The Funeral of Théoden

It was 4 years ago when I first wrote about Théoden, a man bound to his chair by the leachcraft of Grima Wormtongue staring miserably at the image of his glorious ancestor, Eorl the Young, the founder of the Kingdom of Rohan. I quoted the Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue from his wonderful book, Eternal Echoes, in which he writes about the different types of inner prison that we build for ourselves. He could have been writing about Théoden.

“Fear and negativity are immense forces which constantly tussle with us. They long to turn the mansions of the soul into haunted rooms. These are the conditions for which fear and negativity long and in which they thrive. We were sent here to live life to the full. When you manage to be generous in your passion and vulnerability, life always comes to bless you.”

O’Donohue creates a rich contrast between the soul’s true nature described as a spacious and elegant mansion and the haunted room created by fear and negativity. Tolkien gives us the contrast between the richly tapestried walls of Meduseld with the memory of the young hero and the shrivelled and wizened creature imprisoned in his chair. Théoden is shamed by the ancestral hero upon whose image he is forced to gaze each day and his people live in a wasteland. Such is the fate of a people whose king is no longer a source of fruitfulness. It is the fate of the people of the Fisher King in the Parsifal legend. It is the fate of the people of Rohan.

And then Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come and with their burning ardour overthrow the prisons of Wormtongue and his master, Saruman. The armies of Rohan are no more powerful than before and the threat from their enemies is undiminished but Théoden steps out from his prison and feels the good rain upon his face and the hilt of a sword in the grasp of his hand. Once more this good man is generous in his “passion and vulnerability” and life comes to bless him. He arouses a people who have longed for the opportunity to give their best and their utmost. He restores their pride. In a few short days they defeat the armies of Saruman at Helms Deep and at the very limits of endurance they break the siege of Minas Tirith at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Théoden is overthrown at the last by the Lord of the Nazgûl but dies at peace and without shame as he prepares to meet his ancestors.

And now he makes his return to Edoras in glory as a true king should, honoured by all free peoples. He is laid upon a golden bier and carried on a great wain from Minas Tirith to his home. Merry, the faithful squire who stood bravely at the side of his lord in his final battle rides upon the wain and keeps his arms. Then Tolkien names each member of the Fellowship in their turn.

“Frodo and Samwise rode at Aragorn’s side, and Gandalf rode upon Shadowfax, and Pippin rode with the knights of Gondor; and Legolas and Gimli as ever rode together upon Arod.”

And in Théoden’s funeral procession the Queen Arwen, Celeborn and Galadriel and their people, Elrond and his sons and the princes of Dol Amroth and Ithilien with the knights of Gondor ride to do him honour. “Never had any king of the Mark such company upon the road as went with Théoden, Thengel’s son to the land of his home.”

And Gléowine, the king’s minstrel makes his last song for his lord.

Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended; over death, over dread, over doom lifted, out of loss out of life, unto long glory”

All of this is a celebration of a few short days after years of darkness and they are right to make this praise. Théoden is so gloriously generous in his passion and vulnerability in those few days that a people is restored and the world is saved. His story is one of the finest that Tolkien tells and it is right that he should end it with such glorious solemnity.

10 thoughts on “The Funeral of Théoden

  1. You know, this song is about the most fitting funeral song I have ever encountered, even if the particular person you are mourning wasn’t so good at horse riding and sword fighting. Technicalities! I am sure we all ride into our own battles with our own swords unsheathing in one form or another, and we would all like to be lifted out of loss and life onto long glory…

    • Nicely put! I guess we still have the choice that Théoden had. Either to hide from battle as he did in the Wormtongue period or to ride into battle with our swords unsheathed after Gandalf helped him to free himself. I would like to believe that I would do the latter but how tempting it can be to hide from life. It can feel like the sensible choice at the time.

  2. So beautifully written, Stephen.
    The moment when Théoden awakens from his slumber is one of the most powerful ones in the book. It’s also very inspirational. We can fight negativity. Our minds are powerful and they are capable of working wonders. Thank you for reminding me of that!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Olga. The true Théoden was always there and Wormtongue had to work so hard to hide Théoden from himself. The prison that Wormtongue sought to create was always the illusion and not the reality. That is what makes Tolkien’s image of Théoden feeling the rain on his face so wonderful as he contrasts it with the darkness of the hall.
      I am spending a few days with my family in the Forest of Dean this week. Harry Potter fans will know it as the place where Harry, Ron and Hermione hid from the Death Eaters in the final volume of the story. I can hear the wind blowing in the trees as I write this and I look forward to walking in the forest a little later today. It is truly soul restoring.

  3. I love what Olga said here. This is indeed a great post and we do have power to embrace greatness and the infinitely greater power of God’s grace – as shown here by Gandalf’s presence – if we can but allow it to stir us into action. I love the way this song is sung in the magnificent BBC adaptation.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • I agree, Anne Marie. The grace, of course, was always present. It took so much effort from Wormtongue to keep it hidden, to pretend to all that the reality was the darkness. Tolkien describes this so well. Sauron’s impregnable empire is ultimately so fragile. A change in the wind, a cock crowing at dawn, a star shining above the reeks of Mordor all reveal his weakness. That is why I am on the side of the “escapism” of the Inklings. I want to escape from the illusory prisons of our own time into the reality that is always present.
      God bless you 😊

      • I love what you say here – I never thought about it that way. It reminds me of the dwarves in Narnia who are in the daylight and do not even realize it – they remain trapped in a dark prison out of their own free will and do not see the light that surrounds them. This is their own willful choice. Theoden was trapped not by his own will but the two serpents in Rohan (the Worm and his boss), so it’s not quite the same, but still I thought of it. An army could not penetrate Mordor’s defenses but two/three hobbits could. Definitely with you on escaping!

        Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

      • Théoden definitely has jailers unlike the Dwarves in The Last Battle who are imprisoned only by their own miserable choice. What he needs help to see is that he was always free to escape their hold on him.
        God bless you Anne Marie 😊

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