The Return of the King
Book VI, Chapter 5
Summary — The Steward and the King
The narrative jumps back to the time before the quest is finished, now focusing on the perspective of those in Minas Tirith. While Aragorn and the forces of Gondor are away, the city remains shrouded in fear. Faramir meets Lady Éowyn in the Houses of Healing. Éowyn longs for Aragorn and the chance to fight with the Riders against Mordor. Her sadness, mixed with pride and beauty, leads Faramir to fall in love with her. For days, they stare to the east, waiting for word of Gondor’s success, until they eventually see the Darkness break. As sunlight breaks through the sky, the citizens of Minas Tirith break out in song. Messengers soon arrive telling of Aragorn’s victory. The conflict resolved, Éowyn’s longing for war fades, and she and Faramir agree to wed.
When Aragorn returns, Faramir rides out of the gate of Minas Tirith and offers him the keys of the city and an ancient crown. To everyone’s amazement, Aragorn calls for the Ring-bearer and Gandalf. Frodo hands the crown to Gandalf, who places it upon -Aragorn’s brow.
The city of Minas Tirith begins to revive. Its walls are restored, and the city is filled with trees, fountains, and laughter. Ambassadors from many lands arrive in Gondor, and Aragorn shows mercy by rewarding both the faithful and the enemies of the West. Gandalf explains that the Third Age of Middle-earth has passed: the war against Sauron is over, and Aragorn’s reign in the age of Men has begun. The group climbs up an ancient, snowy path, at the end of which, amidst a pile of debris, Aragorn finds a sapling of the great White Tree—the symbol of ancient Elendil, Gondor’s kingdom. Aragorn takes the sapling back to the Citadel. The old, dead tree is removed and laid to rest, and the new one planted in its place.
The day before Midsummer, a group of Elves approaches Minas Tirith. Celeborn and Galadriel, Elrohir and Elladan, and all the Elf princes arrive in the city. Behind them, mightiest of all, is Elrond with his daughter, Arwen. On the day of Midsummer, Aragorn (now called King Elessar) and Arwen are wed. Queen Arwen, seeking to repay Frodo for his immeasurable service and suffering, offers him a gift. When the time comes, he may sail in her stead across the Great Sea to the unknown West, where the Elves dwell in eternal youth and joy.
The revival of Minas Tirith marks the rise of the age of Men, as Gandalf announces when the city suddenly flourishes again. This notion of one age giving way to a new one is an ancient idea. The Greeks, for example, envisioned consecutive epochs symbolized by various metals—the Golden Age being the best and earliest. In Middle-earth, the transition of ages is foretold in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Galadriel sadly hints to Frodo that the power of the Elves will continue to diminish in the future, whether or not Frodo’s mission is successful. The new age is also hinted at in The Two Towers, with the news that there are no young Ents, as the Ent-wives disappeared long ago. The era of the Ent race, like that of the Elves, appears to be passing away. Humans, represented by Aragorn, are to assume a place of primacy in the world during this new age, which presumably continues until our own present day. This transition to human rule allows us to picture our own world as a sequel to Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which is, in a sense, an ancient ancestor of the world as we know it. We may imagine that our lives have been made possible because of the heroism of Frodo and his cohorts. Aragorn’s retrieval of the White Tree and its return to Minas Tirith furthers this idea of the beginning of the new age and the reclamation of history. The sapling tree is white in color, suggesting purity and a blank slate upon which the future of the new age of Men can be written. Though reappearing as a new sapling, the White Tree remains the ancient image of the city of Minas Tirith.
Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen is a surprise in some ways, as there has been little focus on female characters in the novel thus far, and no romantic activity. Though the wedding is perhaps the last thing we might expect at this point, it fulfills several symbolic functions. On a literal level, it heartens us to see two such noble characters united. It is especially touching given that Arwen—who, as an Elf, has the opportunity to sail west across the Great Sea and live eternally—gives up her immortality out of a desire to remain with the mortal Aragorn. On a broader, mythical level, the wedding symbolizes the ideas of continuity and unity. As in Shakespeare’s comedies, which nearly always conclude in a wedding, the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen suggests that life goes on and that past divisions are to be reconciled. The news of the wedding—a beginning in itself—represents the regeneration of a fresh, new world after the fall of Sauron. Though the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen is likely heartbreaking to Éowyn, who has longed after Aragorn, Éowyn ultimately finds comfort and love in Faramir. Éowyn’s blossoming love for Faramir mirrors her own physical healing, the restoration of Minas Tirith, and the overall rejuvenation of Middle-earth after the overthrow of Sauron.
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