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As Gandalf and Pippin ride toward Minas Tirith, Aragorn, Théoden,
and the Riders of Rohan return from Isengard. Aragorn cryptically
explains to Gimli, Legolas, and Merry that he must proceed to Minas
Tirith by a darker, as yet undetermined route. On the way to Rohan,
the group encounters thirty Dúnedain of the North—Rangers and friends
of Aragorn, including Elrond’s two sons, Elladan and Elrohir. The
Dúnedain are gruff but proud, clad almost entirely in gray. They
have received a mysterious message requesting that they come to
Aragorn’s aid. Théoden welcomes the Dúnedain to his company, and
Elrohir conveys a message to Aragorn from Rivendell: “If thou art
in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead.” After a time, the group
reaches Helm’s Deep, the refuge of the Riders of Rohan. Théoden
asks Merry to ride with him for the rest of the journey. Merry is
delighted, as he feels out of place among the Riders and wishes
to be useful. He offers Théoden his sword in service of Rohan, and
the king gladly accepts.
As Théoden prepares the group to resume the journey, the
group suddenly realizes that Aragorn is missing. He reappears exhausted and
sorrowful. Aragorn knows that the Riders will not arrive at Minas
Tirith in time. He has decided to take the Dúnedain with him to
Minas Tirith via a terrifying road—the Paths of the Dead. It is said
that no living man may travel the Paths, but Aragorn says that the
proper heir of Elendil may safely pass. Meanwhile, Théoden and the
Riders take a slower, safer path east through the mountains to Edoras.
Aragorn informs Legolas and Gimli that he has consulted
the palantír, the Stone of Orthanc that Saruman
used to communicate with Sauron. Aragorn has confronted Sauron through
the palantír and claims he has successfully subdued
the stone’s power to his own will. In doing so, however, Aragorn
has alerted Sauron to his existence as Isildur’s heir to the throne
of Gondor. Gimli guesses Sauron will now release his forces sooner
because he knows Isildur’s long-awaited heir exists. Aragorn, however,
hopes such a hasty move may weaken the Enemy’s attack.
Aragorn explains the history of the Paths of the Dead,
citing a legendary song. In the early days of Gondor, Isildur set
a great black stone upon the hill of Erech. Upon this stone, the
King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur. When Sauron returned
and waged war on Gondor, Isildur called upon his allies for aid.
The Men of the Mountains broke their oath, as they had begun to
worship Sauron. Isildur condemned the Men never to rest until their
oath was fulfilled. According to the verse, the Sleepless Dead,
or Oathbreakers, must fulfill their oath to Isildur’s heir when
he returns to call them from the Stone of Erech. Rallying the Rangers,
Aragorn rides through the plains of Rohan and reaches Dunharrow
by morning. Théoden has not yet arrived, but his daughter, Éowyn,
begs Aragorn to avoid the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn refuses.
Outside Dunharrow lies the entrance to the Paths of the
Dead, which run beneath the mountain. Spurred only by the strength
of Aragorn’s will, the Company enters the dark path. Gimli is nearly paralyzed
with fear, as he can hear the whispering voices of an unseen host
following the Company in the dark. At a clearing, Aragorn turns
and speaks to the Dead, summoning them to follow him to the Stone
After creeping in the darkness for what seems like ages,
the Company emerges from the Paths and rides quickly through the
mountain fields with the Men, horses, and banners of the Dead following behind.
The inhabitants of the surrounding countryside flee in fear, calling
Aragorn the “King of the Dead.” Arriving at the large, black Stone
of Erech, the legion of the Dead—the Oathbreakers—announce their
allegiance to Aragorn. Aragorn unfurls a black flag and pronounces
himself the heir of Isildur’s kingdom. The Company rides on to the
Great River, Anduin.
The events of the first three chapters of The
Return of the King follow each other in parallel, tracing
the separate paths of Gandalf, Aragorn, and Théoden, with their
respective parties, in the moments leading up to the day the Darkness
settles. These synchronized chapters convey the experience of parallax—the
observation of the same cosmic or heavenly event from different
locations. Merry and Pippin watch the Darkness arrive from opposite
ends of Middle-earth. Their different vantage points further emphasize
the vast effect of Sauron’s evil on the natural world. While each
chapter is narrated in the third person, the narration is typically
limited to the perspective of each group’s most diminutive member:
Pippin at Minas Tirith, Gimli in the Paths of the Dead, and Merry
with the Riders of Rohan. Tolkien’s narrative voice implies that
the most important aspect of the quest and the war against Mordor
is not the outcome of these cataclysmic events, but each character’s
personal, subjective experience of the events—even that of the smallest
or most frightened character.
This chapter also highlights the importance of song and
myth, a motif that surfaces frequently throughout the novel. We
may tend to think of songs and stories as entertainment to help
pass the time, separate from the urgent and practical matters of
everyday life. But in the early cultures Tolkien studied and upon
which he modeled Middle-earth—cultures dominated by the spoken rather
than the written word, before the advent of widespread literacy—songs
and stories were vital and indispensable tools. They conveyed information
that was not recorded anywhere else, keeping that legacy alive for
future generations. We see the importance of song here when Aragorn
cites an ancient song to teach his companions about the Paths of
the Dead and the menacing Oathbreakers. When Aragorn emerges from
the Paths, one could can say that he literally owes his success
to his memory of the songs and the information conveyed in them.
Tolkien often insisted that The Lord of the Rings was
not an allegory—a symbolic or contemporary rendering of established
tales and archetypes. Nevertheless, the mystical trip through the
Paths of the Dead depicts Aragorn as a Christ figure, and the events
of Chapter 2 as a whole reflect the Passion
of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Gospels. Traditionally, the
early Christian church affirmed that Christ, after his death on
the cross, descended into hell to redeem those believers who had
already died and to preach to the lost souls held captive there.
After doing so, Christ rose again on earth, eventually to ascend
into heaven. Similarly, Aragorn descends into the underground Paths
of the Dead, where he speaks to the animated spirits of the Dead.
He leads the Dead out into the waking world, where they affirm their
devotion to Aragorn, renouncing their broken promise to Isildur
at the altar-like Stone of Erech. Like the Bible’s foreshadowing
of Christ in the Old Testament, Elrohir’s secret message and the
legendary song about the Paths of the Dead act as prophetic underpinnings
for Aragorn’s deed; Aragorn himself has a keen sense of the ominous
task that he “must” do. Moreover, Aragorn repeatedly affirms that
his feats are accomplished not by heroic skill, but by divine right
and by the strength of his will.
The presence of these biblical parallels does not mean
that Tolkien misrepresented his intentions for The Lord
of the Rings. The comparisons to Christ are far from a
systematic allegory, and more than one character fits the role of
a Christ figure in the trilogy. Gandalf also recalls Christ’s sacrifice
and resurrection when he dies in Book II and returns in Book III
as Gandalf the White, purified and godlike. Frodo and Sam perform
additional sacrificial duties in their quest to save and redeem
Middle-earth. Rather than create Christian parallels, Tolkien wanted
to create in The Lord of the Rings an ancient mythology
for contemporary England. The history of Middle-earth in the novel
and in the tales of The Silmarillion depicts a pre-Christian
world before the flowering of humankind’s dominance. As mythology, The
Lord of the Rings promotes a specific moral and religious
understanding, implying that the Christian principles of sacrifice,
redemption, and forgiveness are central to the way the world is
and has always worked—even before the appearance of Christianity
as a religion.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Return of the King!