Darkness gathers over Minas Tirith. Beregond tells Pippin the gloom is no "weather of the world," but a direct result of the malevolent mind of Sauron, drawing his plans against the free world. Pippin is pierced with despair when he and Beregond see the Nazgul approach. At that same moment, however, Faramir returns to the City. He reports to his father. Denethor, however, is not pleased with his son. He flatly tells Faramir that he wishes Faramir had died in Boromir's stead. He suspects Faramir of having been under Gandalf's influence too much. He claims "more lore and wisdom" than the wizard, accusing the plan of sending the Ring to Mordor for its destruction of being foolishness.
The day after Faramir's return, Denethor sends him out again to defend the City's outer defenses at Osgiliath. Many in the City know that Faramir is not rested enough to be ready for this task; they despair that the Rohirrim will ever arrive to help, even though Gandalf reminds them "the Red Arrow cannot have reached [Theoden] more than two days ago." (another example of Tolkien's technique of interlacing; see Analysis below). To make matters worse, news reaches Minas Tirith that the Black Captain himself-the Lord of the Nazgul, the Witch King of Angmar-is leading the enemy forces. Fear is his greatest weapon, and ancient lore claims "not by the hand of man shall he fall."
Faramir returns to the City carried by his men, sorely wounded. Denethor reacts to his son's injuries with grief. The siege of Minas Tirith begins in earnest. Denethor slips into despair. He releases Pippin from his oath of service: "Follow whom you will, even [Gandalf] the Grey Fool, though his hope has failed." Denethor orders the building of a pyre in the necropolis below Minas Tirith upon which he intends to burn himself and Faramir, even though they both yet live. Distressed, Pippin runs to seek Gandalf, who is commanding the City's defense, in the hope that Denethor's madness can be stopped. In the meantime, however, the forces of Sauron are attacking Minas Tirith with a great machine of war, the battering ram Grond, and the Witch King himself confronts Gandalf: "Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it?" Yet, at that very instant, a hopeful horn sounds, and the Riders of Rohan arrive.
In this chapter we are able to see the love and devotion that the men of Minas Tirith render to Faramir. No matter what his father may think of him, readers know that Faramir is a true leader. We also see further signs of trouble within Denethor's character; for example, his unreasonable suspicion of Gandalf, and his continued, too-narrowly focused thinking of Gondor only. (Contrast Gandalf's pity even for the servants-"slaves," as Gandalf accurately terms them-of Sauron, a further elaboration on the theme of mercy that is so near the heart of The Lord of the Rings.) Tolkien slowly and surely develops the approaching tragedy of Denethor's self-destruction. Denethor believes he possesses wisdom, but his attitude toward both Faramir and Gandalf, as well as his decision to immolate himself and his son, prove his folly. Readers are left lamenting for Denethor: Had he but been able to hope!
The Return of the King: Novel Summary: Book V Chapter 4