Théoden son of Thengel
Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising
He rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled and in hope ended;
Over death, over dread, over doom lifted
Out of loss, out of life, unto long Glory.”
For a man who was later described as being like an incarnation of Oromë, Théoden’s part in the books did not start very gloriously. Théoden Ednew, the 17th King of the Mark, and 8th King of the Second Line of Eorl, was the only king of Rohan to fall under the influence of evil.
Théoden, the second child and only son of Morwen of Lossarnach and Thengel of the Mark was born in Gondor in TA 2948 (though early texts read TA 2928). He first went to Rohan when he was four or five.
He married Elfhild of Eastfold. How long they had been married before she died giving birth to Théoden’s only child, Théodred, is unknown. After the death of Théodwyn, his younger sister, Théoden fostered her children, Éomer and Éowyn, in Meduseld.
Thengel reigned until 2980, and Theoden probably served in the Muster of Edoras from his early adulthood until his father’s death, when he took up the kingship of Rohan.
Théoden is introduced in the books as a weak man, having ceded his power to Gríma Wormtongue – a Rohir who had originally been faithful to the King, but who had been seduced by Saruman.
The position to which Gríma had risen in the court by 3019 – and the weary resignation with which most Rohirrim then viewed the situation – was clear from the first:
“It is the will of Théoden King that none should enter his gates, save those that know our tongue and are our friends. … It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Théoden no stranger should pass these gates.”
“Wormtongue?” said Gandalf, looking sharply at the guard. “Say no more! My errand is not to Wormtongue, but to the Lord of the Mark himself.”
“Strange names you give indeed! But I will report them as you bid, and learn my master’s will,” said the guard. “Wait here a little while, and I will bring you such an answer as seems good to him. Do not hope too much! These are dark days.”
Our first view of Théoden is as an old man sitting on his throne, Wormtongue at his feet, and Éowyn standing behind him. He is described as bent with age, with long white hair falling in great braids from beneath a gold circlet in which was set a single white diamond. His beard reached to his knees. When he stood, he used a short black staff with a handle of white bone to support himself. However, Gandalf and the others could still see the strong man whom he had been. His blue eyes burned with a bright light, he was tall, and they saw that in his youth he must have been “high and proud indeed”.
Théoden’s initial welcome to Gandalf was short and uncertain, highly tempered by the version of events that was fed to him by Wormtongue, and not giving the wizard much hope that the Rohirrim would come to his aid.
“But truth to tell your welcome is doubtful here, Master Gandalf. You have ever been a herald of woe. Troubles follow you like crows, and ever oftener the worse. I will not deceive you: when I heard that Shadowfax had come back riderless, I rejoiced at the return of the horse, but still more at the lack of the rider; and when Éomer brought the tidings that you had gone at last to your long home, I did not mourn. But news from afar is seldom sooth. Here you come again! And with you come evils worse than before, as might be expected. Why should I welcome you, Gandalf Stormcrow?”
The nature of Gríma’s hold over Théoden
Little is known about Gríma’s history, but before his seduction by Saruman, it must be assumed that he had been a loyal servant to the King for many years, and that Théoden trusted his judgement implicitly. There are for two reasons for this. Firstly, Théoden – previously a strong and wise king – would not have listened to anyone that he did not believe had the interests of the land at heart, and who was wise enough to know what was best for Rohan. Secondly, as a pawn for Saruman, Wormtongue would not have been much use without that position of power within the court.
Théoden fell “ill” in 3014, so presumably it was a good number of years before that that Saruman initially converted Gríma, and then he must have started whispering his lies – very slowly – into the King’s ears. Maybe a limit for the earliest date when this could have occurred in 3002, when Éomund died, or shortly after, when Théodwyn died. When that happened, Théoden would have been left without close members of his family around him, and he would have been particularly reliant on his advisors. However, it is likely that only in the years 3018 and 3019 was Théoden totally under Gríma’s spell, as he appointed Éomer as Marshal of the Mark in 3017. Having a strong Marshal of the Mark would not have been to Gríma’s advantage.
Even Gandalf was also unsure how far back Gríma’s treachery went:
“He was not always evil. Once I do not doubt that he was the friend of Rohan; and even when his heart grew colder, he found you useful still. But for long now has he plotted your ruin, wearing the mask of friendship, until he was ready. In those years, Wormtongue’s task was easy, and all that you did was swiftly known in Isengard; for your land was open, and strangers came and went. And Wormtongue’s whispering was in your ears, poisoning your thought, chilling your heart, weakening your limbs, while others watched and could do nothing, for your will was in his keeping.”
It is fairly easy to see how Théoden could have come to rely more and more on Wormtongue, not thinking to question his silken-tongued lies and deceit. What I feel is more remarkable – and much more understated – is the strength of mind that Théoden must still have had to be able to throw off Wormtongue’s influence. For a King to be able to admit that he has been wrong, and that he has been (unintentionally) damaging his people and his lands, takes incredible belief both in his people and his innate self-worth and ability.
What is even more remarkable is that Théoden is then prepared to forgive Wormtongue, and have him ride beside the King on the way to war.
“You have my pity,” said Théoden. “And I do not send you from my side. I go myself to war with my men. I bid you come with me and prove your faith.”
When Wormtongue refused the King’s offer, spitting at his feet and running from Edoras, still Théoden showed mercy:
“After him!” said Théoden. “See that he does no harm to any, but do not hurt him or hinder him. Give him a horse, if he wishes it.”
The release of Théoden from Wormtongue’s influence was much less dramatic than might be expected from the film of “The Two Towers”. In the book, Gandalf simply encouraged him out of his chair, and took him out of the Golden Hall to look over Rohan.
“Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.”
Slowly Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again.
They came to the doors and Gandalf knocked.
“Open!” he cried. “The Lord of the Mark comes forth!”
The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill.
“Now, lord,” said Gandalf, “look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!”
Théoden looked out, over his lands – the green fields, the river glittering like glass, a storm rolling away over the East, and a sharp stab of sunlight coming down from between the clouds. And gained his release from the influence of Saruman:
“From the king’s hand the black staff fell clattering on the stones. He drew himself up, slowly, as a man that is stiff from long bending over some dull toil. Now tall and straight he stood, and his eyes were blue as he looked into the opening sky.
“Dark have been my dreams of late,” he said, “but I feel as one new-awakened. I would now that you had come before, Gandalf. For I fear that already you have come too late, only to see the last days of my house.”
Taking Théoden out to view his lands seems to many people somehow too small a thing to bring the king out from Wormtongue’s influence. However, if one considers the intimate connection between the Rohirrim and Anglo-Saxon / Germanic cultures (see below) it may not seem so odd. In many old civilisations, there was a much more intimate connection between the King and the Land than the mainly ceremonial role that royalty has now. One only has to think, as an extreme analogy, of pagan societies where people were sacrificed annually to restore the land to health and prosperity, with the ultimate culmination of that rite being the sacrifice of the king. While there was never any suggestion that the Rohirrim followed any such traditions, it is easy to believe that the ties between King and Land would be strong and important to the semi-nomadic Rohirrim, and thus Théoden’s awakening on viewing his lands may not seem so far-fetched.
The re-awakening of the King
The sheer strength and willpower of the Rohan king is continually demonstrated throughout the books. But one of the occasions I find most remarkable is when Théoden had been freed from Gríma’s influence, and asks Gandalf about Middle-earth. Gandalf very bluntly told him that he had awoken into a time of more danger than Gríma could ever have envisaged. For a man who had been constantly cowed and constantly misled, to rise up and face his doom must have taken great courage.
The Théoden of old seemed to return more clearly when he held a sword once more. He first took Éomer’s sword, held it aloft, swinging it shimmering and whistling in the air, and crying out in Rohirric:
“Arise now, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Dire deeds awake, dark is it eastward.
Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!
At that, his guards, thinking that they had been summoned, sprang up the stairs of the Golden Hall, and looked at their lord in amazement. As one man, they drew their swords and laid them at his feet, a sign of fealty and love. In return, Théoden immediately promised to fight in the upcoming war, whether it mean glory and victory, or defeat and death. Háma was then sent to fetch Herugrim, Théoden’s long sword, in a scabbard clasped with gold and set with green gems.
“I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.”
“Then even the defeat of Rohan will be glorious in song,” said Aragorn. The armed men that stood near clashed their weapons, crying: “The Lord of the Mark will ride! Forth Éorlingas!””
Théoden’s first act was then to order the muster of the Rohirrim, and his second was to grant Gandalf anything of his (except Herugrim) that his heart desired in return for his wise counsel. The sudden, total reversal in the king’s thinking was seen here, when he gladly granted Gandalf’s request to be given Shadowfax.
Gandalf then urged him to take his forces to Helm’s Deep, rather than going to the Fords of Isen, where Théodred had been slain, and again Théoden took his advice. The king’s sense of doom was already well-developed. As with all Rohirrim, he did not fear death in battle – which was considered an honourable and glorious end.
“Behold! I go forth, and it seems like to be my last riding,” said Théoden. “I have no child. Théodred my son is slain. I name Éomer my sister-son to be my heir. If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will.”
There is actually little mention of Théoden during the Battle of the Hornburg. It was Éomer who commanded the Rohirrim troops in the field, and so presumably Théoden remained in a command position in the Hornburg until the final moments, when defeat was almost certain. Then the horn of Helm Hammerhand was heard among the hills
“And with that shout the king came. His horse was white as snow, golden was his shield, and his spear was long. At his right hand was Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, behind him rode the lords of the House of Eorl the Young. Light sprang in the sky. Night departed.
“Forth Eorlingas!” With a cry and a great noise they charged. Down from the gates they roared, over the causeway they swept, and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass.”
Théoden and his riders drove a path through the attackers to the Dike, from where they saw the arrival of reinforcements led by Gandalf and Erkenbrand. The charge turned the tide of the battle, and victory came to the Rohirrim.
Théoden then decided that he and twenty of his riders would follow Gandalf to Isengard, leaving the rest of the Rohirrim to spread word of the victory throughout the Mark, and to gather all men to go in haste to Edoras.
At Isengard, Théoden began to realise that the war in Rohan was only a small part of the troubles afoot in the world. It was not only the Rohirrim that were prepared to die – the Ents also understood that the war would probably mean the end of their race. And so he began to realise that he did have allies, albeit unknowingly.
“I have lived to see strange days. Long we have tended our beasts and our fields, built our houses, wrought our tools, or ridden away to help in the wars of Minas Tirith. And that we called the life of Men, the way of the world. We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.”
He also encountered hobbits for the first time. The King showed a kindly interest in their chatter of herbs and their homeland, and invited Merry and Pippin to Edoras, where they could talk further.
In Isengard, Théoden also encountered Saruman, and saw Gríma again. Saruman again tried to subvert the King, flattering him and offering him aid for Rohan: “But you, Théoden Lord of the Mark of Rohan, are declared by your noble devices, and still more by the fair countenance of the House of Eorl.” After hearing Saruman’s words, Théoden did not answer for a long time, and Éomer, at least, was worried that the king would again be fooled by the silky voice and false promises of Saruman. However, these worries were unfounded.
“We will have peace,” said Théoden at last thickly and with an effort. Several of the Riders cried out gladly. Théoden held up his hand. “Yes, we will have peace,” he said, now in a clear voice, “we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished – and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. … A lesser son of great sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers. Turn elsewhither.”
However, towards the end of the encounter at Isengard, even Théoden was moved by Saruman’s voice, such was its power. But he and the others held firm, and left Orthanc.
After leaving Isengard, Théoden rode back to the Hornburg with his riders, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and Merry. At Helms Deep, Théoden took Merry into his service, blessing him, naming him esquire of Rohan of the household of Meduseld and promising to be as a father to him for a while. The hobbit had quickly become important to the King, seeming in the most important ways to be as one of the Rohirrim:
“He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.”
On the road down from Dunharrow, and onwards to Gondor, Merry often rode at Théoden’s side, telling stories of the Shire, and listening to tales of the Mark and its mighty men of old.
The Muster of Rohan
“So the King of the Mark came back victorious out of the West to Dunharrow beneath the feet of the White Mountains.”
At Harrowdale, Éomer tried to convince Théoden to return to Edoras, and to stay there until the end of the war. The King had other plans. He certainly intended to return to Edoras, but only to muster the Mark, fully intended to return and lead his troops to war.
His plans were set in stone when Hirgon arrived at Dunharrow, carrying the Red Arrow.
“Dark tidings,” said Théoden, “yet not all unguessed. But say to Denethor that even if Rohan itself felt no peril, still we would come to his aid. But we have suffered much loss in our battles with Saruman the traitor, and we must still think of our frontier to the north and east, as his own tidings make clear.
But we will speak no longer counsels of prudence. We will come.
For say to Denethor that in this hour the King of the Mark himself will come down to the land of Gondor, though maybe he will not ride back.”
Théoden managed to gather 6,000 spears for the defence of Gondor, but he refused to take Merry into Gondor with him, knowing that the hobbit on his pony could not keep up with the fleet-footed horses of the Rohirrim. He released the hobbit from his service, but not from his friendship. However, in the end, Merry managed to get to the battles in Gondor by riding secretly with Dernhelm.
The King went to war gladly, even though he knew it would likely lead to his death. He was a willing sacrifice for the good of Rohan and the good of the West. It was an end to the waiting, an end to the years of being suppressed and humbled. It was Théoden’s chance – and probably his last chance – to go out in a blaze of glory, the ultimate death for a proud Rohirrim warrior.
“So we come to it in the end … the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away. But at least there is no longer need for hiding. We will ride the straight way and the open road and with all our speed. The muster shall begin at once, and wait for none that tarry.”
And such was the love of the people for their lord that they were prepared to follow him – be it to victory or defeat.
“So it was that amid a gathering gloom the King of the Mark made ready to lead all his Riders on the eastward road. Hearts were heavy and many quailed in the shadow. But they were a stern people, loyal to their lord, and little weeping or murmuring was heard, even in the camp in the Hold where the exiles from Edoras were housed, women and children and old men. Doom hung over them, but they faced it silently.”
The Ride of the Rohirrim
The ride of the Rohirrim from Dunharrow to Gondor provided some of the beautiful and stirring verse that Tolkien ever wrote. There is very little that can be said about Théoden’s role in this historic event that has not already been said perfectly by Tolkien.
“From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning
with thane and captain rode Thengel’s son:
to Edoras he came, the ancient halls
of the Mark-wardens mist-enshrouded;
golden timbers were in gloom mantled.
Farewell he bade to his free people,
hearth and high-seat, and the hallowed places,
where long he had feasted ere the light faded.
Forth rode the king, fear behind him,
fate before him. Fealty kept he;
oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them.
Forth rode Théoden. Five nights and days
east and onward rode the Eorlingas
six thousand spears to Sunlending.
Mundburg the mighty under Mindolluin,
Sea-kings’ city in the South-kingdom
Doom drove them on. Darkness took them,
horse and horseman; hoofbeats afar
sank into silence: so the song tells us.”
Eventually, the riders reached the area of battle, at Minas Tirith.
“After a while the king led his men away somewhat eastward, to come between the fires of the siege and the outer fields. Still they were unchallenged, and still Théoden gave no signal. At last he halted once again. The City was now nearer. A smell of burning was in the air and a very shadow of death. The horses were uneasy. But the king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age. Merry himself felt as if a great weight of horror and doubt had settled on him. His heart beat slowly. Time seemed poised in uncertainty. They were too late! Too late was worse than never! Perhaps Théoden would quail, bow his old head, turn, slink away to hide in the hills.”
However, this wasn’t doubt in Théoden’s mind. Possibly his hesitation was shame – even guilt – that he had let the world go past ignored while under Gríma’s influence, that he hadn’t allowed his warriors to contribute to the battles being fought for the free world. And part of it was certainly the dread that affected all when faced with the armies of Mordor, especially the fell beasts and their Nazgûl riders. Théoden then came to his finest hour, where his strength, courage and heroism were unsurpassed:
“But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.
At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
‘Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!’
With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his bannerbearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains:
‘Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!’
Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them … but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.”
For the Rohirrim, who worshipped Oromë in the guise of Bema, a comparison of the King to the god of old must be the highest honour any Rohir could attain to. He was as an avenging angel, sweeping the forces of Mordor before him that day, and he and his riders sang as they killed.
The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
When the Rohirrim joined the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Théoden was soon spotted by the chieftain of the Haradrim, and the Rohan king rode out to meet him, charging forward on Snowmane.
“Right through the press drove Théoden Thengel’s son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered.”
There seems to be some particular significance to Théoden engaging the chieftain of the Haradrim, whose standard was a black serpent. Again we have Théoden faced with a snake, but instead of getting lost in the webs of Wormtongue, he slays his enemy.
After that ride of glory came the bitterness of loss as the Witch-king descended from on high, and Snowmane reared, then fell on his side, trapping Théoden beneath him. The master’s faithful servant became also his master’s bane. Only Merry and Éowyn (as Dernhelm) still stood at the king’s side, all his other knights having been slain, or been carried off by the madness of their horses brought on by the Witch-king’s screams. The pair faced the Witch-king, together struck blows that brought him down, and banished him from the world for that age. At the end of the fight, Éowyn lay still and unmoving on the floor, and only Merry managed to reach his wounded king. Snowmane had rolled off him while writhing around in his agony, and Théoden lay unmoving on the battlefield.
“Then Merry stooped and lifted his hand to kiss it, and lo! Théoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.
‘Farewell, Master Holbytla!’ he said. ‘My body is broken, I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!”
Théoden finally felt as if he had redeemed himself in his own eyes, his countrymen’s eyes and the eyes of his forefathers. From thinking himself a “lesser son of great sires”, Théoden now believed that he could take his seat in the halls of his fathers with pride, honour and dignity. He could sit among the great Rohan lords of the past, and not be ashamed. He had fallen after a time of glory – after vanquishing a great enemy, having taken the fight to the foe. His grim morn of subjugation to Gríma and Saruman had given rise to a bright day where he took back up his role as king, and a golden sunset where he left Middle-earth a hero of the Rohirrim and the Army of the West.
As is said after his funeral:
“King Théoden arose and rode through the Shadow to the fire, and died in splendour, even as the Sun, returning beyond hope, gleamed upon Mindolluin in the morning.”
Just before Théoden died, Éomer arrived at his side. When one of his knights took the king’s banner from the hand of Guthláf, Théoden opened his eyes, and motioned that the flag should be given to Éomer:
“Hail, King of the Mark! … Ride now to victory! Bid Éowyn farewell!”
And then he died, knowing not how near to him lay Éowyn, whom was to the King dearer than a daughter.
Early versions of the death of Théoden
Early versions of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields are given in “The Treason of Isengard (HoME VII) and The War of the Ring (HoME VIII). One of these versions had an even more poignant version of the story:
“Then Théoden gave a great shout “Forth Eorlingas!” and spurred Snowmane rearing into the deeps of the great shadow. But few followed him; for his men quailed and grew sick in that ghastly shade, and many fell upon the ground. The light of his golden shield grew dim. Still he rode on, and darts flew thick about him. Many fell before his spear, and almost he had reached the standard of the Haradoth … when suddenly he gave a great cry, and fell. A black arrow had pierced his heart. And at the same moment Snowmane stumbled forward and lay still.
Éowyn stepped to the king. “Alas, Théoden, son of Thengel,” she said. “But you have turned the tide. See, they fly. The enemy is broken by fear. Never did an old Lord of Men die better. You shall sleep well, and no Shadow nor foul thing assail your bed.” (The War of the Ring, p.365 – 366)
The end of the battle
After the battle was won, the king was born to Minas Tirith on a make-shift stretcher of cloaks and spear-truncheons. On the field of war, knights dug a grave for Snowmane, setting there a stone which read in both the language of Gondor and Rohan:
“Faithful servant yet master’s bane,
Lightfoot’s foal, swift Snowmane.”
From then onwards, the grass grew green and long on the mound.
Théoden was embalmed in the manner of the Gondorian kings, and laid in Rath Dínen in Minas Tirith, for his body could not be borne immediately to Edoras. When the time came for all to leave the White City, he was bore on a golden bier through the city, and was lain on a great wain with Riders of Rohan all around it and his banner before it. Merry rode on the wagon and kept the arms of the king. After the company’s arrival at Edoras, the Men of the Mark prepared Théoden’s funeral for three days, and then he was laid to rest with his arms and many of his other possessions. Then was raised the eighth mound of the kings of the Second Line of Eorl, and it was covered in green grass and simbelmynë. The Riders of the Mark then rode around the barrow, singing a song that Gléowine, the king’s minstrel, had made. It was his last song for Rohan – he made no other after that day.
A funeral feast was held in the Golden Hall that night, and Théoden’s name was added to the songs of the great Kings of the Mark.
Long after his body was laid in the barrow, it was said (in The War of the Ring) that he slept there in peace, unchanged, clad in the cloth of gold of Gondor, save that his hair and beard still grew golden, and a river of gold or silver would at times flow from Théoden’s Howe. And in times of peril, a voice would be heard crying:
“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden
Fell deeds awake. Forth Eorlingas!”
Or, in the Rohirric tongue:
“Arísath nú Rídend míne!
Théodnes thegnas thindath on orde!
Féond oferswithath! Forth Eorlingas!”
A legendary king of old
More than any other people in Tolkien’s works, the Rohirrim recall the legendary, heroic ideals of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic sagas. Théoden, in particular, was the embodiment of the glorious warrior. The heroism that this type of literature embodies was not based on invincibility, but rather on unswerving courage and loyalty in the face of inevitable defeat:
“Purpose shall be the firmer, heart the keener, courage shall be the more, as our might lessens. Here lies our lord all hewn down, good man on ground. Ever may he lament who now thinks to turn from war-play. I am old of life; from here I will not turn, but by my lord’s side, by the man I loved, I intend to lie.” (The Battle of Maldon)
The ultimate goal of the poems’ heroic protagonists was to achieve glory in life and to gain a similar renown in legend or history. Eagerness for glory outweighed personal risk and probability of defeat or death, focussing instead on the eternal fame that such an act brought.
Entangled in the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic epic poems were strong notions of fate and fame. All true warriors from that period believed in fate, and felt that their destiny was pre-determined. “And if death does take me, sent the hammered mail of my armour to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrethel and he from Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!” (Beowulf)
The second important quality for the warrior was fame. The Anglo-Saxons longed for fame, as fame meant immortality. It was so important that warriors would give up their lives, and the lives of others, if only to receive glory. This attitude is summed up in The Battle of Brunanburh, when the victory of King Æthelstan and his brother Edmund is said to yield “ealdorlangne tir“, eternal fame. As the Edda puts it:
we ourselves also die;
but the fair fame
of him who has earned it.”
Théoden perfectly encompassed these values – albeit with one major twist that clearly increased the courage of his later actions. The twist, of course, was his seduction at the hands of Wormtongue and Saruman, and his rejection of those whisperings to become the king he needed to be became an even greater achievement.
There is little mention of religion or an afterlife, in Tolkien’s works. One of the main exceptions to this is Théoden’s mention of going to the halls of his forefathers after his death. It therefore seems that the Rohirrim did have some notion of an afterlife, at least for warriors, quite possibly similar to the ideas of Valhalla from Germanic literature. Valhalla was a Hall in the Germanic afterlife that was reserved for kings, nobles and warriors who died in battle. In Valhalla, Odin had his own elite army, the Einherjar, who were formed from the great heroes of the world to fight the forces of evil at Ragnarok.
Tolkien also created legends about Théoden’s Howe, another unusual occurrence in his works. He gave an inference that in times of need, he would cry out a warning to the Riders of Rohan. In this, Tolkien again compares he to the heroes of old, such as King Arthur, who are said to lie sleeping, unchanged, until needed by their country.
– The Two Towers
– Return of the King
– Letters of JRR Tolkien
– The Treason of Isengard
– The War of the Ring
– The Road to Middle-earth (TA Shippey)