If you’re not already familiar with Kate from Kate of Mind – shame on you. I’ve only been linking to her for months, what is your problem? I honestly don’t know what else to say in means of an introduction, other than that she’s censored herself quite a bit just to make sure her post wasn’t overly long. Aw, she knows that most of you have short attention spans! See how she pays attention? Anyway, in order to keep this post on the shorter side, she’s elected to take a different tack and focus on one specific section. You’ll see what I mean.
Chapter Six of Book V (Return of the King) contains what is for me the single most dramatic and emblematic moment in all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work: the death of Theoden and the triumph of Eowyn and Merry.
The foe that crystallizes this moment of glory and tragedy is the most genuinely potent — because most present – of all of the evil figures we encounter in The Lord of the Rings with the possible exception of Shelob. He has spooked us before, has the Witch King of Angmar, but mostly as a figure glimpsed from afar, referred to obliquely, except at Weathertop, where he and the rest of the Nazgul provide the first serious and obviously Ring-related jeopardy the hobbits experience. Now he is more than just a knife in the dark; he is revealed in his full horror, an iron crown on his head, astride a giant bird that is bigger and scarier than the terrifying fell beasts the other Nazgul ride and raised up from a chick by Sauron himself. He was going to leave that puny King of the Manves to the Chieftain of the Haradrim, but Theoden made short work of that foe.
Sigh. You just can’t find good help these days.
So what is there for it but to take on that puny Theoden directly? Down flies the Roc of Mordor in ironic response to Theoden’s heartfelt and effective “Up, Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!” Theoden’s horse is too terrified to get the message, rears up, and falls down, ready and waiting to be Mordor Roc chow, with Theoden more or less trapped under him! That’s plenty of drama right there, but no!
Enter “Dernhelm”*, with Merry not far away. She sees what is about to happen to her uncle and manages to get between the Witch King and his prey. They bandy bold words of challenge and mockery, culminating in the Witch King’s boast that “No living man may hinder me.” Now, I’m pretty sure no one who has been paying attention the last few chapters is ever surprised by the reveal that Dernhelm is Eowyn, but it’s still an awesome moment when she laughs and informs the Witch King that she is no man. And when the Witch King and the Roc of Mordor attack her, she promptly slices off the Roc’s head. Because she is a freaking amazing warrior.
What, did they all expect her to show up dressed like this?
The Witch King is hardly fazed, though, and comes after her himself, smashing her shield and breaking her arm with his mace. She might be screwed. But no, Merry has been watching all of this, terror-stricken at first, but passing from that state to shame that his brand new liege lord is probably dying very near and Eowyn is in danger, too, and Hobbits the Snape up and stabs the Witch King in the back.
Alas, Theoden’s horse has pretty much done him in. He has a few last words, mostly forgiving Merry and Eowyn for disobeying him and coming to the battle, but also observing that “Great heart will not be denied.” And this is key, because this is our heroes first real victory against Sauron. The destruction of the Uruk Hai who kidnapped Merry and Pippin, the storming of Isengard, the expulsion of Saurman from Orthanc, those are all great, but they’re defeats of the secondary villain. Here we have finally taken down a major power from Mordor, and it’s a Womanve and a Hobbit who have done it. This is the watershed moment, doing a better job than the Flame of Arnor ever could of kindling real hope and courage for Our Side.
For me, the rest of The Return of the King is pretty much just clean-up, now.
*This ruse of Eowyn’s has always bothered me. Eowyn names herself “a shieldmaiden of Rohan” pretty early on in our acquaintance with her, and it’s always with a lower-case “s” – it’s not a title bestowed on her alone with a definite article. This implies that women getting some training in this culture’s martial arts is not an extraordinary thing. So why then the need to disguise herself as a man? I can understand not going and fighting as herself; she’s been given specific instructions by the king. But why not go as a shieldmaiden? Why aren’t there other shieldmaidens in the muster? Or if there are, why aren’t they mentioned?