The Return of the King

I'm half ashamed to admit that long before I read this for the first time, I had seen the Rankin-Bass animated version. Seen and heard, actually, since my sister and I liked the cartoon enough that my parents went out and bought it on record (you remember those big black vinyl discs, right?), which we played over and over until the grooves started to wear out. For years afterwards, whenever I'd hear Ray Bolger doing voice-over in a car commercial, I'd think "Gandalf!"

As a result, my earliest impressions of this book were quite strongly colored by the animated version. In a limited sense, that's still true today-- there are a few scenes which were re-arranged for the cartoon which still catch me off guard when I hit the original version.

Anyway, this is the final volume of the series, comprising Books V and VI of the internal ordering. Book V is mostly great fun, containing a bunch of really cool battle scenes, Book VI is less amusing, containing as it does the long depressing slog through Mordor, followed by a few quick scenes of triumph, then a long drawn-out ending. Then a hundred-odd pages of Appendices.

I'm pretty sure that most good novelists have a set of notes and sketches of background information and off-stage scenes in and around their crucial story. Nothing to match the scale of Tolkien's steamer trunks full of papers (if the umpteen volumes of compilations are any indication), of course, but anyone who has a good grasp of their world almost certainly has a good deal more information in their desk drawers than ends up in the tale.

They also tend not to publish this material, unless it becomees the seed for another novel (or several novels). Meaning that the Appendices are probably the clearest proof of my thesis that Tolkien was, fundamentally, not a novelist. I'm not entirely sure what the point of the Appendices is-- the extra background information that's in there is generally pretty sketchy, and what isn't sketchy doesn't add much to the story. And the lengthy sections on the invented languages (with footnotes, even) feel almost like an attempt to convince the higher-ups at Oxford that the time spent working on the books wasn't entirely frivolous. I was never wild about the attempt to put an academic gloss on the whole thing (the lengthy foreward about the habits of hobbits and the silly attempt to frame everything as if it were really translated from the Red Book), and in the years since I first read the books, I've grown to hate this device. My solution to the problem this poses in the specific case of The Lord of the Rings has generally been to just skip all the weird academic material.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the actual story. I said in my comments on The Two Towers that that volume has always been my favorite, and that remains the case after this re-read. Yes, the ultimate triumph of Good occurs in the final book, but the ultimate triumph of good is followed by a lot of extraneous verbiage, perked up briefly by the Scouring of the Shire. The sections that make up internal Book V have some of the most enjoyable scenes, but there are a few pacing problems that keep this section from quite catching up to Book III in my estimation.

The biggest structural problem I have with the first section of the book is the way it keeps back-tracking. Chapter 1 picks up exactly where The Two Towers left off, then we jump back in time to cover the same period (following different characters) in Chapter 2, then again in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 follows directly on Chapter 1, but 5 backs up again, then 6 moves forward, while 7 jumps back again. It gets a little annoying, after a while, and Ghan-Buri-Ghan just isn't worth the break in the action. This is a result of Tolkien's general rule of focussing only on a single set of characters, rather than cutting between different groups. It's as good a choice as any in the abstract, and probably the most valid for the style he's trying to maintain, but it gets a little awkward when the plot has separated into as many strands as there are at the start of this book.

The other specific sequence which I don't care for is the stretch between when Sam and Frodo wake up in Ithilien and when they finally set out for home. The laughing and weeping and spontaneous songs of praise are just a little too weird, and the "So I says to her, I says..." play-by-play from the herb-woman during the coronation is just annoying. The chapter where they travel around saying goodbye to half the continent also drags a little, but it's got some nice bits, too.

There are a couple of other minor writing glitches (the Orcs seem to have a mandatory class in Providing Exposition for Eavesdroppers somewhere in their military training...), but nothing worth highlighting at length. Which brings us to the more general comments about the book as a whole. In no particular order:

Romance: Unlike some, I actually think the Aragorn-Arwen romance is handled fairly well. They're clearly involved, and he's clearly pining somewhat in some of the earlier scenes, but there's very little of it on-screen, which is fine. The bits that are there are well done, perhaps because Tolkien is particularly well suited to writing the medievaloid sort of romance that this is-- all courtly and distant, with Aragorn needing to claim his kingdom before he can marry her.

He fares much less well with the other two romance subplots that come in. The Faramir and Eowyn section is horribly stilted and awkward. There's no life or passion to the whole affair, and it almost seems to come down to settling for the next best thing. Coupled with the insinuation that Eowyn's courage and assertiveness (her best qualities from the point of view of a modern reader) was all the work of Grima Wormtongue, the whole thing ends up feeling kind of unpleasant.

The third romance subplot is the strangest of them all. Rose Cotton pops into the story out of nowhere, two-thirds of the way through the last book, in the middle of Mordor. I didn't catch any previous mention of her, but suddenly, after eight hundred pages of Questing, Sam starts pining for a girl who nobody knew he'd left behind. It's as if Tolkien saw the end approaching, and suddenly realized he hadn't set up a happy ending for Sam, and threw one together at the last minute. The whole thing is just weird.

Which brings us to the general question of Sam and his character. There are two general counter-arguments to my contention that Sam's servility is annoying (beyond the trivial and inarguable "It's a matter of taste")-- the first of which, that despite his lack of ambition Sam rises to be a Person of Importance in the Shire, I was amused to discover exists only in the Appendices.

The second is harder to argue against, but I've always had a Quixotic side, so here goes. The claim is that, despite his apparent servility, Sam is the hero of the piece, and really the one who saves the day for the ultimate triumph of Good. Which is true as far as it goes-- Sam is crucial to getting the Ring through Mordor, and he is clearly anointed the hero of the piece somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers where the narration shifts from closely following Frodo and his mental state to focussing more strongly on Sam. This also explains why Tolkien chose to end the tale not with Frodo leaving Middle-Earth, but with Sam returning to his family (one of the best scenes in the books, by the way-- a nice piece of work).

That's all true, but the manner in which Sam saves the day still sets my teeth on edge. He succeeds not so much through what we'd normally call strength of character, but precisely because he has no ambition of his own. The attitude that bugs me is probably best illustrated by a scene from the end of The Two Towers:

"What? Me, alone, go to the Crack of Doom and all?" He quailed still, but the resolve grew. "What? Me take the Ring from him? The Council gave it to him."

But the answer came at once: "And the Council gave him companions, so that the errand should not fail. And you are the last of all the Company. The errand must not fail."

"I wish I wasn't the last," he groaned. "I wish old Gandalf was here, or somebody. Why am I left all alone to make up my mind? I'm sure to go wrong. And it's not for me to go taking the Ring, putting myself forward."

What annoys me about Sam is not just the lack of self-confidence (there are a half-dozen more variants on "I'm sure to go wrong" scattered through the scene...), but the obsession with his low station. His reluctance to pick up the Ring is as much because he thinks it would be unseemly for one as lowly as he to take up such a serious burden, as because he's understandably afraid of the dangers involved in taking the Ring to Mount Doom. Rather than fretting about the miles of desert he must cross, and the armies of Orcs between him and his goal, he worries that it would be uppity for him to think of bearing the Ring.

And it's this very same attitude that pulls him through temptation, when the Ring gives him a vision of "Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age" throwing down the Dark Tower and making a garden of Mordor:

In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small graden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

He resists the temptation of the Ring in part because he feels it would be above his station to seek power. It's not just that he only wants to be a simple hobbit, it's that he feels being a simple hobbit is all he's due. There's a power to the Cincinatus story which I find compelling, but mingling it with this caste nonsense ruins the effect.

I realize this is a profoundly Christian worldview-- the meek inherit the Earth, and all that. But I don't really find this view any less creepy when I encounter it in church, and putting me into the head of a character who feels this to the bone is an unpleasant experience.

Having covered that creepy experience, which is sure to provoke some measure of outrage from the Tolkien faithful, I may as well move on to the last really disturbing element of the books:

"There dwelt a hardy folk between the mountains and the sea. They were reckoned men of Gondor, yet their blood was mingled, and there were short and swarthy folk among them whose sires came more from the forgotten men who housed in the shadow of the hills in the Dark Years ere the coming of the kings."

This line comes barely five pages into The Return of the King, and it made me wince when I read it. A similar concern with the purity of bloodlines runs through much of the rest of the book.

I realize that one of the crucial elements of Tolkien's world is that the bloodline in question is descended from semi-divinity, and thus there's some actual merit to the concern, and real material benefits to "pure" blood. Those with "pure" blood are invariably noble and brave and decent folk, so this really isn't intended to sound, well, icky.

But it does. Boy, does it sound icky to my post-WWII ears. Particularly with "short and swarthy" thrown in there. I realize this is largely a matter of horrific world events having overtaken the writing, but as far as I know, the books weren't published until after the Second World War. But I can't help wishing some editor or another had taken a red pen to this, and at least gotten the phrasing changed.

Anyway, having reached the end of the books, I feel I ought to make some sort of general summary comments, addressing the work as a whole. I'm not entirely sure what to say.

It's a wonderful story, all in all. The plot arc, heavy-handed theological implications and all, is a great tale, which resonates deeply. Which it ought to, drawing as it does elements from the full history of human mythology. The execution leaves me cold in many places, though, and there are a number of scenes in the books which probably should've been excised or re-arranged.

Judged as a series of novels, or even as one huge novel, it's, well, not a novel. It's an epic, or an attempt at new mythology, or something else entirely. Fundamentally, it's a one-of-a-kind work, whose like we're not likely to see again, which happens to bear some similarities in form to a set of three novels. Flaws in novelistic execution aside (and these are mostly a question of taste), it's a magnificent achievement, and Tolkien deserves his fame.

Last modified: 9 October, 2001