Chapter VII: The Pyre of Denethor
We’re stepping back in time by several hours to the morning of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and heading back into Minas Tirith. The Lord of the Nazgûl has just left the city gates. Gandalf is about to head out into the battle, but Pippin stops him with the news that Denethor is preparing to burn himself and Faramir alive in the tombs. Can Gandalf stop him before that? Perhaps, but then others will die instead. “Well, I must come, since no other help can reach him. But evil and sorrow will come of this. Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work.” Sauron’s weapons aren’t just orcs and siege engines. He uses despair, suspicion, and fear to cause fractures within the alliances of Men, Elves, and Dwarves, driving them apart when they should be uniting against a common foe.
So Gandalf and Pippin race to the Tombs and discover that the porter- the man in charge of the keys- has been slain, another act of violence sown by Sauron, who loves to see friends and allies turn on each other. When they reach the House of the Stewards, they find Beregond standing against two guardsmen. He is preventing them from following Denethor’s orders to light the pyre. Beregond has already killed two guardsmen, and the remaining two curse him as a traitor, though he is doing this out of loyalty to Faramir. Both the guardsmen and Beregond are loyal to a fault, but Beregond’s actions- guilty as they make him- come from a desire to save his lord’s life, while the guardsmen- who are following direct orders- fulfill their duty without thinking of the consequences. Who is correct in this situation? Neither? Or both?
Denethor comes out then to see what’s going on. He yells at Gandalf for stealing away the loyalty of his servants and once again declares that there is no point to living any longer, for they will all die soon anyway. “‘The West has failed. It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended.'” He’s lost all hope, and in his pride, he’ll take his son down with him. But Gandalf’s not about to let that happen. He pushes past Denethor and carries Faramir out. In his fevered dreams, Faramir calls out to his father. This reminds Denethor of his love for his son, and he begs Gandalf not to take him away. But Gandalf refuses to let the father murder his son, even if there is no hope for survival. He asks Denethor to come down to the battle, for he is still strong enough and capable of fighting.
This only stirs Denethor’s vain pride, and he lifts up a palantir. This was the seeing stone that had been thought to be lost, but Denethor has used it to watch the lands around Gondor. “‘For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. Tho this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched… And even now the wind of they hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed.'” What Denethor doesn’t know is that these ships are Aragorn’s and that the hope of Gondor sails on them. But he is too lost in his own despair and too prideful to see beyond his own assumptions. Even if the King should return in this last hour, he will not step aside to become a chamberlain to the heir of a long lost house from the Northern wilderness. He wants things to be as they were when there was a degree of peace, and his own family ruled Gondor. He doesn’t want things to change, and would rather destroy his family than deal with a new world. “‘But if doom denies this, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.'”
With that, Denethor takes a torch from one of his servants, climbs onto the pyre and sets it and himself ablaze. Gandalf turns away and closes the door of the tomb, and that is the last anyone ever sees of Denethor. “‘So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion… And so pass also the days of Gondor that you have known; for good or evil they are ended.'”
He orders the remaining guards to put aside their enmity towards Beregond, take the dead guards away for a proper burial, and take Faramir to the Houses of Healing so he can have a chance to heal if that be his fate.
As they arrive at the doors of the Houses of Healing, they hear a horrible, shrill cry come up from the battlefield. When it ends, it’s like a cloud has been lifted from their hearts, and hope comes back to them. Gandalf realizes that the Lord of the Nazgûl has been slain, and while this is a good thing, it doesn’t assure their victory.
Chapter VII: The Houses of Healing
So. Major things have happened. The Lord of the Nazgûl is dead. Denethor is dead. Théoden is dead. Éowyn and Faramir are not dead, but they’re pretty close to it. Gondor and its allies have won the day, and the king has (almost) returned. Gandalf is looking after just about everything, and Pippin is a hero for having helped save Faramir.
Merry is wandering about, lost and alone because pretty much everyone has forgotten him. Poor hobbit. He helped kill the Lord of the Nazgûl, and this is the thanks gets. But don’t worry! Pippin finds him, alerts Gandalf to his whereabouts, and the poor lad can pass out, sure in the knowledge that someone knows where he is.
He, like Éowyn and Faramir, is brought to the Houses of Healing, which is Minas Tirith’s hospital. Unfortunately for our heroic trio, no one there knows what they’re suffering from and thus have no way to heal it. They’re all sick with what the healers have called, ‘The Black Breath’. They are deeply asleep and falling farther away from the waking world and ever more toward death. Gandalf looks in on them, but no one knows what to do. A harried old healer woman, Ioreth (who I always picture as a frazzled ER nurse working a double shift on a weekend from hell), weeps over Faramir and wishes there was a King in the city, for the old saying goes, ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer’. Gandalf thinks that truer words have never been spoken, but he has to go out to the battlefield and fetch a few people, now that the fighting is done.
Aragorn, Éomer, and Imrahil are approaching the city, and while Éomer thinks that Aragorn should enter the gates as a king, Aragorn doesn’t think the time is right. He’ll wait until the final battle is over, then accept the rule of the city from the Steward. That, of course, assumes that they’ll win the war. But he is willing to go into the city disguised, acting like the Ranger he is, proclaiming only that he is a Captain of the Rangers. For now, Prince Imrahil is in charge of Gondor. I guess it’s best not to completely disrupt the political order in the middle of a war.
But anyway. Éomer finds out that Éowyn isn’t dead and goes to see her, and Aragorn decides to put his healing skills to good use, since, as the old saying goes, ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer’. Ioreth didn’t know how right she was. Unfortunately for Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, no one has figured out how to help them at all yet. They’re all still slowly dying.
Fortunately for them, Aragorn knows what to do. Once he figures out that Faramir is suffering from- among other things, a fever, a wound from an enemy weapon, despair caused by the Nazgûl, the belief that his father didn’t care if he lived or died- he knows what he needs in order to bring him back from death. to find out if there is any athelas to be had. She initially doesn’t know what it is, chatters on about it, and then fetches a loremaster, who expounds upon the history of the plant before declaring that there is none to be had in the Houses. Aragorn quietly rolls his eyes. Gandalf tells them to go out into the city and find some. Finally, Bergil comes running in with six dried up athelas leaves. He’s afraid it won’t be enough, but Aragorn just smiles and says it will work.
Surely enough, it does! The herb’s sweetness drives away the black cloud of despair, and Aragorn calls on Faramir to awaken, which he does, having somehow realized that his king is calling him. Fortunately, Aragorn doesn’t demand anything more than for him to rest and recover, but word soon spreads through the city that the king has returned. So much for keeping his arrival a secret…
They move onto Éowyn. She’s suffering from a broken arm, the Black Breath, the shock of having struck the Lord of the Nazgûl, as well as years of having her hopes of love and glory be dashed by the men around her, who haven’t bothered to realize that her courage and ability is every bit as great as their own and that they left her behind and unpraised because she was a woman. As Gandalf says, “My friend… you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a mad, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, who she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonored dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.”
Good job, guys. Once Aragorn gets it into Éomer’s head that women’s work matters, he crushes two more leaves of athelas. This time, Aragorn’s call doesn’t work. It’s up to Éomer to bring his sister back from her comatose state, and he manages to do so. Éowyn opens her eyes. She’s happy to see her brother, but she realizes that her beloved uncle and king is dead. Unlike Faramir, she is not happy to awaken and hopes only that she might be well enough to go back to the battle. It will take more than a friendly face and fresh herbs to aid Éowyn’s recovery. It will take a lot of time and for someone who can acknowledge her worth and love her for herself. But that’s for a later chapter.
Aragorn goes to Merry’s room next. He’s suffering from the Black Breath, the shock of attacking the Lord of the Nazgûl, and grief at Théoden’s death. But hobbits are a resilient people, and it doesn’t take much more than a bit of athelas to bring him back, nor will his grief for Théoden darken his heart. Merry wakes up and almost immediately wants a pipe (Hobbits…). Then he remembers that he never got to talk herblore with Théoden and thinks he’ll never smoke again. But Aragorn reminds him that if smoking will help him remember the king well, then he shouldn’t pass it up. So then Merry wants a smoke again. But where’s his pack? He asks Aragorn where it is, and Aragorn responds sternly that if a wayward soldier can’t keep track of his own things, that’s his own fault. He has more important things to do than look after a hobbit’s backpack in the midst of a war when he’s been riding like mad for days and hasn’t eaten or slept for hours and hours.
Merry apologizes for being thoughtless and flippant. He is a hobbit, after all, and they’re terrible at being serious about things. It’s their way, and Aragorn knows it. He leaves then. Pippin stays behind because he has something to say about Aragorn: “‘Was there ever any one like him?’ he said. ‘Except Gandalf, of course. I think they must be related. My dear ass, your pack is lying by your bed, and you had it on your back when I met you. He saw it all the time, of course.'”
Oh, Merry. You’re a dork. But at least Aragorn can have a bit of a laugh at your minor expense in the midst of the war.
So Merry starts down the road to recovery and shares a pipe with Pippin, while outside in the city, the people start to gather. They want to see Aragorn. Even if he hasn’t declared himself, they all know who he is, and they all want to see what they had long despaired of ever seeing happen: the return of the king.
Next week: Aragorn makes a plan to draw out the remainder of Sauron’s forces and Pippin does a bit of birdwatching in ‘The Last Debate’ and ‘The Black Gate Opens’.