Study Guide

The Return of the King Warfare

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Warfare

"Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the Lord and Steward of the realm, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or plenty, in peace or war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end. So say I, Peregrin son of Paladin of the Shire of the Halflings."

"And this do I hear, Denethor son of Ecthelion, Lord of Gondor, Steward of the high King, and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valour with honour, oath-breaking with vengeance." Then Pippin received his sword back and put it in its sheath. (5.1.71-2)

This oath of fealty sounds a lot like a marriage vow to us. In sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live, Denethor and Pippin are now bound by their respective roles as lord and liegeman. It sounds nice and fancy, but it has immediate consequences that are easy to forget when you hear the high falutin' language. In a city at war, Pippin just might have to lay down his life for Denethor sooner rather than later. But hey, at least, as a lord, Denethor has a personal responsibility to the men who vow to fight with him. Whatever Pippin's sacrifice might come to be, Denethor owes him. In theory.

"And yet"—[Beregond] paused and stood up, and looked round, north, east, and south—"the doings at Isengard should warn us that we are caught now in a great net and strategy. This is no longer a bickering at the fords, raiding from Ithilien and from Anórien, ambushing and pillaging. This is a great war long-planned, and we are but one piece in it, whatever pride may say. Things move in the far East beyond the Inland Sea, it is reported; and north in Mirkwood and beyond; and south in Harad. And now all realms shall be put to the test, to stand, or fall—under the Shadow." [...]

[Pippin] looked at the great walls, and the towers and brave banners, and the sun in the high sky, and then at the gathering gloom in the East; and he thought of the long fingers of that Shadow: of the orcs in the woods and the mountains, the treason of Isengard, the birds of evil eye, and the Black Riders even in the lanes of the Shire—and of the winged terror, the Nazgûl. (5.1.143)

We can tell that we are approaching the end of the The Lord of the Rings series because Tolkien is pulling back and giving us the big-picture perspective. Up until now, we have seen the individual members of the Fellowship of the Ring fighting with "orcs in the woods and the mountains," struggling with those crebain from Dunland—the "birds of evil eye"—and of course, there were the Nazgûl "even in the lanes of the Shire." But those have mostly been individual battles, powered by the personal courage of a handful of men, dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Now, Tolkien is reminding us that these smaller skirmishes have all been part of "a great war long-planned," a war that is being fought on multiple fronts but that will end soon. It's not just the great war with Sauron that has been long planned; Tolkien's own enormous narrative structure is looking towards its conclusion.

"Tell me, Théoden, you ride now to Dunharrow, how long will it be ere you come there?"

"It is now a full hour past noon," said Éomer. "Before the night of the third day from now we should come to the Hold. The Moon will then be one night past his full, and the muster that the king commanded [in Edoras] will be held the day after. More speed we cannot make, if the strength of Rohan is to be gathered."

Aragorn was silent for a moment. "Three days," he murmured, "and the muster of Rohan will only be begun. But I see that it cannot now be hastened." (5.2.58-60)

Aragorn, as the leader of the Good Side, is between a rock and a hard place. See, the thing about war is that you can't exactly plan it, let alone predict it. Aragorn knows they don't have much time, so Rohan will have to do the best they can to muster all the troops they can in the time they have. Then, no matter what, it's time for a fight. Being in tough spots like these means making tough calls, like going to the City of the Dead to bolster their ranks.

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.

At last the trumpets rang and the army began to move. Troop by troop, and company by company, they wheeled and went off eastward. And long after they had passed away out of sight down the great road to the Causeway, Merry stood there. The last glint of the morning sword on spear and helm twinkled and was lost, and still he 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. (5.10.5-6)

Tolkien could have described the beauty or strength of the host setting out to Mordor for this last battle at the gates of Barad-dûr. Instead, he chose to view it all from the eyes of mopey, injured Merry. All Merry can think about as he watches the armies march away is that he may never see the people he loves again. This isn't about heroics and glory, folks. Instead, it's about the fear and sorrow of those whom the armies leave behind.

As he gazed at it suddenly Sam understood, almost with a shock, that this stronghold had been built not to keep enemies out of Mordor, but to keep them in. It was indeed one of the works of Gondor long ago, an eastern outpost of the defences of Ithilien, made when, after the Last Alliance, Men of Westernesse kept watch on the evil land of Sauron where his creatures still lurked. But as with Narchost and Carchost, the Towers of the Teeth, so here too the vigilance had failed, and treachery had yielded up the Tower to the Lord of the Ringwraiths, and now for long years it had been held by evil things. Since his return to Mordor, Sauron had found [the Tower of Cirith Ungol] useful; for he had few servants but many slaves of fear, and still its chief purpose as of old was to prevent escape from Mordor. (6.1.16)

Aside from the fact that this passage reminds us of Sauron's great talent for twisting things to his will, we wanted to stop for a second to note that Sauron keeps slaves. We have seen evidence of this before in the chained galley slaves of the Umbar fleet at Pelargir (see Book 5, Chapter 9). And when Sam observes Faramir fighting the Southrons, he wonders if the Southrons are there by choice, "or what lies or threats had led [them] on the long march from [their] home" (The Two Towers 4.4.99). In other words, a lot of the people fighting on Sauron's side may actually be doing so against their will. So the Big Bad is forcing people to do his bidding while Aragorn is letting his guys go (in Book 5, Chapter 10). It seems like we have two very different types of combat leaders on our hands.

The big orc; spear in hand, leapt after him. But the tracker, springing behind a stone, put an arrow in his eye as he ran up, and he fell with a crash. The other ran off across the valley and disappeared.

[…]

"But that is the spirit of Mordor, Sam; and it has spread to every corner of it. Orcs have always behaved like that, or so the tales say, when they are on their own. But you can't get much hope out of it. They hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two had seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead." (6.2.78-80)

This squabble between the tracker and the fighter (and the self-destruction of the orcs of the Tower of Cirith Ungol) raises a question for us. If Sauron had won at the end of the The Lord of the Rings (not that he ever would, since Tolkien would never be so bleak), what kind of an empire would he have? How could he establish a victory "so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts" (5.9.61)? His soldiers kill each other all the time. They have no faith, either in each other or in their "Higher Up" (6.2.64). How can you maintain an empire, even an evil empire, in a state of constant war? This is why we say a victory by Sauron would be impossible according to the terms of The Lord of the Rings: Sauron can conquer, yes, but he cannot build or establish anything after the conquest. His servants will just squabble until they kill each other off.

"Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured," said Gandalf.

"I fear it may be so with mine," said Frodo. "There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?" (6.7.4-5)

One of the terrible things about Frodo's return to the Shire is precisely that these wounds—"knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden"—have left marks that aren't visible to the people around him. When Frodo gets back to the Shire, it's as if he's suffering from PTSD. He has traumatic dreams and flashbacks to Mordor, and he just can't seem to get past his experiences on the Ring quest. That's the thing: the war may be over, but its effects will never be forgotten, and that's true of all wars, right? While Frodo's particular wartime experiences are unique to Middle-earth (we don't find too many soldiers at war today being asked to chuck a gold ring into a volcano), Frodo's emotions returning to the Shire, and his difficulty rejoining regular Shire life, seem totally recognizable.