The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ★★★★★

Lord of the Rings

In Tolkien’s magnificent essay “On Fairy Stories”, he notes that fairy-stories are remarkable because they are consistent within themselves and with the truths of reality. The Tolkien estate calls the essay “Tolkien’s definitive statement about his art — which he called “Sub-Creation” — and the concept that lies behind it — the power of words to create a Secondary World.” Here he coined the term “eucatastrophe” which he said is “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” at the end of a story that averts disaster. Tolkien said fairy stories (or tales) are uniquely set up to move beyond catharsis to eucatastrophe, saying that “the eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function”, it gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world” that does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure but provides hope for something beyond defeat.

He said this was also to produce "joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love." This quality of "joy" can be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth, as Tolkien said the ultimate eucatastrophe is the story of Christ, a fairy-story that happened in the Primary world of God's creation, whereas other fairy-stories occur in Secondary worlds of sub-creation.

As he gave the lecture (in 1938) that later became this essay during the first phases of writing LotR, it shows that Tolkien put his (philosophical) house in order before putting his thoughts into practice for the journey to Mount Doom.

When Frodo reaches Mount Doom, the story narrows its scope to the heart of the conflict (as the battle at the Field of Cormallen is a distraction from the real battle) taking place at Mount Doom, particularly in Frodo’s heart.
The battle of good and evil in the world isn’t between inherently good and evil people, it takes place in the hearts and minds of all men. The most meaningful moral moments are not grand gestures of heroism and courage in battle, but small, personal decisions to show mercy and resist evil. While Frodo has carried the burden and resisted the Ring’s power and influence for so long, he too succumbs to temptation. This affirms Tolkien's Catholicism, this belief that temptation and corruption are inherent to the nature of man. Frodo hasn’t just been resisting the Ring, he has been resisting part of his very nature. Tolkien said “one must face the fact: the power of evil in the world is not finally irresistible by incarnate creatures, however good . . . it is possible for the good even the saintly to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome - in themselves.” (Letters 191 & 192)

Frodo finally stands inside Mount Doom, ready to destroy the Ring. Ages ago, after Sauron’s physical defeat, Isildur was unable to destroy the Ring and could not resist taking it for himself. And again, history repeats itself and Frodo finally succumbs to the Ring’s power, deciding to keep the Ring for himself — whereupon Gollum leaps on him and bities off his finger and the Ring with it. Even Gollum’s years of building up a bone-crushing bite under the mountains prepared him to fulfill his essential role.
“But Gollum, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shown now as if verily it was wroght of living fire . . . And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.” (ROTK p188)
In the book, Gollum lost his balance and fell into the fire, in the film, the wounded Frodo rises to continues the struggle with Gollum, and they both fall over the edge — though Frodo catches hold of a rock and is rescued by Sam.
The irony of Sauron’s defeat is the force that kept him alive (the desire that all feel for the Ring) is what eventually delivered his defeat. Tolkien’s moral philosophy is on full display here: good cannot always destroy evil, but evil will always destroy itself. This scene symmetrically parallels Sauron’s initial defeat to illustrate the idea of evil being self-defeating. Just as Sauron lost a finger in the moment of his defeat, he is again defeated after the sacrifice of Frodo’s finger.
It’s important to note the concept of Mercy at work here, which was initially given to Gollum when Bilbo spared his life (in the Hobbit) and when Frodo spared Gollum at the forbidden pool (and numerous times after that). If Bilbo and Frodo had not shown mercy to Gollum, he would not have been at Mount Doom, and the Ring would not have been destroyed. In Middle Earth, people will not remember that Frodo took mercy on Gollum, even though it was one of Frodo’s most important moral acts to destroy the Ring. “In this case the cause (not Frodo) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury . . . all was redressed and disaster was averted.” (Tolkien Letter 192)
Recalling Plato’s argument, Tolkien also argues that this would inevitably happen to anyone. It is doubtful whether any bearer would have been allowed by the Ring to throw it in. Tolkien shows that mortals are too fallible to achieve redemption ourselves — that we eventually succumb to temptation, and are consequently dependent upon divine aid, here embodied in the providence that turned Gollum’s evil intent for good, sparing Frodo the consequences of his actions and destroying the Ring. This grace comes to Frodo as a reward not only for his faithfulness, but also for his continual mercy to Gollum, whom he repeatedly refused to kill even when he had reason and opportunity. It’s a reminder that Providence can work through the most wretched to bring about something beautiful and redemptive. It is a reminder that even Sméagol was created for goodness, and even though the Ring caused him to wander from his original path, providence could still work through him to help heal the world.

This has often been described as a failure for Frodo, which would indicate a weakness and Frodo has been anything but weak. He succeeded in bringing the Ring to Mt. Doom without it falling into Sauron’s hand. Not only did Frodo take the Ring to a point that seemed completely out of reach, but its destruction comes as a result of his mercy.
Gollum was always necessary, even though Gandalf did not know why. Frodo, with Sam’s astonishingly selfless support, succeeded completely in the quest that was within his abilities. Furthermore, Gollum was alive because Frodo had kept him alive, so his presence there, too, was part of Frodo’s success: by being the person he was, Frodo was able to succeed beyond his own strength. Looking at his journey, Frodo had overcome more than anyone would have expected and more than others would have been able to manage. Frodo went as far as Man could go (if not more) with his act of mercy allowing the divine grace of Iluvatar to intervene and destroy the Ring.

Frodo acknowledges that Gollum did indeed play his part at the end, and chooses to forgive him for his betrayal; without which, Frodo would not have been able to fulfil his quest. Unlike Boromir, Gollum chose to follow his worst instincts. He too could have chosen to repent and make amends but attacked when he had the chance. Through Smeagol, Tolkien shows how far sin can corrupt human thought. Interestingly, it is strongly implied that it is simply kindness that has the most potential to encourage redemption, as it is Frodo’s mercy and compassion towards Smeagol that drew out his better side, that causes his near-repentance in The Two Towers, and that offered him forgiveness even after his betrayal and death. Tolkien seems to suggest that redemption is not only about an individual seeking mercy; it is about others offering it to them as well. Gollum (perhaps more than any other character) secretly desired redemption, but could not bring himself to accept it. The theme of redemption was so important to Tolkien that he wrote that the greatest tragedy in LotR was that Gollum had no such salvation by the end, despite his important role in the fulfillment of the quest.
“We are assured that we must be ourselves extravagantly generous, it we are to hope for the extravagant generosity which the slightest easing of, or escape from, the consequences of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy sometimes occurs in this life.” (Letter 192)

We all have different limits of temptation and are tempted by different things. It is implausible that someone will always act morally when put in a stressful situation (like Tolkien in WW1), it’s understandable that in real life acting morally may be beyond us. What matters to Tolkien is the process of striving to reach that moral limit, and the struggle itself is a moral struggle. This is why Aragorn and Legolas don’t blame Frodo for succumbing to temptation when they learn about it afterwards, they understand the reality of evil and temptation. Moral limits are met with an even more powerful force in the grace of God. Tolkien rejects the idea of the paragon in Frodo, not merely to show man’s natural inclinations towards evil, but also to say that forgiveness cannot be earned through good works and that forgiveness should be given freely.

Tolkien linked this to the Lord’s Prayer, saying "that within the mode of the story [it] exemplifies (an aspect of) the familiar words: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil'".
Tolkien makes the Biblical symbolism even more unmistakable, noting that this event occurred on "the twenty-fifth of March." Tom Shippey, notes the significance of this date in his book, The Road to Middle Earth, that in "Anglo-Saxon belief, and in European popular tradition both before and after that, March 25 is the date of the Crucifixion." It is also the Feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of the absolute center of all history when God became incarnate as man.

Sam studies and concentrates all the time. He recounts that when he was a child he had learned everything he could from Bilbo, “crazy stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr Bilbo has learned him his letters-meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it” (FR, p. 24). Sam became an extraordinary scholar for someone born into an illiterate family. By studying with Bilbo, he learned about Elves and the history of the First Age, and with that knowledge he is able to survive the journey to Mount Doom.

Sam models a persevering will and refuses to give into despair. On the quest, Sam exemplifies true bravery as he is (along with the other Hobbits) at a disadvantage, besides his knowledge he has nothing to fall back on: he is small, he has no strength, no skills with weapons and no experience with enemies of war; Sam had nothing but his heart and will, and still he embarked into the unknown.

Sam wasn't given the responsibility of the Ring, and he was of lower status than the ringbearer, he was Frodo and Bilbo’s gardener at Bag End. Other characters throughout are motivated by guilt, revenge, duty or fear, in contrast to Sam who serves out of love, embodying Matthew 20:26. He pledged his allegiance to Frodo, and he is a man of his word.
Sam was always faithful to their friendship, even when Frodo begins to be corrupted by Gollum’s influence, and believes that Sam plots to take the Ring. After Frodo mistreats and leaves Sam, he still returns to rescue Frodo. Sam wounds and drives off Shelob, and using his limited book knowledge to its fullest, he is able to overcome Mordor’s challenges in the Tower of Cirith Ungol and save Frodo and the Ring. He carries Frodo (and thus the ring) the rest of the way when Frodo no longer has the strength.

Perhaps why Sam did not display temptation for the Ring is Sam has everything he wanted: companionship. So the ring can not control him with his desires as they are already met. This is why sam only sees the ring for what it is, a threat. Sam does start to be corrupted by the Ring during the one day he carried it while Frodo was held captive. In the books, he starts thinking about how dry and dead Mordor is, and how he, as a gardener with the Ring could command a whole nation to make Mordor fertile. But he almost immediately realizes how silly the notion of a Gardener-King would be. This is why Hobbits made good Ring bearers, the Ring plays on people's desires, and Hobbits have such simple ambitions, it's difficult to convince them they want to rule the world. Hobbits are unique because, as Gandalf put it, "[they] are a far more peaceful and innocent people at their heart, but while this may slow the corruption of the ring, it cannot stop it forever." This is also why Bilbo was able to hold onto the ring for so long and not fall into total darkness.

Throughout the journey, Sam has rationed their food for the return journey and speaks often of the Shire. Though when Sam offers his last drops of water to Frodo: though Frodo protested “we won’t have enough for the return trip”. Sam accepts that “I don’t think we’re going home”. This moment had been built up very well. He had never left home and he was drafted into war against his will. Sam showed his quality and maturity as he accepted his sacrificial role.

Sam’s however refuses to fall into despair and remarks that without the lembas bread he and Frodo would “long ago have lain down to die.” Sam becomes aware that even if they do reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring, “they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless, in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.” Aside from this, his best friend is being mentally and physically eradicated; Frodo is quiet as they climb the mountain, and when Sam lifts him he is surprised to find Frodo weighing no more than a “hobbit-child.” And yet:
“So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,’ thought Sam: ‘to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all. I can’t think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand, if there hadn’t a’ been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things all went wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn’t. He would have done something.’ But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.” (RK b6, ch3)

Sam experienced a classic hero’s journey: called into a big world beyond his purview and overcomes the final challenge through his will to face death and carry Frodo up the mountain. He returns home, marries his sweetheart, and becomes mayor for life.

One of my favorite passages of the book:
After the Ring is destroyed, Frodo and Sam awake to find themselves in the Field of Cormallen. “‘Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?’ [Gandalf] said. But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happening to the world?" ‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed. ‘How do I feel?’ he cried. ‘Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel’ — he waved his arms in the air — ‘I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!’

Later the Hobbits are brought before the host of men and met with great praise: “and all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all the men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.” (RK b6 ch4)

Tolkien had direct experience as a soldier in the trenches of WW1, (particularly in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in the war) where all of his friends died. This experience of returning home after war is illustrated through Frodo, as he laments “there is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same, I am wounded with knife, sting and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?” (RK b6 ch7) The scars and trauma of war are physically manifested in Frodo’s lost finger: a reminder of the wounds that he will never fully recover from.
Frodo sees himself as a failure, however he is still welcomed by Ilúvatar when he sails to the great havens.

It is Sam and his descendants who inherit (the 4th age of) Middle Earth. The Elves, Gandalf, and Frodo leave Middle Earth soon after the quest is completed. Sam is going to keep alive the memory of the things that were, he will be the keeper of the lore and history. The Red Book of WestMarch will be passed on through his family line.
Sam represents the working-class men who began to assert themselves after WWI and WWII brought the old class system in England to an end. This ushered in merit and enterprise to be more important than lineage. (Frodo is upper class in the Shire. And Frodo's time is coming to an end.) Tolkien affirmed that there is always hope, always another tomorrow and another generation. Even though the generation of Frodo, Merry, Pippen and Samwise might be damaged (as was the generation of the trenches), they did their job knowing that it was to preserve today as to give tomorrow to the next generation (Sam and Rosie’s children).

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