On The Ride of the Rohirrim
Throughout The Silmarillion the goodness of Men is directly connected to their affiliation with the Elves. In the First Age the Edain are the Men who resist Morgoth alongside the Elves, and grow greater in life, wisdom, art, culture, language, arms, and knowledge as a result of that connection. J.R.R Tolkien is showing that Men flourish when they are allied with the Firstborn of Ilúvatar. This climaxes in the Edain being given the land of Númenor at the end of the First Age under the leadership of Elros Half-elven, brother of Elrond. There they surpass all Elves and other Men in greatness in a society flourishing with the best of both races. The Númenóreans fall into decline when they reject the received wisdom from the Elves. Gondor is the remnant kingdom of Númenor, whose greatness and vitality waxes and wanes to the degree it remains faithful. Gondor’s greatness is restored at the end of The Lord of Rings, when Aragorn, the most faithful descendent of Númenor, marries the Elf Arwen.
Tolkien is presenting a story where human flourishing is connected to living life as its creator intended. Men are more corruptible, and need the guidance of their uncorrupted elder siblings the Elves to live well in that created order. The Lord of the Rings is a coming of age story for Men, where the Elves finally leave and Men are set to live well in creation.
Which is why I find the Rohirrim one of the best aspects of The Lord of the Rings. The Men of Rohan are not descended from the Edain or Númenor. There is no Elvish inculturation or heritage among them. They are just Men, ordinary Men, who did not go over to the temptation of Morgoth or Sauron. The doom they feel in The Return of the King is tied to the weight of this. They have no heritage, no prophecy predicating their victory, and still they ride against Mordor without hope of victory.
The movie does an excellent job of portraying this.
The ride of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is one of the best scenes in the trilogy for this reason. This is the only battle in the history of Middle-earth where its fate is tied solely to the armies of Men. The courage of this charge can only be grasped when it is realized that the Rohirrim have no expectation of victory, and the narrative of The Lord of the Rings gives them none.
The sense of unbelievable victory met by the crashing reality of defeat is captured in an amazing way when the Orcs are routed by the Rohirrim, but who then see the Haradrim arrive. The Rohirrim wear the face of despair, and yet they charge again. It is interesting to note that the battle to decide the fate of Men is decided not by Elves or Orcs, but Men fighting Men.
One of the themes of The Lord of the Rings is the value the unimpressive and humble possess. Sauron is defeated not by Elrond or Galadriel, but by Frodo and Sam. Virtue is greater than power, and of more value than an impressive heritage. And where heritage is meaningful, such as Gondor’s, it is meaningful only insofar as it corresponds to virtue. The Hobbits show this in an overt way, while the Rohirrim do it in a way that can only be truly appreciated against the backdrop of the epic mythos of Middle-earth.