Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting several days of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
Today I answer a somewhat common question that has been Googled about The Lord of the Rings:
Why does Aragorn spare Wormtongue’s life after he is exposed as an agent of Saruman and cast out from Edoras?
In the Book
The first thing to note here is that Aragorn only saves Grima’s life in the movie adaptation. In the book, it is Theoden who spares Wormtongue, at Gandalf’s advice:
“See, Theoden, here is a snake! With safety you cannot take it with you, nor can you leave it behind. To slay it would be just. But it was not always as it now is. Once it was a man, and did you service in its fashion. Give him a horse and left him go at once, wherever he chooses. By his choice you shall judge him.”
“Do you hear this, Wormtongue?” said Theoden. “This is your choice: to ride with me to war, and let us see in battle whether you are true; or to go now, whither you will. But then, if ever we meet again, I shall not be merciful.”The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
The theme of mercy runs throughout The Lord of the Rings, even as John pointed out in his guest post that capital punishment is still the norm in Gondor (and likely Rohan, too, since Eomer threatened in the past to kill Grima, and Gandalf suggests taking his life wouldn’t be entirely out of line).
Yet Gandalf’s general teaching is that lives should not be taken lightly. Early in the story, he defends Gollum and tells Frodo:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
He implies it is not the prerogative of humans (or Elves, Hobbits, Wizards, etc.) to take someone’s life because they “deserve” it, but rather that this is the job of a higher power (Ilúvatar).
There is also the running theme that offering such mercy pays off unexpectedly later. Readers see that sparing Gollum’s life is the reason the Ring is finally destroyed. And sparing Grima’s life is the reason Gandalf and company acquire the palantír that had been in Orthanc. Grima also ultimately rids Middle-earth of Saruman.
In the Movie
So why is it Aragorn who saves Grima’s life in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation?
In the film, King Theoden advances ominously on Wormtongue after he is thrown down the stairs of Edoras, raising his sword to smite Rima where he lies. Aragorn leaps from off-screen and catches Theoden’s sword with his own, saying, “No! No, my lord! Let him go. Enough blood has been spilt on his account.”
In general, I would say the themes here are the same. Aragorn believes in mercy (very likely a quality he himself learned from Gandalf in the past, though Gandalf does not comment in this scene), and he makes a vague statement about how enough violence has been done, and Theoden shouldn’t perpetuate the cycle. There’s no discussion of how Grima might redeem himself if he chooses, as there is in the book, however. Grima simply spits on Aragorn’s offered hand and runs away.
My guess is that the writers were trying to incorporate the theme of mercy but also wanted to make this scene more “dramatic” somehow. Theoden and Aragorn’s crossing of swords certainly is more exciting than Gandalf’s and Theoden’s mild discussion of what might be done with Grima. The scene also really emphasizes the idea that Theoden was weak and under Grima’s spell and hasn’t quite recovered yet; his walk down the stairs towards Grima looks a bit crazed, as if some of the spell has yet to wear off. The scene basically highlights Aragorn’s nobility at the expense of Theoden’s.
There is also the awkwardness that the scene shows Aragorn disagreeing with Theoden’s judgement in his own kingdom, which the film attempts to compensate for by having Aragorn immediately cry, “Hail Theoden King!” and initiating everyone else’s kneeling to Theoden. One could argue it doesn’t entirely work as, later in the film, Theoden feels the need to explicitly tell Aragorn that Aragorn is not the king of Rohan and should keep some of his opinions to himself.
The fact that Grima’s life is spared is consistent with Tolkien’s theme of mercy and not dealing death in judgement that runs throughout his work. The choice to have Aragorn specifically save Wormtongue in the movie seems done for drama and to emphasize that Aragorn in particular is wise and merciful.
4 thoughts on “Why Did Aragorn Let Grima Wormtongue Go?”
Not having read past the Hobbit in the LOTR books, it is interesting reading about these themes and the names of characters. I see parallel names with the Harry Potter series, which I have read. Three jumped out at me. Wormtongue / Wormtail, Aragorn / Aragog and Grima/ The Grim. I expect that I am really late to such observations from fans of either series.
Yeah, I think people have pointed about similarities like the Dementors looking like the Nazgul, but I’m not sure if JKR has ever spoken specifically about how much she might have been inspired by LotR.
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I get the sense that there’s the impression in Hollywood that “people who watch movies” need more drama and action than “people who read books.” Unfair generalizing aside, while that may be fair to a degree, I don’t think it gives the average filmgoer enough credit. I think the conversation with Gandalf could have carried just as much power in the film, whether they went with Theoden or Aragorn sparing Grima. A more specific rationale over a vague generalization will always carry more weight, especially in a moral decision with such far reaching potential implications like this. Yes, it is often the case that more people see film or TV adaptations of novels than read the novels themselves. However that doesn’t mean the power of a conversation is lost with the medium or the audience.
I think courtroom dramas are a great example of how an onscreen conversation can have the same effect as an action scene. Done with the right dialogue and pacing, long conversations are very suspenseful and emotional. I agree with your thought that Hollywood seems to default to the idea that more action is always needed, but…there are plenty of examples of effective (and long) conversations in film, so it does seem odd that so often fillmmakers don’t seem to trust the audience to engage.
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