LotR Reread: Once More Unto the Breach

Chapter IX: The Last Debate

Legolas and Gimli are walking through Minas Tirith on their way to the Houses of Healing. Gimli thinks the place needs improvements in its stonework, and Legolas thinks it needs more gardens. Both vow to send their people to improve the city, assuming they win the hopeless war, but in the meantime, they want to visit Merry. The find Prince Imrahil and give him a message from Aragorn- he’s not going to come back into the city until the war is over, but they need to plan the last battles and would the leaders of the gathered armies meet with Aragorn in his tent on the Pelennor Fields?

Imrahil heads out, and we continue on with Legolas and Gimli to the Houses of Healing. Along the way, Legolas hears the calls of gulls. He hasn’t heard them until recently, but Galadriel warned him that the sound would awaken a longing for the sea that would not be satisfied until he departed for Valinor with the rest of his people. Gimli’s upset by this, and while Legolas isn’t going to up and leave right now, he will eventually. The departure to Valinor is part of his nature. The future of Middle-earth is for Men.

They find Merry and Pippin in the Houses of Healing and recount their adventure along the Paths of the Dead. The hobbits have heard of it, but don’t know much about it. Legolas is willing to tell the story because he had little to fear from the ghosts of Men. They rode for days from the Stone of Erech, with the dead riding behind until they came to Linhir where the men of Lamedon fought the Haradrim and the men of Umbar. The dead army defeated those foes, and Aragorn continued on with them, driving Sauron’s forces ahead of them and defeating those who stood in their way until they reached the fleet of the Corsairs of Umbar. The dead army overwhelmed them with fear alone. Then Aragorn and his mortal army boarded the ships, and Aragorn released the dead army so they might find peace. Their oath was finally fulfilled.

After setting the ships’ captives and slaves free (though many stayed with them now that they were free), the fleet rowed up the river towards Minas Tirith, and so arrived just in time to help win the battle for Gondor.

You can tell that Tolkien is from a different era in the way he told his stories. Current fantasy writers would devote many, many pages to Aragorn leading his dead army through multiple battles, but Tolkien tells it as a sort of flashback, with one character telling another, “yeah, we did this thing and it was kind of amazing”. When facing so many epic fantasy series with seven, ten, or more 800-page volumes detailing every last battle, conversation, and horse’s bridle, it’s a little refreshing to have a big event like this summarized, especially since we’ve just read about the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

backlit beautiful clouds country

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And speaking of the fields… Imrahil meets up with Aragorn to work out a strategy for the next battle, for there will be another one, and this will be worse than the last. Their combined forces are nothing compared to what Sauron will throw at them, for the Dark Lord sent only a small part of his legions against Minas Tirith. So while the name of the chapter is “The Last Debate”, there isn’t much of a debate going on. Aragorn and Gandalf already know the next move. There is no hope of defeating Sauron through strength of arms, but they can divert Sauron’s attention away from Frodo and Sam long enough for them to get to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring.

What’s the plan, then? To take a large enough army to the gates of Mordor to make Sauron think that Aragorn has claimed the Ring and means to challenge Sauron. Why do they think this will work? Because Aragorn isn’t just any guy. He is a descendant of Thingol and Melian, a descendant of Eärendil, the heir of Isildur with the blood of Númenor flowing through his veins. Ancient power runs through his family, and even if it’s just an echo of what it was in the First Age, it’s enough to bring back some of the glory of old and unite the people of Middle-earth. So Sauron has a reason to fear Aragorn, and because he desires power more than anything, he can’t conceive of a person who would willingly give up power– aka, the Ring– if it was within their grasp.

Basically, the debate involves getting everyone else on board with Aragorn’s plan. He can’t just order everyone to follow him on a hopeless mission. Aragorn and Gandalf have to talk them into it. Fortunately, they are both wise and manage to talk sense into them. If the Ring is destroyed, Sauron will lose the majority of his strength and in so doing will fall and never be able to rise up again and one great evil will be destroyed. That’s not to say that evil will be defeated forever, just that this power will be defeated. As Gandalf says, “…it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to til. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

In other words, it’s up to us to make the world as good as we can so our heirs will have a chance to thrive, though they will have their own battles to fight.

When the debate is ended, the assembled lords will take seven thousand men under Aragorn’s banner, march upon Mordor, and give Frodo his chance to destroy Sauron’s power forever.

Chapter X: The Black Gate Opens

So Aragorn, Gandalf, Éomer, Legolas, Gimli, Imrahil, and Pippin ride out with an army of 7,000. It’s not the entirety of their strength, but they don’t want to leave Minas Tirith undefended. There are orcs and other enemies still in the north and word is that they’re on their way to Minas Tirith. With no front gate to keep the bad guys out, Aragorn has to leave a bunch of soldiers behind. Poor Merry is left behind, too. He hasn’t recovered yet. Éowyn and Faramir are still recovering as well. More on them later.

The army marches on, and by evening the come to the crossroads- the same one that Frodo and Sam reached days earlier. Aragorn has trumpeters go out to blow a fanfare and announce that the lords of Gondor have returned. There is silence in response. If there are any enemies there, they are staying hidden. From here, they had a choice of paths. They could go to Minas Morgul and attack Mordor from a weaker point, or they could march on the Black Gate itself. Gandalf refused to allow a debate on marching to Minas Morgul since that was the last place Frodo was headed. If they draw Sauron’s attention there, all would be lost if Frodo really was there. So they continue on toward the Black Gate through an eerily silent land that grows eerier and more threatening with every mile.

In Ithilien, the encounter a company of orcs and easily defeat them, but they aren’t heartened by the victory. Sauron can strategize, too. Aragorn thinks he is trying to lead them on and gauge the army’s strength. And now the remaining Ringwraiths are hovering above them, filling the Men with dread.

red volcano volcanoes lava

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On the fourth day, they reach dead lands beneath Mordor. This place is terrifying, and not just because everything is dead. The closer you come to Mordor the more dread there is. It’s long been a place of horror in the tales and legends of the West, and some of the men are so terrified that they cannot continue on. Their fear has overcome them. Rather than getting mad at these men for their fear (as many war leaders would have done), Aragorn has pity on them: “…for these were young men from Rohan, from Westfold far away, or husbandmen from Lossarnach, and to them Mordor had been from childhood a name of evil, and yet unreal… and now they walked like men in a hideous dream made true and they understood not this war nor why fate should lead them to such a pass.” In other words, these are farmboys and stablehands who had simple lives and are encountering the worst of war, just like the farmboys and stablehands Tolkien might have encountered in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme. They heard stories about Mordor and war but never imagined they’d be right in the middle of it all. It’s enough to freak out a hardened warrior, let alone a kid who’s fresh off the farm.

In his wisdom and mercy, Aragorn gives them a task that will take them away from this horrible place, but allow them to keep their honor. They will retake Cair Andros, if they can, and hold it for Gondor in the last defense. Thanks to his mercy, some of the men find their courage and continue on, while the rest take hope in the fact that there is an urgent mission for them to accomplish. With those departures and the men that Aragorn left behind to guard Ithilien, there are now 6,000 men left to march on the Black Gate.

On the morning of the sixth day, they reach the Black Gate. The land is foul, torn up, and riddled with the awful works of the orcs. The Black Gate is closed, and there seem to be no guards or sentinels on the great walls.  Aragorn arrays his forces as he can to wait for Mordor’s response, and then he and his captains ride forth to meet whatever ambassador of Sauron’s will speak with them. The group consists of Aragorn, Gandalf, Éomer, Imarahil, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin, along with Elrond’s sons Elladan and Elrohir. They demand that someone come to answer for Sauron’s crimes against the peoples of Middle-earth.

Finally, someone comes out. He’s a Man, dressed all in black with a skull-like mask. He is the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur, and if he ever had a name it has long been forgotten, even by him. He is one of the Black Númenoreans (black for their evil deeds, not skin color). He mocks the company at first, declaring that there is no one there with authority enough to make a treaty, and mocking Aragorn and his lineage before insulting Gandalf and showing the wizard a set of tokens he was given for this meeting: Sam’s short sword, a gray cloak with an elven-brooch, and the coat of mithril-mail Frodo wore from Rivendell. The ones who know what these things are lose all hope. If the Lieutenant of Barad-dur has these things, it can only mean that Sam and Frodo have been captured. Sauron must have the Ring. All their efforts have been in vain.

When the Lieutenant sees their reactions (especially Pippin’s) he is pleased. He’s an awful person, after all, and he says Frodo will suffer horribly for years and years unless they agree to Sauron’s terms: this army will withdraw beyond the Anduin and take oaths never to attack Sauron again. All lands east of the Anduin will be Sauron’s, and the lands to the west of the river will pay tribute to Sauron and never have weapons again. They will rebuild Isengard, too so Sauron’s lieutenant can live there.

Of course, Aragorn and Co. aren’t stupid. They know they will be slaves, and that Sauron’s lieutenant- the one right in front of them- will be their tyrant.

It’s a lot to give up for the sake of one person (though you wouldn’t know it from all the superhero movies, where the characters love their Significant Other soooooo much they’re willing to let half the universe die so they can save that loved one…). Gandalf might seem very cold-blooded at this moment. He cares about Frodo, after all. But in the end, Frodo is just one person. His life isn’t worth more than literally every other life in Middle-earth. Besides. Gandalf suspects that he doesn’t have the whole story. He takes Frodo and Sam’s things and tells the Lieutenant off. The Lieutenant is enraged, but he’s not above fear and these dreadful captains of Men scare the hell out of him. He turns tail and rides back to the gate.

That’s the moment when Sauron’s forces begin to move. The Black Gate opens wide and endless hordes of orcs come pouring out, along with trolls, and above them all fly the Nazgûl. It’s a dark day for the peoples of Middle-earth. Pippin is terrified but stands tall anyway. He’s begun to understand Denethor’s point of view, “Well, well, now at any rate I understand poor Denethor a little better. We might die together, Merry and I, and since die we must, why not? Well, as he is not here, I hope he’ll find an easier end. But now I must do my best.”

Pippin sure has changed since that irresponsible young hobbit we met back in the Shire, hasn’t he?

The first lines of orcs start to crash into them, and before Pippin knows it the battle is all around him, with no possible end in sight. Hill-trolls rush the line, breaking through their defenses. Beside Pippin, Beregond is stunned by the captain of the hill-trolls. He moves to defend his friend and stabs straight upward with the sword of Westernesse he got from the barrow long ago. The blade pierces the trolls hide and kills him, but he collapses on Pippin, crushing him to the ground.

Before things go dark, Pippin hears voices crying out that the Eagles are coming! For a moment, Pippin thinks of Bilbo, then realizes that’s a different story. “This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!”


Next Week: We get caught up with Frodo (who’s not quite dead) and Sam (who simply walks into Mordor) in ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’ and ‘The Land of Shadow’.

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