The Return of the King

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

Book V, Chapter 4 (continued)

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.

Analysis

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 wrotehis 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.