“Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991/2007) pp.558-565

As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their weary and hopeless march across the plains of Rohan in pursuit of the orc host that have taken Merry and Pippin captive they become aware that a band of horsemen is moving swiftly towards them back down the very trail that they are following. The horsemen are Rohirrim, riders of Rohan. Aragorn describes them to his companions.

“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.”

The Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

The companions decide to wait for the riders to come to them and Aragorn greets them as they ride by. Wrapped about in their cloaks of Lothlórien it seems to the riders that they have sprung from the grass itself and what follows is a tense encounter that almost ends in disaster. For Tolkien in this scene brings us into the heroic world of the North in which honour has more meaning than even life itself and most certainly of a life, or existence, in which honour has been lost. So Gimli is ready, almost eager, to die for the sake of the honour of Galadriel, the lady of Lothlórien, when he feels that it has been slighted by Éomer, who leads the company of riders.

The Rohirrim surround the three companions

Aragorn is able to avert the disaster but then, in the manner in which he announces himself, brings us all back into the very stuff of legend.

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Anke Eissmann imagines the first meeting between Aragorn and Eomer

So Tolkien deliberately mingles the stuff of legend with the stuff of ordinary life and invites his readers to make the same kind of choice that Aragorn demands of the Rohirrim. For Tolkien not only makes the Rohirrim the people who would have heard tales like that of Beowulf which would have been told in the halls of their lords in the early middle ages, but he also makes them a very modern people for whom a story like Beowulf that might be one that stirred them when they were young but which would have been consigned to the pleasant, but private, world of fantasy when they grew up. For real life with its duties can, for the modern person, only be lived with stuff that can be touched, smelt, heard, seen or tasted. The life of the imagination might give a moment of pleasure amidst the grim reality of ordinary life but it can never be regarded as real.

This division between that which is heroic and that which is ordinary is one that Aragorn suggests is false. When the rider who stands beside Eomer scoffs at Aragorn’s mention of halflings Aragorn’s response is not to the rider but to his Lord. The Rider dismisses the mention of halflings as “old songs and children’s tales out of the North”. And then he asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

I say that Aragorn addresses Eomer because, as far as the Rider is concerned, Aragorn is simply speaking nonsense that does not deserve attention. He, and his fellows, are the spiritual kin of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the sensible though devoted servant of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote tilts at windmills Sancho Panza does all that he can to keep his master out of trouble. Modern readers side with the servant yet wish, secretly, that they could live in the lost enchanted world of the master. Aragorn argues that it is possible to do both as he presents himself as a representative of the world of legend amidst the world of the sensible.

As far as the Riders are concerned the strange creatures who have sprung from the grass are merely “wild men”, but Eomer heard the rhyme that Boromir spoke when he came to Edoras, the rhyme that spoke of halflings as well as the blade that was broken. Eomer knows that he needs to pay closer attention to Aragorn’s words even if he does not understand them. Perhaps there is more to what Aragorn is saying than mere tilting at windmills.

5 thoughts on ““Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

  1. This is one of my favourite passages! I remember reading ‘A man may do both’ for the first time and smiling from ear to ear. I believe Tolkiens flourishes of optimism are one of the reasons the fantasy stands a head and shoulders above it’s contemporaries and much fantasy that followed!
    I hope you and all the family are well Stephen!

    • I pondered using the wonderful C.S Lewis quote from The Voyage of The Dawntreader in this piece so many thanks for giving me the opportunity to do so in the Comments section 😊
      “In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
      “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
      Many thanks for your greetings, Dominic. We are all well and I hope that your family is as well. I look forward to seeing you soon.

  2. The conversation on the plains of Rohan reminds me a bit of the earlier one in the Green Dragon. Ted Sandyman dismissed “fireside-tales and children’s stories” there too, and it was actually Sam who had the more open mind, or better imagination.

    A most interesting callback to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Aragorn does unite legend and reality with that great line, “A man may do both,” and I think that DQ, as different as he was from Aragorn in a practical sense, would have loved that line too.

    As for Sancho, he definitely had his feet on the ground. But he was so devoted to his master that he I actually think of him as having more in common spiritually with Sam than with Ted Sandyman or with that unimaginative rider of Rohan.

    • There is a certain irony in Ted Sandyman’s dismissal of “fireside tales and children’s stories” coming from someone who is himself regarded as such a thing in Rohan, but of course, you are right.
      I did ponder the link between Sancho Panza and Sam Gamgee. But surely Cervantes, and Sancho Panza too, end in a disenchanted world while Don Quixote is ultimately defeated. Sam, on the other hand, journeys from the disenchanted world of his fellows and via a degree of enchanting the Shire (think of his own daughter, Elanor) finally makes his own journey into the West.

      • yeah Tolkien does offer, or point to, an enchantment that’s available on all levels, beyond what DQ and Sancho reach before death (unless there’s an unknown remainder to Sancho’s story). I love that Green Dragon/Rohan irony. Across the world people think the same and have the same debates!

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