The story is about to branch out. At the start of book five, we’re back with Pippin, peering out from under Gandalf’s cloak, after the ride that seemed to set the world spinning under Shadowfax’s hooves.
I’m trying not to mention the Jackson films (especially as so much was disappointing) but one of the things I absolutely loved was a bit I didn’t even notice in my first rapid readings as a kid: the lighting of the beacons.
We find out about it through dialogue, which—to a reader unfamiliar with the concept—doesn’t convey the drama: “See,” says Gandalf. “The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan.”
Not enough image for me to get the drama until I saw the films. (Other readers were probably much more astute.)
When they arrive at last, and Pippin wakens to Gandalf explaining him to the careful door guardians, Pippin is indignant at Gandalf claiming him to be a valiant man.
“Man!” cried Pippin, now thoroughly roused. “Man! Indeed not! I am a hobbit and no more valiant than I am a man, save perhaps now and again by necessity. Do not let Gandalf deceive you!”
Pippin then accidentally mentions Boromir, then picks up he shouldn’t have, and then speaks with the grace that is becoming such a part of him, young as he is: “Little service can I offer to your lord, but what I can do, I would do, remembering Boromir the brave.”
We slip out of Pippin’s POV (though writer me wishes we could have seen through his eyes) as we approach the High Court through the citadel—Aragorn’s future home, if all goes well. A quiet knell of what is to come as the description ends, “ . . . and in that space stood the houses and domed tombs of bygone kings and lords, for ever silent between the mountain and the tower.”
As they approach Denethor’s chambers, Gandalf asks Pippin not to mention Aragorn.
“Why not? What is wrong with Strider?” Pippin whispered. “He meant to come here, didn’t he? And he’ll be arriving soon himself, anyway.
“Maybe, maybe,” said Gandalf. “Though if he comes, it is likely to be in some way that no one expects, not even Denethor. It will be better so. At least he should come unheralded by us.”
Gandalf then stings Pippin for not paying attention to the talk of kingship—something far, far outside of Pippin’s experience. (And one might even say, interest.)
And so at last we meet Denethor, and I have to say, anyone who claims that Tolkien’s characters are one-dimensional is just not paying attention. The byplay between Gandalf, who understands Denethor’s complexities (and the battle he is losing), and Pippin, who has no idea, but is inspired to carry out his rash promise made at the door, and Denethor, who in meeting young Pippin is given a brief glimpse of sunlight and possibility, but who in the end cannot overcome his own weaknesses, is so intriguing, tense, subtle, changing mood every page.
After they leave, Pippin says he did his best. “Indeed you did your best,” Gandalf says. “And I hope it may be long before you find yourself in such a tight corner again between two such terrible old men.”
Pippin then meets Beregond, through whose eyes we get a glimpse of the ordinary Gondorian—we get a tour and a history lesson, until something horrible happens.
“What was that?” asked Beregone. “You also felt something?”
“Yes,” muttered Pippin. “It is the sign of our fall, and the shadow of doom, a Fell Rider of the air.”
It’s Pippin who first recovers, and he states that he won’t despair. Though he is no warrior and dislikes the thought of battle, he says it feels worse to be on the edge of one that he can’t escape.
As Beregond speaks to bolster his own courage, Pippin makes a very shrewd observation to himself: Alas! My own hand feels as light as a feather. A pawn, did Gandalf say? Perhaps; but on the wrong chessboard.
Shortly after Pippin meets Bergil, Beregond’s son, who talks with the typical belligerence of ten. Pippin demonstrates perhaps his existence between youth and adulthood in his ease of adapting to the son as well as to the father, and in Bergil’s company he enjoys himself, “the best company Pippin had had since he parted from Merry.”
Who we catch up with in chapter two. Merry is pretty much relegated to baggage as the Rohirrim and Aragorn figure out what to do and where to go.
Halbarad shows up, bringing a wrapped gift, and here we get our second mention of Arwen, though at even further a distance than we had in Elrond’s house. But there is a subtle hint of the relationship, far too subtle for me to pick up at fourteen.
Arwen sends word along with the mysterious gift, The days are now short. Either our hope cometh, or all hope’s end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!
Now, at fourteen, I wrongly assumed that the old-fashioned pronouns and verbs were extremely formal, as I encountered them only sometimes, and always couched in more formal-seeming dialogue. But JRRT rightly knew that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were strictly for intimate speech, the equivalents of ‘tu’ in French and “Du” in German—though English had decided to opt for the formal ‘you’ whose verbs take very little declension. That and the ‘Elfstone’ are pretty much the modern equivalent of “You’ve got this, sweetie-dumpling. Mwa!”
And likewise, Aragorn saying, “Keep it for a while,” was a promise that yeah, our time is coming, and this present indicates that you’ve got my back.”
Not obvious, nor full of remembered scenes of stolen passion, but I think when you pick up hints of meaning, they carry just as much punch as the more standard bash on the beautyrest.
Merry is fitted out with what amounts to kids’ armor and shield, and that is the attitude taken toward him as the Rohorrim and Aragorn make their plans—which include a very long debate about the Paths of the Dead, during which Aragorn starts showing bits of the king beneath the Ranger.
As his star begins to wax, respect-wise, Merry’s is waning. He susses out that he is being gently shouldered to the sidelines along with the women and kids, and at the same time, Eowyn welcomes her uncle back, and gets ready to see to everyone’s comfort—to be told that Aragorn is planning to take the deadly shortcut.
Eowyn’s aid is rejected, and she explains bitterly that her fear is of a cage, not death. JRRT certainly shows he understands this mood and mode, and though it’s probably highly irrelevant, or wrong, or whatever, but from the few hints we get about his homelife, I wonder how much of Eowyn was confessed on the marital pillow. We know that he loved his wife, but we also glimpse through the letters and diaries of the Inklings that JRRT spent a great deal of his free time among other men, writing his projects, while his wife was stuck home with the long hours of drudgery, from which she probably got very little relief, as they were not wealthy enough for a staff. She might have complained—she had been an artist on her own before marriage—and he might have sympathized, but they were both caught in cultural roles from which it seemed there was no escape except wealth.
At any rate, the bitterness that Eowyn feels in being forced into the mold expected of most females resonated so very strongly for many of us in the sixties, that she was the favorite character of a lot of us. Certainly mine.
Aragorn shuts her down, saying, “Stay. For you have no errand to the South.”
To which she retorts with absolute truth—and equally absolute bitterness—“Neither have those who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee—because they love thee.”
Note once again, the choice of pronouns: Aragorn gives her the formal ‘you’—as he in honor must—and she gives him ‘thee.’
Aragorn and company embark on their grim journey, once again touching on tales we don’t learn as they pass a grim place. “Hither shall the flowers of simbelmyne come never until word’s end. Nine mounds and seven there are now green with grass, and through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know!”
Aragorn meets with the shadowy figures in a tense, memorable scene when he calls upon the Oathbreakers and promises them peace at last, and he leads the King of the Dead on his quest.
The township and the fords of Ciril they found deserted, for many men had gone away to war, and all that were left fled to the hills at the rumor of the coming of the King of the Dead.