Chapter III: The Muster of Rohan
We return to Rohan and Merry’s perspective. He is riding with King Theoden through the mountains toward Dunharrow, where the Rohirrim is gathering before they ride on to Gondor. There is a spectacular description of the landscape with its craggy mountains, dark forests, and waterfalls. It’s more than a picturesque description, though, as the mountains make Merry feel even more insignificant. He’s alone among warriors here, without another member of the original fellowship to keep him company. During their three-day journey, though, Theoden calls him up to talk to him about the Shire and the doings of the hobbits back home. Theoden might be a great king, but he’s not above talking to common people (even though among the Rohirrim, Merry isn’t common).
They ride on through the countryside until at last, they come to the road up to Dunharrow, a steep switchback up into the mountains. It’s a difficult climb and takes a long time, but no enemy could take it if anyone was above to defend it. That’s just where you want to send your people when the country is threatened. They could hold out forever, assuming there were enough supplies. Eowyn is there to greet them, and while she says all is well, Merry senses sadness beneath her words. She tells them Aragorn has already come and gone, and that he took the Paths of the Dead. Eomer believes he is dead, then, and that their hope dwindles because of it. Theoden thinks there may be some hope, for Aragorn is a strong man of great destiny, but, “…my heart tells me that I shall not see him again”. Still, he tells Eowyn and Eomer to take heart, as there are legends of a prophecy and Aragorn may have been the one spoken of in it.
Their ruminations of Aragorn’s fate are interrupted by a messenger from Gondor. He is a tall, grim man who reminds Merry of Boromir. His name is Hirgon, and he carries the Red Arrow, the traditional call for aid from Gondor. Theoden had already summoned warriors from across Rohan, but this summons forces him to accelerate his time table. They can no longer wait for Rohan’s full strength to arrive. They’ll wait another night, and then leave the next day with six thousand riders. Theoden had hoped for ten thousand, but there’s no time. If Sauron’s forces are not stopped at Minas Tirith, they will spread across Middle-earth. Rohan is too open to defend, save for points like Dunharrow and Helm’s Deep, and an entire people cannot survive in those two points.
In the morning, a Rider wakes Merry. It’s still dark; that brown fog is covering the skies here now, too. Hirgon is speaking with Theoden when Merry comes into the king’s tent. He’s telling them about that fog, and how it followed him all the way from Minas Tirith. It’s a sign of war. Theoden is quiet for a while, then says, “So we come to it in the end… the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away.” Whatever the outcome, their world will not be the same. There’s no time to waste. They will depart immediately. Theoden sends Eomer out to sound the summons to the riders. He turns to Merry then and releases him from his service, but not from friendship. Merry will serve Eowyn now, because there is no pony that can keep up with the Rohirrim at speed, and none can bear him as a burden. Merry objects, but Theoden is not moved.
Eowyn takes him aside, though, and tells him she has had armor set aside for him- at Aragorn’s request, she says, “For my heart tells me that you will need such gear ere the end.” Does she think the fight will come to them at Dunharrow, or does she have some other plan in mind? Merry’s just thankful when she gives him the leather armor, a knife, and a shield, among other things. “‘Take all these things,’ she said, ‘and bear them to good fortune! Farewell now, Master Meriadoc! Yet maybe we shall meet again, you and I.'”
And so the Rohirrim rides forth into the gathering gloom. There is little weeping from the families being left behind because they are loyal and proud: “Doom hung over them, but they faced it silently.” They are a grim people who have little hope in the future, but they will face it all the same. Merry will ride with the king until they reach Edoras, but then the main part of the Rohirrim rides on to Gondor without him. While he is riding, Merry spots a particular rider, “A young man, Merry thought… less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.” This is a strange thing. For while the other riders go to battle for glory or to defend their homes, few of them go looking for death.
The great company rides through the gloom to Edoras where another sixty riders join them. And there, Theoden bids Merry farewell. It is too far a journey for Merry’s pony, Stybba, and no riders can be spared to ride double with them. He will not argue the point anymore. Merry will stay in Edoras.
Except… a little later, the young Rider Merry noticed that morning comes up behind him and says, “‘You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes: I see it in your face… Then you shall go with me,’ said the Rider… ‘Such good will should not be denied.'”
Merry thanks the Rider, though he does not know his name. The Rider tells him to call him Dernhelm*. And with that, Merry and Dernhelm join the army and ride into the shadow towards Gondor and war.
Chapter IV: The Siege of Gondor
Back in Gondor, Pippin is on duty as Denethor’s esquire. He’ll serve the Steward, run errands, bear messages, and talk to Denethor if he has any leisure time leftover. And sing. Denethor wants Pippin to sing songs about the Shire if the chance comes up. Pippin does NOT want to sing songs from his homeland. Not at this time or in this place. It would feel ridiculous to sing about rain and wind in the Citadel, on the brink of war. But fortunately, Denethor does not ask for a song.**
After several hours on duty, Pippin can go and find food and rest. He meets up with Beregond and they go back to the wall they were at yesterday. The mood is radically different today, now that the gloom of Mordor has settled over them. It feels like a year has passed since then, and Pippin feels even older. They chat about the day’s events when suddenly they hear a terrifying cry- it’s the call of the Nazgul Pippin remembers from the Shire. They peer through the mirk to the plain below to see what the Nazgul is hunting, and it’s not long before they recognize Faramir’s men riding desperately for the gate. But five of the Nazgul- now on great winged beasts- are between them and safety. Just when it seems like they’ll all be killed, a light shines through the gloom and meets up with Faramir and his remaining men. It’s Gandalf! He chases off the Nazgul- for now- and gets the survivors into the city.
There, Pippin meets Faramir, who is visibly surprised to see another hobbit. Pippin immediately thinks highly of Faramir: “Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the King of Men born in a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race.” In this, Faramir is like his father, Denethor. Too much, perhaps, for while Boromir adored his father and was known as a great leader, Faramir- like Denethor- sought learning and wisdom, and so spent much time with Gandalf when he was about. This angered Denethor and drove a rift between father and son. Boromir loved his brother all the same, but Faramir could never do enough to win praise from their father.
But anyway. Faramir reports to his father and tells his story of meeting Frodo and his servants at Henneth Annun. Gandalf grows more anxious as the story unfolds, particularly when Faramir says they were planning to go to Cirith Ungol. He answers Gandalf’s questions before asking Denethor if he’s done ill. Denethor responds angrily about Faramir’s actions and his friendship with Gandalf. He mocks Faramir’s decisions and accuses him of bringing death upon them all. He has guessed what Frodo is carrying, and now wishes that he had sent Faramir to Rivendell instead of Boromir:
“‘Do you wish then,’ said Faramir, ‘that our places had been exchanged?’
‘Yes, I wish that indeed,’ said Denethor. ‘For Boromir was loyal to me, and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.'”
Denethor: in the running for Middle-earth’s ‘Worst Father’ award. He just told Faramir that he wishes his younger son was dead if that would bring the older son back.
No matter what Faramir or Gandalf say about the Ring’s evil, corrupting influence, neither can convince Denethor that 1) Boromir would not have given the Ring to his father, and B) the Ring could not have been used to save Gondor. Denethor, in his arrogance, believes he would have the ability to master the Ring and save his city. No one can tell him otherwise, not even Gandalf who says he would not trust even himself to safely carry the Ring. Denethor is too vain and arrogant to see his own flaws or to see the flaws in his dead son. He thinks that he is right about everything. Everyone else is foolish.
That night, Pippin asks about Cirith Ungol, and if there really is any hope for Frodo at least. “Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. ‘There never was much hope,’ he answered. ‘Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.'” He refuses to talk about Cirith Ungol, though he wonders as Gollum and his possible treachery: “… my heart guessed that Frodo and Gollum would meet before the end. For good, or for evil. But of Cirith Ungol I will not speak tonight. Treachery, treachery, I fear; treachery of that miserable creature. But so it must be. Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend.” Not the most hopeful of words, but it’s all they really have.
The next day, Denethor calls his Council. There’s no real need for it, as Denethor has made up his mind and won’t let anyone overrule him. He has decided that they will not give up the outer defenses. Remeber the wall Gandalf and Pippin encountered, the Rammas? Yup. Denethor’s decided that too much work was put into it to abandon it now. “‘Much must be risked in war,’ said Denethor…. ‘But I will not yield the River and the Pelennor unfought- not if there is a captain here who has still the courage to do his lord’s will.'”
This is a horrible trap for Faramir, who has pointed out the madness of trying to spread men out along those outer defenses. The Enemy can afford to lose thousands of troops while Minas Tirith can’t afford to lose a handful. But he can’t say no to his father and commander without appearing to be a traitor and a coward, and so he agrees to this foolish, suicidal mission, saying only, “But if I should return, think better of me!”
Denethor remains a jerk and replies, “‘That will depend upon the manner of your return.'”
Gandalf asks Faramir to reconsider, and when he refuses, Gandal tells him to remember that Denethor does love him and that he will remember it before the end.
And so Faramir and a small company of men ride out to defend the wall and the river. All through the next day, the darkness deepens. The Enemy takes the river with ease, and Faramir retreats. The next day, fire springs up along the wall and they hear rumbling. The Enemy is blowing up sections of the wall and spilling through like ants. So much for all the effort it took to build that wall. So much for the lives spent defending it. For all of that, it barely delayed Sauron’s forces. They are marching on the Pelennor Fields just outside the city, and their captain, the Lord of the Nazgul rides behind them.
And what of Faramir and his remaining men? The men on the walls finally see them retreating ahead of their enemy, though their numbers dwindle as they ride, picked off by the Nazgul on their winged beasts. But just when it seems that hope is lost, the knights of Dol Amroth, led by Prince Imrahil charge the leading lines, allowing the remaining Gondorians to make it to the gate. Once everyone is back in the city, they find that not only have they lost a third of Faramir’s men, but Faramir himself has been gravely wounded. “The Prince Imrahil brought Faramir to the White tower, and he said: ‘Your son has returned, lord, after great deeds…’. At last, Denethor sees his own foolishness and sits with his son, his face gray and deathlike.
Now Minas Tirith is under siege. The host of Mordor is vast, and if the great gates of the city are broken, the city will fall. If no help comes from Rohan and the enemy just waits, the city will fall once the food runs out. There’s little hope now, and Denethor has given up. Faramir is feverish and the rumor spreads that he is dying. Pippin tries to comfort the Steward, but Denethor rebuffs him, “I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins. Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of the Stewards has failed.'” Gandalf said Denethor would remember that he loved his son, but it may be too late for that. Denethor has given in to despair and refuses to lead his people.
So Gandalf takes up the mantle of leadership, passing along the walls and giving directions and hope the men on the battlements, even as the enemy continues to fill the Pelennor Fields, setting up their siege towers and sending fire into the first circle of the city. But fire isn’t the only thing they fling into the city- they also send the heads of the fallen men of Gondor to spread more terror behind the walls. Meanwhile, the Nazgul circle above the walls, spreading dread and despair as they go. This is Gondor’s darkest hour.
Messengers arrive in the White Tower to deliver all this news to Denethor and get directions from him, but Denethor has given in to despair. For him, death is the answer. He believes that sooner, rather than later since they are all going to die anyway. Why wait for the inevitable? He bids Pippin farewell and commands him to die in whatever way seems best to him. But Pippin is not giving up yet. While Denethor orders his servants to fetch oil and wood and escort him and Faramir to Rath Dinen, where the past Stewards are interred, Pippin runs to find Gandalf. He finds Beregond and tells him that Denethor has gone mad and intends to burn himself and Faramir to death. He begs Beregond to keep that from happening until he can find Gandalf and then runs on.
The battle has been raging all this time, though. The Haradrim have come with their great mumakil (the oliphaunts Sam saw in Ithilien) and are sweeping away everything in their path, while orcs fight hand to hand with those men defending the gate outside the wall. Then trolls bring forth Grond, a massive battering ram, and once their path is clear enough, they attack the gates. Behind them rides the Lord of the Nazgul, the Witch-king of Angmar. Though the iron and steel reinforced gates initially stand up to the battering, they cannot withstand both it and the Witch-king’s magic. The gate is sundered.
The Lord of the Nazgul rides into the city, a great black shape upon a black horse, the first enemy ever to make it into Minas Tirith. All flee before him, except for one- Gandalf. He rebukes the Lord of the Nazgul, saying, “‘You cannot enter here… Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”
But the Nazul is unphased. He flings back his hood to reveal a crown resting upon no visible head, but with red flames where eyes should be. He responds, ‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain.” He raises his sword and flames run down the blade. He is prepared for triumph over Minas Tirith, and then all of Middle-earth.
But just then, a rooster crows. It’s a simple, common sound of a bird welcoming the morning, reminding all who hear it that there is a new dawn beyond the gloom. And suddenly, the sound of horns rings out from the north. Rohan has finally arrived.
Next week: Rohan arrives, but is it in time to save Minas Tirith? Chapters V and VI: ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’ and ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’
*Book Merry doesn’t know the identity of the Rider he’s with. Movie Merry does, because we can see the Rider’s identity, and making Merry not know who it is would make him look stupid. Tolkien can get away with it in the book since he can obscure the Rider’s identity with a few words, which makes the later reveal that much more epic.
** Book Pippin doesn’t end up having to sing. Movie Pippin does, and Billy Boyd did a fantastic job of bringing a song from the Shire to life. Apparently, at that point in filming, Peter Jackson had too much going on to get music written, and so he just gave the lyrics to Boyd, who is a musician as well as an actor, and told him to write a song to suit it. Jackson did not hear Boyd’s song until the cameras were rolling, and was in tears by the end of the scene.