In the morning, Gimli and Legolas bring a message to Imrahil that Aragorn wants captains to gather at his tent to plan their next move against the enemy. After speaking with Imrahil, they go to see Merry and Pippin. The four walk and sit together. Merry begs Gimli and Legolas to recount their journey since leaving Helm’s Deep. Gimli refuses—the terror is still too vivid—but Legolas, having been less afraid, tells them the story. He says that the shadow that had hung overhead had seemed to strengthen the army of the Dead, who were obedient to Aragorn the whole way.
Like Éomer’s ability to make use of Gondor’s broken wall, this is another instance where Mordor’s weapons and destruction prove useful for Gondor, transforming a symbol of despair into one of power. Legolas’s relative lack of fear in proximity to the Dead is a reminder that, as an Elf, his relationship with death is imbued with less horror than it is for mortals like Men and Dwarves.
When they reached the river, Legolas explains, the Dead swept through the enemy and took the ships for Aragorn’s company. The fear that the Dead brought to the enemy was more powerful than any weapon. After they took the ships, Aragorn held the Dead’s oath fulfilled, and they departed. Gimli tells Merry and Pippin that the armies of men that had been fighting nearby then came to Aragorn’s aid and joined his company. At that point, Gimli doubted they would reach Minas Tirith in time to help, but Legolas had told him to cheer up—a new wind began to blow which gave the boats more speed, and they were able to join the battle in order to win back victory.
Though Mordor’s strength has been increased by the fear that precedes them, here, it’s obvious that fear works against them in just the same way. The sensation of fear rather than the tangible weapons of the Dead army is the key to Aragorn’s victory on the Black Ships, demonstrating that despair can be potent enough to drive an army to surrender if they’re not buoyed by transcendent hope.
Imrahil sends for Éomer and they descend the levels of the city together to meet Aragorn, Gandalf, Elladan, and Elrohir. Gandalf urges them to consider Denethor’s final words—a prediction of defeat. The Seeing Stone showed Denethor only what Sauron wanted him to see, but it’s also impossible for the Stone to show false images, so Gandalf knows that Denethor’s despair was not totally unjustified: there must indeed be huge forces gathering in Mordor. Gandalf still hopes for victory in the war but believes it cannot be achieved by force. He suggests that Sauron can only be defeated if the Ring is destroyed—so their only option is to act as a distraction in order to give Frodo a chance to reach Mount Doom.
Gandalf’s strategy is a combination of hope and realism. He doesn’t suggest the captains search for hope in battle; rather, they should pin their faith on Frodo and Sam, and their motivation should come from the slim chance the hobbits have of fulfilling their quest. Gandalf and Aragorn request a huge display of faith and sacrifice from the captains, and their honesty about the low odds of individual survival shows that they trust their allies to show great loyalty and fortitude.
Aragorn concurs with Gandalf, but he allows the other captains to choose whether to follow. Elrond’s sons agree to the plan. Imrahil does too, but as the acting Steward of Gondor, he reserves a large group of his men to guard the city. They count their numbers and agree to leave in two days with a 7,000-strong army. Once their strategy has been planned, Imrahil laughs and exclaims that the plan seems like a huge joke—there’s no way they can pose a threat to Mordor with such a weakened army. He asks Gandalf whether Sauron will even take them seriously. But Gandalf replies that Sauron considers some among them serious threats, and Aragorn adds that if it is in fact a joke, it’s not one to laugh about.
Imrahil doesn’t try to ignore the hopelessness of the situation, but his decision to reserve some troops to defend Minas Tirith shows that he can envision a situation in which hope prevails in some form. Put another way, he’s able to hold doom in one hand and faith in the other rather than submitting to one the other. Gandalf is more optimistic about their strategy’s success, because he knows that Sauron, though powerful, is still threatened by the symbolic strength Gandalf and Aragorn possess.