The Companions of the Ring have become involved in separate adventures as the quest continues. Aragorn, revealed as the hidden heir of the ancient Kings of the West, joined with the Riders of Rohan against the forces of Isengard, and took part in the desperate victory of the Hornburg. Merry and Pippin, captured by Orcs, escaped into Fangorn Forest and there encountered the Ents. Gandalf returned, miraculously, and defeated the evil wizard, Saruman. Meanwhile, Sam and Frodo progressed towards Mordor to destroy the Ring, accompanied by Smeagol–Gollum, still obsessed by his ‘precious’. After a battle with the giant spider, Shelob, Sam left his master for dead; but Frodo is still alive–in the hands of the Orcs. And all the time the armies of the Dark Lord are massing.
Finally, I have finished reading all of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It took much longer than I anticipated, but I’m thrilled to finally have it completed. At first, I was going to finish at the conclusion of the story, but after realizing just how deep into the lore the appendices go I felt obligated to read most of that as well. Once again, while this story is typically divided into three separate books I read through a singular copy, but I split my review of the book into three respective reviews for each volume. So, this is my review of The Return of the King, being the third and final part of my review of The Lord of the Rings.
Unlike the noticeable change in the story between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, The Return of the King feels quite seamlessly like the story just continuing onward. Sauron’s forces are growing in power and an assault on Minis Tirith, the main seat of power in the defense against Mordor, is looming dangerously on the horizon. The first chunk of this volume deals directly with this threat, approaching it from multiple perspectives: Pippin within the city itself, Merry on his way with the Riders of Rohan, and Aragorn (to a lesser extent) who must liberate coastal forces and regroup at the city.
I liked the way the story was divided around this conflict, especially between the two hobbits, who give us a look at things from inside the besieged city through Pippin and from without as incoming reinforcements through Merry. They really came into their own as characters as the story went along too. I still find them a little indistinguishable, but both have an arc that has them grow into more courageous and capable individuals from the more carefree, somewhat dopey comedy relief characters they were at the outset. They both swear loyalty to men of authority and have strong desires to become useful to their friends and the fight against the Enemy, rather than simply being dead weight.
I was disappointed that there wasn’t much more written about Legolas and Gimli throughout this volume. Their presence is mentioned at key moments, as well as some markers of their friendship when the dust had settled, but they faded more into the background of the story. It was however awesome to see Aragorn reach his full potential as a leader of Men. It did a good job of highlighting his status as a mystical figure, not simply an exceptional man. I really liked the way Éowyn’s arc played out and concluded too, having one of the most shining moments of bravery and triumph in combat in the story.
Something the book really drove home for me, which the films never really had before, was just how close to utter defeat and despair everything was for our heroes. Fighting against Sauron’s forces is not a fight toward victory, nor is their march against the Black Gate of Mordor. Their forces and abilities may look formidable, but they really only serve as a gigantic distraction. It’s not a fight about winning, rather of drawing attention away from something small but oh-so important. They win a few key battles that ensure their survival, but without Sam and Frodo they would have undeniably lost the war. It really emphasized how nigh-untouchable Sauron was as a villain. You can really feel it from the characters too, who don’t give up hope but are anxiously hedging their bets on a Hail Mary that they don’t even know the status of.
Sam continued to be the focus of the story when returning to the story of the Ring-bearers, which I was happy with. At this point Frodo was especially single-minded and worn down by the will of the Ring, making him more someone that needed tending to. The only point I wish we had been given his perspective was when he succumbs to the influence of the Ring and won’t throw it into the fires of Mount Doom. I would have liked to have been in the character’s head in that moment.
It was surprising how much story was left after the War of the Ring was for all intents and purposes concluded. The Scouring of the Shire was an interesting chapter, which I appreciated because it gave the hobbits an opportunity to showcase how they’d grown and become self-sufficient, but I did experience a little fatigue with the story by that point too. All in all, the final resting points for the characters were pretty satisfying and bittersweet, since this is not simply a story about prevailing over evil, but of unstoppable change as well. What the characters strive for is the better of two stark options, but change is unavoidable.
The appendices were interesting to read, though more exhaustive than I find appealing. I do respect the amount of work Tolkien clearly put into his world, however, with an expansive historical timeline of events, peoples, and family lineage’s leading to this story. Most of the names have become nothing more than a blur, but I did enjoy learning a little more about the world’s history, culture, and languages. It was just so much to take in, even after having read the entire story. Some things I wish had been incorporated a little better, such as the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen, which was at most hinted at until The Return of King.
Having finally read it all I cannot say with confidence that I have become a fan that must revisit The Lord of the Rings again, but it was absolutely worth the read. It’s a classic for a reason and an important, seminal work in the history of literature that ought to be experienced by any fan of the Fantasy genre at least once.