Human beings are, and I think, always have been, creatures of high emotion. Due to our elevated intellectual capacities, and the ability to consider things outside of ourselves: to compare past and present, to compare ourselves to other people, and to comment on our life (all things impossible for animals) it therefore leaves us vulnerable to despair. It’s a powerful and awful emotion, though it has somewhat changed its meaning in the 21st century from its traditional sense. In the 17th century to ‘despair’ was to no longer believe in the capacity of God to save or forgive you. Religious or not, I think we can all appreciate that to reach a state where you believe that the omnipotent creator of the entire universe, can no longer save you: you are in a fairly bad way.
Coping with this propensity for despair, for self deprecation, and the danger inherent with being a ‘higher thinking creature’, as evolutionists would term it, I personally believe is as much a part of being human as falling in love, and living life to the fullest. At some point everybody, has to face the spectre of despair, and overcome it – because if you can’t overcome it the only alternative is suicide, and to think that some people are driven to this extreme is frightening, especially considering these things happen the Western world, where, being frank, we have it easy.
Throughout the ages of man, literature, music and songs have tried to encapsulate this dark emotion that we all sometimes feel, and I think, truly, there has been no greater attempt than Tolkien’s legendary ‘horse and rider speech’ (made more legendary by Bernard Hill’s startling rendition of it in the movie). The speech is based on an Anglo Saxon lament called: ‘The Wanderer’. In which the rhetorical questions of the speaker, and his exclamations expressing loss of things that have passed and are no longer in their place, summon a terrible atmosphere of a dying world.
“Where are the joys of the hall? Alas! the bright cup. Alas! the mailed warrior.”
Tolkien uses this framework of question, answer, and exclamation to construct Theoden’s immortal speech before the battle at Helm’s Deep, where he is sure that his entire people, kingdom, and essentially, universe, are about to come to an end. His certainty is such that he asserts to Aragorn:
“If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such, an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
He frames it like a question “If” – but the second part of the sentence is almost like an answer to the first part, showing us he has a pre-drawn conclusion. His conclusion is that they must settle for a heroic death, as life is no longer an option.
Theoden’s speech is the universal cry of humanity in despair. It is the epitome of a man questioning their place in the universe. It begins: “Who am I Gamling?” – ‘who am I?’ is actually a question impossible to answer: we can only ever answer things with which we help define ourselves, but we can never define ourselves in isolation. For example:
Who am I?
Joseph Sale – no that’s my name.
Who am I?
A writer – no, that’s what I do.
Who am I?
Son of James Sale – no, that’s where I come from.
So we see by asking this impossible question Theoden is abandoning an innate identity in his struggle to understand the calamity of what has happened. The speech is a masterpiece, there’s no doubting that, and for all of those that have felt despair, it serves as a beacon of understanding. Tolkien does with this what all great writers should do: he puts something we all experience into words, in a way that no one else could, and a way that we can all relate to.
Thanks very much for reading.
If you want to read more of Joe’s blogs, follow him on Twitter at: josephwordsmith.