In the first chapter of The Return of the King, Pippin and Gandalf arrive in Minas Tirith, only to meet with the stern and craft Denethor. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER ONE: MINAS TIRITH
Well, my predictions are just going to be universally wrong, aren’t they?
The arrival at Minas Tirith changes SO MUCH. It’s not only a massive moment for the plot, but Tolkien takes time to give us yet another fully-formed and imagined culture within Middle-earth. I will never stop thinking this is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever read. A WHOLE WORLD INSIDE ANOTHER WORLD. This is some Inception-level genius, I swear. But the opening chapter of The Return of the King really serves to make on key point: war has arrived in Middle-earth.
This is a lengthy chapter, one of the longer ones in a while, and it’s full of details of Gandalf and Pippin’s journey to Minas Tirith on top of the details of the people of Gondor. I really shouldn’t read chapters late at night because they make me tired. The characters always seem to be on the move, and I can feel the exhaustion leaking through the pages. There’s simply no genuine, effective rest for any of these people. But that’s one of many things that contributes to the sense of panic and doom that I got from chapter one. Gandalf feels that they’re already too late in arriving to speak with Denethor, so their stops are brief and unsatisfying. Pippin often takes the opportunity to sleep on the back of Shadowfax when he can. It’s one of those things I’m glad that the book addresses. This is such a physical experience for all the characters, and sleep has to factor into it.
The arrival within the city gates of Minas Tirith gives Tolkien a chance to expand on the physical arrangement of this city. I really adore that so many of you are willing to share either official or fan-created works that help me visualize a lot of the locations in Middle-earth. I don’t have a visual brain, especially when it comes to arranging or imagining things in physical space. I think I have an idea what the great city looks like, as well as Tower of Ecthelion, but it’s never fully-formed in my head. You know how some people feel that movie versions of characters ruin their head-canon? That never really happens to me at all. I have a hard time picturing people and places that are fictional! It’s just something I’ve always had to deal with.
Yet despite this, I understood the awe of this city, especially how it’s built with seven levels with seven different entrances to get inside each level. I WANT TO SEE THIS. I love that it’s set against the backdrop of the mountains. I love the design. But what I most love is how everything feels REALLY FUCKED UP. Gandalf and Pippin are in this place of grandeur, but there’s no time to stop and appreciate anything. They must move on from one moment to the next, keeping in mind that there’s a war brewing. Gandalf’s warning to Pippin heightens the tension, too, because it sets up Denethor in a way to give his meeting a new context. I’d forgotten that this was Boromir’s father, so there was suddenly this new concern I had. Pippin saw Boromir die. THIS IS GOING TO BE SO AWKWARD.
‘It is scarcely wise when bringing the news of the death of his heir to a mighty lord to speak over much of the coming of one who will, if he comes, claim the kingship. Is that enough?’
‘Kingship?’ said Pippin amazed.
‘Yes,’ said Gandalf. ‘If you have walked all these days with closed ears and mind asleep, wake up now!’
ARAGORN IS GOING TO CLAIM KINGSHIP? WHAT THE HOLY FUCK. WHAT THE HELL?!?!?! Oh my god, this book is going to destroy me, isn’t it? OH GOD, ARAGORN!!!!
So, I was right about one thing: this scene would be awkward. It is terribly awkward, especially since at one point, Pippin has to watch Denethor and Gandalf essentially have a mind fight. For real. The king grills Pippin relentlessly about his son’s death. To be fair, I understand his suspicion, so I don’t want to give off the idea that I think he’s an antagonist. I mean, the dude has never even seen a hobbit before, and now a hobbit is telling him how his brave warrior son died and this tiny Halfling survived? Pippin rises to the occasion, though, and speaks brilliantly of Boromir and gives Denethor his sword as a sign of good faith. Clearly, he took Gandalf’s advice and woke up his mind, because it works. Well, actually, he does end up having to swear service to Denethor and Gondor. So, what does that mean? I know he gets lesser passwords and is sort of inducted into the city in a way, and that Denethor can call on him to serve when he needs to. You know, I really hope Pippin doesn’t regret this, and I also hope that Denethor doesn’t take advantage of him. Look, I’m just trying to find ways that Tolkien can break my heart so I can at least attempt to prepare for it.
Could one of those things be the awkward, uncomfortable behavior of Gandalf and Denethor? Do they have some history we don’t know of yet? Reading their argument is like listening to your parents fight from the backseat of the car. You hate it and you wish it would stop, but you’re stuck and can’t go anywhere. Perhaps they’re so snappy with one another because their nerves are frayed. Both characters are well aware of the destruction that looms over the mountain and seems to grow brighter, redder, and closer every single day, and it appears they both have their own ideas on how to deal with it.
I think that’s why I’m so pleased with Pippin’s way of coping with all of this: he wants to find food. Bless. It’s also how he meets the lovely Beregond, a rather pleasant fellow who does something? Well, I’m actually not sure what his exact role is besides being a “plain man” in the Third Company, but, like Pippin, his presence is uplifting. Despite that he, too, knows that war is so close, he never seems jaded or panicked. As he takes Pippin around the grounds, he’s kind, polite, and genuinely interested in this strange hobbit. I like that he just accepts him outright. It certainly helps that he came with Gandalf and swore service to Gondor, but Beregond just seems so genuine in his interactions with Pippin.
There’s a lot of info-dropping for the remainder of this chapter, and it’s very pleasant to read. This whole section has the subtext of Pippin’s loneliness. He just went through a traumatic journey with his best friend, and now he has no idea if he’ll see Merry again, let alone Sam or Frodo. So he approaches a day of hanging out with Beregond by simply enjoying the experience. They visit Shadowfax, by Gandalf’s command; Pippin gets his first full meal in Minas Tirith on a picnic with Beregond; I start wanting to eat meals in this book; George R.R. Martin writes about food a lot, too; goddamn it, I am hungry.
Pippin’s little picnic also helps build this city more in my head, at least in terms of framing where he is and which mountain ranges surround him. It’s so frightening to me that they are so close to Mordor. Beregond puts it very plainly:
‘We seldom name it; but we have dwelt ever in sight of that shadow: sometimes it seems fainter and more distant; sometimes nearer and darker. It is growing and darkening now; and therefore our fear and disquiet grow too.’
What the hell is Sauron preparing? What is the glowing? UGH I NEED TO KNOW. It’s stressing me out! But Tolkien has been deliberating obfuscating this fact from us, hinting at something terrible, but always keeping it out of our grasp. I’m starting to realize that whatever big battle happens in this book is going to be apocalyptic or something. When a “shadow of doom” passes over them, it’s just another sign that this is all incredibly fucked up. I like how Beregond describes it: it’s the “deep breath before the plunge.” It’s the quiet before the cataclysmic storm. OH GOD I AM SO UNPREPARED.
I enjoy that Tolkien doesn’t ignore that Pippin doesn’t really fit into all of this. I’m not just referring to the oncoming war, though that’s a large part of it. Pippin does think that perhaps he’s not really the type of pawn that Gandalf referred to earlier. He’s just left out of everything at this point. Gandalf is off being all wizardly; Beregond leaves him at one point; and while the citizens treat him well, Pippin just doesn’t belong here. He’s entirely by himself the whole time. I think that’s why he takes up the chance to spend time with Beregond’s son, Bergil. Despite that disaster is imminent, the kid is just a good sport, a way for Pippin to put aside his worries and concerns for a few hours.
But he’s not Merry. Merry, where are you?
This is a fascinating chapter to me and a great opening to The Return of the King. It sets the tone for the book and explores Pippin’s character further. But it’s all just a set-up for the last paragraph, isn’t it?
‘You should sleep, in a bed while you still may. At the sunrise I shall take you to the Lord Denethor again. No, when the summons comes, not at sunrise. The Darkness has begun. There will be no dawn.’
You’re kidding me. Why do I feel this is literal? Like, Sauron literally found a way to block out the sun with some sort of “Darkness”?