We've always had a bit of a problem with the way The Return of the King ends. It seems like such a let-down: Frodo comes back to the Shire after helping to save all of Middle-earth from Sauron, and instead of being a hero, most of the Shire thinks he has gone completely 'round the bend. And then Frodo chooses to sail away into the West with Gandalf and Elrond and the other great elves of the land. So Frodo has fought and nearly died for Middle-earth, and he doesn't even get to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Instead, he has another epic journey ahead of him. How is that fair?
But we've thought this over. And we think we understand what Tolkien is trying to say: Tolkien doesn't want us to get the idea that it's possible to have war without cost. That everything ends well, and gets tied up with a pretty ribbon. In a fight as serious as the War of the Rings, there will be losses. While we feel kind of bitter that Tolkien doesn't just let us have a straightforward happy ending, we also respect his decision to make The Return of the King more realistic than that.
The bittersweetness of the end of The eturn of the King, where Frodo has achieved his quest but also can't recover from it, is how we know that the War of the Rings isn't a fairy tale. It's a novel about war, and about the consequences of fighting against evil.
We get into this issue of Frodo's fate in greater detail in Frodo's "Character Analysis." But we bring it up because Frodo leaving Middle-earth is only part of —
It's not just Frodo who ditches Middle-earth for the West (which seems to be Middle-earthese for "heaven"). Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel all hit the high seas as well. See, Sauron was an ancient enemy of the elves. They fought with him thousands of years ago, when he first rose up and tried to take over Middle-earth. Now that he's gone, Middle-earth doesn't really need the elves. It's time for them to make way for men, the main residents of Middle-earth in this new age.
Tolkien emphasizes that the elves' passing away is natural. They have been in Middle-earth a looooong time, and they've stopped growing as a people. But even if the elves are leaving because they want to and because it's time, it's still just plain sad. As Gimli says, "But all fair folk take to the Havens, it will be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay" (5.9.20). The elves are clearing the way for the next generation of Middle-earthers, but Middle-earth will still be less beautiful as a result.
(Sidebar: Gimli mentions the Havens. He's talking about the Grey Havens, which is the name of the harbor on the western coast of Middle-earth near the Shire. That's where the elven ships depart for Elvenhome across the sea.)
We can think of The Lord of the Rings as a coming-of-age story for all of the ordinary folk of Middle-earth. They faced the horrors of Sauron alongside great people like Gandalf and Elrond. But now, hobbits like Merry and Pippin have grown up enough to look after themselves. They don't need to use wise men and magic as crutches; they are ready to take responsibility and do their own thing. This is basically Gandalf's main message to the hobbits:
You must settle [the Shire's] affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you. (6.7.67)
In other words, it is time for the Shire-folk to step up, because Gandalf & Co. will no longer be around to take care of business. That's the real message of the ending of The Return of the King: that the hobbits as a group have grown up now.
We're glad that Sam, Merry, and Pippin have become strong enough that they can deal with everything on their own. But we still miss Lothlórien and Rivendell. Maybe it is proof of how great a writer Tolkien truly is that he can make us so nostalgic and homesick for places that exist only in our imaginations.
If you have already seen the movies but you are coming to the The Lord of the Rings books for the first time, you might be surprised to see Saruman turning up in the Shire at the end of The Return of the King. Didn't he fall off a giant tower and plunge to his death in the third installment?
Nope, that version of Saruman's fate was an invention of director Peter Jackson's — one that, according to the "Appendices" on the DVD special edition of The Return of the King, Saruman actor Christopher Lee didn't like too much.
Christopher Lee is a huge Tolkien fanboy, and he has been rereading the series once a year for decades. As a true fan of the books, he thought that tossing Saruman off a building changed too much of the original The Return of the King plot. But since the theatrical cut of The Return of the King is already three hours and twenty minutes long, we can see why Jackson didn't want to get into the whole Saruman-Seeks-Revenge-on-Frodo-and-Company-By-Going-to-the-Shire-and-Enslaving-the-Hobbits plot arc on top of everything else.
But lucky for you, Shmoop is more than up to the task. For more on the hobbits' return to the Shire and the final fight with Saruman, check out our "Character Analysis" section; also see our entry on "The Mallorn-Tree" in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory."