The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Two Towers III.5, “The White Rider”

Before we get started this week, a kind correspondent points me to a first-time reader’s chapter-by-chapter posts, via the Wayback Machine: Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Reading Lord of the Rings . . . the final attempt. I’ve looked at her comments on a few of the chapters we’ve just done and it’s really interesting to see their effect on an unspoiled reader.

And now the next chapter in the Lord of the Rings re-read, “The White Rider.” The usual spoilers for all of LotR and comments after the jump.

What Happens

It’s morning and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli continue to search for Merry and Pippin. Aragorn finds a mallorn leaf, lembas-crumbs, and cut ropes, and deduces the mechanics of the hobbits’ escape. They come to the hill where Merry and Pippin met Treebeard, and see an old man, clad in grey rags and leaning on a staff, approaching. They are suspicious but supernaturally prevented from attacking—a good thing, since it turns out to be Gandalf not Saruman, even though he’s wearing white clothes under his robes.

At Gandalf’s request, they tell him what’s happened to them since Moria . He shares with them news of Saruman and the hobbits, and tells Aragorn that he must to go Théoden. Legolas and Gimli ask him how he escaped from the Balrog. He tells of falling into deep water, their long fight, and the Balrog’s flight up the Endless Stair to the peak of Zirakzigil. There they fought again on a narrow eyrie. Gandalf cast down the Balrog and then “strayed out of thought and time, and . . . wandered far” before he was “sent back.” Gwaihir the eagle found him there on the mountain and brought him to Lórien just after the Company departed. He passes on messages from Galadriel.

Gandalf summons Shadowfax, his horse, who brings with him the two horses who disappeared the night before. They ride toward Edoras, hall of Théoden. The chapter closes with Legolas seeing a great smoke, which Gandalf tells him is “battle and war.”


As DBratman mentioned previously, Legolas does indeed see a battle that hasn’t happened yet. It was on the Entmoot’s third day that the Ents started marching, and this chapter takes place only two days after the meeting. Appendix B gets the timeline right, but the text does not.

Appendix B also has some additional information about Gandalf’s experiences. First, it says that Gandalf and the Balrog were underground from January 15 to 23, when they come to the mountain peak; and he did not cast down the Balrog until January 25. The Appendix also specifically casts Gandalf’s experience as dying: he “passes away,” and “returns to life” on February 15—the same day as the Mirror of Galadriel, though it doesn’t seem likely that there’s any causal connection (though perhaps Galadriel looked in the Mirror at some other time before sending the Eagle to look for Gandalf?). Gandalf’s statements in the chapter, on the other hand, are much more ambiguous: the Appendix says he died, and so there’s authorial intent for you, but I don’t think I’d understood it as such when I first read the book, nor do I think one has to read it that way now.

But I’ve backed into taking about the important thing, which is: Gandalf’s back! Hooray!

And he’s pretty weird at first, which I don’t like to criticize considering the circumstances, but I really don’t understand his thinking. Asking Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli what they are doing in a way that strongly implies that he doesn’t know them, hiding his face as he does? Saying that they should guess his name, that they’ve heard it before—when a few pages later he seems to only now be recalling that he was called Gandalf? I guess he might be testing their level of caution, but it seems like kind of a jerk thing to do. He does get over it quick, though.

(What of Gimli’s character as revealed in his urging an attack on the old man as he approached? More suspicious, and more hasty as Treebeard might say—I couldn’t find a birth year in the Appendices, is he younger than Aragorn?)

Also, I was surprised it took so long for someone to really ask Gandalf how he escaped. I see that the chapter is structured so that having that story last leads into Galadriel’s messages and looking forward again, but even though Gandalf asks for their news first, I still think that if it were me, I would say “never mind us, what about you?!”

Going back to Gandalf’s combat with the Balrog briefly, it continues the theme of there being more things in Middle-earth than are concerned with the present struggle, the nameless creatures that gnaw the earth, and of forgotten things rediscovered, the Endless Stair. Also, I love the image of the Balrog bursting into new flame as it springs out onto the mountain ledge.

* * *

Okay, let’s go back to the start of the chapter.

Apparently bugs, rodents, and birds do not like lembas crumbs, for there to still be some for Aragorn to find two days later.

The conversation about the hobbits’ escape, as ed-rex pointed out previously, really is funny; I’m terrible at spotting humor in text and so appreciate the pointer.

I know Legolas is unquestionably ancient, but I don’t believe it, and so him calling Aragorn and Gimli “you children” wrecks my suspension of disbelief. Does anyone else’s mental picture of him include great age?

(Oh, and speaking of age, this is the chapter with Gandalf’s joke about talking to himself because “the old . . . choose the wisest person present to speak to: the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.” I like Aragorn’s gentle nudge in response: “I am no longer young even in the reckoning of Men of the Ancient Houses. Will you not open your mind more clearly to me?”)

* * *

Gandalf’s comments about Saruman and Sauron. Again we see the evil-self-destruction theme, with Saruman’s double betrayal being the direct cause of Merry and Pippin coming to Fangorn and triggering the Ents’ marching to war, and with the consequent distracting doubts to Sauron and Saruman. Gandalf also makes a clear statement of Sauron’s weakness that will eventually lead to the invasion of Mordor as a distraction, that he cannot fathom that they would not want to use the Ring and so looks outward to attack instead of guarding his borders and focusing on a search for the Ring. And like Galadriel, he asserts that he can “look into” an enemy’s mind—here Saruman—and see what he is thinking. I have no reason to doubt him, but I’m still having a hard time making this whole concept fit into my view of LotR, somewhat like Legolas as old. Maybe it’s just me?

(Similarly, I am okay with Gandalf talking to horses but not mentally summoning them from afar.)

* * *


Finally, the payoff for all the eagle sightings comes early in this chapter, as Gandalf says that he sent him ahead to watch the River.

The comment that launched a thousand theories about Tom Bombadil: Gandalf calls Treebeard “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.”

I am very fond of Gandalf telling Gimli, “You are best with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion.” I am not entirely sure why, but there you have it.

Gandalf’s hands in a “gleam of sun through fleeting clouds” are described as “seem(ing) to be filled with light as a cup is with water.” This reminds me of Gandalf himself thinking, back in II.1, that Frodo “may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can”; the two of them have had near-death or death experiences and are not longer quite as fleshly as they were.

Gandalf, in a statement that I think we have to take as authoritative, tells Aragorn that he did the right thing in following Merry and Pippin: “You chose amid doubts the path that seemed right: the choice was just, and it has been rewarded. For so we have met in time, who otherwise might have met too late.”

I don’t have anything to say about Galadriel’s messages now, as opposed to when we get to their payoff, but I welcome other people’s comments.

* * *

I’m at Readercon this weekend—if any of you are there, do say hello. (Five foot three woman of East Asian ancestry with shoulder-length hair; there aren’t going to be a lot of people to mistake for me there.) I’ll report back anything particularly relevant later on, and try to check in here when I have time.

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