In the fourth chapter of The Return of the King, this is severely fucked up and upsetting. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE SIEGE OF GONDOR
It’s now more clear than ever that this book has both World War I and World War II as an influence. The sheer weight of war hangs heavy upon those in Minas Tirith, and Tolkien’s experiences with those wars is the unspoken subtext to this chapter. There is virtually no joy to be found in this chapter, and it’s a constant reminder of how disposable people can be during wartime, even if we don’t intend them to be. But it’s also a way for Tolkien to tell us that we can’t ignore the Dark Lord and Mordor anymore. They are not a distant threat. They’re not a tale on the tongue of travelers, or a rumor born of fear, or even a deliver from a messenger.
They’re here. And this is fucked up.
One of the ways that Tolkien conveys the atmosphere in this chapter is through the behavior of the characters involved. Aside from Pippin and Beregond, there is not one character that isn’t snappy, rude, condescending, angry, or frustrated. Warfare is a mental blight as much as it is a physical one, and I will forever be impressed with how this author is able to show me how an entire city turns to despair. Things start off this way with Gandalf. We’ve never seen him so impatient. Even typing that, it sort of feels wrong. The dude has waited years to see things materialize in the past, so how can you call someone like that “impatient”? Gandalf’s impatience materializes whenever he talks with Pippin. He’s short with the hobbit, and rarely engages him beyond a couple minutes or so. He’s occupied with the oncoming siege of Gondor, so much so that he kind of comes across as an asshole a few times. I get it, though, and I’m not pissed off at Gandalf, especially in the last third of the chapter when Denethor gives up and Gandalf is left to run the show. Who wouldn’t be frustrated by the events at Minas Tirith?
Denethor, however, is far more rude to Pippin, and it’s a sign in the beginning that he is unraveling. By the time he loses his focus at the end of the chapter, we get a chance to experience how brilliantly Tolkien set up this character arc from the very first moment we met him. (And I know that John Noble, who plays the lovely Walter Bishop on Fringe, portrays Denethor in the film, and I CANNOT FUCKING WAIT TO SEE HIM IN THIS ROLE.) He’s a man obsessed with his own power in a way, and he also clearly seems to favor one son over the other. Which also proves to be his downfall, I might add.
But I’ll get to that. Pippin’s assigned to basically be Denethor’s right hand man, and he’s soon set off to be clad in his new gear. I admit that there’s something adorable about Pippin wearing soldier’s gear, and I kind of wanted to see it REALLY BADLY. Then I read this and regretted that feeling:
In some other time and place Pippin might have been pleased with his new array, but he knew now that he was taking part in no play; he was in deadly earnest the servant of a grim master in the greatest peril. The hauberk was burdensome, and the helm weighed upon his head.
Pippin never really wanted this, and it’s kind of terrifying to think he might have to fight in this war, so far away from home. This whole culture in Minas Tirith is so unlike his own, too, and it gives him this innate sense of loneliness. Gandalf isn’t really frustrated at him as he his frustrated with life, and all of this is just too much to handle. Where are any of his friends? Are they still alive? How can a little hobbit fight a war with such monstrous and gigantic creatures? Of course, I can’t ignore the haunting reference to Tolkien’s experience with war either, and it gives the passage an unsettling vibe. UGH I LOVE THIS WRITING SO MUCH.
When the Black Riders chase Faramir towards the city and Gandalf heeds them off, the chapter constantly one-ups itself. Oh, what’s worse than the last reveal? THIS ONE. I was so happy that Faramir returned (and, admittedly, to read about Gandalf using magic HE IS SO BADASS) that I was extra dismayed that everything that followed it was AN UTTER DISASTER. Seriously, that moment when Faramir realized there was another hobbit in his city was so cute, and then IT’S ALL RUINED.
Because how am I supposed to feel good about this moment during Faramir Story Time?
As his story was unfolded of his meeting with Frodo and his servant and of the events at Henneth Annûn, Pippin became aware that Gandalf’s hands were trembling as they clutched the carven wood. While they seemed now and very old, and as he looked at them, suddenly with a thrill of fear Pippin knew that Gandalf, Gandalf himself, was troubled, even afraid.
Fuck. Gandalf is afraid? Does he know what’s at the top of Cirith Ungol? He has to know. Why else would it upset him so much? Does he know about Shelob??? WHY IS EVERYTHING BAD AND NEGATIVE AND NOT GOOD? Yet in hindsight, this isn’t even that bad. Nearly every plot twist and development that comes after this one is pretty much worse than the one before it. For example, there are few things more awkward in this book than Denethor’s argument with Faramir. I know exactly what it is like to feel like your parents treat you differently than your siblings, and that’s what happens here. Denethor treats Faramir with such a bizarre bout of disrespect. I get that he is grieving Boromir’s death, but that doesn’t mean you have to insult your own son as he heads out for battle. It’s with this idea – that Faramir hasn’t pleased or honored his own father – that Faramir believes he’s got to win his father’s respect.
It’s honestly a disaster, and I can’t imagine how Pippin feels in all of this, silently standing behind Denethor and watching as Gandalf, Denethor, and Faramir bicker. I think it’s possible that whatever that gloom is in the sky, it can actually affect the feelings of those in Minas Tirith. The threat of war is so close, so I don’t doubt it’s grating on everyone’s nerves, either. Denethor wants to protect himself and his city. It’s natural for him, then, to question those around him. So I understand why he clashes so much with Gandalf. However, the man is so positive he knows what’s best that he can’t see the errors he might be making. I mean, Denethor’s hypothetical plan for the Ring is certainly way more awful than what Gandalf did with it. OH GOD SAM IS WEARING THE RING FFFFUUUUUUU.
It’s just a mess, honestly. Faramir departs in a haste the next day, after a night of doubt and fear. No one is in a good mood. Even Gandalf expresses some doubt privately to Pippin, but he seems to be the only character here who holds on to the tiniest shred of hope for the future. Truthfully, I don’t blame anyone. It’s here that the waiting begins, and it is agonizing to read. Most of the time, the citizens of Minas Tirith must hope that the messenger who returns brings good news. He doesn’t. There’s news of retreats. of advancing enemy forces, and of doom. Gandalf even takes it upon himself to head out to assist Faramir’s men and bring back those who are wounded. Still, it’s not enough to quell the fear of anyone. THIS IS SO FUCKED UP. And then the Lord of the Nazgûl is on his way, too? Oh, this will be a grand time.
I think that one of the more unsettling and upsetting images that Tolkien provides is the start of the siege on Gondor. The fact that Pippin can see both the retreating forces and the oncoming enemy is so creepy to me. The siege, as sudden as it starts, is never truly a surprise. You can see it as it arrives. When it does come, it’s yet another chance to Tolkien to show us how well he can write thrilling action scenes. What’s different about this one, though, is that it felt even worse than the battle of Helm’s Deep. That progressed to a point where I feared loss, but this one starts that way. As the Nazgûl swoop down upon the retreat and the Orcs lay siege to everything in front of them, I expected disaster right from the beginning.
So Tolkien obliges me and hands me disaster.
Last of all he came. His men passed in. The mounted kings returned, and at their rear the banner of Dol Amroth, and the Prince. And in his arms before him on his horse he bore the body of his kinsman, Faramir son of Denethor, found upon the stricken field.
Oh, fuck you, Tolkien. This is the start of the siege, and this is what you give me? Well, this is going to be terrible, isn’t it? There was a slight burst of joy when I found out that Faramir wasn’t actually dead, but for the rest of the chapter, Tolkiend finds a way to give us a plot twist that’s pretty much worse than death on the battlefield. I don’t feel the need to summarize the siege itself to y’all, since you’re all familiar with it and the TERROR IT BRINGS. With no help from the Rohan, with no troops on the Pelennor, and with no hope of any miracle, the enemy begins to set up outside the city and they set up catapults and then there is a hail of fire and then this is just awful and terrible and I just started to wait anxiously for someone else to die. Oh, right, and this:
The Nazgûl came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.
Thank you. Thank you for this. I feel fantastic. I am brimming with hope.
This despair that settles over the city affects no one more than Denethor, who refuses to leave his dying son’s side. Because of this, Gandalf, the eternal badass, TAKES CONTROL OF THE DEFENSE. Oh my god, YOU ARE A WONDERFUL SOUL. I can’t even imagine what a fierce force that wizard is while in charge of all these men, and I love that he doesn’t even ask to be in charge. Unfortunately, the reason for that is IMMENSELY FUCKING DISTURBING. Denethor, having given up all hope, begins talking about his own pyre, breaking Pippin’s required servitude and telling him to leave. I believed at first that he was just saying that he knew the city would fall and that they would all die. But Denethor’s servants take Faramir’s dying body to Fen Hollen, a room for funerals. He’s not dead yet? So… what are you doing?
‘But do not send for the embalmers. Bring us wood quick to burn, and lay it all about us, and beneath; and pour oil upon it. And when I bid you thrust in a torch. Do this and speak no more to me. Farewell!’
WHAT THE HOLY FUCK. WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!?! Denethor, what are you doing????? You’re going to kill your son and yourself in a FUNERAL PYRE? Naturally, Pippin freaks the fuck out at this because why the fuck wouldn’t you? So brave little Pippin runs down to the battle itself to find Gandalf, yet when he does, something else happens that pretty much puts the imminent death of Faramir and Denethor to shame: Grond.
I can’t. I can’t even deal with all of this. It’s a hundred-foot-long battering ram. And it takes just four rams before the Gate to Minas Tirith crumbles, and the Lord of the Nazgûl is the first to enter the city.
BUT ONLY TO FACE GANDALF. SHIT YEAH. Right as the two begin to face off, a rooster crows, announcing morning, and that crow IS MET WITH THE HORNS OF THE NORTH. ROHAN HAS ARRIVED. OH MY GOD WHY DOES THE CHAPTER END HERE. I HATE EVERYTHING. I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS. HOLY SHIT.