The Passing of the Grey Company
Book Three ended with Gandalf riding off with Pippin, and leaving the Palantir with Aragorn. I take this to mean that Aragorn as a possible King in the Fourth Age must start making his own choices. Perhaps needs to show he can choose correctly without Gandalf’s angelic guidance, if Middle-Earth is worthy of being saved from a victory by Sauron. For Sauron is merely an extreme of the evils that many have expressed in lesser ways.
More mundanely, Minas Tirith must be kept alive till Aragorn can reach it, if he can. Gandalf always treats victory as a very small hopeful possibility against the vast forces Sauron has assembled.
Book Four gave the fate of Frodo and Sam, ending with Frodo a prisoner and Sam at a loss what to do.
Book Five began with one giant chapter about Gandalf and Pippin in Minas Tirith. Pippin begins to step up and do things without Gandalf’s approval. This chapter sees Aragorn do the same, on a much grander scale.
It begins with him changing his initial plans:
“Gandalf was gone, and the thudding hoofs of Shadowfax were lost in the night, when Merry came back to Aragorn. He had only a light bundle, for he had lost his pack at Parth Galen [where the Orcs attacked], and all he had was a few useful things he had picked up among the wreckage of Isengard. Hasufel was already saddled. Legolas and Gimli with their horse stood close by.
“‘So four of the Company still remain,’ said Aragorn. ‘We will ride on together. But we shall not go alone, as I thought. The king is now determined to set out at once. Since the coming of the winged shadow, he desires to return to the hills under cover of night.’
“‘And then whither?’ said Legolas.
“‘I cannot say yet,’ Aragorn answered. ‘As for the king, he will go to the muster that he commanded at Edoras, four nights from now. And there, I think, he will hear tidings of war, and the Riders of Rohan will go down to Minas Tirith. But for myself, and any that will go with me…’
“‘I for one!’ cried Legolas. ‘And Gimli with him!’ said the Dwarf.
“‘Well, for myself,’ said Aragorn, ‘it is dark before me. I must go down also to Minas Tirith, but I do not yet see the road. An hour long prepared approaches.’
“‘Don’t leave me behind!’ said Merry. ‘I have not been of much use yet; but I don’t want to be laid aside, like baggage to be called for when all is over. I don’t think the Riders will want to be bothered with me now. Though, of course, the king did say that I was to sit by him when he came to his house and tell him all about the Shire.’
“‘Yes,’ said Aragorn, ‘and your road lies with him, I think, Merry. But do not look for mirth at the ending. It will be long, I fear, ere Theoden sits at ease again in Meduseld. Many hopes will wither in this bitter Spring.’
Aragorn has some notion of what is to happen. Pippin would have been useless on the path Aragorn will take. Left with Theoden, he will step up to grand heroic role. [A]
For now they stay with the Rohirrim. Who now have cause for alarm
“They had not long passed the mounds at the Fords of Isen, when a Rider galloped up from the rear of their line.
“‘My lord,’ he said to the king, ‘there are horsemen behind us. As we crossed the fords I thought that I heard them. Now we are sure. They are overtaking us, riding hard.’
“Theoden at once called a halt. The Riders turned about and seized their spears. Aragorn dismounted and set Merry on the ground, and drawing his sword he stood by the king’s stirrup. Eomer and his esquire rode back to the rear. Merry felt more like unneeded baggage than ever, and he wondered, if there was a fight, what he should do. Supposing the king’s small escort was trapped and overcome, but he escaped into the darkness – alone in the wild fields of Rohan with no idea of where he was in all the endless miles? ‘No good!’ he thought. He drew his sword and tightened his belt.
“The sinking moon was obscured by a great sailing cloud, but suddenly it rode out clear again. Then they all heard the sound of hoofs, and at the same moment they saw dark shapes coming swiftly on the path from the fords. The moonlight glinted here and there on the points of spears. The number of the pursuers could not be told, but they seemed no fewer than the king’s escort, at the least.
This is another excellent scene for a future dramatization. And Merry is showing the same quality he showed back in The Shire, when he discovered the simplest aspects of the magic of Bilbo’s ring, and prepared for Frodo’s journey. Here, he is ready to fight, though understandable scared at this tense moment:
“When they were some fifty paces off, Eomer cried in a loud voice: ‘Halt! Halt! Who rides in Rohan?’
“The pursuers brought their steeds to a sudden stand. A silence followed: and then in the moonlight, a horseman could be seen dismounting and walking slowly forward. His hand showed white as he held it up, palm outward, in token of peace; but the king’s men gripped their weapons. At ten paces the man stopped. He was tall, a dark standing shadow. Then his clear voice rang out.
“‘Rohan? Rohan did you say? That is a glad word. We seek that land in haste from long afar.’
“‘You have found it,’ said Eomer. ‘When you crossed the fords yonder you entered it. But it is the realm of Theoden the King. None ride here save by his leave. Who are you? And what is your haste?’”
Still suspicious of outsiders – but remember that they have just been betrayed by Saruman, whom most of them had counted as a friend. The visitor is suspicious also – are these really Men of Rohan? But he takes an honest approach:
“‘Halbarad Dunadan, Ranger of the North I am,’ cried the man. ‘We seek one Aragorn son of Arathorn, and we heard that he was in Rohan.’
“‘And you have found him also!’ cried Aragorn. Giving his reins to Merry, he ran forward and embraced the newcomer. ‘Halbarad!’ he said. ‘Of all joys this is the least expected!’
“Merry breathed a sigh of relief. He had thought that this was some last trick of Saruman’s, to waylay the king while he had only a few men about him; but it seemed that there would be no need to die in Theoden’s defence, not yet at any rate. He sheathed his sword.
“‘All is well,’ said Aragorn, turning back. ‘Here are some of my own kin from the far land where I dwelt. But why they come, and how many they be, Halbarad shall tell us.’”
No hint of it in the film, which instead has Elrond arrive alone much later on, bringing the sword that Tolkien had Aragorn acquire before the Fellowship set out.
“‘I have thirty with me,’ said Halbarad. ‘That is all of our kindred that could be gathered in haste; but the brethren Elladan and Elrohir have ridden with us, desiring to go to the war. We rode as swiftly as we might when your summons came.’
“‘But I did not summon you,’ said Aragorn, ‘save only in wish. My thoughts have often turned to you, and seldom more than tonight; yet I have sent no word. But come! All such matters must wait. You find us riding in haste and danger. Ride with us now, if the king will give his leave.’
“Theoden was indeed glad of the news. ‘It is well!’ he said. ‘If these kinsmen be in any way like to yourself, my lord Aragorn, thirty such knights will be a strength that cannot be counted by heads.’
“Then the Riders set out again, and Aragorn for a while rode with the Dunedain; and when they had spoken of tidings in the North and in the South, Elrohir said to him:
“‘I bring word to you from my father: The days are short. If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead.’
“‘Always my days have seemed to me too short to achieve my desire,’ answered Aragorn. ‘But great indeed will be my haste ere I take that road.’
“‘That will soon be seen,’ said Elrohir. ‘But let us speak no more of these things upon the open road!’
“And Aragorn said to Halbarad: ‘What is that that you bear, kinsman?’ For he saw that instead of a spear he bore a tall staff, as it were a standard, but it was close-furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs.
“‘It is a gift that I bring you from the Lady of Rivendell,’ answered Halbarad. ‘She wrought it in secret, and long was the making. But she also sends word to you: The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!’
“And Aragorn said: ‘Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!’”
The banner will not be seen till much later, when Aragorn uses it to show both friends and enemies that while he is arriving in the ships of Gondor’s foes, he comes to help Gondor. And is the returned King.
We are not told what route they took.
Neither the other Rangers nor the sons of Elrond actually do anything of significance. That’s probably why Jackson cut them out of a story that needed even more than the three long films he made.
We also learn from Christopher Tolkien’s documentation of his father’s writings that it was only here that Tolkien imagined Elrond’s sons, though he put them back into the stay at Rivendell when he revised his earlier work.[B] Tolkien’s notes also suggest that Galadriel would probably have sent messages to Elrond.[C] The book expands this
“‘Word came to Rivendell, they say: Aragorn has need of his kindred. Let the Dunedain ride to him in Rohan! But whence this message came they are now in doubt. Gandalf sent it, I would guess.’
“‘Nay, Galadriel,’ said Legolas. ‘Did she not speak through Gandalf of the ride of the Grey Company from the North?’”
Back in Book Three, Gandalf the White when meeting Aragorn in Fangorn did indeed pass on messages:
“Near is the hour when the Lost should come forth,
“And the Grey Company ride from the North.
“But dark is the path appointed for thee:
“The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea.”[D]
This suggests but does not prove that Galadriel urged it on Elrond. Tolkien often leaves various things uncertain, when the hobbits would not have been sure. This probably works better than having the narrator all-knowing.
He also introduces many matters as small details that may mean a lot later on. The hidden banner is used after Aragorn does indeed set out on the Paths of the Dead. It signals that Aragorn is their Heir of Isildur, and has inherited the claim that the Dead will answer. Presumably Arwen put magic into it, as well as beauty.
They also note that these other Rangers are similar to Aragorn:
“Gimli [says] ‘Stout men and lordly they are, and the Riders of Rohan look almost as boys beside them; for they are grim men of face, worn like weathered rocks for the most part, even as Aragorn himself; and they are silent.’
“‘But even as Aragorn they are courteous, if they break their silence.’ said Legolas. ‘And have you marked the brethren Elladan and Elrohir? Less sombre is their gear than the others’, and they are fair and gallant as Elven-lords; and that is not to be wondered at in the sons of Elrond of Rivendell.’”
They carry on. They pass the Hornburg, with Gimli wanting to visit the wonderful caves he has discovered. But Legolas says it should not be rushed.
Legolas also says that none of his people from Mirkwood are likely to come:
“‘They have no need to ride to war; war already marches on their own lands.’”
Meantime Merry becomes Squire to King Theoden. Paralleling Pippin with Denethor, and suiting the very different personalities of both Ruler and Hobbit. One of Jackson’s weaknesses was to treat them as almost interchangeable: Merry is a conventional ruler-in-training. Pippin can be childish but is also very cunning when the need arises.
The next day they find that Aragorn has taken a step forward in his role, at great cost:
“Merry had eyes only for Aragorn, so startling was the change that he saw in him, as if in one night many years had fallen on his head. Grim was his face, grey-hued and weary.”
He explains to King Theoden that he wants to change his plan yet again, depending on how fast Theoden can gather his people:
“‘Three days … and the muster of Rohan will only be begun. But I see that it cannot now be hastened… Then, by your leave, lord, I must take new counsel for myself and my kindred. We must ride our own road, and no longer in secret. For me the time of stealth has passed. I will ride east by the swiftest way, and I will take the Paths of the Dead.’”
This naturally scares the Rohirrim. One of their heroes tried it and never came back, we later learn. But he is determined:
“‘Alas! Aragorn my friend!’ said Eomer. ‘I had hoped that we should ride to war together; but if you seek the Paths of the Dead, then our parting is come, and it is little likely that we shall ever meet again under the Sun.’
“‘That road I will take, nonetheless,’ said Aragorn. ‘But I say to you, Eomer, that in battle we may yet meet again, though all the hosts of Mordor should stand between.’
“‘You will do as you will, my lord Aragorn,’ said Theoden. ‘It is your doom, maybe, to tread strange paths that others dare not. This parting grieves me, and my strength is lessened by it; but now I must take the mountain-roads and delay no longer. Farewell!’
“‘Farewell, lord!’ said Aragorn. ‘Ride unto great renown!”
He and Eomer will meet again in the battle outside of Gondor. Theoden will be famous but dead before he arrives. Aragorn has foreseen accurately.
But not for Merry, whom he just says goodbye to. And only to Legolas and Gimli does he explain more.
“‘Come!’ said Legolas at last. ‘Speak and be comforted, and shake off the shadow! What has happened since we came back to this grim place in the grey morning?’
“‘A struggle somewhat grimmer for my part than the battle of the Hornburg,’ answered Aragorn. ‘I have looked in the Stone of Orthanc, my friends.’
“‘You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!’ exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. ‘Did you say aught to – him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter.’
“‘You forget to whom you speak,’ said Aragorn sternly, and his eyes glinted. ‘Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras? What do you fear that I should say to him? Nay, Gimli,’ he said in a softer voice, and the grimness left his face, and he looked like one who has laboured in sleepless pain for many nights. ‘Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough – barely.’
This contrasts with Saruman and Denethor, who had doubtful right. Gandalf sensibly judged that Aragorn might have a much better right.
He has chosen the risky option of alarming Sauron, distracting him from the true danger he faces from Frodo’s secret mission:
“I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me. Yes, Master Gimli, he saw me, but in other guise than you see me here. If that will aid him, then I have done ill. But I do not think so. To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now. The eyes in Orthanc did not see through the armour of Theoden; but Sauron has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for l showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.’
“‘But he wields great dominion, nonetheless,’ said Gimli; ‘and now he will strike more swiftly.’
“‘The hasty stroke goes oft astray,’ said Aragorn. ‘We must press our Enemy, and no longer wait upon him for the move. See my friends, when I had mastered the Stone, I learned many things. A grave peril I saw coming unlooked-for upon Gondor from the South that will draw off great strength from the defence of Minas Tirith. If it is not countered swiftly, I deem that the City will be lost ere ten days be gone.’”
This deed of Aragorn’s would have provoked the Dawnless Day and the issuing forth of the army of Minas Morgul that Frodo and Sam had seen in Book Four.
Having provoked Sauron, Aragorn still needs forces strong enough to hurt him. And he then explains that in Isildur’s time there were men who promised him they would fight Sauron, but broke their oath. And that their was a prophecy from the days of Arvedui the last king of Fornost in the fading realm of Arnor:
“Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
“from the prey twilight, the forgotten people?
“The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
“From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
“he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.”
From the website ‘Tolkien Gateway’ I learned there was extra significance to King Arvedui. He was wed to a woman called Firiel, who was daughter of a king of Gondor and should have become Ruling Queen of Gondor. Gondor chose instead a more distant descendant of the twenty-eighth King of Gondor. His son was the King taken alive into Minas Morgul, and the nominal ruler whose legacy Denethor as Steward maintained. But Aragorn as a descendant of Arvedui and Firiel feels he has the better claim.[E]
I note a similarity to the last and disastrous King of Numenor setting aside Miriel, who should have been Ruling Queen.
We get only some of the lines of descent. Logically there should have been a lot of remote descendants of royalty, as there is in the real world. My own brother found evidence that our mother’s line (Dalling) included a marriage to a woman with the maiden name Courteney. The Courteney line goes back to Edward the First. That would put me 20 generations away from royalty – probably most people in England would be at least as close. Still, you’d have thought that the Stewards of Gondor would have been able to find wives descended from Gondor Royalty, even if the founder was not. Could have claimed they too were valid heirs and worthy of Kingship. But that’s not how Tolkien chose to see it.
Aragorn also does not feel that the prophecy guarantees success. Inconsistent, since all of them seem to work out, but necessary for the story to keep the reader’s attention.
They go swiftly to Dunharrow:
“The Lady Eowyn greeted them and was glad of their coming; for no mightier men had she seen than the Dunedain and the fair sons of Elrond; but on Aragorn most of all her eyes rested. And when they sat at supper with her, they talked together, and she heard of all that had passed since Theoden rode away, concerning which only hasty tidings had yet reached her; and when she heard of the battle in Helm’s Deep and the great slaughter of their foes, and of the charge of Theoden and his knights, then her eyes shone.”
She values the heroic warrior deeds she has been kept away from. And attracted to Aragorn himself, of course.
You’d have thought he might have said ‘if I am lucky enough to survive the coming war, there is a lady in the north whom I am pledged to wed’. Let her down gently. But that would deflate the story – which Tolkien till quite late had planned to end with Eowyn dying in the battle outside of Gondor.
She indicates her discontent:
“Am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse?… ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart?’”
‘Dry-nurse’ is authentic English. Originally a woman who takes care of another woman’s child, but does not suckle it, unlike a wet-nurse. But it can mean nurse in general, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And it has overtones of being left dry and barren in a doomed world.
Her words about being left behind are also similar to Merry, whom she had not yet met. Both will object to being left behind. Both break the rules, and between them they slay Sauron’s most powerful servant. Tolkien has a much friendlier attitude to female ambitions than C S Lewis, or most men of his generation. That helps explain why he could get on well with Naomi Mitchison, even though conventionally he is listed as right-wing and she of the left. Her Memoirs of a Spacewoman in 1962 has sentiments that even excellent writers like Ursula Le Guin would not come to for several more years.
Eowyn, unlike her brother, is not scared of the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn has to politely refuse her offer to come with them:
“‘For that I could not grant without leave of the king and of your brother; and they will not return until tomorrow. But I count now every hour, indeed every minute. Farewell!’
“Then she fell on her knees, saying: ‘I beg thee!’
“‘Nay, lady,’ he said, and taking her by the hand he raised her.”
We are later told that she been subtly led to despair by Wormtongue, who inflicts on her Saruman’s contempt for the Rohirrim – the view he expressed when Gandalf and the others confronted him in the ruins of Orthanc. A despair that is one of the weapons of evil – but with Eowyn, it will make her fearless in the face of the Witch-King.
In Tolkien, most events have a gradual built-up. Usually they seem surprising but not unreasonable when they happen.
Having rejected Eowyn, Aragorn is able to lead his men and horses into the gloomy Paths of the Dead. A place where even Gimli knows fear. And then Aragorn makes an unexpected discovery:
“Before him were the bones of a mighty man. He had been clad in mail, and still his harness lay there whole; for the cavern’s air was as dry as dust, and his hauberk was gilded. His belt was of gold and garnets, and rich with gold was the helm upon his bony head face downward on the floor. He had fallen near the far wall of the cave, as now could be seen, and before him stood a stony door closed fast: his finger-bones were still clawing at the cracks. A notched and broken sword lay by him, as if he had hewn at the rock in his last despair.”
This is a lost Rohirrim heir from long ago, as we will learn in the next chapter.
The summoning of the Dead is quite unlike the film, in which Jackson uses standard imagery that resemble the horror films he had earlier made. In Tolkien, it happens quietly, with only elves and half-elven seeing:
“‘The Dead are following,’ said Legolas. ‘I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following.’
“‘Yes, the Dead ride behind. They have been summoned,’ said Elladan.”
Emerging into more normal lands, they scare the ordinary people there:
“Lights went out in house and hamlet as they came, and doors were shut, and folk that were afield cried in terror and ran wild like hunted deer. Ever there rose the same cry in the gathering night: ‘The King of the Dead! The King of the Dead is come upon us!’
“Bells were ringing far below, and all men fled before the face of Aragorn; but the Grey Company in their haste rode like hunters, until their horses were stumbling with weariness. And thus, just ere midnight, and in a darkness as black as the caverns in the mountains, they came at last to the Hill of Erech.
“Long had the terror of the Dead lain upon that hill and upon the empty fields about it. For upon the top stood a black stone, round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground. Unearthly it looked, as though it had fallen from the sky, as some believed; but those who remembered still the lore of Westernesse told that it had been brought out of the ruin of Numenor and there set by Isildur at his landing. None of the people of the valley dared to approach it, nor would they dwell near; for they said that it was a trysting-place of the Shadow-men, and there they would gather in times of fear, thronging round the Stone and whispering.”
Aragorn does not bother reassuring them. He has more serious business:
“Elrohir gave to Aragorn a silver horn, and he blew upon it and it seemed to those that stood near that they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo in deep caves far away. No other sound they heard, and yet they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains. But Aragorn dismounted, and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice:
“‘Oathbreakers, why have ye come?’
“And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away:
“‘To fulfil our oath and have peace.’
“Then Aragorn said: ‘The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.’
“And with that he bade Halbarad unfurl the great standard which he had brought; and behold! it was black, and if there was any device upon it, it was hidden in the darkness. Then there was silence, and not a whisper nor a sigh was heard again all the long night. The Company camped beside the Stone, but they slept little, because of the dread of the Shadows that hedged them round.”
It is understandable that Aragorn wished to spare Eowyn from this:
“Aragorn rose at once, and he led the Company forth upon the journey of greatest haste and weariness that any among them had known, save he alone, and only his will held them to go on. No other mortal Men could have endured it, none but the Dunedain of the North, and with them Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas of the Elves.”
Aragorn’s use of these ghosts is a grey area. Tolkien himself may have been unsure. Isildur cursed the Dead to wait and he also kept the One Ring. The Dead help solve an evil he helped keep far stronger than it would have been had Isildur been generous enough to destroy Sauron’s Ring!
In Unfinished Tales, there are worse moral problems in The Mariner’s Wife. Raised and not resolved: Tolkien differs from Lewis and many other writers in being content to accept he does not always know the correct answer. How far can you use bad methods for good ends? Saruman managed it for a time and then fell.
Jackson trivialises it as a horror episode in an action-adventure film.
Aragorn has now gathered a force large enough to defeat their foe at Umbar. They head southwards towards it:
“The township and the fords of Ciril they found deserted, for many men had gone away to war, and all that were left fled to the hills at the rumour of the coming of the King of the Dead. But the next day there came no dawn, and the Grey Company passed on into the darkness of the Storm of Mordor and were lost to mortal sight; but the Dead followed them.
This is the second of four separate viewpoints of the Dawnless Day. We first saw it with Frodo and Sam. Pippin was warned of it, but his view of it is told later. And Merry will see it in the next chapter.
[A] The king’s name should be written Théoden. But I do not use accents or other diacritical marks. In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.
As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/.
[B] Page 289 in The War of the Ring. It is volume three of The History of The Lord of the Rings. Also Volume 8 of The History of Middle-earth.
[C] Ibid., page 274.
[D] The Two Towers. Book 3, Chapter 5: The White Rider.