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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Return of the King!