(Updated on 15/12/15)
Book Five is the big time, right from the very start, as we travel to one of the most epic locations in Middle-Earth. The journey from the end of Book Four to Minis Tirith is a series of brief flashes from the wrecked and exhausted Pippin, who serves as a stand in for the reader, just as lost and confused. It’s only clear that he and Gandalf are on a long journey, travelling in some haste.
Pippin has grown a lot in the course of his travels, but he still exudes inexperience, no more than when his first reaction to the sight of distant fire is to be scared of dragons, with outright panic in his words. It’s not the only time we’ll see it in this chapter either really, considering the way he clumsily namedrops Aragorn later. Little subtly in him. The beacons are a neat little bit of Gondorian mythos, and add a certain flair and dramatic tension from the very beginning of the chapter, which Peter Jackson ran with as an idea.
We have finally reached Gondor proper, a place that we have known all along that we would wind up in at some point. As was hinted during our time with Faramir in the last Book, Gondor is a land getting ready for a siege, both physically and mentally. It’s in everything that Gondorian characters say and do: they’re Ancient Rome with the barbarians at the gates, and they’ve been this way for a very long time.
Further to that, the first group of Gondorians that Gandalf and Pippin engage in conversation are full of talk containing portents, superstition and the like, another sign of a culture that is either expecting battle, or has been battling already for a very long time. Like Faramir’s Rangers, these soldiers are grasping at straws in terms of hopeful news, seeing Pippin’s presence alone as a good thing. You get an immediate sense of a military that knows it is the underdog in the coming fight. And they’re literally building a wall around themselves: the coming fight is going to be one of defence, and an air of gloom is also detectable, as the soldier casually announces that Boromir’s passing has been long since guessed at.
Pippin, for his part, is full of false bravado towards the soldier, much more hobbit like in nature then we’ve seen in a while, though it obviously betrays his more hidden fears. Pippin, as we know, deflects worry with humour and that’s all he’s trying to do. Gandalf, well, he’s back to being international man of mystery, saying lots but really saying little. These soldiers get the barest handful of words about the war in Rohan before he’s off again, and I like to imagine them scratching their heads as Shadowfax passes, saying “What the hell was that about?”
A brief mention is also given to the Prince of Dol Amroth, who will turn up later in Book Five as a little featured but somewhat important character. It’s clear Tolkien means something for him, the way he turns away from the general narrative on the city to give a bit of a run down to the lord of the seaside.
On the city itself, it is the epic fantasy sprawl, the great fortress of the good guys, all high walls and shining towers. It the ambition of men incarnate, not hidden like Rivendell or Lorien, not limited like Edoras. Everything about the place, seven levels, seven walls, the white tree, the marble, the fact that it is built into a freaking mountain, is meant to give off an air of grandeur, glory and strength, the narrative becoming more like an epic poem momentarily, and not for the last time in Book Five:
“Even as Pippin gazed in wonder the walls passed from looming grey to white, blushing faintly in the dawn; and suddenly the sun climbed over the eastern shadow and sent forth a shaft that smote the face of the City. Then Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion, standing high within the topmost walls’ shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze’ and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets.
So Gandalf and Peregrin rode to the Great Gate of the Men of Gondor at the rising of the sun, and its iron doors rolled back before them.”
Yet, the narrative is also careful to emphasis a decline, in numbers, in power. Minis Tirith really is Rome, Rome of the fourth century, a city that is still great, still beautiful, yet nowhere near as strong as it was, surrounded by enemies, simply awaiting what must seem like an inevitable fall. It is the long defeat again, that ever present theme, and the city’s state is the clearest example of that for the race of men in The Lord Of The Rings.
Minis Tirith is also the only urban area in the entire book. Everything else is all rural, town or ruins. In that, Tolkien misses a trick by not really going into what daily life is like in Minis Tirith as he has in other places, but that might be more reflective of his personal background then anything. He was no city boy, and that shows up in things like The Lord Of The Rings.
And of course, the reader cannot but be aware that a great battle, the great battle, is going to be fought here. The first half of Book Five is going to be about building up to that clash, and already in this chapter we have had a significant amount of set-up and foreshadowing: “Now we know that the storm is indeed nigh!” The duo of wizard and hobbit travel to the highest level, where we are meet another of Tolkien’s great characters. Denethor is proud, sorrowful, vain, brave, annoying and hard. He is, really, the very epitome of Gondor itself in that respect, a land of contrasts from top to bottom. Here is one of the last of a failing line, ruling the last of a failing country.
He’s also a very bitter man, and I think that this is his key trait. He’s the man in the spot, having to live with the knowledge he is likely to be the last ruler of Gondor, that he’s lost his favourite son on what must seem now to be a crazy errand, that doesn’t much care for the other one, and he seemingly has no way out. He’s a cranky old man in many respects, but he has some reason for it, though his fall to despair is something that Tolkien, writing from a very Catholic viewpoint, would presumably not want his audience to sympathise with. Gandalf doesn’t really help with that either. This clash was inevitable really, since Denethor’s first mention way back in “The Council Of Elrond”, when he was an obstacle for Gandalf to overcome.
Briefly, this scene also reveals it has only been only 13 days since “The Breaking Of The Fellowship”. Mental huh? In fact, this scene continues the characterisation of the dead Boromir, Gandalf pointedly referring to him as “a masterful man, and one to take what he desired”. This, unknown to Denethor, two-faced compliment is added to by Gandalf’s private statement that the blood of Westernesse did not run in Boromir as much as it did in his father or brother.
Pippin’s offer of service in this moment, temporarily melting the icy demeanour of the Steward, is one of his stand out moments in the entire book (though not his best moment) and his own “hero rising” passage. Pippin has a tremendous loyal streak in him, to family and friends, and he recognises the debt that he owes Boromir, even if Boromir is no longer around to collect. So, he does the only thing a hobbit in his position can do, and doesn’t hesitate: he offers his life and service to the next best thing. It is clear, if not outright stated, that this is no symbolic, meaningless gesture, and Pippin’s stature as a mature, fully formed character grows as a result. He’s come along a lot, as I said, but this is huge. He’s not the young prankster anymore, he’s, well, a man, as Gandalf earlier described him.
The questioning follows but it has little to do with Pippin really, it’s all about the other two people in the room. Gandalf and Denethor are made of the same sort of stuff, and what we have is a very vicious and deadly battle of wills and words between the two, interrupted only briefly by a very oddly placed line of thought from Pippin, who wonders just what Gandalf is. Seriously, that whole bit comes out of left field in a huge way: “What was Gandalf? In what far time and place did he come into the world, and when would he leave it?” The thought is broken off almost as soon as Pippin has it.
The fight between Denethor and Gandalf is not really about what is said, but what is unsaid, body language and the like. Gandalf reaps the reward of his continuing mystery here, being met by a man who is, not exactly without reason, unwilling to put up with it. That doesn’t stop Gandalf from throwing him the cold shoulder, and stomping out of the room. He may have bowed to Aragorn, but he simply won’t to man like Denethor, this bitter person who speaks openly of wishing his younger son died in place of the older. This is a major contrast to the first meeting between Gandalf and Théoden, where Gandalf was able to get the King of Rohan onside. Here, Denethor is aggressive and uncompromising with Gandalf, openly declaring the wizard to be a person who only offers counsel “according to your own designs.”
And perhaps Denethor should be worried, because this whole sequence does raise some uncomfortable questions about Gandalf, if you think about it. We only get so much of the Gondorian succession sub-plot from one side here, but it really does get frighteningly clear: Gandalf doesn’t like Denethor at all, and, by sheer coincidence, he’s actively helping someone else in his attempt to unseat the Steward from power. Why shouldn’t Denethor but suspicious of the wizard?
Overall, this whole scene is an excellent little set-piece, a typical example of the ability to create dramatic tension without resort to swordplay and bloodshed in the narrative. Instead, it’s a clash of words and personalities, with Pippin valiantly holding his own in the middle. And so we are introduced to Denethor, one of the last characters of consequence, and an enigma all of his own: is he stable enough to lead? What do his enigmatic words on the “keener sight” of the men of Gondor? And how will he react to the inevitable coming of Aragorn? How much of a “terrible old man” is he?
Unfortunately, I have always felt that the rest of the chapter, a full half of it, is a bit of a let-down. It peaks a bit too early really, with the epic approach and entrance into Gondor, and the incredible conversation with the steward. What follows is, essentially, “Pippin’s day out in Minis Tirith” with helpful guide Beregond providing the role of “friendly soldier archetype” and “Mr Exposition” all in one. It’s from him that we learn a little bit more about Gondor, the Gondorian taking the place of the absent Gandalf as Pippin’s guide.
But really, he doesn’t really tell us much we don’t already know. Gondor is a nation in crisis, with enemies on all sides. The local soldiery are quick to grasp at whatever straw of hope is available, like the idea of hobbit warriors riding with Rohan. He mentions the Corsairs of Umbar, who, as an enemy, are going to be an important plot-point in later chapters. Beregond sums up the mood of the populace by being fairly defeatist, if quietly optimistic that such defeat will not be the final end of Gondor: “Hope and memory shall live still in some hidden valley where the grass is green.”
Of note also is Beregond’s reference to rumours that Denethor likes to go into the highest tower and “strive” with Sauron in some kind of mental battle. It’s almost throwaway in the manner that Beregond says it, just meaningless gossip from the streets, soldiers prattle, but it’s a strange enough wording to stick in the mind. Of course, Denethor himself namedropped the “seeing stones” in the meeting with Gandalf, so the reader isn’t exactly left in the dark for what is coming.
One last meeting takes place before the chapter rounds down to a bit of a boring conclusion, as Pippin meets Beregond Junior. That Pippin gets into a rather surprising game of threats and one-upmanship with the kid is kind of cool, though the reader may feel aggrieved at the chance of seeing Pippin fight a child. Bergil simply provides the chance for more exposition of Gondor, this time in the form of a long list of reinforcements heading into the city, all in separate groups led by individual nobles and lords, who all need a name and a distinguishing feature of some sort, even if the only time they will be mentioned again is when they’re dying on the Pelennor Fields. In many ways, this section seemed a bit like the catalogue of the armies in Book Two of Homer’s Iliad, only without the same length, and there’s something fascinating in the myriad of contingents, like those “few grim hillmen without a captain” who always make me think of pike-wielding Irish peasant soldiers. Again, Tolkien is imbuing the actual War of the Ring section with “epic” style. This section also allows Tolkien to let Pippin deflate a little from the bravado and oath taking with Denethor (more hobbits and their oaths!) and just be the laid back hobbit we know he is, casually brushing off the fact that Minis Tirith folk think he’s some kind of prince (which, since he’s the eldest son of the Took patriarch, isn’t all that far from being true).
We receive our conclusion with Gandalf, and it is a grim one, full of foreboding, as the lights go out. The darkness is spreading from Mordor and it will be a long and perilous time before any burst of light manages to break its way through. “There will be no dawn” says Gandalf as the chapter ends, which puts me in mind of Sir Edward Grey’s famous words, on the eve of the First World War:
“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”.
Perhaps it was an essence of this feeling that Tolkien was trying to capture. If so, I think he succeeds.
Like “A Long-Expected Party” and “The Departure Of Boromir” before it, “Minis Tirith” needs to get the reader situated back into the world of Middle-Earth quickly and seamlessly, while doing lots of other things as well. The build-up to the great battle of the age now begins in earnest, with our introduction to the soon to be besieged city and its morally ambiguous ruler. For this section of the narrative, at any rate, the wandering is over, now has come the time to stand and fight. We get an intimate look at Minis Tirith from its highest level to its lowest, through Denethor and Bergil, and as much ambiance and atmosphere of a city in wartime as you might like. But while the first half of the chapter might be some of the best writing in the book, it’s pace seriously drags once Gandalf and Pippin leave Denethor’s presence, with Pippin’s subsequent wandering with Beregond and Bergil a bit of a let-down, the chapter’s length making it a serious chore by the conclusion. At least that conclusion is a hum-dinger, and already the reader must be salivating at the prospect of the martial exploits to come. And the chapter is also a great boon to the Pippin character, showing a great change in him after his experience with the palantir: now he’s a bit bolder without unfortunate idiocy, a bit humbler without too much reservation.
Next up, ghosts!
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.