Théoden's Ill Choices
Arguably, the defining human characteristic may be the ability to act contrary to what we know is good for us, even wilfully so... 

Analysis by Greg Wright

Théoden's Ill Choices

This page was created on April 22, 2003.
This page was last updated on May 31, 2005

Théoden's Ill Choices
In May, 2004, this web page was annotated to address errors in the text. Click on highlighted text to review errata.

Human Will and The Lord of the Rings
Last Sunday was Easter, the day on which Christians celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ over death and the grave. Of course, before the resurrection came the cross. In the Bible, Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. During the course of his conversation with the Jewish Messiah, Pilate asks, "What is truth?"

Much of the last two thousand years has focused on that very question, with one group or another—Christians of various flavors, Muslims, scientists, atheists and others—claiming at various times to have a definitive answer.

Perhaps more significant is another question: What good is truth if known only—if it merely sits on a shelf, but is never used? Arguably, the defining human characteristic may be the ability to act contrary to what we know is good for us, even wilfully so.

As a Catholic, Tolkien understood the human capacity to exercise the will—even if it is exercised poorly—to be God-given, and a servant of Providence: one of the means by which God elects to work out his will on earth. As noted in the Hollywood Jesus review of The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson's movies do not abandon these themes; if anything, they are brought into sharper focus— and The Two Towers, in particular, addresses the responsibility that comes with free will.

The Man of Action
One main story thread of The Two Towers follows Aragorn as he leads Gimli and Legolas in pursuit of the Uruk-hai who have abducted Merry and Pippin. The decisiveness which Aragorn demonstrates in these opening sequences would have seemed out of place at times in the first of Peter Jackson's movies.

While a member of the Fellowship, Aragorn was not so much a leader as one of many leaders—even, at times, a follower. From the time that Boromir falls defending Merry and Pippin, however, Aragorn assumes quite a different posture. It's as if the words of fealty delivered by Boromir's faltering lips finally convince Aragorn that he has the authority to lead—without Gandalf's guidance, without the Ringbearer's thoughts to be weighed, without the mission of the Council of Elrond to be protected. He is free to act, and act decisively. "Let's hunt some Orc!" he declares, and the eyes of his companions light up. They are ready and eager to follow.

Another Man of Action
The pursuit is a gruelling ordeal. The Orcs are moving fast, and they are well motivated. Just to keep pace, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn must run day and night—and still, Legolas' keen eyes tell them, they remain a full day behind.

In the grasslands of Rohan, the Three Runners are surrounded by a company of horsemen. Both parties are relieved to find themselves among allies. The Riders of Rohan bring Aragorn and company bad news, however. They have cornered and slaughtered the raiding Uruk-hai. There are no survivors.

This éored (mounted fighting unit) of Rohan is led by Éomer, nephew of the King of Rohan. He is also a leader, willing to act—and willing to accept responsibility for his actions. Éomer is consumed, perhaps even rashly, with a passion for doing what he knows is right, even if it runs counter to official policy. He has been banished, we discover, for running afoul of the King's counsel.

The Man of Inaction
Éomer acts in stark contrast to Théoden, King of Rohan. Wizened and frail beyond his years, Théoden has allowed himself to become a model of inaction—paralyzed by doubt, mesmerized by ill counsel, ruled by fear, captivated by the glamour of past glory.

After rejoining with Gandalf in Fangorn, Aragorn and friends find their way to Edoras to seek counsel with Théoden. Gandalf hopes to rouse Théoden from his malaise and rise against the army which Saruman prepares to send against Rohan.

It's a tall order. Théoden is in no condition to wield a sword, much less lead an army. His forces are in disarray. His son is dead. His best remaining captain, Éomer, has been banished. His shieldmaiden niece, Éowyn, can only stand by and play nursemaid. Théoden is under the dominion of Saruman's will.

The Loss of Will
For years, Théoden has been advised by Gríma "Wormtongue." A spy of Saruman, Gríma has been the instrument through which Théoden has been tamed and aged. In a cinematic tour de force, Gandalf throws off the yoke of Saruman's dominion—and Théoden is rejuvenated before our eyes.

And it is here, once again, where we find that Jackson and his screenwriters have made very deliberate and noticable changes to Tolkien's story. And again, we have to ask ourselves, "Why?" The answer is not, presumably, that Jackson has no respect for Tolkien. Nor is it that Jackson is an idiot. We would also be lazy to conclude, "Well, it's a movie, not a book. There's bound to be differences. So what?" No; given the range of options which presented themselves, there must be very specific reasons for the changes Jackson has introduced.

Even in this early sequence with Théoden, there are significant differences. While Tolkien is never terribly explicit about the means Saruman uses to control Théoden, there is absolutely no indication that Saruman was tangibly aware of Théoden's rejuvenation. In the movie, though, Saruman is literally taken aback by the incident, though many miles away. While Tolkien's Théoden throws off a psychological yoke, Jackson's Théoden, it seems, throws off a spiritual one.

In the Bible, Jesus remarks on this kind of deliverance, which many have interpreted as exorcism. "When an evil spirit comes out of a man," Jesus says, it may choose to return. "When it arrives, it finds the 'house' unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself... and the final condition of that man is worse than the first." (Matthew 12:43-45, NIV)

Saruman doesn't reenter Théoden, of course. In his case, though, the evil influence of Saruman is still not replaced by anything wholesome—say, the counsel of Gandalf. No. Théoden's state is still horrible, because he's still got only his own poor counsel: the very same counsel that put Gríma at his side in the first place. Einstein observed that the level of thinking which gets us into trouble is insufficient to get us out of it. This is a lesson that Jackson's Théoden has never learned.

The Will to Act, Even Badly
And so, rather than act quickly and decisively on Gandalf's advice, as Tolkien's Théoden does, Jackson's Théoden bides his time and broods. He even has time to deliver the pithy equivocation, "I will not risk open war." Aragorn has to deliver the rather obvious news: "Open war is upon you."

So what's going on? Is Jackson's Théoden made more complex so the role could be beefed up for Bernard Hill? Has Jackson just lost a screw? Not at all. We must remember that certain lessons from the broader scope of Tolkien's novel may be lost or watered down by the creation of three stand-alone filmed epics. To be true to Tolkien's themes, many of them must be revisited within the scope of each film. Jackson uses Théoden, at the very least, to remind us that the human will is essential to Tolkien's story. While the first film is rife with reminders of our freedom to act, particularly in the face of temptation, the story line of Tolkien's Two Towers does not provide as many illustrations. In Jackson's Théoden, however, we have a very tangible reminder that we are entirely free to do what we will, even if it is against our own best interest.

More Bad Choices
Jackson's Théoden isn't done, however. Rather than employing a strong offensive tactic, as Tolkien's Théoden does, he abandons Edoras and moves the entire populace to Helm's Deep—putting his women and children directly in harm's way, rather than sending them to the safety of the hills. Worse, he seems to take no conventional military precautions to protect his caravan: no scouts, no vanguard, no rearguard. In the context of Jackson's movie, it's no surprise that Théoden, Aragorn and company are attacked by Warg-mounted Orcs, and that they sustain heavy losses.

To top it all off, Théoden is still convinced, upon arriving at Helm's Deep, that he is there to ride out the storm, and that the Hornburg is capable of doing so. Until Aragorn literally resurfaces, there's nobody at the helm in Helm's Deep. Théoden couldn't protect his people from the flu.

A Near Disaster
The results of Théoden's short-sightedness and ineptitude are nearly disastrous. Despite the aid of Elvish archers, and the valor of Aragorn and his friends, the forces of Rohan are no match for the host of Isengard. An Uruk-hai suicide bomber leaps into the culvert under the Deeping Wall, and a thunderous blast rips it apart. Haldir and countless others die in the melee which follows, and the survivors retreat into the Hornburg.

When it becomes apparent that all is lost, and the Orcs are breaking down the door to the keep, Aragorn finally convinces Théoden to lead the final assault. But for Jackson's Théoden, it is not a final act of heroism, it is merely an act of fatalistic desperation.

The Man of Action
This moment, of course, is the one which separates the men from the boys—and in Jackson's film, that's an important distinction. For Tolkien, royalty didn't earn the title: they were born to it, bred for it, destined to be kings from their mother's wombs. Some, like Aragorn, are even foretold in prophecy; some, like Théoden, may be untimely enfeebled; some, like Legolas' father Thranduil, may seem capricious; some, like Denethor (the Steward of Gondor), may be led astray by their own lust for power. But all are royal because they are meant to be. They are of proud lineage, they are better men than their peers, and they command respect because they are who they are.

Jackson's Aragorn, on the other hand, is more like you and me: needing to be convinced that he is worthy of a high calling, needing the occasional goad from a friend or trusted counsellor to push him to the next level. Are you and I likely to be convinced on our own that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do"? (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

Tolkien highlighted the Providential role of every person, even the smallest, through his portrayal of the Hobbits. Jackson has chosen to emphasize the importance of the common man through Aragorn. And since Jackson has invested so much into this portrayal of Aragorn, it's critical that, in The Two Towers, Aragorn becomes the hero of the story. More could be said about Aragorn; but it should be sufficient to suggest that Jackson's choices for Théoden are more about Aragorn than they are about Théoden.

In the meantime, we are still left to ponder Gandalf's thoughts, penned by Tolkien himself: what matters is what we do with the time we have. How will we exercise our own free will? Pretty poor choices have brought most of us to where we are now. Isn't it time to start listening to some good advice?

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