The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King V.10, “The Black Gate Opens”

We conclude the first book of The Return of the King with Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens.” After the jump there are the usual spoilers for all of The Lord of the Rings, and comments on this chapter and on Book V generally.

What Happens

The army leaves Minas Tirith (and Merry, who is not healed enough to go). The journey to the Black Gate is quiet but horrifying. The army leaves a number of men at the Cross-roads, where they have restored the statue of the old king, and sends more who are unable to go further to Cair Andros.

At the Black Gate, the Mouth of Sauron taunts Gandalf and the others by showing them Sam’s sword, an elven cloak, and Frodo’s mail. He demands their surrender for the return of the captured spy. Gandalf refuses and takes back the items. Mordor’s armies surround the army of the West. Pippin stabs a hill-troll to keep it from killing Beregond and is trapped under its body. He thinks he hears someone crying “The Eagles are coming!”, but “his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.”


…at least it wasn’t an across-volumes cliffhanger, like “Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy”?

Because I usually barrel through books without pausing at internal divisions, and because I know this story so well already, I hadn’t registered just how bleak this is. After all, we don’t know what happened to Frodo yet after his capture; I don’t know if anyone reading this for the first time thought that Sauron had actually regained possession of the Ring (and if so, what did you think the last half-volume would be about? The plucky resistance?), but the structure certainly leaves us desperate to find out.

But as far as cliffhangers go, I am very slightly cranky about the last line, describing how Pippin’s “thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.” My instinctive reading of that admittedly-ambiguous line is that he saw no more ever, which is obviously not the case, and so feels like cheating. (“Vision went dark” would not bother me at all.) I have no idea how idiosyncratic my reaction to this is, however.

Getting back to the overall effect of the chapter, as I was reading the journey through Mordor I was surprised at how little landscape description we got, compared to Sam and Frodo’s journey. It’s not that I wanted redundancy, but the landscape felt much more remote to me here. After finishing the chapter, I think this remoteness was doing two things. First, the mood that’s been set for the confrontation at the Black Gate is hopelessness, not horror, for which a sort of grey, less-sensory experience seems appropriate. Second, Tolkien was saving the big guns, emotionally speaking, for the confrontation.

And the chapter really emphasizes the hopelessness of the situation. It starts in the third paragraph, when Aragorn says farewell to Merry with the happy thought that “Though it may be our part to find a bitter end before the Gate of Mordor, if we do so, then you will come also to a last stand, either here or wherever the black tide overtakes you.” (Okay, actually, he does think it relatively happy because Merry feels ashamed at not doing more, but still.) Poor Merry has “little hope at all” that he will see “(e)veryone that he cared for” return from the East. The arrival at the Black Gate is “the last end of their folly,” since “their army could not assault with hope” the fortifications. When the trap is sprung, they are outnumbered ten to one, “(a)nd out of the gathering mirk the Nazgûl came with their cold voices crying words of death; and then all hope was quenched.” Hopeless, hopeless, and hopeless. Also? Hopeless. Just in case you missed it.

* * *

Pippin’s reaction to all the hopelessness is quite interesting and not something I’d marked before. He deliberately places himself where the fighting will be first and hardest, “(f)or it seemed best to him to die soon and leave the bitter story of his life, since all was in ruin.” Indeed, he thinks:

Well, well, now at any rate I understand poor Denethor a little better. We might die together, Merry and I, and since die we must, why not? Well, as he is not here, I hope he’ll find an easier end. But now I must do my best.

I don’t believe this ever comes up again, which is why I hadn’t registered it before, but we’ve spent so much time talking about Denethor that now it made me sit up. Also it is not at all the kind of thing that I expect to see from Pippin, which only reinforces the hopeless.

It never comes up again (at least not in any way memorable to me) because it’s only a thought. Pippin turns his despair outward into heroics, saving Beregond’s life without regard to his own safety, not inward to suicide (well, murder-suicide, but that complicates my metaphor). It’s good to see that Pippin, too, gets his chance to do at least as well as—in this case, better than—a human.

* * *

The meeting at the Gate with the Mouth of Sauron. I literally cannot imagine forgetting my own name, so that is an excellent little detail. And he is not as old as I thought he was: “he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again,” putting it sometime around 2951 (when the rebuilding of Barad-dûr began, according to Appendix B). I’d always vaguely thought him to be centuries old, but that was only 68 years ago.

The Mouth addresses them with familiar pronouns (thou/thee/thy) and I was impressed just how clearly the contempt behind that choice came through. It made me think of how apparently Pippin was going around using familiar pronouns for everyone in Minas Tirith, which was only made clear to me by the Appendices. Besides the difficulty for modern readers of having the hobbits “thee” and “thou” everyone all throughout the story, it occurs to me that the impact of the drops into familiar pronouns—here and between Aragorn and Éowyn—would be far lessened if those pronouns were already common in the text. I just think it’s too bad that the nuance in the hobbits’ speech couldn’t have been made clearer before the Appendices.

Does the Mouth expect Gandalf to simply fold and take that ridiculous offer? (Seriously, why stop at the Misty Mountains?) That was my first impression, between his being taken aback when Gandalf attempts to bargain, and then his rage when Gandalf rejects it. If so, this seems to be a massive example of evil being unable to understand good: Sauron only understands the desire for power (per “The Council of Elrond”), he judges Gandalf and the rest of the leaders the West to not have enough of it, and so slides to thinking that they have none at all and will collapse immediately. Except that doesn’t fit with the idea that one of them might be the arrogant new wielder of the Ring. So maybe he never expected them to take it and was surprised that Gandalf seemed to be considering it, and then was angry at the manner of Gandalf’s refusal.

* * *

Finally for things specific to this chapter, I’d wondered last time what we could infer from this chapter about how the ordinary soldier felt about this mission. We get one indication when the army comes near the Black Gate:

So desolate were those places and so deep the horror that lay on them that some of the host were unmanned, and they could neither walk nor ride further north.

Aragorn looked at them, and there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath; for these were young men from Rohan, from Westfold far away, or husbandmen from Lossarnach, and to them Mordor had been from childhood a name of evil, and yet unreal, a legend that had no part in their simple life; and now they walked like men in a hideous dream made true, and they understood not this war nor why fate should lead them to such a pass.

The idea of war as a dream-like state cannot be original to WWI, and yet it immediately reminded me of WWI war poetry. I note that the breaking point here is not combat but landscape, which permits the straddling of the conflicting worldviews of epic heroism and psychological realism, and is also just very Tolkien.

* * *

My verdict on Book V as a whole: awesome. I’m not sure why I used to think of Book III as my favorite, because this was just full of amazing things: stirring high-fantasy moments, reversals and surprises, a very brisk overall pace, and the most nuanced and interesting characterization thus far, or possible at all. I would be very surprised if anything surpassed it in the rest of the book for me, because I always dread the walking-through-Mordor bits (I know they aren’t as long as I remember, but still). Even the chapters that felt a little slow to me at the time (the Rohirrim ones) were necessarily so for the overall structure; I was just cranky because I wanted to get to the good stuff and wasn’t reading it all together. However, I’d be very pleased to be proved wrong. What do you all think about Book V as a unit?

« Return of the King V.9 | 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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