At Full Force on Slender Steeds
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
'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
'I have fought many wars, Master Dwarf; I know how to defend my own
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.....'