If you think Lord of the Rings, what comes to your mind first? For me, it’s always been people.
Tolkien’s series abounds in meaningful and memorable characters, one of the many traits that have captured the hearts of readers for generations. Really, beyond the journey, the battles, and the magic, this is a story about people—the bonds they share, the losses they suffer, and the lengths they will go to fight for what they believe in.
In the early 2000s, when Peter Jackson adapted the books for the silver screen, the story reached a whole new audience. Including pre-teen me – I watched the Fellowship of the Ring at my brother’s instigation, he stole the untouched books from his shelf and devoured them, counting down the days until the release of the second and third films. (Sample for The return of the King remains one of the best movie trailers of all time, and I certainly won’t argue otherwise.)
Between Samwise’s loyalty, Aragorn’s wisdom, and Gandalf’s sharp tongue, it would be easy to believe that one of the main characters has the best dialogue in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, right?
[King Théoden has entered the chat.]
King of Rohan. Lord of the Riddermark. (Saruman’s puppet that he was once vaguely possessed, but we don’t need to dwell on that.) In what other character do we find the perfect combination of inspiring royal stoicism and sheer paternal energy?
He could have fallen into despair and let his people feed on his pessimism instead of standing tall in the face of evil. He did not do it. He could let another lead the charge into battle, he could bow to the power of the Two Towers without a fight. He didn’t. When the beacons came on, he answered pretty darn well, didn’t he?
Now, credit where credit is due – the words themselves are fantastic, but Bernard Hill is the one who brings them to life. His intonation, his facial expressions—good lord, the man bindsand it’s amazing. Yes, I love when Gandalf talks about how to make the most of the time we’re given, and of course my heart rises almost to bursting when the music kicks in and Samwise says to Frodo, “I can carry you.” But when all is said and done, Théoden’s scenes in the movies have an overwhelming tendency to make my throat tighten with emotion and my fist in the air.
So we can all see the light, I’ve compiled my list of Théoden’s five best moments of the film trilogy. I recommend watching the movies as soon as possible to get the full effect of the replicas – complete with music, costumes, hoofbeats, the whole thing. (Extended editions only, of course.)
Greetings, Théoden King.
Théoden: So much death. What can men do against such wanton hatred?
Aragorn: Ride with me. Drive out and meet it.
At the end of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, it’s one of those great lines that transcends time and place; they are just as applicable in a secondary fantasy world as they are in the real one, hundreds of years ago or today. In the face of hatred, ignorance and cruelty, what can any of us do but go out and meet her? Soon Théoden takes Aragorn’s advice in the most epic way:
Théoden: Helm Hammerhand’s horn sounds in the depths for the last time. Let this be the hour when we draw our swords together. He fell deeds up. Now for wrath, now for doom and red dawn. Forward Èorlingas!
I think. COME ON. If you are able to reach the end of this gathering and not shout Forth Èorlingas! at Théoden’s side as you pump your fist in the air, I’m sorry to tell you that you have a heart of stone. Those lines and the scene that follows take my breath away every time.
Théoden: They break on this fortress like water on a rock… Crops can be stitched, houses rebuilt. We will survive them inside these walls.
Aragorn: They did not come to destroy Rohan’s crops or villages, they came to destroy his people – down to the last child.
Théoden: What do you want me to do? Look at my men. Their courage hangs in the balance. If this is going to be our end, then I’d let them make it a memorable ending.
Before I leave Helm’s Deep, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this exchange. I love love how Théoden turns this moment on its head. Here we are used to siding with Aragorn and expecting him to be right. And yet – in this he misjudges Théoden. Théoden is no fool, neither falsely optimistic nor naive. He provides a display of strength that his people need, choosing to offer a bit of morality in place of despair even though there is so little hope left. It is a beautiful example of leadership at its best.
Théoden: Sit in the Golden Hall. You can defend Edoras for a long time if the battle goes badly.
Éowyn: What other duty do you want from me, my lord?
Théoden: Duty? No. I want you to smile again, not mourn for those whose time has come. You will see the restoration of these days. No more despair.
In my opinion, this is one of Théoden’s most moving scenes in the movies. It is dawn before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. The sun has just begun to rise, the sky aglow, just as it was the morning Théoden rode out of Helm’s Hollow. Here Théoden once again stands on the brink of battle, again not expecting to return.
There is something beautiful about the silence of this scene. In the midst of the burden of leadership, the suffocating tension of current circumstances, and the near certainty of death, he needs time to speak to his niece—not as a king to his heir, but as family. Théoden is so wonderfully human, and this scene shows that dimension in a new and memorable way.
Aragorn: Gondor cries for help.
Théoden: And Rohan will answer.
What a great simple pair of lines that follow the lighted beacons. Not only do they pack a huge punch, eight little words to end a sprawling cinematic sequence involving spectacular landscapes and dramatic orchestration, but they also — they include one of the important questions of the series. Will you follow someone else’s poor example and wallow in past hurts, or will you rise up and do better?
Rise, rise, Théoden’s riders! Spears will be shaken, shields shattered! The day of the sword, the red day before the sun rises! Ride now! Ride now! Ride! Drive to doom and the end of the world! Death! Death! Death! Forward Èorlingas!
Oh, Théoden. How do you manage to give the most amazing rally speeches before you lead your people into battle? (Yes, I’m crying for, “It’s not today,” I’m not a heathen—but that’s for a separate list, another day.) The Battle of the Pelennor Fields has begun. Théoden screams at the top of his lungs, galloping Snowman down the line, scraping his sword through dozens of spears. You know that incredibly moving moment in the book when the rooster crows in Minas Tirith just as all seems lost because morning has come regardless? The horns of Rohan call back and we are reminded that hope still remains. For me, this speech and the charge it creates comes close to the power of that image. It is simply perfection.
Originally published in October 2021.
Elayne Audrey Becker (she/her) is a storyteller with a passion for history, myth, mountains and magic. She holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from the University of Aberdeen, and has worked as an editor in New York publishing. Born and raised in Georgia, she grew up with a lake and woods as her backyard, spending long days outside and visiting national parks with her family. Forestborn is her first book.