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The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

The cast of characters of The Lord of the Rings includes a number of pairs of characters who act as foils, or doubles, for each other. How is each character similar to, and different from, his or her foil? How do these foils relate to the broader themes Tolkien explores in his novel?

As the two human political rulers in The Return of the King, King Théoden and Lord Denethor represent obvious character doubles. Tolkien emphasizes their doubled nature by alternating chapters devoted to Théoden and Denethor in Book V. When we meet them, both rulers are destitute, brought down by the influence of evil in their respective realms. Subsequently, each leader is the cause of further deterioration in his respective kingdom. Théoden, however, allows himself to be redeemed by Gandalf’s counsel, whereas Denethor resists Gandalf’s offer of redemption out of fear that the wizard wishes to infringe upon Denethor’s political sovereignty in Minas Tirith. Both rulers leave their courts in order to die. Théoden rides to Gondor to die fighting for the cause of the West; Denethor commits suicide in the crypt of Gondor’s ancient kings. Tolkien synchronizes their deaths, setting in relief the different outcomes of their demises. Théoden and his Riders ensure the survival of Gondor, and the king’s body is carried in a somber procession from the battlefield. Denethor dies in self-pity, and his body is consumed in flames.

In a more profound way, Frodo and Gollum function as doubles as well, embodying the two opposite consequences of bearing the Ring. Both are small, but Gollum is smaller—a shriveled, black, and dirty version of a Hobbit. In one sense, they are opponents, united only by Frodo’s mercy and forbearance. In another sense, Frodo and Gollum are one and the same. Gollum represents Frodo’s id or inner self—the portion of Frodo that yearns for the Ring. Frodo, when he rebukes Gollum while ascending Mount Doom, appears to Sam as though dressed in white, as if he has mastered his darker, blacker self. When Frodo hesitates at the edge of the Cracks, he dons the Ring and disappears. In the ensuing struggle, Gollum is the only visi-ble assailant, symbolizing the brief victory of Frodo’s evil side. It is unclear who is responsible for Gollum’s mistaken fall. What is apparent, though, is that the inner spiritual and external physical threats to Frodo’s goodness are difficult to distinguish, rendering the portrayal of evil in The Lord of the Rings still more ambiguous.

2.

What are some of the physical symbols of evil in The Lord of the Rings? What do these symbols suggest about the nature or reality of evil? What is Tolkien’s view of evil?

In one sense, the physical symbols of evil in The Lord of the Rings depict evil as an overwhelming external physical force. At the opening of Book V, a thick blanket of gloom spreads out over the land of Gondor. The Darkness, or Shadow as it is often called, dulls the senses and makes the air stifling. The effects are similar to those of the Ring as Frodo nears Mordor and Mount Doom. Like a heavy magnet repelling its source, the Ring drags Frodo down, exhausting him until he can no longer walk. Furthermore, as Frodo and Sam approach the heart of Mordor, they increasingly feel the presence of the Great Eye of Sauron, fixed atop the Dark Tower where Sauron resides. The Eye conveys Sauron’s will. The strength of Mordor’s forces and the damage that is wrought upon the physical world all flow from the power source of the Eye.

In another sense, the physical symbols of evil seem to derive their evil quality from those who perceive them. A “physical symbol” cannot be entirely physical, as a symbol must possess a lingering quality that suggests there is more to the object than expected. The Darkness does not abate while Sauron rules; yet, as a shadow, the Darkness is immaterial, without power, and only a means of frightening onlookers such as Pippin. The Ring also manifests a certain ambivalence in its nature. Frodo feels the Ring is a giant weight, but Sam carries Frodo up Mount Doom with surprising ease, indicating that the Ring itself does not actually exert a real force. Evil is, in a way, a human creation, for while frightening or overwhelming events occur in the physical world, individuals must interpret these events and label them as evil. Tolkien, however, does not clarify this picture of evil. The physical world and the mental life of Middle-earth’s inhabitants play reciprocal roles in defining evil.

3.

Is Aragorn a realistic character? Why or why not?

In the third volume of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s character is inseparable from his actions and their significance. His words are few, and his calculated responses and decisions are rarely spontaneous. Aragorn’s character is not realistic but idealistic—he embodies the moral principles, motifs, and plot conventions of Tolkien’s text. The fact that Aragorn fulfills ancient legends about the long-awaited kingdom of Gondor does little to distinguish him as an individual, for Tolkien’s legends are artificial, and we as readers have not been waiting long for the King of Gondor to return. Even the title of the third volume quashes Aragorn’s realism. The title, The Return of the King, suggests that Aragorn’s fate is fixed from the beginning of Book V.

Ironically, Tolkien’s more fantastic characters are the ones who appear most convincingly real. Each character’s race determines his or her personality and attitudes. Gimli is short and stout, and, as a Dwarf, a cave-dweller. Caves and stone, indeed, are major topics in Gimli’s conversations. Gimli suffers embarrassment because he is the only member of Aragorn’s group who is crippled with fear in the Paths of the Dead, despite the fact that dark trails and passages are Gimli’s purported realm of comfort and expertise. Gimli’s cowardice is rich and telling because it deviates so widely from his typical characteristics. His inconsistencies and exposed weaknesses deepen his character and make him more sympathetic. Aragorn, in his neutral appearance and impeccable prudence, lacks the ability to betray himself. Aragorn never exposes inner fears or a true self, for his true self is the role he plays as a Christ figure and eventually as King of Gondor.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Compare and contrast Frodo and Sam as heroes. What are their heroic virtues? In what ways are those virtues distinctively Hobbit-like?

2. What are some of the various powers Gandalf displays throughout the novel? Which of these is the most effective in the conflict against Mordor? What religious overtones, if any, surround the wizard’s role and actions?

3. How does Tolkien use the geography of Middle-earth to contribute to the themes he explores in the Ring-quest?

4. Describe some of the various races of Middle-earth that Tolkien portrays in The Lord of the Rings. What are their distinguishing characteristics? How do their different physical appearances relate to their personalities, beliefs, customs, and so on?

5. Few female characters are mentioned in The Lord of the Rings. Describe some of the various appearances of female characters. How does Tolkien depict women? Is this depiction intended to be realistic? Idealistic? Ironic? Archaic?

6. In what sense might The Lord of the Rings be read as an allegory for Tolkien’s Christian beliefs or the history of modern England? Are such readings of the novel apt or inadequate? What other methods does Tolkien use to convey his moral or religious intentions in the text?

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