The Long Lunch

by Varda

I was whiling away a sleepless night by watching the Return of the King EE dvd and somehow it seemed a long time since I had seen it, and I noticed some things that I had missed before.

During that famous and futile charge of Faramir and his men against the orcs at Osgiliath, I realised that Denethor is eating a seriously long lunch.

The sequence goes a bit like this; first of all we see Faramir and Pippin in the presence of the Steward. In the EE the added scene where Pippin and Faramir talk about the livery that has been given to the hobbit, and where Faramir says it was his, takes place just previously. So presumably they were talking because they were both in an antechamber waiting to be called into the presence of the Steward. They easily make friends as both are probably nervous, certainly Faramir knows he is for the high jump, as the EE scene where Denethor berates him for letting Frodo go with the Ring also took place just previously.

So there is a sequence in the EE that is lost in the theatre version; Faramir has a stormy interview with his father (I thought that was the best of the added scenes, and it uses a great deal of Tolkien's text) Then he and Pippin make friends as they wait to be brought to the Steward's presence. Then there is the long scene where Denethor basically has lunch. But it is what the suits call a working lunch.

First, Denethor accepts Pippin's allegiance. The hobbit struggles to remember his lines; doubtless he was practising them when Faramir found him in the hall. Denethor sits on the Chair of the Steward, amused but not giving the hobbit any prompts. But he glady accepts his allegiance when he is finished. He is aware of Faramir standing like a criminal waiting for his sentence, but gives no sign of knowing he is there except for a dark glance when he says the words ' (I will reward) disobedience with vengeance...'

Then some black-clad flunkies bring lunch, at a very slow pace. As Denethor flicks out his napkin and tastes his wine he tells Faramir he thinks they had better retake Osgiliath.

This is a great moment of film. We have seen the battle for Osgiliath, what a horrific loss of men and horses, all to no gain. Now this sadly deluded leader proposes a repeat performance, all over the antipasto.

To his credit, Faramir is not overawed by his stern father and tells him this course of action is impossible. Denethor, in the maddening way of parents when faced with offspring rebellion, replies with a platitude;
'Must much be risked in war'

Faramir then makes a serious error; he turns the discussion to the personal, asking his father
'you wish I had died and Boromir had lived' and of course Dad says yes.

After that, Faramir has his judgment torched by emotion. Pippin looks upset when Faramir turns to go; maybe he wants to say to him to fight his corner, not let his father condemn him and his men to certain death. But Faramir is in a mad mood of self-immolation and just turns and goes. His parting request to his father to 'if I return, think better of me' is hypothetical as both he and we know there is no return from Osgiliath.

By this time Denethor is raining destruction down on the tomatoes, with Pippin standing desolately and hungrily by. The Steward has gone past the starters and is attacking the main course.

Next thing we see Faramir and his men in armour, riding through the grieving crowds in the streets of Minas Tirith. In medieval Ireland anyway it took ages for a mailed knight to get ready, even though he did it a lot faster than his English counterpart as he had no plate armour and his castle was usually under attack. Faramir musters his men, finds suitable mounts for them, arms them and equips them with armour, arranges them in squadrons under their officers, orders his squires to get his own armour ready and put it on him, mounts his horse and makes it down to the front gate of Minas Tirith while Denethor is still demolishing a chicken. Or quail, or whatever it is.

Then, Gandalf stops Faramir at the gate, and they have a brief discussion of Faramir's embattled family relations. It is true that Faramir does not stop his horse, but this chat still delays things. (it is even longer in the EE as Faramir speaks of the beauty of Numenor and her culture) Denethor however is still pulling wings off the chicken (or quail) and has only just noticed the grapes.

It is hard to tell, but there seems to be about a hundred mounted men in Faramir's command. They all have to pass out through the front gate of the city, having first negotiated the crowds and narrow streets.
Then, they have to cross the Pelennor, which was a fair stretch of the legs, to quote John Wayne in the Quiet Man. They also have to deploy to battle formation, which could take cavalry a very long time in medieval times as there were no walky talkies and orders were given by voice, herald or flags.

Despite all this time Denethor is so far from being finished his meal that he asks Pippin to sing a song to lighten the tedium of wolfing down the generous slices of white meat. Pip clears his throat and does his best, in fact does very well and his song is my favourite part of the sound of this film. But it must have been a longer song than we get to hear, as it lasts the whole time it takes the cavalry to cross the Pelennor.

This would been a good long while, because cavalry usually trotted into battle in medieval times, only charging the last little distance. They had to save the horses, and men fell off a lot, and a short fast bit at the end meant fewer accidents on the way to the battle.

By the time Faramir puts his men to the gallop, in sight of Osgiliath (and its orc archers) Pippin is just finishing his song, but Denethor is not nearly finished his dinner; he has just turned his attention to the cherry tomatoes, and the drink, a great draught of which leaves him dribbling red wine down his chin in a ghastly visual metaphor of the blood spilled on the battlefield. Pippin closes his eyes, although whether in grief for Faramir and his men or dismay at the lack of table manners on the part of the highest lord in Gondor is not made clear.

Joking apart, when I watched this scene again I realised that the obvious dissimilarity between the time-scales of Faramir and his men attacking Osgiliath on the one hand and the Steward eating his lunch on the other never struck me before. It was as if both existed not just in different time zones but in different areas of reality. The Steward is thinking of nothing but lunch, even after he has eaten. He has put out of his mind his son and the futile attack that he has ordered. Perhaps the director sought to show the blindness that deliberately ignoring the truth brings to even the most intelligent people?


It is a bit like how Lothlorien has a special and different kind of time to the rest of Middle Earth. But it also has different weather, colours and light, and an atmosphere of beauty and nobility. In reading the book these Tolkienien 'zones' are even more noticeable, even though a book proceeds at the pace you read it. But events move in a different way in the Shire, as Tolkien says, time passes slowly because *uneventfully* in the Shire.

Events move in a different way during the battle of the Pelennor, not just in timescale but in the effect of the deeds. It means more to us than to Denethor; for him, it is just lunch. For us, the fate of Faramir and his brave knights is something life and death. The hour of truth for Gondor and the house of Denethor is played out during a meal, just as Lothlorien's failing, which has taken so many aeons, speeds up during this war. But only those who can see, like Frodo and Gandalf, or Pippin, Faramir and Galadriel and we the timeless observers, can be aware of all Tolkien's time scales at once.

Just musing, thanks for listening!

Varda, sleepless in Dublin