". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


‘Alas, That These Evil Days Should Be Mine’: The Heroism of King Theoden

May 6, 2024

The actor Bernard Hill passed away on Sunday. Although he played the captain of the eponymous ocean liner in the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” Hill’s best-known and best-loved role is as Théoden, King of Rohan, in Peter Jackson’s sweeping cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Hill’s inspired characterization of Théoden doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the second volume, “The Two Towers,” but he is one of the most memorable figures in the legendary films and in Tolkien’s literary masterpiece. In no small part, Théoden is such a beloved character because he epitomizes the moral man in the modern world.

In both the films and Tolkien’s book, Théoden is introduced while under the thrall of Gríma Wormtongue, a servant of the corrupt Saruman of Isengard. The king appears as an old man, weakened and wizened before his time, blindly allowing Saruman’s marauding armies to roam freely across his realm. His son is slain and he banishes his loyal nephew, Éomer. When Gandalf the White arrives in Théoden’s hall, he delivers the king from Wormtongue’s poisonous influence, restoring him to health and heartiness. “It is not so dark here,” Gandalf says, as Théoden clutches weakly at his knees, gazing about his diminished hall. “Nor does age lie so heavily on your shoulders as some would have you think.” Gandalf urges the king to rise from his seat, where he has been bent under the weight of leechcraft, deception, and treachery. “Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped a sword hilt,” Gandalf advises, as Théoden is presented with his sword Herugrim.

Every man can relate to Théoden: every man has been bent and almost broken beneath the weight of some sin, some worry, some burden in his life. For some men, it is addiction — to pornography, to alcohol abuse, to gambling, to drugs, to video games, to a myriad of different vices; for some men, it is a worry or a woe, some fear or dread by which they are oppressed and tormented; for some men, it is some burden weighing heavily upon their hearts, perhaps their responsibilities as husbands or fathers, perhaps a life-changing chronic illness, perhaps a sorrow or sadness which has yet to heal. Gandalf’s counsel to Théoden is wise indeed. The wizard understands that the king must first be rid of the poison in his life — the pornography and alcohol must go! — and that his masculine pride must be restored; he must take up his sword.

Like Théoden, men need purpose, inspiration, respect, and control. Herugrim represents these qualities for the King of Rohan; the sword serves as a reminder of his kingship, of the duty he has to his people, of the authority he commands, of the trust the people of Rohan have placed in him. For men today, these qualities may be found in our marriages and families — the love of a wife or a child is a powerful inspiration for a man to protect, to provide, and to grow in virtue and strength, to quit his addictions, to cast worries aside, and to shoulder the burdens of life for love of wife and child. These qualities may also be found in good work — a call to do something meaningful can be a strong motivation for a man to sharpen and hone both his skills and his virtues, to lay down his life for the love of others in the form of “white martyrdom,” through time, energy, and effort, instead of through blood in the form of “red martyrdom.” And certainly in devotion to Christian truth — it is ultimately the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection which inspires us to live as Christ did, in love, service, and self-sacrifice, even if that means death.

In the person of the healed Théoden, Tolkien, Jackson, and Hill all offer a powerful image of another relatable archetype, one which men today should find inspiring: the moral man facing the madness of the modern world. Shortly after being healed, Théoden sees his only son buried, having been slain by the servants of Isengard. Standing over his child’s grave, the king laments, “Alas, that these evil days should be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see the last days of my house.” Weeping, he says, “No parent should have to bury their child.” Shortly afterwards, in an effort to shield his people from the brutalities of war, Théoden gathers what remains of the people of Rohan and orders a march to the ancient stronghold of Helm’s Deep, where he hopes to outlast the growing armies of Saruman.

Although Aragorn, the heroic long-lost King of Gondor, urges fighting Saruman and his minions head-on, advising Théoden, “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not,” he respects Théoden’s decision, later saying, “He is only doing what he thinks is best for his people. Helm’s Deep has saved them in the past.” Again, many men may relate to the King of Rohan here: surrounded by degeneracy, faced with threats from every side, we seek not to hide but to retreat from the ravaging world, to shield our loved ones, in the hopes that our enemies — whether in the form of the evils enabled by modern technology, the pervasion of perverse sexual and political ideologies in seemingly every corner of society, or the rising tide of virulent anti-Christian hatred — may be content to dominate their corners of the world and may leave us alone in our corners.

But Théoden quickly learns that such a strategy will not suffice against the enemies of his day. Aragorn warns the King of Rohan that Saruman’s army is “bred for a single purpose: to destroy the world of men.” The army of Isengard marches to Helm’s Deep, completely uninterested in the now-unoccupied fertile plains of Rohan, bent only on destruction. As the enemy approaches and Théoden is putting on his armor, he asks his steward Gamling, “Do you trust your king?” Gamling replies, “Your men, my lord, will follow you to whatever end.” Théoden echoes these last words aloud, “To whatever end…” Once the defenses upon which he had staked the future of his people are destroyed, Théoden is tempted to give in to despair. “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?” he asks, trapped in the innermost keep of Helm’s Deep. Aragorn encourages the king, “Ride out with me. Ride out and meet them.”

From this point forward, the words “To whatever end” form, in a way, Théoden’s moral core. He is determined never again to retreat from the enemy, never again to hope he might save “what’s left,” but to rage against the encroaching evil with an unbridled ferocity. Théoden knows that there will be an end, that the West faces extinction, but he resolves then that he will ride out and meet that end with a sword in his hand. This is who Tolkien holds up to men today as a hero, as a king to follow, to whatever end. Men today must, like Théoden, stop retreating, stop ceding ground, stop waiting for the evil to pass, and determine instead to ride out and meet the enemy.

Perhaps nowhere is the heroism of this “To whatever end” ideology better displayed than on the Pelennor Fields. After Isengard is defeated, the enraged Dark Lord Sauron sends his armies from Mordor to besiege Minas Tirith, the capital city of the kingdom of Gondor. When Gondor calls for aid, Théoden doesn’t hesitate to gather his men and ride out to the surrounded city of Minas Tirith. As he approaches the city, the king knows that there is little chance he will return to his hall at Edoras. The Riders of Rohan form ranks with the rising sun at their backs. Facing the hordes of Mordor, Théoden cries out to his men, “Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! 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!” In the film adaptation of Tolkien’s work, Théoden then hoists his sword and roars, “Ride to ruin and the world’s ending! Death! Death! Death!” The king leads his men into battle. Tolkien writes:

“Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old. … His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! It shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed.”

The Rohirrim trample and slaughter the soldiers of Mordor beneath their feet. “And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City,” Tolkien writes. Théoden knows that this charge will mean death, and he rides forth to meet it. It is this courage which inspires his men to follow, even unto death. Tolkien’s contemporary, the author G.K. Chesterton, explained this phenomenon:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

Théoden and his men know that this charge will mean death for them, but it may mean life for the West. The King of Rohan does not attempt to save his life: instead, he lays down his life for those that he loves. Théoden is slain when he confronts the Witch-King of Angmar, the mightiest of the Dark Lord Sauron’s servants. He dies not for the sake of dying, nor even for the sake of living, but for the sake of life for others. “I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed,” Théoden says to his beloved niece Éowyn as he lays dying. “A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!”

This is the model of manhood, and the moral man’s answer to the modern world’s depravity. Théoden rebuffs despair in the face of overwhelming, insurmountable odds and determines instead to ride out to meet the enemy. In an age when degeneracy runs rampant, men today must not retreat but must find the courage to ride out and meet the enemy in open battle, even if it means death. Théoden himself is modeled, at least in part, on Christ, for it is Christ who first rode out to meet the enemy, it is Christ who first laid down His life so that others might live. The depravity and degeneracy of the modern world will only be conquered by those who, like both Christ and Théoden, ride out to meet the enemy, crying in a loud, clear voice, “Death!”

Many thanks to Bernard Hill for his powerful portrayal of the noble, heroic Théoden. May he go to his fathers, in whose mighty company he shall not be ashamed.

S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.