The Lord of the Rings is not the first story to tell of a great triumph of the Men of the West over the enemies from other regions of Middle Earth, including Southlanders from Haradrim and Easterlings. The Men of the West typically refers to men from the two strongholds in this part of the lands, the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, which have held an alliance and fought beside one another for many long ages.
As with any centuries-long alliance, the loyalty runs strong, but it has become more of a complex one by time the fellowship of the ring crosses their borders in the Third Age, which may be why Eomer and Eowyn didn’t know Boromir and Faramir before the War of the Ring, despite being sons and daughters of two kingdoms who seem to go hand in hand. So with a shared history as impressive as this, how did the alliance between Gondor and Rohan start, and why does it seem shaken and mistrustful in the movies?
In order to trace its origins back to the very beginning, Tolkien fans began to delve into the chronicle detailing ‘the first meeting of Cirion, Steward of Gondor, and Eorl, Lord of the Eotheod’ which can be found in the Appendices of the Lord of the Rings, and in the Unfinished Tales collated by Christopher Tolkien. Their story details a great battle on the plains, during which a group of attackers from the east known as the Wainriders fought against Gondor and left many dead. Out of this fight, the Eothed, Eorl’s people were formed, and kept watch diligently over the lands, until, centuries later another onslaught tried to attack Gondor with the element of surprise, but were foiled by the Rhovanion riders, who rose up beside Gondor to defend Calenardhon.
The battle was bloody, as many in Middle Earth are, but the alliance was victorious, and as a reward Cirion the Steward gave the plains to Eorl, who swore allegiance to defend them always: “Hear now now all peoples who bow not to the Shadow in the East, I vow in my own name and on behalf of the Eothed of the North that between us and the great people of the west there shall be a friendship forever. Their enemies shall be our enemies, their need shall be our need, and whatsoever evil or threat or assault may come upon them we will aid them to the utmost of our strength.”
And so the alliance was formed around 2500 in the Third Age, and was passed down through all the generations until it reached the War of the Ring. But in the Peter Jackson movies, this pact that has been around for hundreds of years is shaky at best, and tensions in both kingdoms are impacting the way in which they interreact. Gandalf is able to help Theoden but not Denethor, because Theoden is still open to advice and to guidance when he knows he is close to defeat, whereas Denethor has given up all possibility of salvation due to the terrible visions he has seen of Sauron in the Palantir.
It does admittedly vary widely from the books to the movies, because in the books the Red Arrow of Gondor symbolizes this alliance, and is still sent to call for aid from Rohan when Minas Tirith is under attack, whereas in the films, Pippin very much has to light the beacons to summon help against Denethor’s will. The alliance between the two kingdoms seems very uncertain in the movies, with both kingdoms seemingly unwilling to rely on the other, but in truth in the books, it was not through lack of respect or desire for the alliance, but through a lack of resources that the kingdoms were unable to come to each other’s rescue as quickly as they would have liked.
They are both being attacked on all fronts, and cannot send soldiers to one another without risking the lives of their own people and the downfall of their own kingdoms. Rohan is being overrun by Saruman’s Uruk-hai, and the white wizard almost topples the kingdom through his sacking and manipulation of Wormtongue, Theoden’s right-hand man. Luckily, Saruman made one big mistake that cost him everything, and Rohan was eventually able to send aid after the Battle of Helms Deep and the Fall of Isengard.
In the meantime, Denethor is barely able to evacuate Minas Tirith before the orcs began to attack, and is contending with an onslaught straight from Mordr, including trolls, orcs and giant battlements that threaten to tear the white city apart. The battle is eventually won, even though both Denethor and Theoden die during it, but the oath between their two kingdoms remains intact, and is passed down to their heirs as was the tradition started by Cirion and Eorl centuries ago. This is part of the reason why Eomer shows such intense respect to Aragorn when they are both kings, and together they make the West a place of enduring peace, where their people can finally thrive away from the terrors of Sauron’s darkness.