Warning: this post may contain spoilers for JRR Tolkien’s The Return of the King, and other installments of The Lord of the Rings
At the end of The Two Towers, if you’re not familiar with the plot already, you’d probably believe that this story is not going to end well. Of course, the biggest spoiler of this book is its own title, which Tolkien did not pick. His original choice for the title of the third part of The Lord of the Rings was The War of the Ring, but he was persuaded to change it to the more positive, and arguably more descriptive, The Return of the King. Knowing this history, I’m not entirely certain which title I prefer. However, I am entirely certain that I enjoyed this part of the story just as much as the others.
What is perhaps most interesting about this book is how quickly it comes to a “climax.” Visually, you’re only about halfway through the text when the Captains of the West lead their paltry force in an offensive against the might of Mordor in order to hold Sauron’s attention, in the hope that Frodo and Sam might still succeed in destroying the Ring, and unlike the final book in The Wheel of Time, this book is not just one long and massive battle. While longer and far more detailed and descriptive than the battles in the previous books, they are still comparatively short. Actually, it rather happens that you’re reading along and the pivotal moment just happens, in a sort of understated way.
Other books would probably end with the titular return of the king, everyone would stand up and cheer, and that would be the end of it. Indeed, there are many books that I’ve read that do end in much this way, leaving most of the “clean up,” if you will, to the imagination. Yet if you mark the battle at the Black Gates as the climax of the book, then nigh upon half of The Return of the King is what we would call in literary circles the denouement, the falling action. And while I admit that my own stories could often use a longer denouement after their climax, and that I have sometimes wished for more of one after the conclusions of some books, most would agree that this seems a rather long count of words to cover the “cleaning up.”
Yet it works for The Lord of the Rings, and the reasons why hearken back to the beginning of the tale, in The Fellowship of the Ring, and the true central characters of the story: the hobbits. Their arcs are not complete until they have the opportunity to journey back again to the Shire, and there use those skills and wisdoms into which they have come on their adventures to return the Shire to peace and tranquility, as it ought always to be. Because The Fellowship of the Ring begins and resides so long in the Shire, and with an adventure that is chosen in the hope of returning, the story cannot be complete without that return. So in truth, while the main climax might be the battle before the Black Gates, the final climax is really the scouring of the Shire and the final defeat of Saruman and his ultimate mischief, while the story’s denouement is the final departure of the Ring Bearers from Middle Earth and the dawning of the Fourth Age.
The movies do this differently, and are not the less for it, as they are arguably telling a somewhat different story. In the movies, the choice was made to elevate Aragorn’s plot in prominence, so that The Return of the King is in fact topped by the return of the titular king to Gondor, and this effectively completes the story. They make deliberate choices all along the way so that the plot threads and character arcs are wrapped up at that point, instead of still needing to complete in detail a long journey back to the Shire, and the scouring of the Shire. This works for the movies, but I do like the books’ decision and pacing better, for it feels more true to the sense of The Lord of the Rings, being mostly a tale about hobbits and their involvements in the great events at the end of the Third Age, not a tale about Men.
Even after the story and its many climaxes and extended denouement have ended, my copy of this book included a long set of appendices, which go briefly (relatively speaking – they’re almost a quarter of the text) into the history, mythology, genealogies, and especially the linguistics of Middle Earth. As an author and world-builder and generally curious person I find this information fascinating, and was glad to read it through, but I will not go too much into it here, and will instead save most of my discussion of Middle Earth’s world-building for my review of The Silmarillion, which should be posted in two weeks (next week’s review will be my review of The Lord of the Rings as a whole). In the meantime, I hope that you rear (or re-read) The Return of the King.