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Rómenna Meeting Report - August 17, 1986
August 17, 1986
We began our discussion of "The Siege of Gondor" by observing Pippin's usual hobbitlike behavior upon getting up; he immediately wants to know what time it is and when's breakfast. He is not impressed by the breakfast. We wondered what is considered a "small" loaf by a hobbit. Mike's suggestion: "Smaller than a hobbit."
After breakfast Pippin attends Denethor, who sends him off to get dressed properly. Among other things he receives a suit of mail; since we were discussing this chapter on a hot, sticky August day, the mere thought of wearing mail made us all squirm. This led us into a discussion of what Gondor's climate was. The maps came out again. We determined that Rohan is prairie, while the southern provinces of Gondor are well-watered since the rain would be caught by the Ered Nimrais. It is probably no coincidence that the symbol of Dol Amroth is a swan. Nevertheless, in the book it's March, and for some strange reason the sun isn't out, so although Pippin is uncomfortable in his new finery, he isn't hot.
Pippin now finds himself all dressed up and no place to go. Along with the rest of Minas Tirith, he is experiencing the "hurry up and wait" phenomenon that is, as Per pointed out, common in war. A Primary World parallel that was cited was the British bombardment before the Somme, which Tolkien had experienced. (We noted in passing that Tolkien is not a pacifist.) In this chapter we see a good bit of the psychology of war. The Nazgûl's chief weapon in their psychological warfare is despair. Gandalf is the counterweapon, using the ring Narya to help "rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill." We digressed a bit into a consideration of Middle-earth magic, which is closer to its origins and not burdened with much ceremonial rigmarole.
Returning to the text, we found Pippin and Beregond witnessing Gandalf going to the qid of Faramir as he retreats from Osgiliath. Beregond's running commentary on what was happening reminded us of a sports announcer ("He's down! He's up! The horses are going wild!") while Pippin cheers on Gandalf like a spectator at a horse race. We noted that though he is not allowed to "dominate Elves and Men by force or fear," Gandalf is allowed to even the odds against things like Balrogs and Ringwraiths.
Gandalf arrives in the city with Faramir. Pippin goes to meet him and he and Faramir get a mutual shock; Pippin because Faramir is so much like Boromir (and yet with other qualities that Pippin can perceive), Faramir because he has met Frodo and Sam not too long before, and here is another halfling in Minas Tirith itself.
We compared Faramir's condition to that of a shell-shocked soldier; he is holding together but not by much, and is far gone in battle fatigue. He has also come in contact with the Nazgûl and is under the influence of the Black Breath, which, we noted, is a cumulative effect. (We wondered if the Black Breath was anything like garlic--or perhaps kimchi?) We also compared Faramir to Boromir. Boromir is a pure soldier, whereas Faramir is more of a statesman. They were both great captains, but Boromir was more "visible" and drew more attention to himself. We likened Boromir to Richard the Lionhearted, where Faramir was more like Henry II.
Faramir makes his report to Denethor, with Gandalf and Pippin in attendance. Gandalf is caught by surprise when Faramir mentions his meeting with Frodo. Evidently Faramir's reaction to Pippin did not tip him off; Gandalf must have thought that Faramir was harking back to the prophetic dream again, the one that sent Boromir to Rivendell. If he had guessed that Faramir had met Frodo, he might have avoided the subsequent scene with Denethor. Denethor has been under considerable strain himself, has been using the palantír to gather military intelligence, and under Sauron's insidious influence has begun to slip. He is angry that Faramir did not bring the Ring to him, and throws up Boromir to Faramir. One gets the impression that this is not an uncommon occurrence. It provokes the usually respectful Faramir to an angry retort, in which he points out why Boromir is not there ("You were the one that gave the errand to him.").
Denethor and Gandalf then have an argument about the Ring. Denethor contends that he would essentially "lock it in the safe"; Gandalf warns him that the Ring cannot be treated like a mere artifact. The temptation to use it would be too strong. The Ring is a symbol of the will to power. Gandalf points out to Denethor that he does not even trust himself to resist the Ring, and thus refused it when it was offered to him. (We digressed for a bit on why Denethor does not seem particularly impressed by this. We know he does not like Gandalf, but it's also likely that he does not know what Gandalf is [a Maia]. No one in Middle-earth really knew what the wizards were.) Gandalf also points out that once again Denethor is thinking only of Gondor and not bothering about the consequences if Gondor were to be defeated.
We wondered if Sauron might have been able to read Denethor's mind through the palantír the next time the Steward used it and thus found out about the Ring. Obviously he didn't, but we were unable to agree on whether he could have or not. The chapter on the palantíri in the Unfinished Tales seems to suggest that he could not. Denethor's strong will combined with his inherent right to use the palantír prevented Sauron from doing more than "slanting" the news presented to him by the Stone. We also noted Tolkien's use of foreshadowing in Gandalf's commentary on Faramir's news that Frodo and Sam were in the company of Gollum: "a traitor may betray himself and do good he does not intend."
The argument finally ends with Faramir excusing himself to get some rest. We noted that Denethor is already nudging him to go back to battle. Sure enough, within a short time Faramir is sent out again ("drinking lots of coffee," someone suggested). The comment was made that Denethor is a statesman, not a general; he is unwilling to give up the outworks to the enemy despite the fact that he hasn't got the manpower to hold them, as Faramir points out. This attitude was compared to that of Hitler in the Second World War. Faramir has been out there and has a more realistic view of things, but he obeys Denethor anyway.
Meanwhile, everyone in Minas Tirith is anxiously waiting for the Rohirrim. Sauron has been filling up East Osgiliath with pontoon boats, and the Orcs are using explosives on the walls. It was just about at this point that life began to imitate art when the thunderstorm that had been going on for some time (making us all very sympathetic toward Darkness-oppressed Minas Tirith) kayoed our electrical system with a mighty lightning bolt. Per led a candlelit procession to the fuse box in the basement and we managed to find out where the short was, whereupon most of the lights could be restored. The demonstration being concluded, we resumed the discussion.
Gandalf comes in escorting the wounded and has a squabble with Denethor. We noted that Denethor immediately asks after Faramir; he really is concerned about his son. It is also revealed at this point that the Steward has been sleeping in his armor for the past twenty years. When he discovers that the Lord of the Nazgûl is heading Sauron's army, he wants to know why Gandalf is not out fighting him: "Too much for you?" He has already taken steps to prepare the sortie that Gandalf suggests.
Faramir is able to hold together the men retreating from the outworks until the Nazgûl hit. The sortie goes out to rescue him, led by Gandalf and Imrahil, but Faramir is wounded before they can reach him. This hits Denethor hard. He uses the palantír again, and finally goes over the edge as his son lies near death. Meanwhile the city as a whole is having a crisis of morale as well as the more physical military problems. The despair caused by the Nazgûl is rife. The enemy has better catapults than Minas Tirith does (for one thing, the city does not have room for them), and not only firebombs the city but starts throwing in the heads of Gondor's fallen. This stratagem was compared to the siege of Sebastopol in the 13th century, in which the Turks threw plague bodies into the city to infect the populace. Despair is a more insidious but no less debilitating disease, which Gandalf does his best to combat. He and Imrahil have had to take over from Denethor, who is on a guilt trip about his treatment of Faramir.
At last Denethor goes completely off the deep end; mentions were made of King Lear and how Olivier would play the scene: a funeral procession for a man who isn't dead yet. Pippin is horrified but too concerned to be afraid; he stands up to Denethor (that's our Pippin--the hobbit who mouths off to wizards and gets away with it), tells the servants to hold off bringing fire to the tombs, and races off to find Gandalf, meeting Beregond on the way.
Unfortunately Gandalf is busy at the moment, confronting the Lord of the Nazgûl. The Enemy has brought up a huge battering-ram (Grond, named for Morgoth's mace in the First Age), and that plus the Nazgûl's magic has succeeded in breaching the gates (we noted that "it takes magic to break magic"; the gates were evidently reinforced with magic as well as steel). Gandalf is the only one left to face the Lord of the Nazgûl as he prepares to ride into the city.
And then, in one of the most celebrated passages in The Lord of the Rings, the Rohirrim arrive in the nick of time. And here the chapter ends, as did our discussion as we agreed to save the next chapter for our next meeting.