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Lord of the Rings 7: Minas Tirith

'This is not a work which many adults will read through more than once,' claimed the historical novelist Alfred Duggan, reviewing The Lord of the Rings when it was published. But I've read it through LOADS of times and now I'm blogging my latest re-read, so what did he know?

And so we come to Minas Tirith, Tower of Guard, citadel of Gondor, seven tiers of fancy white fortifications built against a buttress of Mount Mindolluin, with the Tower of Ecthelion rising a thousand feet above the plain. It seems to me the template on which a whole genre of knock-off fantasy cities has been based - I guess Robert E Howard and people wrote about such places before Tolkien, and perhaps there were cities of equal grandeur on Barsoom, but when concept art threads on Instagram throw up unlikely gold and marble castles built on mountaintops and over waterfalls they always look distinctly Minas Tirithy to me. I'm wondering now if London in Mortal Engines was subconsciously echoing Minas Tirith's seven levels, (consciously I was thinking Breughel's Tower of Babel BUT ON WHEELS.)
Alan Lee
I saw someone somewhere recently compare Minas Tirith to Byzantium, which seems sound at first glance - a great crossroads of Middle-earth, near the mouth of the Anduin, where the cultures of the north and south meet and mingle. But it's wishful thinking: the Minas Tirith in the book is nothing like that. It's very much a project of the Men of Númenor, who have brought in a bit of new blood from among the 'sturdy folk of the sea-coast, and from the hardy mountaineers of Ered Nimrais' as their strength wanes but want nothing to do with 'the wild Easterlings or the cruel Haradrim'. If you want a real-world analogy for Minas Tirith you need to look at the cities of the Holy Roman Empire, scowling across their Military Frontier at the Turks.

Viewed through this lens, The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy race war, and the Gondorians give off a strong whiff of the dodgy racial theories of yesteryear, with 'the blood of the Men of Númenor' conferring physical and moral superiority on those in whose veins it runs - the more of it you have, the more ubermensch-y you are. Maybe it's easy to hoover up this type of thing along with all the good stuff if your big influences are Norse legends, mediaeval romance and H Rider Haggard-ish adventure stories, but even mediaeval romance found room at the Round Table for a few Moorish knights, and Rider Haggard's best novels included African heroes. In Middle-earth literally all the peoples of the east and south have sided with Mordor. I'd like it we got to actually meet some of Sauron's human allies (perhaps one of the 'black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues') and hear what prompted them to side with the Dark Lord. (Possibly it's because the other lot kept comparing them to trolls?) But it's left to Sam to guess their motives when a southerner falls dead near him in The Two Towers:

He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from, and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies and threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace...

Of course, it's quite possible Tolkien doesn't approve of the Gondorians' attitudes: what I didn't really realise as a younger reader is that his portrayal of Minas Tirith is far from positive. The whole place has a stagnant, sterile and decaying air, its great days far behind it. When Legolas arrives a bit later he says "The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad." You wouldn't want to live there. Perhaps once Aragorn becomes king he will forge alliances with the south, and Minas Tirith will become a bit Byzantine after all.

ANYWAY, as The Return of the King begins, the shadows of war are looming over Minas Tirith. The beacons have been lit on Gondor's borders, reinforcements are arriving, the non-combatants have been packed off out of harm's way, and the city is preparing to make a desperate last stand under the leadership of the Steward Denethor. Like Théoden, he seems to be in the grip of a crippling depression. Theoden perked up remarkably quickly and is now back in the saddle and mustering the Rohirrim to ride to Gondor's aid, but Denethor is in the grip of a more powerful despair, for he has unwisely been peering into a Palantír where Sauron has been feeding him Fake News, and there's not much even Gandalf can do to counter the Dark Lord's propaganda.

Pippin, enrolled as one of Minas Tirith's guards, gets to watch as the onslaught begins. A fug brewed in Mordor covers the sky and blots out the sky, which is a smart tactic on Sauron's part as his Orcish hordes don't like the sun (just think what he's saving on sunblock). It's smart on Tolkien's part too because it adds immeasurably to the ominous mood. Out of the murk come fleeing the remnants of the garrisons of Osgiliath and Caer Andros, and behind them, blasting gaps in the outer defences, march the armies of Mordor.
An Orc siege-tower, by the Brothers Hildebrandt
Vast (motorised?) 'engines of war' crawl through the mud towards Minas Tirith, catapults hurl flaming projectiles over the city walls, armies of orcs frantically dig trenches, the Nazgûl rain down death and terror from above, and the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth make a glorious sortie to snatch the wounded Faramir from the claws of the enemy. It's a combination of modern warfare and chivalric derring-do that shouldn't really work, but in Tolkien's hands it does: he gives us the martial glory of sagas and legends, but never quite loses sight of what an actual war feels like for the individuals caught up in it.

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...

In Rohan, Merry is having similar feelings. Theoden is a kindly old buffer, but he decides Merry is too small to join the forced march to Minas Tirith and should stay behind with Éowyn - neither of them are pleased by this development.

As I mentioned last time Éowyn appeared, she's virtually the only mortal woman in the whole of The Lord of the Rings, which has caused many a reader over the years to go, 'Hang on a minute...'. The various kingdoms and armies of Middle Earth are emphatically not equal opportunities employers. Perhaps that's not unusual for a book written at that sort of time and aimed at youngish readers - there aren't many girls in The Wind in the Willows or the works of Captain W.E.Johns (or, for that matter, Rosemary Sutcliff). The Lord of the Rings has grown in the telling into something much more than the children's book it started out as, but it's retained a Boys' Own cast-list of cheerful chaps and manly men. Still, there we are: Tolkien was writing the book he wanted to write, and the book he wanted to write was one about male friendship, both the lighthearted long-walks-to-country-pubs variety and the deeper bonds that are forged between men in war. (Though I do wonder if the Aragorn and Arwen romance was originally part of the main text, but ended up shunted off into the appendices in the interests of pacing?)

Éowyn does feel like a breathe of fresh air though, and she's definitely one of the most interesting and appealing of the non-hobbit characters. She's also one of the few who is unhappy with her place in the social order, obviously feeling caged and unfulfilled by her life as a woman of the royal household in Edoras.

"My friend," said Gandalf, "you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man... and her part seemed to her more ignoble than the staff he leaned on."

She falls for Aragorn, or at least for the idea of escape and adventure that he seems to represent, and when he turns her down and heads off to Minas Tirith via the Paths of the Dead she decides to tag along secretly with Théoden's army, taking Merry along with her. She's disguised as a young rider called Dernhelm, and her identity isn't technically revealed until she reaches the battlefield, but I think even as a youngster I guessed immediately - it's one of those literary disguises like domino masks or Clark Kent's glasses which fool only those characters who need to be fooled to make the plot work.

The Paths of the Dead, incidentally, are one part of the book that has never really grabbed me - I tend to forget it between re-reads. It works well in giving Aragorn a separate route to Minas Tirith and the means to win the battle when he gets there, but there's so much else going on that the story of the oath-breaking ghosts he calls to his banner lacks much weight, and the haunted caverns of the Dwimmerdale seem a bit meh after Moria. Part of the problem may be that no hobbits are involved, and the climax of this subplot (the battle around the ships at Pelargir) is just related by Legolas after the event - if Merry or Pippin were to tell that story it might be as vivid as the Ents at Isengard.

Meanwhile the mighty siege rolls on, and no one could argue that it isn't packed with incident. Giant elephants drag siege towers into position, while trolls along with 'engines' of some sort trundle towards the gate a battering ram so big and impressive it has a name - 'Grond, after the legendary hammer of the underworld' (I expect it has its own Twitter account). While Gandalf confronts the Witch King of Angmar in the ruins of the gate, Pippin is busy trying to stop Denethor barbecuing himself along with Faramir. It's all go, and it gets even more go when the Riders of Rohan finally arrive and launch the sort of cavalry charge popularised by Jan III Sobieski and his Winged Hussars at the Siege of Vienna in 1683.

And straightway all the horns of the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away, Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken...

It's noticeable how much the language has changed from the The Fellowship of the Ring, which was told in a more everyday, hobbitish way. Whenever the hobbits are offstage or the action is focusing mostly on humans or elves the style becomes much more lofty and archaic - 'Lo!' 'straightway'. It may come as a shock to young readers nowadays. Back in the '70s I recognised it as the language of historical novels, especially older ones, and the way people talked in period dramas. I think it's completely fallen out of fashion now, probably because in the hands of writers who didn't know their stuff as well as Tolkien it tended to degrade into sub-Shakespearean 'prithee-good-sir' self-parody.

But this is no time for posh literary chat: there's a battle going on, and Éowyn and Merry are about to get their big moment, and one of the great moments of the entire book, as the Witch King of Angmar descends on his VTOL pterodactyl to strike down Théoden. Being a Ringwraith, the Witch King can't be killed by mortal man, but it turns out that a mortal woman and a hobbit can do the trick. Anyone who thought the Barrow Wight bit in The Fellowship of the Rings was a pointless diversion can think again at this point, because without the sword he picked up in the barrow Merry would just give the Witch King a nasty hamstring injury:

No other blade... would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.'

Éowyn finishes the job by sticking her sword through the place where the Witch King's head would be if he wasn't invisible. It's the end of the Witch King, the end of Théoden, and apparently the end of Éowyn. It's not the end of the battle - Mordor has endless reserves and they're not finally routed until Aragorn makes a surprise river-borne appearance in a fleet of ships which both sides think are Mordor-friendly corsairs until he weighs in on Minas Tirith's side. But nothing that happens after Éowyn and Merry vs the Nazgûl can compare to it for drama.
Tim & Greg Hildebrandt's 1970s Tolkien illustrations were some of the first I ever saw. They're oddly plasticky and somehow very American, but the Brothers H had a nice way with lighting effects.
So the battle is won, but there's little sense of triumph. It's one battle that has been won, not the whole war. 'Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault,' says Gandalf, ever cheerful. 'The next will be greater.' In the aftermath, Tolkien dwells on the consequences - to Merry, wounded, wandering off the battlefield 'the ascent seemed agelong, a meaningless journey in a hateful dream, going on and on to some dim ending that memory cannot seize.' Gandalf and Aragorn at the Houses of Healing busy themselves saving Merry, Faramir and Éowyn (there is some nice comic business with the nurse Ioreth and the Herbmaster, kindly old souls who are inclined to rattle on about herb-lore despite the urgency of the situation). And Merry, recovering, has a rather fine speech which links the Shire sections to the grand deeds we've just been witnessing:

"It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher... I'm glad I know about them, a little."

Gandalf reckons that Frodo and Sam are nearing Mount Doom by now, and wants to keep the Dark Lord distracted. An army is hastily gathered and sets off for Mordor. Pippin is there at the Black Gate as Sauron's lieutenant 'the Mouth of Sauron' rides out to parley with the leaders of the west and shows them Frodo's belongings, which must have been stripped from him by the orcs who captured him at the end of The Two Towers. All hope seems lost; Frodo and presumably the Ring have been taken by the Enemy. An enormous army issues forth from Mordor, a regiment of armoured trolls wades across the fetid pools around the hills where the Gondorians and Rohirrim make their last stand, and Pippin is crushed beneath the one he kills while defending his friend Beregond. 'And his thought fled far away and his eyes saw no more.' Tolkien may be drawing on myths, religion, and poetry, and wrapping his story in the language of the middle ages filtered through that of Tennyson and the High Victorians, but he loves a cliffhanger as much as any writer of pulp serials.

And who's to say he's wrong? I want to know what happens next - but what happens next is that we cut back to Sam, alone at the doors of Cirith Ungol more than a week before...

P.S. I was right - Grond does have its own Twitter account. (It seems to tweet mainly LOTR movie memes with occasional F-bombs.)


Julie Bozza said…
Brilliant! I've been enjoying your re-read almost as much as you have, but you really hit it out of the ballpark with this post. Looking forward to more!
philip reeve said…
Thanks, Julie! I'm busy this week, but aiming to get the eighth episode up by next Sunday.
Timbo said…
Even aged twelve, and in a much less enlightened era, I breathed a sigh of relief at Sam’s empathy for the dying soldier of Harad - phew, this isn’t racist! (The bar for not racist was set quite a low lower in those days.)

To my mind one of the (many) problems with the films is that the recasting of Arwen as an elf warrior detracts from the whole Eowyn as shieldmaiden story arc.

For reasons not entirely clear to me I found the passage in which Pippin helps the injured Merry into the citadel deeply moving.

Looking forward to the next instalment.
philip reeve said…
I was probably twelve in an even less enlightened era, so I never even noticed it that aspect of it as a kid. And yes, the whole bit with Merry coming off the battlefield is extraordinary. I'm noticing things that I presume are echoes of Tolkien's war experiences a lot more this time through.
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