Apr 2, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 43: The Riders of Rohan

Dusk deepened.

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli trail the orcs deep into the night, leaving the river behind and entering the highlands of the Emyn Muil. There they rest for a while before dawn, and rediscover the trail when they come across five dead Mordor orcs, who they judge were killed by the larger orcs of Isengard.

As dawn breaks, the three hunters descend from the Emyn Muil to the grasslands of Rohan. Aragorn sees the White Mountains of Gondor to the south, and gives them a bit of poetry, but the orc-trail leads away northwest, and they follow it. Suddenly Aragorn spots tracks leading away from the trail: a hobbit's bare feet, and a brooch from Lórien, and orc-boots returning to the trail. So they judge that at least one hobbit was still alive.

As night falls, the Three Hunters have a choice to make: do they pursue the orcs in the dark, or rest? By night, they might lost the trail or miss something like the brooch, and they need rest; but the orcs are unlikely to stop, so they may lose any chance of catching them.

"You give the choice to an ill chooser," said Aragorn. "Since we passed through the Argonath my choices have gone amiss."

No argument here. They rest, which is to say Aragorn and Gimli sleep, and Legolas kind of hangs around. At dawn, they resume the pursuit for another day, but they feel the malice of Saruman slowing them down.

The orc-trail leads into a line of downs, which rise toward the uplands of Rohan and beyond it, the forest of Fangorn. On the fourth morning of their chase, the Three Hunters spot a body of riders heading back along the trail. Behind them, smoke rises into the sky. Aragorn decides they might as well wait for the riders, and gives a worried Gimli a short briefing on Rohan and the Rohirrim.

They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.

We also learn that the Rohirrim are kin to the men of Dale and the Beornings, and Eorl the Young led them out of the North long ago. The rumor Boromir had mentioned, that they send tribute to Mordor, is brought up, but Aragorn firmly disbelieves it.

Soon enough, the mail-clad riders approach, and ride right by the three hunters in their elven-cloaks. As the last of them are passing by, Aragorn calls out to them, and they quickly surround the trio. The leader of the riders interrogates him, and Aragorn identifies himself simply as Strider, who hunts orcs. When he's asked why the riders didn't see them, with a suspicion that they're elves, Aragorn reveals they passed through the Golden Wood and have the favor of its Lady. This makes Éomer, who now introduces himself, suspect them of being sorcerers, and Gimli and Legolas nearly commit suicide by Rohirrim by trying to pick a fight with him over Galadriel's honor. Aragorn saves them from their idiocy by intervening and apologizing to Éomer.

Éomer demands to know Aragorn's real name, and assures him that the people of Rohan do not serve Sauron. Aragorn then introduces himself as the Heir of Isildur, and shows him the Sword that was Broken reforged. Éomer is impressed, but when Aragorn asks after the hobbits, his lieutenant laughs and scorns the Three Hunters as "wild folk" with fairy-tales. Éomer dismisses his troops and continues the conversation alone.

He assures Aragorn and company that there were no halflings among the orcs they killed. Aragorn tells him they set out from Rivendell on a secret errand with Boromir and Gandalf. Éomer warns him that Gandalf isn't popular in Rohan, but is distraught to hear that both Gandalf and Boromir are dead. They speak of the coming war against Sauron, and Éomer confides that there is division in Rohan. Saruman they are already at war with, as he has claimed lordship over Rohan. The trouble is that the law of Rohan forbids strangers to wander the land without leave from the king. Eventually, they strike a deal: Éomer lends them horses (Legolas and Gimli share), in exchange for Aragorn's promise to return them to the king's seat in Edoras when their hunt is complete.

Riding down the orc-trail, the hunters find a burial-mound for the fallen riders, and a smoking pile of ashes where the bodies of the orcs were burned. They search, but night falls without any of them finding any trace of Merry or Pippin. They make camp by the edge of the forest. Early in the night, a cloaked old man appears at the edge of the firelight; Aragorn rises to greet him, but he vanishes, and the companions find their horses gone. Gimli is convinced it was Saruman, stealing their horses; whoever it was, he does not return.


As with the first two books, the second chapter of Book Three also contains a lengthy conversation that sets the scene for the rest of the book; this time, it's Aragorn's briefing on the Rohirrim and his talk with Éomer.

I've always understood Rohan and the Rohirrim to be based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia; their names and language are essentially Old English (Letters, 144), and the two kingdoms share the same name: the Mark, as in march, borderland. Éomer himself takes his name from a probably mythical king of the Angles from before they came to Britain. For whatever reason, though, the Rohirrim have a more intimate bond with their horses than the Mercians ever had, seeming almost nomadic in this first encounter.

Tolkien was insistent that Middle-earth wasn't intended to be an imaginary place, but rather our world:

I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd > middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumenë, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.
(Letters, 183)

So if we take Tolkien seriously, then in some real sense, the people of Rohan are some kind of equestrian pre-Mercians. Where the Shire is a comfortable and middle-class anachronism of the English countryside, Rohan is proto-England: a land of warriors, songs and horses. It's worth remembering this, because in my mind at least, it means that to the extent that Tolkien intended the Lord of the Rings to be a mythology for England (Letters, 131), the bearers of that mythology to the future - and in that sense, the central people of the story - are the Rohirrim. This is why I quoted their description at length: they're Tolkien's own, white noble savages, as it were: a simpler, idealized, Northern Englishness.

Re-reading this, I'm struck by how truculent Gimli and Legolas are toward Éomer. Legolas especially! You'd think that at his age, he'd have picked up better manners somewhere along the way. Luckily Aragorn makes a succesful diplomatic intervention, or one part of the Fellowship would have come to a catastrophically stupid end.

Finally, there's a nice quote from Éomer's conversation with Aragorn that I think speaks to one of Tolkien's great themes:

"The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."

In the foreword, Tolkien mentions the oppression of the shadow of war, and while the whole conversation between Aragorn and Éomer concerns it, to me, this is one of the exchanges that really gets to the gist of it: when times get tough, so to speak, what are we to do? In a time when the particular evil that Tolkien's Britain was at war with when he wrote this is rising again, I find both Éomer's confusion and Aragorn's answer quite poignantly contemporary. In terms of the story, Aragorn and company's time in the wilderness is over, and they're now caught up in the buildup to war.

Also, Aragorn is effectively saying that the personal is political, which I find absolutely delightful.


Next time: orcs.


Leon said...

Well in defense of Legolas, he's effectively hundreds of years old and he's having the equivalent of some punk-nosed kid giving him sass. Obviously he was about to go full Clint Eastwood and create an international incident.

Michael Halila said...

This is a fair point, and led me to try to figure out how old Legolas actually is. Sadly, I have no idea, other than that certainly much older than, say, Aragorn.