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.

Eomer Prepares for a Good Death in Battle.

After the fall of the Lord of the Nazgûl and the death of Théoden the battle upon the Pelennor Fields flows one way and then another. It is Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth who leads a charge from the city to come to the aid of the Rohirrim, led now by Éomer, but even with their forces combined upon the field and with their great skill in battle upon horseback the sheer number of their foes is ultimately too great and Éomer prepares to make a final stand. For this he has been long prepared since first hearing the songs of his people in the halls of Théoden. His spiritual formation has been made there and he knows that what is expected of him is to make a good death with his face turned towards his foes and with his men about him. He plants his banner upon a hillock and laughs as he cries out,

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking: Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall.”

And the song-makers will take the deeds of the day, the hewing of Forlong the Fat with axes as he fights on alone and unhorsed, and the trampling to death of Duilin of Morthond and his brother beneath the terrible feet of the mûmakil, and they will make them beautiful. Tears will flow as the great songs are sung once more and pride rekindled in the hearts of the people. The Rohirrim will know that they are a great people and boys will know, as they grow to manhood, that the worst thing that they could possibly do is to bring shame upon the memory of their ancestors. And so we recall once again the satisfaction that Théoden feels, even as life ebbs from his body, that he can face his forefathers without shame, that what has happened upon this terrible day can be spoken of with pride alongside the great deeds of the past.

It is a bad thing to rob someone of their pride. It is something that might be done by a mighty person who does not fear the power of their enemies, who seeks to display their own greatness by means of humiliation, but resentment will always lead to deeds of revenge and memories forged by bitterness are long. I like to think that the victors at the Pelennor Fields gave as much attention to enabling their foes to retain their pride as they did to winning the battle. It is a wise lord who knows how to make peace even as they must, in time of need, know how to make war.

There are some who in describing the times in which we live have named them an age of anger. They show how resentment, born of felt humiliation, is felt by growing numbers in a world in which a small number seek to gather as much power and wealth for themselves as possible at the expense of the rest of humankind. The powerful may for the time being be able to contain the angry by means of the security apparatus but we see that even the highest walls cannot keep all anger at bay. Our leaders and we whom they lead need to consider how we can allow those who regard themselves as our enemies to withdraw from conflict with pride. If we do not do this then we and our children may have to pay a great price for our pride and their humiliation.

Éowyn, Merry and The Lord of the Nazgûl

As Théoden lies, his body broken beneath Snowmane, only two among his household knights remain beside him. One is the hobbit, Meriadoc Brandybuck, who began the great ride of the Rohirrim in some indignation feeling that his offer of service to the king had been disregarded but who at this moment of horror is at Théoden’s side only because he has been carried there. And the other is the one who carried Merry into battle and who followed the king wherever he went in the fight. This knight named himself, Dernhelm, but is now revealed as Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, and niece to Théoden.

Éowyn is there because of her love for Théoden who has been as a father to her, and she is there because she seeks death. Indeed we could describe her as being one who has already died and so feels no fear.

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!” she cries. And the Lord of the Nazgûl who has journeyed deathless through long ages and through battles beyond numbering, advances upon her to destroy both her and Théoden.

But he is resisted. The fear that robs all who try to cross his path of the strength even to try and resist him has no power over her for she is beyond fear, and then something new and entirely unexpected is brought to the story. When Éowyn declares her intent to hinder him he cries out that, “No living man may hinder me!” and in so doing he grants to Éowyn a new strength and determination for, as she declares to him, “no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you if you touch him.”

Doubt enters the Ringwraith’s mind and amazement the mind of the terrified hobbit and, within moments, Éowyn and Merry have pierced the sinews of the Black Captain that he had thought invulnerable to all hurt “and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died”. So passes the Lord of the Nazgûl in utter despair.

This is a moment of great power in Tolkien’s story and it is one that neither Éowyn nor Merry have foreseen nor even dreamt of. Merry wanted simply to follow Théoden into the battle. Indeed, all he wanted was not to be left out. Éowyn wanted only a death in battle to obliterate the unendurable pain of rejection that she has had to bear since Aragorn’s departure. But a deeper feeling is awoken in both of them by the Lord of the Nazgûl. Deeper than Éowyn’s despair or Merry’s fear and sense of insignificance. In Éowyn it is her love for Théoden and in Merry a realisation that he cannot stand by and let Éowyn die alone. These deeper feelings rouse them to action but, by themselves, could do little more than bring them to a brave death that would have achieved nothing. It is the pronouncement of the prophecy by the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch King of Angmar of old, that brings about his own destruction, turning Éowyn and Merry into deadly foes and making vulnerable an undead body that has been untouchable through long ages.

Many who have achieved something of significance in their lives have spoken of an energy, a strength, that is given to them at a critical moment. At that moment and for that moment only it is as if no power can stand before them. The desire to do some good and the strength to do it come together irresistibly. It is as if some latent possibility is released that can, it seems, achieve anything. It can never be ordered and we can never know when it will come but when it does then we must act with all the courage that we can muster. And such power comes to those who desire some good for others and never for some selfish end. It is this divine power that comes to Merry and to Éowyn at this critical moment.

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.