Knife, sting and tooth

© C A Lovegrove

The Return of the King,
Part 3 of The Lord of the Rings
by J R R Tolkien.
HarperCollins Publishers, 1999 (1955).

Part 2 of The Lord of the Rings ended with a cliffhanger: the Ring-Bearer was trapped alive in the tower of Cirith Ungol, the Pass of the Spider, with his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee locked outside. Meanwhile, though the siege of Helm’s Deep had been lifted, Minas Tirith was now in great danger; and though Gandalf and Pippin were racing towards it they had no clear idea of how things stood with the city of Gondor.

If the title of Part 2, The Two Towers, alluded to Orthanc and the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, we’ll have seen that the one has been bested by outside forces opposed to the Dark Lord while the other will, as soon becomes apparent, be defeated from within. Part 3 will also be dominated by two movements, one directed towards drawing the attention of Sauron away from the other, drawing steadily closer towards its goal of destroying the Ring of Power.

But the end of the War of the Ring, when it comes, is not indeed the end of all: the author has loose threads in his Middle-earth tapestry to tie up. This will take us back to the Shire and require us to consider the hurts Frodo has suffered: “Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Though I’ve read The Lord of the Rings multiple times I’ve yet to tire of Tolkien’s narrative. Indeed I continue to be impressed by his ability to command emotions through archaic language, by his old-fashioned poetic sensibilities, and by his skill in managing a cast of diverse yet distinctive characters. However familiar the plot remains it’s his almost symphonic marshalling of action and repose, of suspense and stasis, that I relish, and the sense of physicality whether in geographical terms or sheer individual exertion and experience.

That physicality is primarily effected by landscape. The various routes taken from Rohan to Gondor, and then to the Black Gate of Mordor, entail legions of forces marching, riding, fighting along the way through vividly described mountains, valleys and plains; the same applies to Frodo, Sam and Gollum as they crawl like ants across wasted lands. These are terrains one can not only see in the mind’s eye but almost experience existentially: as before, Tolkien evokes both the sensual and the temporal aspects of journeying through Middle-earth, so that we see the baleful skies above Mordor and smell its putrid essence, sense the claustrophobic nature of the Paths of the Dead beneath the Dwinorberg and feel horror at the devastation wrought on the Shire.

But amongst the terrible turmoil that the War of the Ring brings nestle moments of calm and quiet reflection, in which we can appreciate the peace and beauty of Minas Tirith’s architecture, hear the melodious sounds of songs in the Elvish and Westron tongues, and enjoy the company of friends and fellow travellers before the inevitable, bittersweet partings. And as Sam, Merry and Pippin make their way to Hobbiton or Buckland at the start of the Fourth Age, the bereft reader is free to explore the appendices, read the associated histories that were posthumously published, or indeed begin again at the beginning.

Of course after the injuries Frodo suffered from the Nazgûl knife, Shelob’s sting and Gollum’s sharp teeth, not forgetting the heavy burden he carried for so long, one hopes that he did really, truly, find the rest he so desired.


More discussion of Middle-earth follows in my Talking Tolkien thread – gift exchange, for instance – so all is not done yet! Also, although I’ve the appendices still to consider, completing the LOTR narrative means I’ve read the first of my 10 Books of Summer – nine more to go. 🙂

14 thoughts on “Knife, sting and tooth

  1. Love how you explain the physicality. I am glad you find so much joy and excitement rereading these classics.

    Trying to regain momentum, I am also back to some children/young books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to admit, Silvia, that after finishing this read (before beginning on the appendices) I went and watched some of the extended DVD edition of LOTR to recapture that physicality, as portrayed by the New Zealand landscapes! And I too am interspersing some serious ‘grown-up’ reads with children’s and YA fiction – it helps me keep sane in an increasingly mad world.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes you! I have only watched the movies and those otherworldly New Zealand landscapes are a beauty to behold. And no kidding, I am too glad for these readings that help us keep sane.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, I’m glad I caught LOTR the way you feel about it. 🙂 After the appendices (which I’ve never yet read in full) I may well go back and re-assess my feelings about The Hobbit; and perhaps discourse at length on, as I’m doing for LOTR!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. For me, if there is anything like Heaven in the LoTR, it is the Grey Havens and the final journey, and there will be no more sorrow there. No more going back to the affairs of the world, either. Rest and good company and the reward of knowing the task is done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This description reminds me most of Tennyson, when Arthur says he will go
      “To the island-valley of Avilion;
      Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
      Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
      Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
      And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,”

      and where, as Frodo too hopes, “I will heal me of my grievous wound.”


  3. The landscape is a vital part of the narrative. A good deal of the narrative went over my head when I read it as a young reader but I remember the vivid place descriptions, especially Lothlorien, the Mines of Moria, the journey down the Anduin and of course Mordor. Tolkien gives shape and tangible qualities to landscapes that are ultimately reflections of parts of our soul. And the homecoming to Hobbiton is meaningful because of how the hobbits’ inner landscape has been stretched and expanded, yet love for the simple and homely has only grown through that. I appreciate how Tolkien is able to work on both the grand and the small scale.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My favourite bit this time round is when Sam uses the ‘dirt’ in the little box that Galadriel had given him to start the re-greening of the Shire’ after the depredations of Saruman and his crew, and when the space where the tree under which Bilbo had said his farewells once stood is filled with a quick-growing mallorn tree from a Lothlórien seed. Extraordinary to say I didn’t recall these details from my previous reads, but as an indication of Tolkien’s eco-credentials as well as a symbol of the interlinking of different parts of Middle-earth I now think it such a powerful image that I find it hard to credit it has passed me by all these years.

      Ditto Ithilien, that verdant buffer between Gondor and Mordor that simply didn’t register with me till now. Exactly as you say, Lory, Tolkien gives “shape and tangible qualities to landscapes that are ultimately reflections of parts of our soul,” landscapes that I seem only now ready to fully recognise.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes. Tolkien’s sense of place is so vivid that I feel I would know my way from the Shire to Mordor. One of my favourite passages in the whole trilogy is the description of Ithilien in The Two Towers, with its flowers and fragrant herbs and the “dishevelled dryad loveliness” it retains despite the depredations of the Enemy. And re Tennyson – someone needs to look at the influence there. So many passages of Tolkien are reminiscent of Tennyson, not least the scene where the ring is destroyed – see the final section of Idylls of the King.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Dishevelled dryad loveliness” is a perfect phrase, Debbie, a lovely example of the care Tolkien took with his language, recreating (with his archaic sensibility, as I say) the feel of an ancient saga. And yes, I should really reread Tennyson – only properly this time!


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