(Updated on 6/1/16)
It’s another very short chapter now, as we start to head towards this Book’s conclusion. But first, we have a few more plot threads to sew up. Even though we could piece together just what happened with Aragorn and co between the end of the “The Passing Of The Grey Company” and their arrival on “The Battle Of The Pelennor Fields”, Tolkien is going to lay it out for us anyway, and in such a way as to provide some back-up for an important plot point in this chapter.
Gimli and Legolas, somewhat ignored in the events of the Book Five, are discussing future plans in the streets of Minis Tirith, with the dwarf visualising some new gates and the elf thinking about some gardens. It’s Legolas’ idea that tells us more about the city, a place built of stone with so little green, made for defence in the last few years, not for joyful living. A “Tower of Guard” indeed, with “…too little here that grows and is glad.”
Of course, as is the case with the elder races, their commentary on the state of the city is all tinged with a little bit of sadness, as Legolas remarks that no matter what they do to the city, it is the city itself – the work of men – that will last the longest of any race. The dominion of men is coming, and the Elves and the Dwarfs are going to be left behind. The long defeat, that theme that has reared its head at so many points in the story, is nearing its conclusion. For Legolas, it’s a very real thing, as Galadriel’s prophecy comes true. He has heard the gulls near the shore of the sea, and now his heart “will never know peace”, called continually by the waves to take ship and depart. It can’t be easy living with that kind of thing, knowing that from this point on, his departure from the shores of this land is inevitable, no matter what happens. Gimli is a little bit more stoic about the whole thing, as you would expect, and it is left to the elf to get all dewy eyed and sentimental. He also has a bit of a depressing rejoinder to the idea that the works of men will outlast them all:
“The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.’
‘And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,’ said the Dwarf.”
Which calls Shelly to mind, naturally:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In the course of the “long defeat” theme, I’m not sure we’ve encountered the idea that the fall of the world of man will follow the end of the magical world, but here it is. It reminds me that Tolkien did intend for Middle-Earth to be our world, just an ancient version of it, so I guess that the world of Gondor, Rohan and even the Shire is destined to be lost. A dominion of man is still far from the glory of previous years, and that process will continue.
The two now relate the events of their journey to Pippin and a slightly-recovered Merry. What we hear is almost a fairy story: how the long lost King raises his army of ghosts and uses it to strike down the pirate fleet. The whole thing is focused on Aragorn, how it seemed like his will alone kept them all going in the face of such horror, how he was able to command the spirit world to rise up and destroy an immense enemy force, before leading the Gondorian rearguard to the salvation of the city. The way that Legolas and Gimli relate the tale is almost biblical in its language. Consider the following excerpts, that sound like something out of the Old Testament, in their narrative style and description of supernatural events:
“But Aragorn halted and cried with a great voice: “Now come! By the Black Stone I call you! “ And suddenly the Shadow Host that had hung back at the last came up like a grey tide, sweeping all away before it. Faint cries I heard, and dim horns blowing, and a murmur as of countless far voices: it was like the echo of some forgotten battle in the Dark Years long ago. Pale swords were drawn; but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead needed no longer any weapon but fear. None would withstand them…But mighty indeed was Aragorn that day. Lo! all the black fleet was in his hands; and he chose the greatest ship to be his own, and he went up into it. Then he let sound a great concourse of trumpets taken from the enemy; and the Shadow Host withdrew to the shore. There they stood silent, hardly to be seen, save for a red gleam in their eyes that caught the glare of the ships that were burning. And Aragorn spoke in a loud voice to the Dead Men, crying:
‘ “Hear now the words of the Heir of Isildur! Your oath is fulfilled. Go back and trouble not the valleys ever again! Depart and be at rest! “
‘And thereupon the King of the Dead stood out before the host and broke his spear and cast it down. Then he bowed low and turned away; and swiftly the whole grey host drew off and vanished like a mist that is driven back by a sudden wind; and it seemed to me that I awoke from a dream”.
In other ways, this recounting calls to mind “Flotsam And Jetsam”, with the way that pivotal action is described in the past tense. There it was the homelier description of Isengard’s overthrow told by the hobbits, but this is something far more epic in scope.
Legolas makes the very important comment that Aragorn would be, if he choose to be, a very terrible dark lord of his own right, such is his innate power. If he had taken the Ring and wielded it, as it is hinted he could have been able to, he could have been as dangerous an opponent as Sauron, and just as tyrannical in the event of his victory. That is what is emphasised, that Aragorn has power: a huge amount of it, and as a result he scares Sauron more than anyone. The Lord of Mordor is very strong but Aragorn is the one person, it would seem, capable of defeating him. He has challenged Sauron openly through the Palantir, destroyed his pirate fleet, and snatched victory from imminent doom before the gates of Minis Tirith. This is all important to note, because of what will be decided at the titular “last debate”. That image, of a dark Aragorn, before the burning ships, the army of the dead at his call, is important. “Not for naught does Mordor fear him”.
Before we go on, many have noted how crazy it may seem for Aragorn to dismiss that army, seeing as how it is practically invincible, an apparent inconsistency that Peter Jackson’s adaptation magnified. But, Aragorn has expended his use of that army. The bargain was made, and it seems clear that the dead are not some idle plaything, to be used for all time. Aragorn is not that person. He might have been, but his role is to be a counterpoint to the cruel tyranny of Sauron, who would doubtlessly delight in having such a gruesome force to play around with. Aragorn knows that the dead are a trump card with a single use, and he has not the right to retain them. He has used their terrible power to save Minis Tirith from the first assault, but that is all that they will help him with.
Onto the debate that is taking place between the main players (minus Legolas and Gimli for some reason. Thinking of it, shouldn’t one of the hobbits be there to represent the Shire as well?). This is the last real chapter that can lay claim to some exposition, being akin to “The Council Of Elrond” in a way.
Gandalf starts us off by laying it all out. They have beaten back Mordor, for a time, but they cannot hope to win the continuing struggle through force of arms, or by hiding behind walls. Sauron will simply send another army, and then another and another, and the good guys strength is already stretched to the utmost. It really is very, very depressing, the way Gandalf says all this, making it seem as if all of the events of this book are little more than a temporary reprieve, and a hard won one at that. Denethor’s final words may yet ring in many ears: “For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched.”
But, they do have one chance to beat Sauron. Thus, Gandalf, the nominal leader of the entire venture, gives his suggestion: refrain from caution and do not rely on walls. Instead, march to the Black Gate and call Sauron out, so that Frodo can have his shot of getting to Mt Doom and destroying the Ring of Power.
Now, there are gigantic, self-evident problems with that plan. No one has any idea where Frodo, or the Ring, is at this point. The last report was that he was heading into dreaded pass of Cirith Ungol, with a treacherous companion at his side. He could be captured, or dead. Why waste what little military strength you have in a very risky gambit, when you could create a different strategy? One of defence, hit and run, guerrilla tactics, anything. Anything to keep the war going, since offering battle is a surefire way to destruction.
Gandalf’s idea only makes sense if he has an idea of where Frodo and Sam are. Maybe he does. He is a wizard after all, and he some kind of “far sight” power that the book never fully details. Everyone else at the meeting seems content just go along with this, trusting to Gandalf’s wisdom, so he has to know something that he isn’t saying, or so I deem. On the face of it, he knows where Frodo was a few days ago, but maybe he really does know a bit more.
The question turns as to whether Sauron will take the bait. And herein lies the crux of the matter. With Aragorn leading this doomed force to the Black Gate, you bet your ass he will. Having established Aragorn as a challenge to Sauron’s power, as a potential Dark Lord himself, the Lord of Mordor will naturally assume that he is marching towards Mordor because he has the Ring, and wants to overthrow its real master: “He will take that bait, in hope and in greed, for he will think that in such rashness he sees the pride of the new Ringlord: and he will say: “So! he pushes out his neck too soon and too far. Let him come on, and behold I will have him in a trap from which he cannot escape. There I will crush him, and what he has taken in his insolence shall be mine again for ever.”
So, Sauron’s only option at that stage will be to nail this challenger with everything that he has before he has a chance to master the Ring himself. This goes back to the confusion of how possible it is for a mere mortal to use the Ring and how exactly one does use it, but this very uncertainty feeds into the plan. With all that Aragorn has done in the last while, it may very well be that Sauron already thinks the Ring has a new bearer.
So, the plan will draw Sauron out, his hidden strength, and if Gandalf has an inkling of Frodo’s location, it may give him a shot. Sauron is going to win if they don’t destroy the Ring, at least in Gandalf’s estimation, it will simply be a matter of how long it would take. And what’s in it for Gandalf to not be completely honest on that point?
The representatives present all line up behind the plan, and all for good reasons. Aragorn has spent his life trusting Gandalf, and also knows that he will have won nothing if he does not face down Sauron in a more direct manner. The sons of Elrond are not turning back. Eomer and Imrahil openly acknowledge Aragorn as their lord. “His wish is to me a command”, though it might be noted that this comes with no tacit approval of Gandalf’s plan. Aragorn, through his actions in the war thus far, has done more than enough to earn this trust and loyalty.
The force to head to the Black Gate is pitiful, it is made clear, little more than eight thousand men all told, smaller than the army Saruman threw at the Hornburg a few weeks previously. Gandalf is not so gung-ho that he will not allow for men and arms to be left behind to offer a last defence, if all hope fails, though it is Imrahil who actually pushes that idea. We might well wonder why Tolkien presents the military side of things with such minimal importance in his narrative, with many lives about to be sacrificed in the hope of a gain elsewhere. A commentary, subconscious perhaps, on the experience of World War One?
The whole thing has this sort of macabre high about it, as the commanders laugh and joke about how they are, in all likelihood, throwing their lives away in “the greatest jest in the history of Gondor”. Only Aragorn, so close to being “Aragorn the Terrible” remains completely serious, his final challenge rapidly approaching. Legolas was right when he said that Aragorn could have been a terrible power if he wanted, and that very possibility is what will now drive the true Dark Lord to take the offered bait.
This chapter is the second transitional section following the drama surrounding the great battle. Where “The Houses Of Healing” was about dealing with the immediate consequences of that fight, this is about setting up the very last gasp of this Book, yet another battle, only this one to be fought with little hope of survival. But first, the chapter grabs the reader’s attention with the truly excellent recounting of the Grey Company’s journey to the pirate fleet and then up the river, a nice sequence that imbues the narrative with a really epic quality, for something that happened “offscreen”.
From there it is the actual debate, largely Gandalf talking and everyone else agreeing but done with enough dialogue skill and effective stakes raising that the straightforward nature of it is excusable. Indeed, Tolkien sets up the final chapter, and the sudden decision to march right into the jaws of Mordor, with such speed that it would be easy to make it a botch job of tedious exposition and under-developed rationale. But instead “The Last Debate” successfully builds the tension and engages the attention of the reader with this last desperate throw of the dice, emphasising how weak the forces of good remain compared to the Dark Lord’s all powerful army.
Next up, one more doomed battle.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.