To the Rohirrim, like the Danes and Geats of Beowulf, the idea of “Northern Courage” is essential. They believe in fighting to the last man, in absolute loyalty to their leader, and in honour above all. Yet despite this, to a man, they seem incapable of following orders – one would even say it is a chronic problem. However, many things would have gone horribly wrong if the Rohirrim had simply followed orders. In the span of two pages, we come across not one, but three acts of disobedience. Eomer, we learn has been imprisoned for insubordination, “It is true” says Theoden, “ He had rebelled against my commands, and threatened Grima with death in my hall” (TT, III, vi, 505). And Eomer knew he was breaking the law when he did this. He tells Aragorn, “In this riding north I went without the king’s leave, for in my absence his house is left with little guard” (TT, III, ii, 426). Then on the following page, he again breaks the law. He says, “Yet I am not free to do all as I would. It is against our law to let strangers wander at will in our land, until the king himself shall give them leave, and more strict is the command in these days of peril” (TT, III, ii, 428), and then he lets them go and not only that, but he lends them horses. For such a serious level of insubordination, Theoden has little choice but to throw him in prison. After all, Eomer is the Third Marshal of the Mark, and his éored constitutes the chief defence of Edoras. Eomer directly defied Theoden’s orders to not pursue the orcs, and then broke an important law by letting the three hunters go. But if he had not then Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli would not have made it to Fangorn in time to see Gandalf. Even more importantly, if Eomer had not ridden out, then the orcs would have reached Isengard, and it does not bear thinking of what Saruman would have done to Merry and Pippin.
Then, of course, there is Hama. As with Eomer, Rohan might stand or fall based on his decisions, and rather than obeying the law, which again, he can, and does, recite, he lets Gandalf through with his staff, saying, “The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age… yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in” (TT, III, vi, 500). When Gandalf reveals himself, Grima hisses, “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff? That fool, Hama has betrayed us!” (TT, III, vi, 501). It is well for Rohan though that Hama does disobey, otherwise the liberation of Theoden may have come too late, and without Rohan, the West would have fallen.
But it does not end there. Gandalf tells Theoden to set Eomer free, and Theoden agrees, saying “Call Hama to me. Since he proved untrusty as a doorward, let him become an errand- runner. The guilty shall bring the guilty to judgment” (TT, III, vi, 505). But Hama is no better an errand runner than he is a doorwarden. “How comes this?” Theoden demands when Eomer offers him his sword, “It is my doing, lord,” says Hama, “I understood that Eomer was to be set free. Such joy was in my heart that maybe I have erred. Yet since he was free again, and he a Marshal of the Mark, I brought him his sword as he bade me,” And Eomer adds, “To lay at your feet, my lord” (TT, III, vi, 506). It is well that Eomer’s devotion to his lord is of the truest kind. He is willing to risk death to do what he judges is right, as does Hama.
I won’t even go into Eowyn’s disobedience, which again puts all of Rohan at risk, when she abandons her post as de facto leader of the Eorlingas in The Return of the King. But then, of course, if she had not gone, the Witch King would not have been slain, and who knows how the Battle of Pelennor Fields would have gone if the Witch King had been left alive. It is highly unlikely that Eomer would have survived long enough to see the coming of Aragorn, or that Aragorn, once there, would be able to fight off the hordes of Mordor and the King of the Nazgul.
In Rohan “I was just following orders” would be unacceptable. If in doubt, you follow your own judgement and what you believe is right. Fortunately for Rohan, those who do so have a very good feel of the truth and the right. The disobedience of the Rohirrim saves Theoden and Rohan, and by extension, Gondor and the entire free West.