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

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Return of the King is the final volume of The Lord of the Rings (1955), J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy of war between good and evil. Divided into two sections, The Return of the King carries the disparate narrative threads of the second volume in the trilogy, The Two Towers (1954), to their conclusions, drawing the War of the Ring to an ending that is at once happy and sad.

As in The Two Towers, the first portion (book 5) of The Return of the King is a sweeping view of a world at war. This section weaves together the experiences of several different heroes, large and small, each of whom must play a part to defeat the armies of the Dark Lord. By contrast, much of book 6 concentrates again on only three characters, the presence of each of whom is necessary for the destruction of the ruling Ring. The narrow focus of the Ring-bearer and his companions is united with the vast panorama of the world outside only after the Ring is gone. By employing this dual narrative style, Tolkien is able to address widely divergent questions regarding the ability of good to defeat evil.

The great battle of the War of the Ring takes place before the gates of Minas Tirith, chief city of Gondor. Throughout the story, Gondor has been portrayed as the essential fortress of the West, the most powerful defense against the triumph of evil. Although waning in strength, Gondor has remained true to the high vision of its founders, refusing to compromise with evil even as the days grow dark. It is, however, not enough. Sauron has marshaled armies so powerful that Lord Denethor, certain of the defeat of his city, goes mad.

Yet the day is saved. The gate of Minas Tirith is broken, and its armies quail in fear, but rescue comes from several sources. From the north, the Riders of Rohan attack with the dawn, dismaying the human allies of the Dark Lord. The Captain of Mordor is slain by a woman of Rohan and a hobbit of the Shire. Ships arrive from the south bearing Aragorn and his fellow Rangers of Westernesse. From the city ride the knights of Dol Amroth, leading the army of Gondor with renewed hope. The great wizard Gandalf does what he can to bring order to these events, but a power far stronger than even his subtle mind is at work. Together, this array of forces is just enough to defeat Sauron’s first attack. Good has triumphed not because of the will or strength of any one warrior but because of the cooperation of all in a just cause. Each army suffers grievously, but the sufferings stand for nought in the face of defeating the great evil.

As the Captains of the West stand together to push the enemy to his last throw, the focus of the story shifts to Mordor, where three indomitable spirits make their way to Orodruin, the mountain of fire. Here is the same story etched in fine detail: Good triumphs not because of the heroic exploits of any one of them but because of the necessary contributions of all three.

Who is the hero of The Lord of the Rings? Frodo is the sacrificial martyr, dragging his body through the desert of Mordor while the Ring eats away at his mind. He must carry the Ring to the fire because no one else has the strength of will to do so. Frodo cannot make it, however, without Sam at his side, thinking of food and water, pointing the way, finally carrying his master up the side of the mountain. Only Frodo can take the Ring, but without Sam he would lie down in Mordor and die.

When they reach the fire, Frodo’s will fails him at last. The Ring takes possession of...

(The entire section is 958 words.)