The Black Gate Opens
Minas Tirith is under no immediate threat, after the recent victory:
“Scouts reported that no enemies remained upon the roads east as far as the Cross-roads of the Fallen King. All now was ready for the last throw.”
Not everyone is fit to be part of it:
“Merry to his shame was not to go with them.
“‘You are not fit for such a journey,’ said Aragorn. ‘But do not be ashamed. If you do no more in this war, you have already earned great honour. Peregrin shall go and represent the Shirefolk; and do not grudge him his chance of peril, for though he has done as well as his fortune allowed him, he has yet to match your deed. But in truth all now are in like danger. Though it may be our part to find bitter end before the Gate of Mordor, if we do so, then you will come also to a last stand, either here or wherever the black tide overtakes you. Farewell!’”
They have no idea what has happened to Frodo and Sam after they left Faramir. And for the first-time reader, Frodo is still imprisoned in the Tower of Cirith Ungol.
In keeping with the plan agreed in ‘The Last Debate, the army act as if they now expected to conquer Mordor. And encounter a place that Frodo had seen earlier:
“The horsemen pressed on and ere evening they came to the Cross-roads and the great ring of trees, and all was silent…
“The hideous orc-head that was set upon the carven figure was cast down and broken in pieces, and the old king’s head was raised and set in its place once more, still crowned with white and golden flowers: and men laboured to wash and pare away all the foul scrawls that orcs had put upon the stone.”
Raising up the flowers that Frodo had noticed and been encouraged by. Their whole trip is almost an inverse of the path taken by Frodo and Sam several days earlier. It will end at the Black Gate, where Frodo also had faced impossible odds.
Here, they have alarmed Sauron enough to make him pull back, after losing his Chief Ringwraith the army he sent against Minas Tirith. But what next?
“Now in their debate some had counselled that Minas Morgul should first be assailed, and if they might take it, it should be utterly destroyed. ‘And, maybe,’ said Imrahil, ‘the road that leads thence to the pass above will prove an easier way of assault upon the Dark Lord than his northern gate.’
“But against this Gandalf had spoken urgently, because of the evil that dwelt in the valley, where the minds of living men would turn to madness and horror, and because also of the news that Faramir had brought. For if the Ring-bearer had indeed attempted that way, then above all they should not draw the Eye of Mordor thither.”
They take a look and the evil city seems deserted. But they leave a force at the crossroads and march north. The whole point is to make Sauron notice them:
“Ever and anon Gandalf let blow the trumpets, and the heralds would cry: “The Lords of Gondor are come! Let all leave this land or yield them up!’ But Imrahil said: ‘Say not The Lords of Gondor. Say The King Elessar. For that is true, even though he has not yet sat upon the throne; and it will give the Enemy more thought, if the heralds use that name.’ And thereafter thrice a day the heralds proclaimed the coming of the King Elessar. But none answered the challenge.”
There is then an answer of sorts:
“A strong force of Orcs and Easterlings attempted to take their leading companies in an ambush; and that was in the very place where Faramir had waylaid the men of Harad, and the road went in a deep cutting through an out-thrust of the eastward hills. But the Captains of the West were well warned by their scouts… and so the ambush was itself trapped. For horsemen went wide about westward and came up on the flank of the enemy and from behind, and they were destroyed or driven east into the hills.
“But the victory did little to enhearten the captains. ‘It is but a feint,’ said Aragorn; ‘and its chief purpose, I deem, was rather to draw us on by a false guess of our Enemy’s weakness than to do us much hurt, yet.’
They are then still in land not yet ruined by Mordor. But soon enter it:
“Upon the fourth day from the Cross-roads and the sixth from Minas Tirith they came at last to the end of the living lands, and began to pass into the desolation that lay before the gates of the Pass of Cirith Gorgor; and they could descry the marshes and the desert that stretched north and west to the Emyn Muil. So desolate were those places and so deep the horror that lay on them that some of the host were unmanned, and they could neither walk nor ride further north.
“Aragorn looked at them, and there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath; for these were young men from Rohan, from Westfold far away, or husbandmen from Lossarnach, and to them Mordor had been from childhood a name of evil, and yet unreal, a legend that had no part in their simple life; and now they walked like men in a hideous dream made true, and they understood not this war nor why fate should lead them to such a pass.”
That seems to me a strong echo of the trenches of World War One. Tolkien has Aragorn show a mercy notably lacking in the British High Command. He sends 1000 of his small force to retake an island in the Great River.
“It was with less than six thousands that the Captains of the West came at last to challenge the Black Gate and the might of Mordor…
“The two vast iron doors of the Black Gate under its frowning arch were fast closed. Upon the battlement nothing could be seen. All was silent but watchful.”
We then have a strange diversion:
“Sauron had already laid his plans, and he had a mind first to play these mice cruelly before he struck to kill. So it was that, even as the Captains were about to turn away, the silence was broken suddenly. There came a long rolling of great drums like thunder in the mountains, and then a braying of horns that shook the very stones and stunned men’s ears. And thereupon the middle door of the Black Gate was thrown open with a great clang, and out of it there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.
“At its head there rode a tall and evil shape, mounted upon a black horse, if horse it was; for it was huge and hideous, and its face was a frightful mask, more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame. The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Numenoreans; for they established their dwellings in Middle-earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamoured of evil knowledge. And he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the Lord’s favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc.”[A]
Despite this clear description, it seems some fans think the Mouth must actually be a Blue Wizard. I see no logic to this. There were many strong human wizards. Enough for the Istari to be seen as the same.
This wizard chooses to be rude and aggressive, confident in Sauron’s power:
“With him came only a small company of black-harnessed soldiery, and a single banner, black but bearing on it in red the Evil Eye. Now halting a few paces before the Captains of the West he looked them up and down and laughed.
“‘Is there anyone in this rout with authority to treat with me?’ he asked. ‘Or indeed with wit to understand me? Not thou at least!’ he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn. ‘It needs more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass, or a rabble such as this. Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!’”
But he has underestimated Aragorn, who scares him simply by looking at him:
“Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other’s eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow. ‘I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!’ he cried.”
Remember also that Sauron is being tricked into thinking one of them has the One Ring. The ‘Mouth’ would probably think the same, and fear that power:
In marked contrast to scene in the Extended Edition of the Jackson film, the upholders of virtue do not descend to the same level:
“‘Where such laws hold,’ said Gandalf, ‘it is also the custom for ambassadors to use less insolence. But no one has threatened you. You have naught to fear from us, until your errand is done. But unless your master has come to new wisdom, then with all his servants you will be in great peril.’”
The Mouth now challenges him – perhaps trying to work out who has the One Ring:
“‘So!’ said the Messenger. ‘Then thou art the spokesman, old greybeard? Have we not heard of thee at whiles, and of thy wanderings, ever hatching plots and mischief at a safe distance? But this time thou hast stuck out thy nose too far, Master Gandalf; and thou shalt see what comes to him who sets his foolish webs before the feet of Sauron the Great.”
To probe, and also to cause pain for its own sake, he then reveals things captured from Frodo. Whose fate the first-time reader does not know, remember
“To the wonder and dismay of all the Captains he held up first the short sword that Sam had carried, and next a grey cloak with an elven-brooch, and last the coat of mithril-mail that Frodo had worn wrapped in his tattered garments. A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone. Pippin who stood behind Prince Imrahil sprang forward with a cry of grief.”
But then the enemy carelessly reveals what he does not know.
“‘I do not wish to deny them,’ said Gandalf. ‘Indeed, I know them all and all their history, and despite your scorn, foul Mouth of Sauron, you cannot say as much. But why do you bring them here?’
“‘Dwarf-coat, elf-cloak, blade of the downfallen West, and spy from the little rat-land of the Shire-nay; do not start! We know it well – here are the marks of a conspiracy. Now, maybe he that bore these things was a creature that you would not grieve to lose, and maybe otherwise: one dear to you, perhaps? If so, take swift counsel with what little wit is left to you. For Sauron does not love spies, and what his fate shall be depends now on your choice.’”
Gandalf knows that they can’t have captured or killed both Frodo and Sam, and perhaps have neither. The two Orcs at Cirith Ungol knew they had found one stranger poisoned by Shelob and that someone else had cut his cords but then left him. Shagrat had survived and brought the items to Sauron – but evidently not reported all he knew. But we later learn that Frodo was still a prisoner when he left.
A logical guess would be that Sam had taken the One Ring and the sword Sting. As indeed he did, but could not then abandon Frodo even when he thought him dead.
Gandalf does also check if anything can be done to help Frodo, supposing he lives. He asks what terms are on offer for his release. And predictably, the demands are extreme:
“‘The rabble of Gondor and its deluded allies shall withdraw at once beyond the Anduin, first taking oaths never again to assail Sauron the Great in arms, open or secret. All lands east of Anduin shall be Sauron’s for ever, solely. West of the Anduin as far as the Misty Mountains and the Gap of Rohan shall be tributary to Mordor, and men there shall bear no weapons, but shall have leave to govern their own affairs. But they shall help to rebuild Isengard which they have wantonly destroyed, and that shall be Sauron’s, and there his lieutenant shall dwell: not Saruman, but one more worthy of trust.’
“Looking in the Messenger’s eyes they read his thought. He was to be that lieutenant, and gather all that remained of the West under his sway; he would be their tyrant and they his slaves.”
Having done all he can for Frodo, whom both he and the first-time reader would assume still a prisoner, he then asserts himself:
“‘This is much to demand for the delivery of one servant: that your Master should receive in exchange what he must else fight many a war to gain! Or has the field of Gondor destroyed his hope in war, so that he falls to haggling? And if indeed we rated this prisoner so high, what surety have we that Sauron the Base Master of Treachery, will keep his part? Where is this prisoner? Let him be brought forth and yielded to us, and then we will consider these demands.’…
“He cast aside his cloak and a white light shone forth like a sword in that black place. Before his upraised hand the foul Messenger recoiled, and Gandalf coming seized and took from him the tokens: coat, cloak, and sword. ‘These we will take in memory of our friend,’ he cried. ‘But as for your terms, we reject them utterly.”
But this small victory counts for little. The Mouth came out of the middle gate: now it opens fully and Sauron’s full forces appear:
“Drums rolled and fires leaped up. The great doors of the Black Gate swung back wide. Out of it streamed a great host as swiftly as swirling waters when a sluice is lifted.
“The Captains mounted again and rode back, and from the host of Mordor there went up a jeering yell. Dust rose smothering the air, as from nearby there marched up an army of Easterlings that had waited for the signal in the shadows of Ered Lithui beyond the further Tower. Down from the hills on either side of the Morannon poured Orcs innumerable. The men of the West were trapped, and soon all about the grey mounds where they stood, forces ten times and more than ten times their match would ring them in a sea of enemies. Sauron had taken the proffered bait in jaws of steel.
Distracted from a Hobbit perhaps trying to complete the Quest. But as they anticipated, they are likely to die first.
When I first presented this talk, it was pointed out that the Orcs are ‘innumerable’, but then the total force is estimated at ten times greater, 60,000 or more.
It is certainly hopeless. And Pippin now expresses what must be a general despair:
“Pippin had bowed crushed with horror when he heard Gandalf reject the terms and doom Frodo to the torment of the Tower; but he had mastered himself, and now he stood beside Beregond in the front rank of Gondor with Imrahil’s men. For it seemed best to him to die soon and leave the bitter story of his life, since all was in ruin.
“‘I wish Merry was here,’ he heard himself saying, and quick thoughts raced through his mind, even as he watched the enemy come charging to the assault. ‘Well, well, now at any rate I understand poor Denethor a little better. We might die together, Merry and I, and since die we must, why not? Well, as he is not here, I hope he’ll find an easier end. But now I must do my best.’
“He drew his sword and looked at it, and the intertwining shapes of red and gold; and the flowing characters of Numenor glinted like fire upon the blade. ‘This was made for just such an hour,’ he thought. ‘If only I could smite that foul Messenger with it, then almost I should draw level with old Merry. Well, I’ll smite some of this beastly brood before the end. I wish I could see cool sunlight and green grass again!’
With his special sword he is able to kill a troll, which however falls on him. He now expects to die:
“‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:
“‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’
“For one moment more Pippin’s thought hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’ And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.
That ends Book Five. The final book will gather the threads. Beginning eleven days earlier, with Sam seeking to rescue Frodo.
[A] Properly Barad-dûr. 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/