One of my favourite movie scenes of all time is the death of Théoden in The Return of the King. It sounds a bit morbid! But for all his flaws, Tolkien understood the power of story, and Peter Jackson understands storytelling (for all that that is not abundantly evident in the Hobbit movies).
I've liked Théoden since I first read The Lord of the Rings at age 12, but Bernard Hill lends the character a gravitas he didn't necessarily have in the book. Hill's Théoden is the head of a proud house in a time of decay -- a leader of a people low on resources and low on hope, staring extinction in the face. No one could dismiss him as a mere "kindly old man".
Yet, though Théoden has one of the best arcs in the Lord of the Rings films, the real reason I love his death scene is that it is Éowyn's moment, too: her moment of triumph, having defeated the Witch-king of Angmar, but also her moment of tragedy, since no Lord of the Rings character is allowed to enjoy triumph unmixed with bitterness. It is a quiet, intimate moment after the high drama of her confrontation with the Witch-king, and I have always loved the small moments in which all the work the storyteller has put in to make you care about their characters pays off, and you get to see the characters shine.
The scene is done deftly, in a series of movies that, let's be real, have their fair share of overacting. From Théoden's puzzled look and unsentimental address -- "I know your face" -- to Éowyn's refusal to believe what is evident: "I am going to save you." You are glad that these two people have found each other in the welter of war, and that Theoden does not go to his fathers alone. You also cry every time, no matter how many times you have watched the scene -- or at least you do if you are me.
Théoden's is a good death, according to the values of his culture. There aren't that many stories about how to make a good death. It's not something it's easy to talk or think about. But that's what story is for -- to deal with the ideas that are too big to talk directly about, the things we're too scared to address in plain terms.
The Lord of the Rings is the epitome of fantasy, but in its breadth and depth it works through a lot of big ideas and feelings. That's why it continues to have such a hold on us. It's proof of what all fantasy readers know: that something doesn't have to be real to be true.
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