Book Review: Lord of the Rings, Return of the King
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, written by Tolkien and published by Ballantine Books, is the third-person account on the War of the Ring in Middle-Earth, following The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. With Frodo captured by the orcs on the border of Mordor, it’s up to Sam, Frodo’s trusty gardener, to rescue him—but Sam has Frodo’s evil ring at least, to make him invisible and sneak around unnoticed as a means of saving Frodo. Meanwhile, in the plains of Pelennor outside of Minas Tirith, the war is set in full motion after the army of Sauron beats through Osgiliath to siege the seat of the king. The Rohirrim of Rohan ride forth with a prayer to catch the battle in time as Aragorn and his followers pass through the path of the dead in order to meet Sauron’s fleets on their way to Minas Tirith. The fellowship is splintered—Gandalf fights on the front lines of Minas Tirith while Pippin tries to stop Denethor, the crazed Steward of Gondor. Merry rides forth with Rohan, taken on the steed of a brave soldier with fair features who seems strangely familiar, and the two unwanted warriors ride to the front line of battle. Aragorn, followed by Gimli, Legolas, and his people, the Dunedain, call upon old debts to Isildur with ghosts biting at their heels. Sam, using all the wit and courage he never knew he had, invades an orc tower under the guise of an elven saboteur. And Frodo Baggins, the carrier of the ring held responsible with ending evil in Middle-Earth, waits only for death at the torture by those he once promised to defeat.
This is the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings, though, undoubtedly, not the final book in Middle-Earth that I will be submerged in. The pressure is on and the end is nigh, so at these moments more than ever, I can’t help but reflect upon my experiences with The Lord of the Rings leading up to this point. In my blog on The Two Towers, I discussed the influences that kindled my interest in fantasy from the days of my youth and into adulthood, citing various video games and Japanese animations as source exposure to the worlds of magic, dragons, and, uh, dungeons, I guess. But, in spite of other external forces, I’ve always had a strange relationship with The Lord of the Rings—perhaps because how heavily other fantasy stories are invested in the world created by Tolkien in his magnum opus. After all, dwarves, elves, and dragons weren’t defined into a single, unique genre until Tolkien wrote of it. Prior to his publications, these elements were the subject of operas, folktales, and epic poems of a separate age, though many of these were later related as children’s tales to encourage a sense of exploration. By creating a collective of these elements, Tolkien aided in defining the fantasy genre which went on to become the foundation for roleplaying games and, much later, films, video games, and other books. It was also Tolkien that defined character classes, as we perceive them in modern roleplays. Gandalf is a wizard, Aragorn is a ranger, Bilbo is a thief. These became the foundation of modern day character creation choices, and these elements have bled into other gaming genres. Take Mass Effect, for instance: three base classes with several specializations and cross classes, including soldier (like the warrior), biotic (with unique powers like a wizard), and engineer (akin to the thief, with hacking instead of lockpicking and favoring diversion tactics). Though these base roles existed in all forms of combat throughout history, it was Tolkien in particular that made the specific talents of each individual to a small party of heroes seem both romantic and utilitarian. It’s fair to say that The Lord of the Rings, in spite of the high praise it receives, receives only sufficient appreciation for the influence it has made.
(Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name…)
For me, it all began with The Hobbit. I loved the 1977 film as a child—it was probably one of my favorite films, though in a more curious capacity than my other childhood fandoms. Sure, I loved Star Wars and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but The Hobbit, unlike other childhood loves, carried a sense of mysticism about it, both in story and animation. It looked ancient and beautiful and seemed to have sprung out of the depths of imagination itself. Though they made a couple of sequels, including a film of The Return of the King in the same animation, The Hobbit impacted most completely because it was a full story without the necessity of additional components, unlike how each installment of The Lord of the Rings essentially needs the previous installment in order to make any sense. Besides, the animation for The Lord of the Rings original film was disturbing. Either way, the idea of setting out reluctantly on a journey, being the smallest of my party, and yet being the one who overcomes all the obstacles in the end really built my self-esteem, since I was generally the smallest boy, or one of the smallest boys, in school. I related to Bilbo—nay, in my eyes, I always was Bilbo Baggins. To this day, I’d still take Sting over Anduril or Glamdring.
(“Share the load, Mr. Frodo?”)
When I first saw the film for The Return of the King, I goaded my brothers by theorizing that Sam and Frodo were, in fact, in love, in spite of Sam’s marriage to Rosie and Frodo’s departure. The idea was that the bond they shared, the sentiment of their journey, extended beyond the shallow romance that Sam undertook. After all, let’s face it—Sam’s a farm boy, through-and-through. Even if he became the mayor of the goddamn Shire, he still needs to pretend to be whatever the close-minded followers of the Shire deem respectable in order to avoid discrimination. Thus, Frodo leaves the Shire as a result of Sam proclaiming love to another, one less deserving. It sounds plausible, right? My brothers didn’t think so. They found the thought uncomfortable, because they were unsuited yet for an era beyond homophobia. I understood that they wanted the traditional expectation of the characters to hold true because of how much they looked to those characters for inspiration, but part of me knew that my brothers were missing out by not opening their minds to the idea of idolizing a homosexual, even if they are hetero. For me it was easy—at the time, all my favorite musicians were androgynous Japanese rock stars with a strong affinity for fan service, if not gay themselves. While I knew I theorized about the Sam and Frodo -ship just to troll, part of me really wanted my brothers to overcome the old-world ideals on homosexuality and look outside the box. In a lot of ways, I really think they did. In any case, The Return of the King was so strangled with CG, that the real story—the real meat and potatoes (po-ta-toes)—is the exploration of that relationship. In fact, in the book, on many occasions, Frodo and Sam hold hands or hold each other in embrace, though very little of that made it into the film. Though it’s probably not the intended canon ending, I think it’s fair to interpret it either way. Even if you’re not looking for a gay hero, you may find one—and if you do, you may come to realize that he’s no less a hero for it.
("This madness!" … "THIS. IS. GONDOR.")
Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor isn’t the first The Lord of the Rings game in my repertoire—in fact, in the early years of my drinking binges, my best friend, Jim, and I spent hours playing a game called The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, by Electronic Arts. The plot was fairly negligible, but the game had this great two-player campaign setting where you and a friend could essentially slaughter limitless amounts of orcs to your heart’s content, so long as you don’t make too great an effort to push to the end of the map. Jim and I slayed thousands of orcs at a time with Aragorn and Legolas—we even gave a special title to an attack because of its great use and profound ridiculousness: Aragorn has a sharp, poignant stomp that acts like a kick. The attack is slow, but it provides adequate damage and fends off other nearby enemies while deflecting weak blows. We named it Aragon’s Pimp-Step of Doom. Of all of my memories of The Lord of the Rings prior to actually reading these books, this one is most cherished. While the battle raged on and our drinking binges grew longer and more sad than silly, we still found joy between matches in Halo and playthroughs of Final Fantasy games to kick out a pimp-step. In the fight against Mordor, never forget the hos that Aragorn had to shake down for great justice.
(You shall have my rum! And my coke!)
The moment we’ve all been waiting for—a quote from my novel in progress. Though I very rarely do this, I’m on my last draft—so I figured I’d clue you in a little on what it is exactly that I’m writing. Besides, the occasion warrants it. The scene is set around a roleplay gaming table in the basement of our protagonist, Rick. Though there’s more context to the chapter than that, I’ll just go ahead and let you read:
“They didn’t even have condoms back then, Corey. They had mackintoshes,” I explained as I sipped Mountain Dew: Game Fuel from The Lord of the Rings light-up goblet from Burger King. Three other chalices sat around the table, all of them lit red from the bottom, to set the eerie, gaming mood. Mine portrayed Frodo, an especially brave halfling. “So you will not rape the siren, whose wail still echoes over the mountainside.”
Wow, look at all that depth. Tolkien could not have written it better himself, I wager. The purpose of this citation, however, is that I owned those goblets! My brothers and I, in our suburb of Aurora, Illinois, went from Burger King to Burger King in order to collect several collections of these. Though I knew little about The Lord of the Rings, I was interested based on the beauty of these fine beverage containers. Leading up to this little treasure hunt and the following release of the film, I played much Dungeons & Dragons and these more than any manner of decoration (including a small replica of a dragon’s skull I felt great pride for) set the mood at our gaming table. We rolled dice between our beverages and sipped gleefully as our characters feasted on the blood of whatever, who cares. It really kind of made you feel like you were there, but I think that’s what roleplay is all about.
My work aside, there’s plenty to take from The Return of the King and just as much that I’d prefer not to take. While the book is the sum of its many parts, the narrative appears halved by the growing tension building to the climactic ending and the ending itself. In fact, to say that half the book is ending isn’t a far off exaggeration. The first half of the book is the great, immense climb to our epic ending—only the ending drags on forever. In a lot of ways, the ending feels necessary, but it overwhelms the struggle of the War of the Ring itself. Our characters find their resolution and then there’s a ceremony, a funeral, another ceremony, another ceremony, a journey, a post-war clean-up, and so on. Tolkien certainly taught me to treasure the finality of a story, though it comes at some cost. At the very least, he ties up all the loose ends, including those that began in The Hobbit.
As a result of a book that’s all tension and ending, there’s essentially no development. One could argue that character evolution occurred in the previous books in the series, but as a stand-alone novel, The Return of the King is without point or purpose. It is tied to the others in the series with such permanence that I couldn’t imagine enjoying it without having read the three Tolkien novels that led up to it. The difference between Strider from the prior book and Aragorn from this one is so insubstantial, I had a hard time believing he was very kingly and imagined only an old ranger in need of a bath taking the crown for himself. At the very most, the only development that came in the characters is the relief that comes with the series finally ending. On the bright side, at least it finally ended, I guess.
(Looks like the homeless dude who asks me for a cigarette on my walk to work every day.)
Still, the ending, in spite of how long it is, is necessary in the context of the series as a whole and only because I read the other books of The Lord of the Rings prior to The Return of the King, did I find it suitable. With so many threads left hanging in the wind, I wondered whether Tolkien would answer all the questions as the fellowship progressed to their end. He not only answered everything, including questions I didn’t have, but the narrative structure of the ending in itself had its own beginning, middle, and ending, both tying itself up where it began while finishing the entire series up where it started. Tolkien definitely had some idea of how he expected the series to end too—because of the excellent allusion throughout the rest of the series in regard to this last installment, Tolkien brought an ending that was both entirely complete and poetically just. It’s an ending to end all endings and sufficiently completes an otherwise perfect series.
Now if you’re a big nerd like myself, you’ll find the appendices after the novel’s end just as interesting as the story. These illustrate how carefully Tolkien thought though the series, including the history of the races of Middle-Earth, the origins and pronunciations of the languages of its peoples, and completely original alphabets with pertaining sounds to make those words. It also includes back-story on Aragorn and Arwen, in addition to the other Kings of Gondor, Rohan, and Dale. These not only help readers understand the underlying plots of the series more clearly, but it also bridges gaps in the history of Middle-Earth that you learn from the context of The Lord of the Rings narrative. By failing to read these appendices, you’re missing out on whole eras of the world that Tolkien contrived.
(The Lord of the Bling.)
So they made a film of this book, which apparently clean-swept the Oscars. Back to Jackson once more, we get to see his interpretation of The Lord of the Rings and not an accurate depiction of what Tolkien wrote. On the plus side, the story is mostly true to its source material and everything is made much more beautiful by illustrating and elongating short bursts of story into long, epic scenes. However, Jackson takes some liberties that diminish the value of the original story to a degree that damn-near depressed me as I watched the film. For instance, by killing Saruman at the beginning of the film, short of the context of the way Tolkien wrote it, the poetry of the ending was lost in the contrived magnitude of Frodo’s journey. Contrived, even more than originally, because Jackson even invented some new trickery by Gollum to create conflict between Sam and Frodo, adding only shallow drama to a story meant to be powerful. In spite of these changes though, Jackson delivers a lot of action and supplies a fair amount of badassery on the part of our heroes. But on occasion, even if that badassery feels phony—like an army of ghosts on the fields of Pelennor. Come on, man, did you even read the book? I guess that’s the price you pay when you cut integral characters out to make time for Elijah Wood to make gagging faces on screen.
In any case, it was a wonderful ending to a wonderful series. However, compared to his previous works, like The Two Towers and The Hobbit, Tolkien failed to meet the expectations I had for this book. It was a good ending and a great effort, but it pales in comparison to the profound meaning, exploration, and beauty that Tolkien once painted before.
The Riahi Rating:
Other reviews of Ballantine Books:
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien