Before we get started on “The Passing of the Grey Company,” chapter 2 of book V of The Return of the King, two things. First, my apologies for the long delay between chapter posts; it’s amazing what a big hole a sick kid can put in one’s schedule. (You might be saying at this point, “Gosh, Kate, you’ve said your kid’s been sick a lot when you’re begging our pardon for not being around much.” To which I say, “Thanks for noticing.”)
Second, I am currently auctioning the opportunity to be me! Or, more precisely, to make a guest post on this very re-read or have me write about a topic of your choice. Bid on the auction at this LiveJournal post, after reading the instructions. Bidding closes Saturday, March 13, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern; more cool stuff is highlighted here.
And now, without further ado: “The Passing of the Grey Company.”
Merry, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli ride with Théoden after Gandalf and Pippin depart. They are found by Elrond’s sons and a group of Dúnedain, who bring counsel from Elrond and a standard from Arwen. They sleep at the Hornburg, and in the morning Merry swears service to Théoden.
Aragorn announces that he must move more quickly, so he and his kindred will take the Paths of the Dead. After the Riders leave with Merry, Aragorn tells Legolas and Gimli that the night before, he looked in the Orthanc palantír. He revealed himself to Sauron as the heir of Isildur and wrenched the palantír away from Sauron’s control, barely, to see a threat to Minas Tirith coming from the South. Aragorn tells the others about the men cursed by Isildur to never rest until they fulfill their broken oath, whom he intends to summon to his aid.
Aragorn’s party rest that night at Dunharrow. Éowyn asks to ride with his company, which he refuses. They enter the Paths of the Dead and find whispers and the sense of a following crowd. Aragorn summons the Dead to the Stone of Erech; the company rides hard and arrives there just before midnight. There Aragorn declares himself Isildur’s heir, unfurls Arwen’s standard, and promises the Dead peace if they assist him now. They travel south in great haste, into the dawnless day with the Dead following after.
Another long, fabulous chapter! The opening of this book is, I think, my favorite sustained sequence in the re-read so far.
There’s a nice reference back to the end of Book III, when Merry says that he doesn’t want to be “like baggage to be called for when all is over”: on checking, he was the one who asked Gandalf about their being “small rag-tag dangling behind,” and obviously that still rankles. As of course it should, since it’s only been a few hours, but it’s easy to forget that with a whole book in-between, so I appreciate the reminder. (This is probably anachronistic: called for where, at a train station? But I, at least, didn’t notice until I was proofreading this post.)
Merry and Théoden also pick up their relationship from Book III, with Théoden immediately having Merry sit by his side and naming him his esquire. Merry’s swearing to Théoden is an instructive compare-and-contrast with Pippin’s swearing to Denethor. Théoden offers Merry the kindness of riding with him without prompting or apparent ulterior motive, and Merry responds:
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 to me,’ said Merry.
‘For a little while,’ said Théoden.
So: Merry offers his service in response to kindness, not scorn and suspicion, and out of love, not pride. Théoden receives it with a blessing, not a binding oath, and positions them as family to each other, not as master and servant, while acknowledging the inevitability of a coming end, instead of fiercely denying it. Instructive, indeed. Also, it makes me sniffle a bit for the both of them.
* * *
I don’t have much to say about the Dúnedain and Elrond’s sons. They have never made much of an impression on me and that hasn’t changed now. In fact, if we met on the street and you asked me the names of Elrond’s sons, I’d have to look them up (Elladan and Elrohir). Anyone have anything to say about them?
* * *
This is a very Aragorn-centric chapter, though not told from his point of view; insofar as the latter sections have an individual point of view, it’s Gimli’s. Again, I wonder what the book would have been like if it had managed to integrate Aragorn’s backstory into the text proper, instead of leaving it mostly for the Appendices. A statement like “Always my days have seemed to me too short to achieve my desire” has a much different resonance to me now than it did in the past, before I had really looked at Aragorn’s character in light of the whole text.
I believe there’s been discussions in the past about whether it was a good decision of Aragorn’s to look in the palantír? Me, I can’t get particularly passionate about it: he did it, it worked, so he was correct that he was able to do it. (Again, this is informed by the hints we get at all the things he’s been through in the Appendices, which to me makes his belief that he could pit his will against Sauron’s a lot more reasonable.) I welcome other viewpoints in the comments.
I wonder what “other guise” Aragorn showed Sauron, besides the reforged sword? Did he just de-scruff for the occasion, did he wrap himself in Arwen’s standard, or is it something less material/more mythic? I have no idea.
While we’re talking about the use of the palantír, I’ll note for later that apparently I don’t remember the logistics of the battles here. I’d vaguely assumed that the unlooked-for peril Aragorn saw in the palantír was the Corsairs, except that Gondor’s already heard about a black fleet: the people watching the Captains of the Outlands arriving refer to it as common knowledge.
Finally for this bit, am I right that the words of Malbeth the Seer are in alliterative verse, the kind with implicit pauses in the middle of lines?
at the Stone of Erech || they shall stand again
and hear there a horn || in the hills ringing.
(Notice how I pick two lines from the middle, because they’re the ones that I feel most confident in my guesses about the pauses? Yeah, fear my l33t poetry skillz!)
* * *
Oh, now for the painful bit: Éowyn.
These conversations made me very nearly writhe in my chair as I read, because here’s the thing: they’re both right, in different ways. Aragorn is correct that she can’t abandon her duty, and Éowyn is justified in feeling bitter that she is always given this duty.
(By the way: I do not want to hear that she should have been left behind because she’s a woman and therefore not as good a fighter as the men, i.e., as every single man who wasn’t left behind. She KILLED A FUCKING FELL BEAST, that argument is not on the table. Appoint as leader an older man who is respected for his age and wisdom but no longer young and fast and able to KILL A FUCKING FELL BEAST.
Ahem. I hope we’re clear on that.)
I do have to say, however, that I thought Aragorn a bit less than tactful when he offers Éowyn “valour without renown.” Éowyn hears this, and I think quite reasonably, as another way of saying “when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.” I suppose he was actually demonstrating the difference between high Númenóreans and the Rohirrim, the different emphasis they put on known valor and warriors and so forth. But it still hardly seems an argument likely to reach Éowyn at this point.
Anyway. Gorgeous, painful section; I’m sure we’ll be revisiting it extensively in chapters to come.
* * *
The Paths of the Dead. This is mostly from Gimli’s point of view, which I think is a terrific choice, as well as the only realistic one. Legolas isn’t afraid of the dead generally, Aragorn is out-of-bounds as a POV character, we don’t know any of the new people, but “Gimli Glóin’s son who had walked unafraid in many deep places of the world”? If he’s scared, so am I.
And I was. I particularly liked the torches that went out and could not be re-lit, which is either a demonstration of just how creepy the Dead are, that the torches can’t even cope in their presence, or a manifestation of the active, deliberate powers of the Dead—I strongly prefer the former. Gimli, poor thing, is reduced to “crawling like a beast on the ground,” which is another instance of fear making people animal-like, as John Garth pointed out.
(The dead man they find is Baldor, which is explained briefly in the next chapter.)
Does anyone have a theory why Aragorn says they have to come to the Stone of Erech before midnight? Does his summons have some implicit good-for-this-day-only condition in it, and the Dead would turn on them after it expires? That strikes me as rather less than useful, if so, and also not apparent from his verbal summons to them. Or maybe the Dead are like gremlins and get special powers after midnight?
What did the bit with the standard do for you all when you first read it? Specifically,
And with that he bade Halbarad unfurl the great standard which he had brought; and behold! it was black, and if there was any device upon it, it was hidden in the darkness. Then there was silence, and not a whisper nor a sigh was heard again all the long night.
I think I tended to pass over it with a bit of a “well, that was weird, whatever” feeling. Looking at it now, I am not sure what effect it was supposed to produce on me, but I find it . . . odd. “Behold!”, a standard that could be just plain black for all we know? Arwen couldn’t have made something that gave off light on its own accord, which would be very symbolic and useful and such? (Someone should market a black flag with a glow-in-the-dark White Tree, seven stars, and crown. I would absolutely buy one for SteelyKid’s room.) The Dead accept that as proof, when anyone can make a flag? Enh.
Very soon after we get the chapter’s closing paragraph, which is a mix of place names that meant nothing to me until I pulled out the folded map at the back of my one-volume collector’s edition and excellent creepiness:
They passed Tarlang’s Neck and came into Lamedon; and the Shadow Host pressed behind and fear went on before them, until they came to Calembel upon Ciril, and the sun went down like blood behind Pinnath Gelin away in the West behind them. The township and the fords of Ciril they found deserted, for many men had gone away to war, and all that were left fled to the hills at the rumour of the coming of the King of the Dead. But the next day there came no dawn, and the Grey Company passed on into the darkness of the Storm of Mordor and were lost to mortal sight; but the Dead followed them.
With bonus orienting us in time relative to the prior chapter! I appreciate it, at least.
All right. I will do my best to make the next post at a shorter interval. Meanwhile, go forth and bid on the auction to make a guest post here!
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.