Hail, Théoden, King! (or not)

Some people have complained that the movie's Théoden, not to put too fine a point on it, is a wuss, and that the real Théoden, Tolkien’s noble king rising in the nick of time to save his people and succour Gondor, ran circles around this guy in spite of not having his white hair restored to its former vigor by Gandalf the Sparkly White. Let us investigate.

First of all, we have a very dramatic exorcism of Théoden, and he draws his sword, and -- the king is king once more, huzzah (not to mention 20 years younger than in the book, and so too, apparently, his son)!

Only then he doesn't do Revitalized Théoden stuff at all.

The greatness of that character was an old frail man rising to the occasion, though it would probably kill him, to defend his people and the free world. He tells Gandalf even after being cured that his old age is not altogether feigned --he's forced to take rests. He's human. But he is determined to go on, and it is his idea to go to Helm's Deep to fight. NOT as a refuge for his people, but to seek out and tackle Saruman's army which he knows is heading in that direction. The people evacuate somewhere else. (Admittedly I can understand the dramatic change of having them defending their women and children and simplifying the logistics).

The pacing in the movie is strange. Time and time again, dramatic music, dramatic lines, dramatic gestures imply that Théoden Is About to Knock Our Socks Off. And then he doesn't.

Théoden draws his sword, and there is a Triumphant Moment. He mourns his son, which isn't in the movie, but okay, that's a human moment to see the king in private. But there's nothing to juxtapose with it: he's just as demoralized in public. In the film,Gandalf cures what is mostly a physical malady. In the book, it is mostly psychological, which is why Grima was there: whispering things in Théoden's ear to wear him down. The times were certainly dire enough that he needed no magic to play on Théoden's fears. Grima's role in the movie is almost redundant (though so well-acted you don't notice): what's he doing there, if Saruman's got everything under control? In the book, Théoden's gung-ho to go once Gandalf's given him a change of perspective. Here, Gandalf tells him send for Éomer, and Théoden son of Éoyore says, "nah, it's too late anyway."

So much for the glorious drawing of the king's sword. He runs off to Helm's Deep to fight a defensive, not proactive battle. But Helm's Deep is where it really gets problematic. They do a bang-up job with that epic moment, The King Arming for Battle. I've never seen a better one. But that usually implies that at some point he will be in the battle. Yes, yes, he leads a suicidal charge at the very end of the movie-- but that's far too late.

And again, we've got Théoden son of Éoyore telling off Aragorn for giving a little strategic advice. First he says, "I know we're going to die horribly, but don't let the troops know that." Then he goes off on a tirade about, "we are not so lucky in our friends as you!" and disses Gondor. "We are alone, my lord" he says and stomps off. What was that about not worrying the troops?

When Saruman's forces arrive, Théoden says: "So it begins." Again, that line is conventional movie-speak for Big Things Now Folks. Does Théoden do anything yet? Nope. Uruk-hai are scaling the Deeping Wall, Elves are fighting for their lives on the Wall and the Deep behind it, and all the humans are snugly above them in the outer bailey of the Keep, where the only threat is missile weapons. They plink away with spears and arrows and don't help the Elves particularly.

All through this, Théoden, Gamling, and his captains are standing on the outer bailey's observation deck, It's like Saruman, who lets his minions get mashed by Ents while he watches from a balcony. Théoden says, "Is this the best that you can do, Saruman?" in yet another Dramatic Moment, and I'm starting to want to ask him the same thing! When the wall explodes, he just watches. Finally, FINALLY he calls down for Aragorn to get his men to safety. "Hey Aragorn, things looking kinda rough down there, eh? Come up here where it's safer!"

And then when the battering ram breaks through the gate-- which Aragorn saw over a minute ago-- then the king finally springs into action. Aha! The King of Rohan is going to fight hand-to-hand! Great moment is at hand! What's his inspiring speech to them? "Draw your swords."

Think they coulda figured that one out, mebbe.

I know, I know, in real life people state the obvious all the time. Only you can't bleeping use swords down there because it's just a hole in the gate. They need (and magically acquire) spears, and I don't see Théoden do much of anything before getting wounded.

So that's it for Théoden's contribution to the battle. He's a king, of course, and it's bad practice to put your king in danger. But the "theme music" around him, and his rather stiff lines mentioned above, imply he's gonna get into the action somehow. You know, be a little involved. Rallying his troops. Shouting out orders. Leading the charge if things go wrong.

Oh, wait, I forgot. That's Aragorn.

And finally, finally, the Last Ride of the Éorlingas, as Théoden believes it to be. Aragorn urges and coaxes. Suddenly and finally and dramatically, Théoden gets his groove. "Yes. Yes. YES! The horn of Helm Hammerhand will sound in the Deep--" and at that point I feel like Aragorn needs to pat him on the shoulder and say, "Now you're gettin' it."

So finally Théoden has his (sort of) moment of brave glory, and it is wonderful watching those horses bowl down all the orcs in the doorway and trample them flat.


Part of this, obviously, is that PJ is working on Aragorn's character development, having Uncertain Aragorn change into Nigh to Godlike Aragorn, a King Arthur figure. It's hard to accept that a scruffy ol' ranger could pull off the latter. ("Strider! Him with a crown and all and a golden cup? Well, what's the world coming to?" -- Butterbur). Perhaps that's not very plausible, so let's have him grow into the role. In TTT, Aragorn starts to do leaderly type things and shout orders. There's just one problem; as soon as he does this, he starts locking horns with Théoden:

"The last I looked, Théoden, not Aragorn, was king in Rohan."
Sounds like you need glasses.

There's one other thing I can't understand.

Don't Kill Grima! He's-- er, why are we not killing him?

In the book, the confrontation with Grima is different: he's not on the ground, but still trying to weasel his way out and pretending to be loyal. "Leave me here to watch over your house!" Éomer mocks him for being a coward, at which point Gandalf finally accuses him point-blank of being Saruman's mole, and then they discuss what to do about him. Gandalf advises not killing him, and Théoden presents Grima with a test of loyalty (which he fails) that will not make matters better or worse for Rohan. Théoden doesn't avenge himself and in fact later admits he still wishes he had his old councillor, in Gandalf's absence.

In the movie, of course, it's more dramatic-- Grima's got himself a posse, and Théoden goes on a rampage and tries to kill him. That, I'll buy: it's simply exaggerating what's in the book (a technique I felt FOTR used to good dramatic effect). But then Aragorn, lacking Gandalf's authority, bodily grabs Théoden and says, "too much blood has already been spillt on his account." It's actually a line from the book, but it just doesn't work. If I were Théoden at that moment, I would said, "That's EXACTLY why he deserves to have my sword jammed up his nose!" Er, only in a more kingly way.

At which point Théoden in the movie has another chest-beating alpha male moment, glares at him, and Aragorn gets himself off the hook by shouting "Hail, Théoden King!" and getting everyone to bow for Théoden, at which point he had to accept their homage and not growl at Aragorn. Nice save.

Aragorn may not be kingly material quite yet, but he's already learned that leadership and diplomacy are sometimes the fine art of covering one's posterior. And by the end of this film -- after a cozy little death and rebirth (and horse-smooch) sequence, always good for Hero PR -- Aragorn's having to coach Théoden.

Hail, Aragorn, King.

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