The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King V.4, “The Siege of Gondor”

We pick up the Lord of the Rings reread with the very long and interesting chapter “The Siege of Gondor,” chapter 4 of book V of The Return of the King. As always, spoilers for the entire book and comments after the jump.

(And in case anyone was wondering about the extremely long gap between posts: I was sick; SteelyKid was sick, yet again; I hit a wall of work deadlines; and then I hit writer’s block from being away from these posts for so long and from not knowing how to organize all this stuff. I’m very sorry, all.)

(Also, I reviewed a non-LotR book here, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms—check it out.)

What Happens

The morning of the Dawnless Day, Pippin sees Faramir return to Minas Tirith, harried by Nazgûl that Gandalf drives off with white light. He and Gandalf hear Faramir tell Denethor about meeting Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in Ithilien. Gandalf is frightened; Denethor is angry and wishes that Faramir and Boromir’s places had been exchanged, so that he could have the Ring—only to keep safe, of course.

The next day, Denethor sends Faramir to defend Osgiliath and the river’s crossings. The day after that, the third day of the darkness, news comes that Faramir is retreating; early on the fourth day, the enemy breaches the wall surrounding the Pelennor fields. Gondor’s retreating soldiers are nearly routed between the enemies on the ground and the Nazgûl in the air. Though Gandalf and the knights of Dol Amroth drive back the enemy, Faramir is gravely wounded. Denethor retreats to his tower and a pale light is seen flickering in the windows; he comes back in despair. Gandalf and Pippin are told that the road from the North (by which the Rohirrim would come) is blocked by enemies.

The besiegers spend the fifth day digging trenches and setting up siege engines, with which they throw incendiaries and the heads of Gondor’s soldiers. Denethor abandons responsibility and Gandalf takes command. That night, Denethor commands his servants to take him and Faramir to the tombs and then to burn them both alive. Pippin, having been given leave to “die in what way seems best to” him, runs to find Gandalf to stop Denethor (asking Beregond for what help he can on the way). He finds Gandalf at the Gate, which has just been broken by the Lord of the Nazgûl.

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.


So, as you can see, the “five nights and days” that the Rohirrim rode (starting on the Dawnless Day) does indeed match up; I wrote the summary that way to prove it, since I’d gone to the trouble of keeping track. But more importantly: just how AMAZING is that chapter ending, huh? Another demonstration of “you can break any rule as long as you do it well enough”: sentence fragments? Heck, a sentence consisting of the same word repeated three times? Absolutely.


This is a really long chapter and I’m going to focus on the following threads of it: Denethor and Faramir; military-ish stuff (Gandalf, the Nazgûl, and the siege); and Pippin. That’s the bulk of my notes to myself, but I’m leaving some things out just to make this post manageable, so please do chime in.

* * *

Denethor and Faramir. I’m not sure I’d remembered just how much of their relationship is packed into this chapter. Unless I am badly mistaken, this chapter contains all of their waking, in-person interactions in the entire book. My reactions were on a roller-coaster here, going from “that is BAD PARENTING” to “oh look, sense, though a bit late” to “that is so far beyond bad parenting that I don’t even have words for it.” And yet, throughout it all, I’m not sure that I have it in me to actually despise Denethor.

The first conversation is, of course, the one that made me caps-lock about BAD PARENTING, but it also made me understand why Denethor acts as he does. (It’s there in the text fairly clearly, I just hadn’t thought about it until now.) This is also an example of how changes in my life affect the way I see the text: I haven’t read this since I became a parent, and I literally cannot imagine ever telling SteelyKid that I wish she’d died in the place of a hypothetical sibling. I’m not sure that I could have imagined myself doing that to a hypothetical kid either, but now it leaps out at me as simply horrific.

But going back to Denethor’s motivations: someone-or-other remarks in the text that it’s odd that he should prefer Boromir to Faramir, when Faramir is much more like him. When Denethor says the following to Faramir, though, I suddenly understood:

Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.

Denethor is, of course, quite thoroughly wrong (see: Gollum). But he is also ruled by the belief that Gondor is (a) the sole defense against Sauron and (b) doomed. And while I’m not sure how long he’s believed it was doomed, instead of just facing very long odds, these beliefs shape his entire worldview. (Here I delete a half-formed tangent about living in a fallen world; we’ll talk about it next chapter.) Of course Denethor prefers Boromir, who has greater military skill [*] and interest, as more inclined to his view of the world—which, depending on how much calculation you ascribe to him and how much charity you view him with, could be only another way of saying “a more useful tool,” or could also include “more worthy of respect” or maybe even “more likely to survive and therefore safer to care about.” Which is to say, the first is textual, because Denethor says later that all wise great lords use others as their weapons, but Denethor’s contempt for Faramir—and himself, perhaps? [**]—also suggests to me the second.

[*] Or at least a reputation for it? Faramir doesn’t seem to be any slouch.

[**] Does the sleeping in armor feel like a hair shirt to anyone else?

Faramir puzzles me a bit in this conversation, though. Why does he look at Gandalf throughout his tale of meeting Frodo? He has to know of Denethor’s dislike for Gandalf, and I don’t know what he hoped to learn that would make it worthwhile. And just what did Faramir say about the Ring, anyway? Denethor says “little of what you have half said or left unsaid is now hidden from me,” which suggests that Faramir held back more information than simply doing Charades to avoid saying “the One Ring” out loud. Did he hope or expect to keep Denethor from realizing precisely what was at issue? I think he might have, but I find it difficult to imagine how he could have avoided revealing that he knew Frodo’s quest without flat-out lying.

As for their second conversation, when Denethor sends Faramir to delay the enemy’s advance at the River and Pelennor [*] . . . well, it’s also bad parenting, no question, but really it makes me want to kick Denethor in the shin. Twice. “That depends on the manner of your return,” indeed. *kicks*

[*] Which I originally called “foolish,” because the arguments against it seemed so strong and because Denethor called it “needless peril” after Faramir returned. But by the end of the chapter, I think we’re supposed to understand that the delay was a good thing, what with Rohan arriving just as the Witch-king was riding in. However, on a smaller scale, if Denethor had released the rescue sortie earlier, Faramir would not have been injured.

I found very effective Denethor’s silent despair when Faramir returns unconscious; understated angst is my kind of thing. (Did anyone guess that he had a palantír at this point?) Well, I suppose “tears on that once tearless face” may not be that understated, but I still buy it. I should say here that my earlier remark about finally getting some sense applied to his regret for being a bad parent, not his refusal to lead. As someone with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility (it’s going to get me into trouble some day), I am unable to approve.

On a slight tangent: I wondered before what Denethor sees in the palantír that casts him into such black despair. He tells Pippin that Gandalf’s “hope has failed. The Enemy has found it.” Since I was paying so much attention to timing in this chapter, I checked Appendix B, which says that Frodo was captured the day that Faramir was wounded. While Denethor only saw what Sauron wanted him to see, I don’t imagine that Sauron would have bothered to block him from looking for hobbits. Sauron doesn’t know that Frodo has the Ring, but Denethor does, and seeing Frodo in captivity would account for just how far over the edge Denethor is pushed. (I never realized how tight that timing was before, and what it implies about the care with which the plot was constructed.)

And then Denethor’s brief emotional improvement goes completely off the rails when the motivations behind both these episodes—belief that Gondor is doomed, recalling that he does love Faramir—feed off each other in the worst possible way, straight into a murder-suicide attempt: “We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.” He may be genuinely sad that Faramir is burning up with fever, but the proper response to that is getting a healer, as Pippin so rightly says, not literalizing the metaphor! 

(What’s the in-story explanation for disapproving of cremation? The Internet tells me that in Catholicism, cremation was seen as denying belief in resurrection of the body until a couple decades after LotR was finished. But that can’t explain the characters’ attitudes. Is it supposed to be an unquestioned cultural default?)

And there we leave them for the chapter, in the uneasy quiet of Rath Dínen, the Silent Street (the hush is mentioned at least six times in the scene where Denethor and Faramir are brought there).

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, err, war . . .

(Sorry. I read a bunch of Lemony Snicket when I was an impressionable young-ish person, and even after the end of the series, it’s hard to shake.)

We get a positive action that’s explicitly supernatural in this section, with no “as if” equivocation, when Gandalf drives the Nazgûl away from Faramir: “Shadowfax bore him, shining, unveiled once more, a light starting from his upraised hand.” (The first time this happens, it only “seemed to Pippin” that light came from Gandalf’s hand.) Gandalf also literally shines on these two occasions, which I believe is the first time since he revealed himself to Aragorn and the others in Fangorn.

Gandalf reveals more of his strength because his opponents have grown in strength. I remember that we discussed the early ineffectiveness of the Nazgûl, and those who said that they got more powerful later were right; we get an explicit statement that their power has increased with Sauron’s increased strength and will. And while Mordor’s conventional military strength is necessary, it’s not sufficient to allow them to ride into the city after only a day of siege: the text makes clear that it’s the psychological effects of the Nazgûl’s voices that weakens the defenders, and then the Witch-King’s “words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone” that helps break the gate.

Oh, and writers of all types, take note of the power of repetition, on the one hand, and of varying sentence length and structure, on the other:

In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one.

I love discovering what a good writer Tolkien was on the sentence level.

Other notes about the military portion:

Gandalf’s statement about the Lord of the Nazgûl, when Denethor asks him if he is overmatched: “It might be so. But our trial of strength is not yet come. And if words spoken of old be true, not by the hand of man shall he fall, and hidden from the Wise is the doom that awaits him.” I also recall some discussion about whether Gandalf intended to attempt to, or thought he could, destroy the Witch-king; I read this as Gandalf saying “I might be overmatched, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not ultimately my job,” but I can see that the other reading is possible.

(Also, the statement that set up this exchange was, to me, a rare example of Gandalf’s dialogue clunking: “Yet now under the Lord of Barad-dûr the most fell of all his captains is already master of your outer walls. King of Angmar long ago, Sorcerer, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, a spear of terror in the hand of Sauron, shadow of despair.” I quite agree with Denethor’s deflation of this portentousness: “Is this all that you have returned to say?”)

I like the way that the attackers’ movements are described through the appearance of their torches, first as “little rivers of red flame . . . winding through the gloom” then “flowing torrents,” then “scattering like sparks in a gale.” Intuitively visual and menacing.

The Men who hold the north road are “of a new sort that we have not met before. Not tall, but broad and grim, bearded like dwarves, wielding great axes. Out of some savage land in the wide East they come, we deem.” Which brought to my mind stereotypes of Mongolians (e.g., the start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

The battering ram Grond is named after Morgoth’s mace, which I had to look up in The Silmarillion. And how wonderfully ominous is the statement that “now and again some great beast that hauled it would go mad and spread stamping ruin among the orcs innumerable that guarded it”? Yes, this battering ram is so badass that just being near it drives creatures crazy!

* * *

Finally, Pippin. He shows that he’s matured a lot in this chapter, it seems to me.

He starts in fairly typical hobbit fashion, asking Gandalf if Denethor will “provide breakfast.” He also mentions songs “about food and drink, of course” to Denethor when asked. But in both conversations he also shows the good judgment to not respond to comments, when Gandalf reminds him that it’s his own fault that he was brought to Minas Tirith, and when Denethor pokes at him about yesterday’s meals. Not only that, but these early comments about food and drink underline the importance of his comment that same afternoon, when he says, “Indeed what is the good even of food and drink under this creeping shadow?” The Nazgûl haven’t even made their appearance yet and Pippin’s already lost his joy in eating: these are serious times.

When the Nazgûl arrive shortly after, there are a couple of interesting bits. He cries “Gandalf save us!”, which highlighted for me the lack of religion in Middle-earth, because that’s a prime situation for a religious reference. (Yes, I know Gandalf is something like an angel or minor deity, but Pippin doesn’t know that and so it doesn’t count.) And then when Gandalf appears, Pippin “shout(s) wildly, like an onlooker at a great race,” which I found jarring and clunky; perhaps it’s a tone-content mismatch.

Pippin’s initial response to Faramir also interested me for two reasons. One, it’s explicitly contrasted with his response to Boromir, “whom Pippin had liked from the first, admiring the great man’s lordly but kindly manner.” It seems rather late to tell us either that Pippin liked him or that he had such a manner; those would have been much more useful when Boromir was alive. Two, Pippin seems to be positioned as a reader stand-in here, telling us how we should react to Faramir: “Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote.” (As an aside, Aragorn as “incalculable” at least suggests that Tolkien was doing it on purpose, though I still think that it was suboptimal to put all his backstory in an Appendix.)

Pippin also shows good judgment when Faramir tells Denethor about Frodo, picking up Gandalf’s warning look and keeping quiet. Talk about being caught between terrible old men again—this time he feels that Denethor and Gandalf’s glances almost “were like blades from eye to eye, flickering as they fenced.” Which is an image more comical than menacing to me, honestly (“I? Am not left-handed either.”), but I don’t think it was intended to be a less formal tone like the shouting-at-a-race one. That’s okay, though, because I will forgive a lot for the quiet poignancy of Pippin taking Gandalf’s hand when they are at last away from Denethor and asking him if there’s any hope for Frodo.

Finally, there’s how he reacts at the end of the chapter, with a nice combination of loyalty and sense. Pippin at first thinks that Denethor has decided to wait for enemies to come burn him, rather than understanding what Denethor actually intends, and I don’t blame him, because who could imagine such a thing? But I think it’s significant that first Pippin kneels to Denethor and then, when he stands and “look(s) the old man in the eyes,” he is “suddenly hobbit-like once more” when he tells Denethor: trust Gandalf, don’t despair, I will stand by my word and you.  

When he does understand that Denethor means to immediately kill Faramir and himself, he acts promptly and sensibly, bolting to find Gandalf. On the way, he attempts to get others to help, asking a servant not to act before Gandalf comes and asking Beregond if he can help. In both cases he shows a hobbit’s practicality unencumbered by awe for hierarchy. When the servant asks, rhetorically, who is master of Minas Tirith, Pippin retorts, “The Grey Wanderer or no one, it would seem.” He also cuts right to the chase with Beregond: “you must choose between orders and the life of Faramir. And as for orders, I think you have a madman to deal with, not a lord.” I don’t know how much illegal orders were an issue in Tolkien’s experience of WWI, either personally or as a matter of general knowledge, but this section certainly seems to be one of the ways that Tolkien complicates matters of hierarchy and authority.

Right. I have now babbled for *checks* over three thousand words, which means it’s time for me to stop and turn the floor over to you. What did you think about this chapter? What did I leave out that we should discuss? Let’s hear it.

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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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