Saturday, August 4, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog XII: The Return of the King V: 1-5

So we last left Frodo's cousin Pippin learning the meaning of haste on the Shadowfax ride at Six Flags Over Middle Earth, watching the scenery blur past as Gandalf gives him history lectures and orients him and us on the map, and that's pretty much where we pick up here. From afar they see the beacons of Gondor being lit and Pippin, bless him, is concerned that what he's seeing is dragon fire, because what would he know? He's grown up on Bilbo's tales, and he's in the east now, where the dragons were, after all!

Gandalf explains the beacons, how they summon help from the Rohirrim in the north and other allies in the south, including Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, who I still maintain snuck into this epic, Thursday Next-style, from an H.P. Lovecraft story, but that's immaterial, because Gandalf is still talking, about how they didn't use to need beacons because they had the Palantir. You know, like the one Pippin gazed into that started this race to Minas Tirith in the first place.

Hey Sauron, am I the Halfling you're looking for?

At last they halt just outside of Minas Tirith and exchange words with the head of an outlying guard post, and, echoing Gandalf's visit to Edoras, tart observations are made about how Gandalf only seems to show up with bad news, and Gandalf replies to this pretty much the same way he did in Rohaaaaannnnn. Okay, but so what's up with the midget? Oh, he's here to take my place entertaining the troops so I'm free to fight for our cause this is a Halfling but not the one prophesied, just one of his cousins. And next thing you know, Pippin is spilling the beans about Boromir, earning Gandalf's wrath yet again (poor Pippin!) because they should have saved that news for Denethor, who's going to be a big enough pain in the ass anyway without having to lead off with his reaction to that. But oh, um, turns out there have already been "tidings" of Boromir's fate, haven't there.

Fine. Nothing for it now, let's go see Denethor in his little chair.

Poor Denethor, descendant of a long line of also-rans who still wound up having to do all the work while the line of the Kings of Gondor were otherwise occupied carrying around broken swords and drinking beer in places like Bree and not even bothering to show up and get crowned, let alone help out with anything (I'm speaking from the chip-on-their-shoulders Stewards point of view here as I imagine it when they're feeling especially self-pitying). At what point do you just accept your loss and move on, Gondor, and let these guys be kings already? Because really, you're kind of like those sad-creepy parents who keep their suicidal teenaged sons' bedrooms as inviolate shrines for decades after the kids blew their heads off with shotguns outside of prom, you know? And pretty much neglect the other kids in the family for the rest of their lives, even if they grow up to be super successful and awesome and present you with amazing grandchildren and offer to buy you a new house? Yeah, Gondor, you're kind of like that. It's embarrassing.

But so anyway, here's Denethor, heir to all the dysfunction and now having to contend with Mordor resurgent to boot, and he's been kind of unconsciously acting out that very same dynamic and pretty much set up his oldest son, Boromir, to be a great big hero-martyr and making his second son, Faramir, keep eating at the kids' table even though he's in his 30s now. I mean, wow.

And he's gotten his sick little wish, hasn't he? Boromir has kicked the bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! Boromir is an ex-Captain of Gondor! And so Denethor gets to have all the theatrics, but first he gets to be all passive-aggressively coy with Gandalf. Hey there. Something you ought to be telling me about how I sent you a big strapping manly man and I got back a broken horn* and a corpse in a boat? Hmm?

Speak and be not silent!

Look, it's not that I don't like Denethor. My heart aches for the guy, and we do not get to see him at his best, as Gandalf keeps reminding us. He comes from a proud lineage, blah blah blah, but well, we all know how I feel about a person's importance being measured by who his ancestors were, so I'm pretty much ready for Gandalf to shut it long before he actually does.

And I love Pippin for his move here. Though he is not yet a daddy himself, he has a daddy, and I picture him kind of imagining Paladin II and how he'd feel if Pippin never returned alive. Plus, he probably wants to stave off an extra helping of drama, an understandable impulse with Gandalf and Denethor all but climbing up the drapes, and so he makes the polite gesture of offering his service in place of Boromir's, which he perhaps thinks is just a nice gesture but which Denethor seizes on. My son saved your life so now yours belongs to me, or something like that. Anyway, tickety boom, Pippin winds up swearing allegiance to Denethor, much to Gandalf's concern and, yes, annoyance. Dude, Pippin can not win with this guy.

But the ritual speeches they exchange here are very nice. "I will not forget it," Denethor says, "Nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valour with honour, oath breaking with vengeance."

I like the slight implication that Boromir might have been Finduilas' son by the milkman or somebody that Gandalf makes as he and Pippin leave the Steward's presence. By some chance, Gandalf says, the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in Denethor, and in Faramir "yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best." Of course, there are lots of other, less salacious explanations for this (don't make me break out my Punnet squares again, you guys) but it's still a fun observation to make and a thought that only ever occurred to me on this reading.

And I love how Pippin becomes the wonder of the Citadel, and how in the short time he has been there wild notions that a "Prince of the Halflings" (Earnil I Pheriannath) has come to offer Denethor 5000 little swords, and/or that doubled up behind each Rider of Rohaaaaaaannnn on his horse, there will be a fierce little Halfling warrior. Despite Pippin's having to burst these bubbles, he makes quite a splash around Minas Tirith with two generations of Men of Gondor and is welcome among them as they watch outlanders from all over the country come in to help with the defense of Minas Tirith, including Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth**, and his Cthulhu cultists Lohengrins knights and men-at-arms. Ia ia.

Meanwhile back in Rohan with Aragorn, Gimolas and Merry... they are also preparing for war. Theoden will head off to Edoras to muster the rest of the Eorlingas and it is quickly decided that Merry will go with him over his protests against being "laid aside like baggage"; he still hasn't told Theoden all about the Shire yet, is the excuse he's given.

Hey, Gratus, baby, I'll tell you about the Shire. Hubba.

But first! The party is found by one Halbarad, a Ranger buddy of Aragorn's, some other Ranger types, and Elrond's twin sons Elladan and Elrohir, come to help with the war and also to give Aragorn  the banner Arwen has made for him, which I've already talked plenty about in other posts, and some advice from Elrond -- "If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead." Which, I'm not sure I'd be in any hurry to take a short cut by such a name, but I'm not a tall badass gonnabe king with a famous sword and magic blood or whatever.

And so Merry goes off to become Theoden's esquire, and after Aragorn spends the night in Gethsemane looking into the Palantir and wresting control of it from Sauron (thus revealing exactly who he is to the Dark Lord. DRAMA BUTTON), he decides to take the Paths of the Dead, as Elrond counseled. This freaks out the Rohirrim, who tell him it's unpossible and impassable, but they know better to try and talk him out of it, and agree take Merry with them as they go. Sadz.

With the departure of horse lords and hobbits, Aragorn reveals more of what he learned on the Night of the Stone to Gimolas: peril approaches Minas Tirith from the South (it's a fleet of bad guy ships, and yes, Minas Tirith knows about it) and the only way he can head it off is to go through the aforementioned Paths, which is not only a short cut, but also an opportunity to collect some more allies: "for the hour is come for the oathbreakers... the heir of him to whom the oath they swore... need shall drive him..." The ghosts of Men who swore an oath to Isildur and forsook him can be found there, and it was their breaking of that oath that has condemned them to a dim half-life inside the White Mountains. Gimolas is all for going along, so off they go!

Of course their way takes them past Edoras, so they stop off for supper and Eowyn gets to make eyes at Aragorn some more, and begs to go along with him when she realizes she can't talk him out of going where he's going; she's tired of being "a dry nurse" and wants to fight. I love her little speech when Aragorn lectures her about her duty, kind of patronizingly: "All your words are but to say, you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more."

I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death."

But Aragorn continues to patronize her and she strides off angry. Perhaps this is what shall finally galvanize her to become Dernhelm and kick ass, but I can't help but feel a little annoyed at Aragorn right here.

The next morning brings a bit of a repeat of this conversation, as only Eowyn has come to see them off, but the result is the same, and next thing we know it, the Grey Company (as the Rangers and the Elves who travel with them call themselves) is at the Dimholt gate and having to jolly their horses into entering the cave, in which Aragorn summons his ghostly oathbreakers to follow them to the Stone of Erech and we're firmly in Lovecraft territory at last! A pity we don't get to spend more time there, but...

Meanwhile back in Rohaaaaannnnnn...

Theoden and his riders arrive back at Edoras for the Muster of the Rohirrim. Merry has gotten used to riding the pony he's been provided, Stybba, possibly the least unfortunate pony in all of Middle Earth, save Fatty Lumpkin, and realized that he can almost understand Rohanese, since it's kind of a kin-language to the Common Tongue, the way the Norse languages are to Old English, at least: "It was a language in which there seemed to be many words that he knew, though spoken more richly and strongly than in the Shire, yet he could not piece the words together." And then he alone shows any interest in the Pukel-men, the Easter Island statues of Middle Earth. I love that this is how he passes his time on the ride when he's not telling Theoden about the Shire, you guys. Love. Merry is not a buffoon. He is a Tolkien character.

And then he meets Eowyn, soon to be his partner in Witch King slayage! Hooray! Of course, he doesn't know that yet! All he knows is that all of his original friends have left him behind! Never mind that he gets a little tent all to himself right next to the king's! But I would feel a little sorry for myself, too, in this situation! Because it's human and hobbit nature to think more about what we don't have than what we do! And hey, at this stage, Merry is basically kept on hand to entertain the king! Like a jester, a jester, a funny idea, a jester!

And then, though we might think the beacons of Gondor had maybe already done their job, we have not actually had anyone on the Rohaaaannnn side seeing them, so perhaps it's good that Denethor decided to be anal and send Hirgon with the

Red Arrow!

 Because, uh, no one would take Hirgon's road for it that things were getting dire in Gondor unless he also carried the

Red Arrow?

Uh, I got nothing here. I think it's kind of lame. Pretty sure Theoden already knows by now that things are getting dire, right? And he was already mustering the Rohirrim to ride to the aid of Minas Tirith? But at least now we're sure, because of the

Red Freaking Arrow.

That's "Speedy" to you, Eorlingas.

Theoden of course agrees to go, since he was already going to, but advises that if Gondor had been willing to wait a bit he'd have 10,000 spears instead of just the 6,000 he's going to bring now. They'll leave tomorrow, but it takes about a week to get from Edoras to Minas Tirith, so...

And then Hirgon waxes melodramatic "you are like to find only ruined walls in seven days from now" and you can just tell that he was one of Boromir's buddies, can't you? Drama queen.

But he's got a point, because next morning a dark cloud of Shadow has blotted out the sky and everyone starts talking about how they might never see the sun again, which Theoden kind of cheerfully takes as a sign that the jig is up and nobody needs to try for secrecy anymore.

And then he turns to Merry and releases him from his service, telling him to stay behind with Eowyn and help her govern the folk who aren't riding to war. Merry, he says, is too little to ride a horse and his groovy little pony isn't cut out for war or keeping up. Merry declares that if no one will let him ride behind him on a war horse (you know, the way the Minas Tirith guys were fantasizing), then he'll bloody well run/walk behind and just show up late for the battle. Theoden is kind of patronizing, just like that other king was with Eowyn, and so it should be no surprise to anyone that Eowyn decides to team up with Merry, outfitting him in what she can gin up by way of arms and armor and dropping hints about maybe meeting him again someday. Which, of course, they do, except Eowyn's in drag and calling herself Dernhelm. Hooray! Off they go to war, just like the big boys, and don't they have a big job to do!

By the way, love the snatch of epic poetry we're treated to before the Eorlingas ride forth, full of alliteration and drama like a proper Beowulfian chant: "Forth rode the king, fear behind him, fate before him. Fealty kept he." LOVE.

Meanwhile, back in Gondor...

Pippin is summoned back to Denethor, who has decided to let his squire go fight in defense of the city and that Pippin will do as his squire. He also seems on the verge of making a jester of his assigned hobbit, and Pippin almost has to sing for him, but he was not commanded to sing. Policy matters tear the Steward's attention from him, and Pippin is sent off to get livery and gear, which is all black and dark grey and would be hell in the sunshine so good thing the Stormcloud of Sauron darkens the sky over Minas Tirith, too. Wearing his somber new duds, he has a somber new conversation with Beregond, his first and best friend among the Tower Guard that he has joined, which is interrupted by the cry of a

Nazgul on a Fell Beast!

Five of them, actually! And they are harassing a small band of horsemen that will turn out to be Faramir and his men! Oh noes! But then

Yay Gandalf!

rides out on Shadowfax to save our brave boys. The Nazgul don't want to tangle with him and take off (you've got to go see EssJay's post on this topic!). He helps bring in a wounded member of the small party that were escaping the Nazgul, which turns out to be Faramir and buckle up, everybody, because things are about to get super bumpy. But first, a trade in expositions is undertaken along the lines of, what's a Halfling doing in Tower livery, I have seen a Halfling before, yay that means Samdo's alive but oh man, Cirith Ungol, really?

Denethor has witnessed most of this exchange and is suddenly jealous of how Faramir seems to be looking to Gandalf for guidance on how much to say of what he knows about Samdo, not that that matters because Denethor can see it in Faramir's mind, exactly how and why Boromir died and next thing we know he's telling Faramir to his face that he wishes it had been Faramir who died instead of Boromir "for Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard's pupil... He would have brought me a mighty gift." Gandalf, of course, shoots this down for the crap that it is -- if Boromir had taken the ring, he'd be well on his way to being Wraith Number Ten, and wouldn't that be lovely? But Denethor is way too carried away by his own rhetoric right now; one wishes for a rainstorm and nudity and a fool to wash some sense into him, but instead he has impatient Gandalf and a plan to send his wounded Cordelia off to fight some more reinforcing the garrison at Osgiliath.

Amid all this drama, though, Gandalf starts seeing things a little differently. He's terrified to hear that Frodo is taking the Stair but has realized that everything the rest of the former Fellowship has been up to is probably doing a fine job of distracting Sauron from Frodo's progress, even Pippin's foolishness with the Palantir. Ha! And Gandalf doesn't even know that Aragorn has Palantired as well!

But small hope that is right now for Minas Tirith. The Rohirrim are still days away, the Black Fleet is coming up the river, and by the way, a host has come out of the Black Gate to meet up with some Haradrim and march on Osgiliath. You know, where Faramir is being sent to hold off whatever comes there. With not enough men. With your shield or on it, Faramir. With your shield or on it. Sigh.

Of course he comes back on it, more or less, giving Denethor the opportunity to indulge in the worst histrionics yet. First he just betakes himself to his rooms to sulk, leaving Gandalf to arrange the defense of the City, and then... Ugh. Even though his remaining son is only mostly dead, Denethor starts wittering on about "No tomb for Denethor and Faramir... We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West." And all you people who are asking Denethor for instruction because "the first circle of the City is burning?" Well, it is like unto an Earth, Wind and Fire song. And then he commands that Faramir be taken to the houses of the dead, to be laid down next to his father and covered with one cloth and set on fire!

And so Pippin has to race off and find Gandalf to stop this, because Denethor won't listen to a Halfling, even a Prince of the Halflings. He's enjoying his raving too much. But oh noes, Gandalf is down in the battle somewhere, dealing with the likes of Grond, which is, for my money, the single best-named thing in all of Middle Earth: a giant battering rand shaped like a wolf. Grond. GROND!

Look!  Even the Battle Droids love Grond. GROND!

And pretty soon, Grond breaks open the Gate of Gondor, and in pour the Nazgul, including the Black Captain, aka


and only


is able to stand up to him, although


is not impressed. Fortunately, here come the Rohirrim, bringing with them some other people who are capable of taking him on. The Riders have won through to Gondor thanks to the Woses (aka the Pukel Men, whose statues Merry admired back near Dunharrow, aka the Wild Men of the Woods), broad, squat, Dwarve-like Menve led by Ghan-Buri-Ghan, who kept a bunch of Orcs at bay while the Rohirrim passed through, and then showed them an easier, forgotten way to get to Minas Tirith. Man, I loved the Woses when I was a kid, but as I've gotten older it's gotten harder and harder not to see them as a bit of a caricature, how an English professorial-type imagined Native Americans/First Nations/Australian Aboriginals would be (perhaps more of the last than the former, as Ghan-Buri-Ghan sports a grass skirt and all) and I kind of wince at how their speech is depicted and how cargo cultish their view of the people who live in stone cities is. Sigh.

Anyway, we find out for sure that Denethor had no word that the Rohirrim were coming because Speedy Roy Harper Hirgon got himself killed on the way, still clutching the Red Arrow. Dude. That stupid arrow again.

But so at long last, the Rohirrim burst upon Pelennor Field, where all is chaos and Orcs and siege engines and Nazgul and looming nasty death.

*See, just as Aragorn is going around and collecting all the heirlooms of his house that he didn't already have, the Stewards seem fated to lose theirs. They, like Pippin, really just can't win, can they?

**Who is Denethor's brother-in-law. That's right, Denethor married a Princess. The rest of the world thinks he's royalty, even if Gondor doesn't. Mmm hmm.


  1. Interesting bit of interfamily politics in this section. I think these bits should be longer, they feel rushed to me, and should include some more detailed maps so you can get a better sense of everyone's position in the battlefield. Also, everyone's position with each other, though you get the gist of it. I guess it's because we're still mostly getting a hobbit point of view of the proceedings.
    Also, Denethor sucks mightily. And Eowyn's awesome.

    1. Man, it seems like I have two constants in the Middle Earth universe: feeling sorry for Gollum and wishing Denethor would DIAF. Uh, without Faramir, of course. You know, the future Mr. Eowyn. They are the luckiest two people EVAR.


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