Hopeless Hope, Dauntless Despair
Eomer, Denethor and "The Battle of Pelennor Fields
"These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more the lust
of battle was on him: and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king:
the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair, he looked out again
on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them" (RK, V, vi, 829).
“The Battle of Pelennor Fields” is undoubtedly my favorite chapter in the trilogy, and I believe it is because of the way Tolkien wrote about the Rohirrim. There are exactly two places in The Lord of the Rings that give me the chills, and they are both in this chapter. (The one above and the one right after Eomer sees Eowyn.) Up to this point, we have not seen the Rohirrim at their very best, at least battle wise. For, by Theoden’s admission, the Rohirrim do not do well behind walls, and this is where we have seen them. They need the open plain to fight most effectively. On the Pelennor they have it, and are they ever impressive! There are very few other places in the trilogy that have more raw power than the descriptions of the Rohirrim in battle. (And it’s not just because they’re finally fighting in the open.)
Tolkien’s language, which I feel is spectacular in The Return of the King in general, is particularly good in this chapter. In it we see the Rohirrim in their element, as it were, and not only is the language powerful and perfectly suited, but the character of the Rohirrim is more fully realized. Before this they have been admirable, but we have not quite seen how they merit Faramir’s speach of them in The Two Towers. We have seen the tall men and the fair women for sure, but all their battles have been fought by necessity, and in them we have not seen much to set them apart from the battles fought by the Gondorians, at least not to the extent where they might merit being described as “loving war and valour as things good in themselves” (TT, IV, v 663). However, in “The Pelennor Fields”, yes they fight for necessity, but they unabashedly demonstrate their love of battle for battles sake. Their skill is unmatched, and their fury “burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter” (RK, V, vi, 281), 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” (820). Eomer laughs at despair and defies death, “for once more the lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people” (829). Eowyn is “fair yet terrible” (823) (here is the “valiant both alike” part proved in full). The Rohirrim are the mortal definition of “perilously fair”.
There is also an interesting parallel between the despair of the Rohirrim and the despair of Denethor. Of course the parallels between Theoden and Denethor have been discussed a good deal in class, but I would like to focus on the differences in dealing with despair between Denethor and the Rohirrim, especially Eomer and Eowyn. Denethor loses all hope, and for very good reason, but rather than doing his duty and seeing the situation through to the end, he chooses “to have naught” and tries to kill himself and Faramir. He pays the price for seeing so much, and his despair makes a really bad situation even worse. After all, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” The values and culture of the Rohirrim keep them from taking this same road, which doesn’t make them superior to Denethor, but does have a very different effect on the situation. Eowyn has given up hope, like Denethor, and like Denethor, she decides her only option is to die. However, she decides to achieve this by riding to war. (So like Denethor she is also abandoning her post, though as we’ve seen, this is an incredibly Rohirrim thing to do.) But she is choosing to die in a way that might make a difference (though I rather doubt she was thinking of that when she decided to go). Eomer chooses to do exactly the same thing when he finds Eowyn, presumably dead on the battle field, and not only does he go storming recklessly into battle, chanting “death, death, death take us all,” but the “great wrath of his onset had utterly overthrown the front of his enemies, and great wedges of his Riders had passed clear through the ranks of the Southrons, discomfiting their horsemen and riding their footmen to ruin” (826, 828).
While Denethor’s despair leads him to kill himself, and counsel death to all who would not be slaves (835), Eomer’s and Eowyn’s despair lead them to take as many of their enemies down with them and to “do deeds of song…though no man should be left in the West” to remember them (829).