Tolkien Gestures Book 7: The Return of the King

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre,  regardless of the damage I fear it may do my judgement. This week, we finish with Tolkien; the Ending is in the Title. (Spoiler Alert!)

So here we are, at the End of All Things. Except, of course, that the End of All Things isn’t actually the end, and there is still half a book to go at that point, but lets get to that later.

Because no matter how many times I read it, i love the first half of The Return of the King. Really, really, love it. Its a place where suddenly most of Tolkiens weakness as a writer fall away, and his strengths shine through in a blaze of the epic. We’re we are with the majority of the cast of course, with Sam and Frodo sort of pushed off to one side, but everyone else is there, along with a host of new support characters which, whilst pretty sketchy, are well done sketches, sketches with clarity and purpose that say something about the story rather than being little asides in lore.

The only full-on new character we get is of course the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, son of Ecthelion and he’s worth mentioning because hes actually one of the most complex characters in the whole series. He’s a mess, basically, proud and desperate at the same time. I promised to myself that i wouldn’t go into the movies here, but to me Denethor is a character they get so wrong I still find it frustrating. The movie captures the broken, bringing-the-crazy side but uses him to be an obstacle for the heroes to overcome, but in the book he’s still very much Lord of Gondor and leader of the Defenses of the Race of Men. His councils over the war with Gandalf crackle with the energy of equals divided on how to achieve an end they agree on, which is more interesting for a start then a crazy old throne-blocker. And it’s Denethors descent from slightly-cracked but shrewd and intelligent, to broken pyromaniac, that brings an air of tragedy and desperation to events otherwise missing, a sense that a whole way of the world is really ending here, and it will never be same again, and even victory for the good guys will come at a cost – ask Theodin.

And the rest of the first half is a cracking sweep of destiny, oaths and prophecies fulfilled, and finally, the Race of Men, so long largely ignored, coming to their own. It’s Men (and the odd Hobbit) that carry the Battle of Pelennor – Denethors command (looks at the film) that lights the beacons, and Men that answer it; Men of Rohan that sweep the field at the dawning of the day, and (looks at the film again), freed Men from the Black Ships that finally seal victory. Its surprisingly humanist, actually, and even Eowyn, Tolkiens’ token female character (but she has to act like a boy, go figure) gets her moment in the sun. And for all Tolkien can be overly Romantic and Conservative about “old ways” it’s all about fighting for a new future as the Age passes and what hangs in the balance isn’t “old vs new” but which sort of “new” will come to dominate, an Age of Men, or an Age of Orcs.

I love it. How unlike me.

Shame the second half isn’t so good, really. Back with Frodo and Sam we are at least free from the long boring marshes and so on, but theres still a little too much sightseeing in Mordor that may not be so bad if it was inter-cut at all with anything else. There is even some very subtle and clever moments – Frodo cursing Gollum to the fire if he ever takes the ring, for instance – that aren’t given the weight they need and again, once he has to drop down to the intimate, Tolkien staggers. This really comes home (hur hur) during the Scouring of the Shire – a nice idea, but pretty redundant after the epicness that has gone before. Its hard to think the hero’s are ever really threatened and Saurman’s petty, waspish portrayal retrospectively threatens to undermine much of his character. I mean, alright, the Scouring isn’t a total wash, and get the point; that you have to fight your battles at home, and ultimately these experiences will always be with you, but it remains anti-climactic.

And then, there’s the Appendices, if you feel like reading some more. Actually some of it – especially the history of Gondor and Anor, I rather like, but others deservedly get shunted to the back out of the way. In some ways its a sensible place to put the vast lore of these sort of worlds rather than threading it into the narrative, and there is clearly stuff in the main story that could quite happily have been stuck in the back to give retrospective context to events.

So, to conclude – I respect these books more, I think, than I like them. I’ve read them all several times, and i do, actually, like them, but certainly the prose can be heavy going and i can’t help but think that an edit would have worked wonders with pacing across the board. Some sections are truly wonderful, but the stodge around it still makes it heavy going. But Tolkien is there first, in many ways – creating a world to tell stories within, a world bigger than the story itself, and whilst, for instance, Howard may get there first in some ways, with Conan, but theres nothing like the sense of cohesion going here. I would feel safe in saying they are great books, and I have a horrible feeling that my reading from now on will struggle to get out their shadow.

Next Up: No More Tolkien! We’re onto Ursula K LeQuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more on the botched characterisation of Denethor in the films. Denethor was a fascinatingly tragic character in the book, reduced to a caricature in the film. But then, I could go on a rant about the films until the Dagor Dagorath…

    But Tolkien is there first, in many ways – creating a world to tell stories within, a world bigger than the story itself, and whilst, for instance, Howard may get there first in some ways, with Conan, but theres nothing like the sense of cohesion going here.

    Well of course Tolkien’s work is more cohesive and detailed than Howard’s – The Lord of the Rings took twelve years to write! Most of the Conan stories were written in the space of months, if not weeks or even days in some cases, while Howard was writing other stories professionally. Tolkien had the time and means to dedicate over a decade to LotR, and it shows.

    Still, one could argue that it’s a result of the authors’ different intentions. Tolkien was creating a mythology for England, and the history/setting was paramount: Howard was writing the adventures of a character, and the narrative/individual was paramount.

    • dwgrampus /

      you must think i really have it in for REH? 😉

      all i meant is that its nearly a 180 turn of how to tell a story; Howard has character(s) the toddle around his world, whereas Tolkien really seems to have a built a world, and then tried to tell stories in it; something that gets in the way at times, especially early on.

      and just to get on my “Why did they screw up Denethor” hobby horse once more – a lot of the changes in the films felt neccesary, for simplicity, or timing, or whathaveyou. the changes to Denethor just felt they managed to miss the point of his character..

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