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

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The Return of the King Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Gandalf and Pippin ride on Shadowfax to the Realm of Gondor and are admitted to the presence of Denethor, steward of Gondor. Pippin tells of the heroic death of Boromir, Denethor’s son, and swears allegiance to the kingly old man. Gandalf does not hinder this, although Pippin senses tension between Gandalf and Denethor. Beregond of the Guard gives Pippin the passwords and tells him how Gondor, closest of free lands to Mordor, bears the brunt of the Dark Lord’s wrath.

After the departure of Gandalf, Théoden and his Riders, with Aragorn, Merry, Legolas, and Gimli, ride back to Dunharrow. They are joined by Rangers, Aragorn’s kindred. Aragorn, sorely troubled, says that haste demands that he travel the Paths of the Dead. He has wrestled with the will of Sauron in his seeing stone, hoping to distract Sauron so that Frodo and Sam might fulfill their mission of destroying Sauron’s Ring. Théoden’s niece Éowyn begs Aragorn not to take the Paths of the Dead, from which none has returned, or to take her with him, but he refuses. Leading his company underground, he summons the ghosts of oathbreakers who failed to fight Sauron and who can have no peace until they keep the oath sworn to Aragorn’s ancestor. They follow him, and wherever they pass, they spread terror.

Théoden and his nephew Éomer summon the Riders of Rohan to answer Gondor’s call for aid. Éowyn and Merry are denied a place among the combatants. When the Riders leave, a young warrior, Dernhelm, smuggles Merry with them under a cloak. The darkness that Sauron sends out to dismay his enemies conceals the movements of Rohan’s Riders.

When Faramir, the younger son of Denethor, comes back from his outpost and reports his meeting with Frodo, Denethor is coldly furious that Faramir did not take the Ring by force. Boromir, he says, would have brought the Ring to his father. Gandalf replies that if Boromir had taken it, he would have fallen and replaced the Dark Lord only by becoming another Dark Lord, whom even his father would not have known.

Sauron’s army, led by the chief of the Ringwraiths, attacks Gondor. Faramir returns to battle but is wounded by Ringwraiths. Despair seizes Denethor, who decides to burn himself and the unconscious but still living Faramir. Pippin seeks Gandalf to prevent this mad act. The hosts of Mordor batter down the gate, and the chief Ringwraith enters, confronted only by Gandalf. Horn blasts announce the arrival of Rohan, and the Ringwraith vanishes to return on his reptilian flying mount. Théoden’s horse goes mad with fright and falls on his master. Sick with fear, Merry crawls behind the monster, but Dernhelm faces the Ringwraith. According to an old prophecy, no living man can destroy the Ringwraith, but Dernhelm is discovered to be Éowyn, not a man. She decapitates the Ringwraith’s monstrous steed. Merry then thrusts from behind with his blade of Westernesse, and Éowyn strikes at the Ringwraith’s head. Both are stunned, but the Ringwraith’s empty cloak and armor collapse on the ground, and a shrill wail runs down the wind. Aragorn arrives in ships with reinforcements. The battle is won, but at great cost.

Denethor, thwarted by Beregond and Gandalf in his attempt to burn Faramir, burns himself, clutching his seeing stone, through which the will of Sauron entered Gondor. At Théoden’s death, Éomer becomes king of Rohan. In the Houses of Healing, Aragorn treats Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry. Gandalf, Aragorn, and others march to the Black Gate of Mordor to distract Sauron yet again and keep his Eye from Frodo. At the Gate, Mordor’s hordes attack them.

Meanwhile, Sam has made his way into Mordor to try to rescue Frodo. The orcs have fought over Frodo’s mithril coat, and most of them are dead. Sam kills the lone guard and disguises Frodo and himself with orc armor. Nightmare days follow as they struggle across the ashen land toward Mount Doom, often escaping capture through seeming miracles, once being taken for orcs and...

(The entire section is 1,241 words.)