LotRFI Pt. 30–Helm’s Deep

It seems that everyone remembers Éomer’s act of courage at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields as the high point of Rohirric culture. Théoden’s stand at Helm’s Deep, however, foreshadows that brave stand. This battle has always had a unique place in my understanding of Tolkien’s world. It is the place where I really understood for the first time what I would later understand to be ‘northern courage.’ The bravery to understand that defeat is certain, but not to cower and to fight on against overwhelming odds. This is one of the few major themes of Tolkien (e.g. ‘the machine’) that I perceived in my first reading.

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Image copyright Paul Lesaine

Aragorn’s act of looking out from the gate and confronting the Uruk-Hai is an essential preface to this kind of bravery. My first reading of this scene, I thought that perhaps Aragorn was fay and reckless (although I would not have used these terms at the time, instead probably opting for the less-specific crazy, stupid, brave, until I learned better words to describe the action). This also bolstered the themes of honor and duty that I began to perceive starting with Frodo’s decision to carry the Ring in Rivendell.

I did not really understand the courage behind Aragorn’s words until the scene where he and Théoden lay their plans to ride out:

‘The end will not be long…but I will not end here, taken like a badger in a trap…When dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song—if any be left to sing of us hereafter” (TT, III, vii, 539).

This brave face assumed at a time when hope seems lost always shocked me as a child and resonated with something inside of me. I could not describe it the, and I cannot describe it well now. It stirs in me a desire to be as brave and noble as these characters and to not fear death. This is, of course, a bizarre feeling for someone so privileged as I have been and it is nonsensical, but it is true. The riding out of the king and Aragorn with the horns blowing has always given me chills and stirred my sympathies.

Other important notes about my first read through of Helm’s Deep are:

This is the first time that I felt the eucatastrophic moment in LotR in the same way that I felt it in H.

I enjoyed the fighting game of Gimli and Legolas far more than I ought at such a young age. Perhaps this was because of my naivete as a child, and this game was reminiscent of the light treatment that authors frequently use of difficult ideas when writing for children. Tolkien himself used this same kind of technique in H.

As an interesting bit of ‘misreading,’ I always envisioned the causeway from the keep to lead into the part of the stronghold behind the battlements, not out from the battlements. I suppose I assumed this because it would make the keep a stronger fortress. I imagined that Aragorn and Théoden rode out into the host who had flooded past the battlements after the hole was blown open. This made more sense to me as to how they were cut off from the caves. Though I admit that it makes the pincer maneuver with the reinforcements harder to imagine later on.

As a side note: the description immediately following Aragorn’s words has been variously interpreted:

‘Even as they spoke there came a blare of trumpets. Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and smoke…’ (TT, III, vii, 537).

Jackson showed a runner with a torch igniting a stack of bombs. Others have suggested that this passage describes a projective weapon, like a missile. For my own part, I have always agreed that this was a bomb and not a projectile weapon. I feel certain that Tolkien would have described a projectile weapon in greater detail.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I want to talk about Gimli and Saruman before I head into book four.

What Do You Think?

How did you first interpret the bravery of Aragorn and Théoden?
​Is this moment as impact as Éomer’s ?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt. 29–Wormtongue

As you have no doubt gathered, I was not a very trusting child. Each time members of the Fellowship come across a character whose motives could be questioned, or where there was any vagueness whatsoever, I was quick to ascribe the worst to them. Finally, I found the kind of character I was waiting for in Wormtongue. He was deceitful, treacherous, and calculating: exactly what I expected from Maggot, Bombadil, and Aragorn when I first encountered them.

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Image copyright Suzanne Helmigh

The way that Wormtongue manipulates the interaction between Théoden and Gandalf from the very beginning made me mistrustful of him. I always felt that the way Théoden stands to deliver his opening volley at Gandalf and then quickly sits again was reminiscent of someone reciting something from memory. In fact, I was reminded sharply of Sam, standing up to recite verse when he was amongst the trolls.

The fact that Wormtongue took over immediately after this speech and was the true opponent of Gandalf in dialogue made me wonder if he had written this speech for Théoden. I assumed that this was the typical modus operandi for Wormtongue. He would feed an opening monologue to Théoden, who would exclaim it from rote, and then Wormtongue would actually deal with conversations. This would lend him the king’s credibility and make it seem that they were in agreement on everything. Additionally, this process would allow Wormtongue to further his brainwashing of Théoden with every interaction, as he attempts to do when talking with Gandalf.

I think Gandalf’s power in dealing with Wormtongue is that he is quick to identify this technique and challenges it from the beginning. He ignores Wormtongue initially, and directly addresses Théoden around him. After Wormtongue’s tirade against Gandalf, Gandalf disregards the abuse, instead saying:

‘The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Théoden son of Thengel…[we] have passed through the shadow of great perils to your hall’ (TT, III, vi, 139).

Wormtongue tries to reassert himself into the conversation, disparaging that the traveler’s road took them through the Golden Wood. To this, Gandalf sings, and then castigates Wormtongue for speaking ill of things he has no knowledge of.

The interaction where Gandalf dismisses Wormtongue is interesting. As he cowers away from Gandalf, Wormtongue says:

‘Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff? That fool, Háma, has betrayed us!’ (TT, III, vi, 140).

This is the clearest indication so far that the power of the wizards is bound up in their staff. I think this is the point when the observation finally sunk in for me in my first reading. I did not know whether the power itself was in the staff, or if the staff was simply the most effective tool for channeling a wizard’s power. Perhaps I thought of the staff in the same way I thought of lightsabers in the Star Wars universe, something which I was incredibly familiar with. They were implements which harnessed the innate powers of the individual to a greater extent than could otherwise be achieved.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I think we will stop by Helm’s Deep, then take a look at Saruman!

What Do You Think?

What was your initial impression of Wormtongue?
What did you make of the importance placed on Gandalf’s staff?
Have I missed anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.28–Théoden’s Transformation

My interpretation of the passage where Théoden shakes off the depression which has paralyzed him has changed greatly over the years. Initially, I thought that Gandalf was responsible for dispelling some effect that was placed on Théoden. I thought that Théoden’s malaise was some sort of enchantment that was placed on him by Wormtongue.  That Gandalf was a strong enough sorcerer to ward off the spell and return Théoden to his proper state.

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Image copyright Jay Johnstone

Many fans will notice that this interpretation is very close to Jackson’s portrayal of the event. Interestingly, when I saw Jackson’s interpretation of this scene, which agreed with my own, but made more explicit the conflict, I realized that I was wrong.

Instead of confronting some spell placed on Théoden by Wormtongue, Gandalf’s approach is a bit more nuanced. It is true that he initially uses his magic as a means of daunting: Gandalf cows Wormtongue before he addresses Théoden. When he talks to Théoden, however, the atmospheric changes that take place are the result of Théoden’s actions, not their cause. This becomes obvious in the passage where Théoden descends from his throne:

‘Slowly Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again’ (TT, III, vi, 515).

Notice that the atmosphere does not respond to Gandalf here, but to Théoden. Gandalf is responsible for taking away Grima, who has restricted Théoden’s actions for a while, but only Théoden can throw of the burden which is placed upon him. This harkens back to Gandalf’s role as a kindler of spirit, not as the conquering hero. His task is to allow Théoden to show forth his true courage in overcoming the malaise himself.

Once the two men are outside and Gandalf is able to whisper to Théoden, there is no magic. Gandalf simply tells Théoden of deeds that may bring hope and fortify his mind against the gathering darkness. The movies overplay Gandalf’s use of magic here quite considerably. It is true that he manipulates the weather, but after this first show of strength, his main focus is on fermenting Théoden’s will, not destroying Saruman or Wormtongue.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To Wormtongue and Saruman!

What Do You Think?

How did you perceive Theoden’s transformation?
Did you like Jackson’s vision of the transformation?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt. 27–Concerning Théoden

When I first came across Théoden, I thought he was a withered old king and that Éomer would soon replace him. This made sense as a means to establish a leader in Rohan sympathetic to the Fellowship. His transformation into a true king was quite a marvel to me, and I found his reinvigorated personality to be magnetic.

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Image copyright Michael Kaluta

Théoden’s persona as the protector of his people made him a kind of father figure to me in my first reading. I loved his courage in the face of adversity and his determination to defend others. He is the kind of leader who has always inspired me: one who leads by example, not by command. I have such a hard time expressing my response to Théoden. This is one of those rare instances where something seems too important for words. The thoughts and feelings are there, but the words fail.

Whenever I revisit the text, I am shocked at how small Théoden’s role actually is. I always conflate his importance to me personally with his prominence in the text.

His role as the stalwart leader who comes to the aid of Gondor in the last moment foreshadows Aragorn’s arrival in similar circumstances. Unlike Aragorn, however, Théoden is not destined to keep his kingship. The fateful events surrounding the House of Eorl at the Pelennor Fields make me cry every time. I always want to save Théoden, so I can watch he and Merry settle in to have a long talk about herb-lore.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I want to talk specifically about Théoden’s transformation, then move on to address Wormtongue and Saruman.

What Do You Think

What was your very first impression of Théoden?
How did you react to his demise?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt. 26–The White Rider

When the Three Hunters encounter a mysterious old man in Fangorn, I immediately assumed it was Saruman. His way of speaking was so obvious an attempt to avoid revealing his identity from them. There is no reason for anyone else to wish to conceal who they are so completely. The confrontation between the Hunters and the old man is so tense and the stakes so high, unexpectedly, that I thought for a moment that the Hunters would be executed in quick succession.

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Image copyright Ted Nasmith

When this is revealed to be Gandalf, I still had a hard time understanding why he did not reveal himself straight away. Was he testing the Three Hunters? This would be similar to what Aragorn does back at the Prancing Pony with the hobbits. Surely, the powers of evil have set traps for Gandalf before!

It took me a long time to accept that Gandalf has memory issues here, and I still doubt it sometimes. He remembers so much, and is not newly revived, so I did not understand why he should have forgotten who he is when he can remember who Galadriel and Gwaihir are. All this nit picking aside, the return of Gandalf was a complete shock to me.

Of all the miraculous things that happen in books, one that I certainly never expected was the return of Gandalf. The warmth and joviality that the Three Hunters express is as nothing compared to the elation of my little eleven-year-old heart. Especially with the tidings which he brings with him. He tells the others:

Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. That great storm is coming, but the tide has turned. (TT, III, v, 495)

Not only is Gandalf returned, he has returned stronger than he was. He also prophesizes that he and the others are now a part of the side which is gaining in strength, a stark contrast from the waning which characterized their forces earlier. It was a very long time before I would understand what happened to Gandalf. In my first reading, I just knew that he had died and that Something sent him back. Undoubtedly, my Christian upbringing made me assume a particular spiritual connotation to the whole event.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Onward, to King Théoden and the Golden Hall

What Do You Think?

What was your reaction to Gandalf’s reappearance?
​What did you make of his premonition?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt. 25–Uruk-Hai

The third chapter of book three was an odd experience for me as a reader. I have to admit that it took me a little while to find my bearings and understand that the narrative had jumped to a different perspective than the previous chapter.

Once I found my legs, though, I was intrigued to walk among the Uruk-Hai in their camp and to watch their march through Rohan. I was not quite sure what to make of these characters because, up to this point, they had been nameless, faceless sources of dread. Now, I had to confront their being in a completely different way.

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Image copyright Alan Lee

The chapter was effective in making me understand how the Orcs interacted with one another with malice without making me question whether or not they had a sense of humanity. I understood that these characters were mean, ruthless, and cruel, but did not question their motivations or whether or not they could be redeemed. My claim is not that Tolkien wrote the Uruk-Hai simply, but that I read them simply when I was a child. The kind of in-fighting and bickering portrayed among the disparate bands on the march was something I could relate to. The contrast between the milieu of this terse, selfish group and the rather unselfish, supportive climate of the Fellowship made a solid impression on me.  I think that I somehow unintentionally internalized these groups as exemplars to apply to my life: good groups (that is, groups that function well and where everyone is appreciated, not morally just groups) look like the Fellowship, bad groups look like the Uruk-Hai.

Pippin and Merry evolve a lot over this passage, but I want to side-step that conversation for now and come back to it when I do a character analysis of each of them, probably in book V.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The White Rider, of course!

What Do You Think?

What impression did chapter three make on your reading?
Did it change the way you perceived the Orcs and Uruk-Hai?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt. 24–Legolas

I always found Legolas’s character arc to be one that begins in haughtiness and becomes more approachable as he engages in the hardships of the Fellowship. Looking back with a wider literary reference frame than I had in my first reading, I would almost say that my first interpretation of his transformation would not raise any eyebrows if it were set in a Jane Austen novel, though his bow skills might.

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Image copyright Alan Lee

He is always quick-witted, especially when engaging in repartee with Gimli; however, this arguing transforms into a light-hearted badinage by the end of their time together in Rohan. I always enjoyed watching these two become friends over the course of the tale and appreciated the note about their friendship in the appendices.

As an individual, Legolas is a formidable bowman, he does not defy the law of gravity mind you. He is always a reliable aid to his companions and he shows up when he is needed. For all of these elements, though, I never really felt drawn to Legolas as a character. I think his oft-mentioned ethereal nature made him seem remote from me as a young reader. He was a character to be marveled at, when he walks on the snow of Caradhras, for instance, but not related to.

I think this was underscored for me in Lothlórien when the elves are grieving for Gandalf. Legolas refuses to translate their song for the Fellowship and, by extension, the reader. This always made me feel as though Legolas wanted to be an outsider in some ways. Surely my interpretation of Legolas was, and is, a projection of a part of myself, in that I am reading what I would desire if I were to act as Legolas. To me, though, it is not until later when he volunteers to follow Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead that his desire for attachment is demonstrated.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I suppose we should talk about being ‘Orc dragged’ across Rohan.

What Do You Think?

What was your initial reaction to Legolas?
Did you like Jackson’s super-elf?
​Have I missed anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.23–Treebeard

When I first met Treebeard, I was enamored! He was completely outside of the realm of my reading experience up to that point in my life. The closest character I had read about was the titular character from Roald Dahl’s BFG. I was amazed by this walking, talking tree. Unlike the other characters whom the company meet, I instantly liked Treebeard. His first passage is very similar to the humorously brusque tone that Gandalf sometimes adopts:

‘Almost felt you liked the Forest! That’s good! That’s uncommonly kind of you’ said a strange voice. ‘Turn round and let me have a look at your faces. I almost feel that I dislike you both, but do not let us be hasty’ (TT, III, iv, 463).

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Image copyright Per Sjögren

The way that Treebeard tactlessly offers an unkind judgement of the hobbits, but then castigates himself for jumping to conclusions was endearing to me. I must admit that I was an inordinately tactless child. The remainder of his first day with the hobbits, getting to know them and taking them to shelter and to sustenance won me over. Interestingly, I sometimes imagine that what I felt about Treebeard is how many people recount feeling about Tom Bombadil. I supposed that I trusted Treebeard more because he seemed more natural to me. I did not suspect his motives because, unlike Bombadil, Treebeard would speak plainly about his motives.

Interestingly, because I grabbed onto Treebeard with my entire imagination, it deeply impacted me when he becomes angry on his way to drop off the hobbits. This tempestuous state of emotions is probably what lead the war march of the Ents to become one of my favorite songs from the text.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Legolas, Uruk-Hai, and Meduseld!

What Do You Think?

What was your first impression of Treebeard?
Where do you rank the Ent March among Tolkien’s songs?
​Have I missed anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.22–Of Rohan

When I was a child, the character I identified with the most out of the whole book was Pippin. Somehow, though, the passages I loved the most were those in Rohan. I loved the descriptions of the open plains where horses could run for miles at a stretch. This is probably strange because I did not grow up around open plains, spending most of my time in the hill region in America’s southern states. I also only rarely had encounters with horses. I still very much liked the idea of horses, the riding of them, not the care of them. (If I were to confess all, I would have to tell of a certain early birthday party where my present was a horse ride.)

Pursuit in Rohan by Ted Nasmith
Image copyright Ted Nasmith

Nevertheless, I feel that I was drawn to the passages in Rohan because of their otherness. While I identified with the hobbits and saw their journey as something relatable, the expansive medieval world of Rohan was something I had only ever experienced in books and in my imagination. I certainly had no clue that the Rohirrim were inspired by the Anglo-Saxons, but I could feel the ancientry and sense of history that pervades the pages.

To get to more specific responses, I am sure that no consistent reader will be surprised by the fact that I was untrusting of Éomer when he first interacts with the Three Hunters. Perhaps I had a bit more reason to be mistrustful here than previously, as his men actually drew weapons on the protagonists. After his decision to gift them horses, I knew I would like him for the rest of the story, and I was not let down.

I will go into Théoden’s character in much more detail in a later post, but here I wanted to mention that he seemed to me a kind of father figure. Once Gandalf releases him from Wormtongue’s influence, he becomes a kind, generous leader. I must admit that I developed quite a soft spot for him and was grieved by later events.

This will have to suffice for a general introduction to Rohan. Much more to come!

Where Do We Go From Here?

I want to take a look at some of the events which take place in the opening chapters of book three, but I think we will also examine Legolas soon!

What Do You Think?

What was your first impression of Rohan?
When did you discover the tie of the Rohirrim to Tolkien’s day job?
​Have I missed anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.21–Boromir the Brave

In a previous post, I indicated that the death of Boromir was not the “breaking” of the fellowship, but its mending. Many readers may question my ability to see this act in such a positive light, given my previous post about my mistrust of Boromir. As I stated earlier, I saw Boromir as totally “corrupted” by the Ring, and this only exhibited itself when Boromir had a chance to fulfill his desires. To me, the fact that Frodo left the company means that Boromir, for all intents and purposes, could never fulfill his desire to obtain the Ring for use in battle. This allows him to be free to be a noble, valiant, courageous man in his final act. No longer under the burden of the ring, his true nature comes back. This does not undermine my earlier interpretation at all. In fact, it bolsters my perspective that Boromir was under the Ring’s influence for the entire trip.

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Image copyright Jef Murray

Several readers will identify the flaw in this reasoning, and I will remind them that I was eleven at the time. The fact is, Boromir did not know that the Ring was lost forever at the time of his sacrifice. He knew that Frodo had run away from him and that enemies were attacking. It is possible that Frodo could be hiding until the attack is over, then he could reappear and oust Boromir from the group. Whatever the case may be, my interpretation is not entirely supported by the sequence of events for the characters in the text. As a child, though, I already knew that Frodo was gone from the fellowship and out of Boromir’s reach, so this influenced my interpretation of events.

This is another instance of what can be called, and has been called by many (most notably Harold Bloom), ‘misreading.’ It is an interpretation of the text that is that a reader honestly holds until she/he later interprets the text in a different way. I should note that, while some of these ‘misreadings’ sometimes prove to be invalid after a later examination of the text, that does not change the important influence that such a reading can have on the reader. In fact, these misreading are an important part of the reader’s experience of the text, since the correction or alteration of interpretation is not a unique experience among readers.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Into the land of the Horse Lords: Rohan!

What Do You Think?

Do you have a ‘misreading’ experience like this?
If so, how has it changed your view of the text over time?
​Am I missing something? Let me know!