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 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When the Black Rider withdraws from the city to join the battle on the field, Pippin cries for Gandalf to come with him to save Faramir. He explains that Denethor has gone to the tombs and will burn himself and his son alive if he’s not stopped. Gandalf knows that if he goes to save Faramir, many in the battle will die without his help. Nevertheless, he goes with Pippin and tells Prince Imrahil to take command. Pippin and Gandalf ride up to the entrance to the tombs. As they walk towards the House of the Stewards where Denethor is lighting his fire, they hear swords clashing: Beregond is fighting off Denethor’s guard. 
Gandalf’s decision is one that represents the choice between helping many in battle and rescuing one vulnerable, important figure. Gandalf’s decision might rest on the fact that those in battle have gone willingly, while Faramir has no way to defend himself from his father. Beregond’s renegade behavior shows that Denethor’s loss of perspective is obvious to his soldiers, and that Pippin has been persuasive in his request for Beregond’s help.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Denethor appears from the door that Beregond is guarding, holding a sword. Gandalf storms towards Denethor, casting the sword into the air. He asks Denethor why he’s lighting a funeral pyre while he and his son are still alive. He judges Denethor to be mad and lifts Faramir from the pyre to carry him away. Denethor weeps to see his son taken from him, but Gandalf tells him Faramir must be given the chance to heal; meanwhile, Denethor’s responsibility is to join the battle with his people. Denethor sees no hope and would rather burn with his son, but Gandalf tells him he doesn’t have the power to choose his own death.
Gandalf’s belief that hope is both stronger and wiser than despair is the impetus for his drastic behavior towards Denethor here: he no longer relies on Denethor realizing the potential for Faramir’s recovery or Gondor’s success, so he has to personally remove Faramir from Denethor’s grasp. It’s nobler, in Gandalf’s mind, to face the threat of defeat rather than surrendering to it without even attempting to succeed.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Denethor watches Gandalf take Faramir away, but when Gandalf calls him to follow, he laughs instead. He shows Gandalf that he was using a Seeing Stone as his pillow on the pyre, and that through it he has learned that the war is hopeless for Gondor. He believes that Gandalf hopes to rule in his stead, using Aragorn as a puppet, and in any case, he refuses to accept Aragorn’s claim to the throne. Gandalf tells Denethor he has no right to end his son’s life, at which Denethor draws a knife on him. Beregond stands to Gandalf’s defense, which Denethor interprets as Gandalf having turned his men against him. In a sudden motion, Denethor sets the pyre alight and leaps onto it, still holding the Seeing Stone. Gandalf closes the door on Denethor’s burning body.
Denethor’s despair has been fueled by his belief that he possesses more knowledge and wisdom than Gandalf and can therefore reject his encouragement to be optimistic about Gondor’s chances. But Denethor’s presumed wisdom leads him away from prudent decisions and into the path of assumption and miscommunication, revealing that no matter how much information one has, it’s never a sure indicator of failure or success. The future can never be accurately predicted, and Gandalf’s actions suggest that even the smallest chance of survival shouldn’t be written off.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Gandalf tells Denethor’s knights that their obedience would’ve led to Faramir’s death had Beregond not disobeyed his orders. He and Pippin take Faramir to the Houses of Healing. As they walk, they hear a blast of noise: the House of the Stewards in which Denethor burned himself cracks and crumbles into ruins. Beregond reveals he took the key from the porter when he went to Faramir’s rescue. He offers the key to Gandalf, who tells him to keep it safe until Minas Tirith has been defended.
Denethor’s death and the subsequent crumbling of the House of the Stewards is a symbol of the end of this era in Gondor’s history, making way for a new form of leadership. Meanwhile, Gandalf’s decision to entrust the key to Beregond shows that he values, rather than condemns, Beregond’s treasonous actions which were a product of necessity. He is opposed to the idea that soldiers should blindly follow a corrupted leader.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Power, Wisdom, and Mercy Theme Icon
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As they reach the Houses of Healing, Gandalf, Pippin, and Beregond hear a piercing cry and see the sun breaking through the shadow. Though this brings new hope, Gandalf can sense there’s grief, too—he tells Pippin and Beregond to take Faramir inside while he goes to the wall to observe the battle wreckage. When Beregond and Pippin return to him, he tells them that it's a time for both joy and sorrow—had Denethor not put Faramir in danger, Gandalf may have prevented some of the loss. He says that the Seeing Stone was in part responsible for Denethor’s descent into delusion. Though Denethor was strong enough to avoid complete deception by Sauron, he was still overcome by the images of threat and despair he saw in the Stone.
The victory of Gondor and Rohan has been hard won, and they’ve suffered substantial and important losses. Gandalf laments his own fallibility—his decision to save Faramir meant he gave up the chance to prevent significant loss in battle. Indeed, it wasn't Denethor himself that led to Gandalf’s fateful decision, but Sauron’s evil which was able to infiltrate Minas Tirith by way of the Seeing Stone. It’s clear that Sauron is still using his ability to spread despair and doubt to his advantage.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Quotes
Pippin says that this explains the change in Denethor between leaving and returning to Faramir’s side. Beregond supports this theory with his description of the bright light in the high tower at that time: Denethor must have been looking into the Stone. Gandalf confirms that this is the way Sauron caused Denethor’s downfall. But now he must go down to the battlefield: he’s seen something very sad. He brings Pippin with him, telling Beregond to stand guard over Faramir.
Even after Beregond’s treason, Gandalf trusts him with guarding Faramir, which is another sign that Gandalf has less respect for the official offices of power than for an individual person’s ability to make difficult decisions and remain loyal to truth over authority.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon