Jun 27 2011, 2:39pm
Some of Tolkien’s chronology regarding the communications between Gondor and Rohan is unclear, even though he put a lot of effort into getting it right. Below I have given the relevant entries from LotR Appendix B, “The Tale of Years: The Third Age – The Great Years”. Entries in bold brackets are my additions, taken from the text.
Chronology of the Red Arrow and the palantir - messages and messengers crossing in the night
5 Théoden reaches Isengard at noon. Parley with Saruman in Orthanc. [After dark, Pippin looks into the palantír and encounters Sauron. III.11] Winged Nazgûl passes over the camp at Dol Baran. Gandalf sets out with Peregrin for Minas Tirith [While riding into the night, Pippin discusses the palantír with Gandalf. III.11]. Frodo hides in sight of the Morannon, and leaves at dusk.
6 Aragorn overtaken by the Dúnedain in the early hours. Théoden sets out from the Hornburg for Harrowdale. Aragorn sets out later. [Aragorn reveals himself to Sauron in the palantír of Orthanc. He sees the corsairs attacking the coasts of Gondor. V.2] [Gandalf spends the day at Edoras; a second Nazgul flies over Edoras; Gandalf and Pippin ride towards Gondor that night. V.1]
7 Frodo taken by Faramir to Henneth Annûn. Aragorn comes to Dunharrow at nightfall. [Gandalf and Pippin sleep by day, ride by night. In Anorien by moonrise they see the beacons lit, and cross paths with the messengers of Gondor. V.1]
8 Aragorn takes the ‘Paths of the Dead’ at daybreak; he reaches Erech at midnight. Frodo leaves Henneth Annûn. [Gandalf and Pippin sleep by day, ride by night. V.1] [News comes to Gondor that the corsairs are attacking Lebennin and Belfalas; the next day, Beregond will tell Pippin this news arrived “yestereve.” V.1]
9 [At dawn, V.1] Gandalf reaches Minas Tirith. [Pippin mistakenly(?) tells Beregond that he saw the beacons lit “last night”. V.1] Faramir leaves Henneth Annûn. Aragorn sets out from Erech and comes to Calembel. At dusk Frodo reaches the Morgul-road. Théoden comes to Dunharrow. Darkness begins to flow out of Mordor. [After sundown, the messenger of Gondor reaches Théoden at Dunharrow with the Red Arrow. V.3]
10 The Dawnless Day. [A second messenger from Gondor reaches Dunharrow; he reports he was chased west by the Darkness through the night. V.3] The Muster of Rohan: the Rohirrim ride from Harrowdale. Faramir rescued by Gandalf outside the gates of the City. Aragorn crosses Ringló. An army from the Morannon takes Cair Andros and passes into Anórien. Frodo passes the Cross-roads, and sees the Morgul-host set forth.
If I have interpreted the story correctly, Gandalf and Pippin leave Edoras at dusk on March 6. We read about this in Pippin’s flashback at the beginning of Book V, Chapter 1. At this point, Pippin remembers it is now the “... the second, no, the third night since he had looked in the Stone.” Thus Chapter 1 begins in the night of March 7, one night’s ride (and one day’s rest) after they set out from Edoras. At this point, as the moon rises, Gandalf tells Pippin they are in Anorien. Pippin sees the beacons lit, and three riders of Gondor speed past them going west towards Rohan.
Yet that is not the last night of their journey. We skip forward a whole day. When Pippin awakes at dawn to hear Gandalf speaking with the guards at the Rammas of Minas Tirith, “Another day of hiding and a night of journey had fleeted by.” Thus it is now March 9, as Tolkien’s timeline agrees.
But later this day, after meeting Denethor in the early morning hours, Pippin and Beregond are talking of the preparations for war. Pippin says “…I saw the beacons last night and the errand-riders;” and Beregond speculates that the beacons were lit and the errand-riders were sent as soon as Denethor heard the news “yestereve” that the Corsairs were attacking the southern coasts.
Here is the contradiction. “Yestereve” on the morning of March 9 should mean sundown of March 8. Presumably the beacons were lit sometime after the riders left that evening, and both the beacons signal and the riders crossed paths with Gandalf and Pippin in the middle of the night in eastern Anorien. But that is not what we just read: Gandalf and Pippin saw the beacons and the riders the night before, March 7.
None of this is made clearer in this chapter 3, where we read that two sets of errand riders were sent to Rohan: Hirgon, who arrives in Dunharrow just after Théoden does, at dusk on March 9; and the second messenger, who arrives the next morning of the 10th with his news that the black cloud comes from Mordor. Perhaps Hirgon is the messenger that passed Gandalf and Pippin on the night of the 7th, and the second messenger is the one that Beregond is referring to? Although that still leaves the beacons out of synch – luckily they do not get mentioned by the Rohirrim, because they serve only to summon help from Anorien (which additional help – soldiers? militia? druedain? – we never hear about further, by the way).
So the text is just vague enough for the reader to skip over this problem. The narrative is scrambled out of time order between chapters, day and night are reversed, and our sense of the chronology in Chapter 1 comes from a sleepy and confused Pippin, remembering past events even as he witnesses new ones.
But as Beregond says in Chapter 1, Denethor has many ways of gathering news, and he reveals to Pippin and us (in retrospect, to be sure) that Denethor uses a palantír to gather news as well as more traditional methods. I wonder if some of the confusion is not because Tolkien only later added Denethor’s palantír into the mix of cause and effect.
Consider this: Aragorn reveals himself to Sauron on the morning of March 6, just as Gandalf and Pippin reach Edoras. Later (in Chapter 4, upcoming!), Gandalf will speculate to Pippin that Sauron’s attack on Minas Tirith has begun too soon and too hastily. He guesses that Aragorn has used the palantír to prod Sauron forward, as indeed we know he did! Can we suppose that Denethor was in on that interview via his own palantír – or rather, since that coincidence is unlikely, did Denethor within a few hours discover from his own stone that Sauron was suddenly ordering an immediate advance? Of course, we also know that Denethor, just like Aragorn, would know of the assault of the Corsairs through the stone; and as has already been speculated here, it seems clear that Denethor also knows that the Rohirrim have defeated Saruman. How much Sauron had to do with manipulating Denethor’s thinking is also unclear here – did Sauron reveal Aragorn’s assumption of his kingly title to Denethor, knowing it would sow confusion in the Steward’s mind even as it did in his own?
In any case, it seems likely that it could be as early as mid day, certainly the end of the day, on March 6, that Denethor had several new and imperative reasons to summon the aid of Rohan via the Red Arrow. Those riders - riding relay, as Gandalf tells us, rather than resting, at least as far as the Anorien/Rohan border - by the night of March 7 would thus be half way to Rohan, in western Anorien, where they would of course pass Gandalf and Pippin!
But why were the beacons not lit that same night (March 6) as when the Arrow was apparently dispatched? Why wait for the second night (March 7), which was still one day before the news of the Corsairs publicly reached Minas Tirith (March 8)? Why was the second rider sent to Rohan on the 7th, twelve hours after the first one – for it still seems impossible that he could have left the city on the 8th (as Beregond and Pippin seem to agree) and arrived in Dunharrow on the morning of the 10th? I don’t know.
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