The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

I would like to think that Tolkien, if questioned about how he handles race in his tales, would say what Éomer says when confronted over his harsh words about Galadriel: “I spoke only as do all men in my land, and I would gladly learn better.” (The Two Towers, p. 37) For Éomer does learn, and meets Galadriel after the War of the Ring when so many of the great of Middle Earth visit Minas Tirith and King Elessar. He does not deem Galadriel the fairest in the world, and yet his quarrel with Gimli is mended. “Then Gimli bowed low. ‘Nay, you are excused for my part, lord,’ he said. ‘You have chosen the Evening [Arwen Evenstar]; but my love is given to the Morning. And my heart forbodes that soon it will pass away for ever.'” (RotK, p. 305)

And for all that The Lord of the Rings is full of male characters, with female characters relegated to the sidelines, one gives voice to the injustice involved:

‘Shall I always be chosen [to govern the people until their lord’s return]?’ [Éowyn] said bitterly. ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders [of Rohan] depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?’
[Aragorn says some things.]
“And she answered: ‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’ (RotK p. 55)

True to her words, she — along with the hobbit Merry, whom the big men have also tried to banish from the battlefield — dispatches the Witch King, the chief of the Nazgûl, second only to Sauron in power. On the other hand, after she recovers from the effects of that struggle, she chooses a different path. “I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.” (RotK, p. 292) She no longer desires to be a Queen; she is content to marry Faramir and be Princess of Ithilien. The men, too, would rather build in peace than fight forever, so I suppose Éowyn does not take on that much of a lesser role, certainly not compared with practically all of the other female elves, dwarves, hobbits and humans who are off stage throughout the trilogy, unnamed.

Near the end of the previous volume, Sam speaks of what it’s like to go from one of the unnamed to one of the named, and how he might well have preferred to give renown a miss:

‘But so our path is laid,’ [said Frodo].
‘Yes that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t have known, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a tale and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right , though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?’ (The Two Towers, pp. 399–400)

Frodo and Sam continue their talk about tales, with Sam showing just how much Elf-lore he has picked up along the way, in Rivendell and even more so in Lothlorien. Sam says the big important plans are not for his sort; very soon he proves himself wrong, taking up Sting and the Phial of Galadriel, becoming, for a time, the Ring-bearer. Tolkien, famously, also gives Sam the last words of The Lord of the Rings, words that express what he was longing for as he and Frodo made their way up to the pass of Cirith Ungol and then across the dread plains of Mordor.

So many endings. The end of the quest to unmake the One Ring. The end of an Age of the world. The end of a great evil in Middle Earth. The end of the Council of the Wise. The end of Saruman. The end, too, of the protection provided to Rivendell and Lothlorien, and though their ends are not shown in the main story of The Return of the King, they are set in motion.

And yet, what Tolkien shows readers of the Fourth Age is splendid. King Elessar rules justly, well, and long. Ithilien blooms. The Shadow has departed from Mordor, never to return. Rohan is at peace, and trade begins to enliven the northern lands that had become sparsely settled or left entirely. Gimli brings dwarves to the Glittering Caves at Helm’s Deep and builds wonders for a new age to behold. He and his kin are not consumed by the greed that led his forbears to unleash Durin’s Bane. Mirkwood changes and is once again known as Greenwood the Great. Fangorn holds to its ancient fastness, but with Treebeard having found friends beyond its borders, Fangorn of the early Fourth Age is not as fearsome as it was at the end of the Third. Elves and dwarves come to Minas Tirith in Elessar’s reign; the elves bringing plants and life to the stone city, and the dwarves returning order to buildings that had decayed toward ruin. Much of Tolkien is suffused with a Spenglerian narrative of decline, but in the end The Return of the King is a story of redemption, and homecoming.

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned in Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m home,’ he said. (RotK, p. 378)

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