This concludes the third volume of Tolkien’s epic novel, The Lord of the Rings.
It is timely that I finished reading this just after two very disappointing fantasy books that are considered classics of the genre.
When Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy based on these books came out I found the first movie to be the best of the lot. It felt the most like Tolkien’s world brought to life. It still does and I think that is because it is the one that was least changed by a director and writers who had little understanding of what the books were actually about.
By contrast the third movie was my least favorite of all of them because of that same ignorance that was multiplied throughout the ending of the story.
The Return of the King has always been my favorite part of Tolkien’s epic fantasy and nothing has changed that. This is the conclusion of a story that has so much to say and says it so powerfully.
I had a lot to say about the two previous books and I think I mostly said it all.
I will comment on something that I’ve noted before. The hero that so many other writers try to copy, to build a story around is Aragorn. He is the King in exile, the reluctant hero. He slays monsters, raises armies, defeats a dark lord and becomes King after marrying the elven princess.
Tolkien put him in there because he was aware of mythological tropes and wanted to give us one. But Tolkien took his story farther than that because this is not a story about the hero. This is the story of common folk, of hobbits.
Tolkien, whether consciously or not, followed the progression of the hero’s journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell. He put Aragorn on that journey and many people picked up on that.
What often gets missed is that each of the hobbits also is on a hero’s journey. They get the Call to Adventure, move through all the stages of the journey and return home (incidentally Neil Gaiman’s children’s book Instructions is basically a summary of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey).
The cycle can be applied to each of the hobbits from Pippin and Merry to Frodo and Sam.
Frodo passes through the temptations with the Ring and a symbollic death and rebirth when he refuses to cast the ring into the fire and is consumed by its malice. He is also transformed after, both symbolically with his signs of PTSD at the end and physically with his missing finger. Frodo also returns home at the end only to find it less than it was and move on to the gray havens.
How often in life does that happen? How often do we return to a beloved place only to find it no longer has a hold on us. Frodo has found peace but it has not made him happy. The Shire is no longer home. He has seen too much and, unlike his good friend Sam he cannot go back. The way is shut.
Even Gollum goes through temptations and finally gives in to them and leads the hobbits to Shelob in a hope of stealing back what he covets. However, his story follows a dark and twisted version of the hero’s journey when he returns to his origin. Gollum became Gollum when Smeagol killed his cousin in order to get the Ring and Gollum ends his story when he kills himself in order to steal it yet again. His abyss and rebirth are when he loses the Ring and his transformation and atonement are played out in twisted versions as he wrestles with himself over his relationship with Frodo and Sam. Ultimately he has followed a darker path that leads to his demise in death — which is where his threshold started when he killed Deagol.
Pippin and Merry are captured by Orcs which begins their transformation until Pippin looks into the Palantir and is forever changed by the experience. From then on he is reborn as something more and less than he was and he journeys to Minas Tirith. Where he must pass through the fire that is Denethor’s pyre to save Faramir and complete his atonement.
Merry, on the other hand goes through his death and rebirth when he stabs the Witch King and is nearly killed.
All four hobbits must return home and complete their journey by cleansing the shire. This story doesn’t end with Gandalf performing some great magics, it doesn’t end with Aragorn marrying Arwen or becoming King. Those things are hardly even important. The Shire is the thing, it is the representation of home and the end of the journey. Until the Shire is safe, the heroes have not reached the end.
In fact I am going to argue that Sam is the real hero of this story. The last line of the book is Sam, “Well, I’m back.” A single line that communicates so much melancholy and emotion that it seems impossible in so simple a phrase. However, what Tolkien is showing is Sam, returning at last to his home, his journey complete.
It is Sam who calls out the crossing of the Threshold when he says, “If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest from home I’ve ever been.” This is it. He is moving out into the unknown and setting out on his journey and the journey ends when he mutters those three quiet words that close it all up.
He has helpers along the way, like Aragorn who councils him and Galadriel who gives him gifts — which, by the way are meant to help rebuild the Shire, another sign of what the story is actually about. His moment of rebirth comes when he thinks that Frodo is dead and the Orcs are there to take his body. Sam takes the Ring and proves himself the true hero because he is the only person in the story who takes it not out of desire or lust or greed but out of desperation. (Faramir, Gandalf and Galadriel all refuse to touch it for fear of the temptation it might bring.)
Then, on the slopes of Mount Doom when Frodo can go no further Sam carries him the rest of the way. The act of a true hero to know when his help is needed and in what way. “I can’t carry it for you Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you.”
When it is all over Sam returns to the Shire with the gift of Galadriel (the Goddess) to help him rebuild.
I could talk more about the symbolism of the King coming out of the West bringing healing to the people of Gondor (…come out of the West with healing in his wings…). Or I could talk about Saruman and his power with words or his industrialization of Orthanc vs. the ents and their quiet anger and how it compared with Tolkien’s own oft expressed views on technology and machinery.
I could talk about the battles and war and how they seem to be flavored by Tolkien’s own experiences with wars and battles.
I could talk about the beautiful conciseness of his language and how every word is chosen to convey multiple meanings and build atmosphere while also planting vivid images with short sentences that seem almost sparse in description.
I could talk about a dozen other things about this book but what I really want to say is this: The Lord of the Rings is the best work of fiction in the English language — possibly in the world — and you should read it over and over again because it is truly remarkable and beautiful.