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 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Gandalf wakes Pippin and tells him to prepare to see Denethor. There’s a small meal laid out for Pippin; he’s dispirited to learn he won’t eat again until noon. Denethor greets Pippin and Gandalf. He asks Pippin if he can sing—perhaps he can be of service through entertainment. This worries Pippin, who doesn’t think his Shire songs are appropriate for Denethor’s hall. Denethor changes the subject, asking Gandalf about the movements of the Rohirrim. He tells Pippin to go to be fitted for armor, and then to return to his side. At the armories, Pippin finds himself dressed uncomfortably in the black and silver livery of the City Guard emblazoned with the White Tree.
Though Pippin has already learnt a great deal about the scale of the danger that awaits, and the high stakes of the oncoming battle, his dismay at his small breakfast prove that he'll never really grow out of his hobbitlike priorities of food and comfort. In fact, his hobbit qualities make him feel uncomfortable and out of place, unused to Gondor’s armor and uncertain of the value of his songs in Denethor’s court. Though he is doing all he can to prove his usefulness, he’s aware he’ll be seen as different nevertheless.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
The shadow deepens over Minas Tirith over the course of the day. After many hours, Pippin is released from duty and goes to find food in the mess, where he meets Beregond again. The two sit outside together. Pippin feels that it’s been years since they talked yesterday; he’s weighed down by his armor and the reality of war is sinking in. He asks Beregond if Minas Tirith is usually covered by shadow when the wind blows from the east, and Beregond tells him that this weather isn’t natural but a mechanism of Sauron’s malice, sent from Mount Doom.
Though it’s only been a day since Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith, the weight of his armor, the knowledge he’s gained about the war, and the sad lack of food he’s been provided with have the combined effect of weariness on him. But his assumption that the thick, oppressive shadow is a natural phenomenon means he’s still learning of the scale of the war and the degree of the enemy’s evil.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Quotes
Beregond wishes Faramir would return—he would not be as cowed by the shadow as the rest of the men are. Suddenly, Beregond and Pippin hear a terrifying cry. Pippin recognizes the sound from back in the Shire, but it has become more hateful. Beregond points below at five Black Riders flying on huge birdlike creatures. The Riders are circling and swooping on a small group of horsemen. Beregond hears Faramir’s trumpet call and cries for someone to help the horsemen. Pippin peers over the wall to see  Gandalf riding towards the men. Gandalf raises his hand at the Black Riders and sends out a shaft of white light, at which the Riders recoil and fly away.   
The sound of the Nazgûl has increased in terror and potency, which signals the fact that the enemy has only grown over the last months, not just in number but in each troops’ individual strength. Gandalf’s ability to pierce the shadow by using, it seems, his own body shows that he’s a well-matched opponent for the Black Riders, demonstrating the power of light amidst their darkness and beginning the pattern in which each victory on the battlefield clears Mordor’s shadow, at least for a short time.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Pippin watches Gandalf and the riders gather themselves and move towards the city gate. He hurries to the Citadel to greet them, and as they ride up through the city, he hears many voices crying out the names of Faramir and Gandalf. When the two of them reach the Citadel, Pippin sees how closely Faramir resembles Boromir, but he feels moved with devotion to Faramir in a way he hasn’t felt before. He sees that Faramir is a captain that many would follow regardless of the danger. Faramir is amazed to see a hobbit in the livery of Minas Tirith. Gandalf explains that Pippin is his charge, but there isn’t time to explain more: they are to meet with Denethor.
Now that they’ve witnessed Gandalf’s power, the people of the city praise and respect him instead of treating him as a bad omen. The people’s chants betray their desire for strong leadership, and their lack of it under Denethor’s rule. Pippin feels similarly, and the obvious difference between Faramir and Boromir—which Denethor sees negatively—appears to Pippin as a sign of hope. This suggests that Faramir might succeed in refusing the temptation of glory and honor where Boromir was unable.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
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In Denethor’s chamber, Faramir eats a little before relaying his travels of the past 10 days. He recounts the different struggles he encountered with his men at the border of Gondor, and notes, to Pippin and Gandalf’s great interest, that he encountered other hobbits in that time. Gandalf’s hands tremble while Faramir tells them of his meeting with Frodo and of Frodo and Sam’s plan to go to Cirith Ungol. Gandalf urges Faramir to tell him the exact time that the hobbits parted from Faramir. Faramir tells him that they would not have reached Cirith Ungol before today, so the shadow, having started to grow yesterday, is not a sign of their failure.
This moment reveals Gandalf’s level of uncertainty and worry about Frodo and Sam’s success and safety. Though he’s been stern and buoyant around Pippin until now, it’s clear to see he’s truly unsure whether Frodo and Sam will succeed, or even if they’re still alive. Though he’s been encouraging all around him to behave with hope and courage, he himself is reduced to searching for signs of hope in small logistical details, which thankfully, Faramir can provide.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Faramir describes his journey back to Minas Tirith. He asks Denethor whether he carried his errands out well. Angrily, Denethor replies that Faramir doesn’t care what Denethor thinks and would rather have the approval of Gandalf than of his father. Denethor grieves Boromir’s absence. Faramir, he thinks, is too gentle to be useful in war. Faramir asks Denethor if he’d rather that he’d died in Boromir’s place. Denethor tells him he would have preferred that, because Boromir was loyal to him, and he regrets that the Ring didn’t end up in Minas Tirith so that he could have kept it himself.
Denethor’s insecurity is obvious here: in the presence of Gandalf, he’s unsure whether his son is truly asking him for advice or just speaking with Gandalf in mind. It becomes clear that one of Denethor’s main frustrations with Faramir is that he’s not blindly loyal. When Boromir tended to follow his father’s instructions without question, Faramir has a tendency to ask others’ opinions, and Denethor interprets this as arrogance and untrustworthiness.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Gandalf tells Denethor that Boromir would never have brought the Ring to him. Even if Boromir had lived, he would’ve tried to claim the Ring for himself. Denethor disagrees and doubts Gandalf’s wisdom. In his opinion, the wisest course of action would have been to keep the Ring in Minas Tirith and only to use it at a time of utmost need—Gandalf’s decision to send it with Frodo to Mount Doom was completely foolish. He is sure he would’ve endured the test of the Ring and not used it. But Gandalf doubts him and says so: he didn’t even trust himself to keep the Ring safe. Pippin senses a tense conflict between Gandalf and Denethor, and he prepares for a violent outburst. 
Denethor’s arrogant and foolish self-assurance that he could have stood up against the Ring’s temptation mirrors Boromir’s, suggesting that he preferred Boromir as a son because he saw even his weakest qualities as admirable strengths. Because he believes he has superior foresight, he’s unable to understand how Gandalf has any hope in the hobbits’ quest to destroy the Ring. This may foreshadow Denethor’s later descent into despair.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Denethor changes the subject to ask Faramir about Osgiliath’s strength. (Osgiliath was the main city of Gondor before the Black Riders took and destroyed it.) Faramir says more soldiers are coming to assist, but they agree that this won’t be enough. Faramir goes to rest, and Gandalf and Pippin head to their lodgings. Pippin asks Gandalf if there’s any hope for Frodo. Gandalf tells him, “Just a fool’s hope.” He interprets Faramir’s news about Frodo and Sam to mean they may still be alive. But Sauron’s first signs of war are arriving sooner than expected. Perhaps Pippin’s use of the Seeing Stone, which alerted Sauron of Saruman’s defeat, hurried the enemy along—or perhaps Aragorn used the Stone to challenge Sauron. Pippin wonders why Frodo and Sam are travelling with Gollum, and why they’re taking such a dangerous route. Gandalf can’t give him a clear answer but feels that there will be treachery on Gollum’s part.
Denethor’s preoccupation with Osgiliath is a sign that he’s clinging to an idea of Gondor from the past. Instead of appreciating and working within the Gondor that has been partially destroyed and lacks its prior strength, Denethor is hopelessly focused on demonstrating symbolic valiance, which is why Osgiliath, which used to be Gondor’s main city, is his focus. Meanwhile, this passage shows Gandalf beginning to be more truthful and realistic with Pippin, which suggests both that he trusts Pippin and knows he’s learned a lot in his time at Minas Tirith, and that he believes that honest hope is stronger than a false façade of security.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The next morning, Minas Tirith is still covered in shadow and the men hear intermittent cries from the Black Riders. They worry that the Riders of Rohan will never arrive. Faramir counsels Denethor that the enemy will greatly overpower them at Osgiliath. Denethor refuses to yield Osgiliath without a fight and orders Faramir to ride out to command the men there. As he leaves, he asks Denethor to pay him more respect upon his return. Denethor replies that that will depend on Faramir’s success in battle. Gandalf urges Faramir to remember his value: Denethor will remember his love for him before the end.
Though Faramir has just returned, the hope he brought the city is fleeting because citizens have begun to worry again. The violent oscillations between hope and despair are, it seems, an unavoidable characteristic of wartime. Gandalf knows that Faramir’s strength partially depends on his hope, which is why he assures him of his father’s love—an assurance that’s much needed, since Denethor is unwilling to show his son affection or respect.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
No more news arrives at Minas Tirith until nightfall, when an errand-rider returns to tell Denethor that a host is approaching Osgiliath from Mordor. The men doubt that Osgiliath will hold against the enemy, even with Faramir at its command. The next day, they learn that the enemy has won Osgiliath—they’ve been laying secret plans to cross the river for a long time and “swarmed across like beetles.” Gandalf rides out to help Faramir and his men return to the city. Pippin spends the night looking in the direction of Osgiliath, and when the morning bells sound, he sees fires appearing far away. Men in the city cry that the enemy has taken the outer wall.
Osgiliath’s quick defeat is another sign that Denethor sent Faramir and his men to a hopeless fate because he couldn’t relinquish his idea of Gondor’s glory. The enemy is less of an army and more of a force of nature, given Tolkien’s description of them as a horde of beetles: their industriousness is single-minded and persistent, focused less on the actions and value of individual soldiers than on the mechanical function of the army unit.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Gandalf returns to Minas Tirith, escorting wagons of wounded soldiers. He meets Denethor in a high chamber, bringing news that Faramir has stayed behind with the rearguard but there’s little hope the men will hold together long enough to return safely. Gandalf also tells Denethor that the Lord of the Nazgûl—the chief Black Rider—has come to lead the battle for the enemy. Denethor asks whether Gandalf has returned in defeat, unable to face this foe. But Gandalf retorts that he has returned to guard the wounded soldiers and to instruct Denethor to prepare a host of mounted soldiers, because the enemy’s main weakness is that they have few horses. Denethor hopes that the Rohirrim will arrive soon.
Gandalf has become a symbol of protection for Minas Tirith, appearing whenever soldiers on the battlefield need assistance or protection. Instead of showing gratitude, Denethor continues to deride Gandalf, suggesting he’s met his match and has returned in fear—willingly mistaking Gandalf’s pragmatism and careful strategy for weakness. It's a sign that Denethor will be easily cowed by any sign of impending defeat in the battle to come. But the Rohirrim still offer tangible hope, and it’s this hope that drives Gandalf onwards.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
From the walls of Minas Tirith, the men see more fires lit across the fields. Then Faramir and his men appear, marching towards the city. Suddenly, they’re swarmed by orcs and Southron men wielding fire and arrows, and the Black Riders begin to swoop down on them. Faramir’s men scatter and fall. At the sound of a trumpet, the knights of Dol Amroth emerge from Minas Tirith to come to Faramir’s aid, along with Shadowfax bearing Gandalf, who once more sends a beam of light from his hand. The enemy forces are overpowered long enough for Faramir and his men to retreat—but when they arrive in the city, a third of the men have been lost and Faramir is nowhere to be seen.
Gandalf once again appears as an aid and protector on the battlefield, but he’s less successful this time—men have died and been wounded before he can help them. It’s becoming clear that the enemy’s strength and numbers are overwhelming, and that they won’t be defeated by any regular display of Gondor’s strength. This is a significant defeat for Gondor, mostly because Faramir, on who they pinned a great deal of hope, has failed to return along with his soldiers.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Faramir finally appears at the rear of the company, carried by Prince Imrahil: he’s been wounded by a deadly dart. The Prince brings Faramir to Denethor. Denethor learns of Faramir’s bravery in battle, but he says nothing. He orders a bed be made for his son, then goes up to a secret room in his high tower. From below, people see a flickering white light from the windows. Denethor returns to sit silently at Faramir’s side; on his return, his face seems “more deathlike than his son’s.”
Faramir’s seemingly fatal wound sends Denethor into deep meditation, showing that Denethor’s love for his son and his desire for his bloodline to continue are more profound than he earlier revealed. His transformation after entering the room in the high tower has similarities with Aragorn’s transformation after using the Seeing Stone, which is a hint that Denethor may have been doing the same thing. However, his apathy and silence is nothing compared to Aragorn’s urgent action, which strikes a clear contrast between each man’s qualities as a leader.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Minas Tirith is completely besieged. There is no hope of the Rohirrim’s arrival—the roads in are taken by enemies. Enemy camps spring up below “like a foul fungus-growth.” Orcs dig trenches in rings around the city and fill them with fire. The men of the city laugh to see the enemy setting up catapults, because Minas Tirith’s walls are too strong to be damaged by those weapons. But the catapults launch missiles that explode into flame. As the men hurry to put out the fires, the catapults begin shooting the decapitated heads of the men lost in the defeat at Osgiliath. Amidst all this, the Black Riders return. The men begin to think “only of hiding and crawling, and of death.”
The description of the enemy camps as fungus growths suggests that they’re quick-spreading and ugly. This is a direct contrast to the tower of Minas Tirith, which is ancient, beautiful, and was built by master craftsmen over many years. Where the enemy takes a quick and crude route to success, Gondor’s approach is more traditional, relying on the strength of men and their individual skills. It’s unclear at this point which approach will prove stronger, but Mordor’s inhumane methods, including firing human heads into the city, proves they can induce despair for Gondor’s troops.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon
Quotes
Meanwhile, Faramir lies in the Citadel in a fever. Rumor reaches the rest of the city that he’s dying. Denethor sits beside Faramir, ignoring the battle. Pippin waits on Denethor, who seems aged and hopeless and expresses remorse at sending his son into danger. He claims that his line is ending. When men arrive to ask for instructions, Denethor sends them away and tells them to follow whoever they want: he will stay with his son. He orders servants to carry Faramir beside him and they walk together to the Silent Street—the road to the city’s funeral pyre. Denethor tells Pippin to fetch wood and oil: he plans to burn with Faramir. Pippin leaves as ordered but goes instead to find Gandalf. He thinks that Faramir needs medicine rather than to be burned alive.
While hope is quick to die amongst the soldiers, the rumor of terrible news—namely, Faramir’s demise—spreads quickly, showing the unquenchable power of despair and the constant struggle required to replace it with hope. Denethor’s sudden display of affection for Faramir and remorse at sending him into danger shows that his leadership has been based on false, arrogant displays of strength which have done nothing to fortify his city or the spirits of his soldiers. Pippin’s bravery and wisdom begin to shine in this passage, as he starts relying on his own judgment and ability rather than following others’ directions.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
As Pippin searches for Gandalf, he runs into Beregond and tells him that Denethor has lost his grip on reality and is dangerous. He urges Beregond to find a way to stop Denethor from doing anything destructive. Beregond must choose between following orders and saving Faramir’s life. Pippin runs down to the city’s lowest level. Fires are raging, and he hears the cry of a Black Rider. He turns the corner to find Gandalf, but he’s terrified by what he sees and stops in his tracks.
While before, Pippin saw himself as less battle-ready and lower in status than Beregond, he now seems to accept his power and use it to his advantage. But his trust for Beregond remains, which means he allows him to come to his own decision rather than forcing or coercing him. Meanwhile, the battle in the lower levels has escalated in Pippin’s absence, which means Denethor himself has also been removed from much of the strategy and action for a significant amount of time.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
While Pippin waited on Denethor, the battle had been building down below. Enemy forces press closer to the wall and, with the help of a huge flame-filled battering ram, burst through the gate. The Lord of the Nazgûl has entered Minas Tirith, and now Gandalf faces him. Where the Black Rider’s head should be, there are only flames. They face off, and in their tense silence, a cock crows to signal that the morning has come despite the cover of shadow. With that sound, the horns of Rohan ring out: the Rohirrim have arrived.
The ability of Mordor’s troops to enter Minas Tirith relied on their huge battering ram, which was presumably created for this occasion and suggests that Sauron has strategized for the battle at Minas Tirith for a significant amount of time—this is one of his opportunities to decimate his foe. Even in the midst of huge violence and danger, nature, in the form of a small bird, emerges and brings hope with it, suggesting it’ll never be defeated even by unprecedented destruction.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
War, Greed, and Nature Theme Icon