Ride of the Rohirrim

December 21, 2023  
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Categories: Lifestyle

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!

So opens perhaps the most thrilling and inspiring literary fantasy episode ever written: The Charge of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Théoden, King of Rohan, arrives in the nick of time to succor his allies in the city of Minas Tirith. As in all great heroic tales, Théoden persists against great odds, honoring his oath to Gondor instead of staying at home to guard his own kingdom. Unlooked for, his brave but outnumbered army crests the ridge just as the sun breaks through Sauron’s hideous darkness and as Minas Tirith totters on the edge of collapse.

Illustration of the Charge at the Pelennor.

“Charge at the Pelennor” (Art by Mischievouslittleelf at Deviantart.com)

Théoden is perhaps one of the more underrated heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. One could argue that, without Théoden, Sauron may well have triumphed in the end. More on that later. Let’s begin with a brief look at Théoden, who he was, and the tradition he upheld at the Pelennor Fields.

The Eorlingas

Reading Tolkien, one quickly learns that he regularly uses two or more names for the same person or place. He does that because different languages have different terms and naming traditions. It’s like that in our world too. My name, for instance, is “William” in English but “Wilhelm” in German.

If you’re a movie fan, you probably think of the warriors of Rohan as “the Rohirrim,” and you’d be mostly correct. But Rohirrim means “Horse-lord people” in Sindarin, the elven language adopted by the men of Western Middle-earth. That language was spoken in Gondor, so the people of Gondor called the entire people of Rohan, “the Rohirrim.”

The people of Rohan called themselves Eorlingas, because they were descended from Eorl the Young, the first king of Rohan. Even the name Rohan can be confusing. Rohan means “Horse-land” in Sindarin, so that’s what the country is called in Gondor. The Eorlingas called their country the Riddermark, the “Mark of the Riders,” or just the “the Mark.” Any of those will do, and for simplicity’s sake, I will use the terms “Rohan” and “Rohirrim” because that’s how most people know them, and they are terms most employed by Tolkien himself.

Green flag with white horse emblem and red sun in top left corner. Rohirrim Horn underneath on wall.

The flag of Rohan and Rohirrim Horn on my bedroom wall. (Author’s Photo)

Eorl the Young

For centuries, Gondor held the line against invaders from east of Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth. Those invaders came in waves, north and south of Mordor, eventually wearing down Gondor so that the watch on Sauron’s stronghold was loosened and then abandoned entirely.

Gondor was so desperate that in the year 2510 of the Third Age, 509 years before Théoden’s charge at the Pelennor Fields, Cirion, greatest of the Ruling Stewards of Gondor, sent messengers to the Éothéod, humans who dwelt far to the north in the Vales of Anduin. Only one messenger, gravely wounded, reached his destination, whereupon he delivered Cirion’s plea for help as Gondor was set to be overrun by Easterlings.

Eorl the Young, so named because he succeeded his father as the Éothéod King while still a teenager, agreed to come. Eorl was young, but he was wise. He understood that if Gondor fell, his people would find no haven anywhere in the West. Eorl gathered as large an army as he dared, leaving only the minimum force behind to protect his kingdom and its inhabitants.

Illustration telling the story of Eorl the Young.

Eorl the Young crosses Anduin prior to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant. (tolkienillustrations.tumblr.com)

Eorl’s army rode swiftly south along Anduin’s eastern bank. As his force drew even with the Fortress of Dol Guldur, where Sauron lurked unknown, an unsavory darkness threatened to block his way. But Galadriel, Lady of Lothlorien, known to the Éothéod as the Dwimordene (Haunted Valley) sent a mist across the river, pushing the darkness back and hiding Eorl’s men as they moved. And move they did, as the mist also seemed to speed their horses and let them travel without tiring.

Battle of the Field of Celebrant

As Eorl rode south, Cirion’s army moved north on the opposite bank facing Sauron-controlled Easterling invaders known as the Balchoth, who had crossed the river and threatened Gondor’s northern reaches. Unknown to Cirion. However, a force of orcs had descended from the Misty Mountains and, as he faced the Balchoth, assailed his left flank at the Field of Celebrant, forcing him against the Great River itself.

Cirion faced certain defeat when, unlooked for, an army of horsemen struck his foes in the rear. Eorl had crossed Anduin at the Undeeps, a wide shallows, and taken the Balchoth and their orc allies by surprise. The Balchoth and orcs were routed and ultimately destroyed by the combined human armies.

Cirion’s gratitude was such that he gifted the region of Calenardhon (Green Region) to Eorl to rule as an independent kingdom allied to Gondor. Eorl and Cirion pledged to one another that they and their descendants would remain allies and support one another in need. Eorl moved the rest of his people south and established the Kingdom of Rohan, of which he was the first king. As noted, the people of Rohan called themselves Eorlingas in recognition of their descent from Eorl and his people. Eorl’s horse, Felaróf, is known as the “Father of Horses,” and is the direct ancestor of Gandalf’s mount, Shadowfax.

Cirion (in white) exchanges oaths of friendship with Eorl the Young. Their oaths were ever honored by their successors. (Art by Ted Nasmith. Taken from Tolkien, J.R.R. and Tolkien, Christopher, ed., Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1980. Illustration copyright Ted Nasmith, 2007, 2020)

Théoden, Thengel’s Son

Théoden was the 17th King of Rohan. He is first encountered under the spell of the fallen wizard Saruman, who has allied himself with Sauron in a bid for power. At age 72, Théoden seems old and frail. But the wizard Gandalf drives away Saruman’s influence, allowing Théoden to regain his senses, his dignity, and his people’s love.

Théoden’s spirit returns quickly as he learns of Saruman’s treachery. Standing in front of his hall, the renewed king raises a sword and cries:

Arise now, arise, Riders of Theoden!

Dire deeds awake, dark is it eastward.

Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!

Forth Eorlingas!

In short, Théoden calls his entire people to war. Gandalf urges the still weak Théoden to stay back, but the king refuses, saying, “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.” It’s an inspiring scene, as even Aragorn, future King of Gondor, says, “Then even the defeat of Rohan will be glorious in song,” as Théoden’s warriors “clash their weapons, crying” ‘The Lord of the Mark will ride! Forth Eorlingas!’”

Théoden later defends the Hornburg in Helm’s Deep against Saruman’s Uruk-Hai army, riding out when all seems lost and helping drive his enemies to destruction. Far from being frail, Théoden proves a stark warrior, even in his old age.

Théoden’s Finest Hour

Théoden leads the defense against Saruman, as well as the sortie from the Hornburg, but he is supported by Aragorn, who is himself an inspiring captain. But Aragorn treads a different path to Minas Tirith and the Pelennor Fields, placing Théoden squarely in the spotlight, a moment to which the old king rises in legendary fashion.

Illustration of the Ride of the Rohirrim (also Rohirrim Charge).

“The Rohirrim.” (Art by Gellihana-art at Deviantart.com)

Gathering his force to march to Minas Tirith, for he has already pledged his aid to Gandalf, Théoden is met by two messengers from Gondor, who implore his help, saying “Often the Rohirrim have aided us, but now the Lord Denethor (Steward of Gondor) asks for all your strength and all your speed, lest Gondor fall at last.”

“Dark tidings,” replies the King, “yet not all unguessed. But say to Denethor that even if Rohan itself felt no peril, still we would come to his aid.” Théoden then informs the messengers, to their dismay, that it may take a week to marshal his men and arrive before Minas Tirith, which lies over 300 miles away. But he assures them he will move with all haste, which they have no choice but to accept.

This episode is taken directly from Tolkien’s The Return of the King, as is everything I relate here, save the account of Cirion and Eorl, which is also told in Unfinished Tales. I do, however, wish to opine that I believe Théoden was done a disservice by the scriptwriters of Peter Jackson’s epic motion picture of the same name. When discussing his options should Gondor request his aid, the king wonders aloud why Gondor has not helped him in his battles against Saruman, and questions whether he should not leave Minas Tirith to her fate.

Of course, when Aragorn later cries “Gondor calls for aid!” Théoden responds, “And Rohan shall answer!” There were plenty of changes in the movies, most of which I don’t really mind, but it irks me that Théoden’s honor and loyalty was portrayed as being less than absolute. Literary Théoden’s unhesitating support in the face of known threats to his northern and western borders is, I believe, the truest indicator of his character.

Théoden King’s Ride to Glory

Bernard Hill ably portrayed Théoden King in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. (gamerant.com)

Chapter 4 of The Return of the King ends with Gandalf, mounted on his magnificent steed Shadowfax, Lord of Horses, facing Sauron’s captain, the Witch King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths. The Witch King enters Minas Tirith’s smashed gate, mounted on his horrific winged steed, bearing a flaming sword. As the two beings face one another, Tolkien writes, “a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.”

The next passage always gives me chills, no matter how many times I read it: “And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.” This scene is equally inspiring in the motion picture.

The Rohirrim arrives before dawn, maneuvering into position for a devastating cavalry charge into the enemy’s flank. Théoden gives orders to his captains, bidding them “Forth now, and fear no darkness!” They can see the city’s first level burning, with thousands upon thousands of orcs and Easterlings drawn up before her walls. The sight’s impact on Théoden is profound, both in book and movie: “The king sat upon Snowmane (his horse), 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…Perhaps Théoden would quail, bow his old head, turn, and slink away to hide in the hills.”

Then “there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.

“At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

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!

The king then takes the horn from his banner bearer and blows a great blast that bursts the horn asunder. The Rohirrim takes up the call, “and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.

Snowmane leaps forward, bearing Théoden ahead of his riders. The Rohirrim launches themselves after him, but he remains ever in the fore. No longer shrunken by age, “Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old…his golden shield was uncovered, and lo! It shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind 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. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”

This is my favorite episode in the entire trilogy, both literary and cinema. When I read The Return of the King, I linger over this sequence, rereading it and letting the emotion wash over me. It’s the rare author who can accomplish that and none, in my opinion, do it better than Tolkien in that moment. The movie version is inspiring as well, though I miss Tolkien’s keen descriptive language. But I still watch Théoden’s speech and the charge at least three or four times before continuing the film.

Théoden the Warrior

 

"Let this be the hour when we draw swords together. Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn. Forth, Eorlingas!"

“Forth Eorlingas!”

The Rohirrim’s charge eventually loses headway, as such charges do. As his captains regroup their warriors, Theoden spies the King of the Haradrim, a southern people who had ever allied themselves under their black serpent banner with Sauron against Gondor. The foreign king sees Théoden ahead of the Rohirrim, and angry that the northerners have broken much of his army, he orders a charge to kill the old king. Yet the battle lust is upon Théoden, and he charges in response, his knights desperately trying to keep up.

“Great was the clash of their meeting. But the white fury of the Northmen burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter. Fewer were they but they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest. Right through the press drove Théoden Thengel’s son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered. Then all that was left unslain of their cavalry turned and fled far away.”

I wish this scene had been included in the movie, as opposed to the Riders taking on the Mûmakil (war oliphaunts) to little avail. Both would have been fine, but I would prefer Théoden’s victory over the Haradrim King and his cavalry.

Théoden’s Fall

Théoden stands at the pinnacle of his fame and glory. He has all but broken the siege, though the Rohirrim still require help to finish the job. That help is forthcoming, but the king will not see it. The Witch King, on his foul steed, swoops down and alights menacingly before Théoden. The beasts’ presence spooks Snowmane, causing him to rear. The king does not quail. As men scream in terror around him, Théoden cries, “To me! To me! Up Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!” But Snowmane is consumed by fright and falls back upon his rider. Théoden is mortally wounded as the horse fights to flee the unnatural assault on his senses.

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know that the Shield Maiden Éowyn, the king’s niece who loved him as a father faces down the dark apparition, killing him and his mount with some help from the Hobbit Merry Brandybuck.

Théoden’s last words are spoken to Merry, his esquire, though the movie directs a slightly different dialogue to Éowyn: “Farewell Master Holbytla! My body is broken. I go now 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 glad day, and a golden sunset!”

I always picture Théoden riding proudly into a great hall filled with cheering warriors welcoming their son home. It’s an inspiring vision.

Théoden the Hero

Théoden’s decisiveness positioned him to catch the Dark Lord’s minions unaware, allowing him to roll up their flank with his fierce charge. That provided the opportunity for the garrison and Aragorn’s riverborne force to isolate and destroy their foes, along with the Rohirrim, now commanded by Théoden’s nephew and heir, Éomer, brother of Éowyn.

Had Théoden faltered at any point, it is difficult to see how Sauron could have been defeated. For instance, had Théoden remained under Saruman’s control, the battle at Helm’s Deep would not have taken place, leaving Saruman’s ten thousand Uruk-Hai to be thrown against Minas Tirith, or to ravage Rohan. Either way, Minas Tirith would likely have fallen.

Had Théoden not responded instantly to Gondor’s call, he would have arrived too late and found himself facing Sauron’s entire army. Finally, had he chosen to withdraw in the face of overwhelming odds at the Pelennor Fields, Minas Tirith would have fallen. Rohan’s destruction would have then been inevitable.

Being a Tolkien fanboy, of course I have a Forth Eorlingas t-shirt. (Author’s Photo)

Readers who have seen the movie but have not read the book may ask whether Aragorn’s Army of the Dead would have won the day at Minas Tirith even without the Rohirrim. That’s a fair question. The answer as to why they would not lies in the book. The literary Army of the Dead never appears at the Pelennor Fields. Aragorn releases them after they help him defeat the Umbar Corsairs and take their ships. Aragorn arrives at Minas Tirith with an entirely human force he gathered in southern Gondor. He would not have had the numbers to defeat Sauron’s army, nor would the Minas Tirith garrison have been able to break out to help him. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli would likely have perished in the battle, dashing Gondor’s hopes completely.

Defeat at Minas Tirith would preclude Aragorn’s march to the Black Gate of Mordor, meaning the Dark Lord’s minions would not have been drawn away from Frodo’s path. Frodo and Sam would almost certainly have been caught, and Sauron would have taken the ring. Fade to eternal black.

But Théoden stood tall at every opportunity, arriving unlooked for, as had his ancestor Eorl the Young, when all hope was lost. Eorl had promised, referring to Gondor, that “their enemies shall be our enemies,” and bound his descendants to that same promise. Théoden kept that promise, honoring his predecessor, and by doing so, saved Middle-earth from the doom of Sauron. Théoden embodies the warrior ethos of courage and loyalty. His battle cry echoes through the ages of Middle-earth and beyond…

FORTH EORLINGAS!

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Additional Reading

Bucky Lawson

Bucky Lawson

About the Author

William "Bucky" Lawson has had a thing for military history since the sixth grade when he picked up a book about World War I fighter aces. Since then he has studied warriors from Ancient Greece to the modern day, with a special emphasis on World War II. He's a member of the Saber & Scroll Historical Society, the Historical Studies Honor Society, the Society for Military History, and Pi Gamma Mu (that's not an Asian stripper- it's the International Honor Society in Social Sciences). He has an unabashed love of the USA, military surplus bolt action rifles, AK-47s, and Walther handguns. He despises incabination and likes hamburgers, dogs, and cigars, but really who doesn't? Sissies and vegans, that's who. Bucky contributes to Strategy & Tactics Press, has a Masters Degree in Military History, and will probably proclaim himself an academic and wear one of those jackets with the patches on the elbows soon. Could be he'll run down a PhD, maybe he'll go hunting instead - Bucky likes the charred flesh of something that once had a parent, especially if he killed it himself. He is currently trying to figure out a way to export Texas politics to his native Virginia. Breach-Bang-Clear readers who talk to Bucky will be happy to know he's only half the redneck he sounds and really isn't inbred at all. Or not too much anyway, which is why he gets along so well with our other polrumptions. You can find historical bibliognost on Linkedin here.

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