The Rohirrim gather at Dunharrow, as ordered by King Theoden. At that place, Merry notices "great standing stones that had been carved in the likeness of men." These are the Pekel-men, relics of a bygone age. eowyn tells Theoden and eomer that Aragorn has taken the Paths of the Dead. Theoden receives word from Hirgon, a messenger from Minas Tirith, of that city's dire plight. Hirgon brings with him the Red Arrow, a symbol of Gondor's utmost need. Theoden promises Hirgon that the Rohirrim will come, although their arrival at Minas Tirith may still be as much as a week away. To his dismay, Merry is forbidden by Theoden to ride with him to war. Theoden releases Merry from his service. Insistent upon coming, however, Merry finds himself swept up onto a horse by an enigmatic rider who calls himself only "Dernhelm." The Rohirrim head for Minas Tirith, "without horn or harp or music of men's voices." There is no glory in this grim but necessary duty of war against the forces of evil.
Circumstances for the heroes of the tale continue to grow darker during this chapter. Theoden and eomer greet with dismay the news that Aragorn is daring the Paths of the Dead, for example, and Hirgon reacts with alarm to the news that the Rohirrim may take a week to reach Minas Tirith. Even the physical setting of the chapter contributes to a sense of waning hope: the Pekel-men, for instance, function as a reminder that all life is transitory, even the once-glorious cultures of Middle-earth. These stone figures are remnants of a civilization that has long ago died out, and to Merry's eyes they seem somewhat hollow: "no power or terror was left in them; but Merry gazed at them with wonder and a feeling almost of pity." He and the readers are left to wonder if the same fate awaits the civilizations of Rohan and Gondor. Still, the chapter contains elements, however fleeting, of hope as well; note, for example, Baldor's statement, "[M]aybe at last the time foretold has come, and Aragorn may pass." In Tolkien's world, there is value in paying attention to what has been "foretold" in ancient times, for the oldest of words may yet spark and nurture the hope needed in the present. Note also "Dernhelm's" proverbial words to Merry: "Where will wants not, a way opens."
The striking passage at the end of the chapter, in which the Rohirrim ride to war in grim silence even as the narrator tells us one of the later songs about the event emphasizes that warfare is not inherently glorious or grand-a lesson Tolkien learned himself in the battlefields of World War I. Glory, for Tolkien, is not found in great deeds of destruction, but in great deeds of duty: the duty of doing what is right, even in-and perhaps especially in-the face of almost-certain defeat. It is an idea that runs counter to much tradition of warfare (e.g., "Dulce et decorum est.."), but it maintains a high view of moral absolutes and the rightness of a true and good cause, no matter what opposes it. Readers will want to reflect on the possible positive and negative ramifications of such a view.
The Return of the King: Novel Summary: Book V Chapter 3