Two days later, the army assembles. Merry is dismayed to find he won’t be going, as he still needs to rest, but Aragorn tells him not to envy Pippin’s place in the battle: Merry has already been able to prove himself with noble deeds. The trumpets sound and the army moves off. Merry is left lonely again. Everyone he cares for has gone into battle. Bergil, who has been standing beside Merry watching the army leave, tries to cheer him by suggesting that, with the strength of Gandalf and Aragorn, the army cannot fail.
Merry’s motivation at all times is to help his friends, and, just like the days before the battle, he feels helpless and lonely knowing that he can’t do anything for them. Though Bergil suggests that the army has a good chance, that’s not really the cause of Merry’s worry—it’s more that he can’t face the danger beside his friends.
The horsemen at the head of the army reach a crossroads where a statue of an old king of Gondor has been defaced. Aragorn sets trumpeters at each path of the crossroads to blow a fanfare and declare that Gondor has returned to reclaim the land, and orders that the statue be cleaned and repaired. They continue towards Mordor flanked by scouts. Though the weather has cleared, the smog of Mordor is permanent. Gandalf gives intermittent orders for a fanfare to sound, and for the men to proclaim the return of the king of Gondor, but the challenge is never met by the enemy.
As on the Paths of the Dead, dread seems to increase with the lack of the enemy’s presence—it’s impossible to tell what kind of power awaits Aragorn’s company as they move ahead. However, even though he hasn’t claimed the honors that go along with the kingship, Aragorn is using his nobility to a tactical advantage, knowing that he’s a symbol of Gondor’s strength that Sauron still fears.
At one point, the leading party, having been warned by their scouts, defeats an enemy ambush. Their victory is small and feels hollow—they know it’s just a tease. From then on, Legolas senses the Nazgûl flying high above. They bring a feeling of unshakeable dread to the whole army. The next day, some of the soldiers become so paralyzed by despair that Aragorn allows them to turn back. Six days after their departure from Minas Tirith, the army reaches the Black Gate.
Aragorn demonstrates his leadership not through shows of strength or unquestioned authority, but when he shows others mercy. He’s a merciful leader whose strength only increases when he shows his soldiers understanding and care, suggesting he knows this is an effective way to earn their loyalty.
The Gate is closed. Aragorn arranges the army before riding with the rest of the captains to the Gate, along with a large guard. Pippin, Gimli, and Legolas join the guard as representatives of their people. They call for Sauron to meet them and atone for his destruction. At the end of a long silence, an embassy emerges from the Gate, led not by Sauron but a towering figure on a huge, terrifying horse. He tells them he is the Mouth of Sauron—a high-ranking servant of Sauron who has served for long enough to have forgotten his own name. He asks if there is anyone with the authority to speak with him. Aragorn meets his eye, and the Mouth recoils as if he’s been stung.
The presence of representatives of all free peoples of Middle-earth suggests that this is their ultimate challenge to Sauron and the moment in which they demand him to answer for all the pain he’s caused them. He sends his ambassador instead of going himself, implying both that he could be threatened by the army, or that his plan relies on his own distance from the battle. That the Mouth of Sauron has forgotten his own name after serving Sauron shows that Sauron is more focused on amassing strength in numbers rather than valuing the individual traits of his soldiers.
The Mouth of Sauron recognizes Gandalf and tells him his plan is foolish. He says he was instructed by Sauron to show Gandalf a token. One of his party comes forward with a bundle which the Mouth of Sauron reveals to be Frodo’s clothes and Sam’s sword. Pippin cries out when he sees them, which proves to the Mouth that the items are important to this group. Gandalf asks him why he has shown them the tokens; the Mouth of Sauron says that they are proof of Gandalf’s conspiracy to send spies into Mordor.
Pippin’s cry at seeing Frodo and Sam’s items is the confirmation the Mouth of Sauron needs that the two hobbits are familiar to Gandalf and his companions, showing that Sauron and his servants will use the most vulnerable people and the purest friendships to their own advantage.
The Mouth of Sauron offers to deliver Frodo if Gandalf agrees to Sauron’s terms. Gandalf asks for the terms: they dictate that Gondor withdraws, that Sauron claims all lands east of the Anduin River, and that all other lands are free for men to govern without weapons. Sauron would also claim Isengard and the men would rebuild it for him. Gandalf asks for proof that Frodo is alive before he agrees to the terms. The Mouth of Sauron refuses. Gandalf takes Sam and Frodo’s belongings, and he rejects the terms. The Mouth of Sauron, filled with fear and confusion, retreats back to the Gate, but at that same moment, Mordor’s battle horns sound.
Gandalf’s actions here show that he’d rather take his chances on true victory than ensure a tiny amount of safety for the price of freedom. Though their chances are slim, Aragorn’s army is hopeful and willing to make sacrifices, not just accept a halfhearted success that would lead to enslavement and more despair. The speed with which Mordor’s armies emerge from the Gate shows that Sauron planned for Gandalf to reject the Mouth of Sauron’s deal.
The Black Gates open wide. A huge army emerges, and Aragorn’s guard retreats quickly, but their army is surrounded by orcs and men of the enemy. Aragorn’s banner is raised. The sun is shrouded by Mordor’s plumes of smoke and appears red as if the day is ending. All hope seems to disappear. Pippin resigns himself to death. Beregond is struck down by a troll who leers down at Pippin. Pippin stabs upwards at the troll who then falls and crushes him. Darkness descends on Pippin, but in his last moments of consciousness he hears voices crying, “The Eagles are coming!”
Even when they lack all hope, Aragorn’s army, including Pippin, fight with a great deal of bravery. Their motivation comes from more than pragmatism or the chance of success—the idea of freedom and their role in achieving it drives them onward.