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 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Merry reaches the smoldering city in a haze beside the bodies of Théoden and Éowyn. Suddenly his vision goes dark and he feels as though he’s walking into a tomb. Soon, he’s stopped by Pippin who has been searching for him, and he sits down and weeps. Pippin asks if he is wounded—Merry says no, but that his sword-arm has gone numb. Pippin hurries him up the levels of the city towards the Houses of Healing. Merry is too weak to make it all the way, but Bergil runs past on an errand for the Healers and Pippin asks him to send for help for Merry. Soon, Gandalf arrives to take Merry to the Houses of Healing. He comments that Merry should have been carried from battle in honor, just like Théoden and Éowyn.
Though Merry hasn’t been significantly wounded, coming into such close contact with the Black Rider has the effect of a tangible, encroaching darkness—the physical embodiment of despair as an illness. Pippin’s ability to find Merry in the chaotic aftermath of battle speaks to the strength of the friendship between the two hobbits, who haven’t stopped thinking of each other since they were separated. And though Merry fought for Rohan and Gondor with huge bravery, his difference in status still limits him to the role of a helper while others are honored.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry are laid in the Houses of Healing, where the Healers are unsure how to deal with what they call the Black Shadow—an affliction brought through contact with the Black Riders. The afflicted patients have been slipping deeper into dreams before dying. This is what they think Éowyn and Merry suffer from. Ioreth, the oldest healer, recounts an old phrase: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.” Upon hearing this, Gandalf goes to fetch Aragorn.
The Black Shadow is a manifestation of Sauron’s evil in the form of a sickness, whose symptoms mimic that of heartbreak and despair. While this speaks to the potency of hopelessness and its ability to end life, it also suggests that defeating Sauron will require an unprecedented amount of hope in the face of ever-growing despair.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Aragorn, Éomer, and Imrahil reach the city gate. Aragorn decides not to enter the city: he believes Denethor to be alive and wants to avoid conflict and confusion that could arise in a power struggle. He orders his banner to be furled again. Éomer and Imrahil enter the city, looking to meet with Denethor. In the hall of the citadel, they find Théoden’s body clothed in gold. Imrahil asks the guards where the Steward of Gondor is. They tell him he’s in the Houses of Healing. Éomer asks why Éowyn has not been laid beside Théoden, and Imrahil tells him she is not dead. They both go to the Houses of Healing.
Aragorn’s priority is for Gondor to rally quickly without being distracted by ceremony and the chaos of changing leadership. He’s able to put aside any desire for honor or recognition in order to give Gondor their best chance in defeating Sauron. This quality differentiates him from Denethor, who focused constantly on his own status and the symbolic, rather than practical, strength of the kingdom.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Gandalf greets them and says that Éowyn is near death, and Faramir, who is the new Steward of Gondor, is sick with poison from the dart. Imrahil asks who will lead the city while Faramir is sick. A cloaked man next to Gandalf steps forward to reveal himself as Aragorn. But he won’t take on the title of king yet—he has only come to help the sick, and Imrahil should rule Minas Tirith for the time being. Gandalf ushers them all inside to deal urgently with the sick. 
Aragorn continues to prove his humility through his cloaked appearance—his presence here is only due to his ability to help, not because he’s reclaiming his city. He’s consistently more focused on duty and service rather than his symbolic role, even choosing to have Imrahil lead Minas Tirith in his stead.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
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Pippin is waiting at the door when he sees Aragorn, and he greets him with joy and surprise. Imrahil is surprised to hear Aragorn being called “Strider,” and Aragorn tells him that the high language translation of “Strider” will in fact be the name of his house when he takes the throne. They enter the room where the sick lie. Aragorn tends first to Faramir, then to Éowyn and Merry, and judges that he’ll have to use all his skill and strength to attempt to heal them. He asks Ioreth whether the herb-master has kingsfoil. Ioreth tells him they don’t use it as a healing herb—she doesn’t know that it has any use. Nevertheless, Aragorn tells her to fetch any she can find.
Even though Aragorn has begun to take on the airs of his kingship—commanding the army of the Dead and unfurling his banner—he’s foremostly a beloved friend and companion rather than a ruler, which is why Pippin feels comfortable calling him Strider, the casual label given to him as a Ranger of the North. In fact, Aragorn’s proud of this label, and he’ll continue to be identified in this way even at the height of his power.
Themes
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Aragorn thinks Faramir has fallen under the Dark Shadow, too, and his condition has been worsened by the despair brought on by Denethor’s cruelty. He kneels beside Faramir, calling his name more and more faintly. Bergil runs in with six leaves of kingsfoil. Aragorn breathes on two of the leaves and crushes them, and the air is filled with their fresh scent. He puts the leaves in bowls of hot water and holds one bowl to Faramir’s face. Faramir opens his eyes, fully conscious, and addresses Aragorn as king. Aragorn moves on to the other patients.
Bergil’s reappearance here reminds the reader that the small tasks of less powerful people, like Bergil who’s been giving the role of an errand-runner, can change the course of a whole life. Aragorn’s gift here is both prophetic and mystical—it seems that his breath imbues the leaves with a healing property—which emphasizes his role as the heir to Gondor’s throne and their hope of survival.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
When Aragorn sees Éowyn, he describes her sadness as a sickness that began long ago. Éomer says he didn’t know that Éowyn felt such despair for so many years. Gandalf tells him that it was not only Wormtongue’s treachery that made her feel trapped in Edoras, but her status as a woman which kept her from the same freedoms of riding and fighting that Éomer is used to. Éomer considers for the first time Éowyn’s feelings of frustration. Éomer thought that she only became sad when her love for Aragorn was unrequited. Aragorn confirms this is also a cause of Éowyn’s grief, but says she does not truly know him, and loves only an idea of him.
Éomer’s ability to overlook Éowyn’s lifelong frustration with her status is presumably due to his comfort in his role, and his resulting assumption that Éowyn, being of equal rank to him, feels similarly at ease with her own role. He hasn’t taken into account that her gender has removed her ability to behave with honor and bravery in the way he takes for granted. He realizes now that her heartbreak, which he thought was isolated only to Aragorn’s inability to reciprocate her love, comes from the restriction she’s felt for her whole life.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Expectation vs. Ability Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Quotes
Aragorn knows he can revive Éowyn, but if she wakes into despair she won’t survive. He crushes the herb again and tells Éomer to call to her. Éowyn wakes up and asks Éomer whether it’s true that Théoden is dead—he confirms this. Éowyn rests, saying that though she might regain health if she’s made helpful in battle, she does not know if she can find any hope in her life.
Aragorn tells Éomer to call to Éowyn because he knows this will be a more powerful way of bringing her back to life. That is, her connection with Éomer comes from a truer and fuller love than her desire to be loved by Aragorn—a fantasy that will never come true or bring satisfaction.
Themes
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Finally, Aragorn goes to revive Merry. He is confident that Merry’s buoyant spirit will help him recover quickly. Merry wakes and asks for supper and a pipe, but quickly rescinds his second request at the memory of Théoden, who told him that one day they would smoke together. Aragorn tells him to smoke and remember his friend fondly. Pippin stays with Merry while Gandalf and Aragorn leave, finding a crowd has gathered at the door to see Aragorn. A rumor has spread that he is the king, returning to the throne. He works into the night healing those wounded in battle before returning to his tent outside the city walls to rest. When the banner of Prince Imrahil is raised the next morning, the people of the city wonder if their sight of the king was just a dream.
Merry’s optimism allows him to recover quicker than Éowyn, who will have to wrestle with not only the Black Shadow but her existing despair and frustration. In fact, Merry’s ability to experience grief and joy simultaneously are echoed when he resolves to smoke his pipe even though it’ll bring back memories of Théoden. Meanwhile, rumors of hope have replaced those of despair in Minas Tirith, with a crowd gathering to see the man they assume is their new king. But instead of claiming the glory on the spot, Aragorn remains focused on the ways he can serve as a healer and leader, so he leaves the city to sleep outside in a tent.
Themes
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
Loyalty, Love, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Quotes