The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
Gandalf had confronted the Witch-King as he began to enter Minas Tirith after breaking its gate. They appear about equal in power, just as the earlier less powerful Gandalf was about equal to the balrog. Indeed, in notes for the book we have Gandalf referring to him as the Wizard King and calling him “a renegade of [Gandalf’s] own order”.[A]
I see this as one of many indications that Gandalf was still seen as a very powerful human, well into the writing of the book.
But as they are about to fight, the horsemen of Rohan arrived. That was the end of the last chapter. Here, you see that despite their arrival, there is still much to fight for:
“But it was no orc-chieftain or brigand that led the assault upon Gondor. The darkness was breaking too soon, before the date that his Master had set for it: fortune had betrayed him for the moment, and the world had turned against him; victory was slipping from his grasp even as he stretched out his hand to seize it. But his arm was long. He was still in command, wielding great powers. King, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgul, he had many weapons. He left the Gate and vanished.”
Leaving his horse behind, I assume, since it is flesh-and-blood. We are not told what happened to the animal, though logically it should have been trained to retreat when no longer ridden. Or would have been scared of Gandalf and Shadowfax once its master was gone.
We are told instead how the charging Rohirrim disperse many Orcs. Who however are only part of the enemy army:
“Well nigh all the northern half of the Pelennor was overrun, and there camps were blazing, orcs were flying towards the River like herds before the hunters; and the Rohirrim went hither and thither at their will. But they had not yet overthrown the siege, nor won the Gate. Many foes stood before it, and on the further half of the plain were other hosts still unfought. Southward beyond the road lay the main force of the Haradrim, and there their horsemen were gathered about the standard of their chieftain. And he looked out, and in the growing light he saw the banner of the king, and that it was far ahead of the battle with few men about it. Then he was filled with a red wrath and shouted aloud, and displaying his standard, black serpent upon scarlet, he came against the white horse and the green with great press of men; and the drawing of the scimitars of the Southrons was like a glitter of stars.”
These are some of Sauron’s best forces – but not good enough:
“But the white fury of the Northmen burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter. Fewer were they but they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest. Right through the press drove Theoden Thengel’s son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered. Then all that was left unslain of their cavalry turned and fled far away.”[B]
But then comes the Witch-King on a flying beast:
“The new morning was blotted from the sky. Dark fell about him. Horses reared and screamed. Men cast from the saddle lay grovelling on the ground.
“‘To me! To me!’ cried Théoden. ‘Up Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!’ But [Theoden’s horse] Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side: a black dart had pierced him. The king fell beneath him.
“The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, fingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed. Down, down it came, and then, folding its fingered webs, it gave a croaking cry, and settled upon the body of Snowmane, digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck.”
Tolkien drew on scientific knowledge of the flying reptiles called pterosaurs, with the large pterodactyl as the best-known. But though large, they also had light thin bones. If a real pterodactyl were brought back, a determined housewife with a handbag could have held it off. Swans are the heaviest creatures that can fly in the real world: birds and other creatures with larger wingspans are also flimsier. And you can imagine such creatures being mounts for ghosts with minimal weight.
But this is myth. In one of his letters, Tolkien accepts the inspiration but says he was not bound by what he calls “monsters of the new and fascinating semi-scientific mythology”.[C] In his subcreation, giant dragons can fly. Pterodactyls-like creatures can carry a giant undead but still-tangible warrior:
“Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nazgul. To the air he had returned, summoning his steed ere the darkness failed, and now he was come again, bringing ruin, turning hope to despair, and victory to death. A great black mace he wielded.”
In a letter, Tolkien explains that the Nazgul and their lord are more powerful than when both Aragorn and Gandalf in his original lesser form were able to defeat several of them:
“They have no great physical power against the fearless; but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness. The Witch-king, their leader, is more powerful in all ways than the others; but he must not yet be raised to the stature of Vol. III. There, put in command by Sauron, he is given an added demonic force. But even in the Battle of the Pelennor, the darkness had only just broken.”
It also seems that when seeking Frodo, the Witch-King held back to coordinate the others in their wide search. That he was not present until the final chase. But Glorfindel and some other unnamed elves still felt able to ride out separately and alone against these ancient foes.
Here, there is just one human against this enhanced undead creature, who has confidently said “No living man may hinder me”. But ‘Dernhelm’ is now revealed as Eowyn:
“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. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’
Here, as with the Ents marching, Tolkien had creatively adapted something from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macduff is not ‘of woman born’. Here, the foe is a woman. And being already despairing of life, she does not back off after an earlier terrible threat:
“‘Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.’”
Merry, who had ridden with Dernhelm / Eowyn and been thrown when her horse bolted from fear of the flying beast, now tries to help:
“She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided…
“Slowly, slowly he began to crawl aside; but the Black Captain, in doubt and malice intent upon the woman before him, heeded him no more than a worm in the mud.”
The flying beast attacks Eowyn, but she beheads it:
“A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise”
But her foe remains deadly:
“With a cry of hatred that stung the very ears like venom he let fall his mace. Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees. He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.”
Then Merry makes his move:
“But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry’s sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.”
He then calls to Eowyn for one last try at a foe who is now nearly level with her:
“Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe.”
Oddly, I’ve never seen any artist try to illustrate this stage of the fight. It could be brilliant: Eowyn wounded but determined, the Witch-King evicted from his body by her sword, and Merry in the background smitten by the backwash from his blow. For this is no ordinary foe:
“But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.”
Note the qualification. In Tolkien’s early mythos, Thu as the first draft of Sauron was imagined as an evil spirit worshipped as an idol in historic times. And at the Council of Elrond, Gandalf warns that Sauron will remain a spirit of malice even with the One Ring destroyed. The eventual cause of the desolation of modern industry, in Tolkien’s view, repeating in the industrial wastelands the blight of Mordor. And presumably the Witch-King could re-appear as a lesser ghost.
And has Eowyn perished in the deed? In early notes, well before Arwen was thought of, Eowyn was first imagined as Aragorn’s future wife.[D] And then that she will die to avenge or save Theoden. In this second concept, Aragorn would have loved her and never marry anyone. He would presumably have relatives who could carry on the restored line of the heirs of Isildur.
In the final form, Merry sees Eowyn lying still, and then goes over to say farewell to the dying Theoden. He decides not to tell him that his niece was there. He may well think her dead:
“For a moment the thought flitted through Merry’s mind: ‘Where is Gandalf? Is he not here? Could he not have saved the king and Eowyn?”
The next chapter tells us why not. How Denethor’s selfish folly stopped Gandalf from riding out to confront the Witch-King in his new form.
But Theoden – who was actually born in Gondor during family troubles and was only later restored as King of Rohan – sees his life as fulfilled:
“A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!”
The Eomer arrives, and Theoden is able to bid him farewell before dying. He weeps but keeps control:
“Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen,
“meet was his ending. When his mound is raised,
“women then shall weep. War now calls us!”
Eomer had suffered because of Theoden’s earlier failures. He might well see Theoden’s death as a necessary atonement for his earlier failures.
But then he sees Eowyn apparently dead, when he had not expected her to be there at all:
“A fey mood took him.
“‘Eowyn, Eowyn!’ he cried at last: ‘Eowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!’
“Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: ‘Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!’
Merry is left, but wants to rejoin the battle. But finds his right arm numb, and the sword is perishing from the foe’s magic:
“The blade was smoking like a dry branch that has been thrust in a fire; and as he watched it, it writhed and withered and was consumed.
“So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dunedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.”
Nothing is said about Eowyn’s sword. Maybe Merry’s blow removed the protection. But it is also plausible that as a Princess of the Rohirrim, she might have a Dunedain blade. They came from the north originally, after all.
And despite this victory, the battle goes on:
“Wherever the mumakil [giant elephants] came there the horses would not go, but blenched and swerved away; and the great monsters were unfought, and stood like towers of defence, and the Haradrim rallied about them. And if the Rohirrim at their onset were thrice outnumbered by the Haradrim alone, soon their case became worse; for new strength came now streaming to the field out of Osgiliath. There they had been mustered for the sack of the City and the rape of Gondor, waiting on the call of their Captain. He now was destroyed; but Gothmog the lieutenant of Morgul had flung them into the fray; Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand. Southrons in scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues. Some now hastened up behind the Rohirrim, others held westward to hold off the forces of Gondor and prevent their joining with Rohan.
Things apparently get worse
“‘The Corsairs of Umbar! … [Eomer] looked to the River, and hope died in his heart, and the wind that he had blessed he now called accursed. But the hosts of Mordor were enheartened, and filled with a new lust and fury they came yelling to the onset.
“Stern now was Eomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark.”
When presenting this to my Tolkien group, I was reminded of the shield-wall made by the doomed Saxon warriors at the Battle of Maldon. A poem that Tolkien adapted as a play called The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.[E]
But things are not as grim as they were at Maldon. The first-time reader would remember just that Aragorn was last mentioned in command of a host of ghosts. Now we find out more
“Upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.
“Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor.”
Unlike the film, the forces brought by Aragorn are not the dead. They are men rallied from South Gondor after the dead men earlier did their duty and were released. But it was a nice touch in the film for Aragorn to be tempted by their usefulness but to stick to his promise and release them.
There is still hard fighting, because the enemy are tough, and still have their giant elephants that horses fear:
“Both Duilin of Morthond and his brother were trampled to death when they assailed the mumakil, leading their bowmen close to shoot at the eyes of the monsters.
Duilin is a soldier of Gondor, with the name of an elf-lord of the First Age. It would make a grim but impressive scene. And if I were advising a future television production, I would also have someone ask if the beasts could be spared. Maybe have some of them allowed to flee and later set to useful work. I definitely thought it wrong for Legolas to be shown killing one, after he has removed its riders.
The film also has the Dead swarming over at least one of the elephants – visually striking.
As Tolkien tells it, most of the enemy are killed. Unlike the Dunlendings at Helms Deep, no mercy is shown to men who presumably worship Sauron:
“Few ever came eastward to Morgul or Mordor; and to the land of the Haradrim came only a tale from far off: a rumour of the wrath and terror of Gondor.”
Maybe less worthy of mercy than those misled by the once-virtuous Saruman. But assuming their homelands will remain hostile, which is Tolkien’s assumption, intimidating them with vast losses would make sense. The Dunlendings are apparently won over by being shown mercy and might be peaceful thereafter.
The chapter ends with a song sung later by the men of Rohan, celebrating both their dead and those of Gondor. A song that seems part of the same work quoted when Theoden set off. And which was cleverly adapted and expanded by Sibley’s 1981 radio adaptation – see The Rohirrim Poem and Sibley’s Additions.
[A] The History of The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring. Pages 326 and 331, 1990 hardback edition.
[B] It should be Théoden. 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/.
[C] The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: Letter 211 To Rhona Beare
[D] The History of The Lord of the Rings: The Treason of Isengard. Page 448, 1989 hardback edition