Summary — Chapter 5: The White Rider

“The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him.”

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Meanwhile, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas suffer from freezing weather on the trail of Merry and Pippin. They fear that the hobbits may have perished in the fierce battle between the Riders of Rohan and the Orcs. Gimli and Aragorn find the knife and the cut ropes that bound the hands of Pippin, giving them hope that the two hobbits are still alive somewhere in the forest. They find Hobbit tracks and follow them up to the river where the hobbits bathed.

Debating what to do next, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are suddenly surprised by an old man in a cloak and wide-brimmed hat in the forest. Taking him for the evil Saruman, they are about to shoot him when Aragorn advises them to address him first, to be sure who he is. The stranger speaks to them familiarly, as though he knows them all. Gimli implores the old man to tell them where their friends are. Rather than answer, the old man jumps on a tall rock and throws off his gray clothes, revealing white garments beneath. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are stunned to recognize their former companion Gandalf the Grey, reborn as Gandalf the White. Gandalf mysteriously says that he has “passed through fire and deep water” since his plunge into the chasm with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria (as recounted in The Fellowship of the Ring).

Gandalf explains Saruman’s evil intention to seize the Ring for his own use. Sauron, the great Enemy, had asked for Saruman’s help, but Saruman betrayed Sauron by dividing the Isengarders against Rohan, thereby aiding Gandalf’s forces. Gandalf notes that Sauron’s mistake is in concentrating his forces abroad in search of the Ring-bearing Frodo, rather than guarding the entrance to Mordor so that Frodo’s entry might be blocked. It has apparently not occurred to Sauron that Frodo might be trying to return the Ring to Mordor to destroy it. Gandalf also predicts that the Ents, now fully roused to action, will be powerful in a way no one can foresee. Aragorn is confident that Gandalf will be a superb leader of their forces, and he hails Gandalf as the White Rider. Gandalf mounts his horse, Shadowfax, and they all make their way toward Isengard.

Summary — Chapter 6: The King of the Golden Hall

The Company, led once again by Gandalf, marches toward Isengard, camping at night. The next morning, Legolas glimpses a golden building far in the distance, which Gandalf identifies as Edoras, the court of Théoden, King of Rohan. Gandalf cautions them to ride carefully, as war is afoot and the Riders of Rohan are always on the watch.

As Gandalf and the group arrive at the court of Edoras, guards ask them to identify themselves, addressing them in the local language of Rohan rather than in the Common Tongue. The guards declare that no one is welcome in Edoras in times of war, explaining that someone named Wormtongue has issued these orders. Hearing the name Wormtongue, Gandalf becomes angry and demands to speak to Théoden himself. Gandalf and his companions are allowed entry, although they are forced to leave their weapons with the doorman, Háma, despite Aragorn’s protests. When Gandalf refuses to leave his staff at the door, Háma is suspicious, but allows the wizard to keep the staff with him.

Entering the royal hall, Gandalf’s group meets the aged King Théoden, his wily counselor Gríma Wormtongue, and Theoden’s niece, Éowyn. Wormtongue immediately issues a verbal attack on Gandalf, accusing the wizard of always seeking favors and never offering aid. Gandalf erupts in a rage, using his staff to bring down a powerful thunder that sends Wormtongue to the floor. Gandalf denounces Wormtongue, explaining to Théoden that his counselor had given advice that allowed the Isengarders to become stronger. Gandalf calls upon Théoden to recover his rightful strength as king and to fight off Saruman. Gandalf asks Théoden whether the king is holding Éomer prisoner. Théoden admits that it is so, and that he did so on the advice of the deceitful Wormtongue. Gandalf asks Théoden to release Éomer and to array forces against Isengard.

Théoden confronts Wormtongue, accusing him of treachery. Wormtongue tries to defend himself, but Théoden remains firm, and gives his advisor the ultimatum of either fighting alongside him against Isengard or leaving the country immediately. Wormtongue flees. Gandalf asks for Shadowfax as a gift (the horse was merely borrowed from Théoden before). Théoden offers weapons and coats of mail to everyone in Gandalf’s group, though the wizard himself rides unprotected. From the hall, Éowyn watches the group ride off.

Analysis — Chapters 5–6

In the description of King Théoden and the court of Edoras, Tolkien draws upon the mythical tales of King Arthur and his court of Ca-melot. Edoras is more than a royal residence. It is described as a “Golden Hall,” giving it a fantastical feel. Théoden’s Riders evoke Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. In nodding to ancient British myth in this manner, Tolkien signals his intention for The Lord of the Rings to be not a mere fantasy novel, but a tale with the feel of ancient myth. Like the old stories about King Arthur, Tolkien’s novel aims not just to tell a thrilling story, but to reveal something deeply symbolic about human nature and fate.

The preternatural power and wisdom of Gandalf are in the foreground in these chapters, and we begin to see the reasons why his character is the most revered in Tolkien’s novel. The wizard is highly insightful about the psychology of both good and evil characters, as we see in his subtle understanding of the wicked Sauron’s psychology. Gandalf knows that Sauron would never imagine that the present possessor of the Ring might want to destroy it rather than use it for his own benefit. The wizard contends that Sauron, in failing to consider this possibility, has made the error of searching for the Ring abroad rather than guarding the border of Mordor so that the Ring may not reach Mount Doom. Here, Gandalf shows his ability to think like the Enemy and to use this knowledge strategically. The wizard’s acute understanding of human personality and motivation is also evidenced in his delicate dealings with Théoden. Gandalf has the difficult task of convincing the king, whom he barely knows, that the king’s long-trusted advisor, Wormtongue, is in fact a traitor. Gandalf pulls off this sensitive task with poise and diplomacy. He foresees that Wormtongue, if provoked, will lose his cool and reveal his dark side, enabling the wizard to achieve the desired end without criticizing Théoden’s judgment.

Gandalf’s wisdom appears somehow related to his experience of death, as he has come back to life after his death in Moria. Like many figures in myth who gain superhuman understanding by passing through the underworld, Gandalf’s demise at the end of the preceding volume of the novel is not a mark of failure, but is paradoxically a mark of power, as the wizard reappears stronger than ever. Like the ancient Roman hero Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, who gains wisdom from a trip through the realm of the dead, Gandalf too possesses an enhanced power now that he is reborn. Furthermore, as in the Christian tradition of rebirth, Gandalf returns as a purified being, no longer Gandalf the Grey but Gandalf the White. He has been cleansed, as if earlier weaknesses have been completely eradicated.

The idea of trust is central to the episode at Edoras. The major crisis of the chapter is Théoden’s inability to realize that his long-trusted counselor is a spy and traitor who has undermined the welfare of the kingdom he purports to serve. Wormtongue’s smooth-talking attempt to discredit Gandalf and to reaffirm his own trustworthiness to the suspicious Théoden demonstrates the power of language to deceive and misguide. Trust is also an issue for Gandalf’s party, as the members are all strangers in Edoras who must prove that they can be trusted. The guards’ reluctance to allow Gandalf passage emphasizes that Sauron’s evil has cast a pall of suspicion and mistrust on all of Middle-earth. Every stranger is automatically suspect. The value of trust is underscored by Gandalf’s borrowing of the horse Shadowfax from Théoden. Tolkien could have easily structured the novel so that the horse was Gandalf’s own property, but he instead chose to make the horse a loan from Théoden. In making this narrative choice, the author emphasizes that even the powerful wizard must rely on others, which both humanizes Gandalf and underscores the importance of trust in the Fellowship’s quest.