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Having parted from Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan at
the end of Book III, Gandalf and Pippin ride swiftly east from Isengard
to Gondor, the southeastern land inhabited by Men and bordering
the dark region of Mordor. Gandalf and Pippin head toward Minas
Tirith, the major city of Gondor. They travel by night to elude
the searching Nazgûl—the Ringwraiths, now mounted on horrific winged
steeds that fly overhead—whose eerie cries echo throughout the land.
Gandalf and Pippin gain entrance to Minas Tirith. The
white stone city is built on seven tiered levels along one side
of an immense hill, each tier surrounded by one of seven concentric
semicircular stone walls. Upon the crown of the hill is the great
Citadel, and within the Citadel is the High Court, at the feet of
the White Tower. The sight of the iridescent city amazes Pippin.
The Hobbit notices, however, that Minas Tirith is slowly falling
The two reach the gate of the Citadel, which opens to
a court in which a pleasant green fountain trickles water off the
broken branches of a dead tree. The Tower Guards, who still wear
the ancient symbol of Elendil, an image of the White Tree, allow
Gandalf and Pippin entrance without question. Approaching the court, Gandalf
warns Pippin to watch his words and to avoid mentioning the subject
of Aragorn, who maintains a claim to the kingship of Gondor.
In the Hall of Kings, the high throne remains empty. Denethor, the
Steward (Lord) of Gondor, sits upon a black stone chair at the foot
of the steps to the throne. While his body appears proud and healthy,
he is an old man and stares blankly at his lap. Denethor holds the
broken horn of his dead son, Boromir, who died at the hands of the
Orcs in The Two Towers.
From the outset, there is a palpable yet unspoken tension between
Gandalf and Denethor. Denethor takes great interest in Pippin, however,
wishing to hear of Boromir’s last stand in defense of the hobbits.
Pippin realizes he owes Gondor and its Steward a debt; driven by
a strange impulse, the hobbit offers his sword to Gondor in service
and payment. Denethor, flattered and amused, accepts Pippin into
Denethor asks Pippin questions about the Company, deliberately ignoring
Gandalf. Pippin senses Gandalf growing angry beside him. The two
old men stare at each other with intensity. Pippin ponders Gandalf
and is perplexed about the wizard’s role and purpose. Finally, Denethor
bitterly accuses Gandalf of being a power-hungry manipulator. Denethor
says he will rule alone until the day the King returns to Gondor.
Gandalf responds that his only goal is to care for the good in Middle-earth
during the current period of evil.
After the interview, Gandalf explains to Pippin that Denethor possesses
the ability to read men’s minds. Gandalf praises Pippin for kindly
offering service to Denethor in spite of the Steward’s rudeness,
but he warns the hobbit to be wary around Denethor. Gandalf expresses
his longing for Faramir, Denethor’s other son and Boromir’s brother,
to return to Gondor.
Pippin meets a soldier, Beregond, who is instructed to
give the hobbit the passwords of the city. Looking over the city
walls, Pippin perceives—either because of a cloud wall or a distant
mountain—a deep shadow resting in the East, beyond the Anduin River
toward Mordor. Beregond expresses little hope that Gondor will survive
the ensuing conflict. The two hear the far-off cries of a flying
Nazgûl, riding a terrible steed with enormous wings that darken
Pippin descends to the outermost ring of Minas Tirith,
where Beregond’s young son, Bergil, shows the hobbit to the gate.
The captains of the Outlands arrive with reinforcements, the proudest
of whom is Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth. The reinforcements prove smaller
than expected, as the Outlands are under attack from the south by
a large army of Men of Umbar, allies of Mordor.
That night, a black cloud settles over Minas Tirith and
enshrouds it in a terrible gloom. Gandalf ominously explains to
Pippin that for some time there will be no dawn, for the Darkness
The opening chapter of Book V begins where Book III left
off in The Two Towers, immediately accelerating
and making more urgent what previously appeared to be a far-off
conflict with Sauron. As Gandalf and Pippin race eastward to the
border of Mordor, the quest shifts from a meandering journey of
self-discovery through the various realms of Middle-earth to a head-on
confrontation with the Enemy just outside the gates of Mordor.
The idea of darkness and obscurity is important in this
chapter, as Gandalf and Pippin ride to Gondor in darkness. Darkness appears
as an important element throughout much of the rest of the volume.
On one hand, the darkness is metaphorical, suggesting the protagonists’
growing sense of uncertainty and dread. Pippin only perceives a
gloom of darkness in the East, unsure whether it is a cloud wall
or a mountain shadow—a confusion that suggests a broader fear and
uncertainty regarding the imminent conflict with Sauron. On the
other hand, the darkness indicates the increasing proximity of an
actual, physical evil force. The wings of the Nazgûl’s steed darken
the sun, creating terrifying and ominous shadows on the earth below.
Gandalf claims that evil has the next move in a grand, metaphysical
game of chess. We see that evil acts as a physical substance, spreading
out over Gondor, and enveloping Minas Tirith in darkness at the
end of Chapter 1. In this regard, the natural
world itself is affected by the conflict between Gondor and Mordor,
as the apocalyptic Darkness spreads over the landscape. Gandalf’s
ominous words at the close of the chapter—“The Darkness has begun.
There will be no dawn”—create a sense of dread that propels the
The city of Minas Tirith stands on the brink of Gondor
and Mordor as a symbol of good and hope, particularly for the race
of Men. The cities of Elves and Hobbits we have seen in The
Lord of the Rings are hidden within forest glens or countryside,
offering peaceful reprieve for their visitors. Minas Tirith, in
contrast, boldly rises above ground, carved into seven circles out
of the side of a mountain—a picture of the boldness, resilience,
and lofty ambition of the race of Men. In many ancient religions,
the number seven was considered the number of perfection, and the
city’s rise from the ground suggests that it is straining upward
toward heaven. Moreover, the city is white, in stark contrast to
the darkness of Mordor, reminding us of the Christian association
of the color white with purity of spirit and recalling the fact
that Gandalf is reborn as the White Rider. In every sense, Minas
Tirith represents good and idealism, gathering together humans in
political unity with a sense of history and future progress.
However, there are many signs that the city, while aspiring toward
greatness, is not reaching its aim. Pippin notices that the tree over
the courtyard fountain is dead, its branches broken, and that the
city suffers from decay and vacancy. The image of the beautiful city
falling into decay also reminds us of Celeborn and Galadriel’s realm
of Lórien in the first volume of the novel. That realm is similarly
good, pure, and noble, yet it is losing its strength, unable to summon
an inner vitality to match its outward elegance. In this portrayal
of Minas Tirith, Tolkien draws upon the idea, frequently explored
in ancient mythologies, of a kingdom suffering decay because of
the deteriorated condition of its king. The popular story of the
Fisher King, depicted variously in the Arthurian romances, tells
of a wounded king so closely united to the land that the kingdom
remains barren and unfruitful until the king’s health is renewed.
In similar fashion, Minas Tirith’s empty houses and sad trees mirror
its downtrodden Steward, Denethor, and its empty throne, devoid
of a king.
Much like the city under his command, Denethor possesses
a bearing and an appearance that belie the presence of inner decay, paranoia,
and trepidation. This ambiguity and conflict within Denethor’s character
contrast with the simpler tensions we see in the chapter—between
light and dark, good and evil, West and East, Gondor and Mordor,
and so on. Denethor is neither wholly admirable nor wholly detestable:
he remains dignified enough to prompt Pippin to offer his service
to the Steward’s court, yet he also appears curt and distracted,
as though something suspect lurks beneath his appearance and behavior.
Furthermore, the fact that Denethor so obviously dislikes Gandalf—a
figure whom we have grown to know closely and trust unequivocally
so far in The Lord of the Rings—warns us that all
is not well with the Steward.
The encounter between Denethor and Gandalf parallels the
wizard’s earlier confrontation with Théoden in The Two Towers. Upon Gandalf’s
intervention, Théoden radically transforms from an evil, decrepit
king to an emboldened, magisterial ruler. Denethor, however, does
not take to Gandalf’s influence so readily. Whereas we have seen
that Théoden’s evil stemmed largely from the power of Saruman and
the false counsel of Wormtongue, Denethor’s dark side comes from
within. The two troubled kings embody the dual picture of evil that
is a pervasive element of Tolkien’s novel—the image of evil as that
which comes from within the human heart versus the image of evil
as that which is an external power or force.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Return of the King!