In the sixth chapter of The Return of the King, I can barely process what I just read. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER SIX: THE BATTLE OF THE PELENNOR FIELDS
My dad watched a lot of war movies when I was growing. Some of them I liked a great deal, like Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. But I can’t recall the names of many of the other ones. A lot of them were in black and white, and most were indecipherable to me. I couldn’t understand what was going on, and they held no interest in me. Plus, they were always so depressing. It was especially hard to wander into the living room and see my dad watching a movie and knowing that there was either a part of him that missed that or feared it. He would just sit in his recliner with a Pepsi and a cigarette, and he wouldn’t talk for hours. I think it’s part of the reason why I never found myself drawn to any sort of movie that dealt with warfare, even if that movie wasn’t based on real events. I never much cared for action or fantasy stories that utilized long battle scenes.
Part of the reason I am enjoying doing Mark Reads and Mark Watches is that I’m able to examine and engage with a lot of these things I’ve clung to for many years. Why should I avoid battle scenes or war movies? Why should I maintain that The Lord of the Rings is a boring nerd fantasy if I’ve never even read it? Why can’t I find new ways to enjoy (or criticize) the things I am reading or watching? As anxious as I was to find out what would happen to the siege of Gondor, I also worried that I wouldn’t find the epic battle to be… well, all that epic.
I am so happy to be proved wrong.
While the sheer weight of detail, action, and scope is certainly a big reason why I enjoyed “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields,” it’s the emotional plot twists that really made me fall in love with what Tolkien had written here. This is a story about people and how they react to the oppressive violence that the Dark Lord threatens them with, and Tolkien never forgets that this is about the characters. There is a lot of violence here, and I’m interested to see how the last film deals with this. There are broken arms, a lot of beheadings, stabbings, eating and tearing of corpses, and tramplings. I don’t think I want a bloody movie or anything, but the book paints this increasingly grisly and brutal portrait of war on the Pelennor fields.
The Nazgûl finally play a critical part of the narrative instead of just being a sometimes-distant threat. The Lord of the Nazgûl seeks out Théoden, and his confrontation with the King of the Mark is just downright horrifying. I’m fascinated (and creeped out) by the idea that the Dark Lord bred so many creatures just for war. I can’t even visualize the winged beast that the Nazgûl ride, so I just imagine that they look like jet black pterodactyls of some sort. Anyway, the start of a long decline in good things happening is right here, when Shadowmane is felled by a poison dart. How does one man fight a thing like a Nazgûl?
Merry and Dernhelm both are thrown from their horses and are within feet of the King as the Nazgûl descends down on the man. IT’S JUST SO TERRIFYING, OKAY? Especially the idea that Merry refuses to look up at what’s above him. He can feel the Black Rider there and he doesn’t dare to give it a glance. Dernhelm, however, has this sudden and confusing bout of confidence, directly challenging the spirit. Well, Dernhelm’s dead, I thought. He’ll be killed instantly. But why the hell was this young soldier so determined to protect the King?
‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin.’
HOLY SHIT WHAT??? DERNHELM WAS ÉOWYN THE ENTIRE TIME. I CAN’T. I CAN’T. I CAN’T!!!!!! THIS IS SO AMAZING TO ME AND I AM FILLED WITH JOY AND TERROR AND I NEVER SAW THIS COMING IN A MILLION YEARS.
For into Merry’s mind flashed the memory of the face that he saw riding from Dunharrow: the face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope. Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke.
I admit to tearing the fuck up reading this. I was in absolute awe of this plot twist, and the selfless nature of what Éowyn was doing just overwhelmed me. This will forever be one of the best moments in the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, along with the one that follows: she beheads the winged creature that the Nazgûl rides on.
Unfortunately, this is immediately followed up with Éowyn facing the Nazgûl’s mace, which shatters both her shield and her arm. And then I am impressed by this book again when Merry, in a bitter rage, STABS THE NAZGÛL BEHIND HIS KNEE. It allows Éowyn to get one last perfect stab that destroys her sword and the Black Rider. She did it. They did it. I can’t fucking believe it.
But Merry is left between two bodies: Éowyn’s and Théoden’s, and the first significant deaths are upon us. Ugh, I just held back tears as Théoden bid goodbye to Merry, asking for his son and then Éowyn, not knowing that SHE IS RIGHT FUCKING THERE OH MY GOD.
Slowly Théoden opened his eyes. Seeing the banner he made a sign that it should be given to Éomer.
‘Hail, King of the Mark!’ he said. ‘Ride now to victory! Bid Éowyn farewell!” And so he died, and knew not that Éowyn lay near him.
Oh, just fuck you, J.R.R. Tolkien. This is too much. Fuck this. Oh my god, this is so tragic it hurts to read. WHY. WHYYYYYY.
When Éomer sees his sister near his father, he loses it, and rushes off in a fury to destroy. Everyone, again, leaves Merry by himself. Something about that was so sad to me, that this little hobbit was left to fend for himself amidst the most chaotic moment of his life. All he has is the very shield that Éowyn gave him, as the sword of the Barrow-downs basically disintegrates after touching the body of the Nazgûl. So much of what’s here is about destruction. There are a lot of deaths in these paragraphs, and they even bury Shadowmane. The land is destroyed, these people hearts are obliterated, and the threat of their own deaths is still present all around them. However, when the Prince of Dol Amroth rides up, he determines that ÉOWYN IS NOT DEAD SHE IS JUST UNCONSCIOUS BECAUSE LOL SHE HAS A BROKEN ARM. Did no one think to check the body???
But that small hope is extinguished because this is The Lord of the Rings and joy cannot last longer than a chapter. The tide of the battle turns against the heroes, who are disorganized and distracted by the grim experiences they’ve gone through, but everyone loses all hope when off in the distance, a group of black-sailed ships are approaching. The enemy has more forces arriving, and soon the characters left fighting for Gondor will be surrounded.
I’ll be honest. It’s at this point I just believed that every character, save for perhaps Merry, was going to die. It was an issue of numbers. They were overwhelmed and losing their own men, so how could they possibly fight off a whole new group of Orcs and beasts and creatures? I mean, how depressing is it that Éomer calls for this remaining men in the hopes of creating a human shield, “though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark”? He’s been King for maybe an hour. No one will ever know! That’s so fucked up to me.
So it genuinely caught me by surprise when the tiny bit of sunlight reveals markings on all the ships that designates them as FROM GONDOR. IT’S ARAGORN. WHAT THE FUCK. WHAT THE FUCK!!!!! HOW DID HE GET SHIPS. Oh my god, the Oathbreakers helped him steal the enemy ships. Oh my god, Legolas and Gimli are alive and THIS IS THE BEST TWIST I COULD EVER ASK FOR. WHERE THE HELL IS MERRY???
I can’t believe that, despite the many deaths, the siege of Gondor is thwarted. It is shocking to me in the best way imaginable because Tolkien had me convinced this could not end in any way but utter destruction. I did not believe this could go well. Oh fuck, they are all so close to a reunion. LET MERRY AND PIPPIN BE REUNITED IN THE NEXT CHAPTER, PLEASE.