504 – The Siege of Gondor

The Siege of Gondor

At the end of Chapter 1, Gandalf warned Pippin that the Darkness had begun.  That there would be no dawn.  Now he awakes to the gloom:

“Candles were lit in their chamber, for only a dim twilight came through the windows; the air was heavy as with approaching thunder.”

Being a Hobbit, he thinks first about breakfast when Gandalf tells him he is summoned to attend the most powerful human in Middle-Earth:

“You are summoned to the Lord of the City to learn your new duties.’

“‘And will he provide breakfast?’

“‘No! I have provided it: all that you will get till noon. Food is now doled out by order.’

“Pippin looked ruefully at the small loaf and (he thought) very inadequate pat of butter which was set out for him, beside a cup of thin milk. ‘Why did you bring me here?’ he said.

“‘You know quite well,’ said Gandalf. ‘To keep you out of mischief; and if you do not like being here, you can remember that you brought it on yourself.’ Pippin said no more.

The man himself is not at all reassuring:

“Denethor sat in a grey gloom, like an old patient spider, Pippin thought: he did not seem to have moved since the day before. He beckoned Gandalf to a seat, but Pippin was left for a while standing unheeded.”

He then jokes about the Hobbit’s interest in food

“I fear that the board is barer in this city than you could wish.’

“Pippin had an uncomfortable feeling that most of what he had said or done was somehow known to the Lord of the City, and much was guessed of what he thought as well. He did not answer.”

He serves as an ‘esquire’ – fetching, carrying, taking messages.  What we’d now call a gofer.

He is also asked if he can sing, and feels even more out of place:

“‘We have no songs fit for great halls and evil times, lord. We seldom sing of anything more terrible than wind or rain. And most of my songs are about things that make us laugh; or about food and drink, of course.’

I found the reply very interesting:

“‘And why should such songs be unfit for my halls, or for such hours as these? We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless.’

Here, Denethor is being true to his heritage apart from the sour note at the end about the task being thankless.  But unlike the film, Pippin does not actually sing anything.

Pippin gets new garments, the ‘livery and gear of the Tower’.  And unlike Merry and the Rohirrim, they actually have a hauberk (mail shirt) to fit him.  Or perhaps Denethor has had it quickly made for him.  Or you could even imagine he is not the first Hobbit to get so far.  Bilbo before setting off on his adventure remembers other Hobbits venturing far beyond The Shire under Gandalf’s influence.

“He looked now, had he known it … the Prince of the Halflings, that folk had called him”.

But he can see how grim things are:

“It was dark and dim all day. From the sunless dawn until evening the heavy shadow had deepened, and all hearts in the City were oppressed. Far above a great cloud streamed slowly westward from the Black Land, devouring light, borne upon a wind of war; but below the air was still and breathless, as if all the Vale of Anduin waited for the onset of a ruinous storm.”

It gets worse during the day:

“It was the sunset-hour, but the great pall had now stretched far into the West, and only as it sank at last into the Sea did the Sun escape to send out a brief farewell gleam before the night, even as Frodo saw it at the Cross-roads touching the head of the fallen king. But to the fields of the Pelennor, under the shadow of Mindolluin, there came no gleam: they were brown and drear.

“Already it seemed years to Pippin since he had sat there before, in some half-forgotten time when he had still been a hobbit, a light-hearted wanderer touched little by the perils he had passed through. Now he was one small soldier in a city preparing for a great assault, clad in the proud but sombre manner of the Tower of Guard.

“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.”

That was written from Tolkien’s experience of the Great War: you are one tiny piece in a vast assembly.

And then an old enemy reappears:

“Suddenly as they talked they were stricken dumb, frozen as it were to listening stones. Pippin cowered down with his hands pressed to his ears; but Beregond, who had been looking out from the battlement as he spoke of Faramir, remained there, stiffened, staring out with starting eyes. Pippin knew the shuddering cry that he had heard: it was the same that he had heard long ago in the Marish of the Shire, but now it was grown in power and hatred, piercing the heart with a poisonous despair…

“‘Black Riders!’ muttered Pippin. ‘Black Riders of the air!”

They are targeting Faramir and three of his men, who are returning from the mission on which they encountered Frodo.  Fortunately, Gandalf is there and showing his power in a way he seldom does:

“At that moment he caught a flash of white and silver coming from the North, like a small star down on the dusky fields. It moved with the speed of an arrow and grew as it came, converging swiftly with the flight of the four men towards the Gate…

“But now the dark swooping shadows were aware of the newcomer. One wheeled towards him; but it seemed to Pippin that he raised his hand, and from it a shaft of white light stabbed upwards. The Nazgul gave a long wailing cry and swerved away; and with that the four others wavered,[A] and then rising in swift spirals they passed away eastward vanishing into the lowering cloud above; and down on the Pelennor it seemed for a while less dark.”

Pippin is there to greet Faramir:

“Pippin gazing at him saw how closely he resembled his brother Boromir – whom Pippin had liked from the first, admiring the great man’s lordly but kindly manner. Yet suddenly for Faramir his heart was strangely moved with a feeling that he had not known before. Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race. He knew now why Beregond spoke his name with love. He was a captain that men would follow, that he would follow, even under the shadow of the black wings.”

For his part, Faramir notices Pippin and is astonished:

“‘A halfling, and in the livery of the Tower! Whence…?’”

Unless he has some magic means, Gandalf would not know that Faramir had met Frodo and Sam.  Regardless, he takes them all to a meeting with Denethor, Pippin included.

Faramir first explains to his father how his planned raid into Ithilien had gone.  But then gives details of his meeting with Sam and Frodo:

“Pippin became aware that Gandalf’s hands were trembling as they clutched the carven wood. White 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. The air of the room was close and still. At last when Faramir spoke of his parting with the travellers, and of their resolve to go to Cirith Ungol, his voice fell, and he shook his head and sighed. Then Gandalf sprang up.

“‘Cirith Ungol? Morgul Vale?’ he said. ‘The time, Faramir, the time? When did you part with them? When would they reach that accursed valley?’

“‘I parted with them in the morning two days ago,’ said Faramir. ‘It is fifteen leagues thence to the vale of the Morgulduin, if they went straight south; and then they would be still five leagues westward of the accursed Tower. At swiftest they could not come there before today, and maybe they have not come there yet.

The Dawnless Day is the 10th.  Frodo encounters Shelob late on the 12th and is captured by Orcs on the 13th.

Oddly, Gollum is not referenced in the text, though Faramir must have mentioned him.  Gandalf perhaps expected they would meet: Aragorn would have told him that Gollum had followed the party down the Anduin.

Faramir also explains that most of his men were left to garrison Osgiliath, while he rode with those on swift horses.  This was not according to plan, so he asked for approval.  Only for Denethor to show his worst side:

“The men were under your command. Or do you ask for my judgement on all your deeds? Your bearing is lowly in my presence, yet it is long now since you turned from your own way at my counsel. See, you have spoken skilfully, as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping.”

He complains that Boromir was sent to Rivendell, while conceding that he allowed it.  And complains that Faramir did not take the One Ring.  Gandalf – presumably briefed by Aragorn that Boromir tried to do just that – seeks to moderate:

“‘In no case would Boromir have brought it to you. He is dead, and died well; may he sleep in peace! Yet you deceive yourself. He would have stretched out his hand to this thing, and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept it for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son.’”

Denethor disbelieves, and has his own policy:

“‘What then is your wisdom?’ said Gandalf.

“‘Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, that is madness.’

“‘And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?’

“‘Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost. Nay, it should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what then befell would not trouble us, being dead.’

“‘You think, as is your wont, my lord, of Gondor only,’ said Gandalf. ‘Yet there are other men and other lives, and time still to be. And for me, I pity even his slaves.’”

Gandalf would have been willing to have hidden the One Ring, had this seemed possible.  Denethor cares only for Gondor.

In The Silmarillion, we are told that Gandalf in his original form of Olorin was a follower of Manwe, but also associated with Nienna, the patron of mercy,

I was also reminded of the Cold War notion of Mutual Assured Destruction.  If both sides have nuclear weapons, neither will use them.  And Gandalf does not see Denethor’s idea as feasible.  Unlike nuclear weapons, the One Ring has a will of its own:

“‘Nonetheless I do not trust you,’ said Gandalf. ‘Had I done so, I could have sent this thing hither to your keeping and spared myself and others much anguish. And now hearing you speak I trust you less, no more than Boromir. Nay, stay your wrath! I do not trust myself in this, and I refused this thing, even as a freely given gift. You are strong and can still in some matters govern yourself, Denethor; yet if you had received this thing, it would have overthrown you. Were it buried beneath the roots of Mindolluin, still it would burn your mind away, as the darkness grows, and the yet worse things follow that soon shall come upon us.’”

When they are alone together, Pippin asks more:

“‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo,’

“Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. ‘There never was much hope,’ he answered. ‘Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.”

But he can see one positive:

“I believe that the news that Faramir brings has some hope in it. For it seems clear that our Enemy has opened his war at last and made the first move while Frodo was still free. So now for many days he will have his eye turned this way and that, away from his own land. And yet, Pippin, I feel from afar his haste and fear. He has begun sooner than he would. Something has happened to stir him.’”

This was actually Aragorn taking control of the palantir that Sauron had used to control Saruman, and showing him the sword that defeated Sauron at the end of the Second Age.  Gandalf suspects this may be so.

Meantime the enemy is coming.  Denethor unwisely insists on sending Faramir to reinforce the outer walls: the wall surrounding the Pelennor Fields.  But the wall is lost, regardless.  And Gandalf is alarmed at who is leading the assault; an enemy whom Faramir is boldly opposing:

“He is pitted against a foe too great. For one has come that I feared.’

“‘Not – the Dark Lord?’ cried Pippin, forgetting his place in his terror.

“Denethor laughed bitterly. ‘Nay, not yet, Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.’

“He stood up and cast open his long black cloak, and behold! he was clad in mail beneath, and girt with a long sword, great-hilted in a sheath of black and silver. ‘Thus have I walked, and thus now for many years have I slept,’ he said, ‘lest with age the body should grow soft and timid.’

“‘Yet now under the Lord of Barad-dur the most fell of all his captains is already master of your outer walls,’ said Gandalf. ‘King of Angmar long ago, Sorcerer, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgul, a spear of terror in the hand of Sauron, shadow of despair.’”

Faramir gets wounded in the fighting.  Yet from the book it seems a sensible defence, not the foolish charge that the film has.  But Denethor takes it badly and reacts foolishly:

“Denethor rose and looked on the face of his son and was silent. Then he bade them make a bed in the chamber and lay Faramir upon it and depart. But he himself went up alone into the secret room under the summit of the Tower; and many who looked up thither at that time saw a pale light that gleamed and flickered from the narrow windows for a while, and then flashed and went out. And when Denethor descended again he went to Faramir and sat beside him without speaking, but the face of the Lord was grey, more deathlike than his son’s.”

He has been using the palantir to confront Sauron.  And somehow Gandalf misses this.

Meantime more foes arrive, some blocking the expected path of the Rohirrim:

“‘Rohan will not come now. Or if they come, it will not avail us. The new host that we had tidings of has come first, from over the River by way of Andros, it is said. They are strong: battalions of Orcs of the Eye, and countless companies of Men of a new sort that we have not met before. Not tall, but broad and grim, bearded like dwarves, wielding great axes…  They hold the northward road.”

There is also trench warfare: Sauron’s forces dig in, rather than stand around pointlessly as Jackson has them do:

“Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot from the walls; and as the trenches were made each was filled with fire, though how it was kindled or fed, by art or devilry, none could see. All day the labour went forward, while the men of Minas Tirith looked on, unable to hinder it. And as each length of trench was completed, they could see great wains approaching; and soon yet more companies of the enemy were swiftly setting up, each behind the cover of a trench, great engines for the casting of missiles. There were none upon the City walls large enough to reach so far or to stay the work.”

Also psychological warfare

“The enemy was flinging into the City all the heads of those who had fallen fighting at Osgiliath, or on the Rammas, or in the fields. They were grim to look on; for though some were crushed and shapeless, and some had been cruelly hewn, yet many had features that could be told, and it seemed that they had died in pain; and all were branded with the foul token of the Lidless Eye. But marred and dishonoured as they were, it often chanced that thus a man would see again the face of someone that he had known, who had walked proudly once in arms, or tilled the fields, or ridden in upon a holiday from the green vales in the hills.”

Denethor increasingly sees no hope, and abandons his duty:

“‘The fool’s hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes; he sees our very thoughts, and all we do is ruinous.

“‘I sent my son forth, unthanked, unblessed, out into needless peril, and here he lies with poison in his veins. Nay, nay, whatever may now betide in war, my line too is ending, even the House of the Stewards has failed. Mean folk shall rule the last remnant of the Kings of Men, lurking in the hills until all are hounded out.’

“Men came to the door crying for the Lord of the City. ‘Nay, I will not come down,’ he said. ‘I must stay beside my son. He might still speak before the end. But that is near. Follow whom you will, even the Grey Fool, though his hope has failed. Here I stay.’”

The defence is left to others:

“So it was that Gandalf took command of the last defence of the City of Gondor. Wherever he came men’s hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory. Tirelessly he strode from Citadel to Gate, from north to south about the wall; and with him went the Prince of Dol Amroth in his shining mail. For he and his knights still held themselves like lords in whom the race of Numenor ran true. Men that saw them whispered saying: ‘Belike the old tales speak well; there is Elvish blood in the veins of that folk, for the people of Nimrodel dwelt in that land once long ago.’ And then one would sing amid the gloom some staves of the Lay of Nimrodel, or other songs of the Vale of Anduin out of vanished years.

Whether Imrahil Prince of Dol Amroth is actually part-elven or just strongly showing the heritage of Numenor is left open here.  Legolas will later say he does indeed have elven ancestry..

But now Denethor is edging towards actual suicide:

“‘Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!’

He releases Pippin from his service – which is significant, since Pippin now feels free to act as he sees best.  He chooses to go seek Gandalf, and also get Beregond to act:

“Beregond, if you can, do something to stop any dreadful thing happening.’

“‘The Lord does not permit those who wear the black and silver to leave their post for any cause, save at his own command.’

“‘Well, you must choose between orders and the life of Faramir,’ said Pippin. ‘And as for orders, I think you have a madman to deal with, not a lord. I must run. I will return if I can.’”

But Pippin finds Gandalf occupied.  The Witch-King is pressing the assault:

“To the north and to the south company upon company of the enemy pressed to the walls. There came great beasts, like moving houses in the red and fitful light, the mumakil of the Harad dragging through the lanes amid the fires huge towers and engines. Yet their Captain cared not greatly what they did or how many might be slain: their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places. It was against the Gate that he would throw his heaviest weight. Very strong it might be, wrought of steel and iron, and guarded with towers and bastions of indomitable stone, yet it was the key, the weakest point in all that high and impenetrable wall.

He is able to break the gate, using a gigantic battering-ram named after the hammer that was Morgoth’s main weapon in the First Age:

“Grond crawled on. Upon its housing no fire would catch; and though now and again some great beast that hauled it would go mad and spread stamping ruin among the orcs innumerable that guarded it, their bodies were cast aside from its path and others took their place.

“Grond crawled on. The drums rolled wildly. Over the hills of slain a hideous shape appeared: a horseman, tall, hooded, cloaked in black. Slowly, trampling the fallen, he rode forth, heeding no longer any dart. He halted and held up a long pale sword. And as he did so a great fear fell on all, defender and foe alike; and the hands of men drooped to their sides, and no bow sang. For a moment all was still…

“Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone.

“Thrice he cried. Thrice the great ram boomed. And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke. As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder: there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.

“In rode the Lord of the Nazgul. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed.”

But he cannot just ride in:

“There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dinen.

“‘You cannot enter here,’ said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. ‘Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!’

“The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.

“‘Old fool!’ he said. ‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!’ And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

“Gandalf did not move.”

This is like his confrontation with the Balrog.  He has been sent back with more powers, but the Witch-King is also mighty.

Mysteriously, Jackson chose to ignore this dramatic moment and instead have the Witch-King on a flying beast seemingly triumph over Gandalf before Rohan divert him.

For Tolkien, the grand confrontation gets unexpectedly diverted:

 “In that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

“And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.”

And there, events are left hanging.


In discussion, Dominic Russell made two points that had not occurred to me.  First, that the Witch-King riding in resembles Death in the Christian Book of Revelations.  And second, the wolf-shaped battering-ram resembles the Fenris Wolf who swallows Odin.  And much earlier, Sam had correctly predicted that Gandalf’s fate would not be to end up in a wolf’s belly.


[A] Properly speaking, Nazgûl.  But I do not use accents or other diacritical marks.  In the past, I have all too often seen computer software turn them into something meaningless.

As to why this flaw exists, see https://gwydionmadawc.com/030-human-dynamics/ascii-an-unhappy-legacy-for-computers/