The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King V.I, “Minas Tirith”

Before we get started with The Return of the King (home stretch, everyone!), I have pretty awesome news. I’m going to be on several panels at Boskone this coming weekend, including

The Problem of Glorfindel—and Other Issues in Tolkien

Tolkien’s elves never re-used names (they were immortal, after all) yet a Glorfindel lived and died in the First Age of Middle-Earth and another was a character in Lord of the Rings six thousand years later—what happened? One of the joys of Tolkien’s world is that it is so well-realized that minor anomalies (which in a lesser writer would be assumed to be sloppiness) only make it seem more real, since the history of the real world also abounds in puzzles. Enjoy a walk through Middle-Earth’s lesser-known byways. Who was Eldest: Treebeard or Tom Bombadil? What were orcs, actually, since Morgoth could not create anything new? Why are the wood-elves such jerks in The Hobbit? Whatever happened to Ungoliant? Arwen became mortal, but what happened to the sons of Elrond when he took ship for Valinor? Where did Sauron hide the One Ring when he was taken captive to Númenor? Let’s take the time to explore these and other intriguing curiosities of Middle Earth.

Mary Kay Kare, Kate Nepveu, Mark L. Olson (moderator), Tom Shippey

Not to take anything away from Mary Kay or Mark, both of whom are very smart people, but: I’m going to be on a panel with Tom Shippey. As in, the scholar who wrote The Road to Middle-earth and J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. You know, that Tom Shippey. (Eee!)

And it’s almost entirely because of you guys: not only do you keep me going and make this project a lot of fun, but I’ll be able to bring your perspectives to this discussion—indeed, I really want to. So let’s hear it: what would you want to talk about, or hear other people (like Tom Shippey!) talk about, in relation to that description?

If you’re in the vicinity of Boston, the panel is on Friday February 12th at 9:00 p.m.; Friday-only memberships are just $15. Directions and more information at Boskone’s website. (And if you’re there for more than just Friday, feel free to say hi to me; here’s where I’ll be, and here’s what I look like, except less pale.)

And now for the usual discussion of the chapter, with spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Pippin and Gandalf arrive in Gondor after seeing the beacons lit and are immediately brought to Denethor. Gandalf cautions Pippin before they enter not to mention Aragorn, and Pippin is astonished to hear that Aragorn would claim the kingship. Denethor asks Pippin how he survived when Boromir did not, and in response Pippin swears service to him. Denethor spends an hour questioning Pippin (who cannot evade all reference to Aragorn) while ignoring and angering Gandalf.

After they leave, Gandalf goes to a council. Pippin is shown around by Beregond, a member of the Guard: they visit Shadowfax, have another breakfast, and watch the city’s evacuation while sharing stories of Gondor and of Pippin’s travels. Despair touches them briefly when they hear and feel a Nazgûl pass over, but they shake it off with thoughts of Gandalf and Faramir, respectively. Pippin then spends the afternoon making friends with Beregond’s son, Bergil, who brings him to see the arrival of soldiers from the outlying areas.

Pippin returns to his and Gandalf’s room at night and goes to bed. He is woken by Gandalf, who says he will take Pippin to Denethor not at dawn, but when the summons comes: “The Darkness has begun. There will be no dawn.”


I really like this chapter, and I always have. It’s great to see Pippin again and the ways he’s changed, especially by inference from the way other people see him. I like the introduction to Minas Tirith. And I—well, I don’t like Denethor, but I have a great deal of sympathy for him.

The other thing about this chapter overall is that I realized once again just how terrible a reader I was as a child (and I suspect may still be in some ways), because so much the description felt brand-new to me. There’s paragraphs and paragraphs of geography and architecture! Did I really just skim right over it all these years to get to conversation? I fear I must have. *hangs head in shame*

* * *

The chapter starts with the ride to Gondor, which is just sketched, with Pippin remembering the key events briefly as he wakes at the start of the chapter. What I like about this section (besides its brevity) is the way it shows how Pippin is still feeling the effects of looking in the palantír. He wakes fully at that memory, and suddenly everything becomes frightening: he hears “menacing voices” on the wind; he mistakes the moon’s rising for “a blaze of yellow fire”; and he jumps to the conclusion that the beacons are dragons. He does pretty well once he’s distracted by Minas Tirith (except for one incident), so it’s important that we get this reminder early of what he just experienced in his chronology, but was a whole book back for us.

Another reminder comes in this section, when the narrative tells us that Pippin “wondered where Frodo was, and if he was already in Mordor, or if he was dead; and he did not know that Frodo from far away looked on that same moon as it set beyond Gondor ere the coming of the day.” This alone didn’t clue me into where the timelines were relative to each other, but there’s a later mention that Frodo is in Ithilien, which did.

* * *

The arrival at Minas Tirith. Do you suppose Gandalf was attempting to tweak Pippin and get him interested in things again by referring to him as “a very valiant man”? Or was he just looking for the shortest way possible past the guards? I lean toward the latter, with the former being a happy bonus. The bit from the Appendices about Gandalf “rekindl(ing) hearts in a world that grows chill” was much on my mind this chapter, as I noticed how much time he spends rousing those around him to readiness: the men at the gate, the men at the walls (“the end of Gondor that you have known”), and of course Denethor. But in heartening ways too, like laughing with Pippin after he’s questioned by Denethor, and even by example: when Pippin despairs upon hearing a Nazgûl in the air, he comes out of it by saying “Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us.”

Pippin, of course, denies both that he is a man and that he is valiant, “save perhaps now and again by necessity.” He spends a lot of time in this chapter disclaiming status as a warrior and not wanting to talk about himself. I love that this isn’t false modesty, either. (It’s so nice to really like Pippin, after he got on my nerves a bit early.) I’m puzzled what he was thinking, though, when he just blurted out Boromir’s death: “And Boromir of your City was with us, and he saved me in the snows of the North, and at the last he was slain defending me from many foes.” It doesn’t even flow well from the previous sentence about traveling with Frodo, besides lacking emotional sense. That, alas, does not ring true for me at all.

* * *

Now we get a long-ish description of the geography, including that “The townlands were rich, with wide tilth and many orchards, and homesteads there were with oast and garner [grain storage and processing], fold and byre, and many rills rippling through the green from the highlands down to Anduin.” Of course it then goes on to say that “the herdsmen and husbandmen that dwelt there were not many,” and that people lived either in the City, near the mountains, or near the sea. But I’ve heard the sources of Middle-earth’s food questioned so often that the mention of agriculture caught my eye. I still have no idea if the space mentioned would be sufficient to feed the City (which, we’re told later, is much depopulated) or if—as would be entirely unremarkable—foods needed to be imported from other areas of Gondor, and honestly there’s so little data to work with here that I would be very suspicious of any numbers that purported to be definitive. But there is at least a gesture in that direction here.

We also have yet another mention of “tall . . . and proud with sea-grey eyes” = “high blood” and “short and swarthy” = low blood, just in case we forgot.

And to close this section, a serious high-fantasy moment:

Even as Pippin gazed in wonder the walls passed from looming grey to white, blushing faintly in the dawn; and suddenly the sun climbed over the eastern shadow and sent forth a shaft that smote the face of the City. Then Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion, standing high within the topmost wall, shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze, and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets.

Where do I sign up for the Tower Guard?

* * *

Only one thing about the description of Minas Tirith’s structure struck me as warranting comment here. The narrative states that it was “not to be taken by a host of enemies . . . unless some foe could come behind and scale the lower skirts of Mindolluin, and so come upon the narrow shoulder that joined the Hill of Guard to the mountain mass.” Normally I would consider that a big flashing sign saying “plot point, get your plot point here!”, but as best I can recall it never does become one. I can’t decide if that should get points for misdirection/nonobviousness or lose points for being a gratuitous red herring.

* * *

Pippin is amazed that Aragorn is heir to the throne of Gondor, and it took me more time than I care to admit to figure out if he should be. First I checked the Council of Elrond (not present) and the passage of the Argonath (also not present), before I finally remembered the flight after the palantír, when Gandalf tells him that Sauron may learn that Aragorn claimed to be a heir of Elendil. It was rather buried in a long speech about how they were heading into greater danger, though, so I personally forgive Pippin for not connecting the dots there. If there’s somewhere else, I can’t think of it.

(Also: nice work, Gandalf, predicting Aragorn will come to Gondor “in some way that no one expects.”)

* * *

The Citadel is beautiful but cold, with the dead tree outside and nothing but stone in the great hall, for all that it may be in the shapes of flora and fauna. That last seems thematic enough that I’ll try to remember and check the descriptions of the decorations after Aragorn is crowned.

And now Denethor. What do people think of him? As I said, I have always felt a great deal of sympathy for him, seeing him as a great leader and a tragic figure who has broken under pressures and responsibilities that are more than anyone should bear and that few could resist. Which is not to say that I approve of his actions, including the minor choice to rake poor Pippin over the coals.

I think of Pippin swearing to Denethor as another high-fantasy moment: the heartfelt stirring gesture, the formal language of the offer, the swearing on the sword, the rhythm of the oath (“until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end”). And I pretty much eat it up with a spoon. (Note that it’s “Peregrin son of Paladin,” which can’t possibly be a coincidence.)

* * *

More psychic powers in this chapter, with the duel o’ wills between Gandalf and Denethor (“as if reading the other’s mind”), and Gandalf saying that Denethor can perceive what is in the minds of those far off. I still have a hard time feeling like this fits in my conception of the human characters, honestly, but I’m getting there.

Speaking of Gandalf: scholars of mythology and religion, is he echoing/evoking something specific when he says to Denethor, “For I also am a steward. Did you not know?” It has a weight to it that made it stand out for me. Or perhaps it’s because just before this, Pippin wonders “what” Gandalf is, and so this is A Clue.

* * *

I mentioned seeing Pippin from outside, by inference from other characters’ reactions to him. Beregond is the most obvious example of this, his amazement at Pippin’s stories and modesty. But I do think that Beregond is pretty impressive himself, to so solemnly treat Pippin from the beginning. I mean, this is partly because my culture has an unfortunate short = comical tendency; nevertheless, to respond to a questiona bout breakfast, from someone who looks about nine years old, with a grave remark that the asker must be an “old campaigner”—well, that’s courtesy. Or a really overwhelming faith in the judgment of your lord.

* * *

I had gotten confused about the history of Osgiliath earlier, so I should note here that Beregond says it was won back as an outpost when Denethor was young, lost less than a year ago, and then won back by Boromir only in part.

While we’re doing big picture, Beregond also mentions the corsairs of Umbar and the rumors of movements “in the far East beyond the Inland Sea”—which I don’t think I know anything about—and in Mirkwood and the South. Again, setting up the context and the pieces early.

* * *

I feel like I’m slighting Bergil and the Captains of the Outlands, but I don’t particularly have anything to say about them or the rest of the chapter, except that the last lines (which I quoted in the summary) are awesome. But you all knew that. If you’re not just relieved that I’m finally done with this post, tell me what you think about the last sections of the chapter. And don’t forget to chime in on the Boskone panel!

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Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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