Never mind the fact that it makes for a good (and nerve-wracking, in my case) plot point, but why did the hobbit feel the need to take this drastic step?

Yes, I know that he has some sort of honour guilt for indirectly having caused Boromir's death by being protected by the same, but surely he would have helped in the same manner even if he had not officially been "sworn in" as a soldier?

He was a special guest to say the least, arriving with Gandalf and under his care, and coming at a very special time. He would obviously be of as much service as he could until the End, regardless of whether he was technically part of their army or not.

It just seemed out of character to me. And I felt quite uneasy about hearing how he got "duties" and almost downgraded himself from the status of a special friend of Gandalf's, to a "standard soldier" under direct authority of that rather mentally unsound Lord of Gondor.

I'm sure I'm probably overlooking major themes of honour and whatnot, but it just seemed odd to me for this little timid hobbit to so eagerly want to fight in this manner, rather than simply helping as himself, to the extent that he can help with something.

The same goes to a certain degree for Merry as well, but at least Merry has more of a friendship with king Théoden, who has not bound Merry to loyalty until death and warned of scary-sounding punishments for breaking his trust, as the Steward did.

Why could Pippin not just be a helpful guest rather than (seemingly) unnecessarily swearing himself to this rather unpleasant (if not actually evil) ruler?

  • 21
    Unfortunately, your question dismisses the reasons given in the story which, if we're to believe the narration were Pippin's (and Merry's) actual reasons. It may be an awkwardness in the writing -- though I didn't find it so -- but it seems hopeless to try to come up with a deeper reason. People are complicated, and especially so when in emotionally complicated and stressful situations.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 20:36
  • 6
    I've always thought of Denethor as an austere and forbidding figure, but one who inspires respect. I found it plausible enough that Pippin's affection for Boromir, and desire to be useful, was enough of a motivation. Peter Jackson's interpretations of both Denethor and Pippin are very different from the way I've always imagined them.
    – user888379
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 21:37
  • 8
    @user888379 Jackson's interpretation of numerous characters is very different than anyone ever imagined them, Denethor being one of the more extreme examples. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 21:42
  • 17
    Denethor is not evil. He’s a rationalist fighting a war he knows he is doomed to lose. There’s a scene where Pippin sees him and Gandalf together and that in some non-material respect they are peers, and, as Gandalf says, the blood of Numenor runs true in him. Denethor is a hard man, but also a great one. And in the end, a broken one.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 22:46
  • 6
    Gandalf also comments that Faramir and Denethor are much more alike than Boromir and Denethor, for this reason. Denethor did in a way inspire Pippin, and G comments it was well done and touched Denethor’s heart.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 22:50

5 Answers 5


Pippin has come from a peaceful land where life is stable and he is carefree. He has gone through some adventures but has been almost always under the protection of much more powerful entities, but is now in a land that is facing an existential threat - and although he is a nearly an adult, he seems like an exotic child (and spends time with a human child who is 10 years old - and already taking serious responsibilities). Pippin has the choice of remaining a "tourist" viewing the struggles of Gondor abstractly, or committing himself to one particular place in danger. His friends are dead in his defense, or missing due to dangers they don't want him to face. Becoming a junior soldier in Gondor's army gives him the chance to contribute to something, rather than just waiting to die when Gondor falls or be rescued by some miracle of Gandalf, Aragorn or Frodo's making. He chooses Gondor - and to be more than a baggage carried by Gandalf, or a "Fool of a Took."

I think all this is in his mind when Pippin faces the father of the man who died saving him, leading to this moment of decision

'So,' said Denethor, looking keenly at Pippin's face. 'You were there? Tell me more! Why did no help come? And how did you escape, and yet he did not, so mighty a man as he was, and only orcs to withstand him?'

Pippin flushed and forgot his fear. 'The mightiest man may be slain by one arrow,' he said; 'and Boromir was pierced by many. When last I saw him he sank beside a tree and plucked a black-feathered shaft from his side. Then I swooned and was made captive. I saw him no more, and know no more. But I honour his memory, for he was very valiant. He died to save us, my kinsman Meriadoc and myself, waylaid in the woods by the soldiery of the Dark Lord; and though he fell and failed, my gratitude is none the less.'

Then Pippin looked the old man in the eye, for pride stirred strangely within him.... 'Little service, no doubt, will so great a lord of Men think to find in a hobbit... from the northern Shire; yet such as it is, I will offer it, in payment of my debt.' Twitching aside his grey cloak, Pippin drew forth his small sword and laid it at Denethor's feet.

  • 14
    Yes, I was about to edit in the same quote. His “debt” I believe is an important point. Along with his pride. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 23:45
  • 25
    "for pride stirred strangely within him..." → Notice that Tolkien narrates this as something not in line with the usual feelings of Pippin; not a surprise that, for some readers, it seems "out of character", "awkward" or "odd": Pippin himself felt it as strange. But, as somebody pointed out in the comments to the question: people are complicated.
    – walen
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 6:56
  • 20
    Just a minor point, but Pippin isn't really an adult in Hobbit terms. He's in his "tweens", 29 years old in a society where coming of age isn't until 33; perhaps the equivalent of a 17-year-old in our society. Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 9:02
  • 4
    It is also part of the growth of Merry and Pippin so they can step up and assume leadership, allowing the Hobbits to take charge of their own business.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 12:54
  • 6
    @isaacg "tweens" is a direct quote from the book, chapter 1. Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 23:13

Another perspective to those already offered: Peregrin is a Took. He is a member (indeed, the heir) of a family of which the following was said:

…certainly there was still something not entirely hobbitlike about them, and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures.

Then something Tookish woke up inside [Bilbo], and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.

The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce.

The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”

In the end, Bilbo’s fit of “Tookishness” resulted in him pledging his service, much as Pippin did (albeit in a more lighthearted context, befitting the style of The Hobbit):

“Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert. I had a great-great-grand-uncle once, Bullroarer Took, and –”

Having strange fits of pride, honour, and adventurousness—in short, acting quite out of character for oneself and for hobbits in general—is entirely in character for a Took!

  • 3
    very nice "in universe" explanation, +1 Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 20:17
  • 2
    Another relevant quote: "Fool of a Took!" Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 4:41

Without repeating the same quote that Andrew already included, I read it somewhat differently.

Pippin is facing Denethor, the father of Boromir who gave his life to save him. By custom and tradition, he owes a debt to Boromir, and since Boromir is no more, to his closest relatives. He even clearly says so:

I will offer it, in payment of my debt.

This is a real thing in the fantasy/quasi-medievel setting that Tolkien has created, and is a common topic in similar literature and original myths and legends.

Pride or guilt may have driven Pippin to actually go through with it, but the decision stands well on its own, even without these drivers.


Remember that Pippin is not really agreeing to simply be a servant for his whole life. When Denethor accepts Pippins oath, Denethor also accepts the responsibility of being a good lord to Pippin. Even if Denethor had lived, he probably would have granted Pippin permission eventually to leave his service and live in the Shire. By offering his service, Pippin is agreeing to abide by Denethor's commands, but it comes with the very serious expectation that those commands will be wise and just and loving. Denethor may be crazy, but he does absolutely understand and accept this expectation, as you can see in his response: "I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valour with honour, oath-breaking with vengeance".

The alternative would have been to keep on hanging on to Gandalf, from whom he would hear lots of stuff he did not fully understand, and generally have a relatively cushy experience of the rest of the war compared to most. And lets not forget that he had recently nearly derailed all of Gandalf's plans (by looking at the palantir), and was probably more a burden to him at this point than a help. That is not necessarily what wanted, or what he should want. His tasks as a soldier of Gondor may have been menial, but they were also important and necessary work that was within his ability. And, he was doing right by Boromir - in both his own opinion, and in the opinion of Boromir's father. There is a lot to desire in that.

Things like freedom of action and having friends in high places are more modern values, and are not really associated with honor, medieval culture or high fantasy. They are not as desirable to Pippin than they are to the average modern person, especially not after all the honorable company Pippin has been keeping.

Subservience under appropriate circumstances, however, was considered honorable in the past. This is something that our society seems to have largely forgotten about. You can still find this idea in the teachings of the Catholic Church (Tolkien was Catholic). Obedience is a virtue to Catholics, and being Obedient under appropriate circumstances is considered honorable and just. This holds true even though your obedience is often given to other human beings, who are themselves imperfect.

You can find this all over the place in fantasy and medieval culture. The hero is often of noble descent, but lowers themself to the level of soldier or servant under a disguise, and has to balance their royalty with their subservience to those they are serving under. Aragon does this, since he served in the armies of both Rohan and Gondor, as well as serving Elrond. (it is not 100% clear what exact oaths were involved, but serious oaths of some kind were almost certainly involved). There is a symmetry to this ideology - if it is honorable to be a king, it must also be honorable to be a subject - otherwise kingship is just exploitation.

  • An in-universe answer is preferred; do you have any evidence that this is how Tolkien intended it?
    – DavidW
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 0:37
  • 1
    I think I cite a lot of in-universe sources throughout my answer. Anyways, I really do believe this is the answer. I am a devout Catholic, and my own understanding of the virtue of Obedience is greatly informed by this exact scene. I do not think I would get the Catholic teachings on it if I had not read this scene in LotR. For me it is a big deal.
    – Dan Bliss
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 0:48
  • Ill change the paragraph order to put the focus on the part that is straightforwardly in-universe.
    – Dan Bliss
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 1:00
  • You might want to link your tl.dr. answer in a line above the actual answer.
    – Egor Hans
    Commented Jul 24, 2022 at 16:23
  • Also, I feel like Aragorn might have not served in the armies themselves, but rather fought alongside them as a "lone wolf" who chooses to join forces. Would fit better with the ranger role he grew accustomed with. This is entirely speculative though.
    – Egor Hans
    Commented Jul 24, 2022 at 16:30

There is something beautiful and important about commitment that would be missing if he just helped out. It makes him part of a team, and it holds him to a high standard.

Also, there is something unsatisfying about paying a debt on your own terms. If you break someone's mailbox and then say "here is 200 bucks", that is less meaningful by far than saying "how much will this cost to fix?", and paying it - even if it is still 200 bucks.

And the alternative was to carry on as a special guest, which is a cushy position but not really a position of honor. It also might feel a bit undeserved after he nearly derailed the whole war by looking into the palantir.

Pippin saw a city of soldiers bound by oaths, sharing the brotherhood that comes from mutual commitment and shared hardship. He also knew that he owed his life to the prince who these people loved. Yes, he could have just helped out, but that is a small and hollow thing compared to standing beside them as a brother. Yes, he could have paid his debt on his own terms, but that is small and hollow compared to paying it on Denethor's terms. He chose the harder and more meaningful road.

  • 2
    Did you mean to add this as a second answer?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 14:59
  • 1
    This is a simplification of a more abstract and long-winded answer. Is that a bad thing to do? What I say in the long one is meaningful to me, but I acknowledge the need for a more focused answer. Hence my second answer.
    – Dan Bliss
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 14:59

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