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The grand, bittersweet finale,
This review is from: The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (Paperback)"Return of the King" is the worthy climax to J.R.R. Tolkien's epic saga, the fantasy that created the genre as we know it today. Now, as the blockbuster movie adaptation is over, many readers are checking out the dramatic story that ends Tolkien's masterpiece and life's work.
The story opens where "Two Towers" left off. Gandalf has ridden to the city of Gondor with Pippin (partly to keep him out of trouble), where the forces of Mordor are attacking. There is upheaval in the city itself, as the steward of Gondor is going nuts. Merry pledges his service to King Theoden of Rohan, not knowing what is ahead for the king and his relatives. And Aragorn is seeking out allies to fight Sauron on a military scale, even if they can't defeat him unless the Ring is destroyed. His search will take him to tribes of forest-dwellers, to Gondor -- and even to summon an army of the dead.
In Mordor, the unconscious Frodo has been captured by Sauron's orcs, and taken to the fortress of Cirith Ungol. Sam is desperate to free his friend, but knows that he can't take on an army, and that Frodo would want him to finish the quest. Sam manages to free Frodo from captivity, but they must still brave more dangers before they can come to Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring can be destroyed. As they travel Sam sees Frodo slipping further and further into the Ring's grasp. Will Frodo be able to destroy the Ring?
Usually, the climax of an epic adventure is a disappointment. "Return of the King" succeeds in almost every way, wrapping up each individual storyline, one by one. The ending has a feeling of finality; this is one story that could never have a sequel; Tolkien shows that in a struggle against evil, there is no true "happy ending." Even if the good guys win, there will still be scarring, and death, and haunting memories of what once happened. And even if a person survives, he will never be the same.
This is the grimmest of the three books in this trilogy. Aside from Frodo's emotional deterioration, we also have Merry becoming almost catatonic after the battle with the Witch King, and Denethor's descent into suicidal madness. There is a lot less humor, though it is still there: Pippin and Merry both thinking about food, Gandalf's reaction when Pippin pledges his sword to Denethor, some choice witty comments of Frodo's in the last chapters, and Gimli's half-joking threats to axe Eomer if Eomer doesn't consider Galadriel the most beautiful woman in the world.
Though a section of the book near the end descends into near-biblical prose, which changes post-Gondor, Tolkien does not waver in his ability to evoke emotion. One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Sam finds Frodo naked, unconscious and being beaten by an orc. Others include Merry's farewell to Theoden, Eowyn's slaying of the Witch-King, and of course the bittersweet final scene.
Frodo is almost unrecognizable in parts of this book. The bright, naive young hobbit of the first book has been worn down by the pressure of the Ring, to the point where he seems to be only a pale shadow of himself. As he grows increasingly attached to the Ring, we even see him doing what seems unimaginable: threatening Sam with a dagger. Yet these actions make chilling sense, even when Frodo recovers his self-control only a moment later. It's a devastating demonstration of the hold the Ring has on him; he tries to resist it while knowing that he's falling too far into its grasp. When he lapses into depression and nihilism, readers will wonder if he can actually give it up.
Sam has come a long way from the shy young hobbit who couldn't say a word around the High Elves. This book has him chasing orcs with Sting, carrying Frodo physically through Mordor, fending off Gollum, and acting as the ultimate pillar of strength for his crumbling friend right to Mount Doom. Merry is exposed firsthand to the horrifying consequences of war, and Pippin moves past his initial flakiness in an effort to be a serious warrior. Aragorn breaks completely from the mold of rugged ranger and into the new status as a king, leading armies (both living and dead) without flinching.
As far as the supporting cast goes, Legolas and Gimli assist as well; their friendship grows deeper, even as Legolas falls completely in love with the sea. Gollum's degenerate journey remains intertwined with Frodo's, even though he betrayed the hobbits in the previous book; and the icily passionate war-maiden Eowyn affects the War of the Ring in a stunning way that nobody could have predicted.
The story doesn't really end on the last page; for more background, especially on Aragorn and Arwen, readers should also read the appendices at the end of the book. Another good addition is "The End of the Third Age," in which the unpublished epilogue of LOTR can be found. Though this is probably not canonical, it nicely concludes the story and is a heartwarming look at what happens in the years following LOTR.
It's difficult, once the story has finished, to accept that one has to say goodbye to Middle-Earth and its enchanting inhabitants. But as Gandalf says, "I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."