The Return of the King
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Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot from the walls; and as the trenches were made each was filled with fire, though how it was kindled or fed, by art or devilry, none could see. All day the labour went forward, while the men of Minas Tirith looked on, unable to hinder it. And as each length of trench was completed, they could see great wains approaching; and soon yet more companies of the enemy were swiftly setting up, each behind the cover of a trench, great engines for the casting of missiles. There were none upon the City walls large enough to reach so far or to stay the work.
At first men laughed and did not greatly fear such devices. For the main wall of the City was of great height and marvellous thickness, […], hard and dark and smooth, unconquerable by steel or fire, unbreakable except by some convulsion that would rend the very earth on which it stood. (5.4.139-40)
Modern warfare comes to Middle-earth. The Gondorians feel that they are safe because their city walls are thick and smooth. Who could break them? Who could scale them? But of course, they are totally misunderstanding the purpose of the orcs' siege engines. Why bother with walls at all, when they can just lob missiles inside the city and do the most damage that way? It's like the shift away from chain mail and armor once gunpowder became popular in Europe: all of the old techniques of warfare that are supposed to withstand arrows, spears, or swords don't help much when you're talking about the power of bullets or explosives. Tolkien may resist the idea that the The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for World War II (for more on that, check out our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section for The Two Towers). Still, the fact that the "great engines for the casting of missiles" rest in the hands of the orcs and not the good people of Gondor suggests some fairly obvious criticism on Tolkien's part of the explosiveness and damage of modern warfare.
"To me! To me!" cried Théoden. "Up Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!" But Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side: a black dart had pierced him. The king fell beneath him.
The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie brid this last untimely brood, apt to evil [...] (5.6.5-6)
Remember Denethor's words: "[Sauron] uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling" (5.4.113)? And Gandalf also remarks that the Lord of the Nazgûl is driving his slaves before him and avoiding the battlefield at the siege of Minas Tirith (see Book 5, Chapter 4). It seems both Denethor and Sauron like to stay away from the front lines. Here, though, we see Théoden right at the front of the Riders of Rohan, inspiring them to great feats of valor. Yet, the disadvantage of having your king on the battlefield is that he might get horribly killed by a giant, stinky Nazgûl. Maybe it's best for the kings to stay off the front lines if you're worried about their survival. But if you're worried about the survival of the cause, well then having a king up front just might prove useful in the end. After all, it's Théoden's death that leads a devastated Éowyn and Merry to defeat the Lord of the Nazgûl once and for all.
But Théoden was not utterly forsaken. The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away. Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; […] Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick.
"King's man! King's man!" his heart cried within him. "You must stay by him. As a father you shall be to me, you said." But his will made no answer, and his body shook. He dared not open his eyes or look up." (5.6.8-9)
Éowyn-as-Dernhelm, driven by love for Théoden and by her own desire for fame and valor, stands tall to face the Nazgûl, demanding, "Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion!" (5.6.11). Merry, on the other hand, is so terrified that he cowers, shakes, and crawls away. Since Merry is the character we know the best and sympathize with the most, his horror feels perhaps more immediate than Éowyn's fierceness. This is a much more human, anti-heroic depiction of the awfulness of battle than you might expect from a novel about heroes at war. The Lord of the Rings series celebrates courage and sternness in the face of evil, but it also refuses to forget that war is always brutal, and there is always a high cost to be paid by those who fight on the good side—those like scared little Merry in this scene. It may sound awesome to stand your ground in the face of a great, stinky beast, but it's easier said than done.