Friday, May 30, 2014

The “Maimed Kings” Théoden and Frodo

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. 


  1. Small correction: In the sixth paragraph, I wrote, "but Tolkien explains that he does not mean that Smith was not meant to be great...Rather, he means that Smith has now achieved a different greatness..." I meant to refer to Gilson (Tolkien's friend who had just died), not Smith (to whom the letter is addressed). -ERGG

  2. I really like what yous said through this; I never though of Theoden in this way, but I think it is a good one.
    The parallels between Frodo and Theoden are very interesting, despite their being more obscure. They both die to Middle Earth, Theoden physically, and Frodo spiritually as the Shire no longer brings him peace or can be his home. They are leaders of their respective people, and both do not (at least fully) make it through the War of the Ring.

    My question for you, though, is how many characters are maimed kings and how many are just maimed by the War of the Ring. It seems that there are a few maimed kings (perhaps one for every race), but there are also characters merely harmed by the war, as every war does to so many people. So how should we look at characters to prevent from making too many maimed kings?

    ~Brendon Mulholland

  3. Dear ERGG,

    Thanks for your post following up on the theme of the ‘maimed-king’ in a new direction. I think the point about the enchanted Theoden is very suggestive and brings out the causal connection between the wounded king, the inability to do his duty as king and the waning or disturbance of the realm.
    It is harder to see the inspiration of Theoden’s death as a form of ‘healing.’ Even if it could be argued that it inspires the Rohirrim to fight in battle, the warrior’s combat – as we discussed in class – is not the same or a greater office than that of healer.

    However, I find it more interesting to see in Theoden’s death an echo of Tolkien’s experience at losing his friends in the War. I am intrigued and would like to hear more about the idea that the maiming and death of a friends as a kind sacrifice that might bring about a spiritual healing. This might be worthy to keep in mind for upcoming discussions.

  4. Thank you for bringing Theoden into our picture! I agree that we shouldn’t have neglected him, since we’re considering kings and heroes and Theoden is clearly simultaneously both, and very much involved in the plot. However, I find the comparison between him and Frodo a bit far-fetched.

    Firstly, Theoden is not really maimed (“permanently damaged”), physically or psychologically, as Frodo is. The latter loses both a finger and the mental capacity to live a peaceful life in the Shire--all that an average hobbit aspires to. Theoden, however, is born King and has always ruled, in peace and in war. His mentality is not changed much when killed by Nazgul. Even for the period when he was deceived by Wormtongue, Tolkien only used such words as “poison”. His intellectual powers were fully recovered afterwards. Therefore I do not think the word “maimed” fits him.

    I’m not sure that I agree with the statement “they lose their own ability to achieve greatness in Middle-earth”. If Theoden and especially Frodo did not achieve greatness in Middle-earth, then who did? Their sacrifice is unfortunate, but not untimely as Rob Gilson’s. Tolkien’s motif of the ennoblement of the ignoble particularly demands us to see Frodo’s greatness in its full light.

    Sophie Zhuang

  5. Your argument regarding maimed kings interestingly enough made me think of Manwe, King of the Valar. Manwe is obviously different from the other maimed kings in that he does not suffer physically as they do, but the mental toil is surely also undergone. Manwe and the other constantly despair at the actions of not only Melkor, but of the other beings of Middle-Earth. The revolt of the Noldor and the first kin-slaying sorrow them greatly. In spite of this, the Valar lead the host of the West to defeat Melkor in the War of Wrath. While Melkor is defeated, the Valar retreat to the West, refusing to return at any other point in the legendarium. While we cannot see into Manwe’s mind, I feel it is a safe assumption based on his insistence on residing in the West and not returning that his quest has made him tired. The return to the West is reminiscent of Frodo’s final venture across the sea in an attempt to find healing. These two “kings” both completed their tasks, but at great personal costs.
    -Elliott Snyder

    1. I really don't think that we can use Manwe in this "Maimed King" archetype. To assign a character to this archetype I think you need better evidence than the hypothetical possibility of personal cost. What wound does he reall sustain? Where is the evidence that this mental toil is undergone? (There may be some; my memory of the Silmarillion is certainly not encyclopedic, but I certainly didn't get that sense when I read it.) Who then is the healer king? The two archetypes are linked, you cannot have one without the other. Manwe is an interesting character, but I don't think he fits into this particular archetype.

      -Will Adkisson

  6. I think that Theoden is fundamentally and irrevocably maimed, in a way that doesn't prohibit success or glory, but in a way that entirely eclipses him from ever being a healing king. The death of his son and his partially willing corruption by Saruman push him into a way of being that he can never truly rise back from. In the same way that Frodo can never truly recover from the burden of the Ring, so is Theoden perpetually lessened by his surrender, simply because in it was a degree of self-awareness. This is a similar fate for Frodo, who freely chooses wrongly at the last, the crushing weight of the Ring overcomes him. This being said, I don't think Theoden and Frodo are not affecting characters, the results of their actions are wide-ranging and important, mostly for good, and mostly in a healing manner. I just think their failures, regardless of how acceptable or understandable those failures are, are too important to brush aside. they can both never be healing kings, because in their experiences of losing themselves to something malignant, they do not remain fully members of Middle-Earth.

  7. A rather obscure point of Middle Earth politics, that I only happen to know about because it is part of the story I’m reworking for my final project, also amplifies the identification of Théoden as a Maimed King figure. According to the story of Cirion and Eorl in the Unfinished Tales, when Cirion, Steward of Gondor, grants Eorl, first king of Rohan, the lands of Calenardhon (later renamed Rohan) as a reward for coming to the aid of the Gondorians at the battle of the Fields of Celebrant, he can only do so by the authority of the Stewards. Since he lacks the full power of the King of Gondor, once the king returns, any treaties he makes are immediately nullified and the lands of Rohan would revert to the control of Gondor. Therefore, when Théoden decides to honor the Oath of Eorl and ride to Gondor’s aid, he is potentially giving up his own kingdom, should Aragorn successfully claim the throne of Gondor. Without hesitation, Théoden rides to Gondor’s aid anyway, for the good of both his own lands and those of his allies and friends, knowing that he must risk sacrificing his and his family’s kingship. Fortunately, and not at all unexpectedly given what we have seen of Aragorn’s character, he chooses to renew the Oath of Eorl and grant it perpetual independence so it all works out in the end.
    Ian Chronis