I like to think of myself as well rounded, and I try not to have a single “favorite” anything. I love most flavors of ice cream, I look forward equally to Halloween and Christmas, and depending on my mood I can listen to anything from classical to classic rock. But as much as I try to be above the concept of favorites, I have to admit that I have a favorite passage in The Lord of the Rings. I call it “the Moment.”
Every time I read The Lord of the Rings, I start counting pages to the Moment as soon as I pick up my well-worn paperback of The Return of the King. Each time the Rohirrim appear, my heart races faster because I know the Moment is getting closer. By the time the Riders reach the Pelennor Fields, my heart is pounding. I can’t put the book down. The Moment is coming. I’ve stayed up hours past bedtime to get to the Moment, then fallen asleep with the book next to me and read the Moment again first thing in the morning.
Here’s the Moment:
‘Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!’
A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’
A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.’
‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’
(The Return of the King, pp. 822-823)
I don’t think I’m alone in my love for the Moment. Even those who don’t share my opinion about this moment being the Moment probably still rank it in their top five. Admit it, you do.
The Moment — and, of course, the following page or so of text in which the Witch-king is actually killed — is also surprisingly (to me, at least) one of the most controversial moments in the book as well. Readers are divided on exactly who deserves credit for dispatching the Nazgûl Lord. Does Éowyn get the credit for the final sword-thrust to the face? Or does Merry deserve the credit for rendering the Ringwraith vulnerable with his Barrow-blade, allowing Éowyn’s mundane sword to finish the Witch-king off?
I’ve seen this question hotly debated on message boards and social media with more fervor than Legolas and Gimli arguing about orc body counts. I’ve even seen the assertion that Merry’s attack had already mortally wounded the Ringwraith and that he died immediately before Éowyn struck (which I find unnecessarily complicated and slightly offensive). And don’t get people started on Glorfindel’s prophecy: whether “not by the hand of man will he fall” really meant that the Witch-king magically could not be killed by a man, or just that he would not fall until someone other than a man faced him.
It is always hearts, not swords,
that defeat evil in Middle-earth.
I realize I’m taking my reputation into my hands by opening up this topic, but before you immediately scroll down to the comments section to offer your opinion, hear me out. My goal today is not to debate these questions (though there is text from a fair copy printed in The History of Middle-earth, Volume VIII: The War of the Ring that, I believe, answers the question quite definitively). No, instead of starting a great big fight on the Internet and alienating four of the eight people who listen to the Prancing Pony Podcast, my goal today is to convince you that it doesn’t matter.
Not one bit.
Why? Because it wasn’t a sword that killed the Witch-king.
The Witch-king’s primary weapon was fear. When speaking of the Black Riders to Radagast, Gandalf spoke of the “deadly fear” their captain wielded (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 250), not his enormous mace. When the Witch-king stormed the gates of Minas Tirith, we are told that “all fled before his face” (The Return of the King, p. 811). Poor Théoden didn’t even get a chance to be tested against that fear, as Snowmane succumbed to it first, pinning the King to the ground in death. All those who faced the Nazgûl Lord (except Gandalf) in his full terrifying form that day fled before him. Only Éowyn daughter of Éomund and Meriadoc Brandybuck had the courage to stand and fight.
Not surprisingly, it was love for her uncle that gave Éowyn, still disguised as Dernhelm, the courage to stand firm:
But Théoden was not utterly forsaken. The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away. Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father.
(The Return of the King, p. 822)
Merry, for his part, had to overcome a lot of obstacles to be at the Pelennor Fields on that fateful morning. “Where will wants not, a way opens,” Dernhelm said to him as the Riders left Edoras (p.787), and it was Merry’s love for Frodo, Sam, and his other friends that gave him the will and the courage to take the spot offered to him on Dernhelm’s saddle. And on the morning of the battle, his love for Théoden urged him to stand firm, though ultimately it was not enough:
Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick.
‘King’s man! King’s man!’ his heart cried within him. ‘You must stay by him. As a father you shall be to me, you said.’ But his will made no answer, and his body shook. He dared not open his eyes or look up.
(The Return of the King, p. 822)
In the end, though, it was love that gave Merry the courage he needed. Not for Théoden his King, but for his mysterious companion on the road, the one who helped him find the way:
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry’s fear. He opened his eyes and the blackness was lifted from them. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgûl Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.
Éowyn it was, and Dernhelm also. For into Merry’s mind flashed the memory of the face that he saw at the riding from Dunharrow: the face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope. Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.
(The Return of the King, p. 823)
It is at this moment, the moment when they stood firm in the face of terror, that Éowyn and Merry together truly defeated their enemy. As soon as they stood courageous against the Witch-king on the battlefield, their enemy was (as we used to say back in school) “a dead man.” And while it certainly seems that Éowyn would not have been able to kill the Witch-king if Merry had not struck it first, Éowyn’s courage gave Merry the courage he needed to strike in the first place. Without Éowyn, Merry would not have been able to attack the Witch-king, Barrow-blade or not. Each needed the other to be there.
Am I avoiding the real question? I don’t think so. It’s worth noting that in Tolkien’s writings, weapons — even ancient, magical ones — are only as good as the people who wield them. Consider the One Ring: its power and malice are greater or lesser depending on who wears it. Narsil was a sword of great renown, but its value was primarily as a token of the house of Elendil, and it was not reforged until one arose worthy to bear that token. Anglachel was said by Thingol to have Eöl’s “dark heart”, but Beleg seemed able to keep its malice in check until that walking disaster Túrin came along. I believe that Tolkien himself would tell us that even a weapon as virtuous as Merry’s Barrow-blade wouldn’t do much good if it wasn’t wielded by one with the courage to use it against a foe too terrifying for most. It is always hearts, not swords, that defeat evil in Middle-earth.
I wrote in my last Prancing Pony Pondering that The Lord of the Rings takes place at a turning point in the history of Arda, from the mythic past to the historical present of the Earth we know today. Tolkien himself observed in letter 131 to Milton Waldman that The Silmarillion itself becomes “less mythical, and more like stories and romances” as time goes on (and notably as Men enter the picture), and so the shift can be seen as much more gradual than my “turning point” term implies. In truth, it’s a steady progression throughout the legendarium — not a sudden turn. From timeless gods, to immortal Elves, to heroic and legendary Edain … from long-lived and mighty Númenóreans to “lesser men” and Hobbits, the protagonists of the tales are more “ordinary” as the tales go on. The world of the supernatural gradually becomes the world of the natural.
And by the end of the Third Age, it is the ordinary courage of the unexpected heroes among us that wins wars. So it is very fitting to me that the terrifying, supernatural captain of Sauron’s host was felled by the two unlikeliest warriors on that battlefield: the woman and the halfling, both of whom were told by “better” soldiers that they didn’t belong there. Both played their part, and neither could do it without the other; but together they did what no one else could.