Over the last year I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my son, and it’s been wonderful to re-experience Tolkien and Middle-earth through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. The other night we came to the chapter The Passing of the Grey Company where Aragorn and his companions enter the Haunted Mountain and find the mysterious skeleton of a warrior on the Paths of the Dead:
Before him were the bones of a mighty man. He had been clad in mail, and still his harness lay there whole; for the cavern’s air was as dry as dust, and his hauberk was gilded. His belt was of gold and garnets, and rich with gold was the helm upon his bony head face downward on the floor. He had fallen near the far wall of the cave, as now could be seen, and before him stood a stony door closed fast: his finger-bones were still clawing at the cracks. A notched and broken sword lay by him, as if he had hewn at the rock in his last despair.
This scene is reminiscent of something that a player might stumble upon in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (a game that I introduced my son to last summer and one that we’ve been playing with gusto ever since). He had so many questions about the dead warrior with the golden helm. Why had he come here alone? Who had slain him? And what lay behind the mysterious stone portal that he had tried so desperately to open?
In the next chapter, The Muster of Rohan, you find out more about this dead man from King Théoden. The corpse, it turns out, belongs to his ancestor—Baldor the Hapless, the prideful grandson of Eorl. (Hapless means “unlucky.”) Baldor drank too many mead-horns one night at a ceremony celebrating the completion of the Golden Hall. And then he made a Middle-earthed sized blunder, boasting that he would take a walk through the Dark Door of the Dimholt, an evil portal that he had been warned by a mysterious old man not to enter (a man who promptly “fell upon his face” dead like a Monty Python character after pronouncing this prophecy of doom).
Why did Baldor make this “rash vow” as Théoden calls it? Everyone knew that the place was haunted by Oathbreakers: men who had betrayed Isildur and been cursed by him to live as phantoms after death. And the Dead Men of Dunharrow did not allow living men to pass into their realm. There were no rumors of treasure to be found within the lightless tunnels under the Dwimorberg mountains. Only forewarnings of death. But Baldor got drunk and made one of those crazy truth-or-dare type announcements. He might as well have said that he was going to take a little fishing trip to the Dead Marshes, or try his hand at Balrog hunting in the Mines of Moria.
The act of boasting was a big part of Anglo-Saxon culture (which the Rohirrim were modeled on). In the Old English poem Beowulf, the eponymous hero brags about things like killing sea monsters with his bare hands during swimming races; and any Anglo-Saxon king worth his gilded hauberk would state all of the manly things he would accomplish in battle before he proceeded to do so. The Riders of Rohan of the Third Age of Middle-earth, however, are not a boastful sort. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been beaten down and seen their power dwindle. In these turbulent times they let their actions speak for themselves. And they are terrified of the Paths of the Dead.
In an unfinished essay [Vinyar Tengwar 42 (July 2001)] Tolkien tells us what actually happened to Baldor when he went on his hopeless journey. He made it to the stone door (a portal that led to some “evil temple” built by men who worshipped Sauron long ago) and then his enemies (ghosts of the Oathbreakers, most likely) broke the hapless Baldor’s legs and left him to die in the inky darkness. What a strange fate for a King’s heir—a doughty warrior who should have inherited the Golden Hall and lived out his days in sunlight, riding horses across the vast Plains of Rohan. Aragorn says, “Hither shall the flowers of simbelmynë come never unto world’s end.” The flowers that grow on the grassy tombs of the Kings of Rohan will not ever come to this dark and dreary place where Baldor’s bones have lain for 450 years.
Théoden is such a modest king that he calls himself “a lesser son of great sires,” but his valiant charge against the hosts of Mordor saves Gondor from falling, thus attaining glory far beyond any of his ancestors’ feats. Even so, his final words are completely lacking in bombast. As he lays dying on the Pelennor Fields, he blesses Merry and tells him to think of him when he smokes his pipe. And with his last breath he asks his nephew to give his beloved niece Éowyn—“dearer than daughter”—his farewell.
Perhaps Tolkien’s lesson of Baldor the Hapless is that those who purposefully seek out dangerous deeds for no good reason are doomed to epic failures, while those who are pushed by necessity to face great trials and rise to the occasion are the true heroes.
(REPOSTED Article: Originally posted in 2014)