Thoughts on Rereading The Return of the King: This Book Is Dark

Spoilers!

This year, I embarked on a quest to finally reread The Lord of the Rings. (I know: I talk about it enough on the blog that people probably assume I must reread it every year or something, but that’s not true. It’s been a while since I last read the story cover to cover.) In April, I posted some reflections on the geography of Middle-Earth after finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, in which I realized the world is much more isolated than I tend to remember. Now, after finishing The Return of the King, I’ve realized the story is also darker than I often remember.

The Lord of the Rings is generally a story I associate with hope. Small, unimportant people do great deeds. Disparate people band together to fight an incredible threat. Frodo succeeds in his quest despite all odds. I’ve written before about how the ending is bittersweet, as some things blossom and come to fruition (the actual return of the king) but other things pass away (the Elves). However, I don’t generally think of the book as actually dark. That changed with this rereading.

This time around, I really felt the despair of the peoples of Gondor, and slightly less so Rohan, as they prepared to take on the forces of the Dark Lord in battle. I know, of course, that Lord Denethor despairs of victory, but I always have it in the back of my mind that, of course, he’s supposed to be wrong. Gandalf tells him off for his despair, and readers learn that he’s been tricked into by Sauron, who has selectively shown him things in the Seeing Stone that will make him think Gondor has no chance of winning the coming battle. Knowing that, I’ve come to have in the back of my mind the idea that the other characters must be a bit more optimistic about the situation, but upon rereading, I’ve realized that’s not true.

None of the characters really know what’s coming before the battle at Minas Tirith, but they are not hopeful about it. In general, they are convinced they are going to die. Pippin fears the battle and that he will never see his friends again. Gandalf thinks they have a slim hope of winning this battle, maybe, but of course the whole war rests on Frodo’s ability to destroy the Ring. The people of Rohan ride hard to Gondor’s aid but are half-convinced they won’t arrive in time to participate in the main battle but instead will simply have a chance to briefly harry the orcs and Men who have triumphed over Minas Tirith before succumbing to said orcs and Men themselves, with no one even left to sing songs about their deeds. There is truly a sense that all the characters are going to fail. Or, even if the main battle is won, a lot of these characters are going to be dead.

Things get even more dire after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn and the Captains of the West go to challenge Sauron at the Black Gate. They’re not even pretending there’s a chance they are going to come back alive at this point. It’s basically a suicide mission to buy Frodo a little more time and privacy to get to Mount Doom while Sauron is looking elsewhere. This is very depressing! And when a chapter ends with Pippin’s being attacked and subsequently closing his eyes and losing thought, well, it certainly seems as if he’s dead! I cannot remember what I thought the first time I read the book, and didn’t know the ending, but I assume I really thought Pippin was gone, and perhaps Aragorn and all the others were next.

Of course, the Eagles come, Frodo’s quest succeeds, and things generally become happy by the end. It’s the eucatastophe Tolkien wanted, but for many, many chapters in this book, it really feels as if hope is missing. One gets into the minds of the characters, who do not know where Frodo is or if he’s even still alive, who assume they have a part to play in fighting Sauron because, really, it’s the only option, but they’re not convinced it’s going to work or they’re gong to come out alive. In some places, this may in fact be the most hopeless book I’ve ever read! Or perhaps the most realistic about how people feel before a large battle in which they are outnumbered. Why should they expect to be lucky enough to survive?

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, still one of my favorite books. I simply did not remember the amount of darkness and despair Tolkien manages to convey in the first part of The Return of the King, especially since I now know how it all ends. It’s really a masterpiece of writing, and I think this bit of darkness is often overlooked.

Briana

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Rereading The Return of the King: This Book Is Dark

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    There is a lot of darkness in The Lord of the Rings, and you’re right– it can be easy to overlook because of the joyful turns the story takes. The darkness, I think, comes from two places. One is from Tolkien’s own experiences in war, both from fighting in WWI and writing a large portion of LotR during WWII. The second is from the northern stories like Beowulf he was inspired by. Beowulf is not a cheerful story. It doesn’t even have the eucatastrophes like LotR. But the warriors go to face the monsters and the dragons anyway, because they refuse to give in to despair- just like Aragorn and the others.

    I never understand it when people say “The Lord of the Rings isn’t very realistic because it’s not very dark”. The Siege of Gondor is horrific! Sure, things turn out for the best in the end, but you have to walk through a lot of dark events to get there.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Krysta says:

    I, too, tend to forget a lot of the darkness until I return for a reread. I think that it is easy to forget that the characters do not know what will happen. So, while, I may rest content in the knowledge that Frodo will succeed and the Ring will be destroyed, the characters don’t–and they actually spend a lot of time thinking about Frodo and wondering about where he is and how he’s getting on. Because, again, they don’t know!

    For some reason, it’s easy to forget that the characters are living this story in real time, so to speak, and have no guarantee of happiness waiting for them. But I think it’s part of Tolkien’s great writing that every time I read the book, I am able to enter again into the minds of the characters and remember that, for them, the story has yet to be written. I worry and wonder along with them, and hope beyond reason that they will not be defeated.

    Liked by 2 people

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