The Return of the King
Book V, Chapter 4 (continued)
From Faramir’s expedition to Osgiliath to the end of the chapter
Summary— The Siege of Gondor
“You cannot enter here. . . . Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”
The next morning, Denethor sends Faramir to protect the outlying ruins of Osgiliath, where Mordor’s armies are likely to strike first. Faramir dutifully accepts the perilous—possibly suicidal—assignment from his father. News arrives the following morning of a battle for the nearby Pelennor Fields.
The Lord of the Nazgûl, the Black Captain against whom none can stand, leads the armies from Mordor. Gandalf rides off toward Osgiliath to help fight the Black Captain. The wizard returns the next day, leading many wounded men. Faramir remains at Pelennor, trying to hold his men together to execute a safe retreat.
Not long after, the armies of Mordor approach Minas Tirith. Thousands of black-clad Men and Orcs stream onto the plains. A small, beleaguered ensemble rides before them—the last of Gondor’s rearguard in retreat. Lord Denethor, clad in armor, sends a small army of horsemen out to protect the retreat. Gandalf rides among them, using his white fire to deter the front lines of the Enemy. The retreating men reach the city safely, but one of the Nazgûl’s poisoned arrows strikes Faramir.
Sauron’s armies besiege the city in a vale of fire, cutting off all roads. They use huge catapults to lob blazing missiles into the first ring of the city. As the forces of Minas Tirith try to put these fires out, they realize to their horror that the Enemy’s missiles are the burning heads of those who have died defending Osgiliath.
Stricken with sudden bitterness and grief, Denethor locks himself in the Tower with Faramir, who is now delirious with fever from his arrow wound. Pippin looks on as Denethor weeps, cursing Gandalf and bewailing the end of his lineage as Steward of Gondor. As Denethor is holed up, Gandalf takes over the defense of Minas Tirith. The army of Mordor launches an attack on the outer wall of the city. Denethor instructs the desperate messengers who arrive in his court that everyone in the city should give up and burn in the fires.
Denethor calls for his servants. He has Faramir carried out of the Citadel to the Hall of Kings, where Gondor’s leaders are laid to rest. Denethor places Faramir on a marble table and calls for dry wood and a torch. Pippin warns the servants not to obey Denethor’s orders, as it is clear that the Steward has gone mad. Pippin breaks the rule of the Tower Guard by leaving his post. He sends Beregond up to the Hall of Kings to try to intervene with Denethor, and then the hobbit goes in frantic search of Gandalf.
The armies of Mordor, led by the Lord of the Nazgûl, approach the gate of Minas Tirith with a great battering ram. The servants of the Enemy strike the great iron door three times. On the third strike, the door shatters. The Black Captain enters the first ring of the city, and all flee in terror before him. Pippin watches as Gandalf alone stands before the Black Captain. Gandalf orders the Lord of the Nazgûl to return to Mordor—to nothingness—but the Ringwraith laughs. He throws back his hood to reveal a crown on a headless body. His sword bursts into flame, ready to strike. Suddenly, a cock crows, and a great clamor of horns emanates from the north. The Riders of Rohan have arrived.
As some commentators have observed, one of Tolkien’s great strengths in The Lord of the Rings is his ability to write convincingly about war. Tolkien not only fought and sustained injury in World War I, but he also wrote his novel in the years surrounding World War II—a war in which Germany bombed the heart of England. Tolkien writes about the battle generally, without graphic detail and only briefly from the viewpoint of those actually fighting. As such, his descriptions of war maintain a refreshing sense of perspective. “The Siege of Gondor” is narrated in the usual third person, but it is limited to the perspective of the chapter’s only hobbit, Pippin. We are not occupied with Pippin’s thoughts and emotions; the only information available to us is that which Pippin overhears in Denethor’s court, discusses with Gandalf, or observes as might a citizen of Minas Tirith. From this perspective, we watch from afar as retreating men stumble frantically for the city gates, their pursuers close behind. We learn in horror, alongside the occupants of Minas Tirith, that the Enemy’s firebombs are not actually bombs, but human heads. This restricted knowledge of events increases our sense of suspense and fear. Tolkien’s account seems realistic, for it depicts war against the backdrop of the human city.
Recalling the image of Nero fiddling as Rome burned, Dene-thor’s actions in the midst of impending doom reveal much about his character. While a war for the freedom of Middle-earth rages outside Gondor’s walls, Denethor turns his attention inward, locking himself in the Citadel and mourning his own demise. Denethor desires complete power or none at all; with the destruction of Minas Tirith seemingly at hand, he feels he must exert control over the only things he is still able to control—his and Faramir’s lives. Denethor believes that he would have safely hidden the Ring had Boromir procured it for him. Gandalf, however, notes that Denethor, like Boromir, would have coveted and used the Ring for himself. In truth, Denethor appears to want to use the power of the Ring to return glory to Gondor. Denethor’s desire for the Ring leads to his descent into madness, paranoia, and insecurity. As critic Rose Zimbardo notes, the Ring’s wicked effect on individuals in The Lord of the Rings is a loss of personal identity. Just as those who wear the Ring become invisible, so those who focus their energies on obtaining the Ring lose their sense of self in the overwhelming desire to harness power to control others.
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