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Let's Read Tolkien 47: The King of the Golden Hall

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They rode on through sunset, and slow dusk, and gathering night. Gandalf and Co. ride through the night, and as dawn breaks, they catch sight of the town of Edoras, and overlooking it, the golden hall of Meduseld. They pass the burial-mounds of the kings of Rohan, and get a history lesson and some poetry from Aragorn. At the gates of Edoras, the guards challenge them in the language of the Rohirrim, demanding their business. Eventually the companions are allowed through, only to face another questioning at the doors of Meduseld. Háma, the door-warden, demands they leave their weapons behind. In a reversal of our heroes' previous attempt , this time it's Aragorn who seems keen on suicide by Rohirrim when he won't leave his sword behind at the door. Gandalf defuses the situation, but in turn refuses to leave his staff behind. Eventually Háma allows them through. Inside Meduseld, it is dark. An ancient, decrepit man sits on a throne, attended by a young woman and a counsellor. When Gandalf greets them, King Théoden receives him scornfully, saying he had wished Gandalf was dead. His counselor, Grimá Wormtongue, agrees, and insults Gandalf. The wizard shuts Wormtongue up, and speaks to the king alone. Gandalf's words cut through the despair Wormtongue had the king sunk into, and he casts aside his walking-stick. Revitalized, Théoden realizes the malice of Wormtongue, and Gandalf denounces Grimá as an agent of Saruman. At Gandalf's advice, Théoden resolves to go to war against Saruman - or rather to admit that Saruman is at war already. Éowyn is left behind to lead the Rohirrim, and Théoden, Gandalf and Co. and the host of the Rohirrim rides west to war. ** What is it with these guys and picking fights with the Riders of Rohan? In his capacity as Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien was something of an expert on Beowulf , and this chapter has what I think is the most direct homage to that epic poem in the Lord of the Rings : the double introductions at Edoras. When Beowulf lands in the country of the Scyldings, he is first challenged by a coast-guard, and then by the door-wardens of Heorot. He has to explain himself to both of them before he is allowed to see the king. Similarly, Gandalf and company are first questioned at the gates of Edoras, and then at the doors of Meduseld. Háma the door-warden eventually comes to the same conclusion as the Scylding coast-guard in Beowulf : the new-comers are friends. Weard maþelode, ⁠ðær on wicge saet, ombeht unforht:⁠ “Æghwaþres sceal scearp scyld-wiga ⁠gescād witan, worda ond worca, ⁠sē þe wel þenceð. Ic þæt gehyre, ⁠þæt þis is hold weorod frēan Scyldinga. ⁠ I also read a reference to this in Aragorn's words to Éomer and his riders on their first meeting : a man's part is to discern deeds and words; good and evil. Crucially, Éomer and Háma both succeed at this, even when the malice of Wormtongue deceives so many others. Háma, by the way, is the namesake of a hero mentioned in Beowulf , strengthening the parallel. The distinction between worda and worca also fairly prefigures Saruman! ** Éowyn, first introduced here, is a character I'll be returning to later, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to provide some context for her. As I've mentioned before, Rohan is based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and it's noteworthy that women played an exceptionally strong part in Mercia (see Pauline Stafford: Political Women in Mercia, Eighth to Early Tenth Centuries, in Michelle P. Brown & Carol A. Farr (ed): Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe , Leicester University Press 2001). Tolkien says of Éowyn: Though not a 'dry nurse' in temper, she was also not really a soldier or 'amazon', but like many brave women was capable of great military gallantry at a crisis. ( Letters , 244) Even though Éowyn is left behind to lead in Théoden's absence, she does so wearing armor and bearing arms, and this is in no way commented on as unusual or strange. Tolkien must have been aware of the shield-maiden tradition in Scandinavian sagas, and clearly this is who Éowyn is intended to represent - with the added psychological dimension of Saruman's influence through Wormtongue. Again, for all of Tolkien's supposed rampant misogyny, there is absolutely no trace here of the kind of categorical statements on gender that one finds even in Ursula le Guin's Earthsea; no-one insists that women cannot fight or lead because they are women. Neither is there the leering mockery of George RR Martin's treatment of Brienne. Yes, Éowyn is left behind; however, she is specifically requested as a leader because "[s]he is fearless and high-hearted. All love her." I read Háma's words as a veiled rebuke to Théoden, who thinks the House of Eorl consists of himself and Éomer, forgetting Éowyn. Éowyn is a tragic figure, but never a comical one or an object of derision. But she isn't presented as in any way transgressive, either: she simply is. Looking back, Éowyn made a strong impression on me as a boy for exactly this reason. Sticking with the House of Eorl, Gandalf's revitalization of Théoden is still one of the most moving moments in the books for me. While he banishes Wormtongue, more importantly Gandalf restores hope to Théoden. The entire episode of Wormtongue's influence on the court is a powerful Tolkien moral on corruption and hopelessness, and the power of words: in this, Wormtongue prefigures his master. There's also a fairly unsubtle Christian message in Wormtongue's speech to Gandalf: "Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Láthspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say." Grimá, of course, is saying the opposite of the truth. Laþspell is Old English for bad news; its opposite is gōdspel, or good news - or more specifically, gospel: εὐαγγέλιον. So Wormtongue is pretty much straight up calling Gandalf the Bible. There's a sensus spiritualis for you! ** Next time: war . What is it good for?

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