Review: The Return of the King

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

As April ends, so does The Lord of the Rings Readalong. This journey through Middle-Earth with all of you has been tons of fun, so thank you guys. I’d also like to give special thanks to my fellow hosts, Eva, Teresa, and Maree. I hope you all enjoyed this readalong as much as I have! Again, although The Lord of the Rings is technically a novel in three parts, I’m still giving each third a review. Everything I said in the other two apply here, so I’ve focused on stories and scenes that particularly struck a chord with me in this review. Let’s dig in!

As the shadow of Mordor grows ever stronger, The Return of the King finds its various characters preparing for war. Gandalf and Pippin ride to Gondor’s aid; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli ride into the Paths of the Dead in a desperate move; Merry rides to battle with the Rohirrim under the cloak of the mysterious Dernhelm; and Sam, now the Ringbearer, searches for his master. The darkness threatens to consume them all, but there is always hope.

In the last third of the high fantasy epic of our time, everything comes to a head. There’s darkness, despair, epic battles, and even the victorious ending is bittersweet. This isn’t to say that The Return of the King isn’t without its lighter moments, but as the shadow of Mordor grows more and more oppressive, things get darker. This is most prevalent during the Siege of Gondor. When the orcs starting using the heads of the dead as missiles, I was honestly shocked and horrified. The Siege of Gondor is very well-written and evokes the paranoia, claustrophobia, and the terror of living under siege, culminating in Denethor’s suicide. Even Faramir’s rescue from the pyre is bittersweet, since Beregond, the closest thing Pippin has to a friend in Gondor, has to kill some of his fellow Gondorians to save him. That moment really struck a note with me, although I don’t think the aftereffects are discussed for Beregond.

During this readalong, I was struck with how grim Éowyn actually is. I suppose this is the Jackson films clouding my memory, but her focus and her lack of self-preservation were very striking to me. Her slaying of the Witchking was, of course, an amazing moment, as it always has been and always will be, but her pleas for Aragorn to take her with him on the Paths of the Dead almost broke my heart, as did her distress at being kept in the Houses of Healing while there were more battles to be fought. When she cried, “Are there no deeds to be done?”, it actually broke my heart. I felt Faramir was a good match for her, being noble, kind, and good-humored–when she earnestly asks him if he’ll be alright with his people saying he tamed a shieldmaiden of the Rohirrim, he teases her gently by responding he’s more than happy to be so called. Éowyn’s story really struck a chord with me, I have to say, and I really enjoyed it, dark as she is.

The final battle to distract Sauron from Frodo is, of course, epic and desperate, and Frodo’s claiming of the Ring is, while no longer stunning to people who know the plot twist, affecting, but I particularly want to talk about the Scouring of the Shire. While I understand why Peter Jackson cut it out of his film adaptations, I feel it’s a very important event for the hobbits. It’s humbling–hobbits don’t much care for all the glory our hobbits have won in the East, since the war is at their doorstep. It really lets us see how the hobbits have evolved–Sam is more heroic, Merry and Pippin are more confident and serious, and Frodo is wounded and sick of death and war. It also provides a nice transition to the idyllic days of the Shire before we must accompany Frodo on his trip to the Grey Havens, which is so bittersweet and lovely. I’m tearing up thinking about it right now. And, of course, The Lord of the Rings has one of the best final lines in all literature–if you don’t know it by now, you need to read this novel.

Bottom line: Grim, wonderful, and bittersweet, The Return of the King is an ending as epic as anyone could wish for. Why haven’t you read The Lord of the Rings yet?

I rented this book from my college library.

9 thoughts on “Review: The Return of the King

  1. The using the dead as missiles thing shocked me too. I remember that happening in the movie, but I thought it was one of those epic war movie details that had been used in the movie to heighten the impact. I guess I have become very desensitized to violence in movies, even though I don’t watch many war movies, because I had a far stronger reaction to it in the book.

  2. I agree, using the dead as missiles is shocking.

    I always thought the romance between Eoywn and Faramir was lovely. They are two of my favorite characters, and for all they’d been through, they deserved a happy ending.

    I have to put my final thoughts into a post too. I’m not planning to do a review (I don’t even know where to start with that!) but I have some pics of hobbit holes to share. 🙂

  3. Agreed – one of the best final lines in a book. I clearly remember how I felt when I read it. The understated line from Sam Gamgee provides the reader with the perfect mood for leave-taking.

  4. Eowyn and Faramir’s chapter in the book always left me teary-eyed. They’re both deeply damaged by war, and their scene offers one of the many, faint glimmerings of hope for the future throughout the volume.

    And, of course, Frodo’s disillusionment and farwell will forever be heartbreaking, as Sam’s final line evokes a gentle bittersweetness, to me.

  5. If I rememer right, one of Aragorn’s first acts as king is to banish Beregond from Gondor, according to the law, but he banishes him to serve Faramir in Ithilien. A neat bit of kingly wisdom, that. The last parts of the book are as full of healing as the earlier parts of full of gloom.

  6. I loved the siege of Gondor too, especially how the sky literally darkened as the forces of Mordor approached. It was very scary, oppressive atmosphere.

    I think Sam’s final words sum up the tone of the entire book: hope, nostalgia, and bittersweet relief. It was very fitting that LOTR doesn’t have your typical fairy-tale ending where everyone’s just happy. Tolkien’s treatment of the aftereffects of war is very realistic and I wonder if it’s due to his having lived through WWII. I totally agree on how well-done the character development at the end is.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on the scouring of the Shire. While it wouldn’t have worked in films that were already so long, it is a perfect ending for the book. It reveals so much about the maturity of the hobbits and what the experience has done to/for them.

    I’ve always found the story very bittersweet, first with the films and then when I read the books. While Aragorn remains my favorite character and I am happy for his ascension and then marriage to Arwen, the thing that struck me the most when watching ROTK, and then later reading it, was how melancholy I felt because of what happens to Frodo. When Cate Blanchet so prophetically speaks the words in the film that the journey of the ring will take Frodo’s life, you realize that she is exactly right. He didn’t die in the fires of Mount Doom, and yet he did die on the journey in so many ways. He was never the same nor was the shire or anything else the same for him. It is so powerful because of the truth of the scene. Rather than Tolkien doing a complete ‘happily ever after’, he stays true to the reality of the world he has created by having actions have consequences.

  8. Pingback: Page to Screen: The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy (Extended Editions) « The Literary Omnivore

  9. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: 2010 in Review « The Literary Omnivore

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