They won a battle, but what to do with that victory? Also, Legolas and Gimli are enjoying the sights of Minas Tirith.
Those two can’t take two steps in Aragorn’s soon-to-be-abode without drawing up renovations, like good friends (but for real, at least they intend to lend a hand). Anyhow, they run into Prince Imrahil, whom Legolas confirms to be a descendant of Nimrodel (if the name “Dol Amroth” rang a bell, it’s because it relates to the story Legolas told about that elf-maiden in Lorien). It’s another one of those fun little details that helps to flesh out the world around them, although I admit I personally might have preferred if Tolkien left some of these things unstated (I connected the dots several chapters ago). That’s just a nitpick now that there’s so many different ways to build a fantasy world, though, and they’re all indebted to Tolkien in some form or another.
‘That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,’ said Legolas. ‘If Gondor has such men in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.’
‘And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,’ said Gimli. ‘It is ever so with the things Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.’
‘Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,’ said Legolas. ‘And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.’
‘And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,’ said the Dwarf.
‘To that the Elves know not the answer,’ said Legolas.
This is one of the rare occasions where we’re keenly reminded that Gimli isn’t human (Legolas, on the other hand, is constantly self-satisfied about his Elvishness). Even the Hobbits feel more human, more a part of the world of Men, than the Dwarves, even if they are often shy of the “Big Folk”. And speaking of Hobbits, their stated errand is to visit a couple…
‘You must not go to the Havens, Legolas. There will always be some folk, big or little, and even a few wise dwarves like Gimli, who need you. At least I hope so. Though I feel somehow that the worst of this war is yet to come. How I wish it was all over, and well over!’
‘Don’t be so gloomy!’ cried Pippin. ‘The Sun is shining, and here we are together for a day or two at least. I want to hear about you all.’
And thus Legolas proceeds to recount what happened between Aragorn summoning the Oathbreakers and their arrival at the battle. It’s mostly what you’d expect when you’re leading an Army of the Dead – everyone hid at the first sign of them, although a good number of the men of Gondor followed after them once they learned what Aragorn was about. Then they ambushed the Black Fleet and the Corsairs promptly jumped ship, as it were, leaving behind the galley-slaves who were chained to the ships (and mostly Gondorian).
‘Strange indeed,’ said Legolas. ‘In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron.’
In this version of the story, that’s actually all Aragorn wanted that undead army for – now that the Black Fleet was captured, the coastlands could easily spare an army to send to Minas Tirith.
Meanwhile, Gandalf, Aragorn, Éomer, and the other captains of Gondor are engaging in the titular debate.
‘My lords,’ said Gandalf, ‘listen to the words of the Steward of Gondor before he died: You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory. I do not bid you despair, as he did, but to ponder the truth in these words.
‘[…] Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope, as Denethor perceived. Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River. You have only a choice of evils; and prudence would counsel you to strengthen such strong places as you have, and there await the onset; for so shall the time before your end be made a little longer.’
‘Then you would have us retreat to Minas Tirith, or Dol Amroth, or to Dunharrow, and there sit like children on sandcastles when the tide is flowing?’ said Imrahil.
‘That would be no new counsel,’ said Gandalf. ‘Have you not done this and little more in all the days of Denethor? But no! I said this would be prudent. I do not counsel prudence. I said victory could not be achieved by arms. I still hope for victory, but not by arms. For into the midst of all these policies comes the Ring of Power, the foundation of Barad-dûr, and the hope of Sauron.’
He makes the argument that their only hope for victory in the long term is for the Ring to be destroyed, and one way to help with that is to keep Sauron focused on people beyond his own borders, and perhaps draw his armies away from Mount Doom.
‘We must push Sauron to his last throw. We must call out his hidden strength, so that he shall empty his land. We must march out to meet him at once. We must make ourselves the bait, though his jaws should close on us. He will take that bait, in hope and in greed, for he will think that in such rashness he sees the pride of the new Ringlord: and he will say: “So! he pushes out his neck too soon and too far. Let him come on, and behold I will have him in a trap from which he cannot escape. There I will crush him, and what he has taken in his insolence shall be mine again forever.”
‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’
Now that Denethor’s out of the picture, it’s not so much a debate as Gandalf laying out the facts. Of course Aragorn’s going to follow Gandalf’s lead like he always does, and everyone else is going to follow his – although it is interesting to note that in this case, Aragorn kind of took the first step already. He chose to escalate the conflict by revealing himself to Sauron, which helped lead into the ruse that Aragorn has the Ring. Basically the only debate is over how many (or how few) troops to lead to the Black Gate. But just before they march out, the Prince is suddenly struck by the patent absurdity of it.
‘Surely,’ he cried, ‘this is the greatest jest in all the history of Gondor: that we should ride with seven thousands, scarce as many as the vanguard of its army in the days of its power, to assail the mountains and impenetrable gate of the Black Land! So might a child threaten a mail-clad knight with a bow of string and green willow! If the Dark Lord knows so much as you say, Mithrandir, will he not rather smile than fear, and with his little finger crush us like a fly that tries to sting him?’
‘No, he will try to trap the fly and take the sting,’ said Gandalf. ‘And there are names among us worth more than a thousand mail-clad knights apiece. Nay, he will not smile.’
‘Neither shall we,’ said Aragorn. ‘If this be jest, then it is too bitter for laughter. Nay, it is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.’
Next time: The Black Gate Opens…