There are many ways in which we can speak of greatness but Théoden shows us one that is not so often grasped. With all the preparations going on about him for the deeds that lie ahead, preparations in which he plays a full part, he notices something that everyone else has missed.
“The king was already there, and as soon as they entered he called for Merry and had a seat set for him at his side.”
What did he see that everyone else had missed? Just one hobbit who is always hurrying after everyone else but who is never quite necessary for anything. And why does that matter in the great scheme of things? Well, if that is what everything must be judged by then it matters little, but Théoden has a greater vision than that. He sees with his heart.
When Théoden speaks to Merry he reminds him that he made a promise that they should speak together and also he speaks of Merry’s loneliness now that Pippin has gone. Merry’s heart is deeply touched and he gives it to Théoden.
Merry “had never felt more grateful for any kindness in words. ‘I am afraid that I am only in everybody’s way,’ he stammered; ‘but I should like to do anything I could you know.'” And, “filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it.” Then he offers his sword and his service to the king. Readers may remember the cold austere way in which Denethor received Pippin’s offer of service, even though his heart too was briefly touched. Théoden could hardly be more different from the Steward of Gondor.
“‘Gladly will I take it,’ said the king; and laying his long old hands upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him.”
It is a moment of gentle beauty in the midst of the great crisis of the age. The king and the hobbit take each other for father and son and, in the brief days that lie ahead before the ride of the Rohirrim to the walls of Minas Tirith, Théoden takes comfort in Merry’s companionship and in the simple tales of life in the Shire.
Théoden has no idea where his gentle deed will take either him or Merry. Indeed he will do all that he can to prevent Merry from reaching the place where he will play his part in one of the great deeds of the age. If Théoden had any element of calculation in his blessing of Merry then the falsehood of such an act would have robbed him of the very love that causes Merry to accomplish what he does at the Pelennor Fields. No, I am afraid that for all who wonder whether it might be a useful leadership strategy to win the loyalty of their followers by practising the same kind of kindness Théoden shows here that it simply will not work. Their kindness will have to come from the heart or it will have no meaning.
Perhaps that is why the famous political theorist of Renaissance Italy, Niccolò Machiavelli, offered his infamous dictum, “It may be more pleasant to be loved than feared, but it is safer to be feared than loved.” The creation of fear is always a matter of calculation. The creation of love can never be. Sometimes for Théoden it involves great risk. When Wormtongue’s treachery is revealed Théoden simply sets him free remembering that once he had been a faithful servant. As he does so he cannot know that by the time Wormtongue reaches Isengard the Ents will have completed their work of destruction and yet he frees him nonetheless. His generosity may have had grievous consequences and yet, despite the misery that he had suffered at Wormtongue’s hands, he still allows him to go where he will. There is no calculation and certainly no safety in Théoden’s kindness and so the love of his people is freely given. Merry loves him as a father and will lay down his life for him if he can. No degree in a business school could ever have formed such greatness.