Théoden and The Lord of the Nazgûl

It is but thirteen days since Gandalf came to Edoras and restored a shrivelled old man to life and to vigour. Now his body lies broken upon the field of battle and life ebbs swiftly away. It is Merry who is near him at the end, who hears the words of a man at peace.

“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 black day, and a golden sunset!”

And we remember, that day after day, the wizened creature enslaved by the leechcraft of Grima Wormtongue had to look upon the image of his mighty forefather, Eorl the Young, as he rode to victory and glory long ago and so won the plains of Calenardhon for his people as a gift from the Steward of Gondor. Doubtless this torture was a part of Wormtongue’s purpose as the shame Théoden felt worked its way into his heart and so unmanned him. It was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lead his people into battle, casting down the chieftain of the Haradrim and his serpent banner and driving his forces from the field. And it was from this that Gandalf freed him so that he could lie broken before the wreck of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the foul monster that the Ringwraith had ridden through the air into the battle.

If Gandalf had failed to heal him or if he had chosen to leave him in his chair then doubtless Théoden would have held onto life a little longer. For many it is this clinging onto life that is regarded as the final work of old age and when the weakness and the pain of the last days of life is borne with courage as it was by Pope John Paul II who allowed the world to watch his final struggle and, as I remember it, by my own father who bore great pain with quiet dignity in his last days, then this is praiseworthy. But to hold onto life merely for the sake of extending our existence just a short while longer is hardly an achievement of any merit.

At the ending of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen Aragorn speaks to Arwen as he draws near to the end of his great life. Arwen finds the choice of her husband to lay down his life a hard one but Aragorn replies, “Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.”

Aragorn chooses the grace given to the Númenorians by the Valar of old to lay down their lives freely and so entrust themselves to the mystery of death unafraid. “In sorrow we must go,”  he says, “but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

Aragorn lays down his life in freedom in the glory of his kingship. Théoden lays down his life in freedom upon the field of battle in the glory of a promise kept and his people raised from shame to honour. It is this freedom that is the essence of both in the ending of their lives. At the end of his great book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, puts it like this, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Frankl recognised that our choice to find life as meaningful is the greatest one that we make and that we must make it daily. Théoden made the choice on that day in Edoras, made it again on the Pelennor Fields and so he ends his life in peace.

12 thoughts on “Théoden and The Lord of the Nazgûl

  1. I love the faith of Aragorn and Theoden – they don’t know what waits beyond, they don’t have the comfort of a Christian faith – yet they still have trust something great still awaits them. They die well in trust and hope and faith, all the more astonishing because it takes place in the era it did. Boromir is the same – the last thing he does is smile. They will now wait until Jesus comes into Sheol to release all the righteous dead. I like to think of Merry and Pippin’s charge in the movie at the Black Gate to be their joy at this moment the dead are released and can now enter heaven

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • I have been thinking about your beautiful comment a lot in the last couple of days. It was thanks to the theologian, Alison Milbank, in her wonderful book, “Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians” that I first understood that Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” as an anticipation of the Incarnation. Somehow this seems to ring true to me, not as a memory of a pre-Christian era but as true to our own time, post-Christendom. I may be wrong but I feel that many fall in love with the book as an expression of their longing for God. Augustine’s dictum that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God seems to ring true throughout the story. I would love to know what you think. Every blessing.

  2. That’s a fascinating insight about Théoden’s shame being one of Wormtongue’s weapons against him! I have to digest that a bit, but it does seem that his Théoden’s victory on the battlefield is the true moment of his release from Wormtongue’s influence. Thanks for this!

    • Many thanks for your comment, Shawn. I claim no scholarship in speaking of Théoden’s shame in this way. The idea came from Théoden’s own reference to shame in his last words to Merry and to my own imagination. I pictured myself as an old man sitting in his chair in Meduseld and what I could see. I realised that the tapestry of Eorl the Young would be before my eyes every day and how that would make me feel in a condition from which I believed there was no escape. And I thought that if I could see that then the powerfully intuitive Wormtongue would be able to see it too and would use it and take pleasure in doing so. I would love to hear your thoughts here. Thanks for your visit!

      • It’s an excellent insight, and I think you’re right on. There’s a theme of faded glory that runs throughout the Mannish cultures of the Third Age. It’s very Anglo-Saxon — this sense of being a lesser son occupying a land once inhabited by greater sires — so I would expect it to be doubly relevant to the Rohirrim. Surely Wormtongue would know that was nagging at Théoden, and Saruman (having witnessed the glory of the past) would know to use it as a weapon. How Melkorian, to use one’s own shame against him…

  3. Thank you, Stephen, both for the connection of Théoden and the portrait of Eorl, and the link to Viktor Frankl’s thought. What a piece of work is a man!

    • Many thanks for visiting and for your comment. I reflected on Théoden and the tapestry a little more in response to Shawn Marchese’s comment. I was drawn to Frankl a few years ago when engaged in a sabbatical project in which I interviewed a number of creative and effective people on what gave them energy for life and work. What emerged from the interviews loud and clear was that it was meaning that gave them energy. Théoden’s journey seems to exemplify this.

    • Many thanks, once again, for your comment, Olga. I don’t know if it is that I have now passed the age of 60 but I do think more about death. And, of course, I cannot avoid it in my work as a priest. Even today I spent time with a woman who is facing her own death. I doubt if I will face death in the way that Théoden does but I hope to do so, when the time comes, with the same dignity.

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