli and Legolas sleep.
Though some of Tolkien’s theories of language are nonstandard, I do like that he realizes that languages diverge along with population movement and that the Rohirrim would now have their own language. So many fantasy novels have a handy uniformity of language across a continent, which just doesn’t work when it comes to humans.
Do any of our language experts here have links to or examples of poetry that “Where now is the horse and the rider?” is modeled after? Would it be related to why Tolkien only gives the poem translated—the Internet claims that “Westu [name] hal” is Old English, so would the untranslated poem be basically Old English? (By the way, until now, I always mis-read “hal” as “hai”; it just looked more probable to me.)
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Arriving at Edoras, and another example of insularity being bad, with Wormtongue being behind the refusal to give entry to anyone who does not know their language or come from Gondor.
We’ve discussed the bit at the door with the weapons a couple times before. *rummages* First, Graydon commented that “In handing over Glamdring, Gandalf is handing over the more famous, and better sword, compared to Narsil/Anduril,” and discusses its lineage. In the chapter, Aragorn says that “Telchar first wrought [Narsil] in the deeps of time,” which prompted me to search my e-book for “Telchar”; I didn’t find anything else in LotR under that name (perhaps the making was discussed in more general terms), but The Silmarillion says that Telchar was a dwarf, which surprised me because I’d always vaguely assumed that Narsil was of Elvish make. Second, Firefly described how “The arrival at Meduseld in fact closely mirrors passages in Beowulf,” and how the demand to disarm is actually a serious insult that requires appropriate response—which I found very useful because, you know, I don’t go around armed and neither do most people I know, so my attitude toward weapons in my home is rather different than that of the characters here. I admit without that context I found Aragorn’s behavior unusual, though I liked that he was able to still laugh when Gandalf refused to give up his staff.
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Wormtongue. I hadn’t noticed before that his physical description, upon introduction, contains a small amount of ambiguity: “a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes.” Unless this is some archaic non-positive use of “wise”?
His initial comment doesn’t give a good impression of his wisdom or effectiveness, but then he’s been saddled with As-You-Know-Bob’ing recent history: “You speak justly, lord. It is not yet five days since the bitter tidings came that Théodred your son was slain upon the West Marches: your right-hand, Second Marshal of the Mark.” I actually liked his observation about a third kind of person who only shows up when there’s trouble: “pickers of bones, meddlers in other men’s sorrows, carrion-fowl that grow fat on war.” Don’t we all know someone who delights excessively in the misfortunes of others? And his persuasive efforts later in the chapter are somewhat better, when he tries to be left behind with the women (especially Éowyn), children, and elderly. But I still didn’t get the impression that he was, as Gandalf called him, “bold and cunning.” Instead I saw him, as Gandalf says later in that paragraph, a “snake,” or at least our stereotypes thereof: insinuating, clever, but not employing physical force and probably a coward—so, okay, not a constrictor but a venomous snake. A spitting one.
(I base the cowardice on his sprawling on his face when Gandalf summons the storm, as I refuse to believe that Gandalf directly forced him down.)
I see no textual evidence to support any magical source of his influence over Théoden. Indeed Gandalf reawakens Théoden much more easily than I’d remembered, and I wonder how that looks to those who don’t know he has the Ring of Fire to “rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill” (Appendix B). I also wonder what he said about hope that had them look East, since he explicitly did not tell him about the Ring. (I’m not going to do the math on Legolas seeing Minas Tirith and Mount Doom from Edoras; maybe the world really is flat except for where the Seas were bent to prevent people from going to Valinor.)
Speaking of Théoden, I don’t get a very strong sense of his personality from this chapter. Worn with care, determined, not as open-minded as his younger subjects to think that Éomer is the last of his House and forget Éowyn, but willing to leave her in charge upon being reminded. What about you all?
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Éowyn. I don’t want to get too far in discussing what happens regarding her before we get there in the text, so I’ll just note the principal description of her here for reference.
Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.
Two things: I find the last clause a weirdly mixed metaphor. And I’m not sure what I think about “cool pity,” if that fits what I remember about what we learn about her relationship with Théoden later on, so I’m noting it for future reference.
Also, the end of the chapter is a wonderfully brutal reversal:
The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West.
Far over the plain Éowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.
All that stirring heroic display and departure and then bang down into the one left behind. I may have actually said “ouch” out loud instead of just thinking it.
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Three final small notes:
Gandalf says “I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.” My emphasis—that removes the ambiguity from his prior description. Also, a great line.
Gimli and Legolas are almost entirely silent from the time they arrive at Edoras until the end. I have to say that I experienced the return to Gimli, as he walks along with his axe on his shoulder, saying, “Well, at last we set off!” with more relief than I’d expected. I don’t know if I’ll have the same reaction to Pippin and Denethor, but the change in tone was actually nice for a change.
Word looked up this chapter: “Faithful heart may have froward tongue”: stubbornly disobedient, unmanageable.
Oh, and you should take a look at Jo Walton’s post “Ambiguity in Fantasy,” I think you’ll find it interesting. I’m still chewing it over myself.