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.