At Full Force on Slender Steeds

by Varda

In the book Gandalf describes King Théoden to Pippin as 'a kindly old man' but in the film Bernard Hill portrays a vigorous, complex, courageous man of middle age whom it is dangerous to cross. His hair and beard are not white, and once he is retrieved from Wormtongue's spell he is not doddery or frail, but well able to gallop to war and fight. In the book concern is expressed about Théoden's ability to make the trip, but no-one will worry about Peter Jackson's Théoden; here is a genuine warrior king...

Tolkien's Théoden likens himself to 'an old badger caught in a trap'. Woe betide anyone suggesting that to Jackson's Théoden. When Aragorn tells him 10,000 Uruk-hai are marching his way, he merely snorts;
'Let them come!' and turns on his heel to stamp off and array his defences. When Gimli dares to advise him, he rounds on the dwarf with the words;
'I have fought many wars, Master Dwarf; I know how to defend my own keep'

The cartoon version of Théoden had a long white beard and was quite elderly. This is formidable warrior king still in the prime of life, like the fighting Danish kings of Viking Dublin. His sword looks a bit like theirs too.

Are Jackson's changes a good idea? To Tolkien purists no doubt it is heresy, but Jackson's Théoden is a true hero. Brought back to sanity by Gandalf he is still his own man, and refuses to be led by the wizard and rudely rebuffs Aragorn when he dares to advise him. He is prickly, proud and sarcastic.

Like the best modern hero Théoden has demons; he is racked by guilt over his weakness in succumbing to Wormtongue. Like the book Théoden he burns to erase that shame in battle, but Jackson's Théoden also wants to make a difference to the outcome of the battle. He wants to die in battle, but not to die in vain.

More importantly to the marginalised womenfolk in Tolkien, Jackson's Théoden takes the time to communicate intelligently with Éowyn. He is shown as caring deeply for her, and being guilty that she had to look after him when he should have looked after her. In the book it is Merry to whom Théoden speaks his last words, but Jackson, rightly to my mind, makes him speak his final words to Eowyn, and what moving words they are!
'I wanted to save you' she says when she realises her uncle is dying.
'You already have..' he replies, in a wonderfully moving exchange, one of the best in all three films.

Jackson has modelled his king on Tolkien's but also on the wily, aggressive, courtly kings of the Saxons or Vikings. His costume and armour is akin to Saxon and the half-moon pommel of his sword is like that of Norse blades. His rousing of his men before the battle of the Pelennor is from the Viking sagas, or Beowulf, as is his extravagant gesture of riding along his battle line striking his sword on the spears of his men.

Théoden wants death or glory, and Jackson duly gives him lines which are actually spoken in the book by Éomer when he finds his sister lying on the field of battle, and thinks she is dead...

'Death, death, death, death take us all......'

Théoden is the very embodiment of the warlike king and could have spoken these words from the 9th century Irish poem the Táin;

'I swear to the gods I'll do great deeds
Before these warriors driving to triumph
At full force on slender steeds.....'