The Return of the King

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

Book V, Chapter 1

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.