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As I understand it, Gondor is the big country where a lot of important stuff happens.

Minas Tirith, with its series of walls going in circles, is simply the main city of Gondor. The capital if you will.

So why does Théoden say things which suggest that the city is called "Gondor"?

Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

But... they are right there? They already are in Gondor. He should be saying: "To Minas Tirith! Attack!" or something like that.

The multiple different names for everything and everyone has repeatedly confused me throughout the books, as well as in Silmarillion, and led to an enormous amount of confusion in my head. However, I'm pretty sure that Minas Tirith is the city and Gondor is the country where the former is located. They aren't synonyms or words used by different peoples/species...

It would've made sense if he had shouted: "For Gondor!", "Ride for Gondor!" or "Fight for Gondor!", because that implies/says that they are coming to Gondor's rescue/aid, as in the nation/people, by defending their main city Minas Tirith. I was frustrated that he did not.

The "Ride to Gondor!" part partially ruins the rest of his speech for me, but perhaps this is another case of archaic English being misinterpreted by me...

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“Gondor” standing for “Minas Tirith” is a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part of something stands for the whole, or (as in this case) the whole of something stands for a part.

The reason for choosing “Gondor” over “Minas Tirith” is that the former fits the rhythm and the latter does not. The speech consists of five lines of alliterative verse:

Arise, arise,     Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake:     fire and slaughter!
Spear shall be shaken,     shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day,     ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now!     Ride to Gondor!

Alliterative verse has four stresses per line. I’ve marked the alliterating consonsants in bold, and the other (non-alliterating) stresses in italic. “Ride to Minas Tirith!” would put a fifth stress into the last line, spoiling the rhythm at what should be the climax of the speech.

Old English was the language that Tolkien studied and taught, and alliterative verse was the predominant form of Old English poetry. For example, the epic Beowulf consists of 3,182 alliterative lines. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien based many aspects of the culture of the Rohirrim on the Anglo-Saxons, and their songs use this Anglo-Saxon verse form. Tolkien included several other alliterative poems and fragments in The Lord of the Rings, including the lament for Théoden (V.3 “From dark Dunharrow in the dim morning”), and the song of the Mounds of Mundburg (V.6 “We heard of the horns in the hills ringing”).

Théoden’s speech in V.5 has echoes of Byrhtnoth’s speech in the poem The Battle of Maldon:

“Hige sceal þe heardra,     heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare,     þe ure mægen lytlað.”

“Resolve shall be the harder, heart the keener,
Courage shall be the more, as our strength dwindles.”

In particular “spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered” has a similar pattern of words to “hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre”. Like Théoden, Byrhtnoth inspires his troops to fight, although they are greatly outnumbered by the enemy, and is killed in the ensuing battle.

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    A very good answer! I had a similar answer in mind, but couldn't have put it down with anything nearing the eloquence you've used!
    – gktscrk
    Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 19:52
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Théoden is the king of the Mark of Rohan. An old kingdom ally of Gondor. The warning beacons were part of an agreement of mutual aid between kingdoms. Rohan is not part of Gondor.

Thus, the Rohirrim go to help the country of Gondor, not just the city of Minas Tirith (which yes, is an important part of helping Gondor, specially since the previous capital was abandoned centuries ago).

Théoden could have chosen a different term for its speech, but it would probably not had the impact of 'We are going to save the kingdom of Gondor' (which has typically been a much more powerful entity than Rohan).

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He was referring to Minas Tirith as Gondor, likely for two reasons:

  1. One, as Gareth Rees has said, it was a figure of speech

  2. But also, two, helping Minas Tirith would help Gondor as a whole through the fact that if Minas Tirith falls the rest of Gondor would fall as well.

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I may add that using a syndecoche; calling a part of the name of the whole, or the whole by the name of a part, is very common.

For example, it is common to call various caiiphs who claimed to rule all of Islam by the names of their capital cities, like the "Caliph of Baghdad" or the "Caliph of Cordoba", even though calling them that to their faces would probably get you executed.

Similarly people often call Roman emperors "emperors of Rome", even though the Roman Empire was vast compared to the city of Rome.

And people often speak and of the USA or it's government as "Washington" or "the White House", and the USSR or Russia and their governments as "Moscow" or "The Kremlin".

In Elizabethan English it was common to speak or write about a nobleman by the name of the territory named in their title. So in Shakespeare plays the Duke of York is called York in the stage directions and the Duke of Lancaster is called Lancaster in the directions and identification of who is speaking.

In 1588 King Philip II of Spain planned to invade England with his army in the Netherlands commanded by the Duke of Parma, and sent the first Spanish Armada to defeat the English Fleet and clear the way for the army to cross the channel. Queen Elizabeth's speak at Tibury included the phrase:

and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm:

https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/queen-elizabeth-speech-troops-tilbury

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