Two days later, the armies of the West set out for Mordor, numbering seven thousand. At Imrahil’s urging, a small force remains in Minas Tirith to defend the city. Though the injured Merry cannot go to battle, Pippin marches as a soldier of Gondor. The army passes Osgiliath and makes camp; the horsemen move ahead, but they encounter no opposing forces. As the army draws closer to Mordor, Gandalf instructs the heralds to sound the trumpets and declare the coming of the King of Gondor. The army’s stirring and brazen cheers meet little answer from Sauron aside from an eerie, watchful silence.
On the second day of its march, the army is nearly ambushed by a strong force of Orcs, but Aragorn and the Captains stop the ambush. Several Nazgûl begin to fly overhead, following the progress of the army. As Aragorn’s army nears Mordor on the fourth day, the younger troops become paralyzed with fear. In pity, Aragorn permits them to turn back, but many decide to stay. On the sixth day, the host approaches Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor, which is surrounded by reeking pools of mud and filth. Aragorn arranges his army upon two great hills.
Gandalf and Aragorn ride toward Morannon with a small envoy, including Gimli, Legolas, Pippin, Éomer, Imrahil, and Elrond’s sons—representatives of each of the races of Middle-earth that are opposed to Sauron. The envoy calls for Sauron to emerge and submit to the justice of Gondor. After a long period of silence, the Lieutenant of the Dark Tower emerges with an embassy of black-clad soldiers. Although a living man, the Lieutenant has a face like a skull, and fire burns in his eye sockets and nostrils.
The Lieutenant laughingly mocks Aragorn and his army. When Gandalf admonishes him, the Lieutenant draws from his cloak Frodo’s coat of mithril, Sam’s sword, and a gray Elven cloak. The Lieutenant informs the anxious Captains that Sauron will spare the life of the captured Hobbit spy if they agree to certain terms. Gandalf, with a look of defeat, asks for the terms. The Lieutenant says that Gondor and its allies must never attack Mordor, that Gondor must become a tributary to Mordor, and that a suitable captain from Mordor must rule in Isengard over Rohan. Gandalf utterly rejects these terms.
The Lieutenant feels a sudden grip of terror at Gandalf’s rebuke. He turns and retreats to the Black Gate. As he does, the host of Mordor—much larger than that of Gondor—pours out of the Gate. Drums roll, fires blaze, and the sun turns red. A great company of brutal hill-trolls charges into Pippin’s company. One of the trolls pounces on Beregond, but Pippin stabs the troll with his sword. The troll topples forward and crushes the startled hobbit. Pippin begins to lose consciousness. He bids farewell to the world, and just as everything turns dark, Pippin hears a great clamor of voices shouting, “The Eagles are coming!”
As the famous Christian writer and friend of Tolkien C.S. Lewis observed, the chief differences between the good and evil characters in The Lord of the Rings involve imagination and logic. The evil forces, says Lewis, cannot imagine themselves doing anything else but evil; for them, evil is the only logical option—a necessary and impulsive inclination. The good, in contrast, can conceive of doing evil, but they choose to do good; for them, life is a series of free choices. As such, the good have the power to choose to take actions that are spontaneous or unexpected—a power that Sauron does not seem to have. Indeed, we see this ability to choose clearly in this chapter. Sauron expects a challenge from the Captains of the West, assuming that the new Ring-bearer—whom Sauron believes to be Aragorn—is moving in dangerous haste, driven by the vision of power that the Ring has surely fed to his ego. Greed backed by violence is the only line of reasoning Sauron can understand. He cannot imagine that the armies of the West might march toward Mordor as a smokescreen or with the motive of personal sacrifice.
This ability of the forces of good to foil Sauron’s expectations sets the ground for the deep sense of irony that pervades the closing chapters of Book V. Legolas and Gimli, in the account of their journey, note the irony that Aragorn has defeated Mordor’s forces on the Anduin River with the very spirits of the Dead who themselves once worshipped Sauron. In a strategic sense, the march to Mordor is ironic in two ways: first, an opposing force would approach enemy territory shouting and singing their claim over the land; second, Sauron thinks he is cunningly luring Aragorn’s forces in, when it is actually Aragorn’s forces who approach Mordor of their own accord, with the intention of playing into Sauron’s hands.
The deepest irony of this section lies in the confrontation with the Lieutenant before the Black Gate. For one, we know that the Lieutenant’s bold words are only a show. We recall that in the final moments of The Two Towers, Sam cast aside his sword in favor of Frodo’s, and that the Orcs did not kill Frodo but only disrobed him of his mithril coat. Armed with his lies, the Lieutenant does not expect to be so coldly dismissed by a military force only one-tenth the size of his own. Gandalf uses a double entendre to toy with the Lieutenant’s expectations: when the Lieutenant instructs the wizard to take or leave his demands, Gandalf shouts, “[T]hese we will take!” and takes the coat, cloak, and sword from the Lieutenant. Gandalf’s spontaneous verbal irony yields an equally spontaneous reaction from the Lieutenant, whose look of sudden fear betrays his attempt to maintain his proud and evil demeanor.
Gandalf’s words are not merely rhetorical, though, for they remain consistent with the wizard’s overall approach to confronting evil throughout The Lord of the Rings. Both before the Balrog in the Mines of Moria and before the Lord of the Nazgûl at the gates of Minas Tirith, Gandalf abandons his formidable magic powers in favor of the power of words, confronting his enemies with speech and commanding them to turn from their violent intentions. Here, Gandalf similarly commands the Lieutenant, yelling, “Begone!” The wizard’s authoritative words offer his adversaries the opportunity to choose between doing evil and relenting toward the side of good. In this regard, Gandalf implies that good and evil are not diametrically opposed forces or powers in the natural world, but rather two choices available to the mind and the will.