Gondor is burning. (The Enemy) Sauron is poised to strike on every front; war threatens the outnumbered forces of good. The old alliances are near forgotten, the allies all in danger or estranged. But then, a king in exile makes to return, by the most dangerous road. A wizened counselor leads Gondor's defense at its greatest city, Minas Tirith, even as its walls begin to fall. And the hope for all good men lies in the hands of two courageous hobbits (half-sized folk), marching into the stronghold of the villainous Sauron with little more than their wits and a traitorous guide. Their mission is to destroy Sauron's greatest and most sought-after weapon.
This, arguably the greatest part of the greatest story of the last century, was recently made into a major motion picture. But even that epic production could not do justice to its source, JRR Tolkien's magnificent conclusion to his preeminent fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.
First, some history: Set in Middle-Earth, The Lord of the Rings centers around the efforts of men (and their allies: elves, dwarves, hobbits…) to defeat their long-time enemy Sauron. Sauron long ago became non-corporeal, and his last link to Middle-Earth is the Ring. Naturally, the Ring has come into hobbit Frodo Baggins' possession, and at the suggestion of the wizard Gandalf a fellowship of the forces of good comes together for a veritable suicide mission: They are to escort Frodo through Sauron's stronghold, Mordor, to the volcano Mount Doom, where the Ring was made and the only place where it can be unmade. The Fellowship splits up though; Frodo and his companion (Samwise Gamgee) make for Mordor, while the rest make to aid the country Rohan against the villainous wizard Saruman, the ally of Sauron. After overthrowing Saruman, the remaining fellowship looks to aid Gondor, the foremost enemy of Mordor. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam's guide, Gollum (who also wants the Ring), leads them to Shelob the spider's lair. Shelob stings Frodo before Sam wounds her, and he takes the Ring to finish the quest. A troop of orcs capture Frodo, though, and Sam realizes he's alive, thus ending The Two Towers.
The massive The Return of the King is spectacular for its complexity. A rich and varied book, Tolkien balances the epic battles and tiny details in his thoroughly expansive narrative. Despite the gathering storm the figures are humanized, if ambiguously intentioned. Here, The Return of the King works better as a book than movie.
Perhaps most significantly, Gondor is a much more familiar, sympathetic country than in the movie. Gondor's men are shown to be uniformly brave, as epitomized by the heroic guardsmen Beregond with whom Pippin becomes acquainted (and who later plays a major role saving Denethor's son Faramir from near-certain death, at Pippin's behest). Indeed, the Steward Denethor's motives become less devious and more understandable in the book. He does not abandon Minas Tirith (the beacons have been lit for months, no help has come; Rohan's King Theoden is instead summoned by the dread "red arrow"), and instead leaves the city as capably defended as it can be (though he's still a horrible, horrible father). Denethor's failing comes instead from insanity brought on by Gondor's bad prospects and a fair bit of arrogance.
Tolkien proves himself a master of language and presence early on, injecting humor into even the darkest peril. For instance, when Pippin arrives in Minas Tirith rumor spreads that he is a "Prince of the Halflings" who has "pledged [Gondor] 5,000 swords." Small comfort that would be, but the tragic reality is far worse: Little help is coming.
Another great quintessential Tolkien moment occurs shortly thereafter, when Gondor's allies arrive. Outposts send horsemen, boatmen, even Dol Amroth's hardcore Prince Imrahil, and this proud coalition that comes to crucially aid Gondor makes one heck of an entrance.
Soon the siege of Gondor begins, and I can barely describe this epic battle as mightily as it deserves describing, because Tolkien knew how to write a wonderfully fine fight scene. Gondor's soldiers fight magnificently, Gandalf displays ample leadership (even challenging the captain of the Nazgul), Rohan makes a fantastic arrival. Tolkien arranges a majestically personal battle, old enemies even calling each other out during the massive onslaught as the battle rages beautifully forth.
Soon the armies of the West are challenging Sauron's force at Mordor's Black Gate (where the Mouth of Sauron trades a funny bit of repartee with Gandalf, before the battle) in a powerful but desperate ploy to distract Sauron's notice from Frodo and Sam. Speaking of whom…Sam heroically rescues Frodo from the orcs and they continue on to Mount Doom. Of all the characters present their struggle is perhaps the most heroic, fighting through hunger and thirst in the brutally despondent struggle to Mount Doom.
While this story takes an incredibly long time to tell, (Lord of the Rings is a bit long-winded…) The Return of the King is still a masterfully huge tale worth the time it takes to be told. Its only too bad The Return of the King was too long for the movie to include the mustering of the hobbits at the Scouring of the Shire, Tolkien's personal anti-industrialist post-script to the Rings cycle. Nonetheless, a potently hopeful but sadly mortally aware epic, The Return of the King is a truly majestic read.
Houghton Mifflin Company's Return of the King costs $12.00 and is sold at nearly all bookstores.
Josh Gottlieb-Miller. More »