The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – JRR Tolkien (1954)
Well, after a few distractions here we are at the climactic third chapter of the Lord of the Rings saga (I know I read other stuff in the interim – deal with it!) and despite my lukewarm feelings about Book Two, I think Tolkien kind of saves it in book three. Once again, here’s a brief summing up and for those who still don’t know how these reviews work – spoiler alert! As I’ve said, I don’t tend to do such a complete summary when I review books but for LOTR I’ve made the exception. If you really want you can skip to the end though, I won’t take it personally.
Having left Isenguard our heroes make their, rather slow, way back to through Rohan towards Edoras. On the way Pippin winds up looking into Saruman’s palantir and revealing that he is a hobbit, but not much else. This leads Sauron to assume that Saruman has captured the hobbits and the Ring and Gandalf decides to take Pippin with him to Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor where Sauron’s armies will surely strike first. After a bit of chat and soul-searching, Aragorn decides to make his way there via the Paths of the Dead to rally more troops to their cause and disrupt the attacks on southern Gondor by the Corsairs of Umbar. This he does with the slightly underplayed assistance of Legolas and Gimli, as well as a band of his fellow Rangers, including Elrond’s two sons.
Meanwhile the Rohirrim prepare to help Gondor in their hour of need, though Merry is disappointed to discover he is to be left behind. A friendly rider offers him a lift on his horse however and they make their way across country to Gondor’s aid.
In Minas Tirith we meet Boromir and Faramir’s father, Denethor, the Lord Steward (another favourite of mine) who unlike in the films is not insane or inept at all and has been preparing Minas Tirith’s defence for some time – though he does eventually succumb to madness and paranoia and dies trying to cremate both his wounded son and himself. Pippin is enlisted in his service and the great siege begins, ending when the Rohirrim arrive to crush one flank of the enemy, and then Aragorn arrives having defeated the corsairs. The forces of Mordor are driven back though King Theoden is killed in the battle. The Witch King is slain by the warrior who was helping Merry who is revealed to be Eowyn, though both are badly injured and are taken to the Houses of Healing where Faramir, wounded earlier, is also being treated.
All three are healed by the magical hands of the king, a slightly odd plot device in hindsight but it worked alright at the time. Aragorn, though not yet assuming his title, leads his people as a king towards the black gate via Osgiliath, looking to distract Sauron from Frodo and Sam’s more important mission. Though the Mouth of Sauron tries to convince them that all is lost, Aragorn stands up to him and decides to fight, and an army of orcs come forth from Morannon.
Sam meanwhile has found and rescued Frodo from the tower at Cirith Ungol and the two travel, slowly, across Mordor towards Mount Doom. They eventually reach it and manage to fend of Gollum, who has been trailing them. Frodo gets into the Cracks of Doom but at the last minute decides to take the Ring for himself. He is stopped only by Gollum, who bites the ring from his finger but then falls into the lava, killing himself and destroying the Ring.
As the ring is destroyed the Captains of the West find their enemies at the Black Gate scatter or are killed when the gate towers collapse on them, and the power of Sauron and the Ringwraiths is destroyed. Frodo and Sam are rescued by some convenient eagles and all make their way back to Minas Tirith by way of Ithilien. After obtaining the blessing of Faramir, the last Ruling Steward, Aragorn becomes King Elessar, marries Arwen and starts putting Middle Earth to rights again.
The Fellowship disperses and the hobbits make their way home, only to discover that Saruman, broken of his magic but still dangerous, has taken control of the Shire. Using ‘ruffians’ (part-goblin men) he has subjugated the hobbits but Merry and Pippin especially are not impressed by this and the situation is resolved with a brief battle. Saruman is killed by Grima and the Shire begins to prosper once again.
The story ends with Frodo, unable to ever fully heal mentally or physically, deciding to leave Middle Earth for the Grey Havens along with Gandalf, Elrond, Galardiel and Bilbo. Sam weeps to see them go but then returns to his simple life with his wife and daughter.
Right; on to my humble opinion. On the whole I think the saga ends pretty well and for all the faults that I’ll be picking in it, I much preferred this book to the last. Let’s get the bad points out of the way then. First off, we came tantalisingly close to a romantic subplot again, with some longing glances from Eowyn to Aragorn but yet again, no dice. Aragorn blows her off pretty early on and she then spends a large chunk of time somehow convincing everyone that she’s a man (despite being repeatedly described as being an unusually beautiful woman…I kind of bought it in the film with her wearing a helmet for a bit but in the book this lasts for several days and even Merry is fooled).
When she eventually gets together with Faramir it’s at the end of both of their storylines, their having never met before, and while it’s kind of sweet it also feels just a little bit convenient. I like Faramir, but he now suddenly falls madly in love with a woman who just happens to be a great political match for him and for Gondor, fresh from the rebound of Aragorn’s rebuff and ready to tie up both their stories with a happy ending? As I say, sweet but very convenient. As for the Aragorn/Arwen romance, doubtless dedicated fans will point me to the appendices – which I did read – and say how their love story is all in there. And yes, it is indeed. Unfortunately the appendices are right at the end of the book and so during the events of the book itself the reader is in no way invested in the relationship and indeed barely knows Arwen beyond the odd reference here and there. As I’ve said before, there seems to be a complete lack of any romantic/sexual motivation or incentive for any of the characters, ignoring one of the most powerful human impulses.
All that having been said, there are a couple of nice moments here and there, and I did enjoy the story of Sam and Rosie at the end. The book ending with his coming home to a loving family after all his woes is a lovely finish to such a complicated and sometimes depressing story.
The only other major issue I had with the book was the usual long-windedness that one sees all the way through the saga, but it was (for the most part) less irritating in this book. The only real exception is when Frodo and Sam are crossing Gorgoroth and going the very long way around to reach Mount Doom, ending in a somewhat rushed-feeling conflict with Gollum and the destruction of the Ring. Yes, I know the journey has to take time to coincide with the Captains of the West reaching the Black Gate, but my sympathy is limited since Tolkien is making himself a slave to the geography, and it’s the geography of a place he’s made up! And one of the joys of a made-up place is you can change it to fit the story, whereas Tolkien seems to favour changing the story to fit the landscape. Ages ago I read a review of his work that said (and I paraphrase); ‘Most fantasy writers create languages to facilitate the story. Tolkien wrote a story to facilitate the language.’ I think something very similar is true of the landscape and history of this world – that he is writing a story because he likes the background, not creating a background because he likes a story.
But on to the positive points. Unlike the tediously written Siege of Helm’s Deep, the Battle of Pelennor Fields/ the Siege of Minas Tirith is written as if the writer was actually interested in the campaign. It was all well-explained and interesting, managing to be realistic as an account of a war without (oddly for Tolkien) becoming too bogged down with details (things like logistics and weather constraints which, though vitally important, do not make for fascinating reading). What with charging Rohirrim, flying Nazgul and giant Mumakil, I found this battle a vast improvement on the last one.
As to characters, Aragorn develops nicely, becoming slowly ever more kingly and ‘stern’ (JRRT likes that word) without becoming arrogant. If anything he’s becoming a wee bit too good to be true, but we’ve seen his doubts in the previous books so we know he’s had to struggle to get to where he is. The Hobbits, possibly with the exception of Frodo, all become much more bold and confident, letting them deal with the formerly terrifying Saruman with ease when they get home. Legolas and Gimili seem to do very little again, but this is made up for by the introduction of the brilliant and tragic Denethor.
I liked very much that he is repeatedly referred to as being a wise and intelligent man for whom all had the utmost respect, as in the film versions he is mostly seen as a cruel and malicious maniac. The book makes him more interesting and more tragic as you hear of what a great man this is (Pippin comes close to thinking he looks more like a Wizard than Gandalf) and then see his descent into madness and despair. All very good stuff in my opinion. I also enjoyed, as I think many did, the character of Prince Imrahil and regret, as many do, that we did not see more of him. Saying that, if we saw more of him we’d probably find fault with him for something so perhaps it’s better to leave Imrahil on his we-hardly-knew-ye pedestal.
Now, a lot of people criticise that the ending is somewhat drawn out but true as this is, I didn’t mind it. For a story that took so long to get going it makes sense that it should wind down just as slowly. The Scourging of the Shire bit was perhaps a bit drawn out (he could have taken care of it in half the time) but I think having it there was an important part of the story; it shows that no matter how isolated and idyllic the Shire was, even this haven couldn’t escape the War of the Ring completely unscathed. If it had, it would have undermined the scale of everything else that had been happening in the big wide world. In classic Hobbit style, the Shire isn’t affected all that much by comparison to most places and the people there shrug it all off with their usual disapproval of anything that’s different, but nonetheless they and their lives have been changed as a result, and that was an important thing to include at the end of the story.
As to the ending, which I briefly mentioned earlier, I quite like that the whole thing ends not with a bang but with an ‘awww’ as you see Sam coming home to his family. A part of me would have liked the story to end on a more climactic note, at Aragorn’s coronation for example, but that just wouldn’t have been true to the nature of the story that Tolkien began in The Hobbit. Having the story beginning and ending with simple people living simple lives made perfect sense, and though you get the feeling that Sam will always be scarred by what he’s been through, you also get the feeling that he’ll be alright. I’m sure we were supposed to have a bit more sympathy with Frodo but frankly I lost patience with him about a book and a half ago and I’m just glad it mostly ended well for Sam and the Hobbits, along with Aragorn, Faramir, Eomer and Gandalf.
So there we have it – The Lord of the Rings reviewed. In all I’m glad that I took the time to read them again as (mostly) I did enjoy the process. To anyone considering picking up this mighty tome (I only have the one big book, not three little ones), I would say be prepared for some hard going but you’ll be glad once you’re done. It’s a great world and a good story and let’s be honest, no fantasy geek worth the name can get away without reading it, for no matter what else, Tolkien’s influence on fantasy writers is evident across the board, and it’s always good to see the original source of such things.