The Return of the King, Not a Happy Ending
Even if the story ends positively, there’s a lot of melancholy in the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings. And this is what makes it such a a rewarding book.
In the summer of 2017, I started buddy reading Tolkien’s main work one chapter a day with a group of other readers. It had been a long time since last I read Tolkien and, in a sense, was like discovering him for the first time.
I’m republishing here my impressions of that time, which I originally posted on my personal blog.
I sure didn’t know what I was getting into. Today, I’m still buddy reading Tolkien with an awesome little group of fans and still loving every moment.
Mixed with it is my impression of the films, which I also rewatched then for the first time in ten years.
The last instalment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy delivers on everything a reader expects.
The first half of the novel concerns the great battle that has been building throughout the trilogy. We see the big picture of the battlefield, but also what happens to the characters we care about. This creates a powerful feeling of participation. As an outside observer, we get a chance to see and understand everything that’s happening on the battlefield, with all the implications. But also it feels like we’re right there, with the characters. Sometimes the narration focuses on single characters and events — Théoden’s death, Éowyn’s duel with the Witch King, the fall of the Dwarf King — and that’s when the feeling of participation is stronger.
Tolkien’s familiarity with both medieval and more recent wars it’s pretty obvious.
Tolkien’s familiarity with both medieval and more recent wars it’s pretty obvious. He knows exactly where to look to create the most impactful picture. He knows about the feelings, but also the movements of a battle. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields moves realistically, but also unexpectedly, especially when it goes near the characters. I particularly liked the few episodes of quiet amid the battle, which occasion more intimate look into the characters.
Battlefields are never easy to handle in a novel, but Tolkien achieved the task beautifully.
The Fellowship fo the Ring and the Beginning of an Incredible Adventure
Truly, you step on the Road, and you don’t know where your feet will bring you.
The second half of the novel focuses on the last leg of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mouth Doom. This is only a few chapters, but some very intense ones. Tolkien believed Sam to be the true hero of this story, and here’s where you see it in full. He acts spurred by a sense of duty and by love, expecting nothing in return but the safety of the person he’s protecting. This is true for Frodo too, of course, he acts spurred by the knowledge that his sacrifice (because at this point he expects to die) will save lots of people, including lots who he loves. But in Sam we see greater selflessness, in my opinion, because it’s more on a human and less on an epic scale.
The last part of the novel is a beautiful celebration of everything good there is in the story. It’s refreshing to see everything go a good way after so many harrowing events.
The Hobbits’ homecoming is part of this concluding action, and truly this was the first time I appreciated it in full.
The greatest of experiences doesn’t mean anything if we don’t transform it into something useful to us and the people closest to us.
The Hobbits’ homecoming feels like a stretch of the story — I know many readers feel this way. But this time I saw it as a necessary part, what brings the story full-circle. The Hobbits did great deeds abroad, and they were instrumental in defeating the greatest of evils. But their real growth as characters is in their ability to bring that experience home, to make it relevant to their own life and the life of the people around them. The greatest of experiences doesn’t mean anything if we don’t transform it into something useful to us and the people closest to us. When the big adventure becomes the ability of everyday life, only then it becomes meaningful.
The Two Towers: No Muddling Middle for Tolkien
The middle book in a trilogy is often the weakest. Tolkien middle book, instead, is the strongest in The Lord of the…
And of course, there are all the Appendices. Many readers of the readalong didn’t read them, but I think it’s a great disservice to the story. There are so many stories to know in these appendices. The history of the Dwarves, for example (one of my favourite parts) or of the Rohirrim. The conclusion of Arwen and Aragorn’s story, so sad after such a glorious conclusion in the novel. The detailed history of the Númenoreans.
I’m so happy I joined this readalong. Such a long time from my last read, this was almost a rediscovery of The Lord of the Rings.
And you know what I thought after nearly two months of reading when I came to the last page? I thought, “I want to start it all over again!”
The Return of the King is truly a rollercoaster. We go from excitement, worry, to sorrow, to hope, then happiness and again excitement, and we end with great, but somehow sweet sadness.
I won’t hid it, the ending always manages to steal a tear from me, no matter how many times I read it.
Originally published on The Old Shelter Blog on 15th December 2017
Sarah Zama is a Tolkien nerd and proud of it. She read The Hobbit the first time as a teenager and was a Tolkien fan years before Peter Jackson’s trilogy ever hit the theatres. She’s always been involved with Tolkien groups, both online and in person. In 2004, she founded a Tolkien group in her city, Verona (Italy), which is still meeting and divulging the Professor’s work. In 2017, she started reading Tolkien’s work with a group of other nerdy readers, one chapter a day. They are still on the road together.