We’ve made it to the end! It’s always a bittersweet feeling to finish a re-read of these books. Tolkien already made the ending bittersweet, aptly capturing the feeling of a great story finished, but of the sorrow of leaving behind these characters and this world you’ve grown to love. This feeling is mirrored in Frodo’s leaving Middle Earth for good–but I get ahead of myself.
As with The Two Towers, we start off with the other members of the Fellowship and their separate quests. Gandalf and Pippin try to talk sense into Denethor (good luck) while preparing for Sauron’s onslaught. Theoden musters the Rohirrim to ride to Gondor’s aid, but Aragorn, along with Gimli, Legolas, and the other Rangers, must seek out the ghosts of the Oathbreakers from the last war and force their allegiance.
This book, more than any, really touches on the theme of hope in the midst of despair. Denethor, deceived by Sauron, is in a bad place. He thinks Minas Tirith is about to be hit with an unstoppable army; his favorite son is dead, and in his anger and foolishness he sends his other son off to die, only to regret it too late. When this does happen, Denethor becomes useless. The Steward who thought himself wiser and cleverer than others is rendered helpless by the very real possibility of losing his other son, and rather than rally his men against the enemy, sits by Faramir’s side to assuage his own guilt. Compare this (once again) to Theoden: Theoden loses his only son, and he also temporarily rejects his other “son”, his nephew Eomer. However, he rallies and acts with strength and decisiveness despite his past regrets. Time and time again, the narrative places Theoden in a situation where he has the choice to run away, and where others think he will make that choice: the one easiest on him in his old age. And time and time again, Theoden rejects that choice, and continues to act with bravery, loyalty, and honor.
Not only do we see the juxtaposition between how these two leaders treat their own family, but also how they treat their esquires. Merry and Pippin both swear fealty, but the reasons and the relationships are very different. Pippin feels himself indebted to Denethor because Boromir died saving him. Denethor is coldly amused by this, and treats Pippin as an afterthought. Merry swears fealty to Theoden simply because he is moved by the man’s positive characteristics, and Theoden is much more of a father figure to him.
Tolkien also touches on the concept of “just doing what I was told”. One wonders if this specific theme ended up in the story due to the Nuremberg Trials. When Denethor decides to commit suicide, he orders his guards to set fire to him and Faramir. They are fully prepared to kill both of them because they follow orders; but Beregond refuses to let this happen, though he is violating his oath and must kill one of his fellow guards. In the end, Aragorn finds a loophole that satisfies both the penalties for violating the oath and slaying a fellow guard, but also rewards Beregond for his true loyalty.
And of course, this book is also where Eowyn shines. I’ve ranted previously about the bad takes regarding Eowyn’s story, but I’ll discuss it more fully here. No one in the story doubts Eowyn’s bravery or her abilities. Theoden wants to leave her in charge of Rohan while he is away at war specifically because he trusts her abilities, both as a leader and a warrior. However, Eowyn has by this time been poisoned by Wormtongue’s words–she finds the mundane task of following her duties to her people and to King Theoden degrading, and longs for a glorious battle. Remember, Rohan is a warrior culture that highly values death in battle. This is exacerbated by her infatuation with/hero worship of Aragorn. It is not a popular thing to say, but Eowyn went to war for the wrong motives. This doesn’t take away from her bravery in battle, or from her love and loyalty to Theoden. If you want to get deeper into the lore, one could point out that in The Silmarillion, Morgoth’s discordant music to sow evil into the world still wound up becoming part of Iluvatar’s plan, and so Wormtongue’s attempts to destabilize Rohan became the same. Eowyn’s motives led her and Merry to being in the right place at the right time to defeat the Witch King.
And this leads to her romance with Faramir. Some people find it rushed, but it’s no less rushed than her insta-crush on Aragorn. But it also becomes part of the theme of Eowyn’s character. She valued war for its glory; Faramir valued war because it protected the people he loved. He showed Eowyn an alternative philosophy. His warmth and caring melted her resentment and anger, and she realized that war is pointless if it doesn’t protect life and beauty. Her decision to learn healing arts is a renunciation of her old attitude, not a set back for her as a woman. She lived for a glorious death but has come to accept life again. This is Eowyn’s rebirth.
The next part follows Frodo and Sam on the last slog to Mount Doom. A lot of people use this to show how Sam was the true hero (and yes, Tolkien did say Sam was an important hero), however, they do so at the expense of Frodo. The most recent Amon Sul podcast has a lot to say about Frodo’s character, and I would suggest everyone listen to it (and carve out about 3 hours of time for it; these nerds ain’t playing).
But they also make a good point: even Sam was tempted by the Ring. He resists the temptation, but even he has brief thoughts of grandeur. Frodo’s eventually succumbing to the Ring wasn’t an act of evil, or giving into temptation. His will was literally overcome by Sauron’s at the last second (which probably would have happened to anyone who made it that far anyways). Sam is a hero in that Frodo could not have made it alone–indeed, no one could have. Sam, lending his strength when Frodo’s is spent, and Gollum, by way of both Bilbo and Frodo’s previous pity, cause the destruction of the Ring.
Since Gandalf did not know what role Gollum was to play, and indeed, seemed to be prepared for the possibility that all three would survive, I would be interested in how this would play out if Gollum had not succumbed to his own temptation. Alas, we may never know.
Aragorn comes into his own as king, and his policies are based on mercy and forgiveness, hoping to make peace with the Haradrim and Easterlings as dupes of Sauron. Again, war is meant to defend, not to punish.
Even better is the Scouring of the Shire. This shows that you can make grand gestures and save the world as much as you want, but you still need to take care of your own community. Frodo and company restore peace and liberty to the Shire (and it says something about Tolkien that the villains of the Shire do things like ban alcohol and tobacco, have a massive bureaucracy for their police force, and high taxes). Saruman’s framed his takeover as an attempt at order, but order is different from authoritarianism, and Saruman is a specifically petty flavor of authoritarianism. In fact, both he and Sauron based their conquests as attempts to create order, but are merely authoritarian in nature. How much trouble does Aule have with keeping the rest of his Maiar from meddling in other people’s lives? Inquiring minds want to know.
The restoration of order, peace, and plenty in the Shire (and I’m interested in the apparent epigenetic changes to Hobbit phenotype caused by the introduction of Lothlorien magic into the area) does not mean all is well. Frodo is haunted by many things: his own experiences, and being so thoroughly touched by the evil in the world. He must leave behind the home he tried so hard to save, in order to find a semblance of peace and healing before he dies.
Many people have speculated that this is merely Tolkien’s observation on how war affects people differently. Not everyone comes back suffering PTSD. Some, like Merry and Pippin, enjoy being lauded and telling war stories. Some, like Sam, are simply happy to settle back into domestic life again. Others, like Frodo, are haunted by their experiences, both physically and psychologically. It’s easy to see why this interpretation is so popular.
However, Frodo has experienced more than just war. He came into contact with evil that has been embedded into the world itself. Again, the Amon Sul podcast I mentioned above goes into more detail on this, but Morgoth, Sauron’s master now imprisoned, used his discordant music to tie his power and evil into the very creation of Arda–essentially making the world his own version of the Ring. Frodo has been harmed by evil that had its origins in Morgoth’s rebellion, and he cannot escape it.
So even though hope is such a powerful force in the books, it’s not idealism. Evil is part of the world and our job is to accept it and deal with it as it arises. Our hope lies in something beyond this life, and it’s hard to see why so many try to ignore how much Tolkien’s beliefs informed and became an integral part of his worldbuilding.
ALL RIGHT KIDS, SIT DOWN AND LET MAMMA TELL YOU ABOUT WHY PETER JACKSON CONTINUES TO BE WRONG.
Look, I don’t hate PJ. I love the movies for their aesthetic. The music, the visuals, the costumery, all match what I envisioned when I read the books. Not all of the characters are changed beyond what is necessary for a movie. I will even say this: I still think having the ghost army come to Minas Tirith was a change for the better. Make those ghosts work for their redemption! Why not have them overrun the Orcs at Minas Tirith? (I bet someone will have some reason for this, and I look forward to it.) I also enjoyed that Merry had more interaction with Eowyn, which was a bigger inducement for her to take him with her.
But honestly, this time I was even more disappointed in the movie overall.
First, they really left out Merry’s loyalty and respect for King Theoden. I feel like this was a big part of his motivation to go fight, and it also continued the narrative’s juxtaposition between Theoden and Denethor. Theoden maintains good relationships with those around him, even in dark times; Denethor does not.
I was also kind of disappointed in Eowyn’s big moment this time around. It occurred to me that in the books, she remained intensely defiant up to the end. The book says she was crying, but still depicts her as being a very strong-willed person, refusing to back down even after being hurt. Here, she doesn’t strike me as the type of person that would laugh in the Witch King’s face. She loses her defiance, cringes away, and doesn’t regain it until after Merry stabs the Witch King and the enemy is injured himself. I feel like this could have been done much better, and I think Miranda Richardson could have done it well.
It was also a bad decision to end her character arc there. The movie made Eowyn’s character arc about being a warrior; her real character arc is about being a leader.
Another disappointment: since I don’t have the extended edition, this means someone looked at the end of Saruman’s character arc and thought “we’ll just leave him in the tower and that’s that”. Once again, ending a character arc before it’s actually complete, and leaving the viewer disappointed.
Speaking of character arcs…let’s talk about wtf is going on with Arwen.
Okay, so we got the dad drama that has her leaving to go to the Grey Havens, then changing her mind halfway through because vision of the future. That…isn’t so bad. But then, because she wholeheartedly chooses a mortal life she…somehow starts dying immediately. Because her fate is tied to the Ring, or something.
This. Makes. No. Sense.
If being mortal is what does it, then why isn’t everyone keeling over? I think they were trying to give Aragorn some kind of personal motivation to overcome his doubts (which he shouldn’t have but never mind), but why did they need that? Aragorn already had lots of personal motivation. In fact, if they hadn’t done the weird break up subplot, then Arwen still would have been part of Aragorn’s personal motivation. Everyone he loves lives in Middle Earth, y’all. He has lots and lots of personal motivation to fight Sauron. Anyways, that’s that for cranky dad Elrond subplot. After this, Aragorn starts acting like book Aragorn.
(Also, I find it funny that they struggled to come up with lines for Legolas so they had him tell Gimli the entire story about the oathbreakers, even though it would have made much more sense coming from Aragorn.)
All right, with that over with…
Let’s talk about Frodo.
Let’s talk, specifically, about how Frodo, for no reason, suddenly starts believing Gollum implicitly because “both suffering from the Ring”. It makes absolutely no sense. It destroys one of the big themes of Frodo’s character: you can be kind without being foolish. Frodo sending Sam away because he believes Sam ate all their rations like five seconds after Sam gave up his own rations for Frodo because Gollum is quite possibly the stupidest narrative decision that anyone could make. I want to know precisely what drugs the writers were on when they came up with this.
At least, however, this is the worst of the character assassination. Everyone goes back to normal, and the story goes as you would expect.
While I would have loved to see the Scouring of the Shire as an expansion upon the greater themes, I understand why they cut that out. It would cause ending fatigue in a movie that’s already been mocked for having ending fatigue.
So, overall, while I like the movies, and I know the cast and crew put their hearts and souls into them and gave us a solid bit of entertainment, the failure to capture many of the themes of the stories made them less than they could have been.
Well that’s it. We’ve done it! While I plan on reading the full History of Middle Earth as well as the letters and biography at some point, that ends our Great Tolkien Re-Read.
THE GREAT NARNIA RE-READ