In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment takes a look at Théoden, son of Thengel, King of Rohan and a champion in the fight against Sauron.
King Théoden of Rohan is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures of the Third Age, despite the fact that his greatest deeds were accomplished in the last few weeks of his life. Without his stout courage and compelling leadership, Gondor and the West would surely have fallen into Shadow. Théoden’s career is brief but brilliant: one that, in the end, proves to be nothing short of glorious.
His father, Thengel, had left Rohan for Gondor when only a young man; there, he met Morwen, whom he married much later. She carried three children in Gondor, and her second was Théoden, the only son (and thus heir). When Fengel, father of Thengel and King of the Mark, died, Morwen and her husband were summoned back to Rohan. It is said that Thengel “returned unwillingly,” and retained the use of the Common Speech in his house, much to the chagrin of many among the Rohirrim (LotR 1069). It is not recorded how Morwen felt about the summons. She bore two more daughters after the family’s return to Rohan, of which Théodwyn, the last, was particularly beloved by Théoden.
Théoden thus spent the early years of his life surrounded by the so-called “higher culture” of the people of Gondor and speaking the Common Tongue as his “native language” rather than Rohirric (The Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 296). Indeed, in Appendix A to The Lord of the Rings, Gondor is specifically referred to as “the land of his birth” (1069), which imparts special significance to the attentions given to his body after the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Théoden ascends the throne of Rohan at the age of 32, and is described by Tolkien as “vigorous and of martial spirit, and a great horseman” (Unfinished Tales, hereafter UT, 384).
By the time The Lord of the Rings begins, however, Théoden is an old man. He has seen much, endured much, and lost much. All his siblings and (presumably) their spouses and children have been laid to rest, even dear Théodwyn—with the sole exception of her children, Éomer and Éowyn. Elfhild, Théoden’s wife, is dead also. And Saruman’s growing power and influence, which by the time of Thengel was already emerging, has fully encroached on the sovereignty of Rohan. Théoden is tired, and surely feels himself to be alone.
Tolkien was not aware of all this when Théoden first came on the scene, during the drafting of the “Riders of Rohan” chapter. Indeed, at this early stage Théoden was not even a king, but rather simply the “First Master” of Rohan, a rank that would later be transformed into that of “Marshal.” Christopher Tolkien notes, however, that “if other names preceded [Théoden’s] they are lost in the underlying erased text”—Tolkien had a habit of erasing drafts written in pencil and writing over them new drafts in ink (The Treason of Isengard, hereafter TI, 399-400). From the information available to us then, Tolkien did not here agonize over names like he so often did for other characters.
Théoden thus walks on the scene as Théoden in name, but he is not yet quite the man we see in the published The Lord of the Rings. In fact, what may be called the linchpin of his story is entirely missing.
After drafting the earliest version of “The White Rider,” Tolkien constructed an outline for the story going forward and “discussed the structural problems of the story that he foresaw” (TI 434). Here, there is no indication of Saruman’s control over Théoden, and Gríma Wormtongue is literally nonexistent.
In this telling, as in the published version, Gandalf receives a hesitant welcome in Edoras, but this is because troubles seem to follow him rather than because of Saruman’s influence. Théoden laments that Gandalf has “come at the end of the days of Rohan. […] Fire shall eat up the high seat” (TI 435). Upon Gandalf’s request, Théoden gifts him Shadowfax, but the gift is accompanied by the accusation that the wizard intends to use the horse to get away if things go badly. Gandalf is offended, but “does not lose [his] temper. He says there will be no escape for anyone” (TI 435). He then encourages Théoden to arm himself and join his men in battle. Thereafter there is a battle near the Isen, rather than at Helm’s Deep, and here as in the final version of the story, the Rohirrim are victorious through the help of Gandalf, Aragorn, and the timely appearance of mysterious trees (TI 435-6). Théoden does not, apparently, attend the meeting with Saruman.
The first description of Théoden, too, reads somewhat like the final version: “In the chair sat a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf. His white hair was [?braided] upon his [?shoulders], his long beard was laid upon his knees. But his eyes burned with a keen light that glinted from afar off” (TI 444; bracketed terms indicate inconclusive transcriptions by Christopher Tolkien; JRRT’s handwriting is famously difficult to read). At this point, Gríma is little more than a “wizened figure of a man with a pale wise face” sitting at Théoden’s feet. He does not speak (TI 444). Indeed, many of the remarks that later are attributed to the Wormtongue are Théoden’s in this draft.
I think it’s important to pause here and notice this striking omission. For many of us, Gandalf’s “exorcism” of Théoden is a powerful turning point in the story: the first time we see the power of the White Wizard and the first indication we get that Saruman is suddenly in over his head, as it were. (And doubtless for many of us this memory is intensified by the powerful depiction of the scene in the films.) This moment blazes like a star among the often-depressing events that surround it. Théoden’s redemption cannot be taken lightly; later, the event even becomes incorporated into his name, as future generations know him as Théoden Ednew, “Théoden the Renewed” (PM 274). And yet, it was almost an afterthought.
When JRRT transferred many of Théoden’s words to Gríma, he still didn’t give any indication that the latter is wicked and a pawn of Saruman. This change happened quite suddenly, in the middle of drafting, when Tolkien decided that Éomer was in prison “by the instigation of Wormtongue” and not away in battle as he had been so far in the drafts (TI 445). Even then, the final transformation was relatively slow in coming because, as Christopher would later point out, serious problems in chronology made the final chapters of Book III tortuous to write (The War of the Ring, hereafter WR, 3). Much of the drafting process for these chapters consisted of arduous restructuring of timelines and dates.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Théoden’s character remains stable. It is the scene of restoration and renewal that serves as the anchor of his narrative, and it seems that once it was established, Tolkien understood precisely what the man’s story involved. Because of this, I want to take a moment to look specifically at that scene in the published Lord of the Rings in order to determine just how it contextualizes Théoden’s later actions.
First, Tolkien points out in a letter that Éomer and Théodred did all in their power to lessen Gríma’s influence when Théoden began to fall ill. “This occurred early in the year 3014,” Tolkien wrote, “when Théoden was 66; his malady may thus have been due to natural causes, though the Rohirrim commonly lived till near or beyond their eightieth year. But it may well have been induced or increased by subtle poisons, administered by Gríma. In any case Théoden’s sense of weakness and dependence on Gríma was largely due to the cunning and skill of this evil counsellor’s suggestions” (371).
That last sentence provides just the contextualization we need. Though the situation may of course be read in many different ways, for some time now I have interpreted Gríma and his whisperings as a personification of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. Gríma is that quiet voice in the back of all of our minds that tries to convince us we aren’t worthy, good enough, strong enough, young enough, old enough, smart enough—whatever it is—to face life, succeed, reach our goals, be loved. It works hard to convince us that friends mean us harm and that we sit alone and surrounded by evil in the darkness. And it comes to us in the guise of truth. Even Tolkien knew it well.
As Gandalf describes it, “But for long now he has plotted your ruin, wearing the mask of friendship, until he was ready. […] And ever Wormtongue’s whispering was in your ears, poisoning your thoughts, chilling your heart, weakening your limbs, while others watched and could do nothing, for your will was in his keeping” (521).
Often when recalling this scene, my mind wanders to the drama and excitement of its cinematic portrayal. But in the book, the moment is far less dramatic, though it naturally has its moments:
[Gandalf] raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth. […] There was a flash as if lightning had cloven the roof. (514)
This particular passage is the most dramatic in the chapter, and yet nothing (apart from Gríma’s sprawling) directly occurs because of Gandalf’s actions. Rather, the wizard, having silenced the voice of doubt for a moment, asks Théoden to listen to him. He asks him to rise, showing him a small, unassuming patch of clear sky. And yet—“No counsel have I give to those that despair,” he adds. He doesn’t force a change.
In fact, what he does in this moment is reveal to Théoden the true state of things. It is dark. He is in the midst of a storm. But the voice that tells him he cannot weather it has been silenced.
Remarkably, courageously, Théoden rises. And as he does so—that is when the darkness within the Hall begins to clear. There is no conspicuous withdrawal of Saruman from Théoden’s mind; no sudden and miraculous change in the king’s visage.
Rather, Théoden makes a choice to stand up in the darkness and accept the help of friends. In a powerfully symbolic moment, Éowyn, herself suffering under as yet unknown (to us) griefs, guides him down the stairs, through the shadows, and out into the sunlight. (Notice, however, that at this point she is unfortunately sent back into the house by Gandalf. Her time of healing isn’t here yet.)
We can read the scenery as Théoden steps out onto the terrace as indicative of his mental state, I think, which we can also do later with Éowyn. The text says that “the sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the East was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down.”
And Théoden’s response? “It is not so dark here” (514).
Darkness doesn’t pass all at once, of course. It still lingers overhead even though Théoden has made a step forward. But because of that step, he has seen the sunlight once again.
Slowly he begins to feel the effects of the change: “He drew himself up, slowly, as a man that is stiff from long bending over some dull toil. Now tall and straight he stood” (515). A moment later he smiles, and “so many lines of care were smoothed away and did not return” (515).
Théoden’s victory is not complete in this moment. But it is, in many ways, his greatest victory: the moment he looks beyond his present situation and sees that he isn’t alone and that hope remains.
And then he does what must be done. He gathers his friends and loved ones about him and he sets his face sternly towards the battle at hand.
There are many other things we might say about Théoden. For example, the fact that Gandalf tells him he’d be stronger if he was holding his sword (516) comes straight from the mouths of the warriors of the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon.” These doomed men, led into a hopeless battle because of either honor or foolishness (it all depends on how you read it!), share encouragement by assuring each other that they’ll fight bravely so long as they have their weapons in hand. And Théoden’s speech to Saruman is also reminiscent of some of the speeches of the commander, Byrhtnoth, in that same poem.
Similarly, Théoden’s commitment to stand firm and face the enemy no matter how hopeless the situation, to “make such an end as will be worth a song—if any be left to sing of us hereafter” (539), is indebted to Old English literature and what we now call the heroic code.
Théoden’s “adoption” of Merry is another touching and powerful aspect of his story. Having lost his own son, the king takes the little hobbit under his protection and treats him with respect and love. Though he clearly doesn’t seem to comprehend Merry’s need to ride into battle, he only orders Merry to stay behind out of concern compounded with a first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war. What the hobbit sees as a bitter disgrace, Théoden sees as a generous mercy. And perhaps he is a bit selfish, too…perhaps he can’t bear to lose anyone else under his protection.
Each of these aspects of Théoden’s character only serves to render his death-scene on the Fields of Pelennor more affecting. In the very moment he cries out to his men to “Fear no darkness!” he is overshadowed by the fell, chilling presence of the Nazgûl. Théoden, crushed under Snowmane, is now trapped and paralyzed literally, where before his situation was metaphorical. Though this time he cannot rise, his spirit does not falter in the darkness: “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. […] A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!” (842).
Even after Théoden dies and is laid to rest, he continues to bless his people, according to one of Tolkien’s drafts:
King Théoden is laid on a bier in [the] Hall of the Tower covered with gold. His body is embalmed after the manner of Gondor. Long after when the Rohirrim carried it back to Rohan and laid it in the mounds, it was said that he slept there in peace unchanged, clad in the cloth of gold of Gondor, save that his hair and beard still grew but were golden, and a river of gold would at times flow from Théoden’s Howe. Also a voice would be heard crying
Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden
Fell deeds awake. Forth Eorlingas!
When peril threatened. (WR 385)
But all of Théoden’s great deeds rest on that one moment, a mere sentence: “Slowly Théoden left his chair” (514).
I cannot help but be inspired. We are also living in a dark time, and all around us things are grim and fearful—there is no use denying it. The world is in a turmoil of plague and violence, and sometimes, our time seems to be running out. But we can still choose to stand up and to look towards the sunlight; to rely on friends and other loved ones to support us when we cannot stand ourselves. We can still choose to look ahead to better days even if over our heads the storm still rages. And not only that—Théoden’s story also promises that the better days will come.
This is one of the more important lessons The Lord of the Rings has for us these days, I think. Take heart; be strong; and if you can’t muster hope, keep fighting anyway. Rely on friends.
Look for the light, and may you, too, find that it is “not so dark here.”
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who has been abundantly encouraged and inspired by the examples and influence of Tolkien’s characters. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!