We continue our Lord of the Rings re-read with chapter 3 of book V of The Return of the King, “The Muster of Rohan.” As usual, spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.
The Rohirrim, accompanied by Merry, arrive at Dunharrow, where Éowyn tells them that Aragorn has taken the Paths of the Dead. A messenger from Gondor arrives with the Red Arrow, requesting their aid. Théoden says they will come, but it may take a week so that they have strength to fight when they arrive. However, the next morning is the Dawnless Day, and in response Théoden changes his mind and decides they will ride in haste.
Théoden releases Merry from his service; Merry protests, and Théoden says at least they shall keep company until Edoras. There, however, Théoden again refuses to let Merry accompany them. A young Rider, who asks to be called Dernhelm, quietly approaches Merry and offers to take him. They depart Rohan to rumors of attacks on the eastern borders.
A quieter, more somber chapter, which is probably a reasonable change of pace at this point but still made me, well, sad. Also, hello, landscape! How relatively absent you’ve been.
The chapter starts with an explicit orientation in time and place for the reader:
Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of war and the onset of the Shadow. And even as Pippin stood at the Great Gate of the City and saw the Prince of Dol Amroth ride in with his banners, the King of Rohan came down out of the hills.
Thank you, narrator, I appreciate it.
(Later, the poem tells us that they spend five days riding to Gondor, which I presume will help when we go back to Gondor in the next chapter.)
* * *
As I said, we get a lot of landscape early, which I admit I found a little hard going in places. However, there’s a passage that combines description with characterization in a way I found nicely effective, where Merry contemplates the mountains:
It was a skyless world, in which his eye, through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slopes, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist. He sat for a moment half dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound. He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire.
“The insupportable weight of Middle-earth”—that’s a comment I expect to hear from someone old and frail and tired of mortality, not a young sturdy hobbit. And “the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound” perfectly evokes the shivery feeling in the back of my mind when I’m in the wilderness (of course, I grew up in the suburbs). Finally, do I read too much in, or is there a hint of Merry’s having heightened non-physical senses in this passage? Perhaps I’m letting the Barrow-wight episode influence me too much.
* * *
The Riders smile at the sight of Merry riding next to Théoden, another small way in which the Rohirrim maintain different social codes than Gondor and the Tower Guard.
* * *
Dunharrow. Here’s a remnant of the forgotten past, made to a forgotten and now unknowable purpose by people who “had vanished, and only the old Púkel-men were left, still sitting at the turnings of the road.” Merry again shows awareness of and sensitivity to his environment, looking at them “with wonder and a feeling almost of pity.” It reminds me of Hollin, actually—I’m sure Legolas would also hear these stones saying “deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.” Between these and Baldor, below, this is a chapter full of history and the depths of time.
(And I have no idea how one “squat(s) cross-legged”; to me squatting implies crouching with your feet spread apart to give you stability.)
* * *
Éowyn. We get the tiniest glimpse at her leadership of the people when we come to the orderly camp. As she says, “There were hard words, for it is long since war has driven us from the green fields; but there have been no evil deeds.”
To jump ahead in the chapter, I’m sure I didn’t spot her as Dernhelm when I first read this, but I was just a kid. Who did, and why? (The narrator does assign a gendered pronoun to Dernhelm, which isn’t quite fair: “‘Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,’ he whispered.” That could easily have been, “the Rider whispered,” or even “Merry heard.”)
* * *
The story of Baldor. If I’m parsing this right, it’s told out of chronological order. When the Eorlingas first came to the region, Baldor and his father came to the Door and were told by an ancient man at the threshold, “The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.” (Which, by the by, just sounds great.) Then they built Meduseld, and at the celebratory feast, Baldor vowed to go in, possibly while intoxicated. He was never seen again (until Aragorn and the others found him last chapter, which the Rohirrim don’t know about yet).
Let’s go to the Appendices: Baldor disappeared in 2570 of the Third Age—which is actually quite recent as Middle-earth goes, it’s 3019 now. Isildur, of course, died at the end of the Second Age (GONDORIANS: *change calendar*). Judging by the words of the ancient man, the oathbreakers have already become the Dead, which makes sense given the time frame; but, who, then is the ancient man who speaks in the Western tongue, once tall and kingly, who speaks to them and then dies?
* * *
The messenger from Gondor, with the Red Arrow (any particularly significant historical parallel there, guys?), is very much a messenger of Denethor. I suppose technically reminding Théoden of “oaths long spoken” isn’t a command, and yet . . . And, of course, he makes the confident and completely incorrect assertion that “it is before the walls of Minas Tirith that the doom of our time will be decided.”
(Noted without comment: the messenger refers to Minas Tirith’s fall as “Orcs and Swarthy Men . . . feasting in the White Tower.”)
* * *
Contributing to the somberness of this chapter is its pervasive acceptance, and sometimes anticipation, of death. Théoden makes a number of comments about how he might not come back. When Merry first sees Dernhelm, he thinks it “the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.” Merry himself doesn’t want, I think, to die, but he does want to fight, and by this point he knows that his death could be a consequence.
As for Merry and Théoden: just as with Aragorn and Éowyn, I don’t think Théoden was wrong, but I was disappointed when he said that he accepted Merry’s service “for your safe-keeping, and also to do as I might bid.” I know, it’s probably asking too much for an elderly king, who’s only just met hobbits and who has a lot of other things on his mind, to perceive what took even Gandalf a while to learn, the toughness of these child-sized people. But Merry offered his oath out of love and to get that in return? Ouch.
And we close on another downer travel ending, which makes us two for three so far this book (take out the “travel” and we’re three for three): “All the lands were grey and still; and ever the shadow deepened before them, and hope waned in every heart.”
On that cheerful note: see you next week.
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.