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.