Sunday, June 17, 2012
The Return of the King
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Have you ever heard the cascade of notes in the first movement of Ludwig von Beethoven's Sonata Quasi Fantasia (aka Moonlight Sonata) leading up to the last section? A heavy, solid note holds the deep bass while slow notes work their way up to the near top of the keyboard before decaying back in flats and sharps to the ordinary range of the rest of the piece, decrescendoing back to near silence before resolving in a slow, steady, bittersweet rhythm toward the end.
I suppose that the best word, although it is somewhat hollow, is moving.
J.R.R. Tolkien's conclusion to The Lord of the Rings series is the masterpiece of the collection, if not his career. Not only does he conclude the tale of the One Ring with grace and suspense, but he subtly weaves in the pain which must come with the end of journeys, even the darkest ones.
The Return of the King picks up with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in the aftermath of the victory at Helm's Deep instead of with the annoyingly enticing cliffhanger with Frodo and Sam at the end of The Two Towers. Gandalf and Pippin take up places in the capital of the realm of Gondor, Minas Tirith, preparing for the last great assault of Mordor. Aragorn is at last ready to take his place as the rightful king of Gondor, and makes preparations to defend his people. Rohan, still weary from the assault of Isengard, nobly agrees to go to Gondor's aid, but Gondor is sick from the inside with attacks from the Enemy and despair.
Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are at last inside the borders of Mordor, and prepare to cross the great black desert to the raging Mount Doom to at last finish their "errand." Interestingly, Sam takes over the main point of view, giving us most of the details about Frodo from his rock-solid perspective. Frodo is on the brink of destruction; he sees hallucinations, is thin as a ghost, and stumbles across the black rocks and pits toward his goal. However, they still maintain their friendship, and one can see the thin, brave smiles radiating from their worn-out faces, so far from home.
Perhaps it's unfair to say that Tolkien's character development is outstanding, as he has had three novels to explore each one, but the simple fact is that the characters are nearly tangible. Tolkien is somewhat of a minimalist in his writing style (some of the dialogues are reminiscent of the Bible in their bare-bones lack of embellishment), which makes it all the more evident that the characters develop themselves. Aragorn is a blooming human being: he has been on a path to becoming the King all along, but rather than changing dynamically, he grows more and more with each scene. "The Houses of Healing," a chapter roughly in the middle of the first section, details his person without directly following him; we watch him build a reputation amongst his people for being a healer king, kind, strong, intelligent, and trustworthy. Tolkien subtly reintroduces us to a character we know extremely well through the eyes of his people, causing us to blink and realize that our pet hero has grown up.
On a side note, the friendships portrayed in this novel show Tolkien's deep understanding of the human scene. There is the mischievous childhood friendship between Merry and Pippin, co-dependent and coexistent; the quiet, adult friendship between Legolas and Gimli, which is based on mutual understanding and cross-cultural similarities, disregarding race; and the deep, enduring companionship between Frodo and Sam, which literally withstands hellfire and brimstone, both exploring and enjoying the other as a person. Some of the scenes between Frodo and Sam are nearly tearjerking with the sweet emotion in the actions and exchanges. The author shows us that each relationship is different, formed on aspects of each member's character, evolving and changing along the way to become something beautiful and unique.
Sam's character is perhaps second only to Aragorn in completion. We step inside his thoughts a great deal on the long, bleak trek across Mordor, understanding his simple, practical thoughts that have grown from roots and potatoes to lembas bread and holding up his staggering master. He understands "good" on a very basic level, applying it only as he can accomplish it, offering to share the Ring with Frodo if only to give him ten easier steps. And once we reach "The Scouring of the Shire," we are jolted again with the idea that we blinked and Sam grew up into a hero, the savior of the Shire.
Near the end, there is a chapter titled "Many Partings." Although every good story necessitates a good ending, the idea that each member of the Fellowship must go back to his world is tearful and heartbreaking. Again Tolkien displays how well he understands human nature; to quote Shakespeare, "Parting is such sweet sorrow." Saying goodbye means that the task is done, the work is over, and peace has come, but it also means that there must now be a new world, and that everything has changed. This is the bittersweet melody that pierces throughout the end of the novel, to the last step into the last doorway of home.
If any novel is worth reading for the pure value of the language and the characters, it is The Return of the King (let alone the massively epic battle scenes and beautiful world description). It's available in the Kindle store for $8.32, and you can get a paperback from Amazon for only forty cents more, but the hardback is worth having for $16.50. Many publishers sell all three volumes in box sets, and that is a justified expense.
Oh, and don't be daunted by the length when you pick it up-- a great deal of it is appendix, full of adjunct information about the world, language, and history. It is worth scanning if you're interesting, reading if you're dedicated, and studying if you're obsessed, as this is the source that many Lord of the Rings nerds learn their Elvish from. Tolkien has included full histories of the monarchies of Rohan and Gondor, as well as information regarding the background of Arwen and Aragorn.
"At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire, but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road."