(Updated on 26/01/16)
The good guys have arrived, and the darkness is receding in the face of the light. But, in a brilliant opening paragraph, it is made clear that this fight is just beginning as the Witch-King, accompanied by an array of titles that Tolkien chooses to give him – “King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, he had many weapons”- stalks off from the encounter at the gate, of his own volition, not Gandalf’s. He is not defeated, and neither is Mordor. I think, considering the triumphant note that Tolkien left the last chapter on, this piece of mood changing narrative is quite important, to impress upon the reader that nothing has been decided just yet. “…his arm was long. He was still in command, wielding great powers.”
The charge of the Rohirrim, as cavalry charges in such circumstances tend to do, wipes out a huge portion of the unprepared Mordor infantry, who appear to have been caught somewhat flat-footed. Théoden’s men are able to cut through them like a knife through butter. It’s been mentioned before that Mordor has little cavalry of its own, and it seems clear that its forces have little idea of how to deal with opposing cavalry either. Infantry, undisciplined, unled infantry, stand little chance against a charge of this kind.
I talk like this is a narrative of a serious military nature, but it isn’t. “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”, more than any other chapter, has the language of an epic poem, of Beowulf, The Iliad and the like, the kind of stories that were Tolkien’s bread and butter. It isn’t a battle where you talk about troops movements or unit distribution in any kind of serious way, instead it’s all stirring heroes, glittering swords, mighty deeds and epic duels. This is a chapter meant to invoke feelings of majesty, glory and victory. The Rohirrim don’t just trample the Orcs they make them flee like “herds before hunters”.
But that victory is not won in those first mad moments of charge and slaughter. The charge, as it must, falters. The Rohirrim have delivered a brutal shock to the enemy, but that couldn’t last forever. Théoden gets his big moment of glory, striking down a Haradrim Captain and “great was the clash of their meeting”. Théoden hues down their leader and standard bearer. Here at least there is a continuing sense of victory, but even then the forces of darkness are regrouping.
Because the Nazgul come. The Nazgul effect seems to ruin the previous heroic charge, sending the Rohirrim horses reeling off in terror, “mastered by the madness of their steeds”. Darkness falls again, the Witch-King resuming his previous victorious air. Now the time comes for Théoden’s real desire to be met.
He falls from a “dart”, an oddly random way for such a pivotal character to fall in such an event as this battle, crushed beneath his own horse. I have always thought this death was designed to emphasize the cowardly nature of the enemy. Théoden kills his enemies with sword and shield, but dies from an arrow fired from afar. Archers were never the most popular figures in the olden times, and this pervades into epic literature. Théoden is the hero, and an anonymous archer is the villain. If anything, this simply makes him more of a hero of course, unjustly cut down by some little twerp in the moment of his greatest triumph.
And then comes the fell beast, some kind of giant featherless crow, a truly horrific creature from nightmare. This is the first, and only, time we’ll see one up close, and the thing is just a monstrosity, whose description calls back to some of the language previously used for Shelob:
“A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, fingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.”
And as it advances on Theoden’s prone form, we know that the Witch-King is interested only in defiling the glory that the Rohirrim leader has already won.
All the while there is Merry and “Dernhelm”, caught up in the maelstrom of battle, brought low by the Nazgul effect, Merry actually off getting sick. Just one tiny little hobbit in the middle of a great battle: I think that we can all see what is going to happen. But first…
Dernhelm is finally revealed and, to the shock of perhaps 1% of the readership, its Eowyn. And she is the absolute right person to be in this spot, facing the Witch-King. She’s gone to this battle seeking death, rejecting the life that is expected of her. She is totally without fear of battle and pain. Her fears are to be trapped at home and be useless. Here, even if she is squashed like a bug underneath the Witch-King’s boots, she’ll end happily. Without fear, the Nazgul effect is nullified, left impotent in the face of such suicidal resoluteness. The traditional, reliable weapons of the Witch-King are no good here. He can’t scare her away. Not Théoden, not Eomer, not even Aragorn have the same advantages. And the girl can actually fight as well, lopping off the head of the “Fell Beast” in a single powerful stroke. But the Witch-King is no pushover, and even his words have an icy power to stab at the heart:
“Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”
And all the while, Merry observes, and does what a hobbit does best: stay unseen, out of the eyes and minds of the “big people”. The Witch-King thinks of him as little more than a worm in the dirt, but that worm is about to do something extraordinary, showcasing the kind of unexpected but deadly effective courage that his race are to become renowned for.
The actual fight between Eowyn and the Witch-King is, again, full of epic language and reads more like a poem of the Middle-Ages than anything else. Eoywn’s hair “shines like a sunrise”, the Witch-King’s eyes glitter, he wields his mace like a weapon from hell and the “shield-maiden” of Rohan prepares for her ending, the ending that she really wants, heroic, remembered, just like her uncle. Until the hobbit comes in and wrecks the whole traditional balance, just like they always seem to do. Merry might not have been able to save the man he deemed “a father”, but he can save someone who is like a sister.
Merry must have worked up a hell of a lot of courage to strike the blow, but strike he does, with a blade forged for the very task, this moment foreshadowed all the way back with Tom Bombadil and the swords recovered from the Barrow-Downs. It is perhaps ironic that out of all the men (and women) on the field right now, he has the most experience with the Black Riders. Sure, he’s stabbing him from behind, but the Witch-King deserves nothing less. Eowyn provides the final blow and the greatest servant of Sauron falls, the fulfilment of prophecy. All the hobbits get their moment of glory. This is Merry’s. But the true hero, the Boudicca, is Eowyn, who does not even get what she really wants, her death, but lives to be that hero.
That trifling matter accomplished, Merry crawls over for his last conversation with the King, who is blissfully happy facing his own end. His wish for glory and remembrance is fulfilled, his legacy is cemented. He has taken many men with him, but there it is. He still provides enough heartbreak for the reader though as some of his last thoughts go towards his niece, who, unknown to him, lies only a few steps away, having achieved a greater deed than he ever will. While we may feel a degree of happiness for Théoden, in reaching the end of his journey as he wanted, it’s all tinged with that kind of bitter-sweet sadness. Merry, losing the father figure he gained on his own journey, can only weep. He has that innate hobbit-sense to think that maybe Gandalf, if near, could save the King, but Gandalf, as we will see, is cruelly delayed elsewhere.
All the time, the battle continues, unnoticed by the characters or the reader, so enraptured by the duels we just witnessed, Tolkien focusing overwhelmingly on the personal thus far. All forces are now being committed to the killing fields before the city, and the good guys are again outnumbered. Light turns to darkness again, even with the death of the Witch-King. Eomer arrives, now King in his own right. He is hailed as such by Théoden, his very last act, a Shakespearian moment. Eomer is the man in the spot now, but takes a moment to grieve for all who have fallen so far.
Yet, when he sees his sister lying, seemingly dead, in the mud, he goes mental, and the craziness spreads. The Rohirrim become blood drunk, and charge back into battle with a reckless barbarian-like fury, no more songs, no more majesty, just sword and blood and a new battle cry of “Death”. They were always a passionate, emotive people, and this is the apex of that: the sheer brutality of a berserker rage, “roaring away southwards”
But Merry is not a Rohirrim, despite his armour and sword. Indeed, his status as any kind of soldier in this fight essentially dissolves along with his blade. He is left shell-shocked by what is happened, ignored by the wider scheme of events, passed over by the fighting. He’s just another casualty amongst many. The Prince of Dol Amroth comes from the battle to meet those escorting the King and causes a slight hubbub when he reveals that Eowyn isn’t actually dead. Whoops. The Rohirrim might be good fighters, but they seemingly aren’t the best at triage. I thought Tolkien might actually be hinting at a Dol Amroth/Eowyn sub-plot here, but that never happens.
We’re back to the big picture now though, as the battle turns decisively back Mordor’s way. Tolkien outlines force after force, reserve after reserve, that they are able to put into the fight, how they rally and stand, how the Mumak’s are unkillable, how Rohan’s horses lack any advantage in a bogged down fight. Everything now seems to carry with a Homeric air, of warriors named and great deeds only vaguely described:
“And now the fighting waxed furious on the fields of the Pelennor; and the din of arms rose upon high, with the crying of men and the neighing of horses. Horns were blown and trumpets were braying, and themûmakil were bellowing as they were goaded to war. Under the south walls of the City the footmen of Gondor now drove against the legions of Morgul that were still gathered there in strength. But the horsemen rode eastward to the succour of Éomer: Húrin the Tall Warden of the Keys, and the Lord of Lossarnach, and Hirluin of the Green Hills, and Prince Imrahil the fair with his knights all about him.”
We don’t know much of any of these characters after all, save Eomer, but Tolkien wants them in our minds, with the chapter rapidly becoming something akin to a ballad being sung centuries hence.
The light of the day begins to shine all over the battlefield now, as the changing wind brings fresh disaster, another huge helping of Mordor allies coming up the river, the Corsairs of Umbar. The reader might guess what’s about to happen of course, but Eomer has seen enough. He plants Rohan’s banner – really his banner now, as King – into the ground and plans to make a very Théoden-like last stand. Just what is it with these guys and their death-wishes? One might wonder if Eomer should try and rally his forces to try and break out, but he seems content to go down, in the grand style of Rohan, fighting. And he’ll sing as he goes, echoing the past words of his dead uncle. The unreality of the scene is clear now, but the chapter loses none of its effectiveness for that.
And Eomer is not going to die here. The last salvation comes as the King of Gondor returns, (the “Return of the King” as it were) in his own glory, with the armed might of the rest of Gondor behind him, his beautiful banner fluttering in the changed breeze. Just as he marched towards this salvation by going through the darkness of the “Paths Of The Dead”, so does Aragorn arrive in an unexpectedly dark manner, in the black ships that were marked to bring Mordor’s reinforcements. And where are the dead? We shall see.
From here, we know exactly how everything is going to turn out. The battle turns, one last time, as the army of Mordor is hunted down and destroyed, overwhelmed by the new forces of light, and the “god-like” heroes that accompany them. It is the final comeback that started with the arrival of the Rohirrim. Tolkien takes a little bit of time to narrate this state of affairs:
“Hard fighting and long labour they had still; for the Southrons were bold men and grim, and fierce in despair; and the Easterlings were strong and war-hardened and asked for no quarter. And so in this place and that, by burned homestead or barn, upon hillock or mound, under wall or on field, still they gathered and rallied and fought until the day wore away.
Then the Sun went at last behind Mindolluin and filled all the sky with a great burning, so that the hills and the mountains were dyed as with blood; fire glowed in the River, and the grass of the Pelennor lay red in the nightfall. And in that hour the great Battle of the field of Gondor was over; and not one living foe was left within the circuit of the Rammas.”
From here, all that is required is to list out the dead and the brave deeds that marked them, even if most of these names are for characters who appeared only briefly in the story previously, which Tolkien does with gusto, reeling them off like a poetic requiem, heroes all, as if their very presence on the field makes them angelic. Aragorn pauses his heroics just long enough to give a quick hello to Eomer, the two new leaders of men now taking over from the previous generation of Denethor and Théoden. Since this whole chapter has been nothing but an epic poem, Tolkien chooses to finish on that exact note, with a remembrance in verse for all of his fallen heroes, established characters and throwaways all. It is effective, but I will admit gets a little unbearable at this point. Just as well that the battle here is ended, and we know skip back in time to finish off the Denethor/Faramir plot thread.
This chapter is a satisfying climax to the tension building that has been going on throughout all of Book Five, even the entire saga up to this point. It is the long promised great battle of the age, and Tolkien’s method of describing it, from a detached distant perspective at times, serves perfectly to make the impression of a fight so important that even its minor figures are revered as the greatest of warriors. But time is taken for the personal as well, and the duel between “Dernhelm”, Merry and the Witch-King, with Théoden facing into his last moments just a short space away, is one of fantasy’s great confrontations. In the end despite the loss and the heartbreak, the good side of things wins out in spectacular fashion, with Aragorn claiming his rightful position in Kingly style, routing his enemies and uniting his land. There are enough moments in “The Battle Of The Pellennor Fields” that I could go on and on, but I will refrain, only to say that Tolkien’s skill with epic language and imagery, so refined throughout the course of his life and career, served him ably here, making this grand clash into something truly special. “For it was a great battle and the full count of it no tale has told.”
Next up, the home fires are burning.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.