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The day of the Battle of the Pelennor finally arrives! And, everything seems to happen at once. As the Tale of Years has it:
- In the early hours the Witch-king breaks the Gates of the City. Denethor burns himself on a pyre. The horns of the Rohirrim are heard at cockcrow. Battle of the Pelennor. Théoden is slain. Aragorn raises the standard of Arwen. Frodo and Samwise escape and begin their journey north along the Morgai. Battle under the trees in Mirkwood; Thranduil repels the forces of Dol Guldur. Second assault on Lórien.
Those last two items are important because we would not have learned them from simply reading the main narrative of The Lord of the Rings.
Like the previous date, today’s date is mentioned explicitly during Sam and Frodo’s escape from Cirith Ungol (in the chapter ‘The Land of Shadow’) to provide readers—though not the characters themselves—with an anchor to the calendar:
‘Look at it, Mr. Frodo!’ said Sam. ‘Look at it! The wind’s changed. Something’s happening. He’s not having it all his own way. His darkness is breaking up out in the world there. I wish I could see what is going on!’
It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the Vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow, and the south-west wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.
As Frodo and Sam stood and gazed, the rim of light spread all along the line of the Ephel Dúath, and then they saw a shape, moving at a great speed out of the West, at first only a black speck against the glimmering strip above the mountain-tops, but growing, until it plunged like a bolt into the dark canopy and passed high above them. As it went it sent out a long shrill cry, the voice of a Nazgûl; but this cry no longer held any terror for them: it was a cry of woe and dismay, ill tidings for the Dark Tower. The Lord of the Ring-wraiths had met his doom.
‘What did I tell you? Something’s happening!’ cried Sam. ‘“The war’s going well,” said Shagrat; but Gorbag he wasn’t so sure. And he was right there too. Things are looking up, Mr. Frodo. Haven’t you got some hope now?’
‘Well no, not much, Sam,’ Frodo sighed.
The story makes no further mention of the calendar through all of Frodo and Sam’s final journey to the Mountain—an explicit date won’t be mentioned again until Frodo wakes in Ithilien in the ‘The Field of Cormallen’ on April 8th.
Sam has collected Orc-gear small enough for hobbits, while Frodo has gathered all he can find of his lembas wafers. Disguised as Orcs of Mordor, they again use the Phial to pass the Watchers, whose cry attracts a Nazgûl to the fortress. Frodo and Sam hurry away down the road.
Nearly across the bridge to the slopes of the Morgai, Frodo and Sam hear Orcs ahead, and drop over the bridge’s edge—into thorn bushes. They start climbing down into the valley beneath the bridge, where they can hike north. Frodo guesses the road east will now be watched.
Seeing that the outer wall of Minas Tirith has been abandoned, the Witch-king himself rides forth across the field of battle behind a great ram. Twice the gates withstand its blow; at the third, a flash like lightning, and they break to pieces. The Witch-king rides into the city.
Pippin watches as Gandalf, alone upon Shadowfax, meets the Witch-king.
‘You cannot enter here.’
As the Nazgûl raises his sword, a cock crows—and is joined by the music of many horns: King Théoden and the Rohirrim charging the fields of the Pelennor.
The Nazgûl leaves the Gate.
At Pippin’s plea, Gandalf has ridden back up the circles of Minas Tirith to the tombs of the Kings. Faramir lies on a slab ringed with fuel. Gandalf leaps up, lifts Faramir, and carries him away.
Denethor lights the pyre. Clutching his palantír, he lays himself down and burns.
Having scattered the Orc-companies north and east of Minas Tirith, Théoden meets the first determined resistance: Haradrim under the flag of a black serpent on scarlet. At their approach he charges directly into their ranks, kills their chieftain, and topples their standard.
A black dart hits Snowmane, who rears and falls—crushing King Théoden. The Witch-king’s carrion-bird digs its claws into the horse’s corpse.
A sword rings as it is drawn: Dernhelm will defend the king’s body.
The Witch-king taunts him. ‘Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Éowyn drops her helmet. ‘No living man am I! Begone, if you be not deathless! I will smite you, if you touch him.’ The Nazgûl Lord spurs his mount upon her; she cleaves its neck. He rises to face her himself. His mace smashes her shield and breaks her arm. She falls to her knees.
As the Nazgûl Lord swings again, Meriadoc of the Shire stabs a Barrow-blade into his knee from behind. ‘Éowyn!’
She makes a final thrust with her sword just beneath the crown.
A scream: after four thousand years of service to Sauron, the Nazgûl Lord passes from Middle-earth.
‘Farewell, Master Holbytla! Never now shall I sit with you in Meduseld, or listen to your herb-lore.’ With his last words, Théoden hails Éomer the new King of the Mark.
Éomer suddenly sees his sister Éowyn lying among the slain. With a cry of ‘Death!’, he leads a charge south.
At what time does Aragorn’s fleet arrive? As Gimli is narrating the story later for Merry and Pippin, he is, happily, specific about the time: ‘And so it was, as you know, that we came in the third hour of the morning with a fair wind and the Sun unveiled, and we unfurled the great standard in battle.’
Black ships of Umbar sail into view up the Anduin—but the front ship unfurls a royal standard: a white tree and seven stars wrought by the Lady Arwen. To the City’s rescue have come Aragorn, his Rangers, Legolas, Gimli, the sons of Elrond, and thousands of men of southern Gondor.
Pippin finds Merry lost in the city—though Merry entered with the men who bore Théoden and Éowyn from the field, he fell behind. Pippin sends for Gandalf, who is dismayed to find Merry wounded: ‘He should have been borne in honour into this city. He has well repaid my trust.’
As they’ve walked north along valley and orc-path, Frodo and Sam have watched a dim light spreading above the ridge of the Ephel Dúath on their left; the dark clouds are tearing and tattering. Now they hear a trickle of water! At a small spring they drink and refill Sam’s bottle.
Aragorn and Éomer meet, ‘though all the hosts of Mordor lay between us. Did I not say so at the Hornburg?’
‘So you spoke, but hope oft deceives. I knew not then that you were a man foresighted. Yet twice blessed is help unlooked for. Never was a meeting of friends more joyful.’
Both of the Elven-realms that border Mirkwood spend the day under assault from Orcs, but both of them mount successful defenses—Lórien on the west bank of the Anduin, and Thranduil’s forest realm in the north-east near Dale.
As the Sun sinks red and shadows fall across the smouldering Pelennor, the forces of Mordor are all either slain or fled. The Prince of Dol Amroth and King Éomer enter the ruined gates. Aragorn camps on the field, rather than risk dissension about his authority within the City.
‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known’ says an old wise-woman of the City. Gandalf realizes: the healing arts that Aragorn learned from Elrond aren’t mere skill, but a power of their high family. The wizard hastens to find him.
Aragorn asks for athelas. The healers don’t usually collect it; a search is made. Six leaves of the herb are found. In Aragorn’s hands, they gain sudden power, and he is able to call Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry back out of the darkness into which they have been falling.
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