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The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

Book V, Chapter 3

Book V, Chapter 2

Book V, Chapter 4

Summary — The Muster of Rohan

Meanwhile, Théoden and the Riders reach the outer hills of Rohan after a hard three days’ journey. Éomer, Théoden’s son, urges his father not to go further east, but Théoden insists on going to war. Gathering the remaining Riders of Rohan, Théoden decides to ride to the Hold at Dunharrow, where the people of Rohan have taken shelter in anticipation of war. He finds Éowyn, the Lady of Rohan, waiting there among her people, and he orders the host to rest for the night.

At dinner, Merry waits at Théoden’s side, fulfilling his duties as the king’s new squire. Théoden further explains to Merry the legend of the Paths of the Dead, speculating about whether or not Aragorn will survive. A messenger from Gondor enters the tent. Merry is startled by the man’s armor, as it reminds him of Boromir. The stranger brings a red arrow—a summons, sent only in times of great peril—from the Steward of Gondor. Théoden states that six thousand Riders will set out for Minas Tirith in the morning, but that they will not reach Minas Tirith for a week.

There is no sunrise the next morning; a great Darkness has descended, and all the land is buried under a terrible gloom emanating from Mordor. As the host prepares to leave, Théoden asks Merry to stay behind when they pass the city of Edoras. The ride to Gondor will be hard and swift, and none among the Riders can afford the burden of carrying the hobbit along. Merry is sorely disappointed, but the king has made up his mind. Éowyn, however, escorts Merry to a small booth and outfits him as best she can in the armor of the King’s Guard. She bids Merry farewell and returns to her tent.

In Edoras, Merry loses all hope of going to Gondor until a young and slender Rider offers to carry Merry with him secretly to battle. The Rider introduces himself as Dernhelm. Merry gratefully accepts, and soon Théoden’s host departs for Minas Tirith.

Analysis

The terrible gloom emanating from Mordor reminds us that the war brewing in Middle-earth is more than a political wrangling. It is not just a dispute over stolen property (the Ring) or a battle over territorial claims (the realm of Gondor). Rather, the war is portrayed as a cosmic battle with universal implications. The darkening of the sky is strikingly reminiscent of the transformation of the heavens described in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, associated with the Day of Judgment. We have already seen the Dead returning to life in the parade of the Oathbreakers in the Paths of the Dead, mirroring the resurrection of the deceased—one of the events linked to the Day of Judgment in Christian doctrine. On Judgment Day, a fierce battle and a darkened sky foreshadow a cataclysmic change not just in the political setup of nations on earth, but also in the nature of existence. Tolkien makes clear references to the Book of Revelation to heighten the cosmic importance of the War of the Ring and to underscore its moral and philosophical import.

Merry’s touching insistence on marching to Minas Tirith with the warriors provides a moment of lighthearted sentimentality to balance the gloom of the war preparations. Théoden’s fighters are grave and determined, rugged in their fixation on the battle looming before them; Merry, in comparison, seems as childlike as his name—like a toddler who wants to accompany the adults. The soldiers’ rejection of Merry’s wish to participate emphasizes the gravity of the war. It also shows us that the mission of the Ring is more than a series of steps to be taken by the Company, but a rite of passage for the hobbits. Up to this point, they have led a rather sheltered existence in the Shire, but now they are called on to perform an act of maximum universal significance. In doing so, they have the potential to attain a heroic status they have never held before. If Merry seems like a child trying to grow up, so are all the hobbits on their journey.

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