The Last Debate
Events now move towards a climax. Two climaxes, rather. The first-time reader will know nothing of what Frodo and Sam did after the Orcs took Frodo. As they read on, they will share Pippin’s fears that those who follow Aragorn against Mordor will perish even if Frodo does eventually succeed.
As it happens, they arrive at Mount Doom just as the battle is being fought. But that’s a much later chapter: nearly half-way through Book Six. Here we follow the debate that lead up to the battle before the Black Gate of Mordor. We also get an update on Aragorn’s deeds between events told in The Passing of the Grey Company and his triumphant arrival at Minas Tirith.
But first, and typically of Tolkien, we get Legolas and Gimli thinking of how Minas Tirith might be improved. Showing a concern for beauty, without which the wars would be pointless:
“‘There is some good stone-work here,’ [Gimli] said as he looked at the walls; ‘but also some that is less good, and the streets could be better contrived. When Aragorn comes into his own, I shall offer him the service of stonewrights of the Mountain, and we will make this a town to be proud of.’
“‘They need more gardens,’ said Legolas. ‘The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad. If Aragorn comes into his own, the people of the Wood shall bring him birds that sing and trees that do not die.’”
They then meet the current lord of the city:
“At length they came to the Prince Imrahil, and Legolas looked at him and bowed low; for he saw that here indeed was one who had elven-blood in his veins. ‘Hail, lord!’ he said. ‘It is long since the people of Nimrodel left the woodlands of Lorien, and yet still one may see that not all sailed from Amroth’s haven west over water.’
“‘So it is said in the lore of my land,’ said the Prince; ‘yet never has one of the fair folk been seen there for years beyond count.”[A]
This confirms that Tolkien’s vision has more elf-human crossings that the famous two cases from the First Age.[B]
Nimrodel was a Silvan Elf who had lived in Lothlorien since well before the Sindar and Noldor came. She lived separately with her people on the river that later bore her name. She fled south in the Third Age when the Balrog awoke. She planned to sail west with an elf called Amroth, who drowned and gave his name to the land of Dol Amroth. She herself was lost and her fate is unknown.[C] Some of her followers must have wed humans, though no specific cases are mentioned.
But since Legolas is the son of an Elven king, I don’t see it as consistent that he should bow low to a Prince with remote elven blood. Perhaps because he currently rules Gondor, while Legolas is not consulted in the planned ‘Last Debate’. They tell Imrahil that Aragorn will still not enter the city, but wants Imrahil and Eomer to come down to hear Gandalf’s plans.
They find the hobbits in the Houses of Healing, and Legolas hears sea-birds. He explains that even though he has not yet seen the sea, hearing the sea-birds near the mouth of the river Anduin has stirred a sea-longing. That he will eventually sail to the West.
He then tells of their journey with the Dead:
“In the darkness of Mordor my hope rose; for in that gloom the Shadow Host seemed to grow stronger and more terrible to look upon. Some I saw riding, some striding, yet all moving with the same great speed. Silent they were, but there was a gleam in their eyes. In the uplands of Lamedon they overtook our horses, and swept round us, and would have passed us by, if Aragorn had not forbidden them.”
They are under the sun-blocking cloud that Sauron created for the attack on Minas Tirith, but this does not bother an army of ghosts.
At a place called Linhir, they find a battle between men of Gondor and a force from Umbar and Harad. All flee from the Dead apart from one Gondorian lord, whom Aragorn asked to come to the Gondorian river-harbour Pelargir.
There is a second battle at Pelargir, which the Corsairs of Unbar are attacking, and where many Haradrim had fled. But once again the Dead are decisive:
“And suddenly the Shadow Host that had hung back at the last came up like a grey tide, sweeping all away before it. Faint cries I heard, and dim horns blowing, and a murmur as of countless far voices: it was like the echo of some forgotten battle in the Dark Years long ago. Pale swords were drawn; but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead needed no longer any weapon but fear. None would withstand them.
“‘To every ship they came that was drawn up, and then they passed over the water to those that were anchored; and all the mariners were filled with a madness of terror and leaped overboard, save the slaves chained to the oars. Reckless we rode among our fleeing foes, driving them like leaves, until we came to the shore. And then to each of the great ships that remained Aragorn sent one of the Dunedain, and they comforted the captives that were aboard, and bade them put aside fear and be free.”
The use of the Dead raises moral issues:
“‘Strange indeed,’ said Legolas. ‘In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Luthien? Never shall that line fail, though the years may lengthen beyond count.’
He shows his quality, by releasing those that Isildur had cursed
“The Shadow Host withdrew to the shore’ [explains Gimli]. ‘There they stood silent, hardly to be seen, save for a red gleam in their eyes that caught the glare of the ships that were burning. And Aragorn spoke in a loud voice to the Dead Men, crying:
“‘Hear now the words of the Heir of Isildur! Your oath is fulfilled. Go back and trouble not the valleys ever again! Depart and be at rest!“
“‘And thereupon the King of the Dead stood out before the host and broke his spear and cast it down. Then he bowed low and turned away; and swiftly the whole grey host drew off and vanished like a mist that is driven back by a sudden wind; and it seemed to me that I awoke from a dream.”
A wise choice, given that for Tolkien the main issue was doing the right thing in the face of superior power. And I’d see something questionable about Isildur. Formidable against Sauron, as Saruman had been before he fell. But open to corruption, and he took the One Ring. Was perhaps lucky to be killed before he was seriously corrupted.
Aragorn now recruits the men of South Gondor – many of the freed slaves had been taken from Gondor in raids.
“Now that the fear of the Dead was removed they came to aid us and to look on the Heir of Isildur; for the rumour of that name had run like fire in the dark.”
Time is short, and at first progress is slow. But they are aided by the same wind the Rohirrim took heart from and Denethor despaired because of.
“‘The oars were now wielded by free men, and manfully they laboured; yet slowly we passed up the Great River, for we strove against its stream…
“‘But at midnight hope was indeed born anew. Sea-crafty men … gazing southward spoke of a change coming with a fresh wind from the Sea. Long ere day the masted ships hoisted sail; and our speed grew, until dawn whitened the foam at our prows. And so it was, as you know, that we came in the third hour of the morning with a fair wind and the Sun unveiled, and we unfurled the great standard in battle.”
So four of the original Fellowship are re-united after a great victory. They are however aware that the peril is still great:
“‘Great deed was the riding of the Paths of the Dead, [said Legolas] and great it shall remain, though none be left in Gondor to sing of it in the days that are to come.’
“‘And that may well befall,’ said Gimli. ‘For the faces of Aragorn and Gandalf are grave. Much I wonder what counsels they are taking in the tents there below. For my part, like Merry, I wish that with our victory the war was now over. Yet whatever is still to do, I hope to have a part in it, for the honour of the folk of the Lonely Mountain.’”
Meantime Gandalf is explaining the problem to Prince Imrahil, Eomer, Aragorn and the sons of Elrond.
“‘My lords,’ said Gandalf, ‘listen to the words of the Steward of Gondor before he died: You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory. I do not bid you despair, as he did, but to ponder the truth in these words.
“‘The Stones of Seeing do not lie, and not even the Lord of Barad-dur can make them do so. He can, maybe, by his will choose what things shall be seen by weaker minds, or cause them to mistake the meaning of what they see. Nonetheless it cannot be doubted that when Denethor saw great forces arrayed against him in Mordor, and more still being gathered, he saw that which truly is.
“‘Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope, as Denethor perceived. Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River. You have only a choice of evils.”
The only hope in Frodo’s mission:
“I do not counsel prudence. I said victory could not be achieved by arms. I still hope for victory, but not by arms. For into the midst of all these policies comes the Ring of Power, the foundation of Barad-dur, and the hope of Sauron.
“‘Concerning this thing, my lords, you now all know enough for the understanding of our plight, and of Sauron’s. If he regains it, your valour is vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts. If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again. For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.
“‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
Note that Sauron will not be utterly destroyed – just stripped of most of his power. Which does not exclude Tolkien’s first idea, when the same being was called Thu: that he would be an idol to evil people in historic times.
Within the tale, Gandalf wants to go on diverting Sauron:
“‘Now Sauron … knows that this precious thing which he lost has been found again; but he does not yet know where it is, or so we hope. And therefore he is now in great doubt. For if we have found this thing, there are some among us with strength enough to wield it…
“[Eomer asks] Why should he think it not vain to assail us, if we have it?’
“‘He is not yet sure,’ said Gandalf, ‘and he has not built up his power by waiting until his enemies are secure, as we have done. Also we could not learn how to wield the full power all in a day. Indeed it can be used only by one master alone, not by many; and he will look for a time of strife, ere one of the great among us makes himself master and puts down the others. In that time the Ring might aid him, if he were sudden…
“We have not the Ring. In wisdom or great folly it has been sent away to be destroyed, lest it destroy us. Without it we cannot by force defeat his force. But we must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be.
“‘As Aragorn has begun, so we must go on. We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land. We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us. He will take that bait, in hope and in greed, for he will think that in such rashness he sees the pride of the new Ringlord: and he will say: “So! he pushes out his neck too soon and too far. Let him come on, and behold I will have him in a trap from which he cannot escape. There I will crush him, and what he has taken in his insolence shall be mine again for ever.”
“‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’”
They work out what forces then can send, without leaving Minas Tirith weak against the next army Sauron sends. Since there are some thousands marching up from the south, they finally reckon they can attack Sauron with a force of 7000.
“Imrahil suddenly laughed aloud.
“‘Surely,’ he cried, ‘this is the greatest jest in all the history of Gondor: that we should ride with seven thousands, scarce as many as the vanguard of its army in the days of its power, to assail the mountains and the impenetrable gate of the Black Land!”
But Gandalf and Aragorn are confident that Sauron will respond
[A] Properly Lórien, 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/