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The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

Book V, Chapter 9

Book V, Chapters 7–8

Book V, Chapter 10

Summary — The Last Debate

Gimli and Legolas find Merry and Pippin in the Houses of Healing. The hobbits eagerly ask questions about the Paths of the Dead. Gimli refuses to speak of the experience, but Legolas describes it. According to Legolas, after setting out from the Paths of the Dead, Aragorn led the Company and the army of the Dead to the Great River, Anduin. Invading fleets of Sauron’s allies prevented thousands of potential defenders from reaching Minas Tirith. At Aragorn’s command, the legion of Dead swept over the Enemy’s ships, causing the terrified sailors to throw themselves overboard. Aragorn released the Dead from their curse and then, gathering the local Men of Lamedon, set sail for Minas Tirith. At the end of the tale, Gimli and Legolas express their wonder that Mordor’s allies were overthrown by darkness and fear.

While the four companions share their stories, Aragorn holds a meeting of the lords in his tent outside the city. Gandalf tells the assembled captains that Mordor has not yet unleashed the greater part of its army. Though Minas Tirith has fought back the first assault, the next will be much stronger. In addition, the Ring of Power is now somewhere within the borders of Mordor. Should Sauron seize the Ring, all hope would be lost. Gandalf suggests an assault on the Black Gate of Mordor, reasoning that it is impossible to defeat Mordor without destroying the Ring, and that the Eye of Sauron must be diverted from the Ring-bearer as long as possible. Gandalf predicts that Sauron will think that Aragorn has taken possession of the Ring and, rash with pride, has chosen to attack Mordor. Gandalf believes that while attacking Mordor may prove fatal, it is their duty to defend against evil while it remains in their power to do so. The Captains agree to this plan.

Analysis

Legolas’s tale is a departure from Tolkien’s typical habit of depicting events firsthand, as they unfold. We hear the story of the Dead’s assault on the forces of Mordor secondhand rather than directly through a narrator. This storytelling technique reminds us of the importance of oral tradition in the ancient cultures Tolkien studied and of the author’s attempt to recreate this tradition in his portrait of Middle-earth. We sense that one day, many generations later, Legolas’s tale will become a folktale or a myth, part of the cultural legacy of the Elves or Men. In an interesting twist, Gimli refuses to talk about what happened on the Paths of the Dead; while the Elf is willing to narrate in great detail, the Dwarf absolutely refuses all comment. Gimli states that he wishes to keep the memories of his journey on the Paths of the Dead in darkness forever and never bring them to the light of day. Hearing Legolas narrate the tale that Gimli refuses to utter reminds us of the fragility of the oral tradition—a story may be lost forever if it is not retold.

Tolkien also complicates the notion of good against evil in these chapters, exploring the fact that the Enemy, just like the forces of Gondor, experiences fear. Legolas, as he narrates the tale of the routing of Mordor’s forces by the legions of the Dead, expresses his amazement that the troops of the Dark Lord were overcome by simple terror. The Dead overwhelmed the Enemy not with military maneuvers or well-aimed arrows, but by appearing on the ships. That even the soldiers of Mordor are scared reminds us that the battle between good and evil in The Lord of the Rings, however cosmic in scope, is still a battle between imperfect mortal creatures with their own limitations. Similarly, Gandalf highlights Sauron’s limitations in the Dark Lord’s assumption that Aragorn took control of the Ring, and that Aragorn will use it to attack Mordor vaingloriously. Sauron is able to imagine only the selfish and aggressive course of action, which is not the option the Fellowship chooses. Sauron’s blindness to the possibility of selflessness and sacrifice—to the idea that someone might destroy the Ring willingly, giving up access to its power—is perhaps the only failing that the forces of good can exploit to overthrow him.

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