The Riders of Rohan
The title signals that the three hunters will encounter the horsemen of Rohan in their pursuit of the orcs. Beyond that, everything is left for the first-time reader to wonder about.
The story-line has split. The next chapter will give us the same time-period as viewed by Merry and Pippin. Meantime Frodo and Sam are not heard of until Book Four.
We open with an example of what Orcs are like. Contrary to some complaints, they are not similar to any whole human community. They represent the lower levels of the evil, with prejudice and squalor that are found everywhere. And Orcs hate even their own kind, because of very small differences:
“Aragorn was searching. bent towards the ground, among the folds and gullies leading up into the western ridge…
“’We have already overtaken some of those that we are hunting,’ he said. ‘Look!’ He pointed, and they saw that what they had at first taken to be boulders lying at the foot of the slope were huddled bodies. Five dead Orcs lay there. They had been hewn with many cruel strokes, and two had been beheaded. The ground was wet with their dark blood.
“’Here is another riddle!’ said Gimli. ‘But it needs the light of day and for that we cannot wait.’…
“’I think that the enemy brought his own enemy with him,’ answered Aragorn. ‘These are Northern Orcs from far away. Among the slain are none of the great Orcs with the strange badges. There was a quarrel, I guess: it is no uncommon thing with these foul folk. Maybe there was some dispute about the road.’”
The next chapter will show the same events, as seen by Merry and Pippin. But Aragorn does work it out:
“If I read the signs back yonder rightly, the Orcs of the White Hand prevailed, and the whole company is now bound for Isengard. Their present course bears me out.’
Yet he remains modest, calling himself ‘an ill chooser’ when asked if they should try to follow the Orcs at night, risking losing the trail. They had earlier found hobbit footprints and the brooch of an elven-cloak: at least one hobbit still lives. As Aragorn guesses, that was Pippin. And his choices now are mostly correct, since he is following his proper destiny. That at least is how Tolkien chose to write it.
Even before that, Legolas had seen an eagle that he already seen once. That was back in Book 2, chapter 9:
“’What is that, Legolas? ‘ [Aragorn] asked, pointing to the northern sky. ‘Is it, as I think. an eagle? ‘
“’Yes.’ said Legolas. `It is an eagle, a hunting eagle. I wonder what that forebodes. It is far from the mountains.’”
We later learn that the eagle was sent by Gandalf – they are less alone than they think. I’d also see it as slight plot-glitch – in The Hobbit the eagles talk, and Bilbo understood them. So why not brief them on Gandalf being returned? You could suppose that it never saw them, the river being big, though Gandalf had been to Lorien and knew both the route and their time of departure and likely progress. Or perhaps Gandalf knew that he must no longer guide Frodo, and also stand back for a time to let Aragorn have a chance to grow into a man fit to be King of Gondor and Arnor. And his powers, though increased, are still finite.
Whatever about that, they face supernatural foes as well as helpers. They find the Orcs unexpectedly speedy, and they themselves more easily tired:
“’The Orcs have run before us, as if the very whips of Sauron were behind them [said Legolas]. I fear they have already reached the forest and the dark hills…
“[Aragorn adds] ‘There is something strange at work in this land. I distrust the silence. I distrust even the pale Moon. The stars are faint; and I am weary as I have seldom been before, weary as no Ranger should be with a clear trail to follow. There is some will that lends speed to our foes and sets an unseen barrier before us: a weariness that is in the heart more than in the limb.’
“’Truly!’ said Legolas. ‘That I have known since first we came down from the Emyn Muil. For the will is not behind us but before us.’ He pointed away over the land of Rohan into the darkling West under the sickle moon. ‘Saruman!’ muttered Aragorn. ‘But he shall not turn us back!”
Their intentions are once again be frustrated, but as part of a grander design that will in the long run bring victory beyond their hopes.
First they see horsemen of Rohan:
“’Riders!’ cried Aragorn, springing to his feet. ‘Many riders on swift steeds are coming towards us!’
“’Yes,’ said Legolas, ‘there are one hundred and five. Yellow is their hair, and bright are their spears. Their leader is very tall.’
“Aragorn smiled. ‘Keen are the eyes of the Elves,’ he said.
“’Nay! The riders are little more than five leagues distant,’ said Legolas.
“’Five leagues or one,’ said Gimli; ‘we cannot escape them in this bare land. Shall we wait for them here or go on our way?’
“’We will wait,’ said Aragorn. ‘I am weary, and our hunt has failed. Or at least others were before us; for these horsemen are riding back down the orc-trail. We may get news from them.’
“’Or spears,’ said Gimli.
“’There are three empty saddles, but I see no hobbits,’ said Legolas.
“’I did not say that we should hear good news,’ said Aragorn. ‘But evil or good we will await it here.’”
They are unsure which side the horsemen are on. As fans we know, but the skill of a writer is to keep the interest of a first-time reader:
“’I have been among them,’ answered Aragorn. ‘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…
“At least they will not love the Orcs.’
“’But Gandalf spoke of a rumour that they pay tribute to Mordor ‘ said Gimli.
“’I believe it no more than did Boromir,’ answered Aragorn.
“’You will soon learn the truth,’ said Legolas. ‘Already they approach.’”
But the encounter happens by chance – or rather by the unseen design of Fate, as Tolkien chose to write it. I don’t believe in fate of that sort, but in Tolkien’s world it is the rules of Tolkien that count.
The elf-cloaks of Lorien hide them until they choose to show themselves, much to the Rider’s surprise. And are challenged in Common Tongue, with the Rohirrim having a regional accent that resembles that of Boromir. One has to wonder, who reports this? One could take it that this is the hobbits filling in from accounts they were given by the Three. Aragorn at least should have recognised differences in accent between Rohan and Gondor that hobbits would miss.
They are at first taken for elves – suggesting that elves do not have pointy ears in Tolkien’s vision, supposing their ears would be visible. Regardless, the Riders are suspicious of elves, and this leads to a dangerous disagreement:
“‘Have you sprung out of the grass? How did you escape our sight? Are you elvish folk?’
“’No,’ said Aragorn. ‘One only of us is an Elf, Legolas from the Woodland Realm in distant Mirkwood. But we have passed through Lothlórien, and the gifts and favour of the Lady go with us.’
“The Rider looked at them with renewed wonder, but his eyes hardened. ‘Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!’ he said. ‘Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.’ He turned a cold glance suddenly upon Legolas and Gimli. ‘Why do you not speak, silent ones?’ he demanded.
“Gimli rose and planted his feet firmly apart: his hand gripped the handle of his axe, and his dark eyes flashed. ‘Give me your name, horse-master, and I will give you mine, and more besides,’ he said.
“’As for that,’ said the Rider, staring down at the Dwarf, ‘the stranger should declare himself first. Yet I am named Eomer son of Eomund,[A] and am called the Third Marshal of Riddermark.’
“’Then Eomer son of Eomund, Third Marshal of Riddermark, let Gimli the Dwarf Glóin’s son warn you against foolish words. You speak evil of that which is fair beyond the reach of your thought, and only little wit can excuse you.’
“Eomer’s eyes blazed, and the Men of Rohan murmured angrily, and closed in, advancing their spears. ‘I would cut off your head, beard and all, Master Dwarf, if it stood but a little higher from the ground ‘ said Eomer.
“’He stands not alone,’ said Legolas, bending his bow and fitting an arrow with hands that moved quicker than sight. ‘You would die before your stroke fell.’
“Eomer raised his sword, and things might have gone ill, but Aragorn sprang between them, and raised his hand. ‘Your pardon, Eomer!’ he cried. ‘When you know more you will understand why you have angered my companions. We intend no evil to Rohan, nor to any of its folk, neither to man nor to horse. Will you not hear our tale before you strike?’
“’I will,’ said Eomer lowering his blade. ‘But wanderers in the Riddermark would be wise to be less haughty in these days of doubt. First tell me your right name.’
“’First tell me whom you serve,’ said Aragorn. ‘Are you friend or foe of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor?’
“’I serve only the Lord of the Mark, Theoden King son of Thengel,’ answered Eomer. ‘We do not serve the Power of the Black Land far away, but neither are we yet at open war with him; and if you are fleeing from him, then you had best leave this land. There is trouble now on all our borders, and we are threatened; but we desire only to be free, and to live as we have lived, keeping our own, and serving no foreign lord, good or evil. We welcomed guests kindly in the better days, but in these times the unbidden stranger finds us swift and hard.”
Challenged, Aragorn follows Gimli’s lead in replying aggressively. Gimli could be seen as acting foolishly. Aragorn is perhaps making his first move to assert himself as future King of Gondor, which would also make him overlord of Rohan:
“[Having asserted Rohan’s independence, Eomer asks:] ‘Come! Who are you? Whom do you serve? At whose command do you hunt Orcs in our land?’
“’I serve no man,’ said Aragorn; ‘but the servants of Sauron I pursue into whatever land they may go. There are few among mortal Men who know more of Orcs; and I do not hunt them in this fashion out of choice. The Orcs whom we pursued took captive two of my friends. In such need a man that has no horse will go on foot, and he will not ask for leave to follow the trail. Nor will he count the heads of the enemy save with a sword. I am not weaponless.’
“Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Andúril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. ‘Elendil!’ he cried. ‘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!’
“Gimli and Legolas looked at their companion in amazement, for they had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Eomer had shrunk; and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to the eyes of Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown.
“Eomer stepped back and a look of awe was in his face. He cast down his proud eyes. ‘These are indeed strange days,’ he muttered. ‘Dreams and legends spring to life out of the grass.
“’Tell me, lord,’ he said, ‘what brings you here? And what was the meaning of the dark words? Long has Boromir son of Denethor been gone seeking an answer, and the horse that we lent him came back riderless. What doom do you bring out of the North?’
“’The doom of choice,’ said Aragorn. ‘You may say this to Théoden son of Thengel: open war lies before him, with Sauron or against him. None may live now as they have lived, and few shall keep what they call their own. But of these great matters we will speak later. If chance allows, I will come myself to the king.”
Aragorn does not however ask Eomer to make a choice then: it should anyway be a decision made by Rohan’s king. He askes instead after the Orcs they had been following.
The news is far from good. The Orcs were all killed, but they found no prisoners. They have never heard of hobbits, but Gimli recalls that in Gondor they were known as ‘Halflings’:
“’Halflings!’ laughed the Rider that stood beside Eomer. ‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. 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!’”
Tolkien wrote this before it became normal for magic and myth to be part of adult fiction other than ghost stories and horror stories. The distinction between these and ‘fairy stories’ was never rational. In the 1950s it was being eroded by the Science Fiction of the USA as well as by Tolkien’s own work.
Eomer then sends away his deputy and speaks privately, being more sympathetic than he chooses to show publicly. Also more inclined to unity against Mordor:
“’Peace, Eothain!’ said Eomer in his own tongue. ‘Leave me a while. Tell the eored to assemble on the path’ and make ready to ride to the Entwade.’
“Muttering Eothain retired, and spoke to the others. Soon they drew off and left Eomer alone with the three companions.
“’All that you say is strange, Aragorn.’ he said. ‘Yet you speak the truth, that is plain: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived. But you have not told all. Will you not now speak more fully of your errand, so that I may judge what to do?’
“’I set out from Imladris, as it is named in the rhyme, many weeks ago,’ answered Aragorn. ‘With me went Boromir of Minas Tirith. My errand was to go to that city with the son of Denethor, to aid his folk in their war against Sauron. But the Company that I journeyed with had other business. Of that I cannot speak now.”
Aragorn has grown in stature – he is no longer trying to replace Gandalf on a near-impossible venture. He is off on a lesser mission he sees as a duty, rescuing the captured hobbits and hopefully protecting their secrets from Saruman. And he also feels confident amidst the wars of Rohan, because he has been there before. He knew Eomer’s father and can feel confidently superior. And Boromir had in the end recognised his claim. Or he is enhanced because he is now following his proper destiny.
Aragorn with Eomer and also the Orcs shown in the next chapter have interesting power-plays and human dynamics that the Jackson films largely skip over. Long as they were, the films could not have covered such details, of course. Which is why I hope for a remake that will be several seasons of many episodes, and with script-writers modest enough to mostly leave things as Tolkien wrote them.
This chapter and the next tell the same story from two viewpoints. On television, you could intercut and still keep everything open for the majority of viewers who won’t know exactly how it works out. Jackson cleverly does this with them finding the dead Orcs and then deducing the escape of the hobbits.
Hearing Aragorn’s news, Eomer explains that he trusts Gandalf, but his king thinks otherwise:
“’Gandalf Greyhame is known in the Mark: but his name, I warn you, is no longer a password to the king’s favour. He has been a guest in the land many times in the memory of men, coming as he will, after a season, or after many years. He is ever the herald of strange events: a bringer of evil, some now say.
“’Indeed since his last coming in the summer all things have gone amiss. At that time our trouble with Saruman began. Until then we counted Saruman our friend, but Gandalf came then and warned us that sudden war was preparing in Isengard. He said that he himself had been a prisoner in Orthanc and had hardly escaped, and he begged for help. But Théoden would not listen to him, and he went away.”
Eomer is dismayed to learn of Gandalf’s apparent death in Moria. And at least as much by the death of Boromir:
“’Great harm is this death to Minas Tirith, and to us all. That was a worthy man! All spoke his praise. He came seldom to the Mark, for he was ever in the wars on the East-borders; but I have seen him. More like to the swift sons of Eorl than to the grave Men of Gondor he seemed to me, and likely to prove a great captain of his people when his time came.’”
As Aragorn explained earlier, Rohirrim are honest but do not understand the higher qualities found in the Dunedain and sometimes in Gondor, but missing from Boromir. But he has no doubt which side he is on:
“‘I spoke warily before my men. It is true that we are not yet at open war with the Black Land, and there are some, close to the king’s ear, that speak craven counsels; but war is coming. We shall not forsake our old alliance with Gondor, and while they fight we shall aid them: so say I and all who hold with me. The East-mark is my charge. the ward of the Third Marshal, and I have removed all our herds and herdfolk, withdrawing them beyond Entwash, and leaving none here but guards and swift scouts.’
“’Then you do not pay tribute to Sauron?’ said Gimli.
“’We do not and we never have.’ said Éomer with a flash of his eyes; ‘though it comes to my ears that that lie has been told. Some years ago the Lord of the Black Land wished to purchase horses of us at great price, but we refused him. for he puts beasts to evil use. Then he sent plundering Orcs, and they carry off what they can, choosing always the black horses: few of these are now left. For that reason our feud with the Orcs is bitter.
“’But at this time our chief concern is with Saruman. He has claimed lordship over all this land, and there has been war between us for many months. He has taken Orcs into his service, and Wolf-riders, and evil Men, and he has closed the Gap against us, so that we are likely to be beset both east and west.
“’It is ill dealing with such a foe: he is a wizard both cunning and dwimmer-crafty, having many guises. He walks here and there, they say, as an old man hooded and cloaked, very like to Gandalf, as many now recall. His spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky. I do not know how it will all end, and my heart misgives me; for it seems to me that his friends do not all dwell in Isengard. But if you come to the king’s house, you shall see for yourself. Will you not come? Do I hope in vain that you have been sent to me for a help in doubt and need?’
“’I will come when I may,’ said Aragorn.”
As with his original decision to abandon any attempt to help Frodo, you could argue that Aragorn is making a sentimental choice and the wrong choice. If the hobbits are not dead, they may not need his help, and in fact do not. Tolkien probably thought that duties to friends came first; and it anyway all comes out right, as he tells the tale. And has Aragorn reassure Eomer when he is uncertain:
“The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’
“’As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’
“’True indeed,’ said Éomer. ‘But I do not doubt you, nor the deed which my heart would do. Yet I am not free to do all as I would. It is against our law to let strangers wander at will in our land, until the king himself shall give them leave, and more strict is the command in these days of peril. I have begged you to come back willingly with me, and you will not. Loth am I to begin a battle of one hundred against three.’
“’I do not think your law was made for such a chance,’ said Aragorn. ‘Nor indeed am I a stranger; for I have been in this land before, more than once, and ridden with the host of the Rohirrim, though under other name and in other guise. You I have not seen before, for you are young, but I have spoken with Eomund your father, and with Theoden son of Thengel. Never in former days would any high lord of this land have constrained a man to abandon such a quest as mine. My duty at least is clear, to go on. Come now, son of Éomund, the choice must be made at last. Aid us, or at the worst let us go free. Or seek to carry out your law. If you do so there will be fewer to return to your war or to your king.’”
Eomer chooses to let them go, and we later learn he is dismissed and arrested for it. Doing the right thing is often costly. Something similar will apply later on when Faramir finds Frodo and Sam.
We also get a hint of Aragorn’s past history – the outlined deeds that the promised Amazon series will probably show. Eomer’s father Eomund married Theoden’s sister, but we know no more about them.
Earlier, Eomer had said that he thought his men would have noticed hobbits among the dead Orcs they burnt. That they had probably been carried off into the forest. All of them view Fangorn as unfriendly and dangerous, which was also the advice they got in Lorien.
There is further trouble giving them horses. Three horses are conveniently free, but we see more of existing prejudices:
“There was great wonder, and many dark and doubtful glances, among his men, when Eomer gave orders that the spare horses were to be lent to the strangers; but only Eothain dared to speak openly.
“’It may be well enough for this lord of the race of Gondor, as he claims,’ he said, ‘but who has heard of a horse of the Mark being given to a Dwarf?’
“’No one,’ said Gimli. ‘And do not trouble: no one will ever hear of it. I would sooner walk than sit on the back of any beast so great, free or begrudged.’
“’But you must ride now, or you will hinder us,’ said Aragorn.
“’Come, you shall sit behind me, friend Gimli’, said Legolas. ‘Then all will be well, and you need neither borrow a horse nor be troubled by one.’”
Tolkien says somewhere that his dwarves have a status like Jews in Mediaeval Eastern Europe. Seen as useful but also alien and not fit to have the status of warriors.
But why does Gimli not want a horse? These are probably large by horse standards, being selected for warfare. Knights rode horses as large as modern cart-horses. Yet given the stocky bulk of Tolkien’s dwarves, and their habit of carrying large burdens, I’d have thought dwarves should use horses. But they choose ponies in The Hobbit, and that is what Tolkien makes the rule. They change animals more than once, but always ride ponies while Gandalf rides a horse.
As expected, the three find dead orcs and no live hobbits. It is late, so they stop on the edges of the woods. Unlike the film, which has to compress the action, they have not yet found any traces:
“’We can do no more,’ said Gimli sadly. ‘We have been set many riddles since we came to Tol Brandir, but this is the hardest to unravel. I would guess that the burned bones of the hobbits are now mingled with the Orcs’. It will be hard news for Frodo, if he lives to hear it; and hard too for the old hobbit who waits in Rivendell. Elrond was against their coming.’
“’But Gandalf was not,’ said Legolas.
“’But Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost ‘ answered Gimli. ‘His foresight failed him.’
“’The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others,’ said Aragorn. ‘There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark. But I shall not depart from this place yet. In any case we must here await the morning-light.’”
They light a fire, because Gimli says he is cold and will risk being seen. Aragorn warns against cutting living wood, but the Rohirrim have left behind spare wood – they at least are not respectful of trees. And they discuss what it is that should be feared in Fangorn:
“After a while Legolas spoke again.
“’Celeborn warned us not to go far into Fangorn,’ he said. ‘Do you know why, Aragorn? What are the fables of the forest that Boromir had heard?’
“’I have heard many tales in Gondor and elsewhere,’ said Aragorn, ‘but if it were not for the words of Celeborn I should deem them only fables that Men have made as true knowledge fades. I had thought of asking you what was the truth of the matter. And if an Elf of the Wood does not know, how shall a Man answer?’
“’You have journeyed further than I,’ said Legolas. ‘I have heard nothing of this in my own land, save only songs that tell how the Onodrim, that Men call Ents, dwelt there long ago; for Fangorn is old, old even as the Elves would reckon it.’
“’Yes, it is old,’ said Aragorn, ‘as old as the forest by the Barrow-downs, and it is far greater. Elrond says that the two are akin, the last strongholds of the mighty woods of the Elder Days, in which the Firstborn roamed while Men still slept. Yet Fangorn holds some secret of its own. What it is I do not know.’
“’And I do not wish to know,’ said Gimli. ‘Let nothing that dwells in Fangorn be troubled on my account!’”
But there are other dangers. They see an old man, resembling Gandalf but whom they suspect of being Saruman. The returned Gandalf later confirms this was not him. Since their horses are also scared off and pull free their tethers, presumably this was some magic projection by the evil wizard.
The next chapter will show the same events from the viewpoint of the captured hobbits. It is a very dynamic situation. It would be nice if someone worked out who was where when, including the Rohirrim resisting enemies that they have not then identified as working for Saruman.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
[A] The names should be accented: Éomer etc. But the web was built by Anglos, who mostly don’t use accented letters and mostly built systems that can translate them into something unreadable. See ASCII – an Unhappy Legacy for Computers, https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/