In the third chapter of The Return of the King, Merry faces the oncoming horrors of war. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER THREE: THE MUSTER OF ROHAN
My father was in Vietnam. For years, he wanted me to sign up with the military, to either be in the Army or the Marines. It’s one of the few things we clashed on, almost violently at times, because it wasn’t something I believed was a moral choice. I had seen the effects on Vietnam on my father. Whenever he told stories about the jungles of that place, he tried to make himself sound like he was telling proud tales of courage and valor, but a lot of the time, his eyes would glass over and he’d zone out when talking about being shot at and taking a bullet. He’d try to tell me about the sacrifice some of his friends made over there, and then he’d get all quiet and forlorn for a few hours, opting to go sit in his recliner in the living room and watch old westerns on television.
As underdeveloped and ignorant as my opinions on war were when I was a teenager, something bothered me about watching my father’s PTSD come to life. He was sprayed with Agent Orange while in Vietnam, and his doctor’s believe that’s what gave him cancer and Alzheimers when he turned 50. But it can never really be proved definitively, and I don’t know that I’d feel any closure if I knew why he passed so early. What I did know is that every time my dad tried to tell me about what it was like to fight in a war, it would scare me. I’d see him disengage from everyone around him, and it frightened me.
I have friends who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they wake up in the middle of the night believing that they’re in the midst of a siege. Some of them crave the violence and the vigilance. Some of them have perpetual night terrors. All of them were inexplicably changed by the experience in ways I’ll never truly understand myself.
The brilliance of this chapter is the set-up to war. Tolkien is not sugarcoating this. He is building an environment of fear, terror, and uncertainty in remarkably subtle ways. I think the darkness that arrives is the most obvious thing in the story at this point, but it’s a meant as a harbinger of what’s to come. What I love is how he uses Merry’s sense of loneliness and purpose to bring his own experience with war into the story. I think even smaller moments like this are meant to overwhelm us with what’s about to happen:
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.
The journey this hobbit has been on is so ridiculously complex and exhausting that he desires the simplest of pleasures. It’s something multiple characters have expressed, too, and I think it’s a way of reminding us that some of them might never get the chance to do it again. It’s more apparent than ever that so much is happening all at once, too; we know now what possibly triggered the end of dawn. (Aragorn’s use of the Orthanc.) But as the war arrives, we’re acutely aware that these characters are spread out everywhere. What if some of them die and the others don’t ever find out? AH, THIS IS JUST TOO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT.
Let’s focus on other details, like the fact that there are SO MANY MEN IN DUNHARROW. Like, FUCK. It is impossible to deny that there is a war coming. You can see it in all of the people, too. There’s a reason Ã‰owyn is so upset. There’s very little outright joy in this chapter as well. Everyone has the fear of the loss of Aragorn and the oncoming battle on their minds. The loss of hope that Ã‰omer feels about Aragorn is palpable. He knows how much harder this will be without him. But what can they do? This is about having to make increasingly difficult choices. No one is going to follow the man into the Paths of the Dead. They’re going to deal with their own lives and their own crises as they see fit. They just have to assume that Aragorn can’t be a part of it all.
There’s another twist to this all when a man from Minas Tirith (is this Faramir, or do these Men all look similar or something???) arrives with the Red Arrow. Which is a thing. I don’t know what it is or what it does, but it’s of significance because it ThÃ©oden instantly knows that he is needed by the men of Gondor. (No, for real, I can’t seem to find anything else here that explains what this token of war means?) Whomever this stranger is assures the King of the Mark that Minas Tirith will fall (and soon) without his help. Unfortunately, it’ll take the six thousand riders that ThÃ©oden is leading a week to arrive in Gondor, and that’s at best. How on earth is Minas Tirith going to hold for a week?
Still, it’s honorable of ThÃ©oden anyway to agree to go. It’s a tough situation, but he admits that he’s known for a while that war is coming. Why ignore it any longer? I think it’s practical, personally. I mean, they all awake the next “morning” to discover that the blackness from Mordor has reached them. Seriously, have any of you ever been in one of those horrific black thunderstorms that just creep up out of nowhere? Living in Southern California, we always had to worry about particularly bad brush fires. This blackness reminds me of the smoke in Los Angeles during the Station Fire of 2009. This is what we all saw for days: a pyrocumulus cloud
FUCKED UP, RIGHT? So I’m imagining this darkness as that, but a million times worse.
So where does Merry fit in with all this? I fucking adore the parallel stories that Tolkien tells between Merry and Pippin. Both are far from home, about to be thrust into a horrific war, and feel lonely and useless in the process. Unlike Pippin, who has an assigned duty, ThÃ©oden actually orders Merry to stay behind. It’s not until some young man (who we later learn is named Dernhelm) helps out that Merry is able to come along. But before that moment happens, we have my favorite sentence in the whole chapter, where Merry happens to look directly at Dernhelm:
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.
Can you imagine how hard this was to write if you were a father who not only lived through a war, but saw your sons go off to fight in another one? What’s so striking about how this book is turning out is that while we very clearly know that the main characters are the “good” guys, there are all these hints that war isn’t as glamorous or courageous as it’s meant to be. This one sentence made me stop and acknowledge that I am probably going to have to deal with a whole lot of death, that Tolkien isn’t going to magically save all of his characters and have everything be neat and tidy. He’s already shown this not to be the case, but it’s only going to get worse, isn’t it? IT IS. I KNOW IT.