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Rómenna Meeting Report - September 21, 1986
September 21, 1986
The chapter "The Ride of the Rohirrim" begins with Théoden's forces camping in the woods of Anórien, in an atmosphere that prompted the imaginary subtitle, "Someplace in Gondor, 1914." Then the drums of the Wild Men are heard, and "suddenly you know you're not in a World War I movie any more." We find Merry worrying about Pippin and things in general. Elfhelm the marshal trips over him and to make amends gives him (and the reader) some information about what is going on. Merry is afraid that the drums might belong to orcs, but Elfhelm sets him straight. The betting was that orcs don't have rhythm.
The Drúedain arrive and Merry immediately notices their resemblance to the Pûkel-men statues at Dunharrow. He has a hard time telling them apart. ("They all look alike"?) Ghân-buri-ghân speaks broken Westron that makes him sound rather like Tonto in an old Lone Ranger movie (we had a lot of filmic comparisons this meeting). We wondered if the structures he used were a reflection of the grammar of his own language. We also noted that Westron is not the native tongue of either party in these negotiations, though Rohirric is presumably closer to it. In this meeting of two very different cultures, however, Westron becomes their lingua franca.
Despite the broken Westron, it is evident that the Wild Men are neither stupid nor ignorant. Ghân-buri-ghân knows where the "men from far away" (the enemy Easterlings) comes from, has a fair grasp of math, and is heir to an oral tradition dating back to before the Númenóreans returned to Middle-earth--that is, over 2000 years old. He is willing to help the Rohirrim in exchange for a promise that if they win, the Drúedain will be left alone; but mostly he just wants them to get rid of the orcs. We noted with little surprise that nobody likes orcs. Even orcs don't like orcs. Pulling out-our maps again, we found that besides having to lead their horses through the woods to get to the Stonewain Valley, the Rohirrim must also go up about 2000 feet.
Having bypassed the enemy and come back out onto the main track again, the Rohirrim discover the body of the messenger with the Red Arrow and realize that no one in Minas Tirith will know they are on their way. All the pieces are coming together for the final battle, but none of them are aware of each other. Théoden decides that their only possible strategy will be to play it by ear, since they do not know what conditions they will find when they reach Minas Tirith. Merry, meanwhile, is realizing just how uncomfortable his position will be in the midst of a battle, and wishing he had stayed in Rohan.
When the Rohirrim come within sight of Minas Tirith, it looks horrendous: smoke rising, the smell of burning. The presence of the Nazgûl may also be affecting the Riders' morale. They fear they are too late and almost despair, but with the shift of the wind there is a change of mood. They hear the mighty BOOM which is the sound of the Lord of the Nazgûl breaking the gates of the city, and this seems to snap them out of it. They charge with horns at full cry. At this point Per sprang up and went upstairs, returning with a genuine horn, which he demonstrated (sounds something like a shofar), subsequently letting others who wanted to, try it. Only one of us did.
We decided that the Rohirrim's charge was a scene designed for Cecil B. DeMille. The "song" of the Riders in battle» we guessed, was closer to an Anglo-Saxon battle chant than to Wagner. Elements of Tolkien's style in this passage that we noted were the primal, heraldic descriptions of colors (there was an article published in Mythlore several years ago on this subject), and the language reminiscent of the psalmic style of the King James Bible. The resemblance to Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon poetry was also noted, particularly by Carol who is currently taking a course in English literature.
With the arrival of the Rohirrim, the Lord of the Nazgûl has a change of plan: entering the city and mixing it up with Gandalf doesn't seem like such a hot idea all of a sudden when his forces are being attacked from behind. He withdraws (thus freeing Gandalf for his actions in the next chapter) and reappears a little while later on his winged mount. He finds Théoden separated from his men, swoops down on him and scares his horse. We noted that all the armor in the world won't help you if your horse falls on you.
The winged steed of the Nazgûl, we decided, belongs in Lovecraft rather than Tolkien. Not only is it ugly, it smells bad. Reptilian features include webbed wings (rather than feathered) and a long neck, unlike most birds. It seems to be something like a cross between a vulture and a pterodactyl. We also noted that the Lord of the Nazgûl wields a mace, like Morgoth in the First Age. We recalled Fred Phillips' comments about the mace when we discussed Morgoth's duel with Fingolfin at the time: the mace is a knightly weapon, but less "noble" than the sword, not as chivalrous. Carol (fresh from the aforementioned English Lit course) pointed out the resemblance of "Dernhelm" to Wiglaf in Beowulf: the loyal young knight who is the only one left to stand with his fallen king against the monster. We noted the Nazgûl's threat: not death, but worse. "Get in my way and I won't grant you the mercy of killing you." Presumably the Witch-king's description of a fate worse than death ("thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind left naked to the Lidless Eye") owes a good deal to personal experience.
In response to the Nazgûl's taunt that "no living man may hinder me," Éowyn reveals herself in a scene strongly reminiscent of Macbeth. As in the play, there is a shocked pause: Shakespeare leaves three iambs' worth of a line blank after Macduff's revelation (Act V, Sc. viii, l. 16--go look), and Tolkien similarly notes the Nazgûl's hesitation ("the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt"). He also puns lightly on the name "Dernhelm," which means "secret helm [protector]," noting that "the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her" (Éowyn). Éowyn is described as "fair but terrible" (reminiscent of Galadriel in her temptation scene)--note that "terrible" here retains its older meaning of "inspiring terror." The image is a potent one, the woman in armor who knows what she's doing with the sword. The name of Sandahl Bergmann came up in this connection.
At this point Merry's hobbit-courage wakens and he is emboldened to help Éowyn. Fortunately he retains another hobbit characteristic, that of not being noticed, so that he is able to stab the Ringwraith from behind. The observation was made that Merry's stroke was necessary not only to distract the Nazgûl so that Éowyn could give the killing blow, but to enable him to be killed in the first place: Merry is the one with the magic sword taken from the Barrow. Tolkien notes later that "no other blade. . . would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will."
Merry's love of Théoden is shown in the subsequent passage in which he takes his leave of the dying king--again we contrasted his relationship to Théoden with that of Pippin to Denethor. A moment later he--and the reader-- wakes up to the fact that there's still a battle going on here. He wonders briefly where Gandalf is (reminding the reader of him too) though the reader has a better idea what has happened to Gandalf).
Éomer arrives and is given the banner and the kingship by Théoden just before he dies. Éomer can handle this: Théoden's death in battle, while tragic, was more or less expected and can be accepted with no more than proper grief. It fits into the natural order of things as far as the Rohirrim are concerned. Éomer expresses this idea in his extemporized lines (Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse again). However, upon seeing Éowyn he loses his head and goes literally berserk with an insane battle-fury. His sister's presence in the battle and (supposed) death is both unexpected and wrong, not the way things are supposed to be.
In contrast to Éomer's behavior we noted Prince Imrahil's. Here is a man who can keep his head in a crisis. Throughout the book Imrahil plays an understated but important role, always there to support whoever is in charge. He takes command of Minas Tirith along with Gandalf when Denethor goes crazy; later he will be a voice of reason in the Last Debate. Here he has the presence of mind to realize that Éowyn is not dead and to arrange for help for her before riding off to help Éomer (who should have waited to join up with Imrahil's horsemen but didn't).
The battle is beginning to go badly for the West (for one thing, they have trouble with the mûmakil) which spook the horses and are difficult to kill unless you risk getting close enough to shoot them in the eyes) when the black sails are seen on the river. We guessed that Tolkien was making a classical allusion to the black sails inadvertently left on his ships by Theseus, which his father saw and believed his son to be dead so that he killed himself in despair. Éomer similarly loses hope, but in his case the despair clears his head--enough for him to give us a few more lines of alliterative verse. He is ready to fight to the death in true Anglo-Saxon style, but all at once Aragorn's standard is revealed and everything is turned around. The enemy is taken by surprise yet again, attacked from all sides, cut off from their reinforcements (someone noted that the ships' presence meant that no more troops could come from Osgiliath), and finally mopped up.
Looking back on the battle, we compared it to a medieval battle that has gotten out of hand (medieval battles generally were not this large). There are no clear lines in such a battle--basically you hit what's in front of you. Tolkien orchestrates everything beautifully, with all the participants arriving just in time, but none of this is due to planning on the part of the combatants; they've all been playing it by ear. The good guys win, we decided, through a combination of luck, surprise, momentum, better morale, and better organization and leadership. Though both sides lose leaders, the Rohirrim can immediately pass the command on to the next in line (Éomer). They also have other leaders among them, notably Grimbold and Elfhelm, as well as being a people trained as warriors from an early age. We speculated that the Easterlings got their training by fifty years of fighting each other; the bad guys don't cooperate as well as the good guys do. The death of the Lord of the Nazgûl (and presumably the Southron king also) doesn't seem as well prepared for as Théoden's. We wondered what happened to the other eight Ringwraiths.
The discussion concluded, we adjourned for cream cake and Mathoms.