Pippin is my favorite hobbit. He’s an honest youth, foolish at times, who’s always asking the obvious questions (to which his pal Merry often gives the obvious answers). He’s the sort of little hobbit you’d like to pick up and cuddle in all his affable naivety.
I forgave him when he threw that stone into the well in Moria. I forgave him again when he stole the palantir (since the shock was punishment enough).
But when Pippin ended up in the clutches of Denethor, a cunning psychopath who reminded me of a cross between Peter O’Toole’s King Henry and Inspector Gadget’s arch nemesis The Claw, I was understandably upset. To read along as this sinister man encouraged innocent Pippin into servitude made me cringe.
Why did it have to be Pippin? I wondered. Why not Merry? Why not one of the Sackville-Bagginses?
Just like every other character in “The Lord of the Rings,” Pippin’s fate is true to his nature. What becomes of him is what MUST become of him, as if fate were divvied up among characters according to their behavior when they’re first introduced. So it is with all novels, right?
Why Pippin ends up with Denethor is a matter of character balance. Consider the players and their circumstances. Denethor is a maddening and lonely widower who’s only recently learned of his favorite son Boromir’s death. Gandalf, who brings Pippin to Minas Tirith, locks horns with Denethor over the steward’s other son, Faramir, who learned more from the kind wizard growing up than he ever could have learned from his own father.
It’s a jealous triangle, and Boromir was originally its center. After Boromir’s death, though, Denethor contracts Pippin to take up the position. Pippin isn’t completely unsuited for the role, either, a fact Denethor is no doubt well aware of as the awestruck hobbit lays his faithful sword across the old man’s lap. Denethor observes that Pippin is “not daunted by words” (739), a compliment that parallels Pippin with Boromir, as both characters share that trait of ‘honest foolishness’ I mentioned earlier.
Pippin expresses his immediate loyalty to Denethor and commits his service eagerly. This is unlike Faramir, who, though he would lay down his life for his father and for Gondor, would do so with that humility and reserve that, as we later see, drives his father crazy with guilt.
Of course, that whole fiasco with Denethor accepting Pippin’s loyal service is really just Denethor raising an eyebrow to Gandalf, as if to say, “See? This is how Faramir should behave.” The oath Pippin repeats, in which he swears “fealty with love” and “valour with honor,” is more of a between-the-lines accusation at Gandalf (740). Where is Faramir’s “fealty with love”? Where is Faramir’s “valour with honor”? Even Pippin notices the unspoken struggle between the two, likening Denethor to a wizard, wondering which of the two old, wise men is older and wiser. In fact, for all we know, and for all Pippin knows, Denethor might have improvised that oath on-the-spot. And Gandalf might have known it, but as he points out later to Pippin, “I did not hinder it, for generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel. It touched his heart, as well (may I say it) as pleasing his humour” (743).
So my poor little beloved Pippin is nothing more than the monkey in the middle between these two scheming heavyweights? It seems unfortunately so, as Denethor uses Pippin’s innocence for fuel against Gandalf, while Pippin is none the wiser. In fact, for the role of Gandalf’s chief antagonist, I’d put my money on Denethor rather than Saruman. As Gandalf says to Denethor in his best moment of ‘take that,’ “I am also a steward. Did you not know?” (742).
Because of his age and innocense, Pippin is perpetually amazed and curious about everything. Though fearful by nature, he’s not necessarily a coward; he’s just been protected during his journey with the Fellowship. When he arrives in Minas Tirith, though, he’s been through two big hurts. One of them is accidentally having faced Sauron through the palantir. The other, of course, is being taken away from Merry because of it--not a singular punishment, but one of necessity; Gandalf fears for Pippin’s safety, so sees it convenient to stash him in the safest fortress in the world.
Often on his own in this new place, without Merry or the Fellowship for guidance and protection, Pippin often wonders about his former protectors. He expresses how much he misses Merry on more than one occasion. He also worries about Aragorn--“What is wrong with Strider? He meant to come here, didn’t he?” (737)--and later about Gandalf--“A strange gloom was on him, and now he desired very much to see Gandalf again” (754).
Pippin is not only the curious hobbit, but a character who easily sees the good in everything. He’s a charming idealist, eager to find the greatness and courage in people, since courage is what he seems to lack the most (but only out of inexperience, so don’t think any less of him).
This sense of idealism changes, however, when he first meets Faramir.
Before I go into that, though, consider Pippin’s attitudes toward the other human characters. Every Big Person Pippin meets gets placed on a pedestal-- Aragorn, Boromir, even Denethor. Pippin meets these guys out of the blue, and his reaction to them is pretty much the same. They are brave, beautiful, and of some caliber of strength and courage that Pippin himself feels he could never match.
But Pippin HEARS about Faramir long before he meets him, and the information he gets is quite conflicting. From the first argument between Denethor and Gandalf, he learns that Faramir is the steward’s unwanted son. From Beregond, though, he learns that Faramir is the mighty and beloved Captain of Gondor, selfless in his duty to his people.
So when Pippin finally meets Faramir, he must judge the young captain for himself and decide which opinion of is valid. This responsilibity alone causes a good bit of growing up in the hobbit and is a far cry from foolish curiosity or protected observation. At last, Pippin must put that Tookish brain to good use and think for himself.
Of course, Pippin is FLOORED when he first sees Faramir. Well, not floored exactly: “When he saw the pale face of Faramir he caught his breath. It was the face of one who has been assailed by a great fear or anguish, but has mastered it and now is quiet” (792). This is an unusual reaction to an unusual situation, and the first of its kind to be seen in “The Lord of the Rings.” Faramir arrives with Gandalf after barely escaping the Nazgul, from a long (and rather hopeless) campaign to defend the ruins of Osgiliath. He does not look or act the part of a hero. There’s no boldness or poetry about him, and he doesn’t swoop out of the shadows to rescue anybody. Instead, we get a tried and tired man--no doubt tough as nails with a steely and quiet resolve, but tested to his limits.
Tested to his limits, maybe, but Pippin’s only just laid eyes on him, and has nothing to compare to. Is Faramir as weak as Denethor implied? Or is he a mighty captain? And, if the latter is true, what sort of Ultimate Evil could he have faced to end up in such a state that he would need help even walking?
Remember, too, that Pippin likely understands something of the jealousy Denethor has for Gandalf. Denethor thinks Faramir loves Gandalf best, and considers him a more worthy fathr. For Pippin to see them arrive together, with Faramir displaying the last traces of “fear and anguish” before disguising them against his upcoming confrontation with Denethor, confirms this jealousy--that here, between wizard and captain, exists an ironclad and honest love as strong as any father and son could have for each other.
Further shattering Pippin’s delusions of men is Faramir’s initial reaction to the hobbit: “Whence came you? A halfling, and in the livery of the Tower! Whence...?” (793) That’s not poetry nor eloquent bravado. It’s the flabergasted ‘say what?’ of an exhausted man. It’s an honest, almost blue-collar reaction, and quite different from the calm and collected (and perceptive) Faramir we met earlier in “The Two Towers.”
Of course, right after this, Pippin is forced to watch as Denethor skewers Faramir’s pride out of jealousy. As Faramir makes his report of all the goings-on in Osgiliath, we are told that he speaks primarily to Gandalf, even though he’s in his father’s company. This is a matter of politics, though, since, in his inherited wisdom, Faramir would certainly realize that any report he makes would be more of benefit to Gandalf than his own stubborn father.
Denethor misinterprets all that, of course, and lets jealousy take over: “See, you have spoken skillfully as ever; but I, have I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping” (794).
The greatest, subtlest argument in all of “The Lord of the Rings” thus ensues, in which Denethor openly declares his preference of Boromir over Faramir, wishing the younger son had died in place of the elder: “Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift” (795).
Ouch, indeed. And only when Gandalf tells Denethor to “comfort” himself do things calm down. It’s during this time that our buddy Pippin notices once again notices the unspoken battle between Gandalf and Denethor, except this time it’s not really between Gandalf and Denethor, but between Gandalf and Sauron (since Denethor’s maddening will stems from his counsel with the palantir).
Faramir is resolved to calm, though--a neat trick he picked up from his old man, no doubt--and drives Denethor into a rage with his unwavering yet near-flatline humility and selflessness.
But the BIG question still remains: Why, out of the four hobbits, must Pippin, the youngest and most innocent, be drawn into this literal trial-by-fire between father and son?
Well, we know why Frodo and Sam couldn’t have done it. Their quest lies with the Ring, as it’s said, and their characters must grow through each other. That leaves Merry and Pippin. Of the two, Merry’s the brains, even if it seems circumstantial at times (which it is since, no matter who you are, you’d be considered the “brains” when paired against Pippin). But wouldn’t Merry have handled the situation better?
Maybe. But Merry is more like Frodo--he’s honorable, smart, and well-to-do. And while Frodo has Sam, Merry has Pippin. For the group to be “equalized,” Merry and Frodo must be taken down a notch, and Pippin and Sam must be raised a notch. Thus, while Merry and Frodo face the greatest external challenge (Frodo the Ring and Merry the Witch-King), Pippin and Sam face more internal, delicate challenges (Sam must deal with Frodo, and Pippin must grow up).
That growing up happens the moment Pippin refuses to obey what he’s told and listens instead to his heart (an organ which, in hobbits, is known for its stoutness). As Denethor urges Pippin to leave so that he might end both his and his wounded son’s lives, Pippin stands his ground:
“ ‘I will not say farewell, my lord,’ said Pippin kneeling. And then suddenly hobbit-like once more, he stood up and looked the old man in the eyes. ‘I will take your leave, sir, he said; ‘for I want to see Gandalf very much indeed. But he is no fool; and I will not think of dying until he despairs of life. But from my word and your service I do not wish to be released while you live. And if they come at last to the Citadel, I hope to be here and stand beside you and earn perhaps the arms that you have given me’” (807).
There’s no question about it; Pippin has grown up. He is no longer the innocent and eager fool, quick to err and quicker to fear. We find no hesitation in this latter excerpt. He doesn’t guess or side-step the issue. He becomes to honest and true hobbit that I’ve come to call my favorite. He does what he knows he must, though it may be a small feat compared to the great deeds of so many Men, yet it is enough for him to finally know his worth.
Tolkien, J.R.R. ‘The Return of the King.’ Houghton Mifflin: 1994 edition.
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