Éomer states that it is not customary for strangers to be allowed to wander freely in Rohan, but he permits passage to the group, and even gives them all horses to ride. They ride all day, but still find no trace of Pippin or Merry. In the forest of Fangorn, they build a fire with wood the Riders gathered earlier. Legolas tells of the treelike Ents rumored to live in Fangorn. Gimli has a vision of an old man in a large cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, whom he takes to be Saruman. When the group wakes, they find that their horses are gone.
As Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli search for the hobbits, we see how the bonds between members of different races—such as Dwarves, Elves, and Men—can be as strong or stronger than the bonds between members of the same race. This fact is apparent when Aragorn meets another human. We might expect him to feel relief or joy at finally meeting one of his own kind, but we find that his attitude toward Éomer is not one of joyful identification. In fact, it is quite the contrary, as Aragorn is even a bit cold toward Éomer, telling him bluntly that he serves no man, but is only hunting for his Hobbit friends. The message is clear: Aragorn has deeper connections of loyalty and solidarity with Hobbits than with a member of his own race. In terms of historical context, Tolkien wrote large parts of The Lord of the Rings during World War II, a conflict in which racism and group identification reached dangerous extremes. His portrayal of heroes who look beyond their own kind, finding friends and allies among different races or peoples, is enlightened.
The meeting between Aragorn’s group and Éomer also suggests the confused and chaotic climate in Middle-earth that provides the backdrop for The Lord of the Rings. No one is sure who anyone else is, or whether a stranger is a friend or foe. Even appearances cannot be trusted, as Éomer admits that he mistook Aragorn’s group—composed of a Dwarf, an Elf, and a Man—for an Orc contingent. Hobbits, too, are confused with Men and with Dwarves. There are few reliable indicators of whom one can trust and whom one must oppose. Even group identification is not enough, as the northern Orcs have apparently had a fatal quarrel with other Orcs, demonstrating that even one’s own kind may be an enemy. This climate of wariness and suspicion is evidence of the widespread reach of the evil of Sauron, the Dark Lord attempting to retrieve the Ring.
Gimli’s vision of Saruman indicates the power and danger of the corrupted wizard. While Gandalf and other attendees of the Council of Elrond discuss Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring, Saruman himself does not appear as a character in the first volume of the novel. Gimli’s bizarre dream, then, is our first direct contact with Saruman—and even this contact is bizarre and hallucinatory. This first encounter is a mysterious one, highlighting the elusiveness of the corrupt wizard. We are unsure, as is Gimli, whether the dwarf has really seen Saruman or whether the wizard has used some magic power to appear in Gimli’s mind. The dwarf’s vision, along with the warnings of Éomer and the mysterious disappearance of the horses, sets Saruman up as a fascinating, ominous figure whose first real, tangible appearance we begin to anticipate greatly. Furthermore, the supernatural aura of Saruman’s visit reminds us, by contrast, of how basically realistic the rest of the story is. Though The Lord of the Rings obviously operates in the realm of the fantastical, real traits such as bravery and loyalty are more important—and far more frequently witnessed—than the fireworks of a magic wand.
Furthermore, the fact that Saruman’s appearance and dress—as an old man in a cloak, with a staff and a wide-brimmed hat—is strikingly similar to Gandalf’s highlights the ambiguous nature of good and evil and the often ill-defined line between them. Indeed, when Gandalf reappears later in The Two Towers, the Company is initially frightened of him, believing him to be Saruman. Tolkien stresses the similarity between the good Gandalf and the corrupt Saruman to show that good and evil are very close—indeed sometimes nearly indistinguishable. Saruman is evil not by innate nature, but by choice. He has betrayed the principle of good in the universe, choosing instead a path of selfishness and power-hungry ambition. As Gandalf notes later in The Two Towers, Saruman could have remained a force of good, likely more powerful than even Gandalf himself, were it not for his decision to embrace wickedness. This exploration of the nature of evil—more precisely, the question of whether evil is an internal matter of choice or an external influence and innate force—is one of Tolkien’s primary objects of focus throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings.