|Author||J. R. R. Tolkien|
|Series||The Lord of the Rings|
|Publisher||George Allen & Unwin|
|20 October 1955|
|Pages||416 (first edition)|
|LC Class||PR6039.O32 L6 1954, v.3|
|Preceded by||The Two Towers|
The Return of the King is the third and final volume of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, following The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. The story begins in the kingdom of Gondor, which is soon to be attacked by the Dark Lord Sauron.
Tolkien conceived of The Lord of the Rings as a single volume comprising six "books" plus extensive appendices. The original publisher split the work into three volumes, publishing the fifth and sixth books with the appendices into the final volume with the title The Return of the King. Tolkien felt the chosen title revealed too much of the story, and indicated he preferred The War of the Ring as a title.
The proposed title for Book V was The War of the Ring. Book VI was to be The End of the Third Age. These titles were used in the Millennium edition.
The Return of the King was in the end published as the third and final volume of The Lord of the Rings, on 20 October 1955 in the UK.
Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Minas Tirith in the kingdom of Gondor, and there Pippin gets to view for the first time the mighty city built on seven levels and with the Tower of Ecthelion high above the Pelennor Fields. They meet Denethor, the Lord and Steward of Gondor, and deliver the news to him of Boromir's death (which Denethor already knows of, because he holds Boromir's cloven horn in his lap), as well as the fact that a devastating attack on his city by Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, is imminent. Stung by the scorn of Denethor, Pippin enters the service of the Steward as repayment of a debt he owes to Boromir, Denethor's dead son and preferred heir. Pippin then meets Beregond, a guard of the Citadel, who tutors him in his duties, and his young son Bergil, who guides him around Minas Tirith. In the middle of the night, Gandalf returns to their room, frustrated that Faramir has not yet returned.
Meanwhile, in Rohan, King Théoden and his Rohirrim are recovering from the Battle of the Hornburg, in which they defended Rohan against the forces of Saruman at great cost. On their way back from Isengard, Aragorn, the king, and his company are met by the Company of Rangers from Arnor in the north (the "Grey Company"), led by Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond, and Halbarad, a leader of Rangers from the North. They had answered the summons of Galadriel to join Aragorn in his cause. When they return to Hornburg, Aragorn informs the king that he shall not ride with the Rohirrim, having confronted Sauron through the palantír (seeing-stone) of Isengard. Instead, able to see a new threat to Gondor, he decides to go travel the Paths of the Dead and find the lost army of the undead oathbreakers who dwell under the Dwimorberg, the Haunted Mountain. These spirits were cursed because they did not help Isildur during the War of the Last Alliance. Helped by his companions Legolas and Gimli as well as the Grey Company, they ride to Dunharrow. When they arrive, Éowyn, tries to dissuade Aragorn from going and then--desperate to stay with him--tries to go as well. Aragorn cannot release Éowyn from her duties and cannot return the love she has for him and reluctantly sets out the next morning to recruit the Army of the Dead to his cause. The company then passes under the Haunted Mountain where they come across the bones of a missing prince of Rohan, who had foolishly ventured on the Paths of the Dead. The company then comes out on the other side of the mountain into the valley of the Morthond River in Gondor and then proceed to the Stone of Erech. There, the Oathbreakers gather around the Grey Company in the middle of the night and resolve to fulfil their oath. They all then ride east to the great port of Pelargir and vanish into the storm of Mordor.
After Aragorn departs on his seemingly impossible task, King Théoden, Éomer, and Merry arrive in Dunharrow to muster the Rohirrim (mounted warriors) and come to the aid of Gondor. They enter the upper hold of Dunharrow via a narrow switchback path where they see old "Pukel-Men" sculptures guarding the turns. Merry is so moved by the kindness of Théoden that he enters his service and is made a Knight of the Mark. Seeing Éowyn grieved by Aragorn's departure, Merry then asks about the Paths of Dead and is told the story by Théoden of how King Brego and his son Baldor discovered the entrance to the chambers under the Haunted Mountain and how Baldor rashly spoke an oath to travel the Paths of the Dead. The next morning was dominated by the darkness of Mordor and two riders from Gondor showing Théoden the Red Arrow, which was Gondor's official call for aid from Rohan. The King and Éomer then gather the riders and set out from Dunharrow and then Edoras. Eager to go to war with his allies, Merry is refused by Théoden several times. Finally Dernhelm, one of the Rohirrim, secretly takes Merry up on his horse so that he can accompany the rest of the Rohirrim.
Back in Minas Tirith, Pippin is now clad in the uniform of the tower guard and watches the fortunes of war unfold. Faramir, Boromir's younger brother, returns from his campaign with the shattered remnants of his company from Ithilien where he reveals that he has met Frodo and Sam and allowed them to continue on their mission. When Gandalf hears that they are heading for Cirith Ungol, he becomes afraid, and Denethor becomes angry at Faramir for what he thinks was a foolish decision. The next day, Denethor orders Faramir to ride out and continue the hopeless defence of Osgiliath against a horde of orcs. Osgiliath is soon overrun and a gravely wounded Faramir is carried back to Denethor. Denethor then descends into madness as the hosts of Mordor press ever closer to Gondor's capital city of Minas Tirith, burning the Pelennor Fields and then the first circle of the city. His people seemingly lost and his only remaining son all but dead, Denethor orders a funeral pyre built that is to claim both him and his dying son. A fearful Pippin witnesses all this and runs down to the first circle to find Gandalf. There, the hosts of Mordor, led by the dreaded Witch-king of Angmar, have succeeded in breaking through the gates of Minas Tirith--using a terrifying battering ram named Grond, and only Gandalf is left sitting on his horse Shadowfax to oppose him. Just as the Witch-king raises his sword to strike the wizard, the horns of Rohan can be heard coming to the aid of Gondor.
Aided by a tribe of Wild Men of the Woods who resemble the Púkel-men of Dunharrow, Théoden's forces travel through the long-forgotten path to avoid an Orc ambush on the main road and reach Minas Tirith by stealth. At first it seems that they are too late, but then the winds change and begin to dispel the darkness. Revived, the Rohirrim charge into the enemy on the Pelennor. Théoden is mortally wounded when the Nazgûl cause his horse to go mad and fall on him and placing him at the mercy of the Witch-king. In the following Battle of the Pelennor Fields the Witch-king is slain by Dernhelm, revealed to be Éowyn the niece of King Théoden, with help from Merry. The battle is also joined by a "black fleet with black sails". The forces of Mordor initially rejoice at its arrival; and then are horrified to see the banner of the King upon the ships. Aragorn has succeeded in using the Oathbreakers to defeat the Corsairs of Umbar; the men of Gondor who were once slaves on the ships are brought back to fight the host of Mordor. Thus the siege is broken, but at heavy cost: many warriors of Gondor and Rohan fall, among them King Théoden.
While the battle is raging, Denethor attempts to immolate himself and Faramir on his funeral pyre, but Gandalf and Pippin succeed in saving Faramir, aided by Beregond, who has deserted his post and killed several of Denethor's servants in order to save Faramir. When Gandalf advises Denethor to put aside his madness and go out into battle, Denethor reveals that he has used the palantír of Minas Tirith and declares the situation hopeless. Denethor also reveals that he knows of Aragorn and his claim to the kingship but will not accept him. He then burns himself with the palantír on the pyre. Gandalf realizes that Denethor--in his desperation--had looked into the seeing-stone several times. Unlike Saruman, Denethor was too noble of purpose and too great of will to submit to the will of Sauron, but the Dark Lord duped the Steward into despairing of the situation. The resulting madness kept Gandalf from joining the battle and perhaps saving Théoden and keeping Éowyn and Merry from harm. Faramir, though, is brought to the Houses of Healing where Gandalf awaits the wounded and Pippin and Beregond guard Faramir, the new Steward of Gondor.
Aragorn comes in secret to the Houses of Healing, removing his regalia of the kingship (to which he has not yet made his claim), and wearing only his elven-cloak and elven-brooch. Aragorn heals Faramir, using athelas or kingsfoil (the same weed he used to ease Frodo's pain at Weathertop and outside of Moria). Aragorn also heals Merry and Éowyn, who were hurt by the Witch-king before he fell, and he then turns his attention to the numerous wounded, fulfilling the prophecy in an old Gondorian wives' tale saying that "The hands of the king are the hands of a healer." This earns him the love and admiration of the people of Minas Tirith, who name him "Elfstone" for his elven-brooch, which also fulfils the prophesied name of the legitimate king. Legolas and Gimli are reunited with Merry and Pippin and tell of their great journey on the Paths of the Dead and how Aragorn could even command the spirits of the Dead. They then tell the story of the capture of the Black Fleet and the rescue of Minas Tirith.
The kings and warriors then hold a final council with Gandalf, who has been chosen as the leader of the forces opposed to Sauron. Knowing that it is only a matter of time before Sauron rebuilds his forces for another attack, Gandalf and Aragorn decide to draw out the hosts of Mordor with an assault on the Black Gate, providing a distraction so that Frodo and Sam may have a chance of reaching Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring, unseen by the Eye of Sauron. They realize that it may be a suicide mission, but they also know it is the only hope for the Ringbearer.
Gandalf, Aragorn and the other Captains of the West lead an army to the Black Gate of Mordor and lay siege to Sauron's army. In a parley before the battle, the Mouth of Sauron, a messenger from the Black Gate, displays Frodo's mithril shirt, his elven-cloak and Sam's barrow-blade and then demands the surrender of the Captains and their obeisance to Sauron as conditions for Frodo's release. Despite the shock of seeing the objects and the complete loss of hope, Gandalf perceives that the emissary is lying, seizes the items, and rejects the terms. The battle begins and Pippin kills a Troll, which then falls onto him, and he loses consciousness just as the Great Eagles arrive.
Bearing the One Ring in Frodo's place, Sam resolves to rescue his master from torture and death by Orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. He enters the tower through the front gate and overcomes the silent sentinels using the Phial of Galadriel. He discovers that the orcs have mostly killed each other over Frodo's mithril coat and then confronts the orc-captain Shagrat, who has just finished off his rival Gorbag. Shagrat escapes with the mithril coat, the elven cloak, and the Barrow-sword. Sam goes up to the top chamber of the tower, kills a small orc hurting Frodo, and then discovers his master lying naked on the floor. Sam reveals that he has saved the Ring, and Frodo becomes nearly insane demanding it back from him. They are forced to disguise themselves in Orcish armour and manage to escape the tower and the Watchers just as the Nazgûl flies in to take over command of the tower. Frodo and Sam navigate the barren wasteland of Mordor. Unable to cross directly to Mount Doom, they travel north, are nearly discovered by two orcs tracking them, and realize that Gollum is still on their trail. Just as they are about to reach the pass into the Morannon, they are overtaken by a company of Orcs. They escape, but the burden of the Ring and the torrid conditions begin to break Frodo's will.
Gandalf's plan to distract Sauron from the Ring is successful: Mordor is almost empty as all the remaining Orcs have been summoned to defend the land against the assault of the army led by Gandalf and Aragorn. After a weary and dangerous journey on the road to the Dark Tower itself, Frodo and Sam finally reach their final destination of Mount Doom. As they climb up the Mountain, Gollum attacks them once more; but Frodo is easily able to throw off the starving and emaciated creature. Sam spares Gollum's life in one last show of pity and kicks him down the Mountain. As Frodo is preparing to throw the Ring into the Crack of Doom, he succumbs to the Ring's power and claims it as his own. Just then, Gollum attacks Frodo and bites off his finger and the Ring. Gollum gloats over getting his precious back, but he ends up losing his balance and falls to his death and takes the Ring with him. The Ring is finally destroyed, freeing Middle-earth from Sauron's power. Mount Doom erupts violently, trapping Frodo and Sam among the lava flows until the Great Eagles eventually rescue them. Upon Sauron's defeat, his armies at the Gate flee. Sauron finally appears as a gigantic shadow trying to reach out for the armies of men, but is now powerless and is blown away by a wind. The men under Sauron's command that surrender are forgiven and allowed to return to their lands in peace. Frodo and Sam are saved from the lava, meet again with the other surviving members of the Fellowship, and are then honoured on the Field of Cormallen in Ithilien.
In Minas Tirith, Faramir and Éowyn meet in the Houses of Healing and fall in love with each other, with Éowyn choosing to eschew any further hopes of glory with Aragorn. Aragorn comes to Minas Tirith and is crowned King of Gondor outside the walls of the city in a celebration during which Frodo brings Aragorn the ancient crown of Gondor, and Gandalf places the crown on Aragorn. A healed Faramir is appointed Prince of Ithilien, and Beregond--who saved Faramir's life from the madness of Denethor--is named captain of Faramir's guard. Gandalf and Aragorn go off high above the city and find a seedling of the White Tree, which Aragorn then plants in Minas Tirith in place of the dead tree. Soon after, Arwen, daughter of Elrond of Rivendell, as well as Celeborn and Galadriel come to Minas Tirith, and Aragorn marries Arwen.
A series of goodbyes then takes place, with many riding to Rohan for the burial of Théoden and the wedding of Faramir and Éowyn. They then return to Isengard and find that Treebeard has removed the stone circle, planted trees, and created a lake out of which Orthanc still stands. He informs Gandalf that he let Saruman and Gríma go out of pity, but Gandalf says that Saruman might still be capable of doing some harm. Aragorn says farewell at Isengard. They then overtake Saruman and find that he has completely devolved into meanness and Wormtongue is barely able to act human.
Elrond, Gandalf, and the hobbits return to Rivendell and find that Bilbo has aged tremendously now that the Ring has been destroyed. Elrond advises Frodo that he should be ready to meet them on one last journey soon. They then leave Rivendell and arrive at Bree and find that the little town is in a great state of fear. The innkeeper Butterbur informs the travellers that evil men had come up the Greenway and started trouble, even killing some of the inhabitants, while others like Bill Ferny had joined in with the vagabonds. Butterbur is put at ease and finally understands when they tell him that things will soon improve because Strider is the new king and will come north to stabilize the region. They leave Bree and come to the borders of the Shire where Gandalf leaves them to go and visit Bombadil.
The Hobbits finally return home to the Shire, only to find that the Shire was in ruins, its inhabitants oppressed by Lotho Sackville-Baggins (usually called "The Chief" or "The Boss") who is in reality controlled by a shadowy figure called "Sharkey". Sharkey has taken complete control of the Shire using corrupt Men and half-orcs, and had begun felling trees in a gratuitous programme of industrialization (which actually produces nothing except destruction and misery for the locals). The worst area was around the villages of Bywater and Hobbiton, leading the hobbits to realize that Mordor had come home to them.
Merry, Pippin, Frodo and Sam make plans to set things right once more. With the help of the Cotton family, they lead an uprising of Hobbits and are victorious at the Battle of Bywater which effectively frees the Shire. At the very doorstep of Bag End, they meet Sharkey, who is revealed to be the fallen wizard Saruman, and his much-abused servant Gríma. After Saruman reveals that Gríma has murdered (and probably cannibalized) Lotho, Gríma then jumps on his back and slits his throat. Gríma is himself slain by hobbit archers as he attempts to escape. Saruman's soul is blown away into the east, and his body decays instantly into a skeleton.
Over time, the Shire is healed. The many trees that Saruman's men cut down are replanted with Galadriel's gift of dust used to facilitate growth and a small nut that is planted to replace the party tree; buildings are rebuilt and peace is restored. Sam marries Rosie Cotton, with whom he had been entranced for some time. Merry and Pippin become the Master of Buckland and the Thain of Tuckborough respectively and become renowned as heroes throughout the Shire along with Sam, who will eventually become the Mayor. However, Frodo recedes from the picture and also cannot escape the pain of his wounds, having been stabbed by the Witch-king and poisoned by Shelob in addition to losing a finger. Furthermore, his long burden of carrying the Ring has left him with post-traumatic stress.
Frodo departs for the Undying Lands in the West with Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, and many Elves, including Elrond, and Galadriel. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel all carry with them the Three Elven Rings out of Middle-earth. With their departure, the Third Age ended. Sam, Merry, and Pippin watch Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, and the Elves depart and return home. Now heir to all of Frodo's possessions, Sam returns to Bag End, saddened by Frodo's departure. When Sam returns home at the end of the book, though, he is greeted by Rosie and his daughter, Elanor.
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Anthony Boucher praised the volume as "a masterly narration of tremendous and terrible climactic events", although he also noted that Tolkien's prose "seems sometimes to be protracted for its own sake".