The Good: Decent character work, Pacing, Good beginning
The Bad: Cheap plot trick, Still reads like a history text, It never ends!
The Basics: As war rages through Middle Earth, Tolkien attempts to trick the reader with cheap writing devices and ends the story well before the book is over.
While I have said, quite vocally, in my film reviews, that Peter Jackson made a huge mistake where he ended The Two Towers movie, having read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return Of The King, I have all sorts of new respect for Jackson and his movie. Tolkien's book has three basic problems; like the first two novels, the third reads like a history text, it relies on a cheap plot trick to keep interest into the final volume of the novel, and it simply doesn't know when it end.
The Return Of The King finds the former Fellowship divided. As Pippen and Gandalf take to Minas Tirith because of Pippen's curiosity over the palantir, Merry finds himself pledging his loyalty to Theodin and finds himself in the company of a kind, quiet warrior, as Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas attempt to gain allies. After half the book is over, we finally rejoin Frodo, Sam and the journey of the One Ring as they race to destroy the source of all evil in Middle Earth.
The problem with The Return Of The King, fundamentally, is that it builds up the story of the members of the Fellowship for such a long time in the hopes to add dramatic tension, when - in fact - it undermines it. By saving Frodo's predicament to the last half of the book, the reader knows there is an important portion of the story being neglected. As a result, such conceits that Tolkien takes, like having the villains drop Frodo's armor in front of the heroes to declare the Hobbit as dead, are ridiculous. After all, Tolkien would not reveal the death of the principle character as a tease and then simply explain how it happened in the second half. Furthermore, the attempt goes against common sense beyond all suspension of disbelief; Tolkien attempt to trick the reader into believing Frodo is dead and evil is taunting the heroes, in contrast to the menace the Ring has been said to have up until this point. In simpler terms, Tolkien fails to make the reader believe his cheap tricks because the reader with a brain knows if Frodo is dead and Evil has the One Ring, it would not taunt the heroes, it would simply sweep over them and kill them all.
Moreover, one of the most important aspects of the novel, Aragorn gaining allies from an unlikely source, comes out of nowhere. After setting up the hopeless situation quite well, Tolkien whips out a tremendous ace in the hole and that does not read right.
Outside that, the novel is written with little detail or linguistic magic, continuing to treat a fantasy epic like a historical text. The result is that much of the war story and action therein is less thrilling, more tactically-based. While the book has good pace in those sections, it is not as exciting as something like the movie The Return Of The King. And they are two different animals.
For those who have not read the first two books in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy - The Fellowship Of The Ring review is available here! and The Two Towers review is available here! - it is utterly pointless to start with The Return Of The King. It's a trilogy, this is the third book! The importance of the characters or their actions will be devoid of real meaning without the other two books.
That said, the good thing about the book is that it does deal with the characters in an interesting and respectful way. Minor characters, like Pippen, suddenly take on tremendous importance, making all of the other pieces of the story fall together nicely for him. Similarly, Merry's, the other hobbit who is accompanying the men, role becomes more important and more defined, making his place in the first and second book more than simply a necessary evil.
The best character work, however, takes place via three characters. Aragorn, the man that the title of the book refers to, finally makes the character leap that Gandalf has been egging him to make the entire time. Aragorn takes responsibility for himself, casts off centuries of doubt and insecurity and rises to King, becoming a leader of more than simply a pathetic band on an impressive quest. Now, Aragorn takes control of armies and the wills of those who would swear allegiance to him.
Gollum, though he makes most of his character work in The Two Towers, makes an impressive leap forward by illustrating the power of the One Ring over his life. Gollum's decent into madness is completed in this book and his character's resolution works to change everything, especially the outcome of Frodo and Sam's quest.
Character-wise, the real winner of The Return Of The King is Sam. More than Frodo, Sam dominates the latter half of the novel as a hobbit of action, determination and unflinching resolve. Sam becomes a symbol for the strength of good over the most heinous evil. Unlike others in the series (i.e. Boromir and Frodo), Sam does not try to use the tool of Evil even to accomplish a true and honorable goal. In fact, the One Ring continues to repel Sam, making his determination to do good seem more real. He remains a steadfast and true symbol to the end.
The problem is, the end does not come at the end of the last chapter. Volume 6 (the last half of the novel The Return Of The King) effectively ends after only a few chapters, but well over one hundred pages from the end of the final chapter. Allow me to explain: J.R.R. Tolkien attempts to illustrate that following the War of the Ring, Middle Earth is irrevocably changed. Thus, following the resolution to the war, much time and many many pages are spent in a tour back through Middle Earth to see the lands the Fellowship passed through. The bulk of the end of the book returns the Hobbits to Hobbiton to find it taken over by a dark force and it is the story of how the Hobbits liberate their homeland.
And it's boring. It is flat-out dull. If you saw the movie The Return Of The King and wondered when it was going to finally end once and for all, imagine a hundred pages of reading and feeling the same thing. The "Scouring of the Shire," as it is called, plods on and on and has the feeling of Tolkien simply not knowing when to end the book. Whatever magic surrounded Middle Earth is beaten to a pulp and squeezed out by the time Tolkien is done with this last book.
The real detriment of the scouring of the Shire is that it completes a book, already flimsy on character and top-heavy on historical-style narration, by destroying any real genuine notion of character. That is, because the Hobbits get involved in another adventure, they fail to reflect in a meaningful way on the magnitude of the adventure they were already on. In short, the importance of attempting to destroy the One Ring is undermined completely by devoting so much time and energy to cleaning up a small country under siege after the task is done.
Far better would have been an exploration of how the Ring and the traumas inflicted on the Hobbits by the War affected them. More poignant to illustrate the importance of the war in which the Hobbits fought would be to return home to the Shire and find there was no place for them there, that their experiences alienated them from all those they previously held dear. In short, Tolkien takes the emphasis for the horrors of war away from the individuals and places it instead on the country, undermining the importance of all of it.
The Return of the King does have good pace in the beginning, up through Frodo and Sam reaching Mount Doom. After that, the page turner (no matter the illogical leaps Tolkien asks the reader to make) quickly turns into a drifting boat that doesn't know when to sink.
For other fantasy novels I have reviewed, please check out:
Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger
I, Strahd - P.N. Elrod
Wonder Woman: Mythos - Carol Lay
For other book reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing by clicking here!
© 2010, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.