Given the number of times I have read The Lord of the Rings, it is amazing how reading it critically has brought so many new things to my attention. In this week’s reading, what struck me the most is the amount of time Tolkien takes to make you care about Gondor before war comes. Prior to chapter one of The Return of the King, we know little about the city of men. Aragorn laments that he cannot go there when they are pursuing the orcs in The Two Towers, and mentions of it are scattered throughout The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. But after Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Minas Tirith, Tolkien makes sure you care.
He makes you care about individuals such as Ingold, Imrahil, Beregund and Bergil, and by making you care about Beregund and Bergil, he makes you care about the people leaving to go south to safety. You share his the fear that, “Few, maybe, of those now sundered will meet again” (RK, V, i, 747). And not only do you care about the people, but in what are perhaps some of the most beautiful place descriptions in the trilogy, Tolkien makes you care about Gondor. Pippin’s first glimpse of Minas Tirith is also the reader’s first glance, and the imagery is stunning.
“And there… he saw… the dark mass of Mount Mindolluin, the deep purple shadows of its high glens, and its tall face whitening in the rising day. And upon its out-thrust knee was the Guarded City, with its seven walls of stone, so strong and old that it seemed to have been not builded but carven by giants out of the bones of the earth…. Suddenly the sun climbed over the eastern shadow and sent forth a shaft that smote the face of the city. Then Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion … shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver … and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals…and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets” (732-35).
And the descriptions do not end there. Tolkien goes on to describe the levels of the city and the layout several times, emphasizing the light and beauty, but also the emptiness and the melancholy. In fact, on the next page, the description becomes almost elegiac. As Minas Tirith is revealed as a city “vast”, “splendid”, “greater and stronger than Isengard, and more beautiful” and yet, “it was in truth falling year by year into decay” (736). We learn that it could house many more men than it does, and the houses “now 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” (ibid). Tolkien also describes the hall of Denethor in great detail, and in sharp contrast to the Golden Hall at Edoras. It is somber and solemn. The windows are “deep” there is a great quantity of gold and black marble and there are “no hangings, nor storied webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood” (737). Instead there are statues, “graven in cold stone” (738). Yet outside the sun still shines, and is both “warm and bright” and the air is clear and blue. (743). And as we saw sunrise, so also do wee see sunset, and “in the West the dying sun [sets] all the fume on fire, and [then] Mindolluin [stands] black against a burning smoulder flecked with embers” (754).
We also learn about past history through Beregund’s discussion of Osgiliath, and the brief exchange about the lineage of Boromir’s horn, and also about the lands beyond, so that not only do we care about Minas Tirith and the green fields of the Pelennor, but we also care about “the vales of Tumladen and Lossarnach, and the mountain-villages” (747) and of Dol Amroth and the “Outlands” (753).
To return to the people, perhaps Denethor is colder than Theoden, but this suits him and does not, at first, make him an unlikeable character, and having already met Faramir and Boromir, it is easy to see why the Gondorians are admirable. Tolkien also gives us the view of the regular soldier by giving Beregund and Pippin so much speech together, and you learn a great deal more in the space of one chapter about Boromir than you ever did in the entire Fellowship of the Ring, and more about Faramir than even The Two Towers revealed, for now we see how their own men speak of them in private conversations. Then there is Bergil, and by the end of Pippin’s day with him, you really want things to go well for Minas Tirith, because if they don’t, people like Beregund, Bergil, Faramir and even Denethor will fall, and the piercing beauty of Minas Tirith will be destroyed.
So when Gandalf says, “The Darkness has begun. There will be no dawn” (755), there is more at stake than a mere city. We care about the fall of Osgiliath, we care about the loss of the passage of the Anduin, we care about the loss of the Causeway Forts and that “the Ramas [is] broken and all the Pelennor abandoned to the Enemy” (803). And the chapter only grows more desperate as we see Faramir desperately wounded, Denethor descending into madness and the defense of the city crumbling before the malice of Mordor. Tolkien has made us care.