The Riders of Rohan reach the Pelennor Fields at last and look down upon the horror below them. “The king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish or by dread. He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age.” Until this moment it has been possible to push the impossibility of what they must do to the back of their minds by attending to all of the essential tasks that a soldier must do. That possibility exists no longer. Théoden stares at his own annihilation, something that he shrank from through the years of Wormtongue’s whisperings, and for a moment he is the shrivelled old man in the darkness of his hall and of his mind. And then…
“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”
And the old man is transformed and rides into battle like a god, “even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young”. And like Oromë the hunter he takes a horn and blows such a mighty blast upon it “that it burst asunder”. Théoden the godlike king rides with such might that he outruns even the swiftest of his army and as he rides the grass about Snowmane’s feet flames into green, the wind turns and blows fresh from the sea “and darkness was removed and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.”
Tolkien takes the language of myth and of Old English song that had captured his heart when he was a young man in order to describe this scene in the story. Skilled story teller as he is he could have taken us into battle with the frightened Merry or the death-seeking Éowyn or the standard-bearer Guthláf trying desperately to keep up with his lord but he chooses the godlike king before whose face all creation is transformed, transfigured.
And what do we do as readers? Is it encumbered upon us as those who are disillusioned and disenchanted modernists to demystify or demythologise Tolkien’s language and to insist that we describe war as what it is, as foul and filthy, as a thing of horror? We could do so if we choose and what is more Tolkien could do so better than most of us for he saw war at first hand in the killing fields of Flanders in the First World War. But Tolkien chooses not to do this but to take us to a wholly different level of human experience. It is not that he has a nostalgic longing for medieval warfare which was just as foul and bloody as anything that we can invent today nor does he seek to promulgate what Wilfred Owen called, “the old lie”, that to die for one’s country is a sweet and proper thing. No, what Tolkien does is to take the human experience of the horror of war and to transform it. Note, please, that I have not said take the horror of war and transform it but to take the human experience of war and transform it. And in doing so he chooses not to reduce human beings in war to dumb animals in the slaughter house but to elevate them to gods. And he does it for just this paragraph only as the Rohirrim ride into battle giving us the briefest of glimpses into what we truly are. When we look across the page we return to the description of events, to one action after another. Both kinds of narrative are true and both are true together.
And we will end this week’s reflection with a final thought. When the hopelessly outnumbered Riders of Rohan ride into battle in defence of Minas Tirith they do so in the likelihood that they will die in the attempt. And yet they still ride on. Their plunge into the heart of darkness is godlike and one that was recognised in one of the oldest of English poems, The Dream of the Rood, a poem that likens the death of Christ upon the cross to the triumph of a mighty warrior in battle and so transformed the experience of the warrior forever.