Summary and Analysis: The Return of the King
Book 5, Chapters 6–10
The Witchking of the Nazgûl vanishes from the city gates to meet Théoden's attack. When Théoden's horse panics and falls on his rider, only Dernhelm and Merry stay. The Witchking laughs, convinced that no man can kill him, but Dernhelm reveals himself as Éowyn, a woman. Merry strikes at the Wraith, and when it stumbles, Éowyn destroys him. Théoden passes, and Éomer leads the Rohirrim in a vengeful charge, not caring about strategy. Merry follows Théoden's and Éowyn's bodies into the city. Éowyn is still alive, and the Gondorians send her to the Houses of Healing. Meanwhile, the fighting before the city goes against Gondor when a fleet of black-sailed ships appears on the river. As hope dies, the lead ship unfurls a banner, revealing the tree of Gondor. Aragorn and his men come to shore, along with many fighters they have gathered in southern Gondor, and soon win the battle.
Pippin begs Gandalf to save Faramir from Denethor's madness. In the mausoleum, they find Faramir laid on an unlit pyre, but Gandalf quickly removes him. The wizard reminds the steward that he should defend his city, but Denethor laughs. He reveals that he holds a palantír, and that it shows victory is impossible. He refuses to yield his power to Aragorn, and if he cannot rule Gondor himself in peace, he prefers death. He tries to stab Faramir, but when that fails he leaps onto the pyre and sets it alight. The horrified witnesses bear Faramir to the Houses of Healing.
Pippin leads Merry to the Houses of Healing. Aragorn enters the city secretly to tend the injured. When he revives Faramir, the new steward recognizes his king. Aragorn treats Éowyn's injuries, but he notes that her despair goes back far before her encounter with the Nazgûl. Finally, he wakes Merry to grief at the loss of Théoden, but not despair. The next day, Legolas and Gimli explain Aragorn's timely arrival. After leaving the Paths of the Dead, Aragorn used the army of ghosts to overcome the Corsairs of Umbar. Aragorn released the dead from their oath before sailing upriver with the armies of southern Gondor. A wind from the south blew away the darkness of Mordor and brought the ships to the battle just in time.
While the friends talk, Aragorn and Gandalf hold a council to decide their next actions. Gandalf confirms that they have no hope of winning the war against Sauron, which is why the Council of Elrond decided to destroy the Ring. Once it is gone, Sauron's power will be destroyed and the war will end. All that the forces of the West can do is try to distract the Enemy so that Frodo can complete his quest. Sauron expects and fears that they will use the Ring, so if they behave as though they have it he will strike at them rather than guard his own country. They decide to set out two days later for Mordor with an army of only seven thousand men.
Legolas and Gimli accompany Aragorn when the army leaves, and Pippin marches with the Guard of Minas Tirith, but Merry stays behind to heal. As they travel, heralds announce the return of the king. Nazgûl haunt their steps, and Aragorn allows the most frightened to turn aside. At the Black Gate, Sauron's evil herald shows them Frodo's mithril coat. He threatens years of torture and anguish for the spy if they do not agree to Sauron's terms. They refuse, and while the messenger races back to the Black Gate, the armies of Mordor surround Aragorn's small army. Pippin, at first despairing at the signs of Frodo's capture, hardens his resolve, and soon he kills a hill troll that falls on top of him. He thinks he hears voices announcing the arrival of the eagles, but he passes out before he finds out.
To use a cliché, victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat before the gates of Minas Tirith. Aragorn's daring the Paths of the Dead allows his dramatic arrival to secure the field, but many people — not least Éowyn and Merry — join together to overcome the Enemy's overwhelming force. Denethor's madness provides a contrast to the heroic deeds on the field, an example of how pride and arrogance — his conviction of the hopelessness of the struggle — can destroy nobility and strength. Even Éowyn, who fights because she cannot bear her life, has turned despair into a weapon against the darkness, but Denethor allows it to master him.
Denethor goes mad because he puts faith in the visions of the palantír. Like Galadriel's mirror, the seeing stones can show the future, but such glimpses are difficult to interpret. Denethor assumes the black ships carry enemies, and he falls into despair — in fact, they carry friends. When Aragorn reveals himself to the Orthanc-stone, Sauron assumes that Isildur's heir has the Ring, and the Enemy attacks — in fact, Aragorn wants to distract Sauron from Frodo's quest. These misinterpretations imply that knowing the future does not insure correct decisions, but may even hinder them.
When the Armies of the West set out for Mordor, they again act in the face of despair, without certain knowledge of the outcome. Although these are the traditional heroes of epic story, the warriors, kings, and wizards, they realize that their actions cannot directly win the war with Sauron — they can only hope to give the Ringbearer his chance. While Tolkien clearly admires their heroism, the true hero is a small hobbit, struggling alone to complete his task.
bandy to exchange back and forth.
buckler a small shield.
ghylls a deep, rocky ravine; gully.
proffered to present or offer.
quailed cowered or shrank in fear.
sluice an artificial watercourse, or the gate that regulates it.