Film & TV
5 min read

Théoden and breaking the spell

Bernard Hill’s most famous role sheds light on where humanity needs to be.

Theodore is author of the historical fiction series The Wanderer Chronicles. He previously studied Dark Age archaeology at Cambridge, and afterwards worked in international law.

A movie scene of a king and prince walking confidently.
Bernard Hill, middle, in The Lord of the Rings.
New Line Cinema.

Recently we saw the sad passing of Bernard Hill, one of the great British actors of his generation, whose career enjoyed many high points. Hill came to prominence, in Britain at least, in the 1980s with his role as an unemployed tarmac-layer in the BBC series Boys From the Blackstuff. Through the 1990s, he went on to star in a number of big budget Hollywood feature films, such as The Ghost and The Darkness, Titanic, and The Scorpion King. But his best-known role, the one which won him global recognition, was as King Théoden in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

In both Tolkien’s book and Jackson’s adaptation, the character of King Théoden plays a pivotal role in making a stand against the forces of evil advancing under the banners of first the wizard Saruman the White in The Two Towers, and then the Dark Lord Sauron himself in The Return of the King, the trilogy’s climax. 

Théoden’s character arc is as heroic as any in Tolkien’s epic. But perhaps the most memorable moment within it comes when he is first introduced. Gandalf comes to Théoden’s hall of Edoras to rally support against Saruman’s rampaging armies of orcs. But instead of a redoubtable king and ally in the fight against their common enemy, he finds a weak man buckled under the weight of old age and infirmity, cowed by fear and indecision, and enthralled to the counsel of Grima Wormtongue - whom Gandalf reveals to be an agent of Saruman. 

In Jackson’s version, Gandalf ‘delivers’ Théoden from his enthrallment, in effect breaking the spell of inertia and inaction which Saruman, through his minion Wormtongue, has cast over him. Théoden awakes from his bondage, is physically rejuvenated, and is now able to rise and take his proper place in the battleline against Sauron’s evil power. In Tolkien’s version, Théoden has more agency. He chooses, at last, to throw off the counsel of Wormtongue and cling to the slim thread of hope which Gandalf represents, however desperate it may seem. 

It is a powerful image, and one from which we can and must learn today.  

Our ears are open to so many voices through both mainstream and social media that it becomes a matter of extreme importance to be able to discern who is Gandalf and who is Grima Wormtongue?

Few would deny that recent times have revealed new and determined manifestations of evil in our culture and our world. And yet, both inside and outside the church, these latter years have also been characterised by a feeling of helplessness and inaction in the face of such evil. It’s common to hear both men and women complain that they feel unable to speak up in opposition to what they perceive as wrong. They have been silenced. Either those who dare to speak up find themselves cancelled. Or else those who don't self-censor, keeping their mouths shut and their heads well below the parapet. Like Théoden, they lock themselves away in their hall. In this latter case, the battle is ceded without ever having drawn a sword. 

As the famous Edmund Burke quote goes: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Much of the church, some might dare to say most of it, resides in this place of cowed inaction. Enthralled and confused by the Wormtongue whisperings of the media as mouthpieces for agendas diametrically opposed to the good, we have willingly subjected ourselves to this spell. And the consequence? Like the Westfold of Rohan, the land is burning. 

It is not controversial to say anyone who cares about our culture and its future needs to awaken from their slumber. Needs to cast off - or else have cast out - the gag of silence. But what is more troubling perhaps is that, even having done that, we cannot agree on what is evil and what is good. 

In the Bible, the devil is portrayed as often masquerading as an angel of light. And it warns against the descent of some cultures into a state of such moral confusion that God’s ordinances are inverted: good is called evil, and evil is called good.  

So how are we to navigate our way through this mire of uncertainty? Warnings against misinformation and disinformation abound. And yet, those in positions of power who proclaim them may equally be charged with propagating untruths and dissembling realities, all for the sake of shoring up their own power structures.  

All this is to say - our ears are open to so many voices through both mainstream and social media that it becomes a matter of extreme importance to be able to discern who is Gandalf and who is Grima Wormtongue? 

Tolkien’s choice of the name Grima Wormtongue is significant. ‘Grima’ derives from the Old Norse word, grímr which means ‘mask’. ‘Worm’ similarly derives from another Old Norse word: ormr which means ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’.  

As such, it throws us right back into the Garden of Eden and the honeyed words of the serpent which led humanity into such disaster, offering some purported good up front, while concealing the calamity (and shame) which comes hard on its heels. If we are to stand up and contest the modern manifestations of evil, we must be able to recognise the side of the field of battle on which to take our stand. 

Who is Gandalf? In Tolkien’s world, though he hated the idea of his work being interpreted as allegory, Gandalf does represent the Christ figure. And Sauron in turn suggests the Anti-Christ - a nebulous figure arising from scripture, poorly understood at the best of times. But somehow the fountainhead from which, humanity is told, all evil must flow. 

But if humanity thinks of Christ on the side of good, and Christ as the most human of us all, perhaps this provides a yardstick by which we can discern the lines of battle.  

Is it human or anti-human to stand up for life at its most vulnerable? Is it human or anti-human to stand up for the family unit? Is it human or anti-human to honour and celebrate each and every Imago Dei as they were created to be? Is it human or anti-human to safeguard a parent’s right to speak good into their children’s life? Is it human or anti-human to preserve the innocence of our young? Is it human or anti-human to challenge systems of power which enable all kinds of exploitation and other self-evident evils? 

First we must awaken. Then we must choose our side. And finally, like Théoden, we must ride to the fight. 


Visit Theodore's web site, and follow him on Instagram and X.   

10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.