The Return of the King

“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate.”
 

J.R.R. Tolkien

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

So here we are, at the end of the Tolkien Reading Marathon. The Return of the King is, of course, the last book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy: here, with the members of the Fellowship joined to various armies determined to fight Mordor (Pippin and Gandalf advising the Lord Denethor in Minas Tirith; Merry serving Theoden, King of Rohan; Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn leading the Rangers of the North and the Army of the Dead; and, of course, Frodo and Sam crossing the Black Land to destroy the Ring), the fate of Middle-earth, in true epic fashion, is to be decided.

The Return of the King always looks, in my edition anyway, to be the longest of the three, but when I’m actually reading it it feels ludicrously short. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields – basically the deciding battle of the trilogy – is finished by Chapter 7, and the Quest is over six chapters before the book actually finishes. Then, of course, there’s the fact that the Appendices take up a good 120 pages (including the Index), and you’ve finished literally before you know it.

The Return of the King is actually quite a dark book. Almost every character at some point says or thinks something along the lines of “This isn’t going to work, is it? We’re all going to die.” And yet, despite knowing – or, at least, thinking they know – that resistance is useless, they go on resisting. It’s a book about hope, and what comes after hope is gone. Million-to-one chances. Miracle cures. The Rohirrim turning up to rescue the city of Minas Tirith in the nick of time. (“Rohan had come at last.”) That’s why Return of the King is, unquestionably, my favourite of the trilogy. I like that the ending, as evidenced by the six chapters after Mount Doom, is not clear-cut; everything is not Magically Better; things are lost, and other things need sorting out before life can go on. I’m thinking here mainly of “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter: given that this story is essentially about hobbits, it would seem strange if the hobbits’ homeland were not in some way affected, and if they could, after all their adventures, simply “go back to sleep again” in the Shire.

OK, I’ve been wittering a bit. But it always seems to me that The Lord of the Rings grows every time you read it; certainly every time I read it I see something new. And, really, what more can you ask of a book?

(Also, this HarperCollins edition has some really lovely illustrations by Alan Lee, who also worked on the films. The White Tree in Minas Tirith has got to be my favourite.)

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