Study Guide

The Return of the King Sacrifice

By J.R.R. Tolkien


"There go three that I love, and the smallest not the least," [Aragorn] said. "He knows not to what end he rides; yet if he knew, he still would go on."

"A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk," said Halbarad. "Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not."

"And now our fates are woven together," said Aragorn. "And yet, alas! here we must part." (5.2.68-70)

See, Halbarad knows what's up: the great thing about the Shire is the innocence and security of its people. But in order to maintain that innocence, they must be protected, which falls to the Rangers. Sure, the Shire has produced a few extraordinary hobbits—Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Bilbo—who have been able to shape the course of Middle-earth. But for the most part, they travel off to do so in order that their kinsmen can remain as sheltered back home as ever. In other words, they fight so that the Shire can stay the Shire. Halbarad, too, is glad to suffer for the Shire without their knowledge, since their knowing would spoil their sense of safety.

So Pippin poured out his tale, reaching up and touching Gandalf's knee with trembling hands. "Can't you save Faramir?"

"Maybe I can," said Gandalf; "but if I do, then others will die, I fear. Well, I must come, since no other help can reach him. But evil and sorrow will come of this. Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work." (5.7.8-9)

Even Gandalf, superwizard, can't be in two places at once (although at times we wonder why not). So every military decision that he makes will come at some cost. By not pursuing the Nazgûl here, and deciding instead to save Faramir, Gandalf may have indirectly doomed Théoden to death. That's one tough call we're glad we don't have to make.

"[Faramir] will not wake again," said Denethor. "Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer? Why should we not go to death side by side?"

"Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death," answered Gandalf. "And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death." (5.7.30-1)

Hmm. Shmoop senses some Christian undertones. Do you? For one thing, Gandalf makes reference to "the heathen kings," and "heathen" generally refers to people who do not follow a monotheistic faith system such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. While Tolkien doesn't get into God specifically in this passage, Gandalf is setting himself and the people of Gondor apart from the "heathen" and from "the Dark Power." That means the Good side is aligned with some sort of Light Power, like, perhaps, God. He also makes a point to emphasize that it's not up to Denethor, or any mere mortal for that matter, to decide when to end a life. This is a classic Christian argument against suicide: having been given life by the will of God, many Christians believe that it shows the sin of pride to take that life away. Frankly, it seems like Gandalf is trying to persuade Denethor that his current route of self-sacrifice is actually a sin, and not so sacrificing at all.

But now their art and knowledge [of medicine] were baffled; for there were many sick of a malady that would not be healed; and they called it the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl. And those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died. And it seemed to the tenders of the sick that on the Halfling and on the Lady of Rohan this malady lay heavily. […] But Faramir burned with a fever that would not abate. (5.8.22)

We don't want to imply that Tolkien had this in mind when he wrote The Lord of the Rings (in fact, he couldn't have, if you think about when he started the books), but doesn't the Black Shadow remind you a bit of the radiation left over from nuclear weapons: even though a person can't see it, and even though a person may look uninjured, it can still kill a person long after a nuclear bomb exploded. The presence of the Black Shadow means that fighting the Nazgûl demands a sacrifice: even if you don't get injured and survive the fight with your life, you may still die afterwards from this cold, wasting sickness. Even if it means life and health, though, we don't think that either Faramir or Éowyn could have chosen not to fight the Ringwraiths. They are heroes, and that's how heroes roll.

"Look!" [Legolas] cried. "Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart. […] The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm."

"Say not so!" said Gimli. "There are countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do. But if all the fair folk take to the Havens, it will be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay." (5.9.19-20)

Legolas's sudden sea-longing foreshadows the exceptionally bittersweet ending of The Lord of the Rings. See, that's the problem: in order to be without the massive dangers of Sauron, we also have to be without the equally massive awesomeness of the elves and wizards. Their goodness seems only to provoke the development of equal, opposite evil. So all the awesome folks like Legolas and Gandalf have to sail into the West so that Middle-earth can be safer.

Legolas paused and sighed and, turning his eyes southward softly he sang:

Silver flow the streams from Celos to Erui
In the green fields of Lebennin!
Tall grows the grass there. In the wind from the Sea
The white lilies sway.
And the golden bells are shaken of mallos and alfirin
In the green fields of Lebennin,
In the wind from the Sea!

"Green are those fields in the songs of my people; but they were dark then, grey wastes in the blackness before us. And over the wide land, trampling unheeded the grass and the flowers, we hunted our foes through a day and a night, until we came at the bitter end to the Great River at last." (5.9.34-5)

One of the huge drawbacks of being an elf is that you remember everything. And since Tolkien generally seems to contend that things are always better in the past, the elves are always, well, glum. They remember how things were, which always makes how things are seem like a plain old disaster. When Legolas recalls what these green fields of Lebennin once looked like, how can he not be totally bummed that they're now hideous—thanks to war. For more on Tolkien's nostalgia for the past, check out our section on "Setting" in the The Fellowship of the Ring learning guide.

Aragorn looked at them, and there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath; for these were young men from Rohan, from Westfold far away, or husbandmen from Lossarnach, and to them Mordor had been from childhood a name of evil, and yet unreal, a legend that had no part in their simple life; and now they walked like men in a hideous dream made true, and they understood not this war nor why fate should lead them to such a pass.

"Go!" said Aragorn. "But keep what honour you may, and do not run! And there is a task which you may attempt and so be not wholly shamed. Take your way south-west till you come to Cair Andros, and if that is still held by enemies, as I think, then re-take it, if you can; and hold it to the last in defence of Gondor and Rohan!" (5.10.20-21)

This is the moment when Aragorn pities the young men in his troop who take one look at Mordor and want to run for the hills. His offering them an alternative duty reminds us of an earlier scene in the series. Before the Nine Companions set out from Rivendell, Elrond reminds them that they cannot know their road ahead of time, so if any of them need to leave the Company (except for Frodo, who has to keep going), they should. Elrond offers, "let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall" (The Fellowship of the Ring Book 2, Chapter 3). Maybe Aragorn has learned from Elrond's example, and that's why he has mercy on his frightened soldiers, letting them go willingly rather than breaking their hearts by forcing them to continue. There is an advantage to this strategy, of course: by being generous enough to let unwilling soldiers go when Aragorn really, really needs all of the men he can get, he is also ensuring that the remaining force actually wants to be there and is capable of fighting. It's a sacrifice, sure, but it's one that might reap some benefits later.

"Water, water!" muttered Sam. He had stinted himself, and in his parched mouth his tongue seemed thick and swollen; but for all his care they now had very little left, perhaps half his bottle, and maybe there were still days to go. All would long ago have been spent, if they had not dared to follow the orc-road. For at long intervals on that highway cisterns had been built for the use of troops sent in haste through the waterless regions. In one Sam had found some water left, stale, muddied by the orcs, but still sufficient for their desperate case. Yet that was now a day ago. There was no hope of anymore. (6.3.17)

As though we needed any more proof of Sam's devotion, here he is, sacrificing as much of his water as he can to keep Frodo going in these desperate times. But you know what we find interesting? You may have noticed: we're getting a lot of stuff from Sam's perspective these days. Starting in Book 4 and continuing in Book 6, Frodo and Sam's adventures in Mordor are told nearly exclusively from Sam's point of view. It's his emotions, his despair, and his sacrifices that have become the focus of Book 6. To be fair, at this point, all Frodo can think about is the Ring, like a flaming brand on his brain, which means that Frodo probably wouldn't be the most awesome of narrators right now: "Ring. Hurts. Ring. Burns." So in order to get a more complete picture of what's actually happening to the two of them, we have to rely on the perspective of the not-possessed member of this partnership. What's more, Sam's sympathetic outside observations of the pain and struggle of Frodo's journey reminds us, step-by-step, of the sacrifices Frodo has made to destroy the Ring.

"I am glad that you are here with me," said Frodo. "Here at the end of all things, Sam."

"Yes, I am with you, Master," said Sam, laying Frodo's wounded hand gently on his breast. "And you're with me. And the journey's finished. But after coming all that way I don't want to give up yet. It's not like me, somehow, if you understand." (6.4.15-16)

In a letter dated September 1963, Tolkien comments on Frodo's final moments on Mount Doom: "he was restored to sanity and peace. But then he thought that he had given his life in sacrifice: he expected to die very soon" (source, pg. 327). Frodo expects that his quest to destroy the Ring will kill him, that, without the Ring, he must now die. That is the price he is willing to pay for the end of this awful duty that has been thrust upon him. But Sam hasn't been called upon to make that same sacrifice, and as Sam says in this scene, it's not his nature "to want to give up." Frodo may believe in the necessity of his sacrifice, but Sam, who remains more practical and less (to use Tolkien's word) "sanctified" (source, pg. 237) than Frodo, insists on saving not only his own life, but also Frodo's. Still, in a sense, Frodo is so set on the idea of dying for the quest that Sam's decision to bring Frodo out of the Sammath Naur only delays his ultimate sacrifice for a time. Is Frodo's deathly despair any different from Denethor's? How does his decision to follow Sam in this crucial moment differentiate Frodo from Denethor?

And Gandalf said: "This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes for the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart."

"I know it well, dear friend," said Aragorn; "but I would still have your counsel."

"Not for long now," said Gandalf. "The Third Age was my age. I was the Enemy of Sauron; and my work is finished. I shall go soon. The burden must lie upon you and your kindred." (6.5.106-8)

Ah, here we are at last. Frankly, we think the worst thing about the end of Return of the King is that Tolkien introduces us to this whole world and then insists on taking away huge chunks of it. Rivendell? Gone. Lothlórien? Gone. Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel? All gone. Well, okay, maybe they're not actually gone, but they are in the West, in a place that "no man can discover" (6.4.70). But let's face it: one of the major themes of this series is that all things must end, even lovely things. What does Middle-earth get in exchange for the loss of the elves? By what logic must the elves and Gandalf leave Middle-earth at the end of Return of the King? How would the moral of the story change if Lothlórien and Rivendell endured, along with the reborn Shire and Gondor?