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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Review: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Return of the King - J.R.R. Tolkien

When it comes to series or trilogies or anything divided up into separate parts, I always tend to enjoy the conclusions the most. It's especially so in a work like this one. All the threads of the story are coming together into a rousing climax, which is much faster-paced in the movie, but leaves a more lasting impact in the book.

I read this as a kid, which explains in part my fascination with it. The symbolism of corruptive power in the One Ring, the nostalgia of glorious kingdoms long gone only to be restored when Aragorn reclaims his birthright, the clash of great armies on the battlefield, etc.

I have to say that in this book, Frodo and Sam's journey doesn't quite resonate with me. I have a bit of an aversion to lonely heroes grappling with their issues in the isolated wilderness, more of an inclination towards interpersonal conflicts. I can see the ingenuity in it though. Unlike most fantasy authors who rely on destroying magic items for defeating the villain, the idea of the One Ring works because it draws on an extremely fleshed out mythological backstory that grounds the plot from the very beginning, most clearly with the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. Some readers find this dense and pointless, but my geeky 11-year-old self sucked everything up unbelievably fast, perhaps because of my obsession with Norse mythology at the time.

Being a kid, I also had a habit of fixing on really minor details whose importance was highly disproportionate to the word count devoted to them. Eowyn caught my attention from the second she walked on stage, which I guess is fairly reasonable in a story pretty much starved of female characters. My major complaint with the actual Fellowship of nine was that there were no girls in it (which come on, let's admit it, would have been awesome). I remember seeing the names "Pippin" and "Merry" in the beginning of the story and giggling with delight at the thought of some major female characters, until I saw the "he" pronoun, which was a disappointment. Then came Eowyn--not the distant lover in Arwen, not the grand figure of Galadriel, but a female warrior who takes on a fake name, dresses up in armor, and kicks some serious ass on the battlefield. Well duh, that's going to spark the imagination of someone whose favorite Disney movie is Mulan.

What also fascinated me about Eowyn was that Tolkien's handling of her was so ambiguous. I loved the romance with Faramir, which, like the female characters, isn't surprising in a book starved of romance. The whole part is...hmm, not really vague so much as ethereal. The House of Healing are completely removed from all the death and violence that's going on, but the whole section still encompasses the fear of destruction and hopes for lasting peace. Both characters have suffered rejection and the threat of death, which is why I don't really agree with the interpretation that Eowyn's ending is really a "taming of the wild woman" so much as a relief from the restlessness she's felt her entire life, and a reminder that even the people most deeply scarred from war can still find emotional resolution in their lives, especially with others who have gone through similar experiences.

I think that speaks to my favorite aspect of this novel: the feeling of disparate friends joining together in comradeship because righting the social and political wrongs can only succeed through a combined effort. Aragorn and his friends need to trust that Frodo and Sam will do what needs to be done and destroy the Ring, which is quite a staggering decision to make considering that the two groups are actually apart for the vast majority of the story, and because Frodo is a fairly average guy as heroes go. The recurring theme of friendship provides a level of optimism that tempers the sense of loss we feel when we realize that Frodo has been irrevocably changed by his time with the One Ring, along the other sad parts of the story (Scouring of the Shire, Aragorn's inevitable death in the appendices).

Back to Eowyn though: her marriage to Faramir raised a lot of questions for me, as it did for many readers: is Tolkien just squashing her agency? Why does she have to give up her career for a guy, and does she relinquish a large part of who she is when she does? I didn't really think so. Maybe Eowyn gives up being a "shieldmaiden" because she's a woman, maybe she does it because the War of the Ring has been won and there's no more battles to be fought, no more duty to fulfill by going to war. These people are trying to achieve domestic peace after all. It's difficult to tell though, because Eowyn is the only female character with this kind of arc, and that's probably my biggest problem with this work. I struggled to come to terms with Tolkien's distant attitude towards women as a child and I still struggle with it now. It's not really that there's such a small number of female characters (although that could be improved), it's that there's almost no room for them to exist. Still quite a problem with fantasy today; women will be sidelined simply by default.

Another subplot that particularly interested me was the one with Faramir and Denethor. We get a measure of psychological depth that isn't quite there in the rest of the story. My memory is a little patchy when it comes to Faramir--I can't remember if there was much concerning his own emotional struggles when being the second favorite son, but Denethor's conflicted resentment towards Faramir, slowly turning into madness when his appreciation for his only remaining son comes too late when Faramir returns home injured, is one of the most tragic stories in this book, in part because it's unusually personal as well as inevitable. We get such a vivid depiction of a man grasping at power that's no longer his, and the sense of humiliation that comes with that disconnect. I guess it showed to me what happens when a kingdom has no real leader, in the case of this story a leader without legitimacy. If it ruined Denethor to the extent that it did, how would you heal the entire kingdom? Makes you wonder what Aragorn's rule would be like, and if it'll be enough to reverse the damage Gondor suffered prior to Sauron's defeat.

Sorry if this is too "incorrect" of a review. I've tried explaining why I love LotR multiple times since coming to online reading communities and usually ended up saying "great plot, great characters, great world-building." I realize now that the last thing I should do is to put LotR on a pedestal, because it doesn't need it. This is a story that captures the scope of human conflict as well as a story that speaks to the heart. The review is basically my 11-year-old interpretation, expressed in words I've only managed to find now. That should say something pretty strong in LotR's favor about its ability to leave a lasting impression.