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Battle of the Pelennor Fields

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Battle of the Pelennor Fields
Part of War of the Ring
Date14–15 March 3019
Location
Result Gondor-Rohan victory
Belligerents
Gondor
Rohan
The Grey Company
Mordor
Khand
Harad
Rhun
Commanders and leaders
Aragorn
Halbarad 
King Théoden 
3rd Marshal Éomer
Witch-king of Angmar 
Gothmog
Strength

3,000 Gondorians
500 Guards of the Citadel
5,000 South Gondorians and men from outlying provinces
6,000 Rohirrim cavalry soldiers
30 Northern Dunedain

Total ~15,000

150,000 Orcs, Easterlings, Haradrim and Variags

Several hundred oliphaunts and trolls
Casualties and losses
~3,000 killed Entire force destroyed

In J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields [pɛˈlɛnnɔr] was the defence of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Gondor and the cavalry of its ally Rohan, against the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron from Mordor and its allies the Haradrim and the Easterlings. It was the largest battle in the War of the Ring. It took place at the end of the Third Age in the Pelennor Fields, the townlands and fields between Minas Tirith and the River Anduin.

Scholars have compared the battle with the historic account of the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields where King Theodoric I was trampled to death by his own men after he fell from his horse. Others have likened the death of the Witch-King of Angmar to the death of Macbeth, who was similarly prophesied not to die by the hand of man; and the crowing of a cockerel at the moment the Witch-King was about to enter the city has been said to recall the cock-crow heralding the resurrection of Jesus at the moment that Simon Peter denied knowing him.

The battle formed a spectacular centrepiece in Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.[1][2]

Background[edit]

The city of Minas Tirith was besieged following the fall of Osgiliath and the Rammas Echor, Gondor's final barriers against the forces of Mordor. In the retreat to the city, Faramir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, was severely wounded. Since the despairing Steward refused to leave his son's side, the Wizard Gandalf took command of the city's defences.[T 1] Meanwhile, the enemy forces assembled before the city on the Pelennor Fields. A Great Darkness of smoke and cloud from Mordor blotted out the sun. The Nazgûl or Ringwraiths, Sauron's most feared servants, flew over the battlefield on fell beasts, causing the defenders' morale to waver.[T 1]

Participants[edit]

The Haradrim used elephants in the battle, as Pyrrhus of Epirus did in his invasion of Ancient Rome.[3]

Sauron's army from Minas Morgul, led by the Witch-king of Angmar (chief of the Nazgûl) greatly outnumbered the combined armies of Gondor and its allies. This army consisted of some 150,000 orcs, trolls, and Men who had allied with Sauron. Sauron's forces included Haradrim Southrons who brought elephantine beasts, Easterlings from Rhûn and Variags from Khand, and many Orcs and Trolls.[4] Tolkien describes the army as the greatest to "issue from that vale since the days of Isildur's might, no host so fell and strong in arms had yet assailed the fords of Anduin; and yet it was but one and not the greatest of the hosts that Mordor now sent forth."[T 2]

The defenders' numbers were considerably less. Faramir was outnumbered by ten times at Osgiliath, where he lost one third of his men. The companies from outlying provinces of Gondor that came to the aid of Minas Tirith amounted to nearly 3,000 defenders. Prominent among these was a 700-strong contingent led by Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Denethor's brother-in-law. Their number was smaller than expected since Gondor's coastal towns were being attacked by the Corsairs of Umbar.[T 1][T 3][T 4]

A 6,000-strong cavalry army from Rohan, Gondor's northern ally,[T 5] arrived at dawn the next day, whereupon the battle proper began. The Men of Rohan (the Rohirrim) were "thrice outnumbered by the Haradrim alone".[T 6]

Further reinforcements from the coastal towns of Gondor sailed on Corsair ships to the city,[T 4] led by Aragorn, who had captured the ships, thus removing the threat to the southern provinces. He had a claim to the throne of Gondor, as he was descended from the last High King of Gondor and Arnor. He led a small force[T 7] of Rangers of the North, representing Arnor.[T 6]

The battle[edit]

Map of main actions in the battle, with the forces of Mordor, Rohan, the city of Minas Tirith, and Aragorn's army from the south of Gondor

After breaking the city gate with Grond, the Witch-king of Angmar rode under "the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed."[T 1] Gandalf, on his horse Shadowfax, alone stood in his way. But before the two could fight, they heard the horns of the Rohirrim, who had arrived at the Rammas Echor, the wall around the Pelennor Fields, newly broken by the invading orcs.[T 1] Dawn broke, and the main battle began. The Rohirrim had bypassed Sauron's lookouts thanks to the Wild Men (the Drúedain), who led them through the hidden Stonewain Valley of their Drúadan Forest.[T 8]

Charging the ranks of Mordor, the Rohirrim split into two groups. The left group, including the van, broke the Witch-king's right wing. The right group secured the walls of Minas Tirith. They destroyed siege engines and camps, and drove off the Haradrim cavalry. Théoden killed the chieftain of the Haradrim and threw down their standard. The Witch-king exchanged his horse for his winged steed and attacked Théoden. With a dart, he killed the king's horse, Snowmane; it fell and crushed the king.[T 6]

The Black Breath, the terror spread by the Witch-King, drove off Theoden's guards, but his niece Éowyn (disguised as a man and calling herself "Dernhelm"[a]) stood firm, challenging the Witch-king. She cut off the head of the Witch-king's mount; he broke her shield and shield arm with his mace. The hobbit Meriadoc Brandybuck, who had accompanied "Dernhelm", stabbed the Witch-king behind the knee with his Barrow-blade, a dagger from the ancient kingdom of Arnor enchanted against the forces of Angmar. The Witch-king staggered forwards, and Éowyn "drove her sword between crown and mantle", killing him.[T 6] This fulfilled Glorfindel's prophecy following the fall of Arnor that the Witch-king would not die "by the hand of man".[T 9] Both the weapons that struck his undead flesh were destroyed.[T 6]

Éowyn's brother Éomer arrived to find Théoden mortally wounded; he named Éomer king before dying. Éomer then saw his sister unconscious. Mistaking her for dead, he became enraged and led his entire army in a near-suicidal charge. His vanguard broke out far beyond the rest of the Rohirrim, risking becoming encircled. Meanwhile, Imrahil led Gondor's men in a sortie from Minas Tirith. Imrahil rode up to Éowyn and found she was still alive, though gravely ill from the Black Breath. She and Merry were sent to the Houses of Healing in the city. [T 6]

Denethor prepared to burn himself and his son upon a funeral pyre, believing Faramir to be beyond cure. Only the intervention of the hobbit Peregrin Took, Beregond (a Guard of the Citadel) and Gandalf saved Faramir, but Denethor immolated himself before they could stop him. Tolkien indirectly states that Théoden's death could have been prevented if Gandalf had helped the Rohirrim instead, as he had intended.[T 10]

Out on the Pelennor Fields, the battle was turning against Gondor and its allies. Though the Rohirrim had inflicted enormous damage on their enemies, Sauron's forces were still numerically superior, and Gothmog, the lieutenant of Minas Morgul, in command after the death of the Witch-king, summoned reserves from nearby Osgiliath. The Rohirrim were now on the southern half of the Pelennor, with enemies between them and the Anduin, and Gothmog's reinforcements threatened to occupy the centre of the Pelennor, thus surrounding the Rohirrim and preventing the Gondorian troops from joining with them. Éomer was by this time only about a mile from the Harlond, so rather than cut his way through to the river, he prepared to make a last stand on a hill.[T 6]

Meanwhile, a fleet of black ships, apparently the navy of the Corsairs of Umbar, Sauron's allies, sailed up Anduin to the Harlond. Just before reaching the quays, the flagship unfurled the ancient banner of the Kings of Gondor. This sight alone put heart into the Rohirrim and Imrahil's forces and demoralised Sauron's armies. The ships indeed were manned by Aragorn and his Rangers, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, the Half-elven brothers Elladan and Elrohir and many troops from southern Gondor.[T 4] (Later in the book, Legolas and Gimli relate how a ghostly host commanded by Aragorn, the Dead Men of Dunharrow, captured the ships from the Corsairs chiefly through fear.)[T 6]

This proved the turning point of the battle. A large portion of Sauron's forces were now pinned between Aragorn's and Éomer's forces, while Imrahil's troops advanced from the direction of the city. Though the advantage now rested with Gondor, fighting continued throughout the day, until at sunset no living enemy remained on the Pelennor Fields.[T 6]

Outcome[edit]

The battle was only a tactical defeat for Sauron, as he had committed only a small portion of his forces to the assault, but he had lost the Witch-king, his chief lieutenant. The Captains of the West understood that their victory too would be only momentary, unless the Ring-bearer completed his task. Therefore, it was decided that the Host of the West should march to the Morannon without delay, to draw Sauron's attention away from Mordor. The victory allowed them to send a force to challenge Sauron, and still leave Minas Tirith better defended than it had been during the siege. However, Denethor was dead, as were Halbarad, Théoden, and many officers and men of Gondor and Rohan, and some would have to be kept in Gondor in case of attack, so only a small force could be sent.[T 4] The climactic Battle of the Morannon soon followed.[T 11]

Concept and creation[edit]

The battle has been compared to the historic Battle of the Catalaunian Fields.[6] Painting by Alphonse de Neuville

The War of the Ring, the third volume of The History of the Lord of the Rings, contains superseded versions of the battle. Some changes of detail are apparent. For example, Théoden dies by a projectile to the heart instead of being crushed by his horse; when Éowyn reveals her sex she has cut her hair short, a detail absent from the final version. Tolkien also considered killing off both Théoden and Éowyn.[T 12]

The scholar Elizabeth Solopova notes that Tolkien repeatedly referred to a historic account of the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields by Jordanes, and analyses the two battles' similarities. Both battles take place between civilisations of the "East" and "West", and like Jordanes, Tolkien describes his battle as one of legendary fame that lasted for several generations. Another apparent similarity is the death of the Visigoth king Theodoric I on the Catalaunian Fields and that of Théoden on the Pelennor. Jordanes reports that Theodoric was thrown off by his horse and trampled to death by his own men who charged forward. Théoden similarly rallies his men shortly before he falls and is crushed by his horse. And like Theodoric, Théoden is carried from the battlefield with his knights weeping and singing for him while the battle still goes on.[6]

Critical response[edit]

The scholar Tom Shippey writes that prominent at the critical moment of the battle, the decisive charge of the Riders of Rohan, is panache, which he explains means both "the white horsetail on [Eomer's] helm floating in his speed" and "the virtue of sudden onset, the dash that sweeps away resistance."[7] Shippey notes that this allows Tolkien to display Rohan both as English, based on their Old English names and words like "eored" (troop of cavalry), and as "alien, to offer a glimpse of the way land shapes people".[7]

"Great horns of the North wildly blowing": here, the great aurochs hunting horn of Sigismund III Vasa

The arrival of Rohan is heralded by two calls: a cockerel crowing as the morning comes, and "as if in answer ... great horns of the North wildly blowing".[8] The cock-crow recalls multiple accounts in Western literature that speak, Shippey writes, of renewed hope and life after death; of the call which told Simon Peter that he had denied Christ three times, and that there would, despite him, be a resurrection; of the cock-crow in Milton's Comus that would "be some solace yet"; of the cockerel in the Norse Ódáinsakr, killed and thrown over a wall by the witch, but crowing to King Hadding a moment later.[8] As for the horns of Rohan, in Shippey's view "their meaning is bravado and recklessness", and in combination with the cock-crow, the message is that "he who fears for his life shall lose it, but that dying undaunted is no defeat; furthermore that this was true before the Christian myth that came to explain why".[8] Shippey writes that warhorns exemplify the "heroic Northern world", as in what he calls the nearest Beowulf has to a moment of eucatastrophe, when Ongentheow's Geats, trapped all night, hear the horns of Hygelac's men coming to rescue them.[9]

The critic David Day states that Tolkien particularly disliked Shakespeare's treatment of myth, and must have resolved to do better. Day compares Tolkien's "not by the hand of man will [the Witch-king of Angmar] fall" to the "almost identical" prophecy about Macbeth, who should "laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (Act 4, scene 1): and Macbeth is indeed killed by one who "was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (as Macduff was born by Caesarean section: Act 5, scene 8). In both cases, the prophecies are at once true and false: Macduff was a living man, but not born; while Éowyn and Meriadoc were not men, but woman and hobbit, in Day's opinion "rather more satisfying than Shakespeare's rather quibbling solution".[10]

Adaptations[edit]

Albrecht Altdorfer's 1529 oil painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus inspired Peter Jackson's film depiction.[11]

Radio[edit]

In the BBC radio series The Lord of the Rings, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is heard from two sides, the first being mainly Pippin's. One hears him discussing with Denethor, and like in the book, he has to find Gandalf to prevent Denethor from burning Faramir. This part is very similar to the book. The second side is the battle itself. Théoden's speech is declaimed, followed by music. A vocalist sings how the Rohirrim host rides forth and attacks the forces of darkness. Then the vocalism changes again and one hears Jack May and Anthony Hyde, voicing respectively Théoden and Éomer, saying a Nazgûl is coming. The 'opera' begins again, stating the Witch-king attacks Théoden, strikes him down and prepares to kill him. The vocalism ends here, then one hears Éowyn facing the Witch-king and slaying him.[12]

Film[edit]

The forces of Mordor assaulting Minas Tirith, in Peter Jackson's 2003 film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The battle is the centrepiece of Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; The Telegraph wrote that "the battle scenes involving the storming of Minas Tirith and the climactic battle of Pelennor Fields are quite simply the most spectacular and breathtaking ever filmed".[1] Jackson stated that he had taken inspiration from Albrecht Altdorfer's 1529 oil painting, The Battle of Alexander at Issus, depicting the events of 333 BC, with "people holding all of these pikes and spears [against an] incredibly stormy landscape".[11]

CNN.com put the battle on a list of best and worst battle scenes in film, where it appeared twice: one of the best before the Army of the Dead arrives, and one of the worst after that, dubbing the battle's climax an "oversimplified cop out" as a result of their involvement.[2]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The pseudonym means "secret helmet" in Old English.[5]

References[edit]

Primary[edit]

This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
  1. ^ a b c d e The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 4 "The Siege of Gondor"
  2. ^ The Two Towers, book 4, ch. 8 "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol"
  3. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 1 "Minas Tirith"
  4. ^ a b c d The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 9 "The Last Debate"
  5. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 3 "The Muster of Rohan"
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 6 "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
  7. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 2 "The Passing of the Grey Company"
  8. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 5 "The Ride of the Rohirrim"
  9. ^ The Return of the King, Appendix A, "Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion"
  10. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 7 "The Pyre of Denethor"
  11. ^ The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 10 "The Black Gate Opens"
  12. ^ The War of the Ring, Part Three: Minas Tirith, ch. 9 "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"

Secondary[edit]

  1. ^ a b Hiscock, John (5 December 2003). "It's the biggest, and the best". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  2. ^ a b CNN.com – The Screening Room. "The best – and worst – movie battle scenes." Archived 8 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 20 November 2007.
  3. ^ Kennedy, Maev (3 May 2016). "Tolkien annotated map of Middle-earth acquired by Bodleian library". The Guardian.
  4. ^ Foster, Robert (1971). Tolkien's World From A to Z, The Complete Guide to Middle Earth. Ballantine Books. pp. 48 & 49. ISBN 0-345-44976-2.
  5. ^ Clark Hall, J. R. (2002) [1894]. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th ed.). University of Toronto Press. pp. 85 dierne, "hidden, secret", 177 helm, "defence, helmet".
  6. ^ a b Solopova, Elizabeth (2009), Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction, New York City: North Landing Books, ISBN 0-9816607-1-1, pp. 70–73
  7. ^ a b Shippey, Tom (2005) [1982]. The Road to Middle-Earth (Third ed.). Grafton (HarperCollins). pp. 142–145. ISBN 978-0261102750.
  8. ^ a b c Shippey, Tom (2005) [1982]. The Road to Middle-Earth (Third ed.). Grafton (HarperCollins). pp. 242–245. ISBN 978-0261102750.
  9. ^ Shippey, Tom (2001). J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. HarperCollins. pp. 212–216. ISBN 978-0261-10401-3.
  10. ^ Day, David (2019). Macbeth. A Dictionary of Sources of Tolkien. Octopus. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-7537-3406-3.
  11. ^ a b Woosnam-Savage, Robert C. (2011). "The Matériel of Middle-earth". In Bogstad, Janice M.; Kaveny, Philip E. (eds.). Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy. McFarland. pp. 139–167. ISBN 978-0-7864-8473-7.
  12. ^ Sibley, Brian; Bakewell, Michael (1981). The Lord of the Rings (radio broadcast). BBC.