The Muster of Rohan
The last chapter left Aragorn leading the Army of the Dead southwards. This picks up Merry’s further adventures, including the third direct observation of the Dawnless Day within the book.
Before that, the chapter has a fine opening:
“Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of war and the onset of the Shadow. And even as Pippin stood at the Great Gate of the City and saw the Prince of Dol Amroth ride in with his banners, the King of Rohan came down out of the hills.
“Day was waning. In the last rays of the sun the Riders cast long pointed shadows that went on before them.”
Merry has been keeping the King company some of the time. But mostly he is tired from the long ride. He is also separated from Pippin and the rest of the Fellowship for the first time since they left The Shire:
“He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire…
“He had been lonely, and never more so than now at the day’s end.”
He does however appreciate the stories the Riders tell each other:
“Most of the time, especially on this last day, Merry had ridden by himself just behind the king, saying nothing, and trying to understand the slow sonorous speech of Rohan that he heard the men behind him using. It was a language in which there seemed to be many words that he knew, though spoken more richly and strongly than in the Shire, yet he could not piece the words together. At times some Rider would lift up his clear voice in stirring song, and Merry felt his heart leap, though he did not know what it was about.”
Their language is related to the Common Tongue that the Hobbits have adopted, but is different enough to need to be learned. Resembling the difference between Anglo-Saxon and Modern English.
They stay one night in Dunharrow. Eomer wants Theoden to return there after gathering the Riders, but he will not:
“‘Long years in the space of days it seems since I rode west; but never will I lean on a staff again. If the war is lost, what good will be my hiding in the hills? And if it is won, what grief will it be, even if I fall, spending my last strength?”
Riding on, Merry notices trace of older peoples who lived in the land the Riders now hold:
“At each turn of the road there were great standing stones that had been carved in the likeness of men, huge and clumsy-limbed, squatting cross-legged with their stumpy arms folded on fat bellies. Some in the wearing of the years had lost all features save the dark holes of their eyes that still stared sadly at the passers-by. The Riders hardly glanced at them. The Pukel-men they called them, and heeded them little: no power or terror was left in them; but Merry gazed at them with wonder and a feeling almost of pity, as they loomed up mournfully in the dusk.” [A]
They are somehow connected with Dunharrow, where the Riders gather:
“Such was the dark Dunharrow, the work of long-forgotten men. Their name was lost and no song or legend remembered it. For what purpose they had made this place, as a town or secret temple or a tomb of kings, none could say. Here they laboured in the Dark Years, before ever a ship came to the western shores, or Gondor of the Dunedain was built; and now they had vanished, and only the old Pukel-men were left, still sitting at the turnings of the road.”
They find Eowyn there, asserting herself as a warrior:
“As they drew near Merry saw that the rider was a woman with long braided hair gleaming in the twilight, yet she wore a helm and was clad to the waist like a warrior and girded with a sword.”
Eowyn and Merry have not met before, remember.
She has made everything ready for her uncle and brother, but gives the alarming news about Aragorn:
“He has passed into the shadows from which none have returned. I could not dissuade him. He is gone.’
“‘Then our paths are sundered,’ said Eomer. ‘He is lost. We must ride without him, and our hope dwindles.’”
She does not mention she wanted to go with him. But it is now clear that she hadn’t thought him likely to succeed. Probably just wishing to die with him.
Merry again feels left out, though probably not for long:
“‘The Paths of the Dead? What does all this mean? They have all left me now. They have all gone to some doom: Gandalf and Pippin to war in the East; and Sam and Frodo to Mordor; and Strider and Legolas and Gimli to the Paths of the Dead. But my turn will come soon enough, I suppose.”
We now learn about the man whose skeleton Aragorn had found:
“If these old tales speak true that have come down from father to son in the House of Eorl, then the Door under Dwimorberg leads to a secret way that goes beneath the mountain to some forgotten end. But none have ever ventured in to search its secrets, since Baldor, son of Brego, passed the Door and was never seen among men again. A rash vow he spoke, as he drained the horn at that feast which Brego made to hallow new-built Meduseld, and he came never to the high seat of which he was the heir.
“‘Folk say that Dead Men out of the Dark Years guard the way and will suffer no living man to come to their hidden halls; but at whiles they may themselves be seen passing out of the door like shadows and down the stony road. Then the people of Harrowdale shut fast their doors and shroud their windows and are afraid. But the Dead come seldom forth and only at times of great unquiet and coming death.’”
Harrowdale is the valley with Dunharrow at one end. And there is news from there:
“‘Yet it is said in Harrowdale,’ said Eowyn in a low voice. ‘that in the moonless nights but little while ago a great host in strange array passed by. Whence they came none knew, but they went up the stony road and vanished into the hill, as if they went to keep a tryst.’
Being supernatural, it is logical they should know that Aragorn was coming to release them at last. We also learn that Baldor got an earlier warning that it was no business of the Riders. As Theoden tells it:
“It is said that when the Eorlingas came out of the North and passed at length up the Snowbourn, seeking strong places of refuge in time of need, Brego and his son Baldor climbed the Stair of the Hold and so came before the Door. On the threshold sat an old man, aged beyond guess of years; tall and kingly he had been, but now he was withered as an old stone. Indeed for stone they took him, for he moved not, and he said no word, until they sought to pass him by and enter. And then a voice came out of him, as it were out of the ground, and to their amaze it spoke in the western tongue: The way is shut.
“‘Then they halted and looked at him and saw that he lived still; but he did not look at them. The way is shut, his voice said again It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.
“‘And when will that time be? said Baldor. But no answer did he ever get. For the old man died in that hour and fell upon his face; and no other tidings of the ancient dwellers in the mountains have our folk ever learned. Yet maybe at last the time foretold has come, and Aragorn may pass.’”
Baldor ignored the warning, and died pointlessly. Courage is not always a virtue. Aragorn is much wiser, holding back until the peril to Gondor forces him.
We get no explanation as to who the old man was. Jackson maybe took this fragment and transformed it into his excessively chatty King of the Dead. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, and I also think that the half-seen and unexplained are much more plausibly frightening.
Next, they get news from Gondor. As well as the beacons, a messenger has come:
“A tall man entered, and Merry choked back a cry; for a moment it seemed to him that Boromir was alive again and had returned. Then he saw that it was not so; the man was a stranger, though as like to Boromir as if he were one of his kin, tall and grey-eyed and proud. He was clad as a rider with a cloak of dark green over a coat of fine mail; on the front of his helm was wrought a small silver star. In his hand he bore a single arrow, black-feathered and barbed with steel, but the point was painted red.
“He sank on one knee and presented the arrow to Theoden. ‘Hail Lord of the Rohirrim, friend of Gondor!’ he said. ‘Hirgon I am, errand-rider of Denethor, who bring you this token of war. Gondor is in great need. Often the Rohirrim have aided us, but now the Lord Denethor asks for all your strength and all your speed; lest Gondor fall at last.’”
Theoden shows some suspicion, and does not like the idea of being confined inside the city:
“‘But he knows that we are a people who fight rather upon horseback and in the open, and that we are also a scattered people and time is needed for the gathering of our Riders. Is it not true, Hirgon, that the Lord of Minas Tirith knows more than he sets in his message? For we are already at war, as you may have seen, and you do not find us all unprepared. Gandalf the Grey has been among us, and even now we are mustering for battle in the East.’
“‘What the Lord Denethor may know or guess of all these things I cannot say,’ answered Hirgon. ‘But indeed our case is desperate. My lord does not issue any command to you, he begs you only to remember old friendship and oaths long spoken, and for your own good to do all that you may. It is reported to us that many kings have ridden in from the East to the service of Mordor. From the North to the field of Dagorlad there is skirmish and rumour of war. In the South the Haradrim are moving, and fear has fallen on all our coastlands, so that little help will come to us thence. Make haste! For it is before the walls of Minas Tirith that the doom of our time will be decided, and if the tide be not stemmed there, then it will flow over all the fair fields of Rohan, and even in this Hold among the hills there shall be no refuge.’
“‘Dark tidings,’ said Theoden, ‘yet not all unguessed. But say to Denethor that even if Rohan itself felt no peril, still we would come to his aid. But we have suffered much loss in our battles with Saruman the traitor, and we must still think of our frontier to the north and east, as his own tidings make clear. So great a power as the Dark Lord seems now to wield might well contain us in battle before the City and yet strike with great force across the River away beyond the Gate of Kings.
“‘But we will speak no longer counsels of prudence. We will come.”
They will set out the next day. Which turns out to be the Dawnless Day. Merry is woken and thinks it is still night:
“He was wakened by a man shaking him. ‘Wake up, wake up. Master Holbytla!’ he cried; and at length Merry came out of deep dreams and sat up with a start. It still seemed very dark, he thought.
“‘What is the matter?’ he asked.
“‘The king calls for you.’
“‘But the Sun has not risen, yet,’ said Merry.
“‘No, and will not rise today, Master Holbytla. Nor ever again, one would think under this cloud. But time does not stand still, though the Sun be lost. Make haste!’
“Flinging on some clothes, Merry looked outside. The world was darkling. The very air seemed brown, and all things about were black and grey and shadowless; there was a great stillness. No shape of cloud could be seen, unless it were far away westward, where the furthest groping fingers of the great gloom still crawled onwards and a little light leaked through them. Overhead there hung a heavy roof, sombre and featureless, and light seemed rather to be failing than growing.
“Merry saw many folk standing, looking up and muttering: all their faces were grey and sad, and some were afraid. With a sinking heart he made his way to the king. Hirgon the rider of Gondor was there before him, and beside him stood now another man, like him and dressed alike, but shorter and broader. As Merry entered he was speaking to the king.
“‘It comes from Mordor, lord,’ he said. ‘It began last night at sunset. From the hills in the Eastfold of your realm I saw it rise and creep across the sky, and all night as I rode it came behind eating up the stars. Now the great cloud hangs over all the land between here and the Mountains of Shadow; and it is deepening. War has already begun.’”
Theoden sets off regardless. But tells Merry to remain:
“The king turned to Merry. ‘I am going to war, Master Meriadoc,’ he said. ‘In a little while I shall take the road. I release you from my service, but not from my friendship. You shall abide here, and if you will, you shall serve the Lady Eowyn, who will govern the folk in my stead.’
“‘But, but, lord,’ Merry stammered, ‘I offered you my sword. I do not want to be parted from you like this, Theoden King. And as all my friends have gone to the battle’ I should be ashamed to stay behind.’
“‘But we ride on horses tall and swift,’ said Theoden; ‘and great though your heart be, you cannot ride on such beasts.’
“‘Then tie me on to the back of one, or let me hang on a stirrup, or something,’ said Merry.”
Eowyn now takes a hand:
“‘Come now, Meriadoc!’ she said. ‘I will show you the gear that I have prepared for you.’ They went out together. ‘This request only did Aragorn make to me,’ said Éowyn, as they passed among the tents, ‘that you should be armed for battle. I have granted it, as I could. For my heart tells me that you will need such gear ere the end.’”
Is she lying? The last chapter didn’t have Aragorn mention Merry at all when he briefly met Eowyn. Regardless, he is armed suitable for his small size:
“Now she led Merry to a booth among the lodges of the king’s guard and there an armourer brought out to her a small helm, and a round shield, and other gear.
“‘No mail have we to fit you,’ said Eowyn, ‘nor any time for the forging of such a hauberk; but here is also a stout jerkin of leather, a belt, and a knife. A sword you have.’”
She also says goodbye, even though he is supposed to be staying with her:
“Farewell now, Master Meriadoc! Yet maybe we shall meet again, you and I.’”
He then sees her again, without knowing who it is:
“Merry rode … with the errand riders of Gondor, and behind them again twelve more of the king’s household. They passed down the long ranks of waiting men with stern and unmoved faces. But when they had come almost to the end of the line one looked up glancing keenly at the hobbit. A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.”
Tolkien gives them an attitude he had also found in Beowulf – sticking to your duty even if it seems hopeless.
We are then moved back from the immediate events, with a poem that we are told is a later celebration of the event:
“From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning
“with thane and captain rode Thengel’s son:
“to Edoras he came, the ancient halls
“of the Mark-wardens mist-enshrouded;
“golden timbers were in gloom mantled.
“Farewell he bade to his free people,
“hearth and high-seat, and the hallowed places,
“where long he had feasted ere the light faded.
“Forth rode the king, fear behind him,
“fate before him. Fealty kept he;
“oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them.
“Forth rode Théoden. Five nights and days
“east and onward rode the Eorlingas
“through Folde and Fenmarch and the Firienwood,
“six thousand spears to Sunlending,
“Mundburg the mighty under Mindolluin,
“Sea-kings’ city in the South-kingdom
“Doom drove them on. Darkness took them,
“Horse and horseman; hoofbeats afar
“sank into silence: so the songs tell us.”
Brian Sibley in his radio adaptation cleverly does an extension that describes the battle itself, including Theoden’s fall. (See The Rohirrim Song and Sibley’s Additions.) Though rather unrealistically, this dramatization also has Theoden calling to Dernhelm without noticing that this is his niece.
Returning to immediate events, Merry is told that his small pony could never make such a journey: nor could he fight with them, given his small size.
Then he gets an unexpected offer:
“Unnoticed a Rider came up and spoke softly in the hobbit’s ear.
“‘Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,’ he whispered; ‘and so I have found myself.’ Merry looked up and saw that it was the young Rider whom he had noticed in the morning. ‘You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes: I see it in your face.’
“‘I do,’ said Merry.
“‘Then you shall go with me,’ said the Rider. ‘I will bear you before me, under my cloak until we are far afield, and this darkness is yet darker. Such good will should not be denied. Say no more to any man, but come!’
“‘Thank you indeed!’ said Merry. ‘Thank you, sir, though I do not know your name.’
“‘Do you not?’ said the Rider softly. ‘Then call me Dernhelm.’”
I suppose he is short enough not to notice that this Rider has breasts.
They all set out, but are well aware of how hopeless their mission is. And there is peril to their own realm
“And as they rode rumour came of war in the North. Lone men, riding wild, brought word of foes assailing their east-borders, of orc-hosts marching in the Wold of Rohan.”
We learn later that the Ents deal with them. Theoden could not know this, but wisely sticks to his original aim. Saving Minas Tirith must come first, hopeless though the task seems
“And so King Théoden departed from his own realm, and mile by mile the long road wound away, and the beacon hills marched past: Calenhad, Min-Rimmon, Erelas, Nardol. But their fires were quenched. All the lands were grey and still; and ever the shadow deepened before them, and hope waned in every heart.”
[A] Properly ‘Púkel-men’, 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/.