Suddenly, a massive black beast swoops down upon Théoden, hitting his horse with a poisoned dart. The steed rears up, and the king falls beneath his horse, crushed. The Lord of the Nazgûl looms above on the back of his flying steed. Terrified, Théoden’s guards flee in panic—all but Dernhelm. Thrown from his horse but unharmed, Dernhelm challenges the Black Captain. Merry, crawling on all fours in a daze, hears Dernhelm speak, and he recognizes the warrior’s voice. Dernhelm throws back his hood and reveals to the Nazgûl that he is in fact Éowyn, the Lady of Rohan, in disguise.
The winged steed strikes at Éowyn, but she deals it a fatal wound. The Black Captain leaps off his dead mount and shatters Éowyn’s shield with a blow from his club, breaking her arm. He raises his spiked club again, but just before he strikes, Merry sneaks up behind him and stabs the Nazgûl through the leg. Bowed over, the creature lets out a terrible shriek. Éowyn, with her final strength, slashes at his face with her sword, the blade shattering upon impact. The Black Captain’s armor falls shapeless at Éowyn’s feet, and his crown rolls away. Éowyn collapses on top of the Nazgûl’s remains.
The dying King Théoden appoints Éomer as his heir. Éomer, seeing his sister Éowyn’s fallen body, leads the Rohirrim in a furious attack. The men of Minas Tirith, led by Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, emerge from the city and drive the enemy from the gate. Théoden’s body is taken to the city, along with Éowyn, but Imrahil alerts her rescuers that she is not dead.
The allies of Mordor reassemble as new soldiers of Sauron arrive from Osgiliath. The men of Rohan and Gondor dwindle. As the tide turns against Gondor again, a fleet of black ships appears on the Anduin River. The defenders of Gondor turn for the city at the sight of the enemy ships. Éomer, though he realizes he is defeated, continues to fight bravely, laughing in a mix of hope and despair.
Suddenly, the frontmost black ship unfurls a banner bearing the white tree of Gondor and the seven stars and crown of Elendil—the symbols of the ancient kingdom of Gondor. Aragorn has arrived in the black ships, along with the Rangers of the North, Legolas, Gimli, and reinforcements from the southern kingdoms. Wielding the legendary sword Andúril, reforged and burning like a star, Aragorn leads a fierce battle to save Gondor. The armies of Mordor are defeated, and Aragorn, Éomer, and Imrahil return to the city.
This chapter marks a turning point in The Lord of the Rings. The conflict established in The Fellowship of the Ring remains unresolved, but a great tension accumulated over the second and third volumes of the novel finds some resolution in these chapters. The forces of Men from the west have been slowly gathering and moving steadily to the east, just as the armies and allies of Sauron have equally organized and spread west, marked by the ever-expanding cloud of Darkness over the land. Gandalf’s earlier metaphor of the chess game is apt, for the opposing forces have arrayed themselves and now make strategic moves in turn. In terms of chess, the armies of Gondor successfully capture Mordor’s queen by killing the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Black Captain. The Darkness overhead dissipates as Mordor’s forces retreat to huddle around their stationary king, Sauron.
Gondor’s ultimate salvation, however, arrives in a manner that upsets the black-against-white, East-against-West conflict. Aragorn emerges from the South, aided by a sea breeze that the characters sense throughout the chapter. Moreover, he comes riding in Mordor’s own dark ships, complicating the distinction between the forces of good and evil. Aragorn’s unusual entrance via the Paths of the Dead suggests that his claim to the throne extends over both East and West, the living and the dead. Furthermore, Aragorn’s sword, Andúril—reforged after centuries of remaining broken—symbolizes the reunification of the lands and peoples Sauron has divided.
As the most detailed account of hand-to-hand combat in Tolkien’s third volume, this chapter offers numerous portrayals of heroic courage on the part of Théoden and his Riders. Personally, Tolkien was wary of the archetype of courage found in the heroes of the Norse sagas and myths he studied. Tolkien commented that heroic courage was a “potent but terrifying solution.” The blind or impulsive courage of the unrestrained hero may be effective, but it is not necessarily admirable. Tolkien instead prefers to emphasize the heroism of those whose courageous deeds arise from their ideals and a sense of moral obligation. Éomer demonstrates great bravery in his maniacal drive to keep fighting even after Gondor seems lost. Yet the true heroes of the battle are those who sacrifice their lives in combat, not because it comes naturally, but because of their sense of responsibility and commitment.
Tolkien explores the ideas of valor and self-sacrifice by casting two unlikely candidates—Éowyn and Merry—in the role of hero. Both characters represent somewhat marginalized segments of the population of Middle-earth—Hobbits and women. The conspicuous scarcity of women in The Lord of the Rings highlights the irony of Éowyn’s sacrifice for Théoden. The pampered and repressed Lady offers her life for Théoden and manages to slay the terrifying Lord of the Nazgûl, whom no man has been able to defeat. Éowyn, to secure the opportunity to act, has had to show cunning, care, and dedication to the cause of Rohan. Ironically, to become a hero she has had to resort to deceit, disguising herself to show that her deeds arise from the quality of her character rather than from the privilege of her position or her gender.
Merry also plays a role in slaying the Black Captain, though his heroism emerges from a sense of moral obligation and duty rather than stealth or cunning. When Merry and Dernhelm (Éowyn) are thrown from their horse before the Nazgûl, Merry finds himself crawling on the ground, crying and whimpering. In his heart, he berates himself for his lack of courage, thinking, “King’s man! . . . You must stay by him.” When Merry sees the Nazgûl strike Éowyn, he responds out of pity, wonder, and the “slow-kindled courage of his race.” Merry’s courage represents Tolkien’s ideal of heroism—unobsequious, reflective, and unexpected. As T.A. Shippey notes, Tolkien’s ideal—as represented in the novel’s main protagonists, Sam and Frodo—is Hobbit heroism, not human heroism.