For the last few weeks, we have been republishing book reviews of The Lord of the Rings that were originally published in 2004-2005 in the American Chesterton Society’s magazine Gilbert! We are republishing them here with the kind permission of their author, Mike Foster.
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
In August, 1952, fourteen years after it was begun, The Lord of the Rings seemed doomed.
Tolkien’s long labor on “the new Hobbit” elicited rejection and, consequently, dejection. He’d abandoned hope it would ever be printed.
Tape saved it.
C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend, had loaned the typescript tale to George Sayer, a former pupil of both. Sayer and his wife Moira read it with enthusiastic admiration and invited Tolkien over to Malvern to retrieve the manuscript and stay for a few days of hobbitish picnicking, pubbing, and gardening before Michaelmas term.
For evening amusement, Sayer produced a tape recorder, the first Tolkien had seen. After exorcising the machine by recording the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic, he taped some of the book’s poems.
“The more he recorded, the more he enjoyed recording,” wrote Sayer. The riddle scene from The Hobbit followed. “I then asked him to record what he thought one of the best pieces of prose in The Lord of the Rings and he recorded [the last] part of “The Ride of the Rohirrim.”
“Surely you know that’s really good,” Sayer told him. Tolkien agreed. With Sayer’s encouragement, he resubmitted it to publisher Rayner Unwin, who, in 1937 at age ten, had recommended The Hobbit for publication. Unwin believed The Lord of the Rings was a work of genius but uncertain of success. He risked it anyway, releasing it as three volumes not inexpensively priced at 21 shillings each.
The rest is literary history. October, 2005 marked the fiftieth anniversary of publication of its third and finest book, The Return of the King.
Truly Tolkien saved his best for last. His dialogue and description’s clear and classic diction shines like steel. The many gilded threads of the tale’s tapestry of history, plot, and character are spun out, woven together, and knotted: courage and cowardice, love and loss, death and deliverance. The appendices, especially the touching romance of Aragorn and Arwen’s life and death, enrich it more.
Hobbits, elves, and dwarves are less prominent here. While the slow-kindling friendship of Legolas and Gimli, which trumps both racial prejudice and family enmity, is a gratifying sub-story, and Merry and Pippin’s characters are rounded by their experiences as warriors of Rohan and Gondor, this book belongs to Aragorn and the race of men.
Tolkien was right: the ride of Theoden is exciting, majestic prose hitherto unknown in modern literature. He had re-read parts of “The Ballad of the White Horse” and Chesterton’s cadences echo in Rohan’s poetry.
Theoden’s passage from despair to glory is mirrored darkly in the fall of Denethor. Faramir, Eomer, Beregond, Bergil and especially Eowyn, Tolkien’s most well-wrought woman, are incarnated; words become flesh.
As in The Two Towers, musters, marches, sieges, and battles dominate the first half here.
But the second segment returns to Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring. And Frodo will not. Standing at the Crack of Doom, he cannot relinquish this terrible thing. “I have come,” he says, “but I do not choose now what I came to do. The Ring is mine!” MarquetteUniversity’s manuscript collection shows that Tolkien substituted “do not choose now” for “cannot,” emphasizing Frodo’s freedom and failure. The Quest is accomplished, but not by him.
Frodo’s story ends with bittersweet ambivalence, bitter before sweet. The Ring and Sauron are cast down, Aragorn crowned and wed, and almost everyone will live happily ever after. Not Frodo. Healing awaits him, as it does us, beyond the Grey Havens.
Glorify the golden anniversary of this best of books by pulling it off the shelf and saying, as Sam does in its last words, “Well, I’m back.”
Thanks to George Sayer