The Return of the King Introduction
In A Nutshell
Here we are, friends, at the end of a long road. We began with The Hobbit and then continued through The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It has been hundreds of pages and thousands of fictional miles, but we're finally at the big payoff for the whole Lord of the Rings series: The Return of the King. And The Return of the King does not disappoint. Not one bit.
How exciting is this book, you ask? Where do we start? With a big fat Spoiler Alert: Not only does Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, actually set himself on fire; not only does Gollum reappear out of the blue in Mordor to attack Frodo with his teeth (um, gross); not only does Éowyn finally get to face the Lord of the Nazgûl in a woman vs. ghost-king battle to the death; but also Aragorn rides straight up to the Black Gate of Mordor to force Sauron into further war. Oh, and Faramir and Éowyn fall in love, in one of the only moments of romance in the whole Lord of the Rings series. Oh, and Tiny Pippin battles his own giant hill-troll. Oh, and (almost) everyone sails into the West. Phew.
Seriously, this is an action-packed book. How could we not love it? And we're not the only ones. We've spent a lot of time in previous "In a Nutshells" (see our learning guides for The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers) describing J.R.R. Tolkien's biography and his sources of inspiration. Now that we're at the last book, it only seems fitting that we mention his influences on later fantasy writers.
See, Tolkien builds up so much momentum and excitement during The Return of the King that when the book ends, you don't want to stop reading. And other writers have picked up the torch, adapting Tolkien's fictional world to their own plot lines. Here are some examples:
Spoiler Alert! We feel really bad for Sean Bean. As the actor who plays Boromir, he gets brutally shot full of arrows at the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. And as Eddard (Ned) Stark, one of the main characters in Game of Thrones, the poor guy gets his head cut off at the end of the first season. Seriously, in his next fantasy acting job, we'd like this dude's character to live all the way to the end of the story.
However, as you can see if you just compare the costuming and visual appearance of Sean Bean as Boromir (in 2001) and Sean Bean as Ned Stark (in 2011), there is a lot of style overlap between the two.
Nonetheless, in terms of content, the swords and the general medieval fantasy setting are the main things that The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have in common. The book on which this show is based focuses much more on political and family drama than on Tolkien's sweeping battles between good and evil. But even if the details of the plot are quite different, we don't think A Game of Thrones would have found its way to television if the mainstream financial success of The Lord of the Rings, both the book and movie versions, hadn't paved the way.
We have to say, the Dark Lord in Harry Potter sounds a lot like Sauron, with his overall meanness, his glowing red eyes, his ability to return from the dead, and his lack of a body (at least early on in the series). And Dumbledore, from his twinkling blue eyes to his long grey beard, is every inch the ideal wise wizard, an image Tolkien made popular with Gandalf the Grey (or should we say white?). While Gandalf the White and Sauron the Enemy don't get the depths of backstory that Rowling gives their Harry Potter counterparts, the connection can't be denied.
Popular British fantasy author Terry Pratchett criticized J.K. Rowling for not owning up to The Lord of the Rings influence. In response to comments from Rowling that she isn't a big fan of fantasy novels, Pratchett joked, "I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds […] would have given her a clue" that the world of Harry Potter owes a big debt to fantasy fiction, especially including Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. (Source.)
You know the word "derivative" (outside of a calculus classroom)? If you describe a book or a movie as "derivative," you mean that it's not particularly original. It's a close imitation of something else (and generally in a bad way). We enjoy games like Dungeons and Dragons as much as the next nerds, but we definitely have to admit that the plots of most fantasy roleplaying games are the same. They usually involve quests, elves, dwarves, treasure, and battles that strongly resemble stuff you'd find in The Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings wouldn't be The Lord of the Rings if it didn't have a whole boatload of derivative fiction following in its footsteps. In our view, the best of the copycats is David Eddings's series The Belgariad (a series of five novels). It's hard to turn a page of these novels and not see a Tolkien echo. But despite their suspiciously familiar elements, these novels are also gripping and even more complicated than The Lord of the Rings itself.
Want proof? Check out this passage from the first book of The Belgariad, Pawn of Prophecy, which bears some eerie similarities to Tolkien:
The old storyteller's voice was now very soft as his ancient tale drew to its close. "And between them," he said, "did Belgarath and his daughter, the Sorceress Polgara, set enchantments to keep watch against the coming of Torak. And some men say that they shall abide against his coming even though it be until the very end of days, for it is prophesied that one day shall maimed Torak come against the kingdoms of the west to reclaim the Orb which he so dearly purchased, and the battle shall be joined between Torak and the fruit of the line of Riva, and in that battle shall be decided the fate of the world." (Source, pg. 24.)
The high-toned use of words like "abide against" instead of "wait for" sounds really Tolkien-like, sure. But even beyond the way this paragraph sounds is the Tolkien-ness of the content. That "old storyteller" is Belgarath, a seven thousand year-old sorcerer in disguise as a roaming old man with twinkling eyes: Gandalf much? And Belgarath the Sorcerer is just waiting for the coming of Sauron—oops, sorry, we mean Torak, the evil villain, who is working to rise again and destroy the world.
Torak is looking for the "Orb [of Aldur]", a magic stone with a piece of soul in it. So, like the One Ring, it's a living magical object with enormous power, which everybody keeps trying to steal. Even that bit about the "kingdoms of the west" is Tolkien-ish, when you recall that Tolkien's men of the Westernesse are the descendants of the first men who came to Middle-earth from the island of Númenor (which is west on Tolkien's maps).
There's no way around it: Eddings definitely owes a huge debt to Tolkien. But if you've reached the end of The Return of the King and you can't bear to leave Middle-earth behind, The Belgariad might help to satisfy your appetite for epic fantasy until you're ready to go back and reread the The Lord of the Rings sequence again.
Then again, you could just head back to The Hobbit and start all over again. We'll meet you there.
Why Should I Care?
If you check out our WSICs (that's insider Shmoop talk for the "Why Should I Care?" sections) from the learning guides for Tolkien's other novels—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Hobbit—you'll find discussions of coming of age, overcoming obstacles, and friendship. These are the themes that have kept us (and Tolkien's main characters) going through the Ring quest when things have gotten dark and difficult.
But now, The Return of the King changes everything. The hobbits have come of age. The War of the Rings is ending. The elves are setting sail. Many of the books' best friends have to part ways, even though they still care deeply for each other. Let's face it. This book is deeply bittersweet. But that's why we love it: this is a novel that truly respects the emotion that we have invested in this fictional world, and recognizes how much we are going to miss these characters when they go.
The Return of the King is like a high school graduation for Tolkien's characters: they've finished their educations as leaders and fighters, and they are now ready to settle down into the next period of their lives. They have (metaphorically speaking) signed each others' yearbooks. They have promised to stay in touch. There'll be the Middle-earth equivalent of a Facebook group for the Class of 3021, which they'll use to exchange updates and baby pictures (mostly from Sam Gamgee, since that guy is going to have a huge family). And they'll totally get together for reunions now and again to catch up. Well, those of them who haven't disappeared beyond the sea, at least.
But now, the Fourth Age is beginning. That old era of Middle-earth life—you know, the one with elves in the forests and dwarves in the caverns and the huge battles between Good and Evil—has ended. Merry, Pippin, Sam, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and even Frodo all made it through Advanced AP Defeating Sauron. And they are ready to start their new jobs as kings or mayors or residents of the West or whatever they've chosen to do with their time. It's great that the future is so bright for Our Heroes. The Fourth Age sounds like it'll be fantastic. But it won't be the same as the world to which Tolkien spent a thousand pages introducing us.
The thing is, Tolkien clearly loves Middle-earth, and we have grown to love it, too. It's a sign of a truly great novel that Tolkien can make us so sad to lose a world that doesn't even exist in the first place. But we also enjoy these final chapters of farewell to Our Heroes. They deserve the time that Tolkien takes to say goodbye.
And we can also take comfort: now that we're nearing the end of the actual Lord of the Rings, we can always go off and check out one of the many (many) hundreds of books that were inspired by Tolkien's series. After all, a whole genre of epic fantasy basically started because generations of writers and directors and game designers read that last page of The Return of the King, felt the pang of sorrow that we're describing at the end of the series, and thought: "No, there must be more to say!" The nostalgia of The Return of the King is powerful enough to drive a whole industry of authors and producers to write many millions of pages of their own sword-and-sorcery dramas, which is not something that just any novel can say.