The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King V.6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”

This week we start the second half of book V of The Lord of the Rings with “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields.” There’s much to discuss, so let’s get right to the spoilers and comments after the jump.

What Happens

Théoden kills the chieftain of the Haradrim, but the Lord of the Nazgûl appears on a winged creature, causing Théoden’s horse to rear in terror and crush Théoden. Dernhelm demands that the Witch-king leave and reveals that he is actually Éowyn. Merry, released from his paralyzing fear by pity and wonder at the revelation, creeps toward the Nazgûl unnoticed. Éowyn beheads the winged creature and has her arm and shield broken by the Nazgûl’s mace. She is saved from death, however, when Merry stabs the Nazgûl. Éowyn shatters her sword on the space where the Nazgûl’s face should be, and they both collapse, him into a bodiless wailing. Merry’s arm is numbed and his sword slowly burns up from the blow.

Théoden regains consciousness long enough to say farewell to Merry, hail Éomer as King, and send his love to Éowyn (not knowing that she was there). Éomer arrives and sees Éowyn; he believes she is dead and rides to battle in a fey mood. Merry accompanies Théoden and Éowyn’s bearers toward the city; on the way, they meet Imrahil, who is the first to notice that Éowyn is only mostly dead.

The tide of the fighting has seemed to turn against the defenders when the Corsairs of Umbar come sailing up the Anduin. But then Aragorn’s standard is seen flying from the first ship’s mast; Mordor’s forces are encircled and ultimately destroyed entirely.


My principal reaction to this chapter is that this is how you do lots of reversals to build tension and engagement and excitement [*] without it feeling cheap. A lot of times I find myself waiting for the obligatory setback: “well, we still have another hundred pages / commercial break to go, what’s going to keep the story from ending here?” And my tolerance for that will vary a lot, depending on how well the setback flows from the previous story, how surprising it is (no, those aren’t contradictory, just hard to do well), and what cool things the reversal allows the story to do.

This chapter is full of reversals, all but one of which are just terrific [**], logical yet not glaringly obvious (at least while I was reading) and pulling the reader along at a remarkable pace. I’m not going to catalog each one of them because I’m already stealing time from other critical matters to write this, and we’ve talked about this narrative pattern of Tolkien’s before, but it is very pronounced and very effective here.

[*] Of course, it’s not the only way. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Diplomatic Immunity manages to be extremely exciting through, as best I can recall, a simple straight-line increase of tension. My non-writer gut feeling is that this is probably more difficult to do well, but I’d welcome other people’s thoughts.

[**] Seriously, it didn’t occur to anyone to check if Éowyn was breathing? Had a pulse? That kind of thing?

* * *

Before we get into meatier topics, I’ll just note that I had no trouble following the battle here, unlike Helm’s Deep, probably because the geography is so much less complicated (city, river, lots of open space) and Tolkien takes pains to orient everything each time the focus shifts.

Also, it wasn’t until the chapter was over that I realized that there’s no sign of the Dead at all; I’d completely forgotten that their oath is fulfilled off-screen.

* * *

I doubt it’s a surprise to anyone that I have lots to say about the death of the Lord of the Nazgûl. I don’t recall that this was a particularly favorite scene when I was a kid, and I suspect that was because I hadn’t yet really understood, well, sexism. In other words, I didn’t especially like Éowyn getting a Crowning Moment of Awesome (TM TV Tropes; I believe I am supposed to issue a ritual warning about lost time if you click on the link, but I’ve never had that problem), because I didn’t viscerally comprehend the obstacles to her doing so.

Now, well, Awesome. I think we’ve talked occasionally about the ways Tolkien complicates hierarchy, and this is one of them: it’s not just the vast mismatch in power, it’s that the Witch-king’s death specifically requires two members of marginalized, overlooked, underestimated groups of Middle-earth, whose collective efforts are motivated by love and pity. Yes, they’re both from high-status families, but despite that, almost no-one wanted them there or would have thought they could accomplish what they did.

I don’t remember if it was here or not, but I know I’ve seen discussion in the past about who struck the fatal blow. I think the text is clear that it’s Merry, but I also think it’s clear that without Éowyn, he never would have gotten the opportunity. That Éowyn’s sword shatters suggests that her blow didn’t do any damage—yes, I wouldn’t like a sword shattering on my face, but it’s Merry’s sword that “dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.” However, Merry was only brought out of his animal fear by amazement and pity at Éowyn’s presence and lack of hope, and only got into place because “the Black Captain, in doubt and malice intent upon the woman before him, heeded (Merry) no more than a worm in the mud” (and how cool is it, that the descent into animal fear is then reversed here?). So while the death blow was from Merry, I don’t think any disparagement of Éowyn should be inferred; it’s only Merry having that particular sword that allows his blow to be effective.

(I am trying not to dwell too much on, if Éowyn is so authorially-approved awesome here, why is she the only damn woman in the book who is? Because there’ll be time for that when we get to “The Steward and the King,” and I want to enjoy the moment now.)

Speaking of Merry, I think it is so characteristic of hobbits that when he speaks to Théoden, he asks forgiveness for coming when he “ha(s) done no more in your service than to weep at our parting.” It never occurs to him to tell Théoden that his killer is dead or that he had a hand in it, because that’s just not how he thinks. Théoden, of course, forgives him—“Great heart will not be denied”—which I choose to take as a forgiveness of Éowyn too, if he had known she was there. This will also contrast markedly with the death of Denethor, next chapter.

(Even though Tolkien does not explicitly have Heaven in this universe, I believe it’s there and find it comforting that the characters who left things unsaid will have a chance to tell each other. This is unlike, for instance, the end of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, because that’s set in our world (and, as we’ve discussed, I don’t gut-level believe that LotR is) and I am a weak atheist, which is often not much comfort.)

Two things about the way these scenes were written. First, it makes really good use of physical light and dark. It starts with Théoden’s golden shield dimming and dark falling about him, as the winged creature “descend(s) like a falling cloud.” Then Éowyn kills it, bringing back the daylight which shines on her. Great! Except, next paragraph, reversal: “Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider . . . [who] bent over her like a cloud.” And after the Nazgûl’s death, poor Merry finds himself “blinking like an owl in the daylight.” (Later, it starts raining, and there’s a nice link to the effects of brushing with wraiths when Merry sees Imrahil riding up “through a mist.”)

Second, there are two very effective horror moments. One is the description of the winged creature, which may not be actually Lovecraftian but which similarly evokes the idea of scary ancient things lurking in forgotten corners: “A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.” The other is the Witch-king’s threat to Éowyn, that he will “bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”  . . . um, yikes?

* * *

And now for the low point of the chapter, the passing description of Mordor’s reserve troops:

Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand, Southrons in scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.

Really I’m tempted to just beat my head against the desk. Like half-trolls? And a choice of descriptive attributes that, by contrast, highlights the darkness of their skin?

Head. Desk.

While I’m talking about Mordor’s forces, though, I should skip to the battle’s close, when

not one living foe was left within the circuit of the Rammas. All were slain save those who fled to die, or to drown in the red foam of the River. Few ever came eastward to Morgul or Mordor; and to the land of the Haradrim came only a tale from far off: a rumour of the wrath and terror of Gondor.

This set me wondering what it would have been like, after Sauron’s fall, in Mordor itself and in the countries that seem to have been so overshadowed by Sauron. And then I foundered on simple lack of information, because at this point I just don’t know anything about the non-orc societies that serve Sauron, why they serve or how they’re structured or anything. And I would like to. (Though looking ahead I see that Aragon actually makes peace with the Haradrim. Going back to the quote, I do find it hard to imagine that “err, could you tell us whatever happened to all our family members that came this way some time ago?” never came up in the peace discussions.)

* * *

The arrival of the Corsairs. I have come to believe that Tolkien probably intended Denethor to have seen the Corsairs sailing up the river; Gandalf’s secret hope is Aragorn, because Sauron could have blocked him from seeing that Aragorn had successfully taken the Corsairs. The bit where people cry out about how many places must have fallen does seem a strong signal for that interpretation. But I hold an irrational allegiance to the idea that Denethor saw Frodo captured, because it’s just so damn elegant. Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here in the corner with my tin hat.

Arwen’s standard. Éomer is “scarely a mile” away when the standard unfurls and is clearly seen to bear the White Tree, Seven Stars, and a high crown. If I were at home, I could ask the resident scientist to tell me how big these elements would need to be to be visible at a mile, but I’m finishing this post on the train down to New York City (vacation! Woo! I’m going to try and write the next post while I’m there, too, so as to make up for getting so far behind) and he’s joining me later. Also, he’s busy. But even without doing the math, I can well believe that at a mile, magic would be involved in the visibility.

The two paragraphs after the standard is seen are fabulous. They start and end with Aragorn, as is proper. He’d declared himself earlier, to Sauron and to the Dead, but this is his arrival at his city, literally with banner flying in declaration of his claim before those he would rule. Then there’s the reaction of the combatants (I particularly like the description of “the mirth of the Rohirrim was a torrent of laughter and a flashing of swords”), and then the next paragraph describes the turn of the battle with really terrific rhythm:

East rode the knights of Dol Amroth driving the enemy before them: troll-men and Variags and orcs that hated the sunlight. South strode Éomer and men fled before his face, and they were caught between the hammer and the anvil. For now men leaped from the ships to the quays of the Harlond and swept north like a storm. There came Legolas, and Gimli wielding his axe, and Halbarad with the standard, and Elladan and Elrohir with stars on their brow, and the dour-handed Dúnedain, Rangers of the North, leading a great valour of the folk of Lebennin and Lamedon and the fiefs of the South. But before all went Aragorn with the Flame of the West, Andúril like a new fire kindled, Narsil re-forged as deadly as of old; and upon his brow was the Star of Elendil.

Underlines added to show what I mean about the rhythm; also notice all the “ands” in the second-to-last sentence. (The last sentence makes me sigh in the same way as Pippin seeing the Tower in the sunrise.)

* * *

The chapter ends somberly, with a description of the sunset making everything appear red with fire and blood, and an accounting of some of those who died. To me this feels fitting, a quiet pause to breathe and recover and mourn, not depressing like some of the other chapter endings this book.

(I see no mention of Wídfara in this chapter, who told Théoden that the wind was turning. So I for one shall assume that he did, as Théoden wished, “live beyond this day in years of blessedness” for speaking the truth then.)

« Return of the King V.5 | Index

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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