I have written elsewhere this week about the moment in The Lord of the Rings that I find the most pivotal and dramatic. It occurs in these chapters: the death of Theoden and the triumph of Eowyn and Merry against
THE WITCH KING OF ANGMAR
Rather than rehash things here, I urge you to go check out my guest post over at Snobbery.
It's not like that's the only thing that happens in these chapters; far from it. For one thing, Eowyn barely survives her moment of glory, and is thought dead until Prince Imrahil of
Good thing Eowyn's pretty, though.
Her near consignment to death along with Theoden King really foreshadows quite a lot, immediately and a bit down the road. Immediately, the Rohirrim, despite the defeat of
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are outnumbered, weary, in trouble, and then things look to get even worse. Those Black Ships we've been hearing about since Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith? Here they come, up the Anduin, and the host of Mordor is plenty happy to see the Corsairs of Umbar come to assure victory at Pelennor.
But oh! Just as Eowyn turns out to be only mostly dead, the ships aren't something to mourn and fret over, either: "upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as as turned... There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it; the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count." This banner I've talked about before in this blog: it's the one Arwen made for Aragorn, asserting his lineage, his claims and his promises in fabric, thread and white gems.
And like all good icons, it communicates a very clear message: the ships do not carry the Corsairs but the gonnabe King of Gondor, who took these ships with the help of his army of oathbreaker ghosts.* Soon Imrahil and the knights of
Would there, though, be victory so complete had not Eowyn and Merry stood up to the
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and destroyed him? We can't be sure, but really we've already been told, by Tolkien himself, that the watershed moment had occurred. We are told this when the death of Snowmane, who accidentally killed his master, Theoden, is discovered and discussed. Snowmane gets a grave mound at Pelannor Field, and we are told that, while grass grows long and green over that grave, where the foul flying steed of the
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died, the ground stays forever black. The fact that land so close to Mordor stays fertile and fair long enough for Snowmane's Howe, as it comes to be known, to become grassy basically tells us right there that Sauron lost.
Unless maybe the long green grass is kudzu.
It would grow fast, but in doing so would probably prove that Sauron had won, amirite?
I believe this is the first time we're given this retrospective view of Frodo's quest and all of the fights and failures around it as a fait accompli, but I might be wrong.
Anyway, onward, to the other thing Eowyn's near-death foreshadows**: her future fella's own brush with death.
When we last left those anxious souls in Minas Tirith, Pippin was racing to find Gandalf to help prevent a tremendous tragedy: Denethor, not content to give up on Minas Tirith and himself, has also chosen to give up on his only remaining son, wounded but only mostly dead. Denethor has built a pyre for himself and his son, had them wrapped in a shroud and drenched in oil, and is fixin' to "burn like the heathen kings of old."
I find it just a little troubling, this choice that Gandalf makes to abandon what may well be the most important battle in the history of Middle Earth and his secret job of wielding his Elven Ring to keep everyone's spirits up, commanding Gondor's forces, and very likely doing some fighting himself, to ride up to save the life of one Man, even if it is one that happens to be one of my favorites. It just reeks of the kind of feudal elitism that makes me foam at the mouth; you know he wouldn't hesitate to throw, say, Beregond, under the Burn Bus.
But then again, how much does it really matter? We have already come to understand that Gandalf and his ilk are due to fade soon from Middle Earth, and Eowyn and Merry have proved to everyone that you don't need a wizard to destroy a Big Bad, just strategic knowledge of its weak points***, and nothing kindles the hearts of fighting men like scoring big, big points against the enemy. So maybe Gandalf isn't so terribly vital to the battle effort after all. And hey, the Fellowship did kind of all right during the time he was fighting his way out of
The question, then, may well be, does Gandalf think his presence at Pelannor is so very important? Because if he does, then it's a tiny bit reprehensible, in the grand scheme of things, to desert so many to save so few.
I'm pretty sure he would have stayed at Pelannor.
But then there's the possibility**** that no one else can save Faramir; no one is willing to cross his lunatic father.***** So, Gandalf puts Prince Imrahil of
He finds quite a scene, but is just in time. Revealing himself for a split second to be quite a lot more spry than he looks (sort of like Grand Maester Pycelle, eh?), he leaps onto the heap of wood doused in oil and yanks Faramir off the pyre Denethor has built (or rather, ordered built). Denethor has a last grand round of theatrics, ranting and raving and revealing that he knows about Aragorn in the process, and he refuses to hand over the kingdom to the last son of "a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity." To prove that he means it, he snaps in half the white Rod of the Stewards of Gondor (thus destroying the last heirloom of his house, probably at right around the time that Aragorn revealed his fancy new heirloom that completes his collection) right before he lights the fire.
Faramir is carried down to the Houses of Healing, and soon Eowyn is, too. As for Merry, he has gone all but unnoticed, Bilbo-style, but made it into the city under his own power -- just barely. The reunion he has with Pippin as he comes staggering in is as sweet as can be, both of them still in awe that they've experienced what they have. But Merry, who has lost the use of his right arm to icy numbness following his killing stroke on the
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is, like Eowyn and Faramir and many others, overcome by the Black Breath and will surely die of it, unless there's a miracle.
There is a miracle, and her name is Ioreth, who sort of wistfully reminds Gandalf that back in the good old days, when there were kings of Gondor, you could tell the rightful king because "the hands of the king are the hands of a healer." So, while Aragorn has made the humblebraggy decision to wait for the Steward to recover and invite him into the city, he is summoned earlier than that by Gandalf to ply the kingsfoil cure. And so the news breaks and spreads throughout the city.
Then, because so far The Return of the King has come so very, very close to passing the Bechdel test, Tolkien does something weird, seemingly by way of making sure it doesn't. But hey, give him credit for this: he couldn't bring himself to make Eowyn cause the failure directly: he makes her brother and Aragorn her proxies for this as she lies raving in her recovery from the Black Breath. Aragorn gently lectures Eomer about how all of the surprising and saddening things she's muttering aren't really coming out of nowhere, how Wormtongue wasn't just working on Theoden, and for good measure he pretty much implies that her big problem is that she has the hots for him, Aragorn. Because it's all about Aragorn. Says so in the title. "Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man's heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned."
Nor, actually, is this Aragorn's only cock remark; when he moves to Merry's bedside and speaks to Pippin, he tells Pippin not to worry: "Do not be afraid. I came in time."
And I called him back.
But yeah, I know it's true. But jeeze, look who's starting to believe his own press already. Though yes, he does create a stir as he leaves the House of Healing to go back to his campsite outside the city until Faramir is well enough to perform his duties like making a new Rod of Stewarding, whipping everything into shape for Aragorns big, uh, re-entrance. Meanwhile, Prince Imrahil of
But meanwhile, there is still the matter of
PRETTY MUCH UTTER DOOM
to be discussed. It's still up to Samdo to save the world from the Ring, but meanwhile it's up to the rest of his friends to keep Sauron distracted while Samdo sneaks through Mordor.
The idea boils down, more or less, to trying to make Sauron think that Aragorn has the Ring and is maybe fixin' to do some things with it. Neener. They're going to leave a crew behind to guard Minas Tirith, sure, but everybody else is going to go knock on Sauron's Gate. Hoo dogies!
Merry is still down, but Pippin gets to go. Of course Gimolas gets to go. Replacing Boromir are Eomer and Imrahil (I've beaten the Lovecraft jokes into the ground now, yes?). Oh, and a thousand calvary and seven thousand infantry. Which kind of sounds like a lot until everybody starts thinking about how many Orcs/Evil Men/Other Icky Things are still waiting for the chance to kill 'em at the Gate.
There follows a long stretch of trashed scenery and heralds yelling, in effect, "Come out, come out, wherever you are, but hey, this is our land again" as we pass through Ithilien, retracing some of Samdo and Smeagollum's (Samsmeagoldo's?) footsteps. Despite the bravado, some of the men chicken out and the host dwindles a bit. I guess the WKoA isn't the only one with trouble finding good help these days.
Anyway, they finally get there and line up outside of the Gate. The Lieutenant of Barad-Dur, also called The Mouth of Sauron, rides up to challenge them.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, God said let there be lips...
And lo wast there a lot of trash talk, followed by the taunting display of some stuff, including a certain coat of mithril, forcibly taken from a certain pair of hobbits that really should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.
Of course, the Lips of Sauron give away pretty much immediately that Mordor has no idea why Frodo or his stuff are so important and just brags about what a crappy spy he made. But only Gandalf seems to grasp this, and when the Lips start talking terms, Gandalf tells them to shut and go away, which they look to be doing but Ackbar time; while the Lips have been flapping, the Easterlings have been cutting off our heroes' escape route. The Black Gate opens and more bad guys emerge.Complete with Hill Trolls. And I'm sure there are some more Oliphaunts somewhere in there. UH OH.
But before things get completely out of hand, Pippin wounds and likely kills a troll. He's gotten a bit taller from those Ent draughts, maybe, and has a good sword, and manages at least to hamstring it or something! Yay! But then the troll collapses on top of him. Boo! But then... Eagles... eagles again.
And that's it for these chapters, and really, as far as I'm concerned, for me. I'ma finish Book VI, don't worry, but as an adult reader of this trilogy, for me the culminating moment of it all, the watershed moment, is when Merry and Eowyn take out the WKoA. From there, it's all just clean-up, as I said over at the Snobbery.
*Or are they ghost oathbreakers? Oh noes, argument time!
**Narratively, if not historically; it's possible that the future lovers are in their gravest danger at the same time, the way Tolkien has structured these chapters.
***Lo, like unto Bard of Esgaroth. Sure, you can insist that it's all because of magic because how else would anyone have learned to converse with Thrushes, but it still boiled down to skill, courage and strategic intelligence.
****I say "possibility" because, even as Gandalf will soon be heard to all but lament that he could have, e.g., prevented Theoden's and many other deaths if he'd been around to take on the
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himself (because we all know nobody else could take him, right?), practically within the same breath he gives credit for saving Faramir to Beregond of the Tower Guard, Pippin's friend, who was the only one who had Manned the Snape up and tried to break into the room where Denethor was whipping up a batch of Steward Roast. Which is it, Gandalf? Only you can kill the Witch King but oh, look, Eowyn and Merry did it (though they couldn't save Theoden, they saved potentially many, many more, including, very possibly, all the Rohirrim), or only you can save Faramir but oh, look, Beregond would have managed all right? Or both? I don't have the answer, just as I don't have the answer to whether or not Gandalf's choice was defensible. Which is marvelous.
*****Who has also, by this time, gazed into the Palantir that remained in Minas Tirith. Now, it's an open question, I think, whether in wresting the Orthanc Palantir from Sauron's control Aragorn also freed all of the Palantir or not. If it was just the one stone he freed, then the Minas Tirith Palantir basically would have made a temporary connection between Denethor and Sauron, doubtless not to Denethor's benefit. But even if Aragorn freed all the stones, Denethor used it to get a look at what his people were facing -- the Orcs, the evil Men, the
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and probably the Corsairs for good measure (shades of the fate of Aegeus, there, since the ships' sails were black and Aragorn didn't bother to unfurl his new banner until he arrived at Pelennor) and that burned through all, like, two of his remaining sanity points.
******You know, we never do hear with whom it was he had those children, including the daughter who eventually marries Eomer...