Synopsis for The Return of the King
Book 5: The War of the Ring
Chapters 1–3: The Brink of War
Book 5 begins where book 3 left off, as Gandalf and Pippin ride Shadowfax toward Gondor (chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”). They travel by night and keep out of sight during the day to avoid detection by the spies of the Dark Lord. On the way, they begin to see fiery beacons springing up across the land. These are beacons of war, Gandalf says, which are lit to warn Rohan that Gondor is in need of support. After three nights, they come to Minas Tirith, the great capital city of Gondor, whose gates they enter at dawn. They ride upward through the seven circular walled tiers of the White Tower, and Pippin is in awe of the great white city, though he notes that it seems to be falling into decay. Finally, they reach the great citadel at the center of the city, where Steward Denethor holds court. They pass into the courtyard without challenge, the guards having been alerted to their coming. Gandalf dismounts and lets Shadowfax be led away. Here in the courtyard they see a green fountain and a dead tree that was once the flowering White Tree of Gondor. Gandalf takes them down a passage leading into the hall of Denethor. As they move into the presence of the steward of Gondor, Gandalf warns Pippin that Denethor will want to speak to the hobbit particularly, since he will want to hear about his son Boromir from the person who saw him last. Gandalf also warns Pippin to be careful not to say too much, and in particular not to mention Aragorn.
As they enter the Hall of Kings, Pippin notices that the great throne is empty, while Denethor, as steward, sits in a black stone seat on the floor. Gandalf greets him, saying he comes with important counsel for this dark time. He introduces Pippin as one of the Halflings present at the death of Boromir. The steward is a sturdy old man who sits in gloom, staring at something in his lap. This turns out to be the broken horn of Boromir. Pippin begins speaking about when the horn was sounded last and how Boromir had given his life trying to rescue Pippin and his kinsman. Denethor speaks with Pippin for some time, generally ignoring Gandalf, who sits impatiently listening to the conversation. He and Gandalf exchange intense glares as Denethor closely questions Pippin about the Fellowship. Pippin scrupulously avoids any mention of the One Ring. His narrative of Boromir’s sacrifice kindles in Pippin the realization that he in fact owes his life to Gondor. On a gallant impulse, Pippin offers his sword and his service to the steward of Gondor. Denethor, somewhat bemused, accepts the offer and has Pippin swear to him an oath of fealty.
After an hour of speaking with Pippin, Denethor calls a servant to take Gandalf and Pippin to their quarters, saying that Gandalf can come to speak with him at any time. Gandalf shows some anger at being kept silent while Denethor has questioned Pippin, while Denethor suggests that Gandalf merely wants to manipulate him. Denethor will continue to rule Gondor, he says, in his own way until the king returns. Gandalf snaps back that while Denethor is charged with keeping the kingdom of Gondor together until the king’s return, Gandalf himself has no interest in ruling Gondor or any other realm, but rather in preserving whatever good he can in Middle-earth through the dark times at hand—for, he says, he is also a steward.
Pippin understands little of this, and after they are shown to their quarters, he asks Gandalf if the wizard is angry with him. Gandalf laughs and says that Pippin did very well in the interview, but he warns that Denethor is very perceptive and has a great talent for guessing men’s true thoughts. The blood of the great lords of Númenor runs in the steward’s veins, Gandalf says, as it does in his son Faramir’s, and Gandalf expresses the wish that Faramir be returned to Gondor. He warns Pippin to be careful in Denethor’s service. Then he leaves to take part in a council of war. He asks that Pippin check on Shadowfax to make sure he is being well cared for.
After Gandalf leaves, Pippin is met by Beregond, one of the steward’s guardsmen, who has been assigned to give Pippin some instructions in the passwords he will need to know, as well as some of his duties as a member of the guard. Beregond has heard rumors of thousands of Halflings coming to the aid of the city, and Pippin has to disappoint him. He tells Beregond about his experiences so far, though he slips once in mentioning Aragorn, quickly covering by saying that he was merely another man who had come along. His chief questions have to do with when mealtimes are. After checking on Shadowfax, Pippin and Beregond look out over the land. Pippin sees the great plain of the Pelennor lying before the city and the curve of the River Anduin in the distance. He sees the ruin of the great city of Osgiliath, which Beregond tells him had been the old capitol of Gondor before it was captured and burned by the forces of darkness in the distant past. In his youth, Denethor had retaken the city, but the Nazgûl recently captured the far side of Osgiliath. Gondor still controls the near side, thanks to the valor of Boromir. Beregond and Pippin begin to discuss the imminent war, and Beregond seems to have little hope for the coming struggle. Just then, one of the Black Riders passes far overhead on its monstrous flying steed, and Pippin and Beregond both feel terrible dread. When this has passed, though, Pippin says he will not yet despair—Gandalf fell and was raised again, he says, and so he will continue to have hope.
After the noon meal, Beregond has to return to duty but tells Pippin to find his son, who will give him a tour of the city. Pippin finds the boy, Bergil, who at first thinks that Pippin is another boy. The two of them watch the gate as reinforcements arrive at Minas Tirith from the Outlands, mainly from the south. The most important of these are the forces of Dol Amroth, led by their prince. Several groups appear, but in every case there are fewer than had been hoped for or anticipated, because the southern lands are already under attack by an army from Umbar, one of the nations of men who have allied itself to Sauron.
As evening falls, Pippin has his meal with Beregond and the rest of the guard in the citadel, and as he leaves to go back to his quarters, Beregond tells him that he will be summoned to Denethor in the morning. Pippin finds his lodgings, though all the lights of the city are out as a wartime precaution. Further, a black cloud seems to have descended on Minas Tirith. Gandalf finally arrives but is clearly fretting over the fact that Faramir has not yet returned. He tells Pippin to sleep and await Denethor’s summons. There will be no dawn, he says, because “The Darkness has begun” (45).
Chapter 2 (“The Passing of the Grey Company”) returns to Aragorn, Théoden, and those left behind by Gandalf and Pippin. Théoden plans to lead his men to a muster he has called where all the forces of Rohan are to meet in preparation for marching to Minas Tirith. But Aragorn makes it clear he must go immediately to the White Tower, and Legolas and Gimli choose to accompany him. Merry would like to come along as well, but feels he may have obligations to Théoden. At first, they all travel with Théoden and his escort, but in the evening they hear the sound of hoofbeats behind them and turn to face the intruders. Éomer challenges the newcomers, demanding to know what their business is in Rohan. Their spokesman, Halbarad, answers that they are Dúnedain, Rangers from the North, and are seeking Aragorn, for they have received a mysterious message that Aragorn is in need of his kinsmen, and that they should meet him in Rohan.
Aragorn gladly greets the 30 kinsmen who have come to seek him. They are accompanied by Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond, who have also come to join Aragorn. Elrohir delivers a message from Elrond, telling Aragorn to “remember the Paths of the Dead” if he is in haste. Halbarad holds a staff with a standard wrapped about it, sent from Arwen. Aragorn tells Halbarad to hold onto the standard for now.
That night, when they have returned to Helm’s Deep, Aragorn takes no rest but confers by himself with Halbarad all night. Gimli and Legolas discuss matters and come to realize that it was Galadriel who must have sent the message to Rivendell and the Rangers. As they meet Théoden for the midday meal, the king asks Merry to sit and speak with him, telling the hobbit that he would like his company and would like to make him his squire. Merry takes out his sword and lays it in Théoden’s lap, pledging fealty to the king of Rohan.
When Aragorn returns from his consultation with his kinsman, he has decided on a desperate course. He cannot stay with Théoden and go to the muster of Rohan, because he believes he will arrive in Minas Tirith too late if he does. He will, instead, take the Paths of the Dead. Although he is warned that the living cannot travel that road, Aragorn believes that the heir of Isildur should be able to go that way in safety. He tells his friends that he has looked into the palantír, and when they are shocked at his presumption, he reminds them that the seeing-stone is in fact his own property by right. After a prodigious struggle, he was able to bend the power of the stone to his own will, and to reveal to Sauron something that the Dark Lord had not known before: that the heir of Isildur was alive, and that the Sword that was Broken had been reforged. Gimli wonders if Sauron may launch his forces all the sooner, and Aragorn responds that he hopes the new knowledge will provoke Sauron into rash decisions. He has also seen that a great host of men allied with Sauron is approaching Minas Tirith from the south and may destroy the city before the Rohirrim can ride to help with the city’s defense.
As for the Paths of the Dead, Aragorn recites an ancient prophecy that the dead will awaken when the king’s heir from the north summons them to the Stone of Erech. Aragorn then explains that in the last war with Sauron, Isildur had set up a black stone from Númenor on the Hill of Erech. On this stone, the men of the mountains had taken an oath that they would support Isildur in his war with the Dark Lord. But they broke their oath and failed to come when Isildur summoned them to battle, and as a result Isildur cursed them. They were never to have rest until they had fulfilled their oath. Thus, Aragorn, as Isildur’s heir, should be able to call the oathbreakers to allegiance at the Stone of Erech.
Aragorn and his Rangers ride, with Legolas, Gimli, and the sons of Elrond, across the Mark of Rohan until they reach Dunharrow the next morning, where Éowyn has been left in charge of the women and children of Rohan. Éowyn, clearly attracted to Aragorn, is appalled at his decision to tread the Paths of the Dead. She begs him not to take that road, but he insists that he must, and when she cannot change his mind she begs to come with him. Aragorn tells her that her duty is to stay with her people, at which Éowyn bristles, claiming that she can handle herself in battle as well as a man. The next morning, Éowyn meets them, armed and on horseback. She begs Aragorn to take her with him, but once again he refuses and leaves with his Rangers while Éowyn watches as if made of stone.
Down beneath the mountain outside of Dunharrow, Aragorn and his grey company enter the dark Paths of the Dead. Gimli is terrified, though Legolas, as an elf, has no fear of death. As the company rides through the darkness, they can hear the voices of an invisible army behind them. When they arrive at a large, open area, they come upon the mail-clad skeleton of a warrior who had died in the distant past, trying to hack his way through a locked stone door. Aragorn gazes at the bones, then declares that he cares not where the door leads, for that is not his errand. He announces that he is summoning the dead to the Stone of Erech.
The company rides on, out of the cave and into a ravine. They ride on for hours, the host of the dead trailing behind them with tattered banners flying. Finally, they reach the Hill of Erech and climb to its top, where before the great black stone, as tall as a man, Aragorn addresses the oathbreakers in a loud voice, demanding to know why they have come to this place. The answer comes in a single voice from the darkness: “To fulfil our oath and have peace” (63). Aragorn announces that he is Elessar, heir of Isildur, and will hold their oaths fulfilled once all servants of Mordor are driven from this country. At that, Halbarad unfurls the banner he has been carrying, and it is black.
After camping that night at the Stone, the company moves south, traveling through the land where the inhabitants have fled to the hills at the rumor that the King of the Dead is approaching. They continue to move south toward the darkness of war. In chapter 3 (“The Muster of Rohan”), the narrative returns to Merry, who has been riding for two days on a small pony at Théoden’s side, telling him stories of the Shire as the king moves toward Edoras, where he has sent word that all the troops of the Mark are to muster. On the third day, Merry rides behind the king, worrying about Pippin and Gandalf, as well as Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and finally Frodo and Sam.
As they travel on, they meet troops of Rohirrim traveling toward the muster at Edoras. Théoden learns that Gandalf has brought news to them of Théoden’s victory and of the muster. Théoden reveals that he plans to lead the army of Rohan into Gondor, though Éomer tries to persuade him to stay behind and let the younger men fight. At last, the king’s company arrives at Dunharrow, where they are greeted by a fully armed Éowyn, who meets them on horseback and tells Théoden that Aragorn has taken the Paths of the Dead, despite her attempts to dissuade him. At this, Théoden and Éomer are saddened, believing that Aragorn and his companions have gone to their deaths for no good reason, at a time when their prowess was most needed.
The king and his troops stop at Dunharrow for the night, and Merry, as the king’s squire, serves him at dinner, then sits at his side as Théoden tells of the legends associated with the Paths of the Dead, in particular of Baldor, son of Brego, who entered the Door to the Paths many generations before and was never heard from again. But Théoden remembers that Brego had gone with his son, and told how a strange man sat at the door and warned Baldor that the time had not yet come for the door to be passed. This gives Théoden some hope that perhaps Aragorn will be safe, since the time may now have come that was implied in that warning.
The meal is interrupted when a messenger from Gondor arrives and is shown in to the king. At first Merry thinks that it is Boromir come alive again, but it is the herald Hirgon from Minas Tirith. He brings a red arrow, symbol of Gondor’s greatest need. Rohan’s help is needed as Minas Tirith stands in the utmost peril. Théoden assures the herald that Rohan is mustering all its forces even now, and that they should be ready to ride for Minas Tirith soon. He can bring 6,000 warriors, he says, and be at Minas Tirith in a week’s time. The herald protests that he fears this will be too late to save the city.
The next morning, there is no dawn—the darkness coming from Mordor has engulfed Rohan as it has Gondor. Théoden and his men make for Edoras as swiftly as they can. Merry, whom Éowyn has outfitted with a helmet, shield, and leather armor at Aragorn’s request, is released from service by Théoden, who tells him that the Rohirrim must ride to Gondor with all the speed they can. Merry’s pony cannot keep up, and no rider can take him on one of the larger horses. He must therefore stay with Éowyn, who will remain behind to govern the people in the king’s absence. Merry protests that he has no wish to be left behind but wants to do his part in the war as his friends are doing. The king will not listen.
On the ride to Edoras, Merry notices a slightly built young warrior looking at him. He is struck by the intense look in the rider’s eyes, which strikes him as the hopeless look of one seeking death. On they ride to Edoras, and the narrator cites 21 lines of verse that he says poets afterward wrote of the ride to Minas Tirith that Théoden led for five days and nights. When the company reaches Edoras, and the king unites his 6,000 warriors for immediate departure for Gondor, Théoden bids Merry farewell, despite the hobbit’s continued protests.
But as the great host sets out, Merry is approached by the young warrior he had seen earlier on the ride. The warrior promises to take Merry on his own horse, concealing the hobbit under his cloak until they are well on their way. A will like Merry’s, the Rider says, should not be denied. And so Merry begins the arduous ride into Gondor. On the way, reports come to the king that orcs and other servants of Sauron are threatening Rohan itself, but Éomer says they must ride on now. They must go forward in haste, though hope begins to fail in their hearts.
Chapters 4–7: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
Gandalf rouses Pippin at the beginning of chapter 4 (“The Siege of Gondor”), giving him a small ration of breakfast before taking him to Lord Denethor. Pippin grumbles at the scanty rations, until Gandalf reminds him that it was his own recklessness that forced the wizard to bring him to Minas Tirith. When they appear before Denethor, the steward tells Pippin he will be the new esquire of his chamber and asks that Pippin sing him songs of the Shire for entertainment. Pippin doubts that this will be appropriate in such an exalted world, but Denethor sends him to the armory to be outfitted with the uniform of the Tower Guard—black with an image of the white tree on the surcoat.
Pippin spends his first day in the steward’s service standing by and listening to Denethor’s consultations with Gandalf and with the other captains. He has a midday meal in the mess with Beregond, who is concerned that Faramir has not yet returned. Pippin remarks that Gandalf, too, is worried about Faramir. As they speak at the wall of the citadel, they hear the terrifying shriek of the Nazgûl. Looking down at the Pelennor Fields, they see five winged horrors circling a group of men galloping over the plain toward the city. When one of the men blows his horn, Beregond recognizes that it is Faramir leading a remnant of his company back to the city. As the men fall from their horses in terror, the five Black Riders swoop toward them, but suddenly Pippin sees Gandalf streaking toward the men on Shadowfax. He fires a shaft of white light at one of the Nazgûl, driving him away, and then gathers Faramir onto Shadowfax, bringing him into the city with his men.
Faramir is immediately escorted into the presence of Denethor, accompanied by Gandalf and Pippin. He is taken aback at the sight of Pippin, and reveals that he had seen two other Halflings on the mission from which he has just returned. He tells of his encounter with Frodo and Sam, and of their association with Gollum. Gandalf is disturbed to hear that they had planned to enter Mordor through Cirith Ungol, and asks when Faramir parted from them. Faramir says it has been only two days, and Gandalf surmises that there has not been enough time for them to have reached that dangerous pass yet, so the new offensive by Sauron must be unrelated to Frodo’s journey.
Denethor, however, has understood more of Faramir’s story than expected. He berates Faramir for not bringing him the “mighty gift” that he may have had from Frodo. Denethor never names the ring but does seem to know the quality of Frodo’s burden. Boromir, he says, would have brought the talisman to him; it could have been hidden away, and used only when all else seemed lost for Gondor. He goes so far as to tell his son that he wishes it had been Faramir, and not Boromir, who was killed. He is angry and jealous of Faramir’s respect for Gandalf. Gandalf argues that, given the nature of the object, Boromir would not have brought the ring to him but would have claimed it for himself, and that no good could ever come from the ring. Further, Gandalf reminds Denethor that there are other realms than Gondor that must be considered. There is great strain, again, between the two old men, but finally Denethor relents somewhat, saying that there must not be division among the enemies of the Dark Lord. The meeting breaks up, and as they make their way back to their quarters, Gandalf wonders what has happened to make Sauron begin the war so soon—sooner, Gandalf is sure, than he intended. He guesses correctly that Aragorn may have challenged him through the palantír. Pippin asks Gandalf why Frodo might be traveling with Gollum. Gandalf replies that he sensed that Gollum would have some part to play, but does not know whether it will be good or ill and worries about Frodo and Sam if Gollum proves treacherous.
The following morning, Denethor summons Faramir and puts him in charge of defending Osgiliath, where he is certain the first wave of Sauron’s attack will come. Faramir, though still exhausted from his previous duties, accepts the assignment and rides off on what seems a suicide mission with as many men as can be spared. As he leaves, Gandalf warns him not to throw his life away, advising him that he will be needed in Minas Tirith before the end.
The next day—the fourth since Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith—news comes from Osgiliath that the enemy has crossed the Anduin, and that Faramir’s men, outnumbered 10 to one, are retreating toward the city. Sauron’s troops are being led by the prince of the Nazgûl himself. When Gandalf hears this, he knows that he is needed more there than in the city, and he rides off toward Osgiliath.
From the walls, Pippin sees red flashes erupting at the barricades that protect the Pelennor Fields. After some time, Gandalf himself rides back with some horsemen and wagons full of wounded men. He goes to Denethor, who is anxious to know whether Faramir has returned. Gandalf answers that Faramir is with the rear guard, trying to ensure an orderly retreat, having lost two thirds of his army. He warns that the chief Nazgûl is captain of the forces of Mordor, and Denethor taunts Gandalf, asking if he has returned because he was overmatched. Gandalf does not take the bait but does remark that ancient lore says the chief Ringwraith cannot be defeated by the hand of man. They go down, then, to observe the retreat. By now it has become a rout, but Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth issues from the city with Gandalf and his men and is able to bring most of the retreating army into Minas Tirith. However, Faramir has been struck by one of the Nazgûl’s arrows. The prince retrieves Faramir’s unconscious body and brings him into the city.
The city is now besieged by Sauron’s army of orcs. Although the walls of Minas Tirith are strong enough to resist any direct assault, Sauron’s troops have brought huge catapults with them and are able to launch burning missiles over the walls and into the first ring of the city. As the inhabitants rush to put out the fires, the enemy begins launching new missiles that fill the people with despair: They are the severed heads of the men who fell at the defense of Osgiliath, their faces branded with the great red Eye, symbol of Mordor.
In the meantime, Faramir lies near death in Denethor’s chamber, his grief-stricken father mourning at his side. He believes Faramir will die and that his line will end. He seems to have already given up on the city’s defense and blames Gandalf for his role. When members of the guard come to him with reports and asking questions about Gondor’s defense, he sends them away, saying he is beyond care. They can follow the “Grey Fool” Gandalf now for all he cares. Thus, it is Gandalf who takes command of the defense. He and the prince of Dol Amroth rush about Minas Tirith encouraging the troops, but morale sags when they are gone as the city’s defenders give way to despair. By the middle of the night, all of Sauron’s troops have crossed the Anduin, and they begin their full assault on Minas Tirith. Soon the first wall is breached, and the first circle of the city is on fire. When messengers report this to Denethor, he tells them simply to go back and burn. He then orders his servants to bear Faramir into the Hall of Kings, where his ancestors lie. They are to place Faramir on a marble bier and build up a pyre around it, to burn Faramir and himself. Pippin looks on with horror, convinced that the steward has gone mad. He tells the servants not to obey their lord, but they insist on carrying out his last orders. Pippin rushes from the chamber to find help and runs into Beregond. He tells Beregond what is happening, but Beregond hesitates to leave his post. Pippin says that he must choose between following orders and saving Faramir’s life. Then he rushes off to find Gandalf.
Pippin reaches the great gate that guards the first ring of the city of Minas Tirith, in time to see the gate assaulted three times by a huge battering ram that the orcs name “Grond.” On the third strike, the gate is smashed, and the Lord of the Nazgûl, the disembodied wraith of the Witch-king of Angmar, enters the city. At his approach, the soldiers of Gondor panic and flee. Only Gandalf on Shadowfax waits to meet the Witch-king in an epic confrontation: “You cannot enter here,” he cries. “Go back to the abyss prepared for you!” (103). The Witch-king laughs and draws his flaming sword. But just at that moment, a cock crows in the city, and in the distance it is answered by the sound of horns. The Rohirrim have arrived.
Chapter 5 (“The Ride of the Rohirrim”) begins the previous day when, after four days of riding, Merry is trying to rest as the Rohirrim make camp. He is feeling small and insignificant, like a piece of luggage. Dernhelm speaks very little, and the Riders of Dernhelm’s company seem to have agreed to ignore him rather than make it known to the king that Merry has come along against his orders. Merry is feeling lonely and wishes that Pippin were with him.
As the army rests, Théoden and Éomer confer with Ghân-buri-Ghân, the leader of a tribe of wild men of the woods called Woses. The Woses are a tribe of small, gnarled men who have inhabited these lands since long before the Númenóreans came to Middle-earth. They have never been friends of the Rohirrim but fear and hate the orcs who now roam the hills. They are willing to ally themselves with Rohan, not to fight on their side in battle but to bring them information and guide them to Minas Tirith in a way that avoids the Dark Lord’s forces. They want the “gorguns”—the orcs— driven out. All they ask in return is to be left alone.
All roads to Minas Tirith are blocked by orcs, Ghan-buri-Ghan tells Théoden, but he offers to guide the Rohirrim along a secret path that will lead the Riders to Minas Tirith while circumventing these known roads. Théoden agrees, and the Rohirrim break camp. Over the next several hours, Ghan-buri-Ghan leads them through the forest, and the Riders come out of the woods only a few miles from Minas Tirith not long before sunrise. Here Ghan-buri-Ghan takes leave of them, but not before he shares his sense that a change in the wind is coming—it will soon be blowing from the south, he says, and may blow away the dark gloom from Mordor that has been hanging over the land.
As the Riders move forward, they discover the bodies of two men, one of whom is clutching the red arrow of Minas Tirith. Although the corpse has been beheaded, the Rohirrim realize that this must be Hirgon, and that he did not reach Minas Tirith. Thus, Théoden realizes that Denethor never received the news that Rohan was coming, and the folk of Minas Tirith may be despairing of any help.
Now the Rohirrim ride toward Minas Tirith, dispatching the small groups of orcs who, left behind to guard the series of walls before the Pelennor Fields, are not taking part in the assault on the city itself. As they ride, Dernhelm leaves his place in the ranks and moves close behind the king. Merry, riding with Dernhelm, now begins to wonder what indeed he can do in the coming battle, and he feels more and more like excess baggage.
Now the Riders are within sight of the White Tower, and they see a flash of light as the outer wall is breached by the army of Mordor. Théoden bows his head, and Merry fears that they have come too late. But the wind does change, a breeze from the south begins, and the light of dawn breaks through the darkness. Théoden raises his head, blows his horn, and, chanting the lines of a battlepoem, charges forward, followed by the entire army of Rohan, who sing as they ride into battle.
In the opening of chapter 6 (“The Battle of Pelennor Fields”), the war reaches its full fury as it erupts in the Pelennor Fields that lie before Minas Tirith. The Witch-king, disturbed by the light that has pierced the darkness before the Dark Lord had planned, and aware that his army has unexpectedly been set upon from behind, slips away from the gate of Minas Tirith and vanishes. Meanwhile, the Rohirrim are battling the Southron armies and winning the field from them.
Suddenly, a huge, dark shape blocks out the sun above Théoden and his closest retainers. When they look up, they see a gigantic, featherless, birdlike creature on which rides the lord of the Nazgûl. The other Riders flee, either from fear or from an inability to control their terrified horses. Snowmane, Théoden’s horse, rears up and then falls, crushing the king beneath him. The monstrous flying steed lands, and the Witch-king moves toward Théoden to ensure his death.
At that point, the young Dernhelm stands between the Nazgûl and his fallen lord. The only one of the king’s thanes who has not fled or been drivenoff, he challenges the Witch-king. Merry, thrown from Dernhelm’s horse, is crawling unnoticed on his hands and knees, but he recognizes Dernhelm’s voice when he hears it. He looks and sees that same look of grim determination unto death that he had seen on the road from Dunharrow.
At the challenge, the Witch-king scoffs, answering, “Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey!” (116). He advises the young warrior to step away, for no living man can harm the lord of the Nazgûl. At that, Dernhelm laughs, removing her helmet to reveal herself as Éowyn, princess of the Rohirrim. She is, she reveals, no man at all. At this, the Ringwraith hesitates. His winged steed moves to attack Éowyn, but with a swing of her sword, she beheads the beast. The incensed Nazgûl leaps from his mount and shatters Éowyn’s shield with a blow from his club, breaking her arm in the process. Merry, who has crept behind the Nazgûl, now strikes with his sword just as the Witch-king is raising his club for another blow. As the Nazgûl stumbles from Merry’s thrust to his leg, Éowyn thrusts her sword into the emptiness beneath the Nazgûl’s crown. The wraith’s armor now falls empty to the ground, and Éowyn falls as well, severely wounded.
The dying Théoden, recognizing Merry, says he will not be able to sit in his hall and hear Merry tell tales of the Shire. He wishes he could see his dear Éowyn again, but he dies before he realizes that Éowyn is lying fallen beside him. As Merry looks about, he sees the white plume of Éomer leading the Rohirrim over their foes to the north, and sees Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth leading the forces of Gondor from Minas Tirith, now beating the enemy from their gates. To the south, the men of Harad still threaten, and more soldiers are pouring onto the field from Osgiliath. But Éomer rides up, grieved to see his king lying near death. Théoden names Éomer his successor as king. When Éomer sees his sister lying in the dust beside the king, he grimly leads the Rohirrim in a frenzied attack on the enemy to avenge their deaths. Mourners carry the bodies of Éowyn and Théoden toward the city, but before they do, Prince Imrahil notices that Éowyn is still breathing and sends a messenger back to the city at full speed to bring aid for her before he rides off to the battle.
Before long, however, the battle turns against Rohan. Éomer’s berserk charge swept all away before him but soon had him surrounded, and other forces of Mordor are keeping Prince Imrahil’s army from joining forces with Rohan. As the battle turns, a fleet of black-sailed enemy ships is seen coming up the Anduin toward Minas Tirith. The forces of Minas Tirith, stunned and disheartened, turn back for the city, but Éomer battles on, laughing bitterly as he expects to die fighting.
Suddenly, the lead ship raises a black banner bearing the symbol of the white tree of Gondor with seven stars and the crown of Elendil. It is the banner Arwen sent to Aragorn from Rivendell, the banner of Gondor’s king, and the ships are filled with Rangers and allies of Minas Tirith from the south. Aragorn comes ashore with his forces, and he and Éomer greet each other on the field of battle before rejoining the fray. The Dark Lord’s troops are astounded at the wizardry that has suddenly turned their ships into ships of Gondor. Aragorn, wielding the reforged sword of Elendil, drives all before him, and in the end, the forces of Mordor are chased from the battle, and Aragorn, Imrahil, and Éomer ride back to Minas Tirith. But they leave many fallen on the field, and the chapter ends with a dirge for Théoden and the fallen of Rohan.
Chapter 7 (“The Pyre of Denethor”) returns to the moment when Pippin finds Gandalf facing down the lord of the Nazgûl. When he hears the horns of Rohan, Pippin is elated, but after the Ringwraith disappears and Gandalf is prepared to ride Shadowfax into the fray, he rushes to detain Gandalf and explains to him the urgency of saving Faramir from Denethor’s suicidal madness. Though he feels needed on the battlefield, Gandalf decides he must first save Faramir.
Gandalf and Pippin arrive at the gate to the citadel and find Beregond gone, which gives them some hope that he has indeed left his post to try to prevent Denethor’s plan. But as they move forward, they find one of Denethor’s guards slain at the door leading to the steward’s halls. They pass on, racing toward the tombs of the dead kings, as Gandalf laments the enemy’s ability to sow division even here among those allied against him. When they reach the door to the tombs, they find Beregond with drawn sword, trying to prevent two of Denethor’s servants from bringing torches into the mausoleum to light Denethor’s pyre. Two others lie, already thwarted by Beregond’s sword. Gandalf, appearing in a flash of white light, cows the servants and prevents their approach to the tombs, but inside the mausoleum he finds Denethor, sword drawn, ready to fight anyone opposing his mad will. With a wave of his hand, Gandalf sends the sword flying from Denethor’s grip. The wizard rushes to the pyre on which Faramir has been laid and carries him down from the oil-soaked wood piled around the prince’s body waiting to be set afire. Faramir’s fever is already burning him, Denethor says, and all the world will soon be burning. Gandalf chides him for deserting his duty to defend the city, and declares that it is not Denethor’s place to decide when to die, still less to decide when his son is to die.
At this, Denethor laughs and reveals that he has a palantír in his possession. Through the seeingstone, he says, he has learned that Mordor is invincible, and that there is no hope for the forces of the West. He has seen the enemy’s black ships coming up the Anduin, making for Minas Tirith. Those who do not wish to be slaves of the Dark Lord must die now, the steward claims. He accuses Gandalf of desiring power for himself, standing behind every throne in Middle-earth. Nor is he prepared to see his throne taken away from him by the “upstart” Aragorn. When Gandalf asks him what he desires, he answers that he wishes to rule over Gondor in peace, as in the past, and that if he cannot have that, he wishes to die.
At those words, Denethor draws a knife and lunges toward Faramir’s body, but Beregond blocks his way. The frustrated Denethor blames Gandalf for stealing his knights from him, but vows that he will not let the wizard take away from him the right to determine his own end. He calls his two faithful servants to him, takes the torch from one of them, and leaps upon the funeral pyre, setting it alight. There, he burns to death.
Gandalf chides Denethor’s servants for their blind abetting of their master’s suicidal madness, and advises that they learn from Beregond’s disobedience, without which Faramir would now be dead. He and Beregond carry Faramir to the Houses of Healing, hoping that he will recover. But as they leave the tombs, the Hall of Stewards collapses from the flames.
Suddenly, a loud scream is heard coming from the battlefield, and at that moment a great weight seems to be lifted from the hearts of the defenders of Minas Tirith. As Pippin and Beregond leave Faramir with the women in the Houses of Healing, Gandalf looks over the wall to the Pelennor Fields, and he is able to perceive through his own inner sight what has occurred on the battlefield— the destruction of the Witch-king as well as the fall of Théoden and of Éowyn. Certain he could have prevented the latter losses, Gandalf bemoans the fact that the enemy’s influence in Minas Tirith prevented him from getting to the battlefield earlier. The palantír is the channel through which that evil has come. Gandalf now understands Denethor’s madness. Desperate for information, Denethor had begun using the palantír after Boromir had left Minas Tirith. Too strong of will to succumb to Sauron’s power, Denethor nevertheless was allowed to see in the stone only those things that would cause him to despair. Now Gandalf decides to go down to the field with Pippin, advising Beregond that he will probably have to resign from the Guard but, on Gandalf’s recommendation, should be assigned to watch over Captain Faramir in the Houses of Healing.
Chapters 8–10: Taking the War to Sauron’s Gates
In the eighth chapter (“The Houses of Healing”), Merry staggers into Minas Tirith, following the bodies of Théoden and Éowyn as they are carried into the city. His own arm pains him as it grows cold; he has been unable to move it since he stabbed the Nazgûl, but he has been overlooked by the men on the battlefield. On the streets of Minas Tirith, however, he runs into Pippin. Merry’s fellow hobbit is overjoyed to see him but is immediately concerned when he sees how weak and ill his friend is. Supporting Merry, Pippin begins to lead him to the Houses of Healing. On the way, they pass Bergil, and Pippin directs the boy to ask Gandalf to come. Merry can go no farther, and Pippin sits in the road with Merry’s head in his lap. Soon Gandalfarrives and tenderly carries Merry to the Houses of Healing, remarking that the hobbit should have been brought into the city with great honor after his courage on the battlefield.
Now Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry are all resting in the Houses of Healing. Faramir is burning with fever, but Merry and Éowyn suffer from a malady called the Black Shadow because of their contact with the Nazgûl, and it is a malady that the healers of Gondor cannot cure. The oldest woman in the house, Ioreth, remembers the old lore that says, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known,” and she wishes for a king in Gondor. At that word, Gandalf leaves in haste.
Outside the city walls, Aragorn makes his way toward the gates with Imrahil and Éomer. But he chooses to pitch tents and raise his banner outside the gates rather than enter, for he feels the time is not yet ripe. Imrahil and Éomer make their way to the citadel, where they find the steward’s chair empty and the body of Théoden lying in state. Éomer wants to know where his sister is. He is told that she still lives and is in the Houses of Healing, along with the steward of Gondor. Éomer, with a new hope awakened, makes his way to the Houses along with Prince Imrahil, and at the doors to the Houses, they meet Gandalf with a cloaked figure. From the wizard they learn of Denethor’s death and Faramir’s illness. Aragorn urges that Imrahil take temporary control of the city until the time is right for Aragorn to claim his throne, while all agree that Gandalf shall command all the forces of the West in the war with Sauron.
As the four enter the Houses of Healing, Pippin greets Aragorn with great joy as “Strider,” and Imrahil is amused by the name. At this, Aragorn reveals the elfstone that he wears and declares himself Elessar, the Elfstone and Renewer, and his house shall be called Telcontar—“Strider” in the high tongue. He asks the old woman Ioreth for the herb athelas, known as kingsfoil, but she says that the healers know of no medicinal value to this herb and so do not keep any on hand. He asks her to bring any that can be found in the city, and bring it quickly. Aragorn now tells the others that Faramir is in most immediate danger, from a Southron arrow and from grief and sorrow over his father’s rejection.
Now the herb master enters, repeating that the herb known as kingsfoil has no medicinal value, though there is a doggerel verse about it that ends “Life to the dying / In the king’s hand lying!” Gandalf impatiently orders him to leave and find some. Aragorn kneels at Faramir’s side, hand on his brow, calling his name. Finally, the boy Bergil arrives with six leaves of kingsfoil. Aragorn crushes the leaves in boiling water, and the fumes revive Faramir, who immediately recognizes Aragorn as his king. When Aragorn comes to Éowyn, he recognizes that she will need a strong will to live, but that her unhappiness is deep. Éomer does not blame Aragorn for his sister’s unrequited love. Gandalf reviews her life, trapped taking care of an old man and poisoned by the wiles of Wormtongue. Aragorn believes her love for him is only the love of the promise of glory. He knows that he can wake her from her stupor, but he fears that if she wakens to despair, she will die. Using his kingsfoil leaves, he begins to bring her around, then leaves her chamber, telling Éomer to call her name. She wakens, hears of Théoden’s passing, and urges Éomer to make Merry a Rider of the Mark for his courage.
In Merry’s room, Aragorn is able to heal the hobbit as well, whose first words as he awakens are that he is hungry. Merry mourns for Théoden and grieves that he will not be able to sit and smoke his pipe with the king, telling him tales of the Shire. Aragorn tells him to think of the king whenever he does smoke. When Aragorn leaves, Merry calls for his pipe. Aragorn tells the warden of the Houses of Healing that Faramir and Éowyn must remain there for several days, and that Faramir should not yet be told of Denethor’s death. Merry, however, will be ready to get out of bed tomorrow.
Word has spread to the people of Minas Tirith that the king has returned, and as the night wears on, the people, calling him “Elfstone,” beg him to lay healing hands on their kinsmen who lie hurt and wounded. Aragorn sends for the sons of Elrond, and among the three of them they are able to heal many. But before dawn, Aragorn slips out of the city and back to his tent.
In chapter 9 (“The Last Debate”), Gimli and Legolas enter Minas Tirith to seek out Merry and Pippin in the Houses of Healing. The companions are reunited joyfully. Merry and Pippin want to know about the Paths of the Dead, and while Gimli is loath to speak of the experience, Legolas relates how Aragorn roused the army of the dead and led them to the Anduin River, where they encountered the Corsairs of Umbar, the great fleet of Sauron’s forces who were assaulting Gondor’s allies to the south, cutting them off from joining the defense of Minas Tirith. Under Aragorn’s command, the army of ghosts attacked the enemy ships, driving the sailors into a terrified panic and causing them to flee or throw themselves overboard into the river.
Aragorn subsequently released the Legion of the Dead from their oath and set them free from their age-long curse. Sauron’s ships, manned by Gondor’s allies who had been cut off before, now sailed up the Anduin under Aragorn’s authority with as much speed as could be mustered, Aragorn fretting all the time that they may be too late to save Minas Tirith. But, as Merry and Pippin knew, a fresh wind from the south had come up, scattering the darkness of Mordor and helping the ships to arrive just in time. At the end of their story, Legolas and Gimli find it remarkable that the very weapons of Mordor itself—darkness and terror—had been turned against the Dark Lord and had overcome his army.
While the four friends are discussing their parts in the battle, Aragorn is holding a council of captains in his tent. Gandalf recalls for Aragorn, Éomer, and Imrahil the foreboding words of Denethor: “You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory.” Denethor was not mistaken, Gandalf asserts, though his response was unfortunate. What Denethor saw in the palantír was the truth. The forces of the West cannot win a war against Sauron. Sauron has not even sent forth the greater part of his army. Gandalf has known this for some time. It is why the Council of Elrond chose to destroy the One Ring. If Frodo can succeed in destroying it, then Sauron’s power will be crushed. It is the only hope that the free peoples of Middle-earth have. If Sauron recovers the ring, then all hope is lost.
Gondor and Rohan can fortify their own strongholds and stave off the inevitable for a little longer, or they can follow Gandalf’s advice: Since Sauron expects the allies to follow up their victory at the Pelennor Fields with an attack by the new king who will wield the ring against him, if the captains launch an attack on Mordor now, it will distract the Dark Lord long enough to enable Frodo and Sam to complete their quest. The Eye of Sauron must be drawn away from his own lands to focus on the attack. In particular, he must believe that Aragorn is coming against him with the ring, moving with rashness and overconfidence before he has been able to master the use of the ring. Gandalf’s plan, then, is to use the armies of Gondor and Rohan as a decoy to give Frodo a chance to destroy the ring.
Aragorn agrees to go immediately, but says he will not force anyone to come along who is unwilling. Imrahil declares that he recognizes Aragorn as king and will follow him wherever he leads. But as temporary regent of Minas Tirith, he insists that a force remain behind to protect the city from further attacks. Ultimately, the captains decide to set out in two days’ time to challenge the Gates of Mordor with a force of 7,000 men.
When the army sets out from Minas Tirith two days later (at the beginning of chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”), Merry is forced to stay behind in the Houses of Healing. Pippin marches in the ranks of Gondor’s forces under the command of Prince Imrahil, while Legolas and Gimli ride with Aragorn. Imrahil ensures that some troops are left behind to protect the city as the relatively small force makes its way toward Mordor. They camp near Osgiliath on the first night, and though Aragorn sends out scouts, they encounter no enemy forces. On the second day of the march, the army turns aside from Minas Morgul, attempting to draw Sauron’s attention away from the path they know that Frodo has followed. On the third day, as they march closer to Mordor, Gandalf encourages the heralds to blow their trumpets and announce that the king of Gondor has come. Nothing greets them but silence.
Two days after they have turned north from Minas Morgul, the army is attacked by a force of orcs and Easterlings, but the army fights them off. Aragorn and the captains of Gondor are little heartened by this, as Aragorn believes that Sauron was simply testing them, trying to give them a false sense of security by allowing them to win an easy fight. But on the sixth day out from Minas Tirith, Nazgûl begin to follow the army’s movements. By this time, they have made their way to the Dead Lands, and the combination of the desolate country and the Ringwraiths overhead begins to prove too much for many of the young recruits. Aragorn allows the most frightened of them to turn back, though to save some of their honor, he orders them to take the island of Cair Andros in the Anduin River and hold it from the enemy. With the loss of these troops, Aragorn reaches the Black Gate with a force of fewer than 6,000.
Aragorn approaches the Black Gate with Gandalf, Imrahil, and the sons of Elrond. Legolas, Gimli, and Pippin come along as representatives of their respective races, the free peoples of Middleearth. Their herald calls for Sauron to come out and submit to the army of Gondor. After some time, the black gate opens, and they are soon met by an envoy from within Mordor. It is the lieutenant of the dark tower of Barad-dûr, accompanied by a black-uniformed escort. After the lieutenant mocks Aragorn and his claims of kingship, Gandalf intervenes, warning the lieutenant that he and all of Sauron’s servants are in more peril than they know. At this, the lieutenant produces Frodo’s mithril coat and Sam’s sword along with his elven cloak from Lórien. At the sight of these, Pippin lets out a spontaneous cry, and although Gandalf silences Pippin, the cry has convinced the lieutenant that these items have come from someone of value to Gandalf and the rest. He tells them that the spy will be tortured mercilessly if Aragorn and Gandalf fail to accept Sauron’s terms, which include the army’s retreat, their recognition of Sauron’s sovereignty over all lands east of the Anduin, and their pledge to pay him tribute and never attack him again. A captain from Mordor will be appointed to rule Rohan from Isengard.
Gandalf rejects the terms with anger and threatens the messenger, who, suddenly fearful, races back to the Black Gate as it opens and Sauron’s army pours out. Gondor’s defenses are arrayed quickly, with Aragorn and Gandalf on one hill and the forces of Rohan and Dol Amroth on another. Pippin, who at first was shocked at Gandalf’s refusal to bargain for Frodo’s life, now stands in the fray next to Beregond among the forces of Gondor. They are beset by a force of hill trolls, one of whom attacks Beregond. Pippin manages to stab the troll with his sword and is nearly crushed when the heavy troll falls upon him. As he begins to lose consciousness, he imagines he hears a voice cry that the eagles are coming. Passing out, his last thoughts are that he has confused his own story with Bilbo’s adventure, long ago at the battle of the Lonely Mountain. Then his mind goes black.
Book 6: The End of the Third Age
Chapters 1–4: The Destruction of the Ring
In book 6, the narrative returns to Frodo and Sam, and in chapter 1 (“The Tower of Cirith Ungol”), Sam awakens to find himself outside the brazen underground gates of the tower, where the orcs have taken the unconscious Frodo. Convinced that he will not get into the tower by this gate, he makes his way up and out of the tunnel to search for another way in, wondering as he does so whether any of their friends give any thought to him and Frodo and their quest. The narrator assures us that Aragorn, now commanding the Black Fleet; Pippin, now watching Denethor’s madness; and Merry, now riding with the Rohirrim, all think of them.
Unsure of his next move, Sam looks up at the tower from outside Shelob’s lair. Absently, he puts on the ring, immediately feeling its great weight. His vision turns hazy, but his hearing becomes acute. He can hear the orcs fighting among themselves in the tower. He realizes that the two orc captains, Shagrat and Gorbag, must at last have come to blows, but chiefly he fears for Frodo’s safety in such a situation. He runs over the crest of the mountain to seek entrance to the tower, and at that point he has crossed into Mordor itself.
Removing the ring, Sam can now see the desolate land, the smoke-blackened sky, and Orodruin, Mount Doom, belching fire. Gazing at the full might of Cirith Ungol, he realizes with a start that this fortress had been built to keep enemies in Mor-dor, not out of it. The tower was the work of the men of Westernesse after the great battle at the end of the Second Age and was meant to prevent the servants of Sauron escaping, though ultimately the tower had fallen to those very servants.
Sam begins to feel the hopelessness of his quest, and the lure of the ring begins to work on him. He imagines putting it on to become “Samwise the Strong,” gathering an army and subduing the Dark Lord and all his creatures. But ultimately Sam’s common sense and his devotion to Frodo enable him to resist the ring’s temptation and to realize that Sauron would immediately find and capture him if he used the ring. He eschews its use and walks toward the main gate to the tower to find his way in.
Although no orcs defend the gate, it is guarded by two great stone figures with glowing eyes— Watchers who form a magical barrier to the Tower. Sam comes up against this invisible wall and cannot go any farther, but when he thinks to take out Galadriel’s phial, he holds it up, and its blaze of light enables him to push quickly through the gate and into the tower. The Two Watchers cry out as he enters, and Sam knows that his entrance cannot be a secret. But all he finds in the tower are the dead bodies of orcs of both camps, who have killed one another in a quarrel. Sam begins to move through the tower, assuming that Frodo will be kept far in the back and high up. He meets only one orc as he moves through the passage, and this one runs in fear when Sam draws Sting, assuming from his shadow that Sam is the great elf warrior that had killed Shelob. Sam chases the orc as he runs away, demanding to be shown the way up the tower. The bodies of the orcs have begun to make him fear that no one—including Frodo—is left alive in the fortress.
Finally, after climbing several hundred steps, Sam hears voices. He finds the door to the chamber and hears Shagrat speaking to the orc who had fled from him. The wounded Shagrat threatens the other orc, Snaga, demanding that he take the news of Frodo’s capture to Sauron. When Snaga defies him, Shagrat chases him out of the room. Sam watches him as he puts down a small packet and draws a long knife, looking after the fleeing Snaga, when to Sam’s astonishment one of the bodies in the room rises and crawls toward Shagrat, holding a spear. But Shagrat turns in time to see him. It is Gorbag, and Shagrat tramples his body and slashes it with his knife to ensure Gorbag is dead. Sam decides to seize the moment to spring on Shagrat, to take him by surprise while brandishing Sting. Shagrat holds onto his bundle and, unable to fight while he holds it and cowed by the invisible power of the ring, the orc pushes by Sam and flees down the stairs. Sam is tempted to follow but decides he must first find Frodo.
However, his search seems fruitless. After climbing another dark stairway, he comes to a dead end, and, sitting down in frustration, he suddenly begins to sing. His song grows stronger until he realizes that he can hear another faint voice singing along. At that, he hears a door open in the passage above him and the voice of Snaga telling the voice to keep quiet. Sam sees a light and looks into an open doorway, where he sees Snaga bring a ladder, and finally Sam understands that Frodo is being kept in a chamber that can only be reached through a trapdoor into the tower’s topmost chamber. As he hears Snaga threatening his master and flogging him with a whip, Sam rushes up the ladder, slashing Snaga’s whip hand from his arm with a blow from Sting. The orc rushes at Sam, bowling him over, and in the struggle Snaga falls to his death through the open trapdoor.
Sam finds Frodo naked, beaten, and lying semiconscious on a heap of rags. He can hardly believe that Sam has rescued him, as he cowers in the corner of the room. Frodo is in despair that he has lost the ring and has failed in his quest, but Sam reveals that he has saved the ring, at which Frodo is at first elated but then momentarily turns against him suspiciously. He apologizes as he takes the ring from Sam, but there are awkward moments as Sam suggests that, the burden being so very heavy, he might help Frodo carry it at times. Frodo then reacts with anger, seeing Sam as a thieving orc that wants to steal his precious ring. When that temporary quarrel has subsided, Sam leaves Frodo in order to find something for the two of them to wear that might disguise them as they make their way through Mordor.
When Sam returns, he calls up to Frodo, using the elvish cry Elbereth as a password, since no orc would utter it. A disgusted Frodo sees that Sam has brought orc clothing, armor, and helmets for the two of them to wear. Sam packs his elvish cloak in his backpack and, after eating a bit of what is left of Faramir’s provisions and leftover crumbs of the elvish lembas, the two hobbits set out. Once more using Galadriel’s phial, they pass the gate of the Two Watchers by crying out elvish phrases as they pass. But when they run through the gate, they hear a crack as the keystone in the gate’s arch crashes down, the Watchers begin to wail, and from the dark sky the cry of a Nazgûl answers as the wraith plummets down moments after Frodo and Sam have escaped the tower.
As chapter 2 (“The Land of the Shadow”) opens, Frodo and Sam run from Cirith Ungol as quickly as they can while the Nazgûl perches on the ruined gate and screams an alarm. The hobbits are escaping along a path cut into the mountains, and they fear that they will be found out, even in their orc garb, since they are running from rather than toward the alarm. They wish they could get off the path, but since they are moving along a cliff, that would only be possible if they had wings. As a bell rings and the sound of horns issues from Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam come to a long bridge, which they begin to scurry across. Before reaching the end, however, they hear the sound of orcs approaching from the other side, and they jump off the bridge, fortunately dropping only a dozen feet into a patch of thorny bushes. From here they scramble down the rocks to the valley and begin to head north rather than making directly for Mount Doom, since they are trying to avoid orcs who might be searching for them.
The terrain is rough and waterless, and Frodo is forced to stop after a short way because he is unable to keep going with the weight of the ring compounded by the heavy orcish mail he is wearing. Frodo has lost hope and cannot even bring to mind his memories of the Shire, but he feels he must go on as long as he has the ring. He removes the mail shirt and wears Sam’s elven cloak instead, and they continue moving, Sam wishing that he could stand before Galadriel and ask for some light and some freshwater.
As they move northward along an orc path, the sun appears in the east, and the darkness seems to clear from the western skies. Sam feels uplifted and says he feels a change in the wind. Not long after, they hear from far off in the west the death cry of the Witch-king. Sam feels a new hope, but Frodo still feels only the burden of the ring—they must go east, he tells Sam, not west. They eat a few morsels of lembas, but soon after, they come across a small stream of freshwater, where they are able to quench their thirst and refill their water bottle. Sam is overjoyed and hopes sometime to be able to tell the Lady about the light and water they have received. After moving on some way, Frodo decides it is time for them to turn east, but he wants to rest in a hole in the cliffs for a while first. They climb to a hiding place, where they eat half of what is left of Faramir’s provisions and drink a little more. They know they are about to cross the dry and terrible plain of Gorgoroth that lies before Orodruin. While Frodo sleeps, Sam looks out on the land, then looks to the west, where he sees a bright star in the sky. Its beauty reminds him that there is a goodness that the darkness of Mordor can never obliterate. He begins to worry less about his own fate or Frodo’s, and drops off to sleep.
In the morning, after a small breakfast, Frodo and Sam climb to where they can look down on Gorgoroth. They see Mount Doom still 40 miles away, across the broad land where a few villages can be seen, as well as regiments of Sauron’s army. Frodo sees no hope of reaching the mountain, but he insists on pressing on. However, he cannot see a way down and so decides to go farther north before turning east. They trudge farther along the valley, where they hear the voices of two orcs and hide. The orcs argue about having lost the scent of the great elf warrior or whatever it is they are supposed to be tracking, and they also refer to a creature that has escaped from them; their description makes it clear this was Gollum. Finally, one of the orcs repeats the rumor that the chief Ringwraith has been killed. After the orcs pass, Frodo and Sam discuss the antagonism all orcs seem to feel toward one another. Sam also tells Frodo that he knew Gollum was still alive. When Frodo asks how he knew, Sam tells him all he knows of Gollum’s betrayal of them to Shelob. Then the hobbits start off again. The exhausted Frodo tells Sam that Sting is now his, for he does not feel that he will be able to strike a blow with it again.
The hobbits move by night, and in the morning they rest. Sam asks how much longer it will take to reach the mountain, and Frodo reckons that, with going north and then crossing the plain, it will be another week. Sam recognizes that they will run out of food before reaching the mountain. Frodo agrees to try to walk faster, though the weight of the ring wears on him more and more. After trudging through one more night, they come to what seems a dead end. They can go no farther on their present course without walking straight into an orc stronghold. But if they take the road that they see winding down to the plain, they will be in the direct view of orc fortifications in the area. Sam feels that they must chance the road, and Frodo is willing to follow but must rest first. Sam gives him a few crumbs of food and the last of their water, and while Frodo sleeps, he goes in search of water in the vicinity. He finds a small stream and drinks, filling his water bottle, but when he turns back, he catches a glimpse of a shadowy creature lurking near Frodo’s hiding place. When he comes back to Frodo, he wakes him, telling him that he has seen Gollum, and that they must not both sleep at the same time. He asks Frodo to watch while he sleeps, since he cannot keep his eyes open.
Frodo starts awake, having fallen asleep despite himself. He finds that the water bottle is empty, but he sees no sign of Gollum. He and Sam begin down the path toward the plain and have gone some 12 miles when they hear the sounds of orcish troops behind them on the road. They have a steep drop on one side and a cliff wall on the other, and so they have nowhere to run. Assuming they will be taken, they sit at the side of the road, pretending to be tired orc soldiers having a rest. The commander of the orc company assumes they are deserters and rouses them, taking them with him to rejoin their company in Udûn, the dark vale between the Black Gate of Mordor and Carach Angren, the fortress guarding the passage from Gorgoroth to the gate. Sam and Frodo are forced to move quickly to keep pace, and Frodo is hardly able to stand when the company they are with meets several other companies at a crossroads. In the confusion and orcish quarreling that follows, Sam and Frodo are able to crawl away unnoticed in the darkness. When they have reached a hiding place away from the road, Frodo collapses as if dead.
In chapter 3 (“Mount Doom”), as the next morning dawns and Sam gazes out on the barren landscape and calculates how long it will take to reach the mountain, he comes to the grim realization that he and Frodo will barely have enough food to get there. There will be nothing for the return journey, even if they are still alive. Resigned but more resolute than ever to see the task through to completion, he rouses Frodo. The two hobbits make their way over the rugged plain of Orodruin, moving parallel to the road from hollow to hollow to try to stay hidden, although they see no sign of orcs or men as they trudge wearily toward the Cracks of Doom. The physical and psychological weight of the One Ring becomes heavier and heavier on Frodo, who can no longer remember much of the past but can only see in his mind’s eye a wheel of fire. Sam offers to carry the ring for a time, but Frodo refuses angrily, then admits that he cannot let anyone else have it. Eventually, the hobbits are forced to lighten their load. They decide they will need nothing for the return trip since there will be none, and they will need no armor since they will be too weak to fight if found out. They cast off their orc armor and anything in their packs that is not absolutely necessary, keeping only what is left of their food, the sword Sting, Galadriel’s phial and rope, and the box she had given Sam. They move on unseen as Aragorn and Gandalf lead the armies of the West toward the Black Gate, and Sauron’s eye is turned in that direction.
After three days of dragging themselves across the rugged terrain of Orodruin, Frodo and Sam have reached the foot of Mount Doom, but the weary Frodo collapses and can go no farther. Sam, who has grown more and more determined as they have approached the mountain, now lifts Frodo on his back and carries him up the slope, telling Frodo that if he cannot carry the ring itself, he will carry it along with its master. He finds the burden much lighter than he expected, partly because Frodo is worn and gaunt from his struggle and lack of food, and partly because Sam’s spirit has given him a newfound strength this close to the conclusion of the quest.
When Sam is spent, they rest, and he notices that Sauron’s road to the volcanic peak is only a little above them. He and Frodo crawl over the rocks to reach the road. Here, looking east, Frodo glimpses the tower of Barad-dûr and the great Red Eye of Sauron, gazing north toward the Black Gate. Frodo, believing he has been seen, collapses. He falls to the ground and cries to Sam to help him. Sam holds Frodo’s hands, then lifts his master once more on his shoulders and begins to carry him along the road.
At last, the hobbits are within sight of the volcanic fissure. But suddenly, something crashes into Sam from behind, knocking him down. It is Gollum Now frantically aware of Frodo’s intentions, Gollum attacks Frodo, calling him a wicked master and a cheat. The two struggle, Frodo showing surprising strength in defense of the ring, and Gollum worn down by strain and privation. Frodo throws Gollum off, commanding him to get down and to “Begone, and trouble me no more!” Frodo backs away, and Sam comes between him and the creature, telling his master to move on, for he will deal with Gollum. Frodo moves along the path toward the cliff looking over the Cracks of Doom while Sam threatens Gollum with his sword. But Gollum pleads for his life, and Sam, having seen and felt for himself the power of the ring, has a new sympathy for the creature whose life was so grotesquely distorted by that power. He tells Gollum to be off, and to stay away or he will not be merciful again. Gollum moves away, and Sam turns to rush after Frodo, failing to see Gollum turn and slink stealthily behind him.
When Sam catches up with Frodo, he finds his master standing on the edge of the precipice, and here, finally, at the end of the quest, the power of the One Ring at last overcomes Frodo. In a strong and commanding voice, Frodo asserts that he chooses not to do what he came for, and he claims the ring as his own. Placing it on his finger, Frodo disappears. But at that moment, the great Eye of Sauron is drawn toward Mount Doom, and the Dark Lord realizes his terrible miscalculation. In something like a panic, he sends all of the Nazgûl speeding toward Frodo as fast as they can fly.
But at the same moment, Sam is again struck from behind, and when he looks up he sees Gollum struggling madly with an invisible adversary. To Sam’s horror, he sees Gollum viciously bite an invisible object, and suddenly Frodo is visible once more and Gollum stands triumphantly holding the ring, having bitten Frodo’s finger off to obtain it. While Frodo has fallen to his knees, his hand bleeding, Gollum holds the ring aloft to gaze at it, dancing about until suddenly he stumbles over the cliff and falls, holding the ring and crying “Precious,” into the Cracks of Doom.
Now, as the mountain begins to shake violently, Sam picks up Frodo and rushes out into the daylight. The fire that erupts from the mountain consumes the Nazgûl as they are caught in the conflagration and disintegrated. The hobbits huddle on the side of the mountain, expecting to be swept away momentarily with the destruction of Orodruin. Frodo’s hand is forever maimed, but he has come to himself again, relieved that the quest has been achieved. He was not strong enough to destroy the ring himself, but he marvels that Gandalf’s words have proved prophetic: Indeed, Gollum had an important part to play before the end of the story, and so Frodo believes they should forgive him. But he tells his faithful servant that he is happy to have Sam with him now, “at the end of all things” (225).
As chapter 4 (“The Field of Cormallen”) opens, the narrative returns to Gandalf, Aragorn, and the armies of the West in their desperate battle at the Black Gate. Surrounded by countless orcs and men allied with Sauron, Aragorn and the other captains fight a desperate battle in the north of the battlefield, while Gandalf stands calmly in the midst of the turmoil, looking to the sky. Suddenly, he cries out that the eagles are coming, as from the north Gwaihir the Windlord, lord of the great race of eagles of Middle-earth, arrives with an army to take part in the struggle. The folk of the West are heartened by this, but at the same time Sauron’s army suddenly becomes aware of the turning of Sauron’s attention away from the battle—for his Eye has, of course, been drawn suddenly to the Ring-bearer on Mount Doom. The forces of the Shadow suddenly begin to falter in their will, and when the Nazgûl leave the field, the hosts of Mordor are overcome with fear. When a great roar issues from the mountains of Mordor, Gandalf announces in a great voice that the ring has been destroyed, and that Sauron’s power has ended. For the most part, the armies of Mordor turn and flee at the news.
Though Gandalf knows that Sauron’s realm is falling apart, he has not forgotten that Frodo and Sam may still be alive and may need a quick rescue from the crumbling of Mordor. He leaves Aragorn to deal with the Southron and Easterling men who have chosen to put up a defense after all and asks Gwaihir to bear him once again, and to bring two of his most trusted eagles along to search the wreckage of Mount Doom for any survivors.
Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam have tried to climb off the mountain but have been trapped by the flow of lava below them. As they sit, awaiting their doom, Sam wonders how the songs will tell their story after they have perished. But Gwaihir, swooping toward the erupting Mount Doom with great speed, spots them huddling unconscious against the mountainside, and his two companions swoop down and pick the hobbits up before they can be harmed.
When Sam awakens, he is in a soft bed, and for a moment he believes that he has been dreaming. But when he turns over and finds Frodo lying next to him, he sees that his master’s hand is missing a finger and realizes the entire quest was real. He also finds that Gandalf is waiting in the room with them, and Sam is overjoyed, having still believed, of course, that the wizard had died in Moria. The great Shadow has departed, and they are in Ithilien, Gandalf informs Sam—the eastern part of the kingdom of Gondor. It is two weeks since the fall of Sauron (on March 25), which will forever after mark the beginning of the New Year in Gondor. The king, Gandalf says, is waiting to see the two of them, and he says they should come dressed in the clothes they wore into Mordor. When they rise to follow him, Gandalf also shows them that he has saved their two gifts from the Lady Galadriel— Frodo’s phial and Sam’s box.
When Gandalf leads Frodo and Sam out onto a green lawn to an opening in the wood, they are greeted by a great crowd of knights who bow to them with honor. Trumpets are blown, and the people greet the hobbits with applause and with music. When they reach the throne, they are surprised to see that it is Aragorn himself—Strider, as Sam calls him—who seats them together on the throne as the place of honor. Now a minstrel of Gondor approaches and, to Sam’s great delight, sings to them a lay of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.” A great celebratory feast follows, during which Frodo and Sam are able to reunite with Legolas and Gimli. Two esquires appear to serve the head table, one in the livery of Rohan and the other in that of the guards of Minas Tirith, and Sam remarks on such young boys serving in the army, then recognizes that the two servers are actually Merry and Pippin.
The old friends exchange stories of their adventures, and we learn that Gimli had saved Pippin at the Black Gate by pulling him from under the dead troll the hobbit had killed in the thick of the battle. Sam is astounded by Merry and Pippin’s size, for they seem to have grown three inches apiece since he last saw them. Gimli remarks that it is the result of drinking ent draughts.
Finally, Gandalf advises Frodo and Sam that they should return to bed. The hands of the king are the hands of healing, Gandalf remarks, but the hobbits had been so close to death that Aragorn had a very difficult time calling them back from the brink, and Gandalf believes that Frodo and Sam should get some more rest now. All of the friends go to their beds, except Legolas, who requires only to relax his mind, which he does by walking in the fair woods of Ithilien. Legolas remarks, though, that the proximity of the Anduin increases his longing for the sea and the desire to sail into the West like the rest of his race. Frodo and Sam continue to recuperate in Ithilien for many days, always hearing more of the great adventures their friends have had. Meanwhile, Aragorn has been making ready for his army’s return to Minas Tirith, and he plans to set out on the first of May to march to the city as its rightful king.
Chapters 5–9: The End of the Third Age
Chapter 5 (“The Steward and the King”) returns to Minas Tirith, where the people wait anxiously for news from the front. Particularly anxious is Éowyn, Lady of the Mark, who is restless in the Houses of Healing. Hoping to get news of Aragorn and keen to go into battle herself, she asks the warden for news of the war and longs for something to do to help the city. The warden tells her that Faramir is in charge as steward of the city, and she insists on being brought to him.
Faramir is also in the Houses of Healing, recovering from his wounds and eager himself for news from the East. When the warden brings Éowyn to him, he is walking in the garden. He sympathizes with Éowyn, who wants to be allowed to leave the Houses of Healing, but he says he trusts the warden, who does not believe she is ready yet to be released. She expresses the wish to be able to look eastward, and Faramir tells her she is welcome to walk in the garden, where she can look to the east. He expresses the wish that she will walk with him, because her beauty is a comfort to him. Éowyn thanks him for permission to walk there but declines his invitation to keep him company.
Faramir consults with the warden and with Merry to learn all he can about the Lady of Rohan. He realizes that she loves Aragorn hopelessly, and that her wish has been to die in battle. Éowyn gradually begins to walk more regularly with Faramir, and he gives her a blue mantel of his mother’s to keep her warm on their walks. Suddenly, they see a dark cloud rise from the east. They are momentarily frightened, but the wind blows the cloud away, and in that moment an inexplicable mood of joy sweeps over all of Minas Tirith. Faramir kisses Éowyn’s brow, and the men of the city break into spontaneous song. Shortly after, an eagle arrives in the city, bringing the news that “the Dark Tower is thrown down,” that “the Black Gate is broken,” and that “your King shall come again.” The eagle exhorts the city to “Sing and be glad” (241).
During the days that follow, the city celebrates. Merry is sent to help bring supplies to the army, and Faramir assumes his duties as steward. Éomer has sent for Éowyn, but she refuses to leave and seems distressed as she walks in the garden until Faramir comes to visit her. He guesses that her refusal to travel east results either from the fact that it was Éomer, not Aragorn, who sent for her, or from her reluctance to leave Faramir. The lady says she wants no man’s pity, and Faramir understands that this is what Aragorn has given her. But he tells her that his love has nothing to do with pity but with respect for her valor and nobility. At this declaration of his love, the shadow passes from Éowyn’s heart, and she realizes her love for the steward. She agrees to marry him.
After weeks of joyous preparation, the company returns from the East. Lord Aragorn steps forward from the host and advances to the gate, where he is met by Faramir, who cries out to the crowd that the king has returned to claim his throne. He asks the multitude if the king shall enter the city, and they cry out “yea!” Then Faramir has a casket brought forth containing the age-old crown of Eärnur, the last king of Gondor, white with wings adorned with silver and pearls. Aragorn, taking the crown, recites the words that Elendil spoke when he landed in Middle-earth after the fall of Númenor: “Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs unto the ending of the world” (246). But Aragorn will not place the crown on his own head. He asks for Frodo to bear the crown to him, and for Gandalf to crown him. Thus, he begins his reign.
The reign of Aragorn is a renaissance for Minas Tirith, as the walls are rebuilt, trees are planted, and fountains are built throughout the city. Envoys come from distant countries, and Aragorn forgives those men who fought for Sauron if they come before him suing for peace. The office of steward of Gondor he maintains, and he gives Faramir Ithilien to rule, where Éowyn agrees to live with him. On May 8, the Rohirrim leave to return to the Mark, and the sons of Elrond ride with them. But although the hobbits begin to feel a desire to return to the Shire, Aragorn persuades them to stay a bit longer, promising that a great day is coming and that he wants all of his friends present for it.
One morning, as midsummer is approaching, Gandalf leads Aragorn outside the city to a mountainside, where he speaks to the king about the future. The Third Age is over, he says, and the Fourth Age, the Age of Men, has begun. The Eldar will all be leaving Middle-earth before long, for with the destruction of the One Ring, the power of the three elven rings is now no more. Gandalf, too, must pass from Middle-earth, for his purpose here was specifically to combat Sauron. But Aragorn expresses his concern for the future of his kingdom, knowing that he is not immortal and that he has no heir. As they move along a snowy path together, Aragorn is shocked to find a sapling of the White Tree, the ancient symbol brought from the West by Elendil and his sons. This is the sign he has been waiting for—the sign of the Kingdom of Gondor and the line of its king, now wondrously restored like this tree, whose seed must have lain in the earth for ages before sprouting. Aragorn brings the sapling into the city, removes the remains of the dead tree before the Citadel, and replaces it with the new sapling.
The sign is fulfilled the day before Midsummer, when a company of Eldar approaches the city. Elrohir and Elladan, sons of Elrond, lead the company bearing a banner of silver, followed by Glorfindel and all the household of Rivendell, and by Galadriel and Celeborn on white steeds with a great grey-clad company from Lothlórien. At the end of the procession rides Arwen Evenstar, accompanied by her father, Elrond, bearing a scepter. When the king welcomes them, Elrond surrenders the scepter, and Arwen herself, to Aragorn. Aragorn then marries Queen Arwen on Midsummer’s Day, and all of Minas Tirith rejoices.
In chapter 6 (“Many Partings”), Frodo comes to King Elessar (Aragorn) and Queen Arwen to let them know that he and the other hobbits wish to return home to the Shire. But first, he wishes to visit Rivendell to see Bilbo. The king and queen understand, and Arwen makes Frodo a gift of a white gem that he may wear around his neck, telling him that the stone will be a comfort when dark memories trouble him. She also tells him that she has made the “choice of Lúthien”: She will not return to Rivendell with her father, and will not pass over the sea to the West when the Eldar make that journey. Instead, she gives Frodo her place on that journey if he desires it. Aragorn also tells Frodo that he and the queen will accompany them as far as Rohan, since they will be traveling there for the funeral of Théoden.
A few days later, Éomer arrives with a company from the Mark to carry the body of Théoden home to rest among his ancestors. Éomer is impressed by the elven women he sees, and he asks Gimli if the dwarf’s axe is handy, for he has now seen Galadriel and refuses to admit she is the fairest lady living. That honor, he avers, must go to the Lady Arwen. Gimli excuses him, saying that Éomer has chosen the Evening while the dwarf has chosen the Morning.
Soon after, the company travels toward Rohan, and Merry, as the king’s squire, rides with Théoden’s bier, holding his coat of arms. As the company passes through the grey wood north of Gondor, a herald calls that King Elessar gives the forest to Ghân-buri-ghân and his people. After 15 days, the company reaches the Mark, and a state funeral is held for Théoden, at which poetry is sung and Merry weeps. At the feasting after the funeral, Éomer announces that the Lady Éowyn is to be the wife of the new steward of Gondor. After the feasting, the folk of Rivendell and of Lórien take leave of Rohan and Gondor. Arwen spends a long time speaking with her father alone in the hills, and no one knows what they say to each other. Since the hobbits will be going with Gandalf and Elrond to Rivendell, Éowyn gives Merry a parting gift: a horn that is an heirloom of the royal house of Rohan, whose sound will hearten his friends and discomfort his foes.
The company spends two days at Helm’s Deep after leaving Edoras, and here Legolas fulfills his promise to visit the glittering caves with Gimli, though he is able to say little about them afterward. From here, the travelers come to Isengard, where they meet again with Treebeard. The ents have turned Isengard into a beautiful natural park. Treebeard tells Gandalf how he passed on news of the war to Saruman when the fallen wizard would come to the window of his prison in Orthanc. Finally, Treebeard reveals that he released Saruman and Wormtongue from their prison, since they seemed impotent now and the ent could not stand to see living things caged. Gandalf is anxious about this news because he still believes Saruman is capable of mischief, particularly for anyone within the sound of his voice. He suspects Saruman’s release has been the result of this voice having had its effect on Treebeard. Isengard itself by right has now reverted to the king, who gives it to Treebeard and the ents so long as they agree to keep an eye on Orthanc.
Now Legolas and Gimli take their leave of the rest of the company, so that Gimli can repay the elf and explore the ancient trees of Fangorn with him before they make their way back to Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain. Merry and Pippin have a last drink of ent draught before saying good-bye, and Treebeard reminds all the travelers to send word if they hear anything of the lost entwives in their countries.
Traveling north, the company comes upon two old ragged men making their way along like beggars. These are, they find, Saruman and Gríma Wormtongue. Gandalf once again offers mercy to Saruman, and Galadriel supports him, but Saruman is too bitter and resentful to accept any help from those he deems his enemies. Though he seems powerless, he spitefully vilifies the hobbits, and though Merry offers him some pipeweed, Saruman hints that the hobbits may find things changed in the Shire when they return. This disturbs the hobbits, and Sam in particular worries about getting back as soon as possible. Saruman and Gríma head off in another direction rather than go the way that Gandalf’s company is going, and as they move off, Gríma grumbles that he hates Saruman and wishes to leave him, but when Gandalf says, “Then leave him!” Gríma keeps moving ahead fearfully.
The travelers continue north, and the folk of Lórien depart for their own country. Those who remain finally reach Rivendell and find Bilbo looking very old in a small room in the House of Elrond, surrounded by paper and pencils. He is happy to see them, particularly since the next day is his birthday. He will be 129 and hopes ultimately to live to 131 and surpass the Old Took as the longest-lived hobbit. All of Rivendell celebrates Bilbo’s birthday the next day. In the days that follow, the hobbits tell Bilbo all about their adventures, but he keeps falling asleep, and it is clear he will never write the story of their quest. After two weeks, Frodo knows he must get back to the Shire, and Bilbo gives him three books of lore that he has translated from elvish, asking Frodo to complete the editing of them. He himself will not return to the Shire, Bilbo says, for he is now too old to travel. He bestows gifts on the hobbits before they depart, giving Frodo his sword Sting and his mithril coat (forgetting he had already done so earlier). He gives Sam a bag of gold from Smaug’s treasure, and to Merry and Pippin he gives pipes made for him by the elves. But the giving of gifts reminds Bilbo to ask what has happened to his old ring, and Frodo tells him he has lost it. Then Bilbo remembers that Frodo’s task had been to lose the ring. Frodo promises to come back to show Bilbo his story once he has written it, but the next day, as they bid farewell, Elrond tells Frodo in private that he need not return to Rivendell, for in autumn the following year, he himself will pass through the Shire with Bilbo.
The hobbits begin the last leg of their journey, from Rivendell back to the Shire, accompanied only by Gandalf, who has decided to pay a visit to his old friend Butterbur at Bree. Chapter 7 (“Homeward Bound”) opens as they begin their trek. Not long into the journey, however, comes October 6, the anniversary of Frodo’s near-fatal wound on Mount Weathertop, and all that day his shoulder pains him and a shadow is upon him. Some wounds, Gandalf tells him, can never be completely healed. These feelings are gone by the next day, however, and for the rest of the journey the companions enjoy a leisurely ride, except when they actually ride by Weathertop itself, and Frodo cannot bear to look at it.
When the companions arrive at Bree, they are somewhat discomfited to find that the once friendly and boisterous town now is secured by strong gates and vigilant guards. When they look in at the Prancing Pony, Butterbur and Nob are very happy to see them, but the inn appears to be doing little business, with only a few people in the common room. After the innkeeper shows them to their rooms and provides them a warm fire, he sits with them and tells them of the changes in the town. The folk around Bree apparently have been awed by the warrior gear the companions are wearing, a comment that surprises them since they have grown so used to such gear over the past year. They tell Butterbur all about the happenings in the wider world, and though he is somewhat impressed, he is more concerned over events closer to home. He is not able to provide the hobbits with pipeweed from the Southfarthing in the Shire since it is no longer available. More disturbingly, Butterbur tells them that Bree and its environs have recently been beset by gangs of bandits, so that no one feels safe, and no outsiders ever come to Bree anymore. None of them had appreciated what the Rangers had done for them until they left, he admits. Five residents have been killed recently—three men and two hobbits. Bill Ferny, they are not surprised to learn, has joined the bandits.
But Gandalf does bring good news to Butterbur. There is a new king who will make the roads safe again, he assures the innkeeper, even as far as Deadman’s Dike to the north, which Butterbur swears is haunted. And the new king will make sure that Bree is protected, since he is quite fond of it. Butterbur is astounded to learn that it is Strider who has become king. But Gandalf comforts the innkeeper with the prediction that business will pick up now that things will be made safer again. At the end of the evening’s conversation, Sam hears the welcome news that Bill the pony has returned to Bree and has been cared for in Butterbur’s stables.
The following night, the Prancing Pony is quite lively as a number of locals are drawn by curiosity to see the hobbits, especially Frodo, remembering his disappearing act the previous year. They ask him if he has finished his book yet, and Frodo answers honestly that he has many notes and will be working on the text of the book as soon as he returns home.
Anxious to get back to the Shire after Butterbur’s hints, the hobbits leave the following day. Bill the pony is with them, to Sam’s delight, helping to carry their load. Sam in particular remembers his vision in the mirror of Galadriel, and Gandalf reminds them that Saruman is still free, and that he had already had an interest in the Shire, evidenced by the pipeweed found at Isengard. Gandalf, however, informs the hobbits that he will not be going to the Shire with them. He plans to break from them in order to spend some time conferring with Tom Bombadil. Although the hobbits had hoped for his help, he tells them that his time is over. The hobbits themselves, he says, have grown up and learned to meet life’s difficulties, and he leaves it to them to handle the problems in the Shire. When the party has reached the Barrow-downs, Gandalf rides off on Shadowfax. Thus, it is Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin who return to hobbit country by themselves, just as they had started out the previous year.
When the hobbits arrive after dark at the bridge over the Brandywine in chapter 8 (“The Scouring of the Shire”), they find it blocked by a spiked gate on either end. When they demand admittance, a voice calls out from a guardhouse that there is no admittance between sundown and sunrise. Soon a crowd of hobbit guards meets them, and though one of them recognizes Merry, the guards still refuse the hobbits entry, saying that the “Chief” up in Bag End has made these rules and must be obeyed. Frodo realizes that this chief must be his greedy cousin, Lotho Sackville-Baggins, and declares that it is time he was put in his place. The hobbit guards are afraid that the chief’s “Big Man” will come to punish them, and Frodo realizes that Lotho must have hired thugs to enforce his rules. Merry and Pippin are unmoved and climb the gate to let themselves in, at which the guards flee. Bill Ferny appears and tries to bully the hobbits with his size, but Merry calls him a ruffian and tells him to open the gate on his side or be run through by Merry’s sword. This cows the bandit, and he opens the gate and then runs off, but not before Bill the pony gives him a kick as he moves by.
The four companions enter the guardhouse, where Pippin tears down a list of rules. They learn that food, pipeweed, and other commodities are scarce in the Shire because the men who have been brought in as “gatherers” and “sharers” have been confiscating much of the harvest either for their own use or to ship south. They also learn that the chief has spies everywhere. They spend the night in the guardhouse and decide to travel the 40 miles to Hobbiton the next day, but they find that their presence has already been reported, and by the end of the day, they are accosted by a large group of “shirriffs” (i.e., sheriffs) who try to arrest them. The companions laugh, and Frodo informs the head shirriff that he will go where he likes on his own business. He happens to be going to Bag End just now, and the shirriffs are welcome to come along if they like. However, the companions have come some 22 miles and would like to rest for the night, but they learn that the inns are closed because the chief does not like others drinking beer. Sam learns from one of the shirriffs, an old friend named Robin Smallburrow, that many of the hobbits hate Lotho’s rule, but the chief’s men are everywhere, throwing them into prison and beating them if they try to stand up for themselves. ‘
After staying at the shirriff house that night, the four companions push on toward Bywater, where their quick marching soon leaves the shirriffs behind. When they reach Bywater and try to find food and rest at the Green Dragon, they find the place deserted, and they find half a dozen “squint-eyed and sallow-faced” ruffians lounging outside the building (283). These, Merry remarks, are very like many that he saw at Isengard. When the men try to waylay them, brandishing clubs, the hobbits defy them, and the men suggest that the little people have become too “uppish,” but now that the one they call “Sharkey” has arrived, the hobbits will all know their place. Frodo tells them that a new age has arrived, that the king has been restored, and that their time is over, but they scoff at the idea of “King’s messengers,” until Pippin reveals his uniform of Gondor and draws his sword, informing them that he is himself a messenger of the king. As the other hobbits draw their swords, the men flee. Afterward, Frodo tells the others that he now realizes that Lotho is a pawn and probably a prisoner, and they must rescue him from this Sharkey and his gang of wild men.
Sam rides off to enlist the aid of Tom Cotton, oldest farmer in the district (and to say hello to Farmer Cotton’s daughter Rosie). Merry blows his war horn and raises the village to come and drive the ruffians out. Around a large fire, Frodo and his friends consult with Farmer Cotton, who reveals that Lotho had been buying up as much of the Shire as he could. Ultimately, his business practices caused a food shortage, after which he brought in a gang of men who soon controlled the Shire by fear and intimidation; there are now some 300 such men in the Shire. Frodo wants to drive the usurpers out without shedding blood, though Merry is certain they will have to fight. At least, Frodo pleads, no hobbit should shed the blood of another hobbit.
Before long, a group of 20 thugs comes into the city, threatening to lock up 50 hobbits and whip the others if they do not return to their homes. They come to Farmer Cotton, warming his hands by the fire, and threaten him without realizing that they are being surrounded by the entire village—200 hobbits all bearing weapons. Merry demands that the men lay down their weapons, but the leader springs at Merry with a knife and club. He is cut down immediately by four arrows, and the other men surrender without a fight.
After the skirmish, Sam goes off to find the Gaffer, his father. Cotton tells Frodo how the mayor and even Lobelia Sackville-Baggins had been dragged off to the prisons for resisting the men, and how Sharkey, the new boss, seems to have taken over at Bag End. They learn that Pippin’s kinsmen, the Tooks, have been resisting Sharkey and his brigands, and are dug in to their hills, though their land is guarded heavily by Sharkey’s men. Anticipating a more concerted attack from the thugs, Pippin rides to Buckland to bring back reinforcements.
Pippin returns with 100 fighting hobbits from the Took clan just in time, as shortly thereafter an army of 100 men closes in on the village. Merry sets a trap for these just as he had the smaller group earlier, but this group is more inclined to fight. By the end of the battle, 70 of the men have been killed, 12 taken prisoner, and the rest have fled. Frodo’s part in the battle had been to restrain his fellow hobbits from killing even those men who surrendered. The Battle of Bywater will become famous in hobbit history, and it will be the last battle ever fought in the Shire.
Now the time has come to visit Bag End. As the four companions enter Hobbiton, they are alarmed to see how many homes and gardens have been destroyed and how many trees have been cut down, while ugly, dark-colored mills are pouring black smoke into the air. It reminds Sam of Mordor itself. When he finds the Party Tree— the tree under which Bilbo had given his party speech—cut down, he is near tears and finds himself mocked by Ted Sandyman, one of the few hobbits who seems to enjoy the new order. But Sandyman is silenced when Merry tells him they have come to remove his boss. When the companions arrive at Bag End, they find the place deserted, full of rats and filth. But as they turn to leave, they are met by Saruman, standing in the doorway. Frodo realizes that Sharkey is actually Saruman. The fallen wizard laughs, enjoying the revenge of having ruined the hobbits’ home after they had ruined his. Frodo orders him to leave, but the hobbits of the village, surrounding the door of Bag End, want the wizard killed. Saruman claims that if his blood is spilled in the Shire, it will be forever cursed. Frodo dismisses that claim as just another lie, but he will not have Saruman harmed. Saruman calls to Wormtongue, who crawls after him, but as he passes by Frodo, Saruman flashes a knife and tries to stab the hobbit. Frodo’s mithril coat turns the blade, and though Sam raises his sword, Frodo still insists that Saruman be spared. Angered that Frodo has robbed his revenge of its sweetness by his compassion, Saruman starts off after announcing that he foresees Frodo will have neither health nor long life. But Frodo calls to Wormtongue, offering him the chance to stay since he has done Frodo himself no harm. At that, Saruman laughs, revealing that Wormtongue has stabbed Lotho in his sleep and hidden the body. Furious at this revelation and claiming the deed was done on Saruman’s orders, Wormtongue leaps upon Saruman’s back and slits his throat. When he then tries to run, he is cut down by arrows. Saruman’s corpse emits a grey mist that hovers momentarily, until a wind out of the west scatters it to nothingness.
The cleansing of the Shire begins immediately, led by Frodo and his friends. The first order of business in chapter 9 (“The Grey Havens”) is to release the prisoners locked up by the short-lived police state. Crowds of hobbits are there to cheer at the release of Hobbiton mayor Will Whitfoot and Fatty Bolger—no longer deserving of his nickname after months of low rations in prison—as well as Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, who, bereaved at Lotho’s death, gives Bag End back to Frodo.
The newly constructed factories and houses put up during Lotho’s reign are quickly torn down, but the trees and gardens cannot be replaced so easily, and Sam, who takes control of this task, grieves that it is likely that the Shire will not be restored to its former beauty until the time of his great-grandchildren. But Sam makes use of Galadriel’s gift: Her box contains a heap of grey dust and the seed of a mallorn tree. Sam scatters the dust throughout the Shire, and in one year’s time, the dust does the work of 20 years of normal growth, restoring many of the trees and gardens in the land. Sam plants the mallorn seed at the spot where Bilbo’s Party Tree had grown, and it springs to life over the course of the year. It is a year of unheard-of plenty in the Shire, and a year when many children are born as well.
Merry and Pippin move in together in a house at Crickhollow, and they are celebrated as heroes throughout the Shire. Frodo, on the other hand, retires in obscurity, spending much of his time writing. Frodo wants Sam to move in with him at Bag End, but Sam reveals his plan to marry Rose Cotton. Frodo insists that they both move into Bag End with him. In the autumn, once again on October 6, Frodo suffers from his wound on Weathertop. He is ill again in March, on the anniversary of the One Ring’s destruction, but hides it from Sam, for Sam and Rose have just had a baby girl whom, on Frodo’s suggestion, they name Elanor, after the golden flower of Lothlórien.
In September, Frodo remarks to Sam that Bilbo’s birthday is coming up, and that he will be 131 and will therefore pass the Old Took as the longestliving hobbit in history. Frodo tells Sam that he will be taking a trip to mark the occasion and asks his friend to see him on his way. Sam agrees to do so, but he cannot leave Rose and Elanor for more than a few days. Frodo promises Sam will return in no more than a fortnight. Before they leave, Frodo hands over to Sam the keys to Bag End as well as the large red book he inherited from Bilbo (later known as the Red Book of Westmarch). It is now nearly finished, with the story of the War of the Rings completely told. The last pages in the book, Frodo says, are for Sam to complete.
The two of them set out on September 21, camping that night in the Green Hills. The next day, toward evening, Sam hears Frodo singing an old walking song, and soon he is aware of an answering song in the elvish tongue coming from the valley. As Frodo and Sam halt, they are soon met by a great procession of elves, led by Elrond and Galadriel, wearing two of the three elven rings—Elrond’s golden Vilya and Galadriel’s silver Nenya. They are followed by Bilbo himself, who tells Frodo that he has passed the Old Took today and is ready for another journey. Frodo tells him he will be going with him, for the Ringbearers should make the journey together. Sam, astounded, asks where they are going. Frodo tells him they go to the Grey Havens, to pass into the West with the elven folk. Sam has much still to do in Middle-earth, Frodo tells him, for he will have more children, will be mayor for as long as he likes, and will keep alive the memory of the Third Age, now gone.
Sam accompanies them to the shore of the Great Sea, where at the Grey Havens Gandalf is waiting for them, mounted on Shadowfax. Gandalf now openly wears the third of the Three Rings— Narya, with its fire-red stone. As they are speaking with the wizard, who has also chosen to pass out of Middle-earth with the elves and the Ring-bearers, Merry and Pippin come riding up. Having been warned by Gandalf, they have come to bid Frodo farewell. Frodo says good-bye to his friends, and the ship sets sail. It sails on over the western sea until Frodo sees a green country waiting for him, with the sound of singing coming over the water.
Sam, Pippin, and Merry have a silent ride back to the Shire, though they are comforted by one another’s presence. Sam turns off to ride home to Bag End, where Rose is waiting in the warm house and places Elanor in his lap. He takes a deep breath and says, “Well, I’m back.”
Commentary for The Return of the King
Book 5: The War of the Ring
Chapters 1–3: The Brink of War
These three chapters return to the complex interlacing structure Tolkien had used in The Two Towers, book 3, but now includes three strands: Pippin in the Guard of Minas Tirith, Aragorn taking the Paths of the Dead, and Merry riding among the cavalry of Rohan. Suspense is built as all three converge at the siege of Minas Tirith, where they must come together to battle the forces of the Shadow.
The formidable figure of Denethor looms over chapter 1, as we witness his stubborn face-off with Gandalf through the somewhat naive eyes of Pippin. It is clear that Denethor’s resentment of Gandalf is deeply ingrained, and it seems to be a resentment based on Gondor having acted as a bulwark against the armies of Sauron for time beyond measure—a bulwark that has protected the safety of other lands and peoples. It is the safety of Gondor and of Minas Tirith that most concerns Denethor, and he clearly feels Gondor has given more than its share. Of course, part of that sacrifice has been Boromir, and Denethor sees his other son, Faramir, as unable to fill the void left by Boromir’s death, particularly since Faramir is a closer ally of Gandalf’s.
But Gandalf declares himself to be a steward as well, and thus the theme of good stewardship is raised. Denethor will prove to be a poor steward. Partly this is because he believes himself to be Gondor’s true ruler, resenting the need for a king to return. This leads him ultimately to the act of hubris involved in looking into the palantír and, drawn to despair by Sauron’s machinations through that seeing-stone, giving up on the city before it has fallen. Gandalf, the good steward, was sent into the world with the other Istari in order to rally the forces of the West against the evil Shadow of Sauron. Gandalf never tries to be king of Middleearth; he sees his task strictly as that of a steward, knowing that the true king of Middle-earth is a power beyond that physical realm. It is Saruman who attempted to transcend the power of the steward, and in this Saruman and Denethor are similar.
The White Tree that stands dead in the court of Minas Tirith is a significant symbol. It is, as those familiar with The Silmarillion would know, descended from Telperion, the Eldest of Trees, one of the Two Trees of Valinor that lighted Arda before the creation of the sun and moon. Telperion and Laurelin the Golden were destroyed by Morgoth in the Elder Days, but a scion of that tree, Galathilion, was planted by the High-elves in Eressëa in the Undying Lands before the First Age, and a seedling of that tree was planted in Númenor and was named Nimloth. A seedling of this tree, the symbol of the friendship of the Edain with the High-elves and with the Valar above them, was brought to Middle-earth by Elendil when he fled the destruction of Númenor, and that was the source of the White Tree of Minas Tirith. The tree thus symbolizes the line of Elendil, the royal line of Gondor. By the time Pippin arrives in Minas Tirith, the tree has been dead for hundreds of years. It would appear that the line of Elendil and Isildur is just as barren as the dead tree.
The first chapter of book 5 is an important one in the development of Pippin’s character. Pippin, youngest of the hobbits to set out from the Shire, has up to this point been distinguished chiefly by his immaturity. He drank too much at the Prancing Pony and so drew unwanted attention with his loose tongue. He dropped a stone into the well in Moria just for the sake of curiosity, and as a result may have been the one to have aroused the Balrog. Most recently, of course, he has given in to his curiosity and gazed into the palantír, an act that could have given away Gandalf’s entire plan. In this chapter, however, Pippin shows clear signs of maturing. The observation of Denethor’s grief over Boromir’s death makes him feel a debt of responsibility to Gondor and its people, since Boromir died defending Pippin and Merry. To Gandalf’s astonishment, Pippin therefore makes the magnanimous gesture of pledging his service to Denethor, who makes him a soldier in the Guard of Minas Tirith. After this, Pippin no longer acts in an immature or irresponsible manner. Though he does not always know the right course to take, in his actions from this point on, he will consistently be mindful of consequences.
Pippin’s pledge to Denethor is a clear parallel to Merry’s similar gesture in chapter 2. But Merry is actually encouraged by Théoden, who asks him to sit with him to tell him stories and proposes that he become the king’s squire. Merry also has already been acquainted with the king, and he better understands what he is letting himself in for when he pledges his fealty to Théoden. Pippin, once again, is shown to be impulsive in his decisions in comparison with the more thoughtful and levelheaded Merry. Merry, however, has his own issues with being left behind. He has always been more of a leader than Pippin. It was he who first led the hobbits out of the Shire into the Old Forest and who followed the Black Rider on his own in Bree. And it was Merry who dreamed of being the ancient warrior when unconscious in the Barrowdowns. Perhaps this indicated a natural tendency toward action and admiration for heroism. In any case, it is not in Merry’s character to accept being told to stay at home when the Rohirrim ride to battle in Gondor.
It is not surprising that Éowyn, in disguise as Dernhelm, recognizes Merry’s plight. It would be impractical for Merry to attempt to keep up with the Riders mounted on a pony his own size, but Éowyn, banished herself from battle, knows how it feels to be eager to fight in resistance to tyranny, eager to take part in the most important events of her time, whose outcome will determine the fate of all the peoples of her world, and to be told that she cannot participate. In her case, because she is a woman and because of the social expectations for her gender, the role of warrior is not open to her. Merry, as a hobbit, is in much the same situation.
But there is, of course, more to Éowyn’s rebellious disguise than this. She had been spurned by Aragorn prior to Théoden forbidding her to ride into battle. As noted earlier, Éowyn’s love of Aragorn seems to be intimately mingled with her desire for heroic action. Aragorn is her hero—the person she wants to be herself. Tolkien has a precedent for the woman warrior in some of the Old Norse sagas, in particular the 13th-century Hervarar saga, in which the woman Hervor fights in disguise as the Swedish hero Hjalmar. Éowyn tells Aragorn, “I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death” (58). What she does fear is to be kept in a “cage” until “all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire” (58). Her society, like that of the Anglo-Saxons, values heroic deeds, by which one might be immortalized in song. When she is denied the opportunity of riding with Aragorn, and assumes he is riding to his death in pursuing the Paths of the Dead, Éowyn no longer sees any purpose to her life, and the look that Merry sees in the eyes of “Dernhelm”—the look of “one without hope who goes in search of death” (76)—is a precise reflection of her mood: Aragorn, her love, is as good as dead, and it is only through a heroic death that she can achieve her heart’s desire.
For Aragorn, the ride along the Paths of the Dead is the premier indication of his mythic status. Like Gandalf previously, and like other archetypal heroes of myth such as Odysseus or Aeneas, Aragorn must visit the realm of the dead and return, transformed. Aragorn has learned of a previously unsuspected army moving to attack Gondor unexpectedly from the south, and he knows that Minas Tirith will fall if that army is not stopped. On Elrond’s advice and on the strength of ancient prophecy, he determines to walk the Paths of the Dead. As Margaret Sinex points out, Aragorn is in a transitional time at this point (156). Until now, he has been cautious about claiming his heritage. But he is about to enter Gondor itself and proclaim to Minas Tirith that the king has returned. His descent to the dead and his ascent from there onto the field of victory will be his greatest transformation: When he has trod the Paths of the Dead, he will be reborn as something greater than he was before. And he will prove himself worthy of his kingship by his ability to lead his living men on these paths and to gain the alliance of the Army of the Dead, thus displaying, as Sinex asserts, “his ability to command and his power to elicit the love of others” (165).
Sinex also points out some of the parallels between Tolkien’s conception of the Grey Company and certain 12th-century Latin depictions of the Exercitus mortuorum (“Army of the Dead”). These early descriptions, written before the concept of purgatory had developed to the degree it had by the time of Dante, present large groups of ghosts who wander the earth, either penitent for sins and hoping for ultimate salvation, or participating in earthly battles. Sinex sees Tolkien as making use of both traditions. She describes ghostly characters among an army of knights in book 8 of Orderic Vitalis’s Ecclesiastical History (ca. 1133), asking a living priest to perform services for them to expiate their sins on earth. These knights ride all in black and are well armed (157–158). In his 12th-century Expugnatio Hibernica, the Welshman Giraldus Cambrensis describes a fully armed troop of the dead attacking the English army at the siege of Osraighe (Sinex 164). Thus, Tolkien’s Army of the Dead—who broke their oath to support Isildur in his war on Sauron and have done penance for some 3,000 years by remaining in Middle-earth in ghostly form—wish to expiate that sin in order to have peace. Like Vitalis’s army, they are dark and fully armed, and like Giraldus’s troops, they make war on the living. Once again, Tolkien’s roots in medieval history help to inform a part of his text.
Chapters 4–7: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is the culmination of the action that has been leading up to a major confrontation between Gondor and Mordor. As the most extensive battle scene in The Lord of the Rings, it provides a certain satisfaction for readers as the forces of the West prove victorious, at least temporarily. The manner in which Tolkien presents the battle, however, is somewhat remarkable, given Tolkien’s own real-world experience in the trenches of World War I. Certainly a part of his reason for creating Middle-earth was for the kind of escape from the contemporary world that he discusses in his lecture “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien viewed the Great War and the industrialization of the English landscape as the great evils of modern times from which he desired to escape. But we are given a romanticized picture of warfare in his text, rather than an image of the horror that he personally knew war to be.
In part, this is the result of Tolkien’s conscious archaism. His heroes use swords, bows and arrows, and axes rather than guns, mortar, and gas. His rhetoric in the battle scenes is also more deliberately archaic than in other parts of the trilogy. Andrew Lynch points out how the prose of Tolkien’s battle description reads (in its meter and its alliteration) like the lines of traditional English alliterative verse (80), such as the following lines describing Théoden’s cavalry assault on the Southron men in Sauron’s army:
“. . . and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. [/] Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, [/] hewed staff and bearer, and the black serpent foundered” (Return of the King 114).
Not only is the diction of the battle scene medieval, but the attitude of the main characters is as well. Engaged in what seems a hopeless effort against overwhelming forces, Tolkien’s characters tend to embody what he called the Northern heroic code: the grim determination to fight on against all odds in a losing cause, to die rather than surrender. When Éomer sees the black sails of Sauron’s allies coming up the Anduin from the south, he grows stern:
He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. (122)
However, as Lynch points out, the actual descriptions of the battle owe more to Victorian attitudes than to medieval ones. “If the key to Tolkien’s stylistic archaism is his nostalgic desire to reconnect with a heroic past,” Lynch argues, “then the nostalgia is empowered by such links with a recent era of medievalist idealism” (86), that era being the Victorian. The two sides in the war, based on moral alignments, are much more similar to Tennyson’s depiction of his imagined Arthurian world in Idylls of the King than to battles described in Malory. (Perhaps the naming of the battleground “Pelennor Fields” is deliberately intended to call to mind the Arthurian world in an allusion to King Pellynor, one of Arthur’s earliest allies.) In any case, Lynch is accurate in his assessment that the captains of the West fight the war according to Victorian notions of chivalry, while the echoes of modern warfare as Tolkien really knew it appear in the descriptions of “nameless conscripts, machines, slaves, and creatures of Sauron” (87). As shall become apparent later on, the trench-warfare experience is much more applicable to Frodo and Sam in Mordor than here on the open battlefield, where, as Lynch sums up, “As in Tennyson, the idea of war as an ennobling cultural and moral struggle is allowed precedence over the unpleasant history of war itself” (90).
There are, however, certain unmistakably medieval aspects to Tolkien’s description of the battle. The cock that crows at the end of the fourth chapter, to be answered by the horns of Rohan that signal the change in the course of the battle, marks a moment of archetypal significance. Tolkien makes use of the images of darkness and light throughout The Lord of the Rings, but here he seems to allude to traditional religious imagery associated with the dawn. In particular, Tolkien would have been aware of the popular Hymnus ad Galli Cantum (hymn to the song of a cock), written by the fourth-century Christian poet Prudentius, which was known throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The hymn begins with the voice of a cock announcing the dawn and likening it to the coming of Christ:
The bird that is herald of the day foretells by its note the nearing dawn; now Christ the awakener of our minds calls us to life, crying “Away with beds of sickness, slumber, and sloth. Be wakeful, pure, upright and sober, now I am near at hand.” (qtd. in Hatto 277 and 279
) In the poem, evil relishes the darkness and sin encumbers the heart, but the light of dawn brings the light of salvation and, in an image of Judgment Day, chases away the demons of evil and sin.
But the voices of Christ our teacher from the towering height [of heaven] forewarns us that day is now nigh at hand, lest our mind be enslaved to slumber, and lest even to the end of an indolent life sleep should weigh down our heart buried in guilt and forgetful of the light that is its own. (qtd. in Hatto 279)
In the poem, the cock’s crow heralds individual rebirth as well as universal judgment, and Tolkien taps into the latter implications in his use of the cock crow in Minas Tirith. The battle of the Pelennor Fields is an archetypal battle between good and evil, and like the dawn of Judgment Day, the cock crow signals the coming of the forces of light—the horns of Rohan—that will chase off the demons of darkness.
One particular detail of the siege of Minas Tirith that Tolkien borrows directly from medieval warfare is the Dark Lord’s forces’ catapulting of the severed heads of the defenders of Osgiliath into the city to quash morale. Tolkien was well aware that, according to the historian William of Tyre, during the First Crusade, the crusaders hurled the severed heads of captured Turks into the city of Nicea when it was under siege. Since this was done by western Europeans, Tolkien could not be said to rely on the reality of “chivalry” in medieval warfare for his model. Indeed, such barbarism belongs only to the enemy. Again, ultimately, Tolkien’s ideal picture is far more Tennysonian and idealistic than medieval.
The one major figure in these chapters who fails to embody the Northern heroic code is Denethor, steward of Gondor. Denethor, it is discovered, has been looking into a palantír. Tolkien has constructed this section so that three figures in a hierarchical relationship have all used a seeing-stone: Pippin, whose will was far too weak to compete with Sauron, and who passes out, nearly destroying his mind; Aragorn, who has, in fact, been able to manipulate the will of Sauron by revealing his existence as Isildur’s heir and drawing the Dark Lord’s attention away from Frodo and the real threat to his power; and Denethor, whose will was strong enough to battle Sauron’s, but who was not strong enough to resist the Dark Lord’s manipulations. Like Aragorn, Denethor has seen the advance of the Black Ships from the south, coming to destroy Minas Tirith. But while Aragorn’s response is to raise up the Grey Company and rush south to battle the oncoming ships, Denethor’s is to despair. In this, Denethor’s weakness is the foil of Aragorn’s strength, and it is one of the signs that Aragorn is the rightful king of Gondor, which Denethor can never be. Like Pippin, the steward’s mind is affected, and his despair seems to drive him mad. Rather than fight valiantly to the last in a losing cause, as the Northern heroic code would demand, Denethor chooses to give up without striking a single blow.
His heir, Faramir, is much more the traditional hero. His loyalty to his lord demands that he perform whatever duty his father lays upon him, even when it is the hopeless defense of Osgiliath, a task that Denethor has set for him at least in part to torment Faramir because he has lived while his brother Boromir has died. A far less obedient servant is Pippin, who looks beyond loyalty to common sense and knows that following Denethor’s orders about the funeral pyre will be madness, killing Faramir along with his father. Fortunately for Faramir, both Pippin and Beregond intervene. There are times when loyalty and obedience to orders are less important than doing what is right, just, or sane.
Denethor’s foil as an aged leader facing significant moral and political decisions is, of course, Théoden. Jane Chance, who (recalling Tolkien’s literary sources) calls the two figures “the good and bad Germanic lords,” notes that their names “suggest anagrams of each other (Théo + den : Dene + thor)” (Tolkien’s Art 172). In Denethor’s case, the old man begins very much in control and degenerates into madness and weakness. In the case of Théoden, we see him first as a decrepit monarch far past his prime, easy prey to the enticing lies of Wormtongue. Like Denethor, Théoden’s disintegration seems to have been hastened by the death of his son. But Gandalf is able to rouse Théoden from his stupor and convince him that courage is needed against the forces of darkness. This Gandalf is unable to do with Denethor, who will not trust the wizard and whose enticing lies are coming directly from Sauron. A last charge like Théoden’s would have been far more glorious for Denethor, and far more useful to the cause of the West, than his inglorious suicide.
Tolkien’s language underscores his interest in kingship and succession in these scenes with Denethor and Théoden. I have called the language medieval above, but there are passages here that might be called Shakespearean: In particular, Michael D. C. Drout has called attention to the similarity of the Ringwraith’s warning “Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey” (116) to King Lear’s famous line “Come not between the dragon and his wrath”—the clearest of several allusions Drout finds to Shakespeare’s King Lear. The play, concerned as it is with the madness of an old king and his worries over his succession, suggests a context in which to read the problems of Denethor and Théoden. As Drout states, “Tolkien realized that the Lear parallel illuminated some of the complexities of the issues of kingly and stewardly responsibility and succession” (144). Like Lear, Denethor has disinherited his most loyal and deserving child. Like Lear, Théoden had divested himself of royal responsibility, and only now in leading his cavalry in its last charge is he able to regain the authority that he had lost.
The theme of disobedience so important to Denethor’s story also has parallels in the narrative of Théoden. Like his fellow hobbit and foil Pippin, Merry also chooses to disobey his master. Merry’s reasons are not as noble as Pippin’s: He disobeys not to save a life but to assert his own self-worth. Éowyn’s reasons are similar, but more desperate. She feels hopeless and, in the spirit of the Northern code, decides to die fighting the enemy. Both Merry and Éowen have disobeyed their lord in order to underscore their own human value. In a society that devalues the courage of women and hobbits, they perform the most significant single battle of the war. Just as Tolkien’s ents moving the forest to attack Isengard borrowed an idea from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle, so in the destruction of the Lord of the Nazgûl Tolkien alludes to another of the witches’ prophesies from that play: As Macbeth could not be harmed by one of woman born, so the Witch-king of Angmar cannot be slain by the hand of a man. And so it is at the hands of a woman, Éowyn, and a hobbit, Merry, that the wraith is finally destroyed. Merry’s and Éowyn’s disobedience seem to have played directly into the hand of fate. Careful readers will see an even greater irony and an even greater indication that fate, or perhaps providence itself, is behind the Witch-king’s death, for the blade used by Merry to smite the Nazgûl from behind is the same one that had been buried in the Barrow-downs with the warrior who had momentarily possessed Merry’s consciousness—a warrior slain by the Witch-king in the previous age, when the king had been corrupted in his bodily form by one of the nine Rings of Power given to mortal men. It was a blade originally forged thousands of years before for the specific purpose of slaying the Witch-king, and now it has reappeared to fulfill its original purpose.
Just as Merry’s actions parallel Pippin’s, so the shieldmaiden Éowyn’s parallel and contrast the lord Faramir’s. Éowyn directly disobeyed her uncle’s orders in order to ride with him against the enemy and silently rode in his closest guard in the battle, so that in the face of the Nazgûl’s onslaught, she became the only one of his guard who did not desert him. Faramir obeys his father’s command to defend Osgiliath, an act both he and Gandalf recognize as hopeless. But Faramir’s obedience parallels Éowyn’s disobedience in that both are means of demonstrating their value and their courage to father figures who they believe have overlooked their worth. But the hero-king Théoden’s last words express his love for his niece. As for Denethor, it is his belief in Faramir’s doom and lament for the loss of his last surviving son that finally pushes him into complete madness. Fate may also be taking a hand in bringing Faramir and Éowyn, orphaned and wounded the same day and both feeling the emptiness of the unloved, together in the Houses of Healing.
The Woses are the mysterious tribe of “wild men” who aid the Rohirrim by showing them the secret paths through the Druádan Forest and therefore enable them to reach the Pelennor Fields in time to turn the tide of battle. Tolkien takes the Rohirrim name of these men, “wood woses,” from the Old English word wuduwasa, which referred to a hairy, troll-like creature that inhabited the woods. But the elvish term for these people is Drúedain, and while they come only briefly into the great sweep of Tolkien’s legendarium, he did write an essay concerning their history that Christopher Tolkien published in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. (393–404). In the First Age of Middle-earth, they had come north and lived chiefly in the White Mountains, though a branch of them allied themselves with the Folk of Haleth in the Forest of Brethil. After the fall of Morgoth, some of them were allowed to accompany the Edain to Númenor, though they seem to have returned to Middle-earth before the destruction of that realm. The Woses hated orcs but were also persecuted by other men, and they chiefly wanted to live unmolested in their woods—a gift that their alliance in the War of the Ring would ultimately earn them.
Chapters 8–10: Taking the War to Sauron’s Gates
The first thing about these chapters that may be confusing to general readers of Lord of the Rings is the association of the king with healing. This stems in part from the belief, popular in England as well as in France during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that the king could cure certain diseases (specifically scrofula, known as the “King’s Evil”) by touch. Monarchs were purportedly given this power through their descent from the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who was supposed to have received the gift ultimately from Saint Remigus, who had converted Clovis to Christianity. But in a broader sense, as Verlyn Flieger has pointed out, the idea of the king’s healing power “derives from the early Celtic principle of sacral kingship, whereby the health and fertility of the land are dependent on the coming of the rightful king” (“Frodo and Aragorn” 50), and Aragorn is clearly a sacral king in this sense since he heals the wounded warriors but will also, upon his assumption of the throne, turn his hand to the restoration of the land laid waste by war. Karen Simpson Nikakis has, more recently, expanded on this concept, focusing on the sacrificial nature of sacral kingship, a sacrifice that can be noted in these chapters on the Houses of Healing as Aragorn, overwhelmed by people throughout the city who come to him begging for healing once the word has spread that he is in the city, labors far into the night with the sons of Elrond, until he can stand no more and must slip away to rest.
For chiefly, Aragorn’s healing touch serves as one of the proofs of his rightful claim to the throne of Gondor. Since only the true king is able to use the herb athelas to heal the people, Aragorn’s ability to do so, and his demonstration of this power throughout the night in Minas Tirith, does more to convince the common citizens of his legitimacy than the unfurling of his banner in the battle or his bearing the reforged sword of Elendil. Anyone might unfurl a banner, and any sword might be put forward as Narsil reconstituted, but only through his own hands could a king’s touch heal. Faramir, it should be remembered, immediately acknowledges Aragorn as his king. The chapter ends with Aragorn’s claim to the throne validated, but with unhealed psychic injuries still tormenting Faramir and Éowyn, whose outcomes will not be known for some time.
The story of Aragorn’s defeat of Sauron’s armada and subsequent passage up the Anduin to arrive at the Pelennor Fields in time to ensure victory is narrated secondhand by Legolas. This is the second time Tolkien has used this device rather than the interweaving that is more typical of his style. The other occasion was Merry and Pippin’s narration of the downfall of Isengard in the “Flotsam and Jetsam” chapter of The Two Towers. Certainly part of Tolkien’s purpose in using this method is simply to create some variety in the narrative. But there are significant similarities between the two situations. On that earlier occasion, as with this one, the companions have been reunited after a long separation, and Tolkien finds it natural to depict them discussing the things they have been involved in during that time. But more important than this, both narrations occur after members of the company have reappeared in a spectacular manner that astounds the others. While the reader has had an inkling that the ents would conquer Isengard, or that Aragorn’s Army of the Dead will prevail against Sauron’s corsairs, the other characters have had no such forewarning. Thus, Tolkien’s method of narration here allows the reader to engage in the sense of wonder these events kindle in the minds of the other characters, while still serving the purpose of enfolding the plot.
The remainder of book 5 is concerned with the hopeless offensive launched by Gandalf and Aragorn against the Black Gates of Mordor itself. Essentially, the debate over the wisdom of this plan is a rehash of the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is hopeless to believe that the armies of the West can prevail over the overwhelming forces of Mordor; in this, Denethor had been correct. The option of prolonging the war by returning to their own lands and waiting for Sauron to bring his wrath upon them is a possibility, and it may seem the wiser course since a direct assault on Mordor is folly. But this course will only end in what Galadriel had called “the long defeat” (Fellowship 347). The only hope that the free peoples of Middle-earth have is in the quest of Frodo and Sam. The only way for Gondor and Rohan to aid that quest is to keep Sauron’s Eye from noticing the two insignificant hobbits moving through his land. The open challenge is therefore necessary to accomplish this.
It works because Sauron is what he is. It is easy to read Tolkien as a black-and-white thinker who sees his characters as either good or evil, but his individual characters do not necessarily fall so readily into these categories. Characters may fall to temptation by making the wrong choices, as Saruman and Denethor do. They may struggle and be brought back to goodness, as Théoden and Boromir do. There may be hope even for the least likely characters, like Gollum, or danger that even the most virtuous, like Frodo, may ultimately succumb. In all cases it is a matter of choice, of free will. In all cases, the choice of evil is either the choice to despair (in the case of Denethor or Théoden) or the choice to embrace power as an expediency (in the case of Boromir or Saruman). These choices all involve the loss of hope and of faith. The right reaction to this kind of loss, in Tolkien’s world, is the adoption of the Northern heroic code, the determination to fight on even in the face of certain defeat. The wrong reaction is to become exactly what you were fighting against, seeing it as “the only option.” The One Ring implies unlimited power—it has the potential to make its bearer like a god. It is essentially the forbidden fruit, promising the godlike knowledge of good and evil, and each character tempted by it reenacts his own version of the Fall.
Sauron is evil. But he was not created so. He was an angelic being, one of the maiar that fell with Melkor in The Silmarillion and became that first Dark Lord’s trusted lieutenant. He made his choice between good and evil long ages past, and if vice and virtue are habits, as Thomas Aquinas wrote, then Sauron is so inured in the habit of vice that he cannot understand any choice other than the expedient. Thus, Gandalf’s gambit works because Sauron cannot conceive of any choice other than using the ring. He has seen Aragorn through the palantír and believes that the new king of Gondor must be in possession of the ring, since he knows it to be in the hands of the West. He is counting on the new king to try to use the ring against him before understanding perfectly how to wield it, and he expects to crush Aragorn and his army in the confrontation at the gate. Sauron cannot conceive of having the ring and not using it. That choice would simply never occur to him, nor would the choice of destroying the ring and renouncing power. This is why his whole concern is the army marching against him. Aragorn must be coming to wield the ring’s power against Sauron because that is what he would do. The habit of evil blinds him even to the possibility of choices that do not involve expediency, power, or self-interest.
The exchange with Sauron’s lieutenant at the Black Gate is one that no doubt removes the last shreds of hope from many in the Army of the West. Producing Frodo’s mithril coat, Sam’s sword and elven cloak stuns the captains of the West: If Frodo and Sam have been captured, then their quest has failed and hope for the destruction of the One Ring must be abandoned. If that must be abandoned, then this battle will be fruitless. The lieutenant does give Gandalf Sauron’s terms, which are essentially a surrender and a pledge to live enslaved to Sauron’s power. It is the choice of despair. Instead, Gandalf makes the heroic choice, the one called for by the Northern heroic code: The armies of the West will fight on in the face of certain defeat. Aragorn has already let go those soldiers who were not ready to make that grim choice. The others knew that this was probably a suicide mission to begin with, and they are ready to fight on even when all hope is gone.
Pippin is one of those soldiers. He has seen firsthand the evils of despair when he witnessed Denethor’s degeneration into madness. He has also witnessed the virtues of fighting on against impossible odds in the case of his kinsman Merry, whose attack on the invincible Witch-king helped turn the tide of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Pippin shows a glimpse of his native uncontrolled impetuosity when he reacts so visibly to the items taken from Frodo and Sam, but he may be forgiven that lapse, since of all the army, he is closest to his fellow hobbits. But his conduct in the battle cannot be faulted, and when he saves the life of Beregond by slaying the great troll, Pippin establishes himself as heroic in the same vein as Merry—the one positive outcome he could hope for in this last battle.
It should be noted, however, that while Pippin does not seem to read the lieutenant’s reactions as well as the lieutenant reads his, we should not assume that Gandalf or Aragorn fail to do so: Clearly the lieutenant needed Pippin’s outburst to confirm that the “spy” was someone valued by the captains of the West. That can only mean that the enemy has not yet recovered the ring. Further, the lieutenant spoke of a single spy, indicating that one of the hobbits, at least, had not been captured. For Gandalf, the evidence may even provide more hope than less: It is proof that the ring is still in play, and that at least one hobbit is still at large in Mordor. Gandalf’s choice to fight to the death is one that, in his own mind, may still be of more practical use than a simple heroic last stand.
Book 6: The End of the Third Age
Chapters 1–4: The Destruction of the Ring
These chapters mark the climax of Tolkien’s epic story: the achievement of the quest, the turning point in the battle between light and darkness that will affect all of Middle-earth. Supported by the sacrificial attack by the armies of Gondor and Rohan at the Black Gate, which draws Sauron’s Eye away, and dragged to the precipice of Mount Doom by his own staunch will and by the unwavering determination of Sam, Frodo takes hold of the ring . . . and refuses to give it up. For many readers, this comes as a shock and a disappointment. Having struggled with Frodo mile by mile on his arduous journey, readers are stunned by his failure to finish his task. But of course, unlike Frodo, those readers have not been carrying the burden of the ring all that way.
Tolkien admitted that Frodo was a failed hero in some sense, but he insisted that Frodo’s failure was not a moral one. In the draft of a 1963 letter to a reader, Mrs. Eileen Elgar, Tolkien wrote:
We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance. Moral failure can only be asserted, I think, when a man’s effort or endurance falls short of his limits, and the blame decreases as that limit is closer approached. (Letters 326)
In Frodo’s case, Tolkien asserts, even though he had performed all that was physically and psychologically possible for any hobbit to do, the pressure of the ring on Frodo’s psyche at that last moment “would reach a maximum—impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist” (Letters 326). Tolkien concludes that ultimately, Frodo cannot justly be thought to have failed:
Frodo undertook his quest out of love—to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. (Letters 327)
It is certainly true that Frodo did exactly this. But we should ask at the same time, what, precisely, prevented him from finishing the task. Certainly the pressure of the ring is the overt cause. But through many chapters, the reader has seen the relentless attack on Frodo’s body and spirit from the great burden he carries and the hardship of the journey. John Garth has compared the experience of Frodo and Sam to that of soldiers, like Tolkien himself, in World War I.
While it is true, as noted above, that the picture of warfare in the great battles of the War of the Ring resembles the Victorian idealism of Tennyson, Frodo and Sam resemble much more closely the soldiers in the trenches that Tolkien would have known firsthand at the Somme. Tolkien wrote that the landscape of the Dead Marshes and the mounds before the Black Gate were inspired by the devastation of the land he saw after the Somme (Letters 303), and the same could probably be said for the terrain of Gorgoroth itself within Mordor. Within these landscapes, Garth notes the hobbits duck from hole to hole, hiding like men in the trenches (45). But Garth’s argument is most potent, I think, when he compares Frodo’s besieged psyche to that of a soldier suffering from shell shock—the new and widespread malady of modern warfare born in the trenches.
The unrelenting pressure of the ring’s burden finally affects Frodo’s blasted consciousness so that he loses all memory and sense of anything outside his immediate circumstances and sees only the ring itself, like a ring of fire, before his eyes. When Sam tries to cheer him by recalling for him the rabbit stew they had enjoyed before meeting Faramir’s band, Frodo answers that he does not remember.
“At least I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.” (215)
Garth quotes a London Times reporter, writing about shell shock in 1915, who writes that one suffering from this condition may “become blind or deaf or lose the sense of smell or taste. He is cut off from his normal self and the associations that make up that self” (qtd. in Garth 50). Such a description fits closely with Frodo’s condition at the moment of his failure of will at the Cracks of Doom.
Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War also go a long way in explaining the character of Sam as it develops through this last book. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael Tolkien, then in officer training, Tolkien remarked that he shared Michael’s “deep sympathy and feeling for the ‘tommy’, especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties” (Letters 54). At the time, he was deliberately putting that sympathy into practice in the creation of Samwise Gamgee. Humphrey Carpenter quotes Tolkien as remarking that Sam “is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself” (81). Garth remarks on how similar Sam’s relationship to Frodo is to that of the working class enlisted men who acted as orderlies (“batmen”) to officers in the British army during the war (43). Tolkien’s respect for these men was based on their remarkable ability to endure the daily hardships of war and still display great courage in battle for the sake of duty. He knew they were common men from rural or working-class backgrounds who had volunteered for such service for the good of their country, and not for glory or gain, and wanted only to return to their everyday lives at the war’s end. Of all the characters in The Lord of the Rings, this best describes Sam, whose love of his home and the simple pleasures of his life sustain him throughout the quest as he pines for the Shire. But it is only on the last hopeless leg of their journey over the ruined plain of Gorgoroth, where Sam admits to himself that “there will be no return” (211), that we first hear of his love for Rosie Cotton: “‘If that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer’” (211).
In a 1951 letter to publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien wrote, “I think the simple ‘rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty” (Letters 161). Sam’s pure and simple love for Rosie is a part of his love of his country life, a love that motivates his steadfast devotion to Frodo and to his duty. It is a part of what makes him humble, which is his chief virtue as temporary bearer of the ring. Although he has visions of becoming “Samwise the Strong,” they are fleeting, and his own self-effacing humor saves him from such pretensions, as he plays at being “the great elf-warrior” to scare the orcs. Perhaps no other character could have taken the ring at this point in the narrative and not been overcome by its lure to power.
But Tolkien, in the above comment, calls Sam “the chief hero” of the work. In a vast work that includes traditional heroes such as Aragorn and Gandalf, Théoden and Faramir, as well as the unconventional hero—Frodo, self-sacrificing bearer of the ring and protagonist of the story to this point—it seems somewhat disingenuous for Tolkien to call Sam the “chief hero.” But, in fact, it is clear that without Sam, Frodo would have faltered on the path and never reached Mount Doom. When Frodo’s strength and will begin to wane, it is only Sam’s staunch determination and commitment to doing the job he has set out to do that brings Frodo to the completion of the quest. Like Frodo, Sam is exhausted, hungry, parched, and fearful on the slopes of Mount Doom. But he has not come all this way to give up. Of all the characters in the novel, Sam most closely exemplifies the words of Beorhtwold in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon:
“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater, as our strength lessens.” (Tolkien, “Homecoming” 5)
This is the most famous statement of the Northern heroic code in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and it illustrates precisely Sam’s exploits through these chapters. When Frodo has been so worn down that he can only crawl, the weakened Sam’s will literally becomes sterner and his heart bolder, and through grim determination alone, he lifts Frodo onto his shoulders and carries him up the mountain:
Sam struggled on as best he could, having no guidance but the will to climb as high as might be before his strength gave out and his will broke. On he toiled, up and up, turning this way and that to lessen the slope, often stumbling forward, and at the last crawling like a snail with a heavy burden on its back. When his will could drive him no further, and his limbs gave way, he stopped and laid his master gently down. (218)
Sam is, in fact, the chief hero of the book in that he is the one character without whom the quest could never have been accomplished.
There is another way in which Sam differs from all of the other characters in The Lord of the Rings (with the possible exception of Tom Bombadil), and this has to do with a spiritual revelation that he has here, in the darkest hour of the quest. When he sees a single white star through the gloom of the night sky of Mordor, Sam is suddenly taken by the beauty of that star—a beauty far beyond the reach of anything Sauron or his armies of darkness can do:
The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. . . . Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. (199)
Even if Sauron succeeds in regaining the One Ring, or in crushing all resistance, his is only a temporary victory in an eternal war that the powers of darkness can never ultimately win. It is the most religious moment of the trilogy.
Tolkien had little patience with the overt Christian allegory in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and while he had forged a creation myth for his mythology with strong Christian overtones in The Silmarillion, he leaves such motifs out of The Lord of the Rings. But that does not make the trilogy void of spirituality, and Sam, rustic and even vulgar as Tolkien makes him, is the character most strongly affected by spiritual things. Sam’s inordinate attraction to and love of the elves is his recognition that their beauty is as close a reflection of the Undying Lands to which they are more closely attuned than other races. His profound devotion to the Lady Galadriel is a particularly vivid example of this. In these chapters, as the hobbits drag themselves through the Wasteland of Mordor, Sam imagines what he would say to the Lady if he could see her now. He would ask, he says, for freshwater and some daylight (195). When the wind shifts shortly after and blows some of the gloom away, and when they find freshwater later that day, Sam rejoices, crying, “‘If I ever see the Lady again, I will tell her! . . . Light, and now water!’” (198).
It would seem that the Lady, like the Virgin Mary responding to a petition, has granted Sam’s prayer. But it would be a mistake to think of the incident in that way. Galadriel is no Virgin Mother. Readers of The Silmarillion will know that she was one of the leaders of the Noldor rebellion that brought the High-elves into exile from Valinor. Her many years in Middle-earth, after so many of her kinsmen have returned to the West, have in part been a penance for that rebellion. But these things are beyond Sam’s knowledge, and what he sees in the Lady is that she is one who had actually seen and retained memories of the Undying Lands of the West. More than any other Eldar, she embodies the light of that land, which is ultimately the light of the Valar, the angelic beings who rule all the earth in the name of the creator god Ilúvatar. The answer to Sam’s prayer may be coincidence, or it may be the reward of his faith, the assurance of which he receives in looking at the star.
Even if these things underscore Sam’s role as the “chief hero” of the text, this is not to say that Sam always does the right thing or that he makes no mistakes along the way. The greatest of his mistakes is almost certainly the moment in The Two Towers when he attacks Gollum just at the moment when the creature happened to be feeling most profoundly a newfound love for Frodo as his master. Sam had never understood Frodo’s attempts to redeem the creature, and his accusation that Gollum is trying to harm his master effectively shuts the door on any salvation for Gollum. Tolkien called that act “the most tragic moment in the Tale” (Letters 330), and although Sam never understands his failure at that point, here at the climax of the story, Sam relents his earlier hatred of the creature. Even after Gollum has attacked him from behind as they climb toward the Cracks of Doom, Sam cannot help pitying him, with an understanding newly achieved from having borne the ring himself, even for so short a time. Though Sam could easily kill Gollum, having the creature at his mercy with Sting drawn poised above him, he cannot bear to take his revenge and merely chases Gollum off. In the end, Sam’s mercy saves the quest.
Had Sam slain Gollum, of course, the creature would not have returned to wrestle the ring from Frodo and fall with it into the Cracks of Doom. These things do not explain, however, Tolkien’s choice to make Gollum the one ultimately responsible for the accomplishment of the quest. Surely David Callaway is overstating the case when he calls Gollum the true hero of The Lord of the Rings. “Although it often appears that evil will triumph within Gollum, it never can,” Callaway writes. “Gollum becomes a symbol of the absolute persistence of good in Middle-earth” (22). This is based on the conjecture that Gollum consciously sacrificed himself to destroy the ring. But Tolkien’s text reads “even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell” (224). His plunge is clearly described as accidental, and Tolkien himself wrote that Gollum’s “repentence is blighted” and his goodness lost (Letters 330). He does conjecture that had Gollum fully repented and regained his virtuous side, he very well may, in the end, “have sacrificed himself for Frodo’s sake and have voluntarily cast himself into the fiery abyss” (Letters 330). But this is not what happens.
In fact, what does occur is that Gollum, fully committed to his own egoism and still under the power of evil that the ring represents, destroys it by pure accident caused by his overzealous pursuit of it. Gandalf was correct when he foresaw that Gollum had a part to play in Frodo’s quest, but since Gollum ultimately rejects repentance and spiritual renewal, that part turns out to be played against his will. Given the spiritual aspect that the story has taken on at this point, it may be relevant to consider Frodo’s failure here in a theological sense, as an illustration of the Christian doctrine that no human being, despite his best efforts, is able to achieve salvation on his own. The startling end provided by Gollum’s entrance suggests divine intervention in the final achievement of the quest. The irony that it is actually Gollum who brings this about should not be lost on readers. This unanticipated development suggests another theological point: that God is capable of turning all things to good in accordance with his will. Tolkien underscores this doctrine elsewhere, in particular in his Ainulindalë (published as the opening segment of The Silmarillion), which tells the story of Ilúvatar’s creation of the universe as a Great Music, into which the fallen “angel” Melkor introduces discord, which the creator is then able to resolve into harmony. Here, the discord of Gollum’s evil purposes is turned by providence into the greater good of the ring’s destruction. Sam’s vision of a transcendent goodness that lies above and beyond the ability of Sauron or any creature of Middle-earth to mar is manifested here as the shaping hand of destiny. As Gandalf recognized when he denied bringing the army of ents to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, there is another power at work beyond the actions of the chief agents in this story.
That providential hand may be at work, as well, earlier in these chapters when Sam, nearly despairing over his inability to find Frodo within the dark passages of the tower, begins to sing a song of his own making that praises the beauty of western lands and elven stars. The song seems to come to Sam without his conscious knowledge, as Tolkien says, “softly, to his own surprise, there at the vain end of his long journey and his grief, moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell, Sam began to sing” (184). But it is the sound of Sam’s song that causes Frodo to answer him in a faint voice and allows Sam to find and rescue him. It is a theme that Tolkien had used, as well, in his story of the two Noldor princes Fingon and Maedhros in The Silmarillion. There, Morgoth had captured Maedhros, and his kinsman Fingon had long sought him, until, while searching the land of Angband, Fingon began to sing a song made long before in Valinor itself, and heard Maedhros’s answering song from where he hung by his wrist upon a precipice high above. In both cases, the song is an inspiration, as music seems typically in Tolkien to be an expression of the spiritual in living creatures.
In Fingon’s story, Thorondor, lord of the eagles, appears as an answer to Fingon’s prayer and lifts him up to his kinsman high on the precipice, ultimately rescuing them both by transporting them to safety. Later in The Silmarillion, it is eagles who rescue Beren and Lúthien after their theft of the Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown. The eagles that appear at the end of The Hobbit help turn the tide in the Battle of the Five Armies. And earlier in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells of his rescue from Isengard by the great eagle Gwaihir. The arrival of the eagles here at the Black Gate (which through Pippin’s thoughts Tolkien deliberately relates to their arrival in Bilbo’s story) is a deus ex machina that Tolkien clearly was fond of using (Rogers calls it aquila ex machina [“eagle from a machine” 76]). Only the eagles could have rescued Maedhros or Gandalf; only the eagles can possibly reach Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom in time to save them from the eruption of the mountain and the collapse of Mordor.
It is not simply that Tolkien is fond of using eagles as the cavalry, arriving at the last moment to save the day. They have a profounder significance within his legendarium. In Tolkien’s “A Description of the Island of Númenor,” published in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, Tolkien describes the religious practices of the Númenóreans. The only birds able to fly to the peak of their sacred mountain of Meneltarma, a place dedicated to the worship of the creator god Ilúvatar, are the eagles, who are called “Witnessesof Manwë”—Manwë being the chief of the angelic Valar who govern the world under Ilúvatar’s guidance (Unfinished Tales 174). Thus, the eagles are sacred birds in Middle-earth. For Tolkien, their surprising rescues are concrete instances of what, in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he calls eucatastrophe—the sudden turn of events, paralleling the catastrophe of tragedy, that brings about the unlooked-for happy ending of the fairy story. In a letter to his son Christopher in 1944, Tolkien says that the eucatastrophe is important because “it is a sudden glimpse of Truth,” a Truth beyond the physical mundane world that allows us to recognize “that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made” (Letters 100). The devout Catholic Tolkien has in mind, of course, the Christian truth that transcends the physical world, and later in the same letter, he refers to his use of the eagles at the climax of The Hobbit as his most worthwhile use to date of that notion of eucatastrophe (Letters 101).
Once Frodo and Sam have been rescued, they are treated to a celebration and feast given in their honor, at which they are also reunited with Merry, Pippin, and the other surviving members of the Fellowship. It is significant that these apparently insignificant little people have proven themselves courageous, stalwart, faithful, and dependable. They are the modern heroes—like the British soldiers Tolkien called “tommys”—who do their duty and look for no fanfare. But here, at least, for once, they are recognized by the epic heroes of the great world as the saviors of Middle-earth, and songs are composed about their feats. This celebratory chapter is a necessary conclusion to the achievement of the quest itself, and it forms a transition into the novel’s final chapters involving the new age and the return home. Significantly, the hobbits learn in this fourth chapter that the calendar of the new Fourth Age of Middle-earth will now begin with March 25—the date of the destruction of the One Ring and the fall of Sauron. As Rogers and Rogers point out, March 25 was the traditional English New Year’s Day up until 1751 (113). This was Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation—the day on which Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary (December 25 being exactly nine months later). When Mary agreed to bear the Son of God, the process of man’s redemption began. Nearly coinciding with the spring equinox, this day and season of renewal seemed an appropriate time to begin the new year. In Tolkien’s text, suggestive as these chapters have been of a Christian context, the coincidence of the beginning of the Fourth Age (the renewal of the world) with Lady Day (the regeneration of human life) is a subtle but important allusion to his Catholic faith.
Chapters 5–9: The End of the Third Age
It is fairly common for readers of The Lord of the Rings to feel that Tolkien has spent too much time on the closing of the novel. After all, the quest has been achieved, the ring destroyed, and Sauron’s power overthrown. Frodo and Sam have survived the ordeal and can now go home. But there are three things that such readers miss. First, what gives Tolkien’s secondary creation of Middle-earth the remarkable verisimilitude that it has is the enormously detailed context given it by the vast legendarium the author created. It was not in Tolkien’s nature to leave anything unexplained or any questions unresolved. Thus, all loose ends must be tied up and all characters accounted for before he can end his story.
Second, a part of the quest has always been the restoration of the Númenórean kings: Since it was Isildur who refused to destroy the ring upon Sauron’s first defeat at the end of the Second Age—a failure that ultimately allowed for Sauron’s return and the failure of Gondor’s line—it still remained for Tolkien to narrate the restoration of that line before the close of his story.
Third, Tolkien was not so naive as to believe that the defeat of a single enemy, no matter how much that enemy might embody evil, could mean that all evil had been overcome forever. Life consists of fairly constant resistance to evil in one form or another, and to assume that these characters would live “happily ever after” would be a mistake. Tolkien’s final five chapters address each of these issues.
He first deals with the wounded heroes from the Battle of the Pelennor Fields who have been eft behind in Minas Tirith to recover from their wounds, and so have been unable to ride with Aragorn and Gandalf to the Black Gates. Faramir and Éowyn are highly sympathetic characters, both of whom have been rejected by a significant figure in their lives—Faramir by his father and Éowyn by the one she thought she was in love with. In addition, they are both mourning for a father figure. Thus, they both have psychological as well as physical wounds that need healing. In Éowyn’s case, despair is even taking away her will to live. The union of these two characters is remarkably satisfying for the reader, who may not have anticipated a good end for either of these underappreciated orphans. Their courtship is the first sign of the restoration of light and life to Gondor. Even though as readers we already know the outcome of the last battle, we are able to see the tension and anxiety that those left behind are feeling concerning the assault on the Black Gates, and with Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, we are able to experience the great joy when news comes from the front.
That news is delivered by a great eagle, the sacred bird who might be seen as a divine messenger (241). Indeed, as Tom Shippey has pointed out, the eagle’s song echoes the style and verbiage of an Old Testament Psalm. The use of “ye” and “hath” immediately recall the style and language of the King James Bible, but more specifically the “Sing and rejoice” line of the second stanza of the eagle’s song recalls the “Rejoice in the Lord” of Psalm 33, while the spirit of “your King hath passed through” and “your King shall come again” strongly recalls “the King of glory shall come in” in Psalm 24 (Shippey, Road 200). The eagle’s language here also recalls Christian underpinnings of the previous chapters that culminate in the ring’s destruction.
The pairing of Faramir and Éowyn serves another function as well, in that it foreshadows the more significant marriage of Aragorn and Arwen that follows in the next chapter. Readers who have grown fond of Éowyn over the course of the novel may be highly disappointed that Aragorn ultimately weds the elf maiden rather than the undeniably likable shield-maiden of Rohan. Tolkien makes it easier for readers to accept this development by first finding a suitable spouse for Éowyn and ensuring a happy ending and satisfactory closure for her and for Faramir.
The reason that Aragorn’s marriage comes as something of a surprise to many readers is simply that, aside from a few brief lines and a few obscure allusions in The Fellowship of the Ring, and the royal banner that Aragorn receives from Rivendell, Arwen has played virtually no part in the great events narrated in the trilogy. The background of their story lies beyond the pages of the novel Tolkien has written, but it is a part of that vast legendarium that provides the context for the story and gives substantial life to Tolkien’s “secondary creation” (as he calls it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”). Here, Tolkien tells of how Aragorn, raised by Elrond in Rivendell, meets and falls in love with Elrond’s daughter Arwen, and how the two pledged their love to each other on the hill of Cerin Amroth in Lórien. At that time, Arwen made the “choice of Lúthien”—that is, the choice that Lúthien made for Beren—to share in the destiny of men rather than that of the Eldar, and thus become mortal like her beloved Aragorn. Elrond was not happy with this development and told Aragorn that he would only let his daughter go for the high purpose of restoring the line of Númenórean kings in Gondor. Therefore, he refused to give Arwen in marriage until Aragorn had succeeded in making himself king of Arnor and Gondor, and it is not until after the fall of Sauron that the wedding can take place.
Aragorn’s wedding is essential to ensure the continuance of his line; thus, the great ceremony surrounding it is a celebration and recognition that the restored royal house of Isildur will not be barren. But before it takes place, an even more important symbol must be renewed: the dead tree that stands in the courtyard of Minas Tirith. I have discussed above the ultimate descent of the White Tree of Gondor from Telperion, the White Tree of Valinor. This ancient pedigree gives the White Tree a heavy symbolic significance.
Christopher Vaccaro explores some of the implications of this tree of Gondor. In Númenor and in Valinor, the White Tree was the center of the culture, as it was when first replanted in Minas Tirith. Vaccaro says that in these societies “the tree’s very presence signifies a community’s faith in the presence of the divine within the materials of the earth. It suggests abundance, fecundity, and regeneration” (23). Vaccaro traces the archetypal significance of trees in Tolkien’s medieval and biblical sources, including the ash tree Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in Norse mythology, as well as the oak Irminsul, a “holy pillar” that symbolized the power of Thor. He also discusses the Tree of Life in the Book of Genesis, which, according to Christian folklore, was also made into the cross on which Christ was crucified. Vaccaro sees as most significant the messianic reference in Isaiah 11:1 to the rod that emerges from the root of Jesse, a symbolic reference to the Messiah as essentially the return of the Davidic royal line (23–28). In these later examples, the regeneration and fertility associated with the tree are spiritual in nature, and to an extent, so is the restoration of the tree of Gondor. The White Tree symbolizes a faithfulness to the light of the Undying Lands in the West and to the spiritual awareness that such faith indicates in the novel, but practically it also symbolizes the regeneration and fertility of the royal line. As Vaccaro points out, in Númenor “[t]he care Nimloth receives is a direct indication of the degree of faithfulness of the Numenorean kings,” so that Tar Palantír, the 23rd king, prophesied that when the tree died, the line of kings would die out as well (27). Thus, it is essential that here, at the beginning of his reign, Aragorn find a scion of the White Tree to use as emblem and foundation for his faithful and fertile reign, before marrying Arwen as the consummation of that promise.
After the celebration of the midsummer wedding, the time has come for the hobbits to depart, and the next chapter’s purpose is essentially to help bring closure to the narrative by literally retracing the hobbits’ journey in reverse and giving the readers a last look at most of the important characters of the trilogy. Thus, with the hobbits we revisit Rohan and see Théoden laid to rest with his ancestors, we part from Galadriel and Celeborn as they turn off for Lothlórien, and we see the aging Bilbo in Rivendell. Along the way, as promised, Legolas visits the caverns of Aglarond at Helm’s Deep with Gimli, and the dwarf explores the trees of Fangorn Forest with Legolas. And the hobbits again visit Treebeard at Isengard. The party passes Saruman and Wormtongue on the road as well, so that even as the novel closes, we are reminded that evil has not been eradicated—a fact that is underscored on the path from Rivendell to Bree when the hobbits pass Weathertop and Frodo remembers his wound that will never fully heal. Closer to home, Gandalf leaves the hobbits to spend some time with Tom Bombadil, and even Bill the Pony shows up again, to Sam’s great delight. Essentially, the hobbits have come full circle and the quest has ended.
But two nagging items remain at the end of chapter 7. First, we know that something important is passing away. The Third Age of Middleearth is over, and Gandalf has already made it clear that, since he was sent to Middle-earth for the purpose of opposing Sauron, his time is over. Since the Fourth Age is the age of men, the elves will be passing from Middle-earth as well, and this is why Arwen’s decision not to pass into the West with the rest of her race so poignantly affects her father at this time. The renewal of the Fourth Age applies only to men (and to hobbits, who seem closely related to men in Tolkien’s taxonomy). For others, it is an ending. Even the ents, oldest living creatures in Middle-earth, seem destined to pass away, as we recall when Treebeard reminds the travelers to look for the entwives when they return to their countries. This mood of loss returns particularly powerfully in the final chapter.
The other issue is the problem of Saruman, which remains unresolved by the time the hobbits return to the Shire. Tolkien, with a passion for closure, must tie up the loose end of Saruman, but this is not the only purpose of the penultimate “Scouring of the Shire” chapter. To some readers, the chapter seems out of place and anticlimactic— after all the hobbit companions have been through, they must return to a Shire that has changed into a police state and are forced to actively resist the powers that control the government. Aside from demonstrating the persistence of evil, this chapter serves three other functions. First, it demonstrates that the world is made up of complex relationships, and that no one corner of that world can remain isolated from the rest. The Shire has existed in isolation for centuries only because the Dúnedain, Rangers of the North, had kept out the evil forces of Sauron. But that condition of infantile insulation cannot exist forever. Frodo and his friends, veterans returning home from the war, find that things are not as they left them. In part, this is because it is the nature of things to change, and so their homes could not remain frozen like the snapshots they carried with them in their minds. But partly, too, it is because they have changed: When they left the Shire, they were essentially boys playing a dangerous game, and their vision of the Shire of their youth was an idealized one. The greed of Lotho Sackville-Baggins and the small-minded industrialism of Ted Sandyman were there when they left but have grown more threatening in their absence.
Second, the events of this chapter enable Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam to demonstrate the maturity they have gained over the course of their quest. Like the quests of medieval romance, this quest has not only been about the One Ring; it has also been the archetypal quest for the self—a process that has allowed the hobbits to achieve full maturity and selfhood. The fact that Merry and Pippin have grown three inches is merely the physical manifestation of their psychological growth. It is no coincidence that Gandalf leaves the hobbits in order to visit Tom Bombadil before they enter the Shire, even though he knows they will face challenges at home. Nor do the hobbits grumble at his parting, as they would have done not many months before. They no longer need the father figure to guide them through difficult times. They are self-reliant and lead a very efficient rebellion against Sharkey and his cohorts, arousing the spirit of defiance and self-determination among their fellow hobbits, who have only lacked their leadership to rise in defense of their own freedom. Thus, the society of the Shire itself reflects the maturity displayed by the individual hobbits. The “Scouring of the Shire” chapter, then, is not a digression from Tolkien’s main plot but the necessary conclusion of the archetypal quest motif—the return home and demonstration of the heroes’ new maturity. It is, essentially, the return of Odysseus to Ithaca.
But there is yet another function served by this chapter. Tolkien knew the difficulties of the soldier returning home from the front, having done so after the Somme, and having seen others of his generation coming back from the Great War. He knew that war changed men, and that such a return was more difficult for some than for others. While Merry and Pippin demonstrate their effectiveness in another combat situation, Frodo’s reaction is much the opposite. He has seen enough of war and violence and does his best to avoid violence at all costs. At least he tries to ensure that no hobbit will spill the blood of another hobbit, and that prisoners will be spared death or abuse by their captors. He has himself been a prisoner of orcs and knows what torture is. He has seen how of all creatures, only orcs shed one another’s blood indiscriminately. Men may kill one another in war, but he has seen Aragorn’s mercy to former enemies.
Frodo has always been a passive hero. His heroism has taken the shape of courage in the face of danger, of brave endurance of hardship, of strength of mind under extreme pressure. But it has not taken the form of great martial acts, as those of which Merry and Pippin have shown themselves capable. Tolkien implies that men like Frodo are needed to restrain the violent tendencies of society. Although there are times when evil must be fought, as Merry and Pippin demonstrate, Tolkien makes it clear that the peacemakers are indeed blessed. Frodo has always been the moral and practical leader of the hobbits, and the fact that he rather than one of the lesser characters demonstrates this pacifist tendency suggests that Tolkien believes that peace must be the prevailing concern of society.
Frodo’s qualities of peace and mercy, as well as the respect he is able to command from his fellow hobbits, enable him to convince the hobbit populace to show mercy to Saruman. Frodo spares the former wizard not out of fear—he does not believe Saruman’s claim that his blood will curse the Shire, and proclaims it immediately to be a lie—but rather out of the higher demand for mercy over justice, a concept he has learned from Gandalf. Just as Frodo sensed that there was good in Gollum and tried to bring it out after Gan-dalf’s insistence that Gollum had some role still to play, it may well be that Frodo suspects some good must still live within Saruman (whom Gandalf also spared), whose joy in his ability to bring pain to the Shire is muffled by Frodo’s mercy. If there is any good in Saruman, Wormtongue’s murder of his master guarantees that it never has time to blossom. But that does not make Frodo’s mercy wrong. In fact, Frodo’s attitude toward war in this chapter is not quite pacifist—he does recognize that it is necessary to defend society against tyranny—but it does essentially follow the Christian notion of the “just war” as proposed originally by St. Augustine and codified by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. As Aquinas stated:
[I]t may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” (Thomas Aquinas 2.2, q. 40, a. 1)
Frodo’s readjustment to civilian life continues to be difficult in the final chapter of the trilogy. Merry and Pippin thrive in the roles of returning heroes and continue to capitalize on their experience of the wide world. Sam is the least changed of all: He had kept his humble, practical common sense throughout the adventure, and he returns to a normal life, marrying and having children and eventually becoming mayor of Hobbiton, though he treasures his memories of the elves and names his first daughter Elanor after the star-shaped flower of Lórien. But even he is not unchanged, and many readers have noted that his last line in the book, “Well, I’m back” (311), is not the same thing as saying, “Well, I’m home”—he has returned, but things are not the same as before he left, and never will be. But Frodo has the most difficult adjustment. Like the shell-shocked veteran he resembles, he suffers from a kind of post-traumatic stress, becoming violently ill on October 6, the anniversary of his near-fatal wound. His prolonged contact with the great power of the ring has made him unfit for the common joys of ordinary life. He tells Sam:
I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. (309)
Frodo’s sacrifice has been for others—for Sam and Rosie and Elanor—but he has changed too much to benefit from the sacrifice himself. Ultimately, he is unable to adjust to life back in the Shire, and he uses the gift that Arwen gave him: her passage on the ship from the Grey Havens that will leave Middle-earth for the Undying Lands.
The meeting with Elrond, Galadriel, Bilbo, and Gandalf (with Shadowfax) and all of the Eldar provides the reader with a last look at the glory of the Third Age, which is now passing into eternity. It is the final closure of the narrative: The hero (and in this case, an entire race of heroes) must leave the mundane world. In Frodo’s case, it is not by death, but by a kind of apotheosis: He will go to the Undying Lands, where he will live among the Valar, the holy ones. It is not unlike the end of the traditional hero myth wherein the hero may become a constellation or otherwise take on some sort of eternal life. The implication of Frodo’s passing here is that he will be granted the perpetual life of the Eldar themselves, rather than passing away as a normal mortal.
But while the passing is a remarkable and mythic end for Frodo, it is also the end of the Eldar’s influence in Middle-earth, the passing away of a great age. The three elven rings (it comes as no great surprise that they have been secretly wielded by Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf) have no more power, and the age of the Eldar has passed. The mood of this last chapter in particular is a distillation of the nostalgia and world-weariness that has been apparent throughout the novel in the scenes taking place in elvish territory such as Rivendell or, in particular, Lothlórien. Shippey, citing Northrop Frye, remarks that the mythic hero’s death typically evokes an elegaic mood (a mood of loss, of grieving for the past) and compares Tolkien’s ending to that of Beowulf or Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, where the old order passes away to be replaced by a new one (Road 211). Without doubt, Tolkien is here mirroring his chief inspiration for his entire legendarium—that is, Old English poetry. The powerful strain of elegy that runs through poems like “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” is nowhere as strong as it is in Tolkien’s beloved Beowulf. In Tolkien’s groundbreaking essay on the poem, he calls Beowulf a “heroic-elegaic poem” by a Christian poet that looks back with some nostalgia on a pagan past that is gone forever. Here, the world of the Eldar has passed, and Tolkien as narrator provides us with an elegy of their passing.
Part of the world that the Beowulf poet remembers in his poem is what Tolkien calls the “theory of courage, which is the great contribution of early Northern literature” (“Beowulf” 20). According to this “theory,” courage to fight on when all hope was gone was the ultimate value of life in a world in which even the gods were destined to be destroyed—the kind of courage exemplified in particular by Frodo and Sam in their hopeless quest through Mordor. The only possible immortality in such a world is the immortality provided by the poet, who could record heroic feats in songs of praise that might pass into legend and myth. The poet of Beowulf, Tolkien says, was trying to preserve the memory of that pagan lifestyle before it disappeared completely from the world. But he treated it with a different tone, an elegaic one, because it was a time that had passed. Tolkien adopts such a tone in the “Grey Havens” chapter (and, indeed, in much of The Return of the King). But his discussion of Beowulf also explains his persistent references to Bilbo’s memoirs, passed on to Frodo, who completes them with his own story and passes them on to Sam. Tolkien has presented heroic song among the elves in Rivendell and the Riders of Rohan, and in Gondor as well when the minstrel sings the song of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the ring of Doom” (232), and these are depicted as tales that would be handed down over generations. But Tolkien himself lives in an age of written texts, as did the Beowulf poet, and there is at least an implication that the written memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo have been the source for Tolkien’s trilogy.
Thus, Tolkien presents himself not as the inventor of the story but rather the one who, like the Beowulf poet, passes on the tales of an age long past—an ancient tradition that is no more, and whose passing he mourns with his elegaic tone. The fiction here is that the trilogy is not a fiction: Tolkien is not inventing these stories; he is merely passing them on. They are part of the “cauldron of story” that he mentions in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” and so they belong not to him but to us all.
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