On Wednesday, I was somewhat surprised that King Théoden wasn’t listed on the “Board of Heroes.” Of course, the Lord of the Rings is a tale of many heroes, and a one-hour-twenty-minute class period doesn’t give us ample time to cover them all. But I believe Théoden also holds a heroic role worth considering further. In fact, I believe he and Frodo have a similar role as “maimed kings” within their respective storylines.[i]
In her chapter, “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero,” Verlyn Flieger presents Frodo as the “maimed king,” in contrast to Aragorn, the “healer king.” According to Flieger, “The Maimed King in the Grail Stories is counterposed to the Healing King, the Grail Knight,” (Flieger, p.134). Although the “healer king” is the active “renewer” in the story, the “maimed king” is still crucial, for “without [his] sacrifice the efforts of the Healing King would be in vain.”
Flieger subsequently lists the criteria that make Frodo a “Maimed king,” akin to that of the Grail legend: First, he is literally maimed (by the Witch-king, by Shelob, and by Gollum). Second, his “loss of the Ring makes possible the renewal of the land” (both of Middle-earth in its entirety, and more specifically of the Shire) (Flieger, 144). Third, he is “associated with and finally committed to water.”
Interestingly, Théoden fits these criteria, too. In Volume II, Théoden is introduced as an ailing king, deceived and poisoned by Gríma Wormtongue. While he does recover physically, he has lost his only son, Théodred; the Arthurian “Maimed King” is infertile due to his wounds, but Théoden is similarly wounded when he loses his only offspring. Théoden subsequently rallies his people to victory both in the Battle of the Hornburg and when they are called to aid Gondor, where he ultimately dies on the Pelennor. Merry and Eowyn actually immediately rise to avenge his death, and take on their own roles as heroes. Finally, Théoden’s body is returned to Rohan, which is oddly referred to as a “sea” of grass at points throughout the text. For instance, when Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas follow the riders of Rohan to Edoras, Tolkien writes, “Often the grass was so high that it reached above the knees of the riders, and their steeds seemed to be swimming in a grey-green sea,” (LOTR, p.504). Considering this, Théoden is also associated with “water,” and is finally committed to “water” when he dies.
In light of this similarity, I extend Flieger’s claim. Instead of viewing Frodo as the “maimed king” of the text, and Aragorn as the “healer king,” I believe that Frodo and Théoden, both “maimed kings,” each support a league of healer kings. As Flieger mentions, Frodo’s sacrifice of taking on the “anti-quest” of losing the ring allows Aragorn to become King of Gondor, and as we discussed in class, although Frodo is unable to save the Shire himself, his sacrifice allows Merry, Pippin, and Sam to do so. Similarly, while Théoden dies, he inspires those who love him to take on heroic roles. Eomer becomes king of Rohan, and during his reign the country prospers (LOTR, p.1070). Eowyn and Merry first avenge Theoden’s death, and then each become “healers” themselves, helping to restore Ithilien and the Shire, respectively.
Considering the end of both Frodo’s and Theoden’s story reminded me of Tolkien’s words to his friend Geoffrey B. Smith (Letter 5). After hearing about their fellow TCBS member Rob Gilson’s death, Tolkien and the other two remaining members are clearly shaken up—in Tolkien’s words, “something has gone crack.” Yet he writes to Smith about his continued expectation’s of TCBS’ greatness, saying “…when I say that I now believe that if the greatness which we three certainly meant (and meant as more than holiness or nobility alone) is really the lot of the TCBS, then the death of any of its members is but a bitter winnowing of those who were not meant to be great—at least directly.” At first, this sounds startlingly irreverent (in fact, Tolkien qualifies this sentence by saying, “God grant that this does not sound arrogant”), but Tolkien explains that he does not mean that [Gilson] was not meant to be great, and so God removed him from the world. Rather, he means that [Gilson] has now achieved a different greatness, as he as become an unforgettable inspiration for the remaining three members. Tolkien stands by what he claims to be a collective TCBS belief that the club, no matter how small it becomes, is destined for importance: “…the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.” Further, he concludes that, “Of course, the TCBS may have been all we dreamt—and its work in the end be done by three or two or one survivor and the part of the others be trusted by God to that of the inspiration which we do know we all got and get from one another.”
In many ways, Frodo and Théoden[ii], the “maimed kings,” are also the Rob Gilsons of The Lord of the Rings (even if Tolkien didn’t directly intend for them to be so, considering his vehement dislike of allegory). Through their sacrifices, they lose their own ability to achieve greatness in Middle-earth, but imbue others with the ability [to] succeed. In some ways, I would still call this healing, but a healing of a more spiritual kind, somewhat similar to Jesus’ sacrifice for human kind in the New Testament.
As Flieger points out, by “maiming” Frodo on his quest, Tolkien is pointing out that the world is not fair: “In the real world things seldom turn out as we would like them to, and the little man is as subject to tragedy as the great one” (Flieger, 145). Tolkien’s real-life loss of his friend Rob Gilson highlights this theme. Overall, considering Flieger’s concluding remark, that “By giving us both Aragon and Frodo [Tolkien] has used the contrast between them to widen and deepen the meaning of his story,” I think it is further enlightening to consider that there are other characters in “maimed king” roles occurring in synchrony with Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.
[i] I do not mean to say that Théoden is a fairy-tale hero, like Flieger claims Frodo is. As King of Rohan, he certainly isn’t a low-born person who finds himself on a grand quest. I am limiting my comparison to the “maimed king” component of Flieger’s argument regarding Frodo’s brand of hero.
[ii] I do not think that Frodo and Théoden are the only “maimed kings” of Middle-earth, either. For me, the first good example to compare with them that comes to mind is Thorin Oakenshield.