As Gandalf and Pippin ride toward Minas Tirith, Aragorn, Théoden, and the Riders of Rohan return from Isengard. Aragorn cryptically explains to Gimli, Legolas, and Merry that he must proceed to Minas Tirith by a darker, as yet undetermined route. On the way to Rohan, the group encounters thirty Dúnedain of the North—Rangers and friends of Aragorn, including Elrond’s two sons, Elladan and Elrohir. The Dúnedain are gruff but proud, clad almost entirely in gray. They have received a mysterious message requesting that they come to Aragorn’s aid. Théoden welcomes the Dúnedain to his company, and Elrohir conveys a message to Aragorn from Rivendell: “If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead.” After a time, the group reaches Helm’s Deep, the refuge of the Riders of Rohan. Théoden asks Merry to ride with him for the rest of the journey. Merry is delighted, as he feels out of place among the Riders and wishes to be useful. He offers Théoden his sword in service of Rohan, and the king gladly accepts.
As Théoden prepares the group to resume the journey, the group suddenly realizes that Aragorn is missing. He reappears exhausted and sorrowful. Aragorn knows that the Riders will not arrive at Minas Tirith in time. He has decided to take the Dúnedain with him to Minas Tirith via a terrifying road—the Paths of the Dead. It is said that no living man may travel the Paths, but Aragorn says that the proper heir of Elendil may safely pass. Meanwhile, Théoden and the Riders take a slower, safer path east through the mountains to Edoras.
Aragorn informs Legolas and Gimli that he has consulted the palantír, the Stone of Orthanc that Saruman used to communicate with Sauron. Aragorn has confronted Sauron through the palantír and claims he has successfully subdued the stone’s power to his own will. In doing so, however, Aragorn has alerted Sauron to his existence as Isildur’s heir to the throne of Gondor. Gimli guesses Sauron will now release his forces sooner because he knows Isildur’s long-awaited heir exists. Aragorn, however, hopes such a hasty move may weaken the Enemy’s attack.
Aragorn explains the history of the Paths of the Dead, citing a legendary song. In the early days of Gondor, Isildur set a great black stone upon the hill of Erech. Upon this stone, the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur. When Sauron returned and waged war on Gondor, Isildur called upon his allies for aid. The Men of the Mountains broke their oath, as they had begun to worship Sauron. Isildur condemned the Men never to rest until their oath was fulfilled. According to the verse, the Sleepless Dead, or Oathbreakers, must fulfill their oath to Isildur’s heir when he returns to call them from the Stone of Erech. Rallying the Rangers, Aragorn rides through the plains of Rohan and reaches Dunharrow by morning. Théoden has not yet arrived, but his daughter, Éowyn, begs Aragorn to avoid the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn refuses.
Outside Dunharrow lies the entrance to the Paths of the Dead, which run beneath the mountain. Spurred only by the strength of Aragorn’s will, the Company enters the dark path. Gimli is nearly paralyzed with fear, as he can hear the whispering voices of an unseen host following the Company in the dark. At a clearing, Aragorn turns and speaks to the Dead, summoning them to follow him to the Stone of Erech.
After creeping in the darkness for what seems like ages, the Company emerges from the Paths and rides quickly through the mountain fields with the Men, horses, and banners of the Dead following behind. The inhabitants of the surrounding countryside flee in fear, calling Aragorn the “King of the Dead.” Arriving at the large, black Stone of Erech, the legion of the Dead—the Oathbreakers—announce their allegiance to Aragorn. Aragorn unfurls a black flag and pronounces himself the heir of Isildur’s kingdom. The Company rides on to the Great River, Anduin.
The events of the first three chapters of The Return of the King follow each other in parallel, tracing the separate paths of Gandalf, Aragorn, and Théoden, with their respective parties, in the moments leading up to the day the Darkness settles. These synchronized chapters convey the experience of parallax—the observation of the same cosmic or heavenly event from different locations. Merry and Pippin watch the Darkness arrive from opposite ends of Middle-earth. Their different vantage points further emphasize the vast effect of Sauron’s evil on the natural world. While each chapter is narrated in the third person, the narration is typically limited to the perspective of each group’s most diminutive member: Pippin at Minas Tirith, Gimli in the Paths of the Dead, and Merry with the Riders of Rohan. Tolkien’s narrative voice implies that the most important aspect of the quest and the war against Mordor is not the outcome of these cataclysmic events, but each character’s personal, subjective experience of the events—even that of the smallest or most frightened character.
This chapter also highlights the importance of song and myth, a motif that surfaces frequently throughout the novel. We may tend to think of songs and stories as entertainment to help pass the time, separate from the urgent and practical matters of everyday life. But in the early cultures Tolkien studied and upon which he modeled Middle-earth—cultures dominated by the spoken rather than the written word, before the advent of widespread literacy—songs and stories were vital and indispensable tools. They conveyed information that was not recorded anywhere else, keeping that legacy alive for future generations. We see the importance of song here when Aragorn cites an ancient song to teach his companions about the Paths of the Dead and the menacing Oathbreakers. When Aragorn emerges from the Paths, one could can say that he literally owes his success to his memory of the songs and the information conveyed in them.
Tolkien often insisted that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory—a symbolic or contemporary rendering of established tales and archetypes. Nevertheless, the mystical trip through the Paths of the Dead depicts Aragorn as a Christ figure, and the events of Chapter 2 as a whole reflect the Passion of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Gospels. Traditionally, the early Christian church affirmed that Christ, after his death on the cross, descended into hell to redeem those believers who had already died and to preach to the lost souls held captive there. After doing so, Christ rose again on earth, eventually to ascend into heaven. Similarly, Aragorn descends into the underground Paths of the Dead, where he speaks to the animated spirits of the Dead. He leads the Dead out into the waking world, where they affirm their devotion to Aragorn, renouncing their broken promise to Isildur at the altar-like Stone of Erech. Like the Bible’s foreshadowing of Christ in the Old Testament, Elrohir’s secret message and the legendary song about the Paths of the Dead act as prophetic underpinnings for Aragorn’s deed; Aragorn himself has a keen sense of the ominous task that he “must” do. Moreover, Aragorn repeatedly affirms that his feats are accomplished not by heroic skill, but by divine right and by the strength of his will.
The presence of these biblical parallels does not mean that Tolkien misrepresented his intentions for The Lord of the Rings. The comparisons to Christ are far from a systematic allegory, and more than one character fits the role of a Christ figure in the trilogy. Gandalf also recalls Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection when he dies in Book II and returns in Book III as Gandalf the White, purified and godlike. Frodo and Sam perform additional sacrificial duties in their quest to save and redeem Middle-earth. Rather than create Christian parallels, Tolkien wanted to create in The Lord of the Rings an ancient mythology for contemporary England. The history of Middle-earth in the novel and in the tales of The Silmarillion depicts a pre-Christian world before the flowering of humankind’s dominance. As mythology, The Lord of the Rings promotes a specific moral and religious understanding, implying that the Christian principles of sacrifice, redemption, and forgiveness are central to the way the world is and has always worked—even before the appearance of Christianity as a religion.