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. 🙂