The narrative focus shifts back to Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and the Rohirrim. Merry expresses his desire to participate in the upcoming battle, as the Riders of Rohan make ready to ride for a muster at Edoras. Before the company leaves, however, they are encountered by a group of Rangers, sent from Elrond with a message for Aragorn: “If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead.” They also bring him a gift from Galadriel.
At the Hornburg, Merry spontaneously pledges his service to King Theoden, who gladly accepts it. Aragorn decides to ride the Paths of the Dead; he promises to meet Theoden and the others at Minas Tirith. As part of an explanation of this decision, he tells Legolas and Gimli that he has looked into the palanter used by Saruman. He revealed himself to Sauron: “To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now.” Aragorn explains that those defending Middle-earth must press Sauron to act hastily, for “the hasty stroke oft goes astray.” The help Aragorn believes he can gain from taking the Paths of the Dead-the dead being oath-breakers who turned on Isildur in the war against Sauron ages before-will further the war against Sauron now. Legolas and Gimli pledge to follow Aragorn.
At Edoras, the Lady eowyn, too, offers to follow Aragorn because she loves him; he tells her, however, that her duty is to remain with her people. She wishes to fight in battle, but Aragorn tells her that the battle is not her place. Aragorn and his companions ride to the beginning of the Paths of the Dead. As they ride beneath the ground, Aragorn summons the dead to follow. He leads them to the Stone of Erech, where he promises them that, if they follow him into battle, he will consider their ancient and broken oath to Isildur fulfilled.
Readers should compare and contrast Merrys service to King Theoden and Pippins service to Denethor. They will note, among other aspects, that Theoden treats Merry much more like a father than Denethor does Pippin (a contrast further heightened by the estrangement between Denethor and his actual son, Faramir). As critic Tom Shippey observes, “Two obviously contrasted scenes are the two in which first Pippin and then Merry offer their service to Denethor and Theoden. It is probably fair to say that the scene between Merry and Theoden makes much the better impression, kindlier, more casual, and with more concern for the feelings of the junior party” (Shippey, 98-99).
In eowyns question to Aragorn-“[M]ay I not now spend my life as I will?”-a central question of the work as a whole is again articulated. Readers will recall, perhaps, Gandalfs words to Frodo in Book I: “You have been chosen.” Each of the characters in The Lord of the Rings has a duty to perform, whether they like it or not; and, furthermore, that duty cannot be shirked. Defining that duty, however, does not remain fully outside of the characters control, especially as we shall see in eowyns case. The emphasis on duty in Tolkiens work, then, need not lead to a sense of fatalism. In Middle-earth, duty, destiny, and freedom interact in mysterious ways.