On the morning of March 2nd in the year, 3019 of the Third Age Théoden of Rohan was an old man sitting in his chair in Meduseld. On March 15th, just thirteen days later, he was dead. When we read these facts, presented in this manner, there is little to surprise us. An old man fades away and dies. We have seen it before and when we think of the old men that we have said farewell to, we sorrow over the fading and think back, as I think of my father, to a time when they were full of vigour.
But this is not the story of Théoden. He dies on the battlefield before the gates of Minas Tirith, the second great battle that he has fought in those few days, after a mighty ride at the head of his men, and after a charge into the heart of the forces of Mordor that raises the siege of the city and turns the battle.
Is the story of the last two weeks of his life simply the fruit of the imagination of the author? Or is there something to learn here about how life can be lived in our final years?
It is after the intense drama of the passage of the Paths of the Dead, and the display of Aragorn’s banner at the Stone of Erech, that Théoden arrives in Harrowdale after a wearying three days ride from Helms Deep. Éomer looks at him with concern and speaks to him in a low voice. “If you would take my counsel, you would return hither [to Edoras], until the war is over, lost or won.”
Théoden’s response is to smile and say, “speak not the soft words of Wormtongue in my old ears! Long years in the space of days it seems since I rode west; but never will I lean on a staff again. If the war is lost, what good will be my hiding in the hills? And if it is won, what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength?”
The key phrase here, I think, is “long years”. All who reach a certain age become aware of the speedy passing of the years. It is something that steadily creeps up upon us. At one time the prospect of waiting a few years meant to wait for ever. There comes a time when to look back over five or even ten years seems all too brief. As the psalm read at a burial puts it, “Our days are like the grass. We flourish like the flower of the field. When the wind goes over it, it is gone and its place will know it no more.”
No change of perspective can change this reality but for as long as it is possible we can choose to live each day fully. It was in Wormtongue’s interest to turn Théoden into an invalid, a man whose life had shrunk to the size of his darkened hall, but Éomer is no traitor or intriguer, he is just concerned for his uncle. It is the old man who reminds him that his gentle concern will have the same effect as Wormtongue’s intrigues. And Théoden resists his kindness. He will give himself up to life until his final breath.
Actually this is what the gospels mean when they speak of dying to self. We tend to think of this phrase in terms of some act of self-denial. What it really means is what happens when Théoden gets out of his chair with the fierce encouragement of Gandalf. It is his small self that Théoden casts aside with his stick and a big self that he grasps with his sword, a true self. And he grasps a big truth when he realises that two weeks of true life is worth far more than years of shrunken existence. It is like “long years”, and glorious years.