How We are Rohan
Nearly 20 years ago, I sat in a theater in Minnesota, a wide-eyed prepubescent, taking in The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time. In the years that followed, I would go on to watch the films until I could quote them in my sleep, reread the trilogy, and dress up as a Ringwraith well into my 30s. And yet, when I talked about them, I always ranked The Two Towers third, citing its “slower pace.”
Truth be told, I could never really justify why I felt this way about the second installment when I first saw it. But now, on the 20th anniversary of when the trilogy debuted and rocked the cinematic landscape, in a vastly changed world, I understand.
The Lord of the Rings is among the most important cultural phenomena out there, and the story is more relevant than ever—particularly The Two Towers.
It hit me as I sat in a Shanghai theater watching the trilogy rescreened for the anniversary earlier this year. Only in 2021, adrift in a pandemic, locked away from family, can the opening of The Two Towers resonate with its full emotional beats. It doesn’t start like most epics with a grandiose arrival, rather beginning quietly, with the echoing memory of Gandalf’s seemingly final moments in the Mines of Moria. It then moves on to Frodo, miles away in a foreign land, masking his grief as he awakens to the bleak reality that he still must soldier on, with no promise of a happy ending. The film then lingers in Rohan, where one cannot trust to hope, for “it has forsaken these lands.”
This is not just a story about destroying an evil ring: It’s a story about that perilous transition from despair to hope, and the near-impossibility to bridge it. It is a story for exactly this moment.
I blamed the pacing for my disconnect, but I was wrong. I simply hadn’t known grief—not in the way I would in 2021.
Naming the numbness
According to an April article by The New York Times, the dominating emotion of 2021 can be summed up as “languishing,” or “a sense of stagnation and emptiness … as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” The author Adam Grant calls languishing “the emotional long-haul of the pandemic” as the initial fight or flight response from the early days wears off and seemingly nothing has changed. In a sense, it is what happens when you are asked to rally again and again, only to have hope dashed against the rocks each time, or when “you’re indifferent to your indifference.”
If this feels familiar, that’s because it probably is. Even in a place like Shanghai, where life was more or less able to go on as usual after the initial outbreak in 2020, I and others I know have felt this ever-present, low-burning despair at so much not having changed and so much that will never be the same. Sometimes this sense of numbness hits me when I try to make plans even half a year from now. Sometimes it hits me when I remember all of the close friends that had to leave China and, with shut borders, won’t return. Sometimes it hits me when I watch friends and family in my home country reunite and have to stop short of telling them when I can join them, for fear of sparking hope that will only get snuffed until international travel resumes. Languishing is the color of never-ending, noncommittal gray, and it feels like static constantly buzzing at the back of your head, no matter the promises of something better.
As The New York Times piece contends, naming the sensation can help. But part of the pain is in feeling that the despair is a lesser grief. After all, how can we mourn a strict border when Shanghai has been so safe? How can we be sad for small losses, given the scale of the loss worldwide? How can we languish, when we have had so many opportunities to flourish?
This is precisely the premise of The Two Towers. Whereas the first installment shows characters imbued with fight-or-flight energy to solve an existential threat before it’s too late, The Two Towers is a story of what happens when those efforts feel futile and how too much grief left unacknowledged is paralyzing. The kingdom of Rohan embodies what it means to languish.
In a telling scene before the pivotal Battle of Helm’s Deep, King Théoden stands bathed in a thin stream of faint light, face frozen in a mask of defeat as he intones: “Where is the horse and his rider?” He is numb, even as he dons the armor of a king more confident. None of the conviction meets his eyes. “So much death… What can Men do against such reckless hate?” he later says, as defeat seems certain. Indeed, many times in 2021, I wondered the very same thing.
But this is how The Two Towers shapes the trilogy into the classic it is: Rohan becomes the absolute crux of hope in grief prevailing in spite of it all.
Rohan dons its grief, and through it, prevails.
Strength in grief
Tolkien knew grief quite well when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. As he highlights in the introduction to the book, most of his closest friends were dead by 1918 because of war and plague. His mother died when he was young. His life was marked with tragedy, and so it is no accident that the characters in his world navigate grief as if it is its own kingdom. In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes: “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression.”
Tolkien is a contemporary of the Lost Generation of writers who, in the midst of war, plague, and loss, tended toward works steeped in disillusionment. But The Lord of the Rings does something else. According to an article in Polygon, the trilogy has “an earnest belief that hope can coexist with despair, so long as we never surrender to it.” The books dig even deeper into this idea, with the villain Sauron crafting the Dawnless Day in The Return of the King in which he sends forth waves of impenetrable darkness, enveloping Middle-earth in gloom that the characters must march through nonetheless to buy Frodo time to destroy the Ring.
But before the Dawnless Day, before the flames of Mount Doom erupt in destruction and victory takes flight, is Helm’s Deep and Rohan’s own charge out of the fog of languishing. Rohan’s victory is not because the characters march on to darkness and beat it: it’s because they march on in spite of darkness. Théoden has no way of knowing there will be reinforcements when he charges the battlefield at Helm’s Deep; he simply charges because he must. He realizes how perilous the hope is, and holds onto it nonetheless, and as the article in Polygon points out, it is the combination of these small acts of defiance, these gambles for hope, that win the day. It is not blind hopefulness: It is dogged hopefulness.
The Two Towers is the turning point for this idea of dogged hope, when grief turns to strength, and it is the perfect language to navigate a year like 2021, when so much has been lost, and so much forsaken.
For, 20 years after the trilogy was released, the world is indeed changed. And as I revisit the beloved films now, I am drawn more and more to Rohan because of this.
I may not have experienced the same scale of loss as Tolkien, but I know what it feels to live as if under a shadow, dreaming of light. I don’t know when international borders will open. I don’t know when the pandemic will end. I only know that the lesser griefs, and all griefs, need their time to be mourned.
And so it was I found myself, months after watching the films again in theaters and doing a deep dive into all things The Lord of the Rings, returning like a long-misunderstood friend to Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers.
This time, alone in my apartment, I let the lack wash all over me in a way I hadn’t before. When the Uruk-Hai quipped “Looks like meat’s back on the menu!” I turned to a sister who was half a world away to share a knowing look she wouldn’t see. When the Scandinavian fiddle played Edoras’ theme, I remembered the violin recordings I had recently made for a funeral I likely wouldn’t be able to attend. And when Théoden turned to Aragorn and said “What can Men do against such reckless hate?” I reverberated in the despair and then the blistering euphoria as Aragorn responded: “Ride with me.”
Ride with me.
Of all moments in the now-20-year-old trilogy, this dogged hope encapsulates the defiance of all who have languished in 2021.
May we all be Rohan, to wrath or ruin ere the red sun rises.