Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone City, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window. (5.1.37)
It looks like Boromir had it right all the way back in The Fellowship of the Ring Book 2, Chapter 2. Minas Tirith is suffering from some serious urban decay. The City is a strong tower against the darkness—a "great stone City, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of," sure. But the Gondorians are only at half strength, and they no longer have the ability to withstand Sauron with these depleted numbers. Pippin sees signs of "great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there" — but where are they now? The lords of Gondor are dying out, and with them dies the hope of renewal. That is, until a certain king comes a'knocking.
Merry got up and yawned. His few hours' sleep had not been nearly enough; he was tired and rather dismal. He missed Pippin, and felt that he was only a burden, while everybody was making plans for speed in a business that he did not fully understand. (5.2.35)
Merry is now in the exact same position in which we found Pippin in Book 5, Chapter 1: he has come along for the ride to Helm's Deep (as Pippin did with Gandalf to Minas Tirith), but he doesn't really know what he's doing here, what's going on, or what help he can be. He has to find a purpose. But considering Aragorn has already told Merry that his fate rests with Théoden, and that Pippin has already sworn an oath to Lord Denethor, we think we can guess where our Merry is headed. If he's in the same position that Pippin was in in the previous chapter, it stands to reason that he, too, will swear an oath to someone—say Théoden?—in the near future, just to give himself something to do, and something to fight for.
Such was the dark Dunharrow, the work of long-forgotten men. Their name was lost and no song or legend remembered it. For what purpose they had made this place, as a town or secret temple or tomb of kings, none in Rohan could say. Here they laboured in the Dark Years, before ever a shape came to the western shores, or Gondor of the Dúnedain was built; and now they had vanished, and only the old Púkel-men were left, still sitting at the turnings of the road. (5.3.23)
There are a ton of ruins scattered over Middle-earth. Weathertop, Amon Hen, Osgiliath—all of these places contain signs of old settlements or cities that have since been abandoned or overrun by enemies. What makes the Púkel-men interesting and different from these other ruins is that these statues are so ancient that no one knows where they even come from, and that's a rare thing in history-conscious Middle-earth. And without a proper name, they lack of the force of the Argonath or Osgiliath. When Aragorn looks at the Argonath, he sees his forebears, the kings of Gondor. But the Púkel-men have no such power over anyone living. They are simply puzzles or curiosities, like Stonehenge. Without an origin story, they have no power over Middle-earth imaginations. But still, these statues persevere.
Already it seemed years to Pippin since he had sat there before, in some half-forgotten time when he had still been a hobbit, a light-hearted wanderer touched little by the perils he had passed through. Now he was one small soldier in a City preparing for a great assault, clad in the proud but sombre manner of the Tower of Guard.
In some other time and place Pippin might have been pleased with his new array, but he knew now that he was taking part in no play; he was in deadly earnest the servant of a grim master in the greatest peril. The hauberk was burdensome, and the helm weighed upon his head. (5.4.22-3)
Once a hobbit always a hobbit? Not so much, apparently. The way that the narrator says Pippin was once a hobbit "in some half-forgotten time [...] a light-hearted wanderer" but now he is "one small soldier" suggests that being a hobbit is a lot like being a child. Now that Pippin is growing up, he is becoming less hobbit, more man. But still, he's a little fellow, and his smallness and relative lack of experience make the huge war going on around him all the more terrifying and massive in scope. By making our heroes (Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry) physically smaller than the other characters, Tolkien emphasizes the gravity of the huge odds facing them, which makes their perseverance in the face of those odds all the more impressive.
Merry wanted somebody to talk to, and he thought of Pippin. But that only increased his restlessness. Poor Pippin, shut up in the great city of stone, lonely and afraid. Merry wished he was a tall Rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to his rescue. (5.5.4)
We're just going to come right out and say it: Merry has too much time on his hands and too little to do. With all of this spare time, all he can do is feel restless, worried, and vaguely useless. No wonder he thinks of Pippin, who is probably seeing more action over in Minas Tirith. He assumes that Pippin must be scared witless and in need of rescuing. Of course, Pippin is both of these things, but the fact that Merry's mind goes there also indicates how lonely and afraid he is, and how much he probably wishes that someone would come galloping to Merry's own rescue. But part of perseverance, Merry must learn, is waiting patiently until the time is ripe for action. That's something our Aragorn knows quite a bit about.
Éowyn it was, and Dernhelm also. For into Merry's mind flashed the memory of the face that he saw at the riding from Dunharrow: the face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope. Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. he clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided. (5.6.17)
Merry finds himself unable to stand and face the Lord of the Nazgûl until he sees Éowyn doing so, alone, strong and teary-eyed. In a weird way, he draws the courage to keep fighting from the pity he feels for her, since he sees that she has no hope. But our question is: is this chivalry on Merry's part? Would he have stood up this way at Éomer's side, too? And why does it matter that she's "fair"?
"What then would you have," said Gandalf, "if your will could have its way?"
"I would have things as they were in all the days of my life," answered Denethor, "as in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard's pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated." (5.7.38-9)
Way to be strong, Denny. While everyone's out fighting for Good, he's busy bemoaning what's dead and gone. As we read these words, we can't help but be reminded of what Gandalf tells Frodo, way back at the beginning of all this mess: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us" (The Fellowship of the Ring 1.2.80). In other words, yes, this whole situation is the pits, and it's perfectly understandable to wish it would all just go away. But we still have a moral responsibility to accept the truth, even if it is awful. And then we have to get on with things. Therein lies Denethor's problem. He refuses to accept what fate has dished out for him, and can't get on with things. So of course, he is going to come to evil.
"I wish Merry was here," [Pippin] 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." (5.10.55)
There is a kind of steely perseverance that creeps in after despair. Once Pippin has resigned himself to his fate, he has no choice but to keep going. That's simply all there is left to do. Yet, even though he understands Denethor's choice to hurry the process along with the help of a flame or two, Pippin chooses to keep fighting instead. SO we have to ask: why is Pippin's despair different from Denethor's? What is it about Pippin that enables him to keep chugging, while Denethor gives up entirely?
He wondered what the time was. Somewhere between one day and the next, [Sam] supposed; but even of the days he had quite lost count. He was in a land of darkness where the days of the world seemed forgotten, and where all who entered were forgotten too.
"I wonder if they think of us at all," he said, "and what is happening to them all away there." He waved his hand vaguely in the air before him; but he was in fact now facing southwards, as he came back to Shelob's tunnel, not west. Out westward in the world it was drawing to noon upon the fourteenth day of March in the Shire-reckoning, and even now Aragorn was leading the black fleet from Pelargir, and Merry was riding with the Rohirrim down the Stonewain Valley, while in Minas Tirith flames were rising and Pippin watched the madness growing in the eyes of Denethor. Yet amid all their cares and fear the thoughts of their friends turned constantly to Frodo and Sam. They were not forgotten. But they were far beyond aid, and no thought could yet bring any help to Samwise Hamfast's son; he was utterly alone. (6.1.3-4)
First of all, we can't help but think that if Frodo and Sam had a cell phone, they could probably chat it up with Aragorn and Co. every once in a while, which just might have given them the needed burst of good cheer to keep on trucking. But alas, Middle-earth is tech-free. All Frodo and Sam can do is wonder if their friends are even thinking of them. To which we say, of course they are (but they're just a bit busy at the moment thank you). And second, we have to give a shout out to the hobbits' obsession with time. When Frodo wakes up in Rivendell, his first question is, "Where am I, and what is the time?" (The Fellowship of the Ring2.1.2). When Merry awakens in the Houses of Healing, he says, "I am hungry. What is the time?" (5.8.100). And now here is Sam, alone in Mordor, sitting in front of the orc fortress at Cirith Ungol, and he wonders what time it is. While this all seems downright nitpicky, it also draws our attention to the fact that no matter what, time can't be stopped. All the characters can try to do is keep up with events as they change.
And so it was that Gwaihir saw them with his keen farseeing eyes, as down the wild wind he came, and daring the great peril of the skies he circled in the air: two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand upon a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near. And even as he espied them and came swooping down, he saw them fall, worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death. (6.4.23)
There you have it, folks: the emotional climax of the entire series. Sam and Frodo, standing on an island in the middle of a sea of lava, wait for inevitable death. They don't protest this death or try to resist it. They just wait. Instead of giving us a whole huge battle scene with the hordes of Mordor versus Aragorn and his guys, Tolkien shows us the true battle behind the scenes—Frodo and Sam versus, well, evil. And now that they have absolutely submitted themselves to their fates, the unlikeliest thing comes to save them: Gwaihir the Windlord and Gandalf, whom Frodo and Sam still believe has died (see 6.3.5). Sam and Frodo's humility in front of fate contrasts completely with, say, Denethor's dramatics or Sauron's attempt to control the whole world. This willingness to keep trucking as long as they can, no matter what fate throws their way, until they can't keep going any longer, is what makes them morally great in Tolkien's world. Their perseverance makes them heroes.