Having watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy again recently, it became immediately apparent to me that there was one character who really just got the short straw of the entire situation. Sam is, of course, the most important character (forget Frodo!) but there is one man who’s ultimately hard done by, worse than everyone else.
Spoilers follow, naturally.
That man is King Theoden of Rohan. The rest of the large cast go through trials and tribulations in the three films, but nowhere near as much as King Theo! The films add some exaggeration to the King’s plight compared to the books, but not a great deal. Here’s why he gets the Unsung Hero gong, in chronological order:
Under the Thumb
Before the heroes even arrive in Rohan, Theoden has been placed under the magical thrall of Wormtongue, a servant of Saruman the White. Not only is this an insult to a great warrior – to be unnaturally aged and enfeebled – but in the process of defending the land his son, Theodred, is killed. Not only does he not care, Theoden banishes the next in line to the throne, his nephew Eomer, under the influence of Wormtongue. When Gandalf breaks the spell and Theoden becomes his own man again, he can’t even remember his son’s death and has to deal with the guilt and sorrow after the fact.
Bombs and Despair
Realising his lands are in danger, King Theoden decides to take his people to Helm’s Deep and ride out the storm of the dual threat of Saruman and Sauron. Theo keeps a brave face and holds his people’s morale together with both hands after they learn an army of ten thousand Uruk-Hai are bearing down on the fortress, but even the stalwart King is forced to doubt after the walls of his approaching-impenetrable fortress are blown up in spectacular fashion by a new weapon created by Saruman. Which is sort of unfair in itself – being the first strategist to face an unprecedented force of destruction – but worse, Theoden’s despair threatens to consume him after he, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and a dozen or so survivors find themselves facing the end of their entire kingdom, locked in the throne room. Aragorn convinces the King to ride out in a defiant final stand when he is delivered the final insult – he’s bailed out by Gandalf, who told him not to go to Helm’s Deep, who swoops in to eradicate the Uruk-Hai with the forces of the banished Eomer. We don’t get to see Gandalf say “I told you so,” but you can bet he did, the smarmy git.
“Well thank God for tha- oh, wait, more warfare.”
Theoden and his people have a bit of a party at the start of the third film to celebrate, but before long are being cajoled by Gandalf to go and help the people of Gondor after they learn they are Sauron’s next target. Theoden, understandably, gets a bit pissy at this. Where were the people of Gondor when Rohan needed help? All they got at Helm’s Deep were a couple of dozen Elves who all got massacred anyway! But after the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, refuses to call for aid from his neighbours, Gandalf and Pippin enact a bit of political tomfoolery and light the beacons to call for it anyway. Gondor has called (kind of), and Rohan answers – Theoden selflessly packs up the people, gathers the tribes and spends a large part of the third film drudging across glorious New Zealand landscapes to help out his neighbours.
Ungrateful and Useless Parallel
And this is really where it starts to grate – fair enough, all heroes have to go through trials, otherwise they wouldn’t be heroes, right? But here we find Denethor, the stand-in ruler of Gondor, in much the same position as Theoden found himself when we were introduced to his character. Boromir, the Steward’s son, has been killed, and Denethor is in mourning for him. But while Theoden (literally) saddles up and gets on with it, Denethor goes a bit barmy and sends his other, still living son Faramir, to his death after throwing a bit of a temper tantrum! Then, later, goes even more mad and tries to set himself and his son, whom he mistakenly believes is dead, on fire! Denethor throws the ultimate strop by running an incongruous distance along the citadel, on fire, before throwing himself off its highest point. In place of the largely useless Denethor, Theoden rides in with the rest of his Rohirrim and fights tooth and nail for Gondor on the battlefield below. In the books Denethor had the excuse of also being under Sauron’s poisonous influence – in the films, however, he’s just a stroppy cow.
And finally, the ultimate insult – Theoden’s death. His people have fought and suffered greatly, and are doing so in the defence of another kingdom. They’ve charged the biggest army of evil seen for centuries, twice, including a force of war elephants (I refuse to call them by their Tolkien-spelled name!) and have, being honest, had their arses handed to them. King Theoden never even blinks, sticking it to Sauron’s army until his planned glorious end, when he happens to look over his shoulder to see the shadow of the Witch King’s Fell Beast swooping down on him. Such a brave and veteran warrior should go down in a blaze of glory, right? He should battle for hours with the Witch King, whom no man can slay, before being cut down in a noble manner, right? Well, no. The Fell Beast rags his horse from under and then onto him, pinning the mortally wounded King in place in just a moment, without even exchanging blows with the Witch King. Eowyn steps in and, using the tricky loophole of being a woman, slays the Witch King on her uncle’s behalf, allowing him to at least have a few final words before moving on to the next plane.
Mind poisoned, son dead, lands ravaged, people slaughtered, soldiers on and ends up mauled by a bloody great dragon thing fighting for his neighbour’s country who can’t even be arsed to keep his wits and fight for himself. Bit of a bad rap there King Theo – and for that, we salute you!