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Gimli and Legolas find Merry and Pippin in the Houses
of Healing. The hobbits eagerly ask questions about the Paths of
the Dead. Gimli refuses to speak of the experience, but Legolas
describes it. According to Legolas, after setting out from the Paths
of the Dead, Aragorn led the Company and the army of the Dead to
the Great River, Anduin. Invading fleets of Sauron’s allies prevented
thousands of potential defenders from reaching Minas Tirith. At
Aragorn’s command, the legion of Dead swept over the Enemy’s ships, causing
the terrified sailors to throw themselves overboard. Aragorn released
the Dead from their curse and then, gathering the local Men of Lamedon,
set sail for Minas Tirith. At the end of the tale, Gimli and Legolas
express their wonder that Mordor’s allies were overthrown by darkness
While the four companions share their stories, Aragorn
holds a meeting of the lords in his tent outside the city. Gandalf
tells the assembled captains that Mordor has not yet unleashed the
greater part of its army. Though Minas Tirith has fought back the
first assault, the next will be much stronger. In addition, the
Ring of Power is now somewhere within the borders of Mordor. Should Sauron
seize the Ring, all hope would be lost. Gandalf suggests an assault
on the Black Gate of Mordor, reasoning that it is impossible to
defeat Mordor without destroying the Ring, and that the Eye of Sauron
must be diverted from the Ring-bearer as long as possible. Gandalf
predicts that Sauron will think that Aragorn has taken possession
of the Ring and, rash with pride, has chosen to attack Mordor. Gandalf
believes that while attacking Mordor may prove fatal, it is their
duty to defend against evil while it remains in their power to do
so. The Captains agree to this plan.
Legolas’s tale is a departure from Tolkien’s typical habit
of depicting events firsthand, as they unfold. We hear the story
of the Dead’s assault on the forces of Mordor secondhand rather
than directly through a narrator. This storytelling technique reminds
us of the importance of oral tradition in the ancient cultures Tolkien
studied and of the author’s attempt to recreate this tradition in
his portrait of Middle-earth. We sense that one day, many generations
later, Legolas’s tale will become a folktale or a myth, part of
the cultural legacy of the Elves or Men. In an interesting twist,
Gimli refuses to talk about what happened on the Paths of the Dead;
while the Elf is willing to narrate in great detail, the Dwarf absolutely
refuses all comment. Gimli states that he wishes to keep the memories
of his journey on the Paths of the Dead in darkness forever and
never bring them to the light of day. Hearing Legolas narrate the
tale that Gimli refuses to utter reminds us of the fragility of
the oral tradition—a story may be lost forever if it is not retold.
Tolkien also complicates the notion of good against evil
in these chapters, exploring the fact that the Enemy, just like
the forces of Gondor, experiences fear. Legolas, as he narrates
the tale of the routing of Mordor’s forces by the legions of the
Dead, expresses his amazement that the troops of the Dark Lord were
overcome by simple terror. The Dead overwhelmed the Enemy not with
military maneuvers or well-aimed arrows, but by appearing on the
ships. That even the soldiers of Mordor are scared reminds us that
the battle between good and evil in The Lord of the Rings, however
cosmic in scope, is still a battle between imperfect mortal creatures
with their own limitations. Similarly, Gandalf highlights Sauron’s
limitations in the Dark Lord’s assumption that Aragorn took control
of the Ring, and that Aragorn will use it to attack Mordor vaingloriously.
Sauron is able to imagine only the selfish and aggressive course
of action, which is not the option the Fellowship chooses. Sauron’s
blindness to the possibility of selflessness and sacrifice—to the
idea that someone might destroy the Ring willingly, giving up access
to its power—is perhaps the only failing that the forces of good
can exploit to overthrow him.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Return of the King!