The Return of the King

The Return of the King

by

J. R. R. Tolkien

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The Return of the King: Book 5, Chapter 1  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Pippin wakes up to find himself wrapped in Gandalf’s cloak on the back of Shadowfax, a swift white horse. He asks Gandalf where they are, and Gandalf replies that they have reached the realm of Gondor. Pippin sees fires in the distance—the beacons that signal Gondor’s call for help. Gandalf tells Pippin to go back to sleep, and Pippin does, while thinking about the whereabouts of his friend, Frodo, who might have reached Mount Doom—or might be dead. (In fact, Frodo is alive, looking at the same moon that hangs over Pippin and Gandalf.)
As prefaced in The Two Towers, the previous instalment of The Lord of the Rings series, Gandalf has taken Pippin with him because of Pippin’s accidental use of the Seeing Stone; this alerted Sauron to his presence at Isengard. No matter how far Pippin gets from his friends, he thinks of them constantly, showing that however foolhardy he is, he’s above all a caring and loyal companion.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
When Pippin wakes up again, he hears Gandalf talking to a group of men standing guard in front of a vast wall. Gandalf describes Pippin as a “valiant man,” at which Pippin exclaims that he is neither a Man, nor valiant. The guards let Gandalf, Pippin, and Shadowfax through the gate. As they pass through, Gandalf warns the men that they are too late to repair the city wall and should prepare to fight. He tells them that the Riders of Rohan might come to their aid, but they cannot rely on them to win the battle.
Pippin’s humility shines through when he refuses to be described as “valiant”—though his pride springs back up when he defends his identity as a hobbit, not a Man. Gandalf’s advice to the men at the gate suggests that he is more knowledgeable than they are about the war that approaches, and the men don’t yet realize the scale of the danger.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Power, Wisdom, and Mercy Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Gandalf, Pippin, and Shadowfax enter Gondor, and after a few more hours of riding, they come to Minas Tirith, a city of seven levels of stone built around the foot of Mount Mindolluin. When they arrive at the City Gate, the men greet them with the comment that, now that Gandalf has arrived, they know for sure that danger is near. Gandalf and Pippin ride Shadowfax through each gate of the seven levels of the city, climbing towards the Citadel. Pippin notices that, though the city is magnificent, many of its houses are empty of residents.
Minas Tirith is a towering city, and its structure suggests that it was built long ago by master craftsmen. Gandalf’s foresight and vast knowledge have led to his reputation as a bearer of bad news rather than a helpful advisor. Meanwhile, the empty city suggests that there once was a time of great peace and stability in Gondor, during which families prospered—but this time is long in the past.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Gandalf, Pippin, and Shadowfax reach the final level of the city, which houses the Citadel. Shadowfax is led away, and Pippin and Gandalf are admitted to the Citadel by guards bearing the symbol of the White Tree. As Pippin and Gandalf stride across the court, Pippin sees a dying tree in the central fountain, which he realizes is the same symbolic White Tree. Gandalf warns Pippin not to say too much to Denethor, who they are here to meet, and especially not to discuss Frodo’s journey or mention Aragorn at all. When Pippin is confused by this last request, Gandalf tells him that when Aragorn comes to Gondor, it will be to claim the kingship.
Because the White Tree is emblazoned on the livery of the guards, it’s clearly an important symbol of Gondor’s strength. But, as Pippin sees, the actual White Tree is shriveled and dying, implying that Gondor’s strength is also waning. Gandalf’s warning reminds the reader that Pippin has a habit of generous conversation, which could get him into trouble—but his innocence is emphasized by the fact that he is only just learning of Aragorn’s significance as heir to the throne of Gondor.
Themes
Power, Wisdom, and Mercy Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
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Pippin and Gandalf enter the Great Hall. The throne is empty, and Denethor, Lord and Steward of Gondor, sits in a plain chair in front of it. Gandalf tells Denethor he’s come to share news and advice. Denethor greets the two coldly, and he asks whether Pippin is one of the hobbits that saw Boromir die. He adds that he regrets sending Boromir on that journey, and should have sent Faramir, his other son, instead. Gandalf tells Denethor that Boromir would not have been stopped from taking on the task.
Denethor’s position in the plain, lower chair emphasizes his role as a caretaker—not a ruler—of Gondor, powerful only in the absence of a king. Denethor’s conversation with Gandalf shows that he is preoccupied with the death of Boromir and is unable to appreciate his son’s true, greedy, fallible nature—this has led to him cruelly comparing his dead son and his living one.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Power, Wisdom, and Mercy Theme Icon
Denethor has been holding Boromir’s horn in his lap. He says he heard the horn being blown far away 13 days ago, and that it washed up by the river, broken in two. At Denethor’s request, Pippin describes Boromir’s death and his effort to save Pippin and Merry, another of the hobbits of the Fellowship. Pippin’s gratitude to Boromir moves him to lay his sword at Denethor’s feet in a pledge of loyalty. Denethor accepts Pippin’s service.
Denethor is grieving deeply for Boromir, and he can’t understand how his son was able to be killed by orcs—he needs Pippin’s eyewitness account in order to make sense of the incident. Pippin’s decision to offer his sword to Denethor is driven by the love and appreciation he has for Boromir, demonstrating that he makes decisions from the heart rather than out of cynical strategy.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Denethor’s first command to Pippin is for him to tell Denethor everything he knows about Boromir. Gandalf mentions that he has a lot to discuss with Denethor; Denethor replies that he has foreseen more than what Gandalf thinks he knows—foresight is a gift held by the lords of Gondor. Pippin senses tension between the two of them, and though Denethor seems more noble, Pippin feels that Gandalf has more power and wisdom.
Though Gondor is on the brink of war, Denethor’s priority is to make sense of his son’s death, implying that his decisions will be driven by grief and vengeance rather than pragmatism. His defensiveness against Gandalf’s advice suggests he will be stubborn and difficult to counsel in the days to come.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
After an hour of Denethor’s questions about Boromir, Pippin is exhausted and hungry, and Gandalf is impatient. Denethor sends Gandalf to the lodgings prepared for him and allows Pippin to go too. He tells Gandalf to return to the citadel at his leisure, and insists that he will take his advice, but that his only priority is the strength of Gondor. He is Gondor’s steward and will hold power unless the king returns. Gandalf replies that he is also a steward, not of any nation, but of anything that is in danger at this time of war. He leaves the hall with Pippin.
Gandalf is impatient because he thinks that Denethor should be spending his time on battle strategy rather than interrogating an innocent hobbit. He is annoyed by Denethor’s short-sightedness in focusing only on Gondor’s safety, because he knows that there are other beings and goals outside of Gondor that need help and protection.
Themes
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Quotes
When Pippin and Gandalf reach the room that has been prepared for them, Pippin asks Gandalf if he’s angry with him. To Pippin’s surprise, Gandalf laughs merrily and tells him he did well—though Denethor learned more from Pippin’s story than Gandalf wanted him to know (particularly the clues about Aragorn), there was nothing Pippin could have done to keep those things secret. He says that Pippin’s oath of service to Denethor was actually handy, because it will allow Pippin to roam Gondor freely, though he should remember that he’s bound to do as Denethor commands.
Gandalf’s laughter reminds both Pippin and the reader that, despite the dread of war, there is still humor and joy to be found in people’s quirky behavior. Denethor is observant and clever, but Pippin, though less cunning, has displayed his own kind of cleverness, because now he can have a kind of freedom in Minas Tirith outside of Gandalf’s supervision.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Gandalf remarks that each following day will bring more bad news. He wishes he knew where Faramir is—but for now he has to go to Denethor’s council meeting. He leaves the lodging, urging Pippin to sharpen his blade and requesting that he visit Shadowfax to ensure his comfort. Pippin goes outside to look around the street. A man called Beregond walks up and greets him; he’s been sent to tell Pippin the pass-words of the city and answer his questions. Pippin’s first question is about food: when are meals, and where are they served? When Beregond learns that Pippin has, in fact, already eaten this morning, he laughs and tells him that there isn’t much food to be had. But he can tell Pippin is dismayed to hear this, so, after visiting Shadowfax, the two of them go to eat at one of the dining halls of the Guard.
Faramir’s absence is a concern for Gandalf, who knows that Faramir is more useful and important than Denethor gives him credit for. This passage also suggests that even in the midst of serious matters of war, Gandalf ensures he takes care of the less powerful beings around him, whether they be hobbits like Pippin or animals like Shadowfax. Pippin’s unfamiliarity with the austerity of war reminds the reader that he is a hobbit, far from home, accustomed to the comfort and excess of peacetime—to him, a lack of food is unacceptable.  
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Power, Wisdom, and Mercy Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Beregond and Pippin eat and talk, sharing stories of Gondor and the Shire. Beregond is surprised to hear about Pippin’s many dangerous adventures, because Pippin looks like a child to him. Pippin looks out over the wall and watches the comings and goings from Minas Tirith. A few horsemen arrive, but most of the traffic is in the form of wagons taking the elderly, the children, and the women to refuge. Beregond is sad to see them leave, as many will never again see their family members. He tells Pippin there are very few children left in the city—the only ones who remain are some of the boys, among whom is his own son.  
Though Pippin’s size suggests his youth, he has in fact endured more than some Guards of the City. Nevertheless, Beregond compares Pippin’s size with his 10-year-old son’s, which suggests he feels slightly protective over him. From watching the wagons leaving the city and listening to Beregond, Pippin is becoming aware of the danger that awaits everyone who stays in Minas Tirith. The departure of the women, children, and elderly suggests that even the residential areas of the city are under threat.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Pippin asks Beregond what it is he can see down at the curve of the river. Beregond tells him it’s the ruin of Osgiliath, which was held by Gondor as an outpost until the Black Riders destroyed it a year ago. At the mention of the Black Riders, Pippin looks towards Mordor, where all he can see is a huge shadow which seems to be growing. He asks Beregond when the war will begin, because preparation seems to have slowed. Beregond replies that things feel slow because war is on the verge of beginning—it’s “the deep breath before the plunge.”
Pippin has never been in a war before, let alone one of this size. Beregond, who has some experience of battle, knows the feeling of slow anticipation that precedes the onslaught, noting that it feels like the last gasp of air before being submerged. The shadow obscuring Mordor reflects, in this moment, Pippin’s own uncertainty about what the next days will bring—he can’t see the details of the danger that’s coming towards him.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
The war is clearly a large and complicated one, involving many parties, but though Gondor is only one part of many, Beregond feels that they must succeed in battle if there is to be any hope at all. Beregond asks Pippin if he has any hope that Gondor will survive the war. Pippin thinks of all the terror he’s seen on his journey and begins to despair. At that moment, something seems to obscure the sun, and Pippin hears a distant, piercing cry from high above that deeply disturbs him. Beregond shares Pippin’s feeling of horror.
Though Beregond’s sure of Gondor’s importance in the war, he still asks Pippin—a relative stranger who’s new to the city and unused to war—to reassure him about their hope of victory, betraying his underlying fear. Pippin, though usually optimistic, finds himself unable to reassure Beregond; his despair is reflected by the arrival of a Black Rider (the piercing cry from high above). The terror the Rider brings suggests that there’s more horror to come.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Pippin and Beregond sit together in fear, but after a while, Pippin looks up to see the sun shining. He resolves to hope instead of despair and tells Beregond that Gondor will stand, “if only on one leg.” Beregond agrees with Pippin: Gondor will survive even if Minas Tirith falls, because the people know ways to escape into the mountains. Still, Pippin wishes the war were over: he’s not ready to fight, but the waiting is becoming unbearable. Beregond suggests that, because Gondor’s army is so weak, waiting for the enemy to strike first is the only thing they can do.   
After the Black Rider leaves, Pippin is able to regain his buoyant optimism quickly by looking around him. The world goes on, and the sun still shines—all is not lost. His turn of phrase suggests he hasn’t lost his humor, and he’s able to cheer Beregond up a little, too. Meanwhile, waiting for the battle to start seems to be a test of strength in itself for Pippin, whose uncertainties about what’s to come add to his fear.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
A bell rings to signal meal time, so Beregond takes Pippin to eat with the men of his company. The men are excited to meet Pippin: they’ve heard rumors of him being a Prince of the Halflings. Pippin reluctantly quashes this rumor. Nevertheless, the men of the company hold him in high regard and listen eagerly to his stories. Eventually, it’s time for the men to return to their duties. As Beregond leaves, he tells Pippin to go and find his son who’ll show him around the city. Pippin descends the levels of the city and, as he walks, the people around him stare and salute.
Pippin’s reputation precedes him, and he’s unused to the kind of honor the men grant him. His status as an outsider proves a useful social tool: the men’s curiosity about his life and adventures far from Gondor allows him to befriend them easily. Pippin has experienced a dramatic change in status, from being a nuisance escorted by Gandalf to an honored soldier in an ancient kingdom of men.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
When Pippin reaches the lowest level, a group of children runs towards him. One of the boys is Bergil, Beregond’s son. Pippin tells him Beregond sent him, and he asks Bergil to show him the city. Bergil agrees, and the group heads to the city gate. Pippin impresses Bergil by giving the pass-word to exit the gate, where a crowd watches a line of sturdy soldiers arrive, led by Forlong, the Lord of Lossarnach. The crowd is disappointed to see a much smaller group of soldiers than they were expecting.    
Pippin’s stature allows him to gain the trust of the young boys and begin a friendship with Bergil, proving once again that his difference in size is an advantage more than an inconvenience. The disappointingly meagre size of the companies that arrive at Minas Tirith highlight Gondor’s decline as a great city and the danger that they’ll lose the war if not aided by another significant force.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Several more companies of soldiers arrive at the gate, including that of Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, a relative of Denethor. Once all the arriving parties have entered the city, night begins to fall, and Bergil and Pippin hurry inside too. Pippin heads back to his lodgings to find Gandalf—but Gandalf isn’t there. Pippin falls asleep and wakes up when Gandalf returns in the middle of the night. Gandalf paces and sighs, wishing Faramir would return to Minas Tirith. He urges Pippin to go back to bed, and says that the night will be short, and tomorrow, the sun won’t rise.
Gandalf represents safety for Pippin, which means that Pippin seeks reassurance from him on the eve of battle. It’s clear that Gandalf has been busy strategizing, though Minas Tirith’s preparations aren’t to his satisfaction, and he’s deeply concerned about the oncoming danger. Faramir seems to be vital to Gandalf’s hopes and plans, and so his absence is deeply worrying.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon