(Updated on 9/2/16)
The “Host of the West” is all set and ready to go, a various mishmash of the Kingdoms and factions we’ve seen so far. Everyone gets a person to ride out in suitably appropriate fashion, right down to the Shire, in the form of Pippin. Merry will be staying behind. This last battle will be Tolkien’s final opportunity to give Pippin some glory in this Book, to try and bring him up to scratch with his Brandybuck friend. Sure, Pippin was partly responsible for saving Faramir’s life, but unlike Merry, he still has no great feat of arms attached to him. That will all change before the end of this chapter. “All now was ready for the last throw”.
Off they go, and it’s with a very real sense of depressions and downheartedness. Merry’s complaints about being left behind are dismissed by Aragorn in an almost casual manner, who retorts that Merry may yet be forced to fight a final battle beyond the reach of hope or memory. Cheery stuff from the future King right there, though it does reiterate the sense of the good guys going all in on this last battle. “…little hope at all was left in his heart that he would ever see any of them again”. For Merry and the rest of Minis Tirith, they will simply have to stand and wait.
Beregond will also be coming along, but at a reduced status. Tolkien is committed to that characters little sub-plot, beyond real justification to the wider story, and this is just his way of keeping the Gondorian in our minds eye. His case to be judged, he leads something akin to a militia company instead of being part of the regular forces.
Despite the implication that this is an all-or-nothing military exercise, the time is taken to point out hasty defences being thrown up around Osgiliath, in the event of another army coming in that direction. Sauron still has many armies, and Tolkien wants us to know that the threat of attack from another flank, even while most of his forces are pouncing on Aragorn and his lot, is still real.
The Host moves forward and comes to the statue of the King at the crossroads. The challenge is thrown down directly with some strong words – “The Lords of Gondor have returned and all this land that is theirs they take back” – and metaphorically as the King’s previously decapitated head is returned to his body. This is the end result of the lovely moment in “Journey To The Cross-Roads”, where Frodo felt a resurgence of hope upon viewing the head crowned with flowers. “They cannot conquer forever” Frodo said then. Now, the true King has returned and is wiping clear the sins and degradation of Mordor. In re-habilitating this statue, Aragorn gives out his own message of hope, as well as tying in his adventure more directly with Frodo.
Before moving north to face their doom, the Host has some time for military discussion, with Dol Amroth suggesting that they might attack Minus Morgal instead. Tolkien is careful to lay out all the reasons this is a bad idea, and they aren’t unreasonable excuses, but I was disappointed that Dol Amroth doesn’t fight his corner very well. After all, the Wraith city is deserted following the destruction of its armies outside Minis Tirith, and may have fallen to a quick assault. That is not to say that I think this would be the right course of action, it would defeat the purpose of the entire expedition after all (diverting attention from Frodo), but Dol Amroth is supposed to be a major, forceful character. Instead, he just kinda looks like a chump here, and is increasingly pointless to the story. The same guy who seemed so important just a few chapters ago will barely have any more input, a human Glorfindel.
As for Morgul, Aragorn has a look at the dread city, and sets its fields alight. It’s what little he can do, and the fact that Gandalf wants the army to steer clear is the last bit of emphasis on the horror of the place. We will not see Morgul again, and part of me thinks more use should have been made of the place, it being a slightly more interesting feature than the Black Gate, but so be it.
On the Host marches, the reverse of Frodo’s trip in Book Four, as lush forests turn into desolate wasteland. Aragorn’s claim to Kingship is made fully plain here, as the Gondorian heralds proclaim their challenge in the name of “King Elessar”, to no complaint from the Ranger, who has gotten over his previous reluctance to claim the Gondorian throne. It makes sense though: unity of purpose is key here, and the whole point is to grab Sauron’s attention. Becoming the de facto King of Gondor will do that.
While the whole theme of these few pages is a sense of quiet watchfulness over the land, it’s good to see that Mordor has some ounce of military know-how, as the Host defeats an attempted ambush. Sauron is aware of the threat, and has the men to test it in small ways. He gains knowledge here, as his small force is easily defeated: this is no incompetent band of infantry. They may be small in number, but he now faces an army capable of effective manoeuvre, scouting and battle. It’s a suitable little tease for everything that is to come.
The Nazgul watch from above, but even their effect, their presence, is lessened after the fall of the Witch-King, the remaining eight left far away and out of sight. They are no longer the bad boys they once were, and they will be supplanted as the face of Mordor very shortly.
Of course, things are not all good in the host, and the desolation of Mordor, so perfectly described back in “The Passage Of The Marshes” and “The Black Gate Is Closed” begins to have its effect now, better than the Ringwraiths anyway. Frodo and Sam were able to bear it, filled with purpose and heading away from it. This army is destined for the very heart of it, and that just isn’t on for many. Men have weakness, and many refuse to keep going, with a certain anti-militarist streak evident in the writing suddenly: “…now they walked like men in a hideous dream made true, and they understood not this war nor why fate should lead them to such a pass.”
Aside from showing us that not every Gondorian soldier or Rohan rider is an epic, fearless hero, this episode allows Tolkien to show off more of Aragorn’s Kingly attributes, as he deals with the problem not with rage, or scorn, but with the tone of an understanding, if somewhat disappointed, parent. Recognising that the coming task is beyond some of his troops, he lets them go, but not without giving them a more achievable task to test their mettle against. At least that way, the soldiers will not be utterly wasted. Aragorn is no military tyrant and, like so many heroes, is unwilling to lead unwilling men to their deaths.
The Host approaches the Black Gate, and again, Tolkien takes the time to link this story to Frodo even more, outlining how Aragorn nears the entrance to Mordor from the same direction that the Ring-bearer did only a short while ago. The author has already outlined the impressive and imposing structure that is the Black Gate way back in Book Four, but some scant refreshing suffices here, to let us now that the structure cannot be assailed, and that massive armies lie in wait only a short while away.
Before our last battle, we must have an embassy. These are the good guys after all so, in the tradition of Doctor Who they “have to give them a choice” even if the answer is easily guessed. But beyond maintaining the Host’s virtuous credentials, this scene gives us another of the story’s more memorable, but little-seen, characters.
“At its head there rode a tall and evil shape, mounted upon a black horse, if horse it was; for it was huge and hideous, and its face was a frightful mask, more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame. The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’”
The Mouth of Sauron may be little more than an anonymous herald, who takes up only a few pages and serves no more use than being the evil character who tries to trick everyone about Frodo. But fans of The Lord Of The Rings do, to a common extent, seem to love the character. Maybe it’s the vaguely defined backstory of a mortal man who worms his way into the highest echelons of Mordor. Maybe it’s the way that he condescendingly addresses those present, so rare to see (only Wormtongue and Saruman match him in that regard). Maybe it’s the excellent dialogue he gets. Maybe it’s just the fact that he puts a face (kind of) on the forces of Mordor before this last battle. He may be cartoony, maniacal almost, but the Mouth of Sauron’s popularity cannot be denied.
He’s a scornful guy all right, full of bile and hate for all who’ve come to meet him, especially Aragorn. You can almost feel the contempt dripping off of every words he utters. It’s a measure of how successful the good guys’ tactics have been, the way that the Mouth of Sauron has specific taunts to throw at the Gondorian pretender (“It takes more than a piece of Elvish glass to make a King”). But in his words and insults, he shows Aragorn as his complete opposite, who just stares at him silently, and with such an effect, that the Mouth of Sauron actually quails and falls back a bit. Perhaps he’s more used to active resistance from his targets.
Anyway, he gives the message he’s been sent to give, an interesting plot-point: several items of Frodo and Sam’s.
A few things to say. Firstly, in lieu of where Book Four left off, this sets up Book Six in a huge way, as the reader cannot know exactly what this means. We know Frodo has been captured, but what about Sam? Was he captured as well? How did Mordor get their hands on these items? Just what is the current status of the Ring-bearer? Or Ring-bearers rather?
Secondly, the Mouth of Sauron’s goal might be to unnerve his opponents here, make them think that all of their plans have failed, but it’s very possible, if not stated, that he does the opposite. Because he doesn’t say anything about the Ring. At all. To him, the hobbits were just agents that the moronic Gondorians sent into Mordor: “So you have yet another of these imps with you!’ he cried. ‘What use you find in them I cannot guess; but to send them as spies into Mordor is beyond even your accustomed folly.”
It’s crucial, because it lets Aragorn and Gandalf know that the Ring hasn’t been found – the Mouth would surely say so if it had, in fact, it would probably be Sauron himself here if that were the case – and if that is the case, it is likely that at least one of the hobbits has not been captured. In fact, that’s a certainty, because the Mouth mentions only one. So the good guys can be confident that Sam is at least free (has to be, since the Mithril coat indicates Frodo has been captured) and since the enemy doesn’t have the Ring, then Sam must have it. That means the plan still has a chance and, in fact, is on course to succeed, insofar as the first hurdle has been passed.
So, in that way, the Mouth of Sauron shoots himself and his cause in the foot, his taunts doing the opposite of what they intend. Of course, with what the good guys know now, they may think of other possibilities like Gollum having the Ring again, of Sam lying dead somewhere with the Ring on his person. But none of them fit, not with the way we know the Ring itself to act. Gollum couldn’t resist putting it on, and drawing the eye to him, and it would surely be able to draw some attention to itself if it was just lying on the ground somewhere in Mordor.
Of course, that’s no help to Frodo, possibly captured by the bad guys and facing some horrific fate. But Gandalf and Aragorn can’t do anything to help this one hobbit, even if they are partly responsible for that fate.
As such, Mordor’s crazy peace terms – Giving up half the world and being dominant over the other half in return for one prisoner – are easily rejected. Not that Sauron would have expected any less I’m sure, not if he didn’t know the real value of the prisoner he has/had. Gandalf is the spokesman here, as Aragorn remains deathly silent, his presence enough to make Mordor think twice. Gandalf is the dominant one in the conversation, seizing the items the Mouth brought along and making the dark servant recoil in the face of his power. Still, he’s shown up as a bad liar and poker player here, his attempts at dismissing the items and then trying to get a glimpse of Frodo undermining the West’s position. I suppose, since Gandalf is supposed to be a beacon of truth, white light, “like a sword in that dark place”, him being a terrible fibber is not the most unreasonable of character traits.
The Mouth of Sauron departs, never to be seen again, and the Host of the West is soon surrounded by the might of Mordor. Poor old Pippin, relegated to a brief gasp of horror at the Mouth’s items so far, finds himself in the front line facing the first assault. Our little hobbit princling (remember, he actually kind of is, at least in Shire terms) seems ready to die, Théoden style, but his thoughts do betray him: he might be attempting bluster and defiance (as he has done in tricky situations before, back in “Minis Tirith”), but he kind of does want to live through it: “I wish I could see cool sunlight and green grass again!”. But Pippin is a harder man than he was only a while ago: the madness of Denethor, the Nazgul overhead and the Pelennor Fields have seen to that.
All indications are that the battle, fought in a quagmire of slag and mud, is a horrific one. Perhaps Tolkien was taking inspiration from his time in the Western Front, you get a slight “Passchaendale” feel off these few pages, and there is little thought for tactics or strategy. Just men and Orcs fighting and dying in a mess of mud and steel. Pippin gets his moment, albeit a brief one, ducking under a trolls armour and stabbing it hard. His reward is to get crushed under the weight of its dead body, his inexperience as a soldier letting him down: don’t stand in front of something big that’s about to fall forward.
Poor Pippin has his own little “slowed down-muffled noise-bullet whistle” moment here – TVTropes calls it “Shell-Shock Silence” – as he starts to fade away, but not before he hears the famous call “The Eagles are coming!” Eagles are a symbol of hope that Tolkien uses again and again, and this moment recalls the climax of The Hobbit, another desperate battle, another unlooked for ally. Pippin falls unconscious before we see more of the coming “eucatastrophe”, but the reader must be left with some hope for this beleaguered army. It’s an effective enough cliff-hanger, setting us up nicely for the return to the Frodo/Sam plot thread.
This chapter is caught in a hard spot, as it needs to be both a suitable conclusion to Book Five, on a par with chapters like “Flight To The Ford” and “The Choices Of Master Samwise”, but comes after the action highpoint of “The Battle Of The Pelennor Fields”. In the end, Tolkien decides to avoid the actual fighting for the most part, leaving them until the last number of pages, and focuses instead on a slow build-up of tension and horror, before the true final set-piece, the parlay with the Mouth of Sauron.
In essence, “The Black Gate Opens” is basically just a description of all the things discussed in “The Last Debate”, but it is the interaction with the Mouth of Sauron that really makes it. He’s crude, rude and all-round bad, but is written in a simply fascinating way all the same. He’s as close to a chatty personification of Mordor as we will ever get, and the back-and-forth between him and Gandalf provides several tantalising hints for what is to come.
Beyond that, this chapter serves to maximise Aragorn’s role as the leader of the free world, authoritative, commanding and inspiring. But it also gives time to poor little Pippin, caught in a terrible battle so far away from home, an audience surrogate who gets just a partial glimpse of a final victory before being borne away by unconsciousness.
Next up, back in time with Sam.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.