The Return of the King
Chapter I: Minas Tirith
From the cliffhanger ending of The Two Towers, we got back in time a few days. The great horse Shadowfax is carrying Pippin and Gandalf to the city of Minas Tirith. To Pippin, these days of travel pass in a blur. He sleeps through much of it, and the rest seems like a dream. He is alert enough to see tongues of flame in the distant, alerting Gandalf to the fact that the beacons of Gondor are lit, and that the city is calling for aid from the lands surrounding it. After a few days, they reach Gondor but are forced to stop by a wall that’s being built to keep out the forces of Mordor. Once again, Gandalf is accused of bringing trouble with him, but Gandalf is accustomed to this: “Because I come seldom but when my help is needed… And as for counsel, to you I would say that you are over-late in repairing the wall of the Pelennor. Courage will now be your best defence against the storm that is at hand- that and such hope as I bring.” He also advises them to put away their trowels and sharpen their swords, for the wall will not help them. I can think of others who would be advised to heed Gandalf’s advice about building walls between countries, but that’s neither here nor there. The gate’s guard says the wall’s construction is nearly complete, and that they will ready their swords soon enough. They’ll wish they hadn’t bothered with the wall later on.
Gandalf and Pippin arrive in Minas Tirith at last. It’s a grand and ancient city, built on seven levels delved into the sides of Mount Mindolluin, with the top tier housing the Tower of Ecthelion and the Hall of the Stewards. The banner of the Stewards flies at the top of the White Tower, 1,000 feet above the plains. It’s an incredible place but it, like much of Middle-earth, is decaying. Minas Tirith houses barely half as many people as it once did, and now that most of the women, children, and old people have been sent away ahead of the war, it is even quieter.
They reach the seventh level. It’s eerie there; a dead white tree stands in a fountain, and the only people they see are the door-wardens, who are silent. As they prepare to see Denethor, the Steward of Gondor and father of Boromir and Faramir, Gandalf advises Pippin to be careful of what he says, and say nothing about the Ring, Boromir, or Aragorn. Denethor is a shrewd man and can guess about things people leave unsaid, but it’s best not to openly discuss unhappy topics with an unhappy man.
But Denethor already knows much of what Gandalf wished to keep quiet. He knows Boromir is dead, and he actually has the broken Horn of Gondor that Boromir had carried. He wants to know why his brave, strong son is dead, but this little hobbit is still alive. Pippin tells a brief version of the story, and when Denethor looks at him with scorn, his pride moves him to offer his service to Gondor, as payment of his debt to the House of Stewards after Boromir gave his life to sam him and Merry. Denethor is touched by the gesture, and accepts Pippin’s service, “…once again it is shown that looks may belie the man– or the halfling. I accept your service. For you are not daunted by words; and you have courteous speech, strange though the sound of it may be to us in the South.” As in Rohan, courtesy here means more than saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. It’s about being polite, yes, but it also means speaking well of others and of one’s self without being boastful, of being entertaining without playing the fool, and showing respect to the host without putting on airs, among other things. Pippin navigates these treacherous waters of courtesy without faltering, despite Denethor’s grimness. This is not Theoden, who demands respect but will listen to simple talk, too. Denethor is deadly serious all the time. The first task he demands of his newest soldier is to tell his full tale– particularly where it concerns Boromir.
This isn’t easy. Pippin has to speak of the company’s journey without revealing the true nature of the Quest, revealing Aragorn’s identity, or speaking ill of Boromir in his father’s company. Denethor may be a wise man, but he’s not as understanding as Faramir. He won’t be pleased to hear of Boromir’s faults. And so Pippin relates the tale of their travels as best he can, enduring Denethor’s undivided attention for a full hour. Meanwhile, Gandalf has to sit there and put up with being ignored. He’s not happy about Denethor claiming an ‘old man’s folly’ where Boromir is concerned. He knows Denethor grilled Pippin because he wouldn’t be able to get the same information about the Quest from Gandalf. These two have had a long and contentious relationship.
Finally, though, Denethor lets Pippin go. Though he seems angry, Gandalf thinks Pippin did a pretty good job in there, given that he was stuck between two terrible old men. For now, though, Gandalf has some tasks to attend to and leaves Pippin behind in the rooms they’ve been given. Pippin isn’t left alone for long, though, as one of the city guards, Beregond, comes to get him a uniform and teach him the passwords he’ll need for his duties. Together, they check on Shadowfax, get something to eat, and then Beregond shows him around the city. They end up by a wall overlooking Minas Tirith and the plains below, and Beregond gets Pippin caught up on the fighting that’s been going on in Gondor. The sun shines above, but the gloom is gathering. And then they hear a cry like the Nazgul’s- thin and far away, but enough to frighten them. But they aren’t cowed for long. They stand tall again (as tall as Pippin can, anyway), and talk some more- about Faramir’s return, in particular- before Beregond has to go. Before he leaves, he tells Pippin to find his son, Bergil, if he would like to see more of the city before nightfall.
Pippin does find Bergil, a tall nine-year-old boy who makes himself useful by running messages to the guards. Bergil initially laughs at Pippin for his size, but once Pippin makes it known that Beregond sent him and, “…if you would prefer it to standing me on my head, you might show me round the City for a while and cheer my loneliness. I can tell you some tales of far countries in return.” Bergil is delighted by this, and the two are fast friends. They wander for a while, then stop to watch the soldiers from the surrounding lands come into the city: Forlong the Lord of Lossarnach, men of the Outlands, Ringlo Vale, Blackroot Vale in the uplands of Morthond, far away Anfalas, Lamedon, the Fisher-folk of the Ethir, Pinnath Gelin, and last of all, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth and a company of armored knights. Less than three thousand, all told. Not enough to defeat the hosts of Mordor. And no sign of Rohan.
Night is falling and Bergil has to get home. Pippin returns to his rooms to find Gandalf pacing back and forth, muttering about Faramir. He tells Pippin to get some sleep while he can. “At the sunrise I shall take you to the Lord Denethor again. No, when the summons comes, not at sunrise. The Darkness has begun. There will be no dawn.”
Chapter II: The Passing of the Grey Company
Meanwhile, back in Rohan, we go back in time a few days. Again. Aragorn is pondering his path to Minas Tirith, and he’s pretty sure it won’t be the same road Theoden will take. Legolas and Gimli are determined to go with him, and so is Merry. But Aragorn says Merry will go with Theoden.
They ride through the night, away from the valley of Isengard but have barely crossed the Fords of Isen when they notice a rider coming up from behind. They stop and prepare for combat, but the rider introduces himself as Halbarad Dunadan, Ranger of the North, and asks after Aragorn. Aragorn is thrilled to see his old friend and the thirty Rangers he brought with him. Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond of Rivendell are there, too. They said they came as quickly as they could after receiving Aragorn’s summons, which is a bit weird since Aragorn didn’t summon them. But oh well. They have a gift from Arwen that Aragorn won’t open right now, and a message from Elrond: “The days are short. If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead.”
That doesn’t sound ominous or anything.
They ride on through the night and come to Helm’s Deep in the morning. They’re going to stop to rest and take counsel about their upcoming journey. Theoden takes a bit of time for a meal and invites Merry to sit with him and ride with him later. It turns out that Theoden had the Riders get a sturdy hill pony ready for Merry to ride, and will see about armor and a sword. While Merry doesn’t have armor, he does have a sword, and with it, he offers his service to Theoden, just as Pippin did (or rather, will do) with Denethor. But where Pippin offers his service out of hurt pride and a desire to repay an imagined debt, Merry offers his service out of love and respect for Theoden.
After they eat, they prepare to depart. But where is Aragorn? He didn’t eat with them, and he’s nowhere to be found. He finally shows up among the Rangers, but he looks like he’s aged twenty years overnight. When Theoden tells him how long it will take for them to reach Dunharrow and begin the muster of Rohan, Aragorn says that will take too long. He asks for leave to depart with his kinsmen, for he needs to take a faster road to Gondor. He will take the Paths of the Dead.
Eomer and Theoden are dismayed. No one has ever passed through the Paths of the Dead and lived, but if Aragorn has made up his mind, Theoden isn’t going to try to change it. They all bid each other farewell. It’s a gloomy good-bye, and when Theoden, Eomer, Merry, and the rest of the king’s company have gone, Aragorn says, “There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least… He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on.” Halbarad agrees, saying that while hobbits are small and simple, he’s glad the Rangers have guarded them for so long.
But there’s no time for more reminiscing about hobbits. Aragorn needs to tell everyone where they’re going, so they go inside and he tells them of how used the Palantir to get a look at Sauron. Unlike Pippin, Aragorn has the right and the strength to do so, though the strength was barely enough. Why did he use the Palantir? He says, “To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now… He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws at him.” Basically, he wanted to show himself to Sauron so that he would know that the heir of Elendil lived and that the sword of Isildur had been reforged. Why would he want to reveal that? Because deep down, tyrants are fearful beings. Show them someone who could overthrow them, and they’ll react swiftly to try to destroy them. Aragorn wants Sauron to throw caution to the wind and do something stupid, draw his eye, and leave a way open for Frodo and Sam.
But Aragorn did more than strike fear into the non-existent heart of Sauron. He also learned about enemy forces moving toward Gondor. Elrond’s timely message about the Paths of the Dead reminds Aragorn of this dangerous shortcut. With time running short and a right to summon an undead army, Aragorn is throwing caution to the wind, too.
And why is there an army of the dead hanging out in the hills? Well, ages ago in the days of Elendil, the King of the Mountains swore an oath to come to Gondor’s aid. When the war with Sauron broke out, the King did not come when he was summoned. He and his army remained at home because they had once worshipped Sauron. For their cowardice, Isildur cursed the King and his people, to never rest until their oath was fulfilled. And so, some 2,500 years later, the heir of Elendil and Isildur is going to summon them to fulfill their oath.
Word to the wise: never break an oath in Middle-earth. Terrible things will happen to you if you do.
So off they go, riding as fast as they can toward Edoras, and then on to Dunharrow. Eowyn and the people are still there, and she is happy to see them. She is less happy to find out that they will only stay overnight. And she’s downright angry (and frightened) to hear what road they will be taking. “…is it then your errand to seek death? For that is all that you will find on that road. They do not suffer the living to pass.”
Aragorn isn’t swayed, no matter how Eowyn argues her point, and when he refuses to change his mind, she asks him to take her with them. She is a shieldmaiden of Rohan, after all, and now that she is done taking care of Theoden, can she not do as she chooses? Aragorn reminds her of her duty to her people. She was chosen to lead them in Theoden’s absence and to continue leading them if he and Eomer fall in battle.
Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t soothe her. Eowyn has been raised on stories of glory in battle and the deeds of heroes. Her uncle and brother may ride to battle and so be remembered in song, but what of her? As a shieldmaiden, Eowyn is perfectly capable of using a sword. Why must she always be left behind? Too, there is the fact of her infatuation with Aragorn. She might be loved by her people, but I doubt Eowyn has known real love in her life. And then in comes Aragorn, this tall bold man who has already done great deeds and is so different from the golden-haired men of Rohan. It’s almost inevitable that she would fall in love with him. Or at least imagine that she is in love with him. And so she nearly begs to go with him– to find the kind of glory that her brother has and to be near this man she’s attracted to. In a last-ditch effort, the tells him she fears neither death nor pain.
He responds, “What do you fear, lady?”
“‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.'” She doesn’t want to fritter her life away with small doings and then wake up one morning to discover that she is old and that it is too late to accomplish anything great. I think all of us share that fear, to one degree or another.
But Aragorn refuses to let her come with him and be foresworn to her people. In the morning, Eowyn bids them farewell. And when they have disappeared into the distance, she turns away in anguish.
Aragorn, on the other hand, is focused on what’s to come. He urges them ever onward until they reach the Dark Door in a sheer wall of rock. They dismount and urge the horses inside, passing on into the darkness until only Gimli is left behind. His pride overcomes his fear, and he refuses to let an Elf go underground while a Dwarf refuses to go. It’s a terrifying place, pitch black, silent, and cold. There is some sort of horror behind them and the sound of feet marching where there are no people. “‘The Dead are following,’ said Legolas. “‘I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following.'”
Cheerful place… I wouldn’t suggest building a summer home there.
They finally exit the dark and terrifying path to discover that the sun has set. Suddenly Aragorn calls out to them, “Friends, forget your weariness! Ride now, ride! We must come to the Stone of Erech ere this day passes, and long still is the way.” And so they spur their horses on into the gathering darkness to the Stone of Erech. There, Aragorn calls out to the Oathbreakers and bids them fulfill their oath so they might find peace in death. He declares himself Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor and bids Halbarad unfurl the gift Arwen made for him. It is a black standard, a banner of Aragorn’s house, but if there are any markings upon it no one can see them in the dark. But the Dead know what it is.
When the company rides out in the cold morning, the Dead ride with them.
Next week: The battle for Middle-earth begins in ‘The Muster of Rohan’ and ‘The Siege of Gondor’