The Return of the King, the third and final volume in The Lord of the Rings, opens as Gandalf and Pippin ride east to the city of Minas Tirith in Gondor, just after parting with King Théoden and the Riders of Rohan at the end of The Two Towers. In Minas Tirith, Gandalf and Pippin meet Denethor, the city’s Steward, or ruler, who clearly dislikes Gandalf. Pippin offers Denethor his sword in service to Gondor, out of gratitude for the fact that Denethor’s son Boromir gave his life for the hobbits earlier in the quest.

A blanket of gloom—which Gandalf calls the Darkness—begins to issue from Mordor and soon obscures the entire sky over Minas Tirith. Meanwhile, Aragorn realizes that the Riders may not reach the city in time to defend it from the imminent conflict with Mordor. Aragorn parts company with Théoden and decides to take the legendary Paths of the Dead to Gondor. As he travels through the Paths, accompanied by Legolas and Gimli, a huge army of the Sleepless Dead heeds Aragorn’s commands and follows him southward.

In Gondor, Denethor sends his other son, Faramir, to hold off the approaching armies of Mordor at Osgiliath. Faramir holds his position as long as he can, but he ultimately gives up the field, despite Gandalf’s help. Retreating to the city, a poisoned arrow of the Nazgûl—the Black Riders—strikes Faramir down, though it does not kill him. Later, as the fierce battle wages outside Minas Tirith, Denethor goes mad and locks himself in a crypt with the ailing Faramir. Denethor plans to destroy the remnants of the line of Gondor’s Stewards.

The army of Mordor nearly breaks through Minas Tirith’s defenses, but the Riders of Rohan arrive just in time to fight the army off. The Lord of the Nazgûl, the Black Captain, kills King Théoden. In heroic defense, Lady Éowyn and Merry slay the Black Captain, though Éowyn is grievously wounded. The forces of Mordor regroup, but Aragorn arrives via the Anduin River on the black ships of the Enemy, which he has conquered with the help of the Dead.

Pippin finds Gandalf, and together they stop Denethor from killing his son. The old Steward throws himself on a burning pyre and kills himself. Having rescued Gondor, Aragorn enters Minas Tirith and heals those whom the Black Captain wounded during the battle. In so doing, Aragorn fulfills an ancient prophecy concerning the coming of the next king of Gondor.

The leaders of the armies of the West decide to put together an assault on Mordor in order to distract Sauron from the quest of Frodo, the Ring-bearer. Aragorn’s forces march to the Black Gate of Mordor and confront Sauron’s Lieutenant. The Lieutenant claims that the hobbit spies—Frodo and Sam—have been captured in Mordor. Gandalf rebukes the Lieutenant, who flees inside the Gate and unleashes the great armies of Mordor.

In the meantime, Sam manages to rescue Frodo from the tower of Cirith Ungol. With the aid of the Ring and his sword, Sam scares off the Orcs he encounters. The hobbits don Orc clothing and begin the arduous trek through Mordor. The Ring grows heavier around Frodo’s neck with each step.

After several long and weary days of travel, the two hobbits reach Orodruin, or Mount Doom. Sam carries Frodo to the top. Just as they reach the Cracks of Doom, Frodo refuses to give up the Ring, overcome by its power. Gollum appears and struggles with Frodo. Gollum bites the Ring off Frodo’s finger, but then he stumbles and falls into the Cracks of Doom. Sauron’s power breaks, and Aragorn’s forces at the Black Gate defeat the panicked servants of Mordor. Gandalf flies to Orodruin on the back of Gwaihir, the giant eagle, and rescues Frodo and Sam.

The Darkness dissipates from Gondor. Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, and he marries Arwen, Elrond’s daughter from Rivendell. Minas Tirith and the surrounding areas begin to recover and rebuild.

The hobbits return to the Shire, where they find their homes ravaged. A group of Men have entered and set up an oppressive police state. The four companions organize a rebellion and rout the intruders, discovering that the secret leader of the destruction is Saruman, the deposed wizard, who seeks revenge on the hobbits. Frodo spares Saruman’s life, but the wizard’s browbeaten servant, Wormtongue, betrays and kills his cruel master.

The hobbits rebuild the Shire and return to their ordinary lives. Sam marries a hobbit named Rosie Cotton, and together they have a daughter. Frodo, wounded by the burden of the Ring-quest, decides to leave the Shire. He sails away over the Great Sea with Gandalf, Bilbo, and the other Ring-bearers to the peaceful paradise in the unknown West.