Welcome to another installment of “Reading The Lord of the Rings,” in which we take a leisurely stroll through J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, dwelling on the beauty, the majesty, and sometimes even the sadness in these wonderful pages.
In these two chapters, Merry contends with the fact that he’s been left behind by Gandalf. Though he offers his services to King Théoden, his offer is refused and it is only due to the intervention of the mysterious Dernhelm that he’s taken along to the rescue of Minas Tirith. For his part, Pippin must contend with the duties attendant upon serving the Lord Denethor while also witnessing the tightening siege.
Reading it this time, it was hard to put aside my awareness of the fact that Dernhelm is, in actuality Éowyn, to think back to the very first time that I read it and wonder who, exactly, was this young soldier that decides to take an interest in Merry and ensures that he comes to the battle. It’s hard not to feel tremendously touched, both by Dernhelm’s actions and by Merry’s desire to serve his king in whatever way he can. Merry, like all of the hobbits, shows a surprising strength and courage, a willingness to put himself in harm’s way, to do his own part (however small) in the great and terrible deeds that are shaking the foundations of his world.
On the other side, we finally get a more in-depth glimpse of Gondor and Minas Tirith in particular For some reason, I’ve always found myself drawn to the faded majesty and grandeur of Gondor. Perhaps it stems from my love of Byzantium (and Late Antiquity more generally), which the fading might of Gondor so clearly resembles. There is something irretrievably melancholic about this noble city, poised on the brink of utter oblivion yet refusing to give in to the pressure from the East. Relatedly, I’ve also always thought that the chapter on the siege of Gondor contains some of the most visually vivid of all of those in the book. Every time I read it, I can almost imagine that I’m sitting on the ramparts of Minas Tirith, looking out over the fields below. Certainly, my image of this terrain has been shaped by Jackson’s interpretation of the novels. Even before I watched them, though, I always found myself utterly immersed in this world and this city.
Narratively, the sequence of chapters here are some of the most brilliantly conceived in the entirety of the novel. At each conclusion of each chapter, we are left wondering exactly how matters shall transpire. While the Rohirrim come to save Gondor? Will Gandalf be able to save Faramir from the suicidal madness that has overtaken Denethor? Scholar Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement, and it is a narratively brilliant move, showing us how actions can frequently have unexpected consequences, ones far beyond the ken of those who undertake them.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Denethor. This is a man, after all, who has spent his entire life trying to keep the darkness of Mordor at bay, even as he’s aware that it’s a losing battle. There is a noble spirit in him, but it’s a sort of nobility that has been corrupted because of its inability or unwillingness to see anything beyond itself. This is most conspicuous in his confrontations with Gandalf, with whom he maintains an ongoing antagonism.
These chapters are interesting for another reason. For the first time since The Fellowship of the Ring, we finally get to see the Witch-king in action. As with so many of Tolkien’s villains, the Witch-king draws us to him precisely because there’s so much that we don’t know about him. Even in this, his moment of greatest victory, he remains literally invisible. One of the most fascinating parts of this chapter is the unanswered question of who would have won the contest of wills between Gandalf and the Witch-king. While it’s tempting to think that Gandalf might have done so–considering how he was able to chase away the Nazgûl in other parts of the chapter–I’m inclined to think that the Witch-king would have won. This chapter makes it clear that, in this moment, the power of Mordor is in the ascendant,
Next up, we’ll continue exploring the intertwined fates of the Rohirrim and the Gondorians, and we will also see some of the most beautiful and tragic scenes in an epic that’s full of them.