Re the previous chapter, my first thought had been to deal with Beregond’s decision when he faced judgment, but some discussion made me think that at least some of that decision point could be talked about beforehand.
Pippin, in asking, “Beregond, if you can, do something to stop any dreadful thing happening,” puts Beregond in a terrible position. He does tell Pippin that he is not to leave his post, and Pippin acknowledges that, but he is not military (any more than I was as a kid on my first reading), and so he says, “Well, you must choose between orders and the life of Faramir.” And adds as a clincher (which it no doubt would be in the practical Shire), “And as for others, I think you have a madman to deal with, not a lord.”
In other words, ignore those orders, your lord is cracked. Pippin appears not to understand that in the military, orders stand whatever you think of the commander.
And we don’t see Beregond’s decision then, as we follow Pippin down to find Gandalf.
With chapter five, as established in this book, we’re back with Merry, who is rethinking his decision to sneak along, as he's feeling as useless as baggage. And here I find some indirect evidence that Eowyn didn’t just up and abandon her post back home. That is, she did abandon it, but the following lines suggest to me that she made preparations as best she could:He [Merry] began to wonder why he had been so eager to come, when he had been given every excuse, even his lord’s command, to stay behind. He wondered, too, if the old King knew that he had been disobeyed and was angry. Perhaps not. There seemed to be some understanding between Dernhelm and Elfhelm, the marshal who commanded the eored in which they were riding. He and all his men ignored Merry and pretended not to hear if he spoke.
The narrator adds that Dernhelm was no comfort: he never spoke to anyone.
Elfhelm trips over Merry, who asks for news, and hears that the Woses have come to offer their aid to Theoden. “Pack yourself up, Master Bag!”
Merry sneaks up and overhears the parley. The Woses won’t fight, but they will attack any stray orcs in their forest, and they will scout and bring news. When they close the deal, Ghan-Buri-Ghan spurns treasure (if the Rohirrim survive) and asks only that they be left alone.
Ghan-Buri-Ghan brings news that the orcs, intent on looting Gondor, are not bothering with watching the road, and further, the wind has changed.
The Rohirrim gather themselves for the ride, and Theoden has them go silently at first. We ride behind Dernhem, seeing what Merry sees: burning fire in a vast crescent, darkness all around.
The POV lifts subtly as we see the Rohirrim “pouring in slowly but steadily, like the rising tide through breaches in a dike that men thought secure” as they enter Gondor. The Lord of the Nazgul is too busy slavering over the prospect of getting into the city.
We’re back to Merry, who sees Theoden hesitate, looking old and worn, but then the wind shifts, and in the south the first gleam of dawn as clouds roll away.
Theoden straightens up, utters rhythmic lines in a field command voice, then winds his hor, and the Rohirrim charge! Theoden lights up, his force sings as they lay into the orcs—“and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”
Fair and terrible. Tolkien knows, viscerally knows, how horrible war is, and yet how exhilarating it can be when one charges, heart high and sure of rightness of the cause, racing shoulder to shoulder with one’s fellows. It’s one of the many dichotomies about us humans, how we can value what is terrible, overlook what is good, and be capable of both great mercy and great cruelty, sometimes in the same day. The same hour.
At the beginning of chapter six, we check in briefly with the King of the Nazgul, who’d anticipated an easy defeat as prepared by Sauron. He slithers off in a strategic retreat as Theoden’s rescuers slow down, attacking hordes of retreating orcs. They haven’t won, but they’ve evened things up a bit.
Theoden spots the Southrons’ glittering spears, and the Rohirrim ride to the attack. Theoden’s spear shivers as he goes for their chieftain, and hews down their black serpent standard. Their cavalry heads for the hills: whatever Sauron had convinced them they were going to get is not gonna happen.
Then the field darkens, and here comes one of the most electrifying scenes in the entire book—and incidentally, one of the few times I wished I hadn’t been spoiled. In this case about Eowyn’s identity.
It’s none other than the King of the Nazgul coming for Theoden, “bringing ruin, turning hope to despair, and victory to death.” His evil raptor kills the gallant Snowmane, and the evil king, “Black-mantled, huge, and threatening”, with no face visible, only a crown of steel above gleaming eyes, he raises his mace.
Around poor Theoden his honor guard lies dead, or carried away by fear-maddened horses, except here’s Dernhelm. Merry is there, too, and exhorts himself to move, as he reminds himself of his vows to Theoden. “Like a father you shall be!” And yet he can’t quite make himself get up, so he hears the conversation between the Lord of the Nazgul, who speaks for the first time, and Dernhelm, and I do wish that at fourteen I’d been able to get the surprise and gratification when Eowyn says, “But no living man am I!”
The Nazgul is taken aback, which suggests to me that the aura of horror that he exudes is some kind of magic spell, because Merry is able to open his eyes, and when he sees Eowyn, so determined but with tears on her cheeks—she knows she’s not walking away from this one, but she’s standing her ground—he makes his move.
I’d quote the entire scene, but you can read it. It’s just as thrilling, and emotionally satisfying, as it was when I read it more than fifty years ago.
Merry is left standing “blinking like an owl in the daylight” until he is roused by Theoden, who knows he’s about to die, but he can face his ancestors as he thinks he killed the Nazgul. (One of the people who hates this book disparaged this scene once, saying that he died in a lie, just as well there is no afterlife, blah de blah. Well, I don’t know what lies beyond death, and neither do you, but one thing I’m sure of: in Tolkien’s universe, Theoden did stride into the halls of his fathers, and what’s more he was greeted as a hero.)
Edited to Add: legionseagle
points out that the black serpent actually represents the standard that Theoden struck down, and that the king was not talking about the Nazgul and his rider at all. So that would mean that I misread the scene, as well as others, for example the disparager I mentioned above. I assumed it, one, because of the carnage lying right beside them, and two, when Merry is reluctant to tell Theoden that Eowyn lies nearby, I assumed that that meant Merry was reluctant to correct Theoden about what happened.
Anyway, back to the text! Theoden forgives Merry for disobeying orders, saying that a great heart will not be denies, and asks him to pass on a message to Eomer and Eowyn. Before Merry can speak, Eomer himself sweeps up, and Theoden lives just long enough to pass him the banner—and the kingship.
And then comes a moment that I still find chilling: Eomer sees his sister, and he and his cavalry charge off yelling “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!”
Merry is left standing about once more, until people come to bear away the slain. Tolkien never loses sight of the animals—we are told what happened to Snowmane and his grave in after days, then returned to the story.
Imrahil of Dol Amroth rides up for news, and on hearing it, it’s he who discovers that Eowyn is alive, though just barely.
Imrahil’s force comes to the rescue, and just as well. We discover that none of the horses will go near the elephants—as was the case when Hannibal used them against Rome. No doubt Tolkien had read Livy and Polybius and Herodotus about them. With new reinforcements from the east, it’s beginning to look bad for Gondor.
Then even worse news: the black sails of the Corsairs of Umbar are sailing up the river.
Eomer rallies his guys, and there is the mad lure of war that makes monsters of us worse than any we can imagine. And yet whose heart doesn’t lift at these words:For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! Even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.
But wonder is right on the heels of this dangerous mood, for a banner breaks out: it’s Aragorn’s standard, the white tree of Gondor, released for the first time.
Aragorn is here to the rescue, and he and Eomer meet in the middle of the battle. Friendship—and battle lust are shared by both, and they turn and smack into it again.
It’s nasty and bloody, for the Southrons have not all fled, and the Easterlings are equally determined, but they break, staining the river. Both sides suffer tremendous losses, as the narrator tells us, no full count is ever told. We end a chapter of whipsaw emotions and vivid images with a galloping ballad by a Rohirrim poet.
And then we return to Denethor. Next round.