Rereading Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

This is such a beautiful book. Wonderful.

The beginning of the book follows immediately after The Two Towers. Pippin and Gandalf arrive in Minas Tirith, Rohan prepares to ride to war, and Aragorn meets The Grey Compant- the rangers and Elrond’s sons who have come to accompany him to the end, whatever it may hold.

It’s in this book where we see the biggest deviation from the movies. The book is not only better, it is smarter. This is obvious in two ways: the characters and the battles.

Denethor makes more sense and is far more interesting. Jackson tried to make him a cartoon villain, I guess, but he is a truly great, rightfully proud man in the book. Denethor’s story is tragic. He thought that he could withstand Sauron in a battle of wills, but he was horribly wrong. Sauron got into his head and slowly, steadily, crushed him, driving him into mad despair. As I pointed out last time, Sauron cannot be beaten by any conventional means and Denethor’s downfall makes that clear yet again.

The whole story of Denethor and Faramir is better done. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, by the way, of Christian and pagan reactions to oncoming defeat. Denethor’s reaction is Roman; he will die on his own terms, taking down all he built with him, before he loses to his enemy. For him, hope is utterly dead. He acts in pride, striving to keep control of his fate to the very end. This was wrong; hope is not dead, but a glimmering star in the depths of night. Denethor’s twisted pride is what is mean by the sin of pride and it ends in lunacy and agony and a betrayal of what he seeks to preserve.

The Gray Company is absolutely epic, another missed movie opportunity. Everything with the Paths of the Dead is, but come on. The line of grim, rugged rangers, decorated only with a star on their cloaks, riding beneath that beautiful banner…We see the Passing of the Gray Company through Gimli’s eyes, mostly, and it’s an eerie, almost dreamlike experience, full of both fear and courage.

The Dead are much more interesting in the book, too, and scarier. They seem to kill with fear, in fact, which turns one of Sauron’s greatest weapons back on him.

Eowyn! I understand Eowyn. I was Eowyn once, though none of the men I fell for compared remotely to Aragorn. I get how she is, what she wanted…and what she grew into. I hate when people accuse Tolkien of misogyny; most assuredly not! Eowyn turns away from a life of war, but she was not wrong to pursue it. She’s a great hero in her own right before any romance. She pursued glory, but I think she knew rightly why those actions are glorious. Her despair is a familiar thing (the lines said about that by Wormtongue in the movie are said by Gandalf in the book, which gives them a very different tone). Eowyn in the books has a depth I think many miss. Their lives have never been that. This deserves an essay when my brain is working properly (‘social isolating’ has done something to it).

I wonder how Tolkien knew. His world worked differently than ours.

Aragorn, of course, is incredible. I do not know if men like this walk the earth anymore, though I think they did. I think men who could be this might be about, but we are all made in part by the times we live in. Aragorn tells a joke to Merry and Pippin by the way.

Also, Aragorn’s crowning plays out very differently, in that it is told comedically. Not the ceremony itself, which is properly dignified. But we get it with asides from Ioreth, healer-woman and citizen of Minas Tirith and town chatterbox. It’s hilarious and so deeply human. Tolkien is both making fun of this kind of woman and expressing affection for her, as he did with the hobbits of the Shire. I love this scene for this lively and fun approach.

The battles and plot in general make more sense in the book than the movie. I really recommend this multi-part analysis that covers both book and movie versions of the Siege of Gondor. The changes make some of the things said in the movie not make any sense. The seizure of the Black Ships and the point of it is much better. The march to the Black Gate is also awesome.

The best part of the book is Sam and Frodo. They are coming to the end, trekking through the hellish land of Mordor. There’s a physicality to the journey. The land is harsh, water is scarce, there is little food, and the enemy is ever-present. There is nothing for it but to keep going.

And the end! All this time, you’ve known Frodo was struggling. There had been hints of Gollum’s mad lust for the Ring. But he had come all this way, utterly committed to destroying the Ring.

And he gives in. You feel Sam’s shock and despair with him when it happens, even when you know it’s coming.

He does in fact turn invisible, but the struggle between him and Gollum plays out very quickly, sans prolonged stupid invisible wrestling. Also, no dramatic over-the-cliff scene. Hollywood, man.

Well, I call it the end, but it isn’t. The falling action is all about the beautiful rise of the Fourth Age and was a wonderful thing to read on Good Friday, as I did. Ah! To march home through blooming Ithilien with the victorious army or to walk the streets of Minas Tirith in those days.

Of course, we then get the Scouring of the Shire. It’s an intensely interesting part and it really is a shame it didn’t make it into the movie. I understand why because of cinematic and time limits, but I also suspect other reasons.

The system that Saruman implements in the Shire is, I am not kidding, communism. He has officers who come out and collect ‘excess’ food, there are a ton of rules enforced by a police state, and any violation gets you thrown in jail. It’s the USSR. I don’t know how I’ve missed this in my previous re-readings.

The Scouring teaches that, while saved, the world is still broken. It gives us a chance to see the lordly nature Frodo has gained and allows us to see the hobbits as epic heroes in their own right. It also shows us what good, honest people can do if they choose true heroism over fear, even if they are small and comfortable people by nature. It teaches many other things besides. Another essay to write.

Saruman’s end interests me, as well. Saruman is an angelic being and he was originally one of the truly great. He was a force for good and is deeply ancient. He ends by spitefully ruining the Shire, petty yet terrible, incapable of standing before the might of hobbits, and dies by the hand of the man he has abused into inhumanity. It’s a pathetic end for a once-great being, a running theme for Tolkien’s works.

Of all the famous people I’d wish to meet, I really wish I could have met Tolkien. I like how he thought- this is not something one can say of great authors- and he seems to have been a genuinely likeable person who enjoyed life and pursued truth. It’s Tolkien who provided the way forward from the charnel house of the twentieth century. If you think his books shy away from that kind of horror, you need to pull your head out of the arrogant, delusional, postmodernist hole you’ve decided to stick it in.

The Lord of the Rings earns its place as a classic. I think Tolkien managed to pull off one of his goals and created an epic for our time. As derivative of it as modern fantasy is (*raises hand*), it is better in the way Casa Blanca is better than all the derivations of it. I know it’s intimidatingly large and the writing can seem hard to read in some spots, but it is well worth taking the time to read or re-read.

Published by kathrynzurmehly

I am, among many other things, an Army vet and a freelance writer.

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