The Oathbreakers

by Varda-(Valar)
Jan. 10, 2003
Updated July 1, 2006
Mankind > Oathbreakers

    Terms used to refer to the Oathbreakers were: oathbreakers, the forgotten people, the Dead, the Sleepless Dead, the Dead Men out of the Dark Years, and the Shadow Host. While alive they were called the Men of the Mountains, and their leader was the King of the Mountains. This article is titled "Oathbreakers" because that is the word that Aragorn used when addressing them directly.
    The Oath-breakers were the ghosts of oath-breaking humans awaiting the time of their redemption, which came when they were called on by Aragorn II to fulfill their oath in a new way.
    The gate, Dunharrow, to the Paths of the Dead was in the valley of Harrowdale in the Haunted Mountain, also known as the black Dwimorberg of Rohan, and it was said that no living man could pass it. To reach the gate at the root of  the mountain, they had to pass the black ridges in which lay a dread. They passed between ancient stones to the Dimholt with black trees of such gloom that even Legolas, the wood elf, could not long endure. But past it was the hollow place, with a warning stone standing mighty in the path, which was covered with fir-needles.  The horses would not pass the stone until their riders got off and led them around it deep into the glen. A sheer wall of rock held the wide-arched Dark Door, the signs and figures carved above it too dim to read. Fear flowed from the door. The horses had to be led through the door. The Dunedain horses went for love of their masters. Arod, horse of Rohan, had to be worked with by Legolas's elven abilities before he would enter.
    Aragorn would not have chosen that path except that he had looked in the Stone of Orthanc, the palantir, taking it back from Sauron as rightful owner. It was Aragorn's hope that by revealing himself he could cause Sauron to make an over-hasty stroke. Then Aragorn learned many things. He saw a great force coming from the South unlooked for, the Corsairs of Umbar, that would draw off much strength from the defense of Gondor, which could cause it to be lost in ten days if not stopped. Only one way would bring Aragorn and his Rangers to stop them in time and that was through the Paths of the Dead. Elrond had sent him a reminder of that path with his sons. The message reminded him to heed the words of the seer, Malbeth, in the days of the Last-King Arvedui of Fornost:

Over the land there lies a long shadow,
westward reaching winds of darkness.
The Tower trembles; to the tombs of the kings
doom approaches. The Dead awaken;
for the hour is come for the oathbreakers:
at the Stone of Erech they shall stand again
and hear there a horn in the hills ringing.
Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them
from the grey twilight, the forgotten people?
The heir of him to whom the oath they swore.
From the North shall he come, need shall drive him:
he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

-The words of Malbeth the Seer, "The Passing of the Grey Company", Return of the King

    Aragorn said that the oath they broke was to fight against Sauron. On the Hill of Erech stood a black stone that had been brought from Numenor by Isildur and set upon a hill "at his landing". There the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to Isildur in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Isildur called on them for aid against Sauron, they would not come, for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years. Then Isildur told them that that would be their last king, and if the West proved mightier than their Black Master, then those people would be cursed  to never rest until they were summoned again before the end. So the people fled from Isildur, not daring to war on Sauron's side, hiding themselves in the barren hills from other men and dwindled away. The terror of the Sleepless Dead lay where they had lived.
    As the Grey Company, with Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, and Elrohir were led by Aragorn through the Path, the ghosts collected and followed behind them. They found the long-dead skeleton of a mighty, mailed man who had beaten at a locked, stony door unavailingly (Baldor, son of King Brego).  At this point, Aragorn summoned the ghosts to come to the Stone of Erech.  Their continous whispering ceased and they answered only with a chill blast of air that put out the torches, which could not be rekindled. Yet they followed with the shadow-sound of many feet still emitting their dread, which may have been a part of their presence.
    The exit was high-arched and broad, and a rill ran out beside them. A rill is a very small stream and may form a narrow channel also called a rill. The road was very steeply sloped down, between sheer cliffs forming a very deep and narrow chasm, so that night seemed to come early, although it was two hours to sunset. There everyone remounted and went in single file; even the Dead rode.
    Once out the other side in grey light, they traveled along along the chill river Morthond, known as Blackroot to men, and that flowed to the sea by Dol Amroth. It was then that Legolas described the Dead who followed the summons to Gimli. They were the shapes of spear-carrying men and horses, with pale banners like shreds of clouds.
    Grass covered the steep slopes of the mountainsides and continued into the Morthond Vale, a rich green valley with many homes of Men. On the mountain-fields, they could ride fast. Aragorn led the company at speed like hunters, to reach the Stone before midnight. They reached a bridge over the increasing torrent of the river and took the road, terrifying the village through which the road passed and they called Aragorn the King of the Dead.
    All were tired, the horses stumbling with weariness, when they reached the Hill in extreme darkness just before midnight, apparently the time Aragorn was trying to beat. At the hill's top stood the Stone of Erech, black, tall as a man, black, and round as a globe but half-buried in the earth. Residents would not go near the hill nor dwell nearby, for the Dead gathered sometimes at the Stone, whispering, when it was a time of fear. Perhaps the Dead hoped the Heir of Isildur would come at such times.
    On the Hill of Erech, Elrohir gave Aragorn a silver horn which he blew, fulfilling Malbeth's prophecy. Ghostly horns answered back.  Only then did Aragorn dismount and spoke to the oathbreakers. He had the ghosts state why they had come. "To fulfill our oath and have peace."  Then he told them that if they went with him to Pelargir upon Anduin and cleansed the land of the servants of Sauron, the oath would be held as fulfilled and they could have peace and depart forever.  He then had Halbarad unfurl the great standard of the King for the first time, that Arwen had made and sent with the Grey Company. The oathbreakers silenced. Camping by the Stone was a needed rest, but nerve-wracking inside the dread of the ghosts.
    They left at dawn, Aragorn leading them on the long ride to the Pelargir to go against the Corsairs. No humans save the Dunedain could have made that trip, harder than any other than Aragorn himself had attempted, and only his will kept them going. The two half-elves, Sinda elf, and dwarf found it the roughest trip they had ever been on as far as haste and weariness. They passed Tarlang's Neck and came into Lamedon. Sundown found them at Calemdon upon Ciril, with Pennath Gelen in the west behind them. But the township and fords of Ciril were deserted, as the men had gone to war and those left had fled to the hills at the rumour of the coming of the King of the Dead. The next day never truly dawned, for no light came through the Shadow now coming out of Mordor.
    The Corsairs of Umbar were defeated as their fear of the Dead made them leap overboard, except the slaves chained to the oars. The Dead never struck a physical blow. Many captives and slaves were freed. Thus the Dead at last fulfilled their oath. Aragorn released them, and the lands were no longer haunted.
    Men of Lebennin and the Ethir, and the horsemen of Angbor of Lamedon came to the Heir of Isildur who had accomplished this great feat. Aragorn then used the ships of the Corsairs with free men at the oars to go to Gondor.
    Thus was the danger that would have come on Gondor turned instead to aid.

References: Return of the King: "The Passing of the Grey Company", "The Muster of Rohan" for Baldor's story, "The Battle of Pelennor Fields", "The Last Debate"
Yes, the movie version is different.