Within the expansive Western canon, there is perhaps no more stirring passage than that which concludes Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s fifth chapter of the fifth book of The Lord of the Rings, entitled “The Ride of the Rohirrim.” To refresh, the Rohirrim—that equine-founded fighting force of the land of Rohan—has just made the long, hard trek from Edoras to the outer walls with the help of Wildman tribal lead Ghân-Buri-Ghân. They are met with a sight of carnage beyond imagination: Minas Tirith besieged by a host of Mordor numbering in the tens of thousands. The ringed and layered city itself is aflame with the meticulous, subtle sacking, winged Hell-beasts soaring this way and that. This is the moment for which Theoden, King of Rohan, has been doomed. Merry feels, suddenly but surely, a change in the wind and with that, the slightest fool’s hope for final victory.
This passage as a whole embodies perhaps the most mindful passage of Western literature—mindful in the sense that the reader is transported fully to the scene. He is mounted on his steed along with the rest of the Rohirrim. In one hand is grasped his sword and in the other the reins. When Theoden seizes the great horn from Guthlaf his bannerman, when he “blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder,” the reader hears the blast and sees the shattered remains of the horn trod into the dirt as the cavalry thunders away.
Tolkien, a master of sensory writing, makes such mindfulness for the reader easy: “… he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder”, “… all the horns were lifted up in music”, “… the blowing of the horns in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains”, “… his banner blew in the wind”, “After him thundered the knights…”, “… the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed”, “… the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore”, “ran like new fire in his veins”, “His golden shield… shone like the image of the Sun and the grass flamed like green about the white feet of his steed”, “… morning, and the wind of the sea”, “And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew… and the sound of their singing was fair and terrible.” In a matter of five paragraphs Tolkien has used a myriad of sensory descriptions on the field of battle. The Rohirrim did not merely charge, or attack. They charged so fast that they outran the wind, and they slew even whilst they sang a fair and terrible tune.
This is but one of many angles from which the reader may approach this single passage. All told, this text takes up less than a full page, but contains therein such rich prose as to be poetic in the Homeric sense. Tolkien’s genius was boundless.
Jeremy A. Kee
Jeremy is a writer, editor, mental health professional, and Tolkien admirer based in Dallas, Texas.