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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Return of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Return of the King is the third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien. I am so grateful for the impulse, and the opportunity, after I'm not sure how many years, to read these books again. They have their flaws, and I have pointed out some of them (see also my previous posts on the first and second books) but they are well-crafted, with some believable, three-dimensional characters, a suspenseful plot, a well-described setting, and, above all, they are uplifting. By the end of this book, the major source of evil in Middle-Earth has been removed:
'A great Shadow has departed,' said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963, p 230)
Here is a poster, which includes another quotation about Gandalf's joy, from this book.

But at considerable cost:
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have I leave to you. (Frodo to Sam, p. 309)

The trilogy is about heroism. The heroism isn't riding off on a white horse, with trumpets blowing and flags flying, to get people's attention, but it's agreeing to try to do a job you don't understand very well, that promises to be difficult or impossible, and sticking to it. The main heroes are Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee, although there are others.

For more of the plot, see the Wikipedia article on the book, which is the first link in this post. I wish to muse about a few matters.

1) Celeborn - I had read the book several times, but apparently hadn't caught the fact that Celeborn, an elf, and the consort and husband of Galadriel, did not leave Middle-Earth with Galadriel. Tolkien doesn't make the reason, or the consequences, clear. (See here for Wikipedia article on Celeborn. This article, from the Tolkien Gateway, also indicates that Tolkien did not seem to have a clear idea about Celeborn's origin.)

2) Tolkien's descriptions, and the genealogies in the appendix, spend a lot of time in detailing ancestry. Having high parentage is important, again and again. Tolkien seems clearly to have believed in a class structure (which is hardly surprising for one born in 1892, in a British colony). He also uses color. Fair hair is often related to nobility or goodness. Dark skin is often related to evil.

3) Some sentient and intelligent creatures in the books have no redeeming features. By this, I mostly mean the orcs, but the same could be said of trolls. There is nothing to like about them. No orc, and no troll, ever does anyone a good deed. Presumably they have no choice in these matters.

4) Tolkien was a scholar of languages, and it shows. He made up some for his sub-creation. There are several languages mentioned, occasionally with examples given. These include the languages of men, of orcs, of ents, and of elves. There is more than one language used by men, and more than one used by orcs, and more than one by elves. These beings all use a common speech, on occasion, at least. Sometimes the love for languages shows too much, as in the many names given to characters and things. But it was Tolkien's book.

5) There is a love story in the book. It is not long, but Tolkien carefully describes how Faramir and Éowyn fell in love, and does so from both of their viewpoints. Éowyn is Tolkien's most fully developed female character, although Galadriel is more important. Arwen marries Aragorn, but she appears but seldom, and says less, including all three books.

6) As in the previous books, the role of providence is important. Pity, as related to providence is critical in this one. It shows up in the relationship between Gollum, Sam and Frodo. Sam wants to kill Gollum, but does not, out of pity. Frodo knows that Gollum is dangerous, but does not kill him, either, also out of pity. In the end, it is Gollum who unwittingly provides the climax, the achievement of the quest.

My post on the second book, The Two Towers, is here.

Again, I'm glad I read these books again! Maybe in a few years, I'll have another go at them.

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