The King of the Golden Hall
After two complex chapters, we now have a simple run of narrative for the rest of Book Three. The Ent attack on Isengard will be told as a narrative later on, when much else has happened.
It opens with Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli approach Meduseld, the Golden Hall. Interestingly, Gandalf even in his enhanced form asks Legolas to use his superior elven eyesight:
“Before them stood the mountains of the South: white-tipped and streaked with black. The grass-lands rolled against the hills that clustered at their feet, and flowed up into many valleys still dim and dark, untouched by the light of dawn, winding their way into the heart of the great mountains. Immediately before the travellers the widest of these glens opened like a long gulf among the hills. Far inward they glimpsed a tumbled mountain-mass with one tall peak; at the mouth of the vale there stood like sentinel a lonely height. About its feet there flowed, as a thread of silver, the stream that issued from the dale; upon its brow they caught, still far away, a glint in the rising sun, a glimmer of gold. ‘Speak, Legolas!’ said Gandalf. ‘Tell us what you see there before us!’
“Legolas gazed ahead, shading his eyes from the level shafts of the new-risen sun. ‘I see a white stream that comes down from the snows,’ he said. ‘Where it issues from the shadow of the vale a green hill rises upon the east. A dike and mighty wall and thorny fence encircle it. Within there rise the roofs of houses; and in the midst, set upon a green terrace, there stands aloft a great hall of Men. And it seems to my eyes that it is thatched with gold. The light of it shines far over the land. Golden, too, are the posts of its doors. There men in bright mail stand; but all else within the courts are yet asleep.’
“’Edoras those courts are called,’ said Gandalf, ‘and Meduseld is that golden hall. There dwells Theoden son of Thengel, King of the Mark of Rohan. We are come with the rising of the day.”
Aragorn was there in the time of Eomer’s father, we learned when Eomer found him. He speaks their language, reciting a poem that he then translated into Common. It begins:
“Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
“Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
“Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
“Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
“They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
“The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
“Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
“Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”
They are met and challenged in the Rohirrim speech. Gandalf also knows it, but questions their use of it:
“There sat many men in bright mail, who sprang at once to their feet and barred the way with spears. ‘Stay, strangers here unknown!’ they cried in the tongue of the Riddermark, demanding the names and errand of the strangers. Wonder was in their eyes but little friendliness; and they looked darkly upon Gandalf.
“’Well do I understand your speech,’ he answered in the same language; ‘yet few strangers do so. Why then do you not speak in the Common Tongue, as is the custom in the West, if you wish to be answered?’
“’It is the will of Theoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends,’ replied one of the guards. ‘None are welcome here in days of war but our own folk, and those that come from Mundburg in the land of Gondor. Who are you that come heedless over the plain thus strangely clad, riding horses like to our own horses? Long have we kept guard here, and we have watched you from afar. Never have we seen other riders so strange, nor any horse more proud than is one of these that bear you. He is One of the Mearas, unless our eyes are cheated by some spell. Say, are you not a wizard, some spy from Saruman, or phantoms of his craft? Speak now and be swift!’
“’We are no phantoms,’ said Aragorn, ‘nor do your eyes cheat you. For indeed these are your own horses that we ride, as you knew well ere you asked, I guess. But seldom does thief ride home to the stable. Here are Hasufel and Arod, that Eomer, the Third Marshal of the Mark, lent to us, only two days ago. We bring them back now, even as we promised him. Has not Eomer then returned and given warning of our coming?’”
The place has become unfriendly. But Gandalf is there to assert himself, and also to promote Aragorn as the future king. Aragorn himself had already done this when he met Eomer. The Rohirrim were given the land by an earlier Steward of Gondor. If Aragorn is valid as successor to Gondor’s lost king, he is implicitly their overlord. And arriving almost powerless, he was taking the right line with such people, just as Gandalf does.
In a very different context, I heard it described as ‘seeing an argument as a means of communication’. You get aggressive to see what they’re made of. If they take a polite but firm line, you can do business as equals. If they make demands, maybe these should be met.
Note that this is not at all what Aragorn did before, when he had to lead after Gandalf fell. Nor what he will do at Gondor, after rescuing the city with an army of ghosts whom he commands precisely because he is the valid heir of Isildur. Gondor has a long civilised tradition, and there he needs to gently build a consensus.
Just then, in front of the Golden Hall, all is uncertain. But Gandalf takes a strong line:
“My errand is not to Wormtongue, but to the Lord of the Mark himself. I am in haste. Will you not go or send to say that we are come?’ His eyes glinted under his deep brows as he bent his gaze upon the man.
“’Yes, I will go,’ he answered slowly. ‘But what names shall I report? And what shall I say of you? Old and weary you seem now, and yet you are fell and grim beneath, I deem’
“’Well do you see and speak,’ said the wizard. ‘For I am Gandalf. I have returned. And behold! I too bring back a horse. Here is Shadowfax the Great, whom no other hand can tame. And here beside me is Aragorn son of Arathorn, the heir of Kings, and it is to Mundburg that he goes. Here also are Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf, our comrades. Go now and say to your master that we are at his gates and would have speech with him, if he will permit us to come into his hall.’
He gets an equally firm answer:
“’Strange names you give indeed! But I will report them as you bid and learn my master’s will,’ said the guard. ‘Wait here a little while, and I will bring you such answer as seems good to him. Do not hope too much! These are dark days.’ He went swiftly away, leaving the strangers in the watchful keeping of his comrades. After some time he returned. ‘Follow me!’ he said. ‘Theoden gives you leave to enter; but any weapon that you bear; be it only a staff, you must leave on the threshold. The doorwardens will keep them.’
“The dark gates were swung open. The travellers entered, walking in file behind their guide. They found a broad path, paved with hewn stones, now winding upward, now climbing in short flights of well-laid steps. Many houses built of wood and many dark doors they passed. Beside the way in a stone channel a stream of clear water flowed, sparkling and chattering. At length they came to the crown of the hill. There stood a high platform above a green terrace, at the foot of which a bright spring gushed from a stone carved in the likeness of a horse’s head; beneath was a wide basin from which the water. spilled and fed the falling stream. Up the green terrace went a stair of stone, high and broad, and on either side of the topmost step were stone-hewn seats. There sat other guards, with drawn swords laid upon their knees. Their golden hair was braided on their shoulders the sun was blazoned upon their green shields, their long corslets were burnished bright, and when they rose taller they seemed than mortal men.”
Jackson’s version excludes most of this – he had to cut things in what was anyway an enormously long film. But the forthcoming Amazon series, title unknown but confirmed as being basically ‘Young Aragorn’, could usefully apply this description almost exactly to an earlier era.
At the door they have another argument. Aragorn asserts himself as Heir of Gondor, and wants to keep his sword
“Aragorn stood a while hesitating. ‘It is not my will,’ he said, ‘to put aside my sword or to deliver Anduril to the hand of any other man.’
“’It is the will of Theoden,’ said Hama.
“’It is not clear to me that the will of Theoden son of Thengel even though he be lord of the Mark, should prevail over the will of Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elendil’s heir of Gondor.’
“’This is the house of Theoden, not of Aragorn, even were he King of Gondor in the seat of Denethor,’ said Hama, stepping swiftly before the doors and barring the way. His sword was now in his hand and the point towards the strangers.
“’This is idle talk,’ said Gandalf. ‘Needless is Theoden’s demand, but it is useless to refuse. A king will have his way in his own hall, be it folly or wisdom.’
“’Truly,’ said Aragorn. ‘And I would do as the master of the house bade me, were this only a woodman’s cot, if I bore now any sword but Anduril.’
“’Whatever its name may be,’ said Hama, ‘here you shall lay it, if you would not fight alone against all the men in Edoras.’
“’Not alone!’ said Gimli, fingering the blade of his axe, and looking darkly up at the guard, as if he were a young tree that Gimli had a mind to fell. ‘Not alone!’
“’Come, come!’ said Gandalf. ‘We are all friends here. Or should be; for the laughter of Mordor will be our only reward, if we quarrel. My errand is pressing. Here at least is my sword, goodman Hama. Keep it well. Glamdring it is called, for the Elves made it long ago. Now let me pass. Come, Aragorn!’”
These are power-games among warriors with a strong sense of personal freedom and dignity. Aragorn pushes things, and get a partial acceptance of his status. It is in Rohan and not with his later capture of the Palantir of Orthanc that he makes his implicit challenge to Denethor’s authority. And since Denethor also has a Palantir, perhaps he has seen all this. It would explain why he refuses to cooperate with Gandalf when later meet. Why at the end he correctly accuses him of plotting to replace the Stewards with kings of the Northern line that Denethor’s ancestors had long ago rejected as valid heirs.
This over, there is still the matter of Gandalf’s staff:
“’Your staff,’ he said to Gandalf. ‘Forgive me, but that too must be left at the doors.’
“’Foolishness!’ said Gandalf. ‘Prudence is one thing, but discourtesy is another. I am old. If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will sit out here, until it pleases Theoden to hobble out himself to speak with me.’
“Aragorn laughed. ‘Every man has something too dear to trust to another. But would you part an old man from his support? Come, will you not let us enter?’
“’The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age’ said Hama. He looked hard at the ash-staff on which Gandalf leaned. ‘Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.’
This is not at all honest – in the last chapter we saw Gandalf leap up rocks. And the earlier conditions had spoken of forbidding “any weapon that you bear; be it only a staff”. Since this was Wormtongue’s advice, it seems odd it was not made more explicit. And it seems that a lot of Gandalf’s magic depends on him having a suitable staff. But they are let in to meet Theoden. And this is nothing like Jackson: we see a tired old man with an heroic past.
“At the far end of the house, beyond the hearth and facing north towards the doors, was a dais with three steps; and in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair. Upon it sat a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf; but his white hair was long and thick and fell in great braids from beneath a thin golden circle set upon his brow. In the centre upon his forehead shone a single white diamond. His beard was laid like snow upon his knees; but his eyes still burned with a bright light, glinting as he gazed at the strangers. Behind his chair stood a woman clad in white. At his feet upon the steps sat a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes.
“There was a silence. The old man did not move in his chair. At length Gandalf spoke. ‘Hail, Theoden son of Thengel! I have returned. For behold! the storm comes, and now all friends should gather together, lest each singly be destroyed.’
“Slowly the old man rose to his feet, leaning heavily upon a short black staff with a handle of white bone; and now the strangers saw that, bent though he was, he was still tall and must in youth have been high and proud indeed.
“’I greet you,’ he said, ‘and maybe you look for welcome. But truth to tell your welcome is doubtful here, Master Gandalf. You have ever been a herald of woe. Troubles follow you like crows, and ever the oftener the worse. I will not deceive you: when I heard that Shadowfax had come back riderless, I rejoiced at the return of the horse, but still more at the lack of the rider; and when Eomer brought the tidings that you had gone at last to your long home, I did not mourn. But news from afar is seldom sooth. Here you come again! And with you come evils worse than before, as might be expected. Why should I welcome you, Gandalf Stormcrow? Tell me that.’ Slowly he sat down again in his chair.
“’You speak justly, lord,’ said the pale man sitting upon the steps of the dais.”
This is Grima Wormtongue. The name comes from Norse tradition, but there ‘worm’ included dragons. It was known in connection with the Icelandic poet and warrior Gunnlaugr Ormstunga: the 1901 translation by William Morris had him as ‘Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue’. The Wiki translates it as ‘Serpent-Tongue’, which may be better. Gunnlaug is harsh but honourable.
Here, Grima is much more definitely worm-like. And foolish. Rather than letting Theoden’s words stand, or else protesting that the wizard’s staff should not have been allowed, he gets into an argument. He makes it easier for Gandalf to drive a wedge between him and Theoden:
“’It is not yet five days since the bitter tidings came that Theodred your son was slain upon the West Marches: your right hand, Second Marshal Of the Mark. In Eomer there is little trust. Few men would be left to guard your walls, if he had been allowed to rule. And even now we learn from Gondor that the Dark Lord is stirring in the East. Such is the hour in which this wanderer chooses to return. Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Lathspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say.’ He laughed grimly, as he lifted his heavy lids for a moment and gazed on the strangers with dark eyes.
“’You are held wise, my friend Wormtongue, and are doubtless a great support to your master,’ answered Gandalf in a soft voice. ‘Yet in two ways may a man come with evil tidings. He may be a worker of evil; or he may be such as leaves well alone, and comes only to bring aid in time of need.’
“’That is so,’ said Wormtongue; ‘but there is a third kind: pickers of bones, meddlers in other men’s sorrows, carrion-fowl that grow fat on war. What aid have you ever brought, Stormcrow? And what aid do you bring now? It was aid from us that you sought last time that you were here…
“Do you bring men? Do you bring horses, swords, spears? That I would call aid; that is our present need. But who are these that follow at your tail? Three ragged wanderers in grey, and you yourself the most beggar-like of the four!’
“’The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Theoden son of Thengel,’ said Gandalf. ‘Has not the messenger from your gate reported the names of my companions? Seldom has any lord of Rohan received three such guests. Weapons they have laid at your doors that are worth many a mortal man, even the mightiest. Grey is their raiment, for the Elves clad them, and thus they have passed through the shadow of great perils to your hall.’
“’Then it is true, as Eomer reported, that you are in league with the Sorceress of the Golden Wood?’ said Wormtongue. ‘It is not to be wondered at: webs of deceit were ever woven in Dwimordene.’
“Gimli strode a pace forward, but felt suddenly the hand of Gandalf clutch him by the shoulder, and he halted, standing stiff as stone.
“In Dwimordene, in Lórien
“Seldom have walked the feet of Men
“Few mortal eyes have seen the light
“That lies there ever, long and bright.
“Clear is the water of your well;
“White is the star in your white hand;
“Unmarred, unstained is leaf and land
“In Dwimordene, in Lórien
“More fair than thoughts of Mortal Men.”
Is this also a magic spell? Gandalf’s power certainly becomes explicit soon enough:
“Thus Gandalf softly sang, and then suddenly he changed. Casting his tattered cloak aside, he stood up and leaned no longer on his staff; and he spoke in a clear cold voice. ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Grima son of Galmod. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ He raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth.
“In the gloom they heard the hiss of Wormtongue’s voice: ‘Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff? That fool, Hama, has betrayed us!’ There was a flash as if lightning had cloven the roof. Then all was silent. Wormtongue sprawled on his face.
“’Now Theoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf. ‘Do you ask for help?’ He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.’
“Slowly Theoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again. The woman hastened to the king’s side, taking his arm, and with faltering steps the old man came down from the dais and paced softly through the hall. Wormtongue remained lying on the floor. They came to the doors and Gandalf knocked.
“’Open!’ he cried. ‘The Lord of the Mark comes forth!’
“The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill. ‘Send your guards down to the stairs foot,’ said Gandalf. ‘And you, lady, leave him a while with me. I will care for him.’
“’Go, Eowyn sister-daughter!’ said the old king. ‘The time for fear is past.’
Gandalf leads him into the light. Gets him to free Eomer, who had earlier threatened to kill Grima.
Gandalf then gives Theoden secret advice – clearly Frodo’s mission. He reacts by accepting his duty as King, while regretting the need to act:
“Slowly Theoden sat down again, as if weariness still struggled to master him against the will of Gandalf. He turned and looked at his great house. ‘Alas!’ he said, ‘that these evil days should be mine, and should come in my old age instead of that peace which I have earned. Alas for Boromir the brave! The young perish and the old linger, withering.’ He clutched his knees with his wrinkled hands.”
His regret at living in evil times echoes what Frodo had said much earlier. And like Frodo, he will accept the burden. In his case, Gandalf suggests he let Eomer take the war to Saruman. Theoden himself should abandon his Golden Hall and take the non-combatants to somewhere safe:
“‘Lead your people swiftly to the Hold of Dunharrow in the hills!’
“’Nay, Gandalf!’ said the king. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’
“’Then even the defeat of Rohan will be glorious in song,’ said Aragorn. The armed men that stood near clashed their weapons, crying: ‘The Lord of the Mark will ride! Forth Eorlingas!’”
This echoes Treebeard going to a war, even though he expects to lose.
Theoden now offers Grima Wormtongue a fresh change – to come with him to war. But Gandalf gets him to change this – give Grima the chance to depart safely instead, to show what he really believes in. Which Gandalf already knows:
“‘How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price? When all the men were dead, you were to pick your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire? Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps.’”
“Eomer grasped his sword. ‘That I knew already,’ he muttered. ‘For that reason I would have slain him before, forgetting the law of the hall.
This obviously means Eowyn, though she is not named.
The strategies of Saruman and Grima are then explained:
“’How far back his treachery goes, who can guess?’ said Gandalf. ‘He was not always evil. Once I do not doubt that he was the friend of Rohan; and even when his heart grew colder, he found you useful still. But for long now he has plotted your ruin, wearing the mask of Friendship, until he was ready…
“Do you not remember how eagerly he urged that no man should be spared on a wildgoose chase northward, when the immediate peril was westward? He persuaded you to forbid Eomer to pursue the raiding Orcs. If Eomer had not defied Wormtongue’s voice speaking with your mouth, those Orcs would have reached Isengard by now, bearing a great prize. Not indeed that prize which Saruman desires above all else, but at the least two members of my Company, sharers of a secret hope, of which even to you, lord, I cannot yet speak openly. Dare you think of what they might now be suffering, or what Saruman might now have learned to our destruction?’”
Had the hobbits broken, Saruman would have known that the One Ring was beyond his reach, but could have earned credits with Sauron by revealing the peril he was in. For that matter, it might have been guessed once they were searched and found not to have it. Grishnakh from the Mordor orcs who had spied on the party could have reported that there were four hobbits, supposing that Saruman didn’t already know this.
It would be a nice little project for someone to pull together all of the events from the breaking of the Fellowship to the defeat of the Orcs, along with the simultaneous fight with Saruman’s forces. I’ve got other things I am going to do first, so it is here if anyone wants it. It could even be made into an extended war-game campaign, supposing someone has not already done this. I asked on Quora and was not told of anything.
Theoden now gives gifts to his guests, who have previously been travelling with as little as they could survive with.
“Now men came bearing raiment of war from the king’s hoard and they arrayed Aragorn and Legolas in shining mail. Helms too they chose, and round shields: their bosses were overlaid with gold and set with gems, green and red and white. Gandalf took no armour; and Gimli needed no coat of rings, even if one had been found to match his stature, for there was no hauberk in the hoards of Edoras of better make than his short corslet forged beneath the Mountain in the North. But he chose a cap of iron and leather that fitted well upon his round head; and a small shield he also took. It bore the running horse, white upon green, that was the emblem of the House of Eorl.
“’May it keep you well!’ said Theoden. ‘It was made for me in Thengel’s day, while still I was a boy.’
“Gimli bowed. ‘I am proud, Lord of the Mark, to bear your device,’ he said. ‘Indeed sooner would I bear a horse than be borne by one. I love my feet better. But, maybe, I shall come yet where I can stand and fight.’
Theoden also gives Shadowfax to Gandalf – or rather confirms what this very superior horse has already chosen. But Gandalf needs no armour – he had earlier explained that normal weapons cannot hurt him, nor even the sword Anduril. That last seems odd, since it was forged from a weapon that wounded Sauron. But perhaps such swords have an alignment and could not hurt someone on their side. Or perhaps it is Sauron being corrupted after losing his original body in the Downfall of Numenor, meaning he has limits despite his vast power.
Amidst all this harmony, Eowyn shows her feelings for Aragorn, embarrassing him:
“The king now rose, and at once Éowyn came forward bearing wine. ‘Ferthu Theoden hál!‘ she said. ‘Receive now this cup and drink in happy hour. Health be with thee at thy going and coming!’
“Theoden drank from the cup, and she then proffered it to the guests. As she stood before Aragorn she paused suddenly and looked upon him, and her eyes were shining. And he looked down upon her fair face and smiled; but as he took the cup, his hand met hers, and he knew that she trembled at the touch. ‘Hail Aragorn son of Arathorn!’ she said. ‘Hail Lady of Rohan!’ he answered, but his face now was troubled and he did not smile.”
You’d have thought it logical for Aragorn at this point to have a quiet word with Eomer. Explain that while his sister is admirable, Aragorn is already pledged to another and it is best to tell her. Still, that would also spoil the story.
We also learn from what Christopher Tolkien has published that in early stages of the story, Arwen had not been thought of. Eowyn was initially “Eowyn Elfsheen daughter of Theoden”. She is later identified as an Amazon women who probably goes to Minas Tirith. Shifts to be Eomer’s sister, with Theoden briefly having another daughter called Idis, who does little and soon vanishes. It is all along Eowyn, not Idis, who is put in charge of getting the non-combatants to safety – perhaps Idis was not a natural leader as Eowyn is. You could imagine poor Idis joining Odo the hobbit and other discarded Tolkien characters in some shared limbo. That’s an idea I heard floated, but which has not yet been done, as far as I know.
Having made her warlike, Tolkien in a note also has Aragorn wed Eowyn and make her Queen of Gondor. This was quickly revised again:
“’Probably Eowyn should die to avenge or save Theoden’.”
Christopher Tolkien then adds:
“But my father added in a hasty scribble the possibility that Aragorn did indeed love Eowyn, and never wedded after her death.”
I assume he would also have invented another descendant of Isildur to carry on the renewed line of kings. But all in all, these first thoughts are much inferior to what emerged. And the discarded name ‘Elfsheen’ perhaps evolved and acquired more magic to become Arwen Evenstar.
The notes also suggest Aragorn riding with Eowyn, but in the final story it is not so. Jackson’s skirmish with orcs and wargs is pure addition: needless though very nicely done. She will go east to Dunharrow, while Aragorn and the others go west to fight Saruman, as Gandalf had wished them to do:
“’I thank you, Theoden King,’ said Gandalf. Then suddenly he threw back his grey cloak, and cast aside his hat, and leaped to horseback. He wore no helm nor mail. His snowy hair flew free in the wind, his white robes shone dazzling in the sun.
“’Behold the White Rider!’ cried Aragorn, and all took up the words.
“’Our King and the White Rider!’ they shouted. ‘Forth Eorlingas!’
“The trumpets sounded. The horses reared and neighed. Spear clashed on shield. Then the king raised his hand, and with a rush like the sudden onset of a great wind the last host of Rohan rode thundering into the West. Far over the plain Eowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house.”
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
 Page 390 in The Treason of Isengard, which is volume 6 of The History of Middle-earth. Hardback edition of 1989.
 Ibid, page 437.
 Ibid, page 448.