(Updated on 19/01/16)
We open on the apartment of the not so dynamic duo of Pippin and Gandalf, fresh from the depressingly bleak ending of “Minis Tirith“. Things are looking dark, in both senses, “…for only a dim twilight came through the windows; the air was heavy as with approaching thunder.” It isn’t quite “It was a dark and stormy night…” but the sense of foreboding being set-up immediately is obvious.
Pippin, seeing the meagre amount of rations that are being given out, quickly becomes nasty, pointedly asking just why Gandalf wanted to bring him here. Gandalf though, is just as nasty in his reply: “…if you do not like being here, you can remember that you brought it on yourself.” It seems clear that the overall mood is affecting the characters, causing them to become more bullish, straining relations, something Sauron probably intends. This moment is kind of the end of innocence for Pippin in this city. He’s had his time being awe-struck by everything around him, but now he has to face the reality of the situation. Gandalf is none too keen to help him out in that regard.
Meeting up with Denethor isn’t exactly a gigantic change of scenery. When the ruler of Gondor presses Pippin for just what the hobbit can do for him in his service, we get some rather strange dialogue. Denethor dismisses Pippin’s protestations that his Shire tales would be of little interest to the Steward. There is a very evident bitterness, one you can almost taste, coming from Denethor in this exchange, as he rants about how it might be good to hear tales from a land untouched by trouble, untouched because of Gondor, describing his nation’s “vigil” as “thankless”. This very obvious insult to Pippin comes out of nowhere really, but it’s nothing compared to the possible future request that the hobbit sing for the Steward. That really is a bizarre moment, which nothing gets made of later, and it might be a method for Tolkien to portray Denethor as a man who is just beginning to lose his grip on reality just a little. Peter Jackson made much of this exchange.
Pippin gets arrayed up as a Gondorian soldier, and while he takes expected pride in the shiny new uniform that anyone would have (Merry was doing much the same in the last chapter), he is, ultimately, uncomfortable as a soldier. It must be partially because of his actual stature in the grand scheme of things – he is a just a dwarf wearing a child’s armour after all, surrounded by a proper army preparing for the end of days – but also his ancestry. If any place in Middle-Earth is the opposite of militarism, it’s the Shire. Pippin the hobbit just isn’t a soldier, and this pretence to be one has a vague taste of humiliation. As Pippin himself asks, “…what is the good of such honour?”
He also thinks of Frodo, with another plot-line connection. Frodo is, at this point, making a brief stop at the decapitated King statue. While it’s a useful way to show us just where everyone is in different timelines, this also lets us know just how close the storm is to breaking: we know from Book Four that a massive army is going to be spilling out of Mordor very shortly.
It’s time for some action, in the form of a brief fight out on the plains, as Gondorian riders retreat to the city. The Nazgul are back, and they’re winged, as was hinted at in Book Two and confirmed in Book Four. That Pippin recalls their shriek, from the woods of the Shire, adds a sense of dread to the whole thing. Back then they were just riders, dark, yet seemingly human. Now, with the knowledge we have gained, we know them as near immortal wraiths, on steeds that are akin to dragons, at the head of a gigantic army, we understand the game has changed significantly.
And the Nazgul effect, that paralysing fear that is so hard to overcome, is evident everywhere. We’re going to be seeing a hell of a lot more of it in this chapter and beyond, but this is the first time we see what it can do to a large amount of people. The defenders drop their arms, cover their ears, despair, for the most part. It’s an incredibly effective psychological tool, that cry of the Nazgul, obviously mystical in nature. I’m reminded of the effect that Stuka dive-bombers would have on Polish and French fighters in the early days of World War Two, the blaring siren causing them to drop weapons and flee, and it’s not hard to imagine that Tolkien might just have has such things in mind as well.
But this little sequence is not really about that. This sequence is about reintroducing Faramir to the reader, in a much different environment to that of Book Four. He’s the leader of the little band of riders of course, and through Pippin’s words with Beregond, we learn about the guy in just a few paragraphs.
He’s a military leader of some renown in the city. In fact, he’s the commander, more or less. More than that though, he is an inspirational figure, one whose unflinching courage in the sight of these winged monstrosities is enough to get the rest of the city off its cowering behind. Beregond runs off to help him despite his terror after all. As summed up by Pippin upon seeing Faramir up close, the man is someone “you would follow”. We’re back to that kind of “God-like” thing from Homeric epic, that some people just have that sort of quality – a word that is used to describe Faramir a lot – but you can see this sort of thing in real-life too, among some military figures. Faramir is a man you would follow to hell and back, without ever really being able to put a finger on why.
Gandalf intervenes to save the day of course, which is just as well because you might, very reasonably, be beginning to question his usefulness to the whole story. He hasn’t really done much in a while, but here, he actually pulls off some magic-type stuff to drive the Nazgul away (although, as you might infer from later events, it’s possible they just leave of their own accord). He hooks up with Faramir out on the plains, a symbolic meeting as this surprisingly tightly knit duo go up against the solitary steward.
We come to another meeting with Denethor, but where the last one was a combat of words between two great powers, this one is all about the Father/Son dynamic. But before we get to all of that, we have the tale of Frodo, Sam and Gollum.
Gandalf’s reaction is interesting, in that it is almost a mixture of fear and anger. He’s uneased, not just because of the seeming peril that Frodo is in, but because this is something that is out of his control. That is, in this battle of wits he’s having with Denethor, he’s lost out in a big way. The revelation of Frodo, his burden and the quest, doesn’t go over well with Denethor, and neither should the fact that Gandalf was basically hiding it from him. Add the fact that Faramir appears to be doing Gandalf’s bidding in a way, and you might understand why the Steward would be fuming. “He has long had your heart in his keeping” he spits acidly at his younger son, before a rant ensures, calling Faramir’s faithfulness and resolve into question. It’s an astonishing tirade, one seemingly borne of jealously from Faramir’s demeanour – Oh, how the love of the common soldier for Faramir must bite at Denethor – and his own grief over his favoured child.
But we must look at the wizard’s machinations as well. Gandalf has been doing lots of this with the ruler of Gondor so far, and it’s no surprise when Denethor launches off on his tirade. First, Gandalf has been hiding the guy who plans to supplant him. Now, he’s sent the one thing that might beat the bad guy off on a seemingly insane and hopeless venture. Denethor’s rage is somewhat toothless to the reader though, who knows that his proposed plan of hiding the thing until it absolutely had to be used is nonsense. The Ring wouldn’t stand for that. If no other passage does it, this one shows very much that Boromir was Denethor’s son. Both of them had plans and excuses of this sort in regards to the Ring, all to mask a hidden greed.
That being said, he does shine a light on two things. Firstly, the actual “quest” is fairly mental. Secondly, we really don’t know just how the Ring could be “used” do we? This goes back to the lack of proper information about the MacGuffin, in that it is never made explicitly clear just what powers it will imbue on someone who can gain mastery over the thing.
But, as stated, the main part of this chapter is the dispute between Faramir and his father. Denethor is all sorts of cruel, cold and distant with his son, not bothering to hide his disdain, his sarcasm, his contempt. In his eyes, his younger son is worthless, making constant mistakes, a write off.
Faramir takes the abuse with a calm that probably comes from experience of this attitude. That being said, he gives back just as good as he gets at times, reminding his father just who it was who sent Boromir away. This comes on the heels of Denethor’s extraordinarily cold declaration that he wishes it had been Faramir that had gone on the quest, just about one of the most insulting things you could imagine the Steward saying. Of all the dialogue in The Lord Of The Rings, this exchange might be the most intensely emotional, a really bitter dispute between parent and child. Of course, in this family squabble, it’s Faramir who comes out of it looking better. As part of the larger plotline of Denethor losing it, he comes off looking far, far worse, even if Faramir is not exactly innocent.
This family has clearly been dysfunctional for quite a while now. It’s all just coming out in a big way in the terrible circumstances of the coming battle. I’ve heard interesting theories that Denethor’s behaviour towards Faramir in these sequences could be seen as very deliberate and calculating: Denethor recognises that Faramir is now his only heir and the future of Gondor. He is simply trying to toughen him up, the son he has previously ignored, getting him ready for the very real burden of state leadership in a time of crisis. The only problem is that Faramir is already getting bucket loads of that as a military commander.
Denethor would come off looking like a second rate villain here, if not for the small glimpse of some compassion. He notes that Faramir has faced a serious horror and needs rest. The way he goes about it is uncomfortable and cold of course – he seems almost embarrassed to say such well-meaning words after his previous nastiness – but it is there and it is real. Moreover, future events will show, clearer than anything else, that Denethor truly does love his son.
In the aftermath of that conversation, Gandalf is surprisingly positive about the seeming disaster that Frodo has walked into, adopting a “Cest la vie” attitude towards the whole thing. With the news of the incoming enemy army, he shows off his own intelligence by deducing what Aragorn has done with the Palantir, though it’s interesting to remember the circumstances surrounding that ball, that is, the way Gandalf presented the thing to the Ranger, making a large deal out of bowing to him, perhaps planting the idea in his mind even as he advised openly against using it.
And when pushed about Gollum’s re-entry to the mix, he simply falls back on his previous words of wisdom: that Gollum has a part to play. Gandalf is letting go of the last bit of control he had over Frodo’s fate. All he had left was keeping it secret from certain people. That’s no longer possible, so he does the wizarding equivalent of shrugging his shoulders and focusing on the task at hand, which is admirable.
With the enemy army advancing towards the city, Denethor orders Faramir back into the fight, to try and hold some of the previously unbreakable defences. The insults and guilt tripping come thick and fast in these moments, not least when Denethor reminds Faramir that his older brother held those defences successfully when he was around, just the kind of twisting-the-knife that is bound to cause Faramir’s blood to boil. Like so many characters across the realms of fiction, he’s a young son trying desperately to please his father, to live up to expectations that may be impossible to actually live up to.
Despite the abuse, Faramir is, at heart, the loyal son and the loyal soldier, who does not shirk his duty. But, his heart-breaking declaration gives us a glimpse into his inner pain: “If I should return, think better of me”. Just as big glimpse into the internal workings of a character comes in Denethor’s icy, calculating reply: “That depends upon the manner of your return”. To a large extent, at this point anyway, Denethor treats Faramir as just another tool.
The fighting is now beginning in full earnest on a not-too distant frontline. It’s a really nice little fog of war type sequence, as Pippin and the others get the smattering of news from Osgiliath, the kind of stuff that sounds like half-lies or fairy tale. It all goes to the same place though: the outer defences are breached wholesale, and Gondor has to fall back with heavy loss. That it happens “off-screen” simply adds to the confusion, the growing fear, the desperateness of the position that the city now holds. It’s Rome in 476, Constantinople in 1453, Berlin in 1945. The barbarians are nearly at the gate, and the terror is rising.
Another person that is rising is Denethor, who straps on his own sword and declares himself committed the fight. I am reminded much of Theoden’s own rise back to fighting fitness in “The King of the Golden Hall”. Denethor is no weakling, nor a coward, and I can certainly see him fighting if it came to it. Here, he takes on the role of Constantine XI, throwing aside his cloak and getting ready for the last stand, even taking a moment to fling a baiting insult at Gandalf, who is already building up a coming confrontation with a terrible foe.
Tolkien takes this moment to once again lay some emphasis on the leadership of the Witch-King, the dark and terrible force who is driving on the horde of Mordor and causing the defenders to lose their minds. We already know, from the up-close and personal encounter on Weathertop, how dangerous the Witch-King can be so the effect is amplified.
Even worse than the direct threat now beginning to form up around Minis Tirith, the news comes of other armies coming from different directions, taking control of other key points of the land. While it is a plot hook just let us know that the Dark Lord has other plans in motion (and to remind us about the Corsairs that Aragorn is supposed to be taking care of) it also allows us another tantalising glimpse into a deeper mystery: Denethor knows about these other threats before anyone. How? What is he hiding? The very smart will deduce it on a first reading, but I certainly didn’t.
Denethor is not a man for a defensive strategy and, in collusion with Gandalf, sends out a Faramir-led sortie to hassle the enemy advance. Gandalf’s acquiescence is important in letting us know that Denethor isn’t making a bone-headed call: this is actually the right thing to do in this situation, where Gondorian cavalry is one of the few advantages the defenders have. Even Denethor’s earlier insistence that the outer defences be manned wasn’t such a terrible idea. Crucially, for the armchair strategists among us, it delays the enemy advance for a day or more, giving Rohan, and Aragorn, time to arrive at the city and save the day. Denethor never really gets credit for that in the narrative.
Poor Faramir gets it bad though, the arrow with his name on it. You get that real impression of a peoples morale straining to the breaking point as the wounded commander is brought back into the city, clearly near death. Minis Tirith can’t take much more, and the sight of their Hector, brought low like his brother, might be too much.
It definitely is for Denethor, who begins his last descent from this moment. Faced with the death of another son, and the loss of everything he has, he retreats alone one last time, and comes back looking haggard and aged. The “aged” word is crucial there. Even those not so intuitive must begin to see the truth now, considering what we’ve seen before, especially with the use of that word.
Now the city is fully besieged, as the war machine of Mordor moves forward. The imagery is all of fire and contraptions, wheels and winches of death:
“Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot from the walls; and as the trenches were made each was filled with fire, though how it was kindled or fed, by art or devilry, none could see. All day the labour went forward, while the men of Minas Tirith looked on, unable to hinder it. And as each length of trench was completed, they could see great wains approaching; and soon yet more companies of the enemy were swiftly setting up, each behind the cover of a trench, great engines for the casting of missiles. There were none upon the City walls large enough to reach so far or to stay the work.”
The impression is that of a gigantic dark force, edging closer and closer to the walls of civilisation. The heads of those defenders cut down already are thrown over the battlements, a hideous psychological strike. If there is one kind of warfare that Mordor specialises in, it is this horror.
All that being said, I do have criticisms of this whole set-piece, in that Tolkien doesn’t really write all that much about it, choosing to focus on the actions of certain individuals, especially Denethor, over the actual warfare being waged on the walls of Minis Tirith. There is actually little description of battle or fighting here, it’s all just left to the reader’s imagination. That’s a pity, considering the much better description of a siege that we got in “Helm’s Deep”. I’m not saying that Tolkien should have dedicated 20 pages to a blood-soaked defence, but a greater emphasis on what Gondor is having to do to keep the city from being overthrown, even in line with the high epic style that will be employed for the great battle a few chapters from now, would have been appropriate. “The Siege Of Gondor” is no siege of Troy.
Gandalf becomes Wellington at Waterloo, riding backwards and forwards through the lines ceaselessly, making people stand when they seem like breaking, but he can only do so much. Gondor has few leaders of repute left and it has just as little hope, with the city surrounded and the roads the Rohirrim ride on blocked. It seems to only be a matter of time before the end comes.
As stated though, the focus of most of the narrative is not the downfall of Gondor on the walls, it’s the downfall of Denethor in the highest tower. He watches his son slip into a coma, and then a terrible fever, nearing a seemingly inevitable end. Now, he’s sorrowful over his earlier behaviour, his harsh words. It’s happening all over again: a son who is dying, with words he will never get to say or take back, apparently. A horrified Pippin is the man trapped between a rock (the fighting outside) and a hard place (Denethor’s madness). The Steward’s words are positively Shakespearian in their tragic undertones:
“I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins. Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of the Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.”
In all of this, there is further connections with Theoden. Theoden is suicidal in a fashion, having lost a son, but he wants to go out with a bang, with a blaze of glory, doing something that will be remembered for ages to come. He wants the legacy that will live beyond him, as his son should have. Denethor is similarly suicidal, but this comes out in a radically different fashion. He has lost his son, and now another, and his response is to burn himself alongside the city that he rules, a city that he considers lost, a selfish, petulant act. Denethor doesn’t want to be remembered, he just wants to be so many ashes along with everything he ever loved. And he’ll take Pippin down with him, as Theoden strives to keep Merry out of harm’s way.
That devolution from majesty is all too evident. Denethor was proud, noble, and distant. Now, he is a snivelling, overthrown wreck. He dismisses his servants with contempt, sneering at their apparent devotion, almost urging them to flee their posts. Pippin gets the same treatment, told bluntly to find a way to die in the maelstrom “that seems best to you”.
Pippin though, rises to the occasion magnificently, showing some bravery and courage that has always been there, but which comes to the fore now, in something as simple as just looking Denethor in the eyes. He makes it clear that he’s coming back, and maybe with someone who will change matters. He’s become as devoted to Faramir as anyone else, to the point that he is willing to commit that most terrible crime: oath-breaking (though, I suppose he has been released from service). He recognises that Denethor has collapsed completely in terms of sanity, and is willing to step up to him because of it. His best moment is coming, but this is the start.
Outside, the bloody siege, more an assault really, is coming to a conclusion with the appearance of “Grond”, a great battering ram of Mordor, an epic weapon carved into the hideous visage of a flaming wolf. This is high, epic fantasy, as the giant ram inches towards the walls, cheered on by all of the denizens of Mordor. It takes on almost a poetical theme in the way some sentences are repeated –“Grond crawled on” – becoming the very advance of Mordor itself over Middle-Earth.
We come to the end of the chapter, as Pippin flees in search of the one person he thinks can actually save Faramir, and Mordor reaches the gates. I simply cannot speak highly enough of the words, the imagery, the sense of immense importance imbued in these final two pages.
The battering ram breaches the door of Minis Tirith, smashes it down, and in strolls the Witch King, with only Gandalf to face him, as the rest of the defenders, their spirit as broken as the gate, flee. Interestingly enough, Gandalf has already admitted in this chapter that this task is beyond him, while setting up the Witch-King’s eventual downfall: “…our trial of strength is not yet come. And if words spoken of old be true, not by the hand of man shall he fall, and hidden from the Wise is the doom that awaits him.”
And Gandalf is not strong enough to provide that doom. The Witch-King is his equal, even his better, and through a wave of his hand has the White Wizard at his mercy. He is a wraith with a red crown, burning red eyes, the devil himself. That Gandalf, who defeated the Balrog, saved Théoden, vanquished the forces of darkness at the Hornburg, cast down Saruman and then went toe to toe with Denethor, is facing defeat, is one of the worst blows that Tolkien could possibly have delivered to the reader. The language here even evokes the confrontation in “The Bridge Of Khazad Dum” – “You cannot enter here!” – but it’s actually a failing bluff. And if Gandalf cannot turn back the darkness, who can? The answer is not to be found in the Elder Races that Gandalf and his magical aura represent, but in those that are soon to arrive.
It is the high water mark, the darkest moment. The forces of evil have breached the defences of good and stand poised to burn Minis Tirith to the ground. Their greatest servant is ready to defeat the very embodiment of light, already cackling, already rejoicing in his master’s victory, in “my hour”, decrying Gandalf as an “old fool”. This is the critical second of the entire war.
And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
It is always darkest before the dawn, and now that dawn has come. The cavalry, literally, have arrived and everything is going to change. I have never been able to read the final pages of “The Siege of Gondor” without feeling a very real shiver run up my spine. It is the best of fantasy, but still retains that real sense of reality, that joyous feeling when reinforcements arrive, when you realise that the dark “cannot conquer forever“, that hope, nearly extinguished, never really goes out. These two pages are undoubtedly my favourites in all of the fiction I have ever read.
This chapter has a sort of dual purpose in the narrative. On the one hand, it’s a gigantic set-piece, as Minis Tirith is besieged by the mother of all evil armies. Defences are breached, charges are led and great heroism occurs. But Tolkien, for whatever reason, actually limits the amount of time he spends on such things, perhaps because he thought the chapter was getting too long and unwieldy, or just because he preferred, in this case, to report the siege through the eyes of a mere hobbit like Pippin, and the things someone like him would have seen and heard in the chaos. That’s an OK way to go, but Tolkien also does it different ways at other points in the narrative, that I feel are a better fit for such things.
But the main focus is on the personal, through Denethor’s relationship with his son, and how both Gandalf and Pippin get sucked into the maelstrom. Tolkien does some of his best ever work in the conversations between father and son, delivering a three dimensional family feud that adds a heavy emotional weight to the more abstract fighting taking place outside. Through Gandalf’s involvement the duel of wills between Wizard and Steward gains an added dimension, and with Pippin we have both a suitable bystander to be our eyes and ears, and someone who now has the opportunity to stand up and be counted, in siding with the ailing Faramir over the increasingly hopeless Denethor. There are also two suitable plot threads left dangling to tantalise the reader: the blocking of the roads the Rohirrim might take, dealt with in the next chapter, and Pippin’s urging to Beregond that the Gondorian keep Faramir safe in his absence, the results of which we’ll go to later.
The end result is a chapter with mixed execution then. The personal stuff is some of Tolkien’s very best, and this intense family drama will actually stand in good contrast with the more detached and epic poem-esque fighting to come very soon. But I do feel that more could have been done with “The Siege Of Gondor”, whose titular fighting is a poor relation to that which Tolkien has already expertly described previously in the tale. But, in my eyes, Tolkien makes up for any deficiency with the power of its closing moments.
Next, a brief trip back in the timeline before the big stuff starts happening again.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.