The Return of the King: Second Discussion

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We’ve made it to the third stage of our Lord of the Rings Read-Along, co-hosted by Stephanie at Chasm of Books!  Today we are discussing Chapters 7-10 of Book V and Chapters 1-2 of Book VI of The Return of the KingPlease refrain from posting spoilers for any events that occur after this point. Anyone is welcome to participate and comment, even those not officially signed up for the event.  I have posted three discussion questions below, but feel free to bring up other topics and questions, as well!

Question 1

In Chapter 1 of Book VI, Frodo tells Sam:

The Shadow that bred [the orcs] can only mock; it cannot make: not real new things of its own.  I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.

What does this tell us about Sauron and the extent of his power?  What else do we know about Sauron?  Do you think he is a convincing villain?  Is he frightening?

Question 2

In our first discussion post on The Fellowship of the Ring, we talked about the characteristics of hobbits.  The subject appears again in Chapter 1 of Book VI when Sam is carrying the Ring for Frodo and is being tempted to claim its power for his own:

In that hour of trial it was the love of his [Sam’s] master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense; he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such vision were not a mere cheat to betray him.  The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

Has your opinion of hobbits changed as the story progresses?  What about your opinion of any of our hobbit protagonists: Frodo, Sam, Merry, or Pippin?  Do you think there are situations where “hobbit-sense” is even more useful than the “wisdom” of the great leaders of Middle Earth?

Question 3

In Chapter 7 of Book V, Denethor attempts to burn himself and Faramir alive, in despair that the battle against Sauron can ever be won.  Gandalf attempts to stop him:

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kind, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

What does this tell you about the morality of Middle Earth?  What does it tell you about Sauron, and about Men, that despair can be used as a weapon as much as arrows and swords?  How do you think things could have played out differently if Denethor had not given into despair and had instead led his people through the Battle of the Pelennor Fields?

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7 thoughts on “The Return of the King: Second Discussion

  1. jubilare says:

    I’m not part of this discussion, sadly, as I am not reading LotRs right now, but my hopeless obsession with all things Tolkien compels me to mention that Sauron is not the “Shadow” that bred the orcs, at least, not originally. That would be Melkor/Morgoth, his master. The question still seems to apply, though, because the fact that Sauron has a master, and that his master has limitations, makes him a little less scary… but only a little. After all, he “made” the ringwraiths in the same way that Morgoth “made” the orcs. So Sauron, too, can only mock what is. Aaaand I’m done. 😉


    • Briana says:

      Very good point!

      I always think it’s interesting how Sauron is sort of an imitation of Melkor himself, but he doesn’t seem to realize it, and no one else thinks Sauron is less frightening or threatening even though he’s theoretically less powerful than his master was.

      I do think Sauron is continuing orc-breeding (and Saruman is definitely doing some warped experiments in that department), but ultimately none of the three of them can ever create something original. They can just corrupt (improve???) what others have done before them.


      • Krysta says:

        I think the question is still valid. Sauron may not be the original breeder of orcs, but he is still breeding them. It’s unclear whether Frodo means to refer to Morgoth or to Sauron, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam assumed Frodo meant Sauron–I don’t know how well-versed the Hobbits are about “high matters” such as the creation and the Elves of the First Age and, though Frodo might have learned about that from Bilbo or Elrond, a humble gardener like Sam probably doesn’t get that kind of education in the Shire.

        I think the real point here is that Sauron is trying to set himself up as a Creator. That is his real evil, and not (as bad as it is) his projected domination of Middle-earth. Sauron is essentially trying to play God, and whether he is doing so in imitation of his former master Melkor isn’t as relevant as the fact that he’s doing it. Strangely enough, though, it’s sort of a hopeful observation on Frodo’s part. He’s obliquely referring to a higher power that is greater than Sauron and thus suggesting both the limitations of evil and the possibility of outside help (which is how Melkor was defeated, as perhaps Frodo knows).

        I don’t think this glimpse of Sauron’s limitations makes him any less terrifying, though. The world knows well enough that if Sauron gets hold of the Ring that it’s all over. Even if he doesn’t get hold of the Ring, he could still best them with superior military powers and kill and enslave all his enemies. It would just be a slower victory.

        Frodo’s noting of Sauron’s limitations is really more important in a spiritual sense. Sauron will never have the final victory because he cannot chase his enemies after death and, when the world finally ends, Sauron will be defeated by the real Lord of the Rings, Iluvatar. But the fact that Good will achieve the final victory can only mean so much, perhaps, to people who are preparing themselves to be tortured and killed in the present moment.


        • jubilare says:

          Oh, I agree. The question is definitely still valid. He also bred the flying mounts of the nazgul, so he doubtless learned a great deal from Melkor.

          I think it is definitely a hopeful observation that Frodo is making, though perhaps not an immediately comforting one. “Frodo’s noting of Sauron’s limitations is really more important in a spiritual sense.” I agree.


  2. Krysta says:

    Question 3:

    I think we’ve seen so far that despair is really Sauron’s greatest weapon. By wielding it, he can achieve victories without even fighting a battle. Indeed, Gandalf notes at one point that if all Sauron’s enemies just assumed Sauron was going to win, he definitely would. It seems like an obvious point, but it’s one some of the characters miss.

    It’s impossible to know what the war would have looked like had fewer succumbed to despair. Gandalf says, though, that fewer men would have died during the siege of Gondor if he had been able to fight with them, rather than find himself diverted to deal with Denethor. No doubt fewer of the Rohirrim would have had to die, too, if Saruman hadn’t assumed Sauron’s ultimate victory and betrayed the White Council. But who knows? Maybe some good came of things that would not have occurred otherwise, such as Theoden’s awakening. And maybe Aragorn would not have been in the right place to hear Elrond’s message if he had not been sidetracked by the Battle of the Hornburg. So many “what ifs”!

    As for Gandalf’s lines to Denethor that you quote–I’ve always been fond of it as one of those little glimpses Tolkien gives of a higher power working in Middle-earth. Even though the Men seem to know nothing of Iluvatar, they clearly have some knowledge of his ways and they expect one another to adhere to those ways as a matter of course. It’s very interesting!


  3. Stephanie B (@Chasm_of_Books) says:

    All right, let’s try this again… the webpage refreshed after I finished typing the first time.

    I think Sauron’s limitation is something to be remembered. As we know, Tolkien was a Christian, and while I’m not saying there’s a definite or purposeful connection, there’s something there nonetheless. Christians believe that the devil only has power over you if you give it to him. The same seems to be true for Sauron. He couldn’t create the orcs, the Ringwraiths, or any of his servants really. They all had to be corrupted. They had to give power to him to twist them. This is seen with Gollum. He gave the Ring (which is really an extension of Sauron) power over him, allowing it to twist him into a loathsome creature.

    The hobbit sense is actually kind of a beautiful thing. Hobbits limit themselves a great deal and don’t often see the kind of impact they can have. But I think they are also aware of who the truly are inside. This knowledge of who they are empowers Sam. He knows his own limitations and knows that he would not be happy even if the Ring could give him the power he imagines. This would be mostly because he knows himself.

    As for Denethor, misery loves company. He decided to turn his back on everyone and anything that could lift him from that misery and despair. I imagine this probably made things a bit lonely, which is shown in his desire to die with Faramir when he is perhaps seeking to not be alone in this last frightening experience.


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