The Return of the King

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

Book V, Chapters 7–8

At Gandalf’s request, Aragorn enters the city in the guise of a Ranger. The wounded, including Merry, Faramir, and Éowyn, grow steadily sicker from the poison of the Enemy’s weapons. One of the city’s nurses recalls a legend of Gondor, which says, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” Only Aragorn can save those wounded by the Enemy.

Aragorn crushes the leaves of a common, seemingly useless herb that grows in Gondor and stirs the leaves in a bowl of warm water. The sweet scent of the herb awakens Faramir from his fever. Faramir immediately affirms Aragorn as his superior and king. Aragorn then tends to Éowyn and Merry, who both return to consciousness when Aragorn touches and kisses them. All through the night, Aragorn heals the wounded of the city. Rumors fly throughout the city that the King of Gondor now walks again, bringing healing in his hands. As foretold at Aragorn’s birth, the people call him Elfstone, or Elessar, after the green gem that he wears around his neck, which Galadriel gave to him earlier.

Analysis — Chapters 7–8

The pall of Lord Denethor’s suicide looms over these chapters, despite the arrival of Aragorn and the victory over the Black Captain. Tolkien places Denethor in sharp contrast to each of the West’s other three prominent leaders—Théoden, Gandalf, and Aragorn. As Chapters 6 and 7 take place at the same time, though from different perspectives, Denethor and Théoden perish at the same moment. Gandalf and Beregond hear the cries of the Black Captain just as the House of Stewards crumbles in flames; Pippin watches Denethor place himself on the burning pyre just as Théoden prepares to speak his final words to Merry. The parallels between the two rulers show them to be true foils, or counterpoints. Théoden dies sprinting ahead of his men into battle, effectively drawing the attention of the Lord of the Nazgûl and allowing for Éowyn to strike down the Black Captain. Denethor, in contrast, removes himself from his people, withdrawing into isolation in the Citadel, high above the erupting conflict. Théoden displays the sort of forward movement necessary to lead and to improve the welfare of his kingdom, whereas Denethor’s passiveness and self-involvement parallel the recent decay of Minas Tirith.

The scene just before Denethor’s suicide is the third major confrontation between the Steward and Gandalf and it highlights the contrast between the two men. Pippin has been unable to understand the tension between Gandalf and Denethor since their first meeting. The hobbit even questions Gandalf’s role, wondering what purpose or good Gandalf’s wizardry serves in the broader scheme of Middle-earth. The wizard’s role is clarified in his final standoff with Denethor. Gandalf’s virtue as a wizard lies less in his mystical powers or even his sage-like wisdom than in his ability to perceive possibilities for change in each individual and extend charity in turn. Just as Gandalf offers Théoden forgiveness and redemption for the King’s former misdeeds, so he offers counsel and a second chance to Denethor. Before Denethor commits suicide, Gandalf beckons to him, “Come! We are needed. There is much that you can yet do.” Denethor, however, is a politician crippled by the weight of necessity; after years of pressure from Mordor on Minas Tirith, he feels that a hopeful solution for the West is impossible. While Denethor remains strong enough to resist Sauron’s will, he does succumb to Sauron’s lies through his use of the palantír. Whereas Gandalf is the paragon of wisdom, Denethor gains only knowledge—not wisdom—from the palantír. The sphere offers the Steward prescient images, such as that of the ships of the Enemy approaching, but it provides no explanation for these images. Denethor misinterprets the knowledge imparted to him by the palantír, thinking that the ships of the Enemy foretell the doom of Minas Tirith, when in reality the ships herald the arrival of Aragorn. In this regard, Denethor falls prey to his inability to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom—a distinction that characters such as Gandalf and Elrond make, and that Tolkien implies is crucial.

Aragorn also contrasts with Denethor, not as the Steward’s opposite, but as a fulfillment of that which the Steward has failed to achieve. Aragorn enjoys a birthright to the throne, while Denethor struggles to retain the line of the Stewards—the interim leaders in Gondor. Aragorn has not only resisted Sauron’s lies through the palantír, but he has also subordinated the power of the seeing-stone to his will. Finally, in Chapter 8, Aragorn emerges as the redeemer of Minas Tirith. Under Denethor, the city suffers decay analogous to the debilitated condition of its ruler. Aragorn, in contrast, brings renewed life to the city. Not only does he defeat the armies of Mordor, but he heals the wounded and the dying with his touch and presence. Once again, Aragorn fulfills the role of a Christ figure. He is perhaps the complete opposite of Denethor, who, rather than giving life to others, takes his own life and attempts to take the life of his son, Faramir. Aragorn’s claim to the throne is finally manifest when Faramir wakes from his fever and immediately pronounces Aragorn king.