The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Novel * J.R.R. Tolkien * Dawn of the Fourth Age * 1955

Synopsis

In case you missed it: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

Tolkien leaves us in a rough spot at the conclusion of The Two Towers. Sam has just gone Full Hero, and through sheer, blind devotion to Frodo he did the bravest thing any hobbit has ever done, or will ever do. He took up the blade Sting, which I will remind everyone is only a knife, and attacked one of the most vile creatures in literature, the nightmare-spider Shelob. Fate was on Sam’s side, and he wounded the foul thing instead of getting ate. Then, after a series of misunderstandings and misfortune, the novel ends with the line: “Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy.” Oh you cliff-hanging son of a bitch.

Lucky for us this was all published 60 years ago so we can just bop right to the next volume. Where, of course, we’ll find that Tolkien has future-proofed his goddamn cliff-hanger because The Return of the King ignores Sam and Frodo’s plight for nearly 200 pages. The third volume begins with Gandalf and Pippin riding Shadowfax like a fell black wind to Minas Tirith to prepare for the onslaught of Sauron. Tolkien is constantly shifting perspective, and when he does there’s usually a time shift involved. This is fine, Tolkien is adept at keeping track of where everyone is and what they’re doing. Like The Two Towers, Tolkien takes the Gondor contingent to a holding place before shifting back to bring the Mordor Bros up to speed. After this, a full third of the book is dedicated to an extended dénouement. After that there’s another hundred pages or so of appendices that go way deep on the history and genealogy of the Fellowship. It’s nuts, so don’t feel obligated to read that. Instead you can go watch 10 hours of the film version instead!

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A pleasant, understated cover with a simple color scheme. Also a Christmas tree.

Discussion

This all could have gone so sideways. Of course it isn’t going to, we know that from the very beginning. Sauron can’t win, that’s not in the cards. This story would never have attained legendary status if some orc just shivs Frodo in the head, takes the Ring to his master and then Sauron is like “oh, thanks,” and proceeds to wipe Gondor off the fucking map in a wave of shadow and blood. Or if Faramir takes the Ring back to Minas Tirith and gives it to Denethor to finally get that daddy-love, who then tries to wield it, fails and dies, and then Gandalf is finally like “oh, fuck this give me that” and explodes Barad-dûr with his new Ring-power, razes Mordor to the ground and then decides “what the hell, I’ll be the new supreme dark overlord and build me a new doom-tower in the Shire.” No, that would be terrible. After the long, agonizing journey and the horrific things that go down in this final volume, we need that sunshiny ending.

Tolkien gets dark, and that’s easy to forget or gloss over because of the rarified, lofty language and the historical tone of the text. I mean, there’s a point during the siege of Minas Tirith where the hordes of Sauron use their catapults to whip the severed heads of the fallen into the city. That’s deeply fucked up (and a historical thing that happened in the good old days of medieval warfare), but it just adds to the sheer depths of darkness spewing forth from Mordor. Denethor, Steward of Gondor, finally loses it completely, and takes the wounded Faramir with him in an attempt to burn them both alive. Luckily, Pippin’s buddy manages to save Faramir (by murdering a couple of his co-workers), but Denethor is successful in offing himself. Also, Aragorn is gone and presumed lost to the ghost army in the Paths of the Dead, Rohan is nowhere to be seen, and now there’s all these heads to clean up before the orcs start pouring over the walls in earnest. Bad times.

Now, at this point of total despair, I’m going to leave the narrative for a hot second. Don’t worry, I think I know where I’m going.

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Gwaihir like “this demeans us both.”

There is plenty of totally fair, valid criticism to be levied at Tolkien’s masterwork. I’m perfectly comfortable understanding, accepting, and usually agreeing with these criticisms, but still holding the work as a whole dear to my heart. If for some reason it hasn’t been made clear, I love these books, always and forever. Now, one of these criticisms that I understand and agree with is the fact that there isn’t much room for women in The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship is just one big sausage party, and it’s dudes doing heroic stuff like dudes in these kind of stories are wont to do. Yeah, there are valid reasons for that. One, this is all based on mediaeval history and folklore and obviously these were mostly male-centric cultures. Two, it was published in the fifties. That first reason is a bit more compelling, because while this is fantasy there are still obvious parallels to the actual past of Earth, and ladies have rarely been treated well. To this point, they fare a bit better in Middle-Earth, even if they’re generally invisible.

When women do show up in the narrative, however, they make themselves known. We’ve already seen Galadriel, who could have been a Queen but chose instead to remain Galadriel. Along with Elrond and Gandalf she wields one of the Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, and is otherwise one of the most powerful beings to grace Middle-Earth. Hidden from most of the actual text of the novel is Arwen (who is given a larger role in the films through the grace of Peter Jackson having read the appendices), daughter of Elrond, who is wise and graceful but admittedly doesn’t do much. Other than these two elf-ladies, the only female of note would be the Lady of the Mark, Shield Maiden of the Rohirrim, Sister-Daughter of Théoden the Horse Lord and King of Rohan, Éowyn (I’m not going to lie, writing all those ridiculous titles and names is super fun and I totally get why the book is full of them). She’s noteworthy because through an act of sheer bravery and badassedness, she heralds the turning of the tide.

Now, it’s not like Éowyn goes forth and wins the war on her own. Tolkien makes it obvious with his constant shifts in point of view that this was a collaborative effort. What she does, however, is banish a great darkness and buy time for her allies to push against the Enemy. Her action allows Minas Tirith to stand until Aragorn finally shows up with his sick pirate ships to finally kick the baddies out of the Pelennor Fields. This is important, because Éowyn is given a task that nobody else in Middle-Earth could do, which is to bring down the scariest foe this side of Sauron, The Lord of the Nine Ringwraiths, The Witch King of the Nazgûl. At this point, Théoden has fallen and things are looking dire. Éowyn, still in her Dernhelm disguise, steps in front of the Black Rider, who is still sitting on his monstrous bat-horse thing. At first, the Ringwraith is amused. It doesn’t last. This is one of my favorite moments of anything, ever.

“’Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’”

Oh, shit yeah! Then:

“The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt…. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgûl Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.”

Real quick, remember we’re seeing all this through the eyes of a very scared little hobbit. It’s also important to notice that Tolkien is not feminizing Éowyn in the slightest here. She is described in a manner befitting Aragorn, or Gandalf with his power unveiled, or any other heroic figure in the novel. She is a hero, now okay, here we go, be still my heart, fair Éowyn:

“Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings, and the wind of them was foul. Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Éowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.

Still she did not blench: maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise.”

To recap, the thing she killed was a horrible nightmare dragon/bat/horse monster which she decapitated like a boss with one blow. Fucking respect.

“Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider, tall and threatening, towering above her. With a cry of hatred that stung the very ears like venom he let fall with his mace. Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees. He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.

But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry’s sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.”

For the Shire! Turns out that Merry isn’t a man, either.

“’Éowyn! Éowyn! cried Merry. Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Éowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.”

 

You goddamn right. Now, I bring all this up for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that I have always loved this scene and Éowyn’s character. She’s pretty much the only female character with actual feelings and motivations and whatnot. Galadriel is removed from the world, lofty and beautiful and powerful, but because of that and her immortality is not really relatable. Éowyn, on the other hand, is conflicted and troubled. She’s noble and brave, as we see above, but because she’s a woman she’s been relegated to minding the house while the boys go play with their swords. Even Aragorn puts her in her place, before he trots off to the Paths of the Dead. This, understandably, bums her out because Aragorn is a true hero out of legend, and as a warrior, she responds to his heroic charisma. She loves him, but it’s in no way a schoolgirl crush, and it’s clear that her love for Aragorn is that of a soldier for a noble leader, a king. To be essentially dismissed by Aragorn obviously upsets her, but instead of moping around all despondent, she puts on her helmet and picks up her fucking sword.

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Ringwraith lookin’ all cocky before he gets beat up by a girl.

This brings us to the secondary reason, which ties into the overall narrative. Éowyn’s stand against the Captain of the Ringwraiths is the exact turning point of not just the battle of the Pelennor Fields, but against the entire struggle against Sauron. We saw above how grim everything is while Minas Tirith was besieged, but then Rohan shows up and their King is unhorsed and killed and oh no it’s all falling apart. Then we get the above scene, and we start heading back toward the light. A little while longer and Aragorn shows up, which turns the tide of the actual battle. However, he’s only able to do so because the Ringwraiths have been effectively neutralized. Once this battle is won, of course the rest is up to Frodo and Sam, but even they’re only given the time to finish their quest because Éowyn straight up murders Sauron’s right hand.

Her reaction to her own heroics? Depression. She mopes around the Houses of Healing for a while, but her own accomplishment – unparalleled in the legends of Man – leaves her feeling hollow. The war is not won, and her valor in arms is cool and all but doesn’t really touch her heart. Eventually she realizes that Faramir is a kindred spirit – a fierce warrior if need be, but would rather not be made to fight. They hook up and that’s nice. While my initial instinct is “oh sure, just marry the woman off and call it good,” Tolkien actually takes the time to ensure that the end of her story makes sense, and aligns with her character. Sure, she gets married and hangs up the sword. But it’s not like Faramir is some lunkhead out for glory and grandeur. I’m pretty sure he’s aware that Éowyn is not to be fucked with. I bet that comes up in arguments, too. “Oh, sorry I forgot to clean up the kitchen, I was just reminiscing about that one time I killed one of the most powerful evil forces Middle-Earth has ever seen, saving the day and all? Remember that? Oh, I guess not because you were busy almost getting set on fire by your dad.” Sick burn, Éowyn. Heh.

After Éowyn handles her business, things start looking a bit better. Not great, but at least the sun comes out again. Frodo and Sam muddle their way to Orodruin, otherwise known as Mount Doom, and are able to dispose of the Ring once and for all. Also, credit where it’s due, Gollum disposes of the Ring, although not on purpose. In the end, Frodo failed. Straight up. When it counted, he could not do what needed to be done and you bet that knowledge kept him up nights later on. We as readers may forgive him, considering he had no business getting as far as he did. Still, whatever the circumstance, in the end the Ring is destroyed and all Sauron’s power goes with it. The Enemy is defeated in an instant, and as soon as his minions realize this, they pretty much bail. The war is won, all is well, let the good times roll. Except, well, maybe it’s not so simple as all that.

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I think these are super cool, second only to the covers I’ve been using as lead images. Tolkien art gets in trouble when it tries to be too realistic. I still don’t know how Peter Jackson did it.

As I mentioned, the last third of the novel is a long, slow, comedown from the climatic eruption. Of the mountain. What is wrong with you? Anyway, the last hundred pages or so are the literary equivalent of basking in the afterglow, and it’s all parties and reunions and getting lit. The moment the Ring hit the fires of Mount Doom, the Third Age was essentially over. Now, if you want to get really technical about it, the Third Age didn’t end until a year or so later when Elrond and Galadriel and Gandalf finally fuck off and head out to sea, taking their fancy elf-Rings with them. It’s this ending which puts a damper on the whole story, it’s what keeps the trilogy from being a sugary sweet happily-ever-after bit of treacle. The good guys win, evil is thwarted, and Aragorn is king again, but at what cost? Here, let Gandalf explain, as he does to Aragorn:

“This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings is also ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes to the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.”

The great, supernatural evil has been defeated. However, the time has come for Middle-Earth when pretty much all magic is now lessened until it is finally gone from the world. The Elves are all going to leave, and take their weird, lofty Nature-power with them. Their places will retain their memory, for a time, but eventually Men will move in and muddy it all up with their shades of grey. I mean, I would assume Rivendell at least won’t fall into ruin because Arwen will be around to keep it together. But time will run roughshod over everything. As we’ve seen, Men are mortal and forget. Elves are immortal and remember everything. From the point of view of the mortal races, things are about to get much better. After all, people like Galadriel are ghosts out of legend already. Yet the earth remembers, and without the Elves, it will be a less magical place.

The thing about the mortal races in Middle-Earth is that they don’t have a prescribed moral compass. This is what makes them relatable, as opposed to the Elves, or Sauron. They make good choices and bad. Aragorn, at least, is noble and kind and has lived an actual life. He’s also capable of making errors in judgement, as with his treatment of Éowyn. Yet they still have a capacity for doing evil, which we see in one of the most satisfying chapters, “The Scouring of the Shire.”

After the fall of Sauron, the hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring spend months just chilling in Gondor with their bros, occasionally pouring one out for old Boromir. Legolas and Gimli take their adorable cross-race bromance to check out some caves and forests, and the hobbits presumably eat everything in Minas Tirith. Aragorn gets married and gets busy siring some heirs. Eventually, however, the time comes when everyone needs to go home. The partings are, of course, bittersweet. Tolkien also leans in as a narrator here to let us know they never all get back together, either, which is kind of a dick move. Anyway, the hobbits and Gandalf take the long road back to Bree, where the old wizard checks out to go kick it with Tom Bombadil. The hobbits, alone at last, cruise back to the Shire.

When they get back, they find that things have gone amiss. Over the course of a year, the bucolic, pastoral Shire has suddenly turned to fascism, and there’s an authoritarian leader ruling the hobbits. As we’ve seen in real life, that shit comes at you fast. So the hobbits roll up and find the gate closed and are told they’re not allowed to come in. Like, are you kidding me? It’s this point where the reader truly realizes how strong the quartet of hobbits has become. Gandalf, of course, knew this all along. And so do we, it turns out. Sam fucking up Shelob. Merry sticking the Captain of the Ringwraiths. Pippin… well, I’m sure he did something cool that I’ve forgotten. Anyway, we’ve seen them all do heroic stuff, but they’ve been doing so as a matter of course, surrounded by figures of legend the entire time. It’s hard for them to really stick out.

Now here they are. Frodo the Ringbearer, probably the most celebrated hero in all of Middle-Earth. Sam, his companion, fellow Ringbearer, Spider-bane. Merry and Pippin, knights of the two great kingdoms of Men. So here they come and a bunch of fuckin’ banditos have taken over because the hobbits are too wishy washy to do anything about it. Well fuck that, daddy’s home. Merry becomes the de-facto leader of the quartet, as he’s spent the most time in an actual army. It also helps that he and Pippin are literally larger, thanks to the Ent-draught. They cruise into the Shire like total bosses, and everyone is in awe, and it just feels so right. Then it turns out that Saruman is behind it all, but our hobbit heroes make short work of him. They rally the Shire and whoop his ass for him, expelling the baddies and leaving Saruman and Wormtongue worm food. Some hobbits die, and that sucks, but for once they defended themselves so they can feel pretty good about that.

That’s the point of the chapter, by the way. The protections of old are going to fade, have already faded. Self-determination is needed more than ever, because the Rangers and the Elves and whatever are going to leave. Sure, Aragorn is going to revive much of what has dilapidated – we’ve seen how run-down Middle-Earth actually is over the Fellowship’s travels. Yet infrastructure is not magic. The hobbits are on their own now, and they’ve shown that with proper leadership they can handle their business. The great evil may be banished, but the more mundane evils of Men are still abundant, and if the Shire isn’t vigilant they’ll find themselves succumbing to fascism again.

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If the films had been made in 1993, they almost certainly would have looked like this. Which admittedly would have been incredible.

In the end, the Fellowship dissolves, and the Ringbearers head to the Grey Havens with the High Elves and Gandalf, and so set sail for the mystical hinterlands of the West. Frodo stays in the Shire long enough to write everything down and to be at Sam’s wedding. Sam, at least, gets himself a hot hobbit lass. Merry and Pippin clearly have each other, and that’s sweet. Frodo only lasts a year though before the old pains become too much. While he may be a mortal hobbit, he has been touched too deeply by the old magics of the Third Age, and so to relieve them he must pass across the ocean. He and Bilbo and much later Sam become like, honorary Elves. This begs the question: do the hobbits have a religion? Is there a hobbit afterlife, and if so, does Sam basically abandon Rose to live in hobbit-heaven alone? That’s fucked up.

Okay, I should wrap this up. I could write about this for days, but now that we’re at the end of the narrative we can come to a conclusion. The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. There’s no obvious symbolism at work to reflect upon our world. What these books are about is the great cycle of life and history. Birth, Rise, Decay, Fall. The Third Age is over, and the Fourth Age has begun. The Third Age began with expansion and the rise of Rings of Power. Kingdoms boomed and everyone flourished, for a time. Yet the decay set in, and at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, the decay was deeply set. The entire journey was through the ruins of places that were once great and are now fallen into ruin. However, by the end, Aragorn is once again king in Gondor. The promise is made that the Fourth Age will begin, and his benevolent empire will expand, much will be rebuilt better than ever. Yet the promise of the future is read in the events of the past. Aragorn is mortal, and will die. At some point in the future, Middle-Earth will decline again, and the Fourth Age will decay and fall. Such is the way of things.

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