When we first meet him, King Théoden of Rohan is in thrall to his laughably evil advisor, Gríma Wormtongue. Through the efforts of Gandalf, Théoden throws off the yoke of his oppressor and rediscovers his strength and his sanity. But, for all his bonding with Pippin and his gracious speeches to Eomer and Eowyn, he never seems to rediscover his heart. Because while he was playing a pawn in Saruman’s power games, his only child, Théodred, was killed in battle, a truth that Théoden didn’t seem to quite comprehend while under Wormtongue’s sway and that he doesn’t ever confront after coming back to his senses. Framed as the warrior-king of a war-loving people, one wouldn’t expect Théoden to become a blubbering mess but, well, his son did die. This proves to be one of those rare instances where the film adaptation actually adds more characterization than the original text.
Not only was Théodred Théoden’s only child but Théoden’s wife, Elfhild, died in childbirth. Théoden never remarried. And then his son, the only surviving member of his nuclear family, is killed during a period when Théoden is essentially brainwashed so that the king can’t properly mourn—let alone say goodbye—to his son. That’s brutal. But in the text Théoden never struggles with this reality. He never weeps or grieves or succumbs to what should have been a monumental sadness. Instead, he barely acknowledges Théodred’s death in the text and only ever gets that one moment of sadness in the films.
Given all that has happened to him, why isn’t the King of Rohan sadder? Why, when Merry claims that the old man will be “like a father” to him, doesn’t Théoden kick the hobbit right in his furry feet? Théoden is a warrior-king and Rohan is shown to value strength and bravery but Théoden is also shown to be tender and caring to Éomer and Éowyn, his niece and nephew, as well as Merry, who the king barely knows, and a number of other characters. He was not an unfeeling man. So why doesn’t he seem to miss the son that he lost while in his wizard-induced haze?
Weirdly, the most likely explanation for what, upon closer inspection feels like a glaring oversight is one that Tolkien himself cited (possibly in jest): The Lord of the Rings is too short. Seriously. Considering all the narrative freight that the story has to bear, there simply wasn’t time within the book’s confines to get deep into the minds and hearts of each and every one of the dozen-plus primary characters in the story. And yet, that Tolkien couldn’t work in a moving display of Théoden’s emotional pains feels like a sizable oversight. Or at least it did until I realized that it took me twenty-odd readings of the book to ever notice this. And now, the more I think about it, the more I start to think that no plot hole could possibly be this deftly hidden by accident.
Maybe Tolkien handled the situation as well as he could after all.