Urging the Riders of Rohan to “[f]ear no darkness,” King Theoden leads the charge onto the Pelennor Fields (and the overall narrative resumes where it was left off, at the end of Chapter 4). The Witch King of Angmar, the lord of the Ringwraiths, appears, wielding a huge black mace, “turning hope to despair, and victory to death.” The Witch King shoots Theodens steed, and the king falls beneath it. Yet Dernhelm confronts the Witch King with drawn sword. The Witch King scoffs at Dernhelm, “No living man may hinder me.” Dernhelm laughs and reveals himself-herself-to be none other than eowyn, “no living man” indeed. She beheads the Witch Kings mount. Merry stabs him from behind, and eowyn delivers a final, fatal stroke to the Witch King. He crumbles to the ground, his cloak empty, his cry fading away and “never heard again in that age of this world.”
Merry tends to the dying King Theoden, who dies not knowing that eowyn lies near him. eomer takes up the banner of the king and urges the Riders to continue fighting. The battle, however, still seems to be going against Rohan and Gondor. The situation looks bleak beyond all hope when the black-sailed ships of the Corsairs of Umbar are spotted-“It is the last stroke of doom!” Unexpectedly, however, the standard of Gondor with the signs of the king, signs “no lord had borne for years beyond count,” unfurls from the lead ship. These ships carry, not pirates, but Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, the Rangers of the North, and their allies. The “new wind” from the South discerned by the Woses has arrived; the tide has turned. The battle rages on until “not one living foe [is] left.”
Beyond the masterfully dramatic scene the revelation of Dernhelm affords, Tolkien is apparently again making a point about the nature of hope. The Witch Kings greatest weapon, as readers have seen, is despair-hopelessness. The Witch King symbolizes death itself to a certain degree: readers will recall his words to Gandalf at the close of Chapter 4, as well as his words to Dernhelm here: “No living man may hinder me!” And yet this symbol of death itself dies at the hands of eowyn and Merry. While the symbolic subtext of this scene may have had special resonance for Tolkien, given the emphasis of his Christian faith upon the undoing of death in the Resurrection, readers, whatever their spiritual beliefs, can appreciate how the scene illustrates hope coming at the moment which is seemingly hopeless-a recurring motif in The Lord of the Rings and characteristically “eucatastrophic”: the sudden and unexpected turn from defeat to victory, from evil to good, from sorrow to joy that Tolkien regarded as perhaps the essential feature of any “fairy-story.” Like the arrival of Aragorn and his host in the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar, the victory over the Witch King is that kind of moment-although, realist that he is, Tolkien does not deny the continued presence of evil in the world: note his careful qualification that the Witch Kings voice was “never heard again in that age of this world” (emphasis added). The victory is real, as will be the greater victory over Sauron himself-but it will not be final. Future ages will have to fight evil in their days as well.
Tolkiens penchant for exalted language, as if in imitation of Elizabethan biblical prose, is of course on display throughout his work, but is noticeable here: for example, soon after Merry deals his stroke to the Witch King he becomes “Meriadoc the hobbit” to the narrator, as though the character himself has changed-which, of course, in a sense he has. The exalted language thus here serves to underscore character development. As a further example of exalted language, note eomers “lament” over Theoden, which illustrates how language can be used to change the dynamics of a situation: “Mourn not overmuch!. War now calls us!” Readers will recall that the use of language was an overriding concern in Books III and IV, a concern that continues here.