The Lord of the Rings vol 111 The Return of the King – J.R.R.Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings – Return of the King– Peter Jackson (dir).


Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings  is a big story, stretching to six larger than average novels organised into three volumes. Peter Jackson’s film adaptation is almost as big, stretching to three longer than average movies. Consequently there is a lot to say about the comparison. I want to look at one incident, part of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, in the third volume and film, The Return of the King. In particular I want to look at how the two versions handle the engagement of the Rohirrim in the battle. There is a change made here that not only illustrates a shift in emphasis away from one of the leading themes of the book, but reveals a quite different attitude on the part of the storyteller, to what the Rohirrim experience, and how it is to be understood.

            Similarities abound. The Rohirrim have mustered for war, and have been summoned to the aid of Minas Tirith, by the Red Arrow in the book, and by the rather more visual beacon fires sequence in the film. Aragorn has left to walk the Paths of the Dead. Theoden is leading his horsemen, with Eowyn and Merry hiding amongst them. What interests me is what happens differently when they arrive on the battlefield.

            In both cases they charge to break the siege of the city, but in the film Theoden is given a stirring pre-battle speech, expanded from the book’s five lines of verse. A technique frequently used by Jackson is to transplant words taken from the book, placing them in different mouths, at different times, and in different locations. This serves to preserves elements of Tolkien’s story but also, often distorts them. Here Theoden’s speech, drawn from verses and statements made later in the battle, as well as from those uttered at the outset, shows the Rohirrim in a different light to that of the book.

            Tolkien’s Rohirrim charge to Theoden’s exhortation:


                        Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!

                        Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!

                        Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

                        A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

                        Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!


            The charge is joyous. ‘All the host of Rohan burst into song’, Tolkien tells us.

The battle does not go well though, for the chief of the Black Riders who, at the sound of the Rohirrim’s horns has turned away from Gandalf, lone defender of the breached main gate of the city, arrives on the field to confront Theoden. Eowyn and Merry come to the king’s aid, but cannot save him, and are struck down in their turn, though the Black Rider is slain.

            Here is the crucial sequence that interests me, for Eomer receives the kingship from the dying Theoden. Words spoken in the film by Eowyn have been spoken by Merry, and Theoden has not lived to find out that Eowyn has been in the charge. Important to Tolkien, I think, is the passing on of the kingship by Theoden: ‘Hail, King of the Mark!’ he said’. This theme of royal legitimacy is central to the book, but peripheral to the film, and perhaps one of the defining differences between the world views, and worlds, of the author and the film maker.

            Eomer’s assumption of the throne is followed immediately by his discovery of the apparently dead Eowyn. The discovery sends him into despair.

‘He stood a moment as a man who is pierced in the midst of a cry by an arrow through the heart; and then his face went deathly white, and a cold fury rose in him, so that all speech failed him for a while. A fey mood took him.’


            How closely, I wonder, did those words recall for Tolkien specific moments of actual death in battle that he had experienced? Eomer’s fey mood precipitates the next movement in the story, for it leads him to utter the words ‘Death, death, death! Death take us all!’ This becomes his battle call to the Rohirrim. ‘Over the field rang his clear voice calling: Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!’

            The Rohirrim resume the battle, taking this as their battle-cry. Eventually, against overwhelming odds, Eomer plants his standard to make a last stand, and the arrival of the Corsairs of Umbar threatens them with yet more foes. In the bleakest of moments another verse of the ‘lay’ that Tolkien creates is uttered, by the new king, ending with ‘now for ruin and a red nightfall’. Yet the despair of the ‘death ride’ has turned again to ‘the lust of battle’. It is the turning point of the battle too, for the Corsairs are revealed to be Aragorn and his ghost army, come to Minas Tirith, ‘though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us’, as Aragorn predicted.

            The film handles this sequence quite differently, and the differences ripple out, backwards and forwards into the story from the moment of Theoden’s death, and the discovery of Eowyn’s body.

            No longer does this seminal moment trigger the death ride. No longer does it mark the passing on of the kingship. In fact the succession is not overtly referred to in the film. The death ride has already taken place.  Those snatches of verse, and that cry of Eomer’s have already been delivered in the film, by Theoden, and before the initial charge to break the siege of the city. The Rohirrim’s suicidal ‘ride to ruin’, and their battle cry of ‘Death! Death!’ is not the result of what they have experienced in battle, but of their expectations of battle to come. Here is a difference of perception that marks the generation gap and cultural gulf between Tolkien and Jackson. For the one warfare is an experience being reacted to. For the other it is one being speculated about.

            Jackson and his associates, talking on the ‘specials’ to the dvd set of the film, tell how the books were rearranged to make a more chronologically simple telling of the story. Some eight chapters of the book’s volume two were incorporated into the third film. The changes to the battle are not discussed, perhaps because they were considered unimportant, and uncontroversial. Those ripples I mentioned are worth looking at though, for Jackson has to give the Rohirrim’s ‘death ride’ plausibility, and that can no longer be the discovery of Eowyn and the death of Theoden! So he goes back into the story, at least as far as Helm’s Deep, setting seeds of doubt in the minds of the Rohirrim, preparing the viewer for the despair that they will display.  This culminates in the encounter between Theoden and his commanders, in camp where the army is mustering. Aragorn has left, and a sense of gloom pervades, defeatism, one might call it. The fear that they cannot win against the forces of Mordor is expressed, and Theoden’s answer is to say ‘no, we cannot, yet we will fight’. This provides the justification for the ‘death’ ride, yet it also subtly changes our perception of this warrior nation. The film’s horsemen seem reluctant warriors, not the ‘fell people’ that Tolkien envisaged. They have, perhaps, an early twenty first century attitude to warfare, rather than an early twentieth century one.

            There is still the finding of Eowyn to be dealt with, and the film makes this a purely personal grief, with Eomer giving a great cry and sinking to his knees beside her. The rage of Eomer, palpable in the book, is absent from the film. Twice in the book, at that low point of the battle Tolkien tells us that Eomer laughed, once as he speaks the ‘ride to ruin’ verse, and again a sentence later, ‘even as he laughed at despair’. ‘he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king’, Tolkien has said, but Jackson’s Eomer seems to lack such unreasoning potency! Is there a perceptual change, from the warrior to the soldier, between the two? And what of the issue of Kingship? The decade in which Jackson’s films were made saw western democracy (largely republican or with constitutionally limited monarchies) fighting back against perceived attack, and he has Sam, at Osgiliath, articulate something like their creed. The war in which Tolkien served shattered the certainties of the autocratic, hereditary empires, and it is to their certainties his novel looks nostalgically back. The ‘ride to ruin’ of the Rohirrim, in its different versions, illuminates the different contexts in which it is told.