Having parted from Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan at the end of Book III, Gandalf and Pippin ride swiftly east from Isengard to Gondor, the southeastern land inhabited by Men and bordering the dark region of Mordor. Gandalf and Pippin head toward Minas Tirith, the major city of Gondor. They travel by night to elude the searching Nazgûl—the Ringwraiths, now mounted on horrific winged steeds that fly overhead—whose eerie cries echo throughout the land.
Gandalf and Pippin gain entrance to Minas Tirith. The white stone city is built on seven tiered levels along one side of an immense hill, each tier surrounded by one of seven concentric semicircular stone walls. Upon the crown of the hill is the great Citadel, and within the Citadel is the High Court, at the feet of the White Tower. The sight of the iridescent city amazes Pippin. The Hobbit notices, however, that Minas Tirith is slowly falling into decay.
The two reach the gate of the Citadel, which opens to a court in which a pleasant green fountain trickles water off the broken branches of a dead tree. The Tower Guards, who still wear the ancient symbol of Elendil, an image of the White Tree, allow Gandalf and Pippin entrance without question. Approaching the court, Gandalf warns Pippin to watch his words and to avoid mentioning the subject of Aragorn, who maintains a claim to the kingship of Gondor.
In the Hall of Kings, the high throne remains empty. Denethor, the Steward (Lord) of Gondor, sits upon a black stone chair at the foot of the steps to the throne. While his body appears proud and healthy, he is an old man and stares blankly at his lap. Denethor holds the broken horn of his dead son, Boromir, who died at the hands of the Orcs in The Two Towers.
From the outset, there is a palpable yet unspoken tension between Gandalf and Denethor. Denethor takes great interest in Pippin, however, wishing to hear of Boromir’s last stand in defense of the hobbits. Pippin realizes he owes Gondor and its Steward a debt; driven by a strange impulse, the hobbit offers his sword to Gondor in service and payment. Denethor, flattered and amused, accepts Pippin into his Guard.
Denethor asks Pippin questions about the Company, deliberately ignoring Gandalf. Pippin senses Gandalf growing angry beside him. The two old men stare at each other with intensity. Pippin ponders Gandalf and is perplexed about the wizard’s role and purpose. Finally, Denethor bitterly accuses Gandalf of being a power-hungry manipulator. Denethor says he will rule alone until the day the King returns to Gondor. Gandalf responds that his only goal is to care for the good in Middle-earth during the current period of evil.
After the interview, Gandalf explains to Pippin that Denethor possesses the ability to read men’s minds. Gandalf praises Pippin for kindly offering service to Denethor in spite of the Steward’s rudeness, but he warns the hobbit to be wary around Denethor. Gandalf expresses his longing for Faramir, Denethor’s other son and Boromir’s brother, to return to Gondor.
Pippin meets a soldier, Beregond, who is instructed to give the hobbit the passwords of the city. Looking over the city walls, Pippin perceives—either because of a cloud wall or a distant mountain—a deep shadow resting in the East, beyond the Anduin River toward Mordor. Beregond expresses little hope that Gondor will survive the ensuing conflict. The two hear the far-off cries of a flying Nazgûl, riding a terrible steed with enormous wings that darken the sun.
Pippin descends to the outermost ring of Minas Tirith, where Beregond’s young son, Bergil, shows the hobbit to the gate. The captains of the Outlands arrive with reinforcements, the proudest of whom is Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth. The reinforcements prove smaller than expected, as the Outlands are under attack from the south by a large army of Men of Umbar, allies of Mordor.
That night, a black cloud settles over Minas Tirith and enshrouds it in a terrible gloom. Gandalf ominously explains to Pippin that for some time there will be no dawn, for the Darkness has begun.
The opening chapter of Book V begins where Book III left off in The Two Towers, immediately accelerating and making more urgent what previously appeared to be a far-off conflict with Sauron. As Gandalf and Pippin race eastward to the border of Mordor, the quest shifts from a meandering journey of self-discovery through the various realms of Middle-earth to a head-on confrontation with the Enemy just outside the gates of Mordor.
The idea of darkness and obscurity is important in this chapter, as Gandalf and Pippin ride to Gondor in darkness. Darkness appears as an important element throughout much of the rest of the volume. On one hand, the darkness is metaphorical, suggesting the protagonists’ growing sense of uncertainty and dread. Pippin only perceives a gloom of darkness in the East, unsure whether it is a cloud wall or a mountain shadow—a confusion that suggests a broader fear and uncertainty regarding the imminent conflict with Sauron. On the other hand, the darkness indicates the increasing proximity of an actual, physical evil force. The wings of the Nazgûl’s steed darken the sun, creating terrifying and ominous shadows on the earth below. Gandalf claims that evil has the next move in a grand, metaphysical game of chess. We see that evil acts as a physical substance, spreading out over Gondor, and enveloping Minas Tirith in darkness at the end of Chapter 1. In this regard, the natural world itself is affected by the conflict between Gondor and Mordor, as the apocalyptic Darkness spreads over the landscape. Gandalf’s ominous words at the close of the chapter—“The Darkness has begun. There will be no dawn”—create a sense of dread that propels the narrative.
The city of Minas Tirith stands on the brink of Gondor and Mordor as a symbol of good and hope, particularly for the race of Men. The cities of Elves and Hobbits we have seen in The Lord of the Rings are hidden within forest glens or countryside, offering peaceful reprieve for their visitors. Minas Tirith, in contrast, boldly rises above ground, carved into seven circles out of the side of a mountain—a picture of the boldness, resilience, and lofty ambition of the race of Men. In many ancient religions, the number seven was considered the number of perfection, and the city’s rise from the ground suggests that it is straining upward toward heaven. Moreover, the city is white, in stark contrast to the darkness of Mordor, reminding us of the Christian association of the color white with purity of spirit and recalling the fact that Gandalf is reborn as the White Rider. In every sense, Minas Tirith represents good and idealism, gathering together humans in political unity with a sense of history and future progress.
However, there are many signs that the city, while aspiring toward greatness, is not reaching its aim. Pippin notices that the tree over the courtyard fountain is dead, its branches broken, and that the city suffers from decay and vacancy. The image of the beautiful city falling into decay also reminds us of Celeborn and Galadriel’s realm of Lórien in the first volume of the novel. That realm is similarly good, pure, and noble, yet it is losing its strength, unable to summon an inner vitality to match its outward elegance. In this portrayal of Minas Tirith, Tolkien draws upon the idea, frequently explored in ancient mythologies, of a kingdom suffering decay because of the deteriorated condition of its king. The popular story of the Fisher King, depicted variously in the Arthurian romances, tells of a wounded king so closely united to the land that the kingdom remains barren and unfruitful until the king’s health is renewed. In similar fashion, Minas Tirith’s empty houses and sad trees mirror its downtrodden Steward, Denethor, and its empty throne, devoid of a king.
Much like the city under his command, Denethor possesses a bearing and an appearance that belie the presence of inner decay, paranoia, and trepidation. This ambiguity and conflict within Denethor’s character contrast with the simpler tensions we see in the chapter—between light and dark, good and evil, West and East, Gondor and Mordor, and so on. Denethor is neither wholly admirable nor wholly detestable: he remains dignified enough to prompt Pippin to offer his service to the Steward’s court, yet he also appears curt and distracted, as though something suspect lurks beneath his appearance and behavior. Furthermore, the fact that Denethor so obviously dislikes Gandalf—a figure whom we have grown to know closely and trust unequivocally so far in The Lord of the Rings—warns us that all is not well with the Steward.
The encounter between Denethor and Gandalf parallels the wizard’s earlier confrontation with Théoden in The Two Towers. Upon Gandalf’s intervention, Théoden radically transforms from an evil, decrepit king to an emboldened, magisterial ruler. Denethor, however, does not take to Gandalf’s influence so readily. Whereas we have seen that Théoden’s evil stemmed largely from the power of Saruman and the false counsel of Wormtongue, Denethor’s dark side comes from within. The two troubled kings embody the dual picture of evil that is a pervasive element of Tolkien’s novel—the image of evil as that which comes from within the human heart versus the image of evil as that which is an external power or force.