For what's happened up to this point in our tale, check out our "Summaries" in the Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers learning guides. And now, on with the third and final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King.
Gandalf and Pippin ride hard to Minas Tirith, the main city of Gondor, where Pippin meets Denethor the Steward, and becomes the crazy old man's servant. Nice one, Pip. Back in Rohan, Aragorn, Merry, Legolas, Gimli, Théoden, and the king's guards are riding to the fortress of Dunharrow from the ruins of Isengard. With these new allies, Aragorn makes up his mind to go round up some extra help for Rohan, in the form of dead ghost soldiers. Yep, you heard that right.
After spurning Éowyn's attempts to convince him not to go, Aragorn and his buds disappear into the dark and menacing tunnel that is the Paths of the Dead, where he rallies the ghosts to fight for the Good Side (thanks to the help of an old, handy oath). Meanwhile, Théoden plans to ride for Minas Tirith as quickly as he can, and Merry and Éowyn, who is disguised as a man, come along in secret.
They had better hurry, because things in Gondor are headed south. Faramir is at the brink of death, after attempting to fend off the forces of Mordor (thanks to a sad need to impress his insane papa). Denethor, meanwhile, has totally gone 'round the bend, and is sure there's no hope left. Gandalf takes control of Minas Tirith's defense, while Denethor makes plans to burn himself and his son Faramir alive. Hey, now there's an idea. A bad one.
When all this chaos is at its height, Rohan arrives to lend a helping hand in combat. The surprise attack is effective, and the Riders of Rohan fight the orcs furiously. But Théoden gets fatally wounded in a scuffle with the Lord of the Nazgûl. Enter Éowyn who, because she's a lady, can kick that Lord's butt, thank you very much. Oh, and Merry helps. Unfortunately Éowyn and Merry fall ill from the Nazgûl's terrible breath. Or something like that.
Finally, Aragorn arrives with reinforcements—those ghost soldiers he has rounded up. With the help of his troops, the Good Side handily defeats the pesky orcs, bringing a brief lull in the war.
But before the cease fire, at the height of battle, Gandalf has to deal with the pesky little problem of Denethor's mad desire to kill himself and his son. With Pippin's help, Gandalf saves Faramir (but not his dad), who is suffering from the same problem Merry and Éowyn have. All three of them end up in Minas Tirith's House of Healing.
Aragorn, wanting to keep his kingliness a secret, sneaks into the city to secretly heal Merry, Faramir and Éowyn. Then, he and all of his crew hatch a plan to help defeat Sauron once and for all. They believe Frodo can chuck that cursed Ring into Mount Doom if they provide a sufficient distraction for Sauron. So the Good Side decides to march to the Black Gate, leaving Merry, Éowyn, and Faramir behind to worry themselves even sicker. It's a good thing Faramir and Éowyn have a budding romance to distract them. Do we hear wedding bells?
Two days later, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin, Elladan, Elrohir, the Rangers, Éomer, and many of the Riders of Rohan travel right up to the main entrance to Mordor. At the Gate, an emissary of Sauron's appears: a huge, evil man called the Mouth of Sauron. This man carries tokens of a friend of Gandalf's. The Mouth tells them that they have Frodo in custody. Luckily, that's a Big Fat Lie, and Aragorn knows it. A battle ensues, giving Frodo and Sam the freedom they need to get rid of the Ring once and for all, while Sauron's eye is aimed elsewhere.
In fact, why don't we check in with Frodo and Sam. In order to do so, we'll have to travel back in time a bit, and check in with the hobbit duo at Cirith Ungol. Ring in hand, Sam slips into the orc-tower and rescues his buddy from some rather incompetent orcs. He and Frodo resume their journey to Mount Doom.
It's slow going. Frodo can't actually move that fast: the weight of the Ring is brutal, and the Nazgûl keep flying overhead every now and again. Plus, they're desperate for water, and there ain't much around in this desert wasteland. No matter what, though, the pair keeps on pushing forward.
Four days after their escape from Cirith Ungol, Sam wakes Frodo for a last push to the mountain. They reach the base of the mountain, and when Frodo falls on his hands and knees, Sam carries Frodo on his back to the Cracks of Mount Doom. Suddenly, Gollum rears his ugly head. He attacks Frodo, and Sam fends him off, telling Frodo to keep heading for the Cracks. After deciding to spare Gollum's life, Sam catches up with Frodo to find his best friend has succumbed to the Ring and wants it for himself. Not good.
Lucky then, that the seemingly unkillable Gollum is still around. He leaps at Frodo, bites off the hobbit's Ring finger, and falls into the Cracks. Gollum? Destroyed. Ring? Destroyed. Frodo and Sam? Very much alive, but in dire straits.
Enter the eagles. Under Gandalf's direction, these awesome winged creatures fly into Mordor and rescue the dynamic duo. A while later, Sam and Frodo awake in Ithilien. Gandalf escorts them to meet the King of Gondor, and lo and behold, it's Aragorn. Sweet. With the Fellowship all together again, it's time for Aragorn to enter Minas Tirith as Gondor's awesome king.
Once more, we jump back in time. (Got jet lag, yet?) Apparently, while all the action has been going down in Mordor, Faramir and Éowyn have been busy falling in love. Faramir has now proposed, and he's met with a resounding yes. So when Aragorn arrives at Minas Tirith's gates, Faramir goes down to transfer power to him officially, as Steward to High King. A coronation ceremony ensues and Aragorn takes his rightful place as king. Yay.
Then on Midsummer's Eve, Arwen and a bunch of other elves arrive. Arwen and Aragorn are married (swoon), and all seems to be well in the kingdom of men. It's time for everyone else to go home. After a brief (okay, nothing in this novel is brief) stop in Rohan for Théoden's funeral, and a few other stops for good measure, the hobbits head back to the Shire.
Except, everything in their hometown is totally different. And not in a good way. It turns out that, after the four hobbits left the Shire on the Ring quest, Frodo's cousin Lotho Sackville-Baggins got too greedy and started exporting Shire products by forcing his fellow hobbits to work their butts off and taking all of the profits. Then Saruman showed up to make matters worse. To make a long story short, all the beautiful greenery of the Shire is being destroyed by industry, and the hobbits themselves are being oppressed. It's a good thing these hobbits know how to take care of business, then. With all their battle know-how, they quickly dispatch Saruman and his lackeys, and restore the Shire to its original glory.
But something else is amiss: Frodo. He hasn't been the same after his experiences in the War of the Ring, and so he secretly decides to sail permanently west with his elvish buddies. After a tearful goodbye to Sam, Merry, and Pippin, Frodo sets sail on the high seas. And Sam returns to the Shire, where he and his wife Rosie have tons of little ones, living happily ever after.
Oh. Before we forget. We should also say that The Return of the King contains a ton of appendices about Middle-earth history, language, and genealogies. We have tried to include relevant details from the "Appendices" in our "Character Analyses" of the main figures in The Return of the King, but if you're dying to get a look at, say, a family tree of the Kings of Gondor, the "Appendices" are the place to go. But we won't bother summarizing them here, because they're not essential to the plot.