The doom of Middle-earth approaches…
Merry is in decent condition, but still not well enough to return to the battlefield, so Pippin goes along as the Hobbit representative, and as a member of a company of Gondorian soldiers led by Beregond. But of course that means they’re separated again, and neither one has any guarantee of safety.
The last glint of the morning sun on spear and helm twinkled and was lost, and still [Merry] remained with bowed head and heavy heart, feeling friendless and alone. Everyone that he cared for had gone away into the gloom that hung over the distant eastern sky; and little hope at all was left in his heart that he would ever see any of them again.
As if recalled by his mood of despair, the pain in his arm returned, and he felt weak and old, and the sunlight seemed thin.
All their hopes lie with Frodo (or rather, Sam at this point), and even if his mission does succeed, that’s still not a guarantee that they’ll win the battle at the Black Gate – as like as not, the Ring wouldn’t even be destroyed until after the fighting’s over.
Much of the chapter is spent watching Aragorn’s army make its way back up the same road that Frodo and Sam took in the last book. Someone suggests assaulting Minas Morgul instead of/before the Black Gate, but of course Gandalf shot it down because 1. Frodo took that route, and the whole point of the endeavor is to draw attention away from him, and 2. It ain’t called the Tower of Sorcery for nothing.
Ever and anon Gandalf would let blow the trumpets, and the heralds would cry: ‘The Lords of Gondor are come! Let all leave this land or yield them up!’ But Imrahil said: ‘Say not The Lords of Gondor. Say The King Elessar. For that is true, even though he has not yet sat upon the throne; and it will give the Enemy more thought, if the heralds use that name.’ And thereafter thrice a day the heralds proclaimed the coming of the King Elessar. But none answered the challenge.
If the heralds seem like a bit much, that’s because they are – they want to attract Sauron’s attention, even with a relatively small army, so they need to make a racket and act like they might have the Ring. But it soon becomes evident that Sauron is perfectly willing to call their bluff, forcing them to actually approach the gate before giving any answer.
So time and the hopeless journey wore away. Upon the fourth day from the Cross-roads and sixth from Minas Tirith they came at last to the end of the living lands, and began to pass into the desolation that lay before the gates of the Pass of Cirith Gorgor; and they could descry the marshes and the desert that stretched north and west to the Emyn Muil. So desolate were those places and so deep the horror that lay on them that some of the host were unmanned, and they could neither walk nor ride further north.
Aragorn looked at them, and there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath; for these were young men from Rohan, from Westfold far away, or husbandmen from Lossarnach, and to them Mordor had been from childhood a name of evil, and yet unreal, a legend that had no part in their simple life; and now they walked like men in a hideous dream made true, and they understood not this war nor why fate should lead them to such a pass.
Aragorn offers them a different task, saying that they could retreat to the river and retake an island there if it was held against them, which some of them take him up on. A few hundred men more or less wouldn’t shift the scales, and those that remain are emboldened, if only because they had to choose to stay.
And then they all but come up and knock at the gate, and after a sufficiently awkward wait, the Mouth of Sauron (who is actually a mortal Man) comes out to chat. And he shows off the mithril-coat, Elven-cloak, and Sam’s sword which that they’d taken from Frodo.
A blackness came before their eyes, and it seemed to them in a moment of silence that the world stood still, but their hearts were dead and their last hope gone. Pippin who stood behind Prince Imrahil sprang forward with a cry of grief.
‘Silence!’ said Gandalf sternly, thrusting him back; but the Messenger laughed aloud.
‘So you have yet another of these imps with you!’ he cried. ‘What use you find in them I cannot guess; but to send them as spies into Mordor is beyond even your accustomed folly. Still, I thank him, for it is plain that this brat at least has seen these tokens before, and it would be vain for you to deny them now. […] Dwarf-coat, elf-cloak, blade of the downfallen West, and spy from the little rat-land of the Shire – nay, do not start! We know it well – here are the marks of a conspiracy. Now, maybe he that bore these things was a creature that you would not grieve to lose, and maybe otherwise: one dear to you, perhaps? If so, take swift counsel with what little wit is left to you. For Sauron does not love spies, and what his fate shall be depends now on your choice.’
Gandalf hears his terms, which are basically total surrender (in return for one prisoner), so he asks to see said prisoner, and the Messenger outright refuses. Gandalf actually seems a lot more confident after he hears Mordor’s terms, because he realizes that if they’re trying to barter for a surrender, they must still expect significant fighting, in which case they must not have found the Ring.
‘These are his terms. Take them or leave them!’
‘These we will take!’ said Gandalf suddenly. He cast aside his cloak and a white light shone forth like a sword in that black place. Before his upraised hand the foul Messenger recoiled, and Gandalf coming seized and took from him the tokens: coat, cloak, and sword. ‘These we will take in memory of our friend,’ he cried. ‘But as for your terms, we reject them utterly.’
Gandalf is awesome. But unfortunately, even if he did figure out that either Sam or Frodo must still be free (and presumably have the Ring), he doesn’t have time to explain any of that to the others before they’re surrounded and fighting for their lives. So poor Pippin is under the impression that they just doomed Frodo to torment and death, and their last hope of victory is gone.
‘I wish Merry was here,’ he heard himself saying, and quick thoughts raced through his mind, even as he watched the enemy come charging to the assault. ‘Well, well, now at any rate I understand poor Denethor a little better. We might die together, Merry and I, and since die we must, why not? Well, as he is not here, I hope he’ll find an easier end. But now I must do my best.’
He’s finally lost hope and I can’t, because this is PIPPIN! And he’s fighting for his life (and not much else). But then he up and kills a troll chieftan, because he’s gotta at least try to measure up to Merry.
Blackness and stench and crushing pain came upon Pippin, and his mind fell away into a great darkness.
‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear. And then even as it winged away into forgetfulness it heard voices, and they seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far above:
‘The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!’
For one moment more Pippin’s though hovered. ‘Bilbo!’ it said. ‘But no! That came in his tale, long long ago. This is my tale, and it is ended now. Good-bye!’
Tolkien must really like ending the books on a Hobbit loosing consciousness (seriously, HALF of them end that way), but it’s certainly an effective cliffhanger.
Interestingly, this is quite possibly the best example of a scene where the changes in the film were primarily tonal in nature rather than textual. Sure, there are changes like Merry coming along or (in the theatrical cut) the absence of the Mouth of Sauron, but that’s less noticeable than the shifted tone. And that’s all thanks to the change in format – here, it’s made very clear that the outcome of the battle doesn’t really matter, that their fate is bound to that of the Ring, and the tension lies in not knowing how far they’ll have to go before it’s destroyed (even if its ultimate destruction feels inevitable). In the movie, since they’re able to show both storylines concurrently, it becomes a much more traditional climactic battle, complete with rousing speech and tidy conclusions of character arcs. It plays a different role in the narrative. Honestly, I do kind of prefer the movie version, but that’s at least partly because this chapter is so depressing and I just want my precious Hobbit babies to be happy already.
Next time: More precious Hobbit babies who remain unhappy…