Summary and Analysis: The Return of the King
Book 5, Chapters 1–5
Gandalf and Pippin ride Shadowfax through the night, pausing only briefly to rest. They are now heading for Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, and three days have passed since Pippin looked into the palantìr. As they ride, warning beacons call Rohan to aid the city. They enter the city near dawn and make their way through its seven gates and circles to the White Tower and the seat of Denethor, Steward of Gondor. Denethor quizzes Pippin closely about his son Boromir's death, and Pippin pledges himself to the old man's service in Boromir's memory. After they are done, Gandalf and Denethor exchange words, revealing a tension between them that Pippin only half understands. When Denethor gives them leave, Gandalf goes to gather news and take part in councils of war, while Pippin meets Beregond, a fellow-guardsman, to learn about his new duties and the city. Pippin spends his afternoon in the company of Beregond's son Bergil, watching as reinforcements arrive at the city gates — always welcome, but fewer than the city needs.
Merry, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli leave Isengard with Théoden soon after Gandalf and Pippin depart. Shortly after they set out, a group of riders overtakes them. They are the Dúnedain, Aragorn's people from the North, accompanied by the sons of Elrond, and they have answered a summons of Galadriel to help their chieftain. At Helm's Deep again, Merry swears himself to the service of Théoden and joins his company. Aragorn, however, has used the palantìr, taking control of it away from Sauron. His vision shows that he must take the Paths of the Dead, so he rides to Dunharrow. Éowyn welcomes their news, but when she learns their intention to depart by the haunted path she becomes angry. She not only believes Aragorn is throwing away his life and the lives of his warriors when they are most needed, but she has also fallen in love with him. The Paths of the Dead begin at a stone door into the mountainside, and everyone who approaches feels the chill of death. As they travel through the tunnels, Gimli feels the dead following. Aragorn orders them to follow and as the Heir of Isildur, he has the right to command their service. They emerge from the mountains in the south of Gondor, near the sea, and Aragorn leads his men and an army of the dead to war as the dark cloud from Mordor blocks out the sunlight.
Back in Dunharrow, Merry arrives with Théoden to gather as many Riders as can be found before riding on to Minas Tirith. There Éowyn tells them of Aragorn's path, and Théoden explains the legends of the haunted path to Merry. As they talk, a herald of Gondor arrives bearing a red arrow and begs for Rohan's aid. Théoden agrees to lead his men to Minas Tirith, although he warns that their numbers are few. The next morning has no dawn. The king releases Merry from service, telling him that he is too small to ride a horse into battle. A young rider called Dernhelm then offers to carry the hobbit secretly; to Merry, the rider looks like he wants to die.
Pippin spends most of his first day as a Tower Guard standing near Denethor while the steward talks to Gandalf and his other counselors. At sunset, Pippin watches a small group of horsemen try to reach the city while five winged Nazgûl attack them. Gandalf rides to their rescue, driving away the Black Riders, and then escorts Faramir into his father's presence. There he tells of his meeting with Frodo. Gandalf seems frightened by Frodo's chosen path, but Denethor is angry with Faramir and jealous of the respect his son gives the wizard. The next morning, the morning with no dawn, Denethor sends the exhausted Faramir back into the field. Soon, watchers on the city's walls can see and hear fighting and explosions. When the retreat reaches the city, they bring Faramir's unconscious body with them.
The city is soon surrounded and all the roads — including the one leading to Rohan — are blocked by the enemy, who begins lobbing missiles into the city. Some explode, while others are the heads of the men who have died on the battlefield. Combined with the terrible cries of the Nazgûl, these tactics soon paralyze the defenders. Through the siege, Denethor sits next to the dying Faramir, and Gandalf takes command of the city. When the assault on the gates begins, Denethor has his son carried to the tombs, where he plans to burn both of them alive before the city falls. Pippin races to find Gandalf, finding the wizard at the ruined gates of the city preparing to meet the Lord of the Nazgûl. Just as the Witchking prepares to strike, a cock crows and the horns of Rohan sound in the distance.
Four days out from Dunharrow, Merry feels like an unwanted piece of luggage among the Rohirrim, who have camped while they decide what to do about the army that blocks their road. Ghân-buri-Ghân, a chieftain of the Wild Men, offers to guide them around the orcs by a hidden road. As they approach the battlefield the wind begins to change, and the light of dawn breaks through the edges of the Mordor cloud. A flash and explosion mark the downfall of the gates, but Théoden answers with the horns of Rohan, and they attack the unsuspecting enemy from behind, singing as they ride.
When Aragorn uses the palantìr, he declares himself to Sauron and manages to learn something of the Enemy's plans. The communication both warns Aragorn of the danger to Minas Tirith and unsettles Sauron, causing the Enemy to attack prematurely. The declaration also initiates his passage through the Paths of the Dead, a traditional part of the mythic hero's journey. The visit to the underworld tests the hero's spirit before he can achieve victory (Frodo also passes through death on several occasions) as he demonstrates his courage in the face of death and the ability to lead men to face death themselves. Through the journey he transcends death and even commands the dead themselves, confirming that he is indeed the heir of Isildur and the True King.
The city of Minas Tirith is the remnant of a golden age, proud and majestic but on its way to ruin. Likewise, its ruler, Denethor, is a great man falling away into old age, whose pride will not allow him to accept the wisdom of Gandalf or even of his own son, and Faramir loves his father too dearly to challenge him. When Faramir slides into deadly illness and the armies of Sauron surround the city, Denethor's pride leads him into madness, and his lack of action could doom his beloved city — he chooses despair rather than seek help. In contrast, Théoden accepts the offer of help from Ghân-buri-Ghân and brings his forces to the field of battle just in time.
butteries pantries or storerooms.
embrasure an opening in a wall or parapet to allow the firing of missiles.
fey marked for death; also marked by otherworldliness.
garner to collect or gather; also what has been collected.
livery the uniform of the servants of a nobleman.
oast a kiln for drying hops.
sortie a raid or foray, particularly of troops coming out from a defensive position.
sword-thain a military retainer or servant.
tilth cultivated land.
trowels hand tools for spreading mortar.
weapontake muster, or assemblage of armed men.
wold hilly countryside.