The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

It has been a long road—The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and now finally The Return of the King. Of course, I also need to reread The Tolkien Reader and I’m still debating whether or not to read The Book of Lost Tales… but we’re not going to worry about that today. For now, just enjoy this weird, emotional review.

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien Paperback Book


The Return of the King is the third and final volume of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was first published in 1955 by George Allen & Unwin. It contains Books V and VI. Book VI follows Sam and Frodo and then extends on to the end. Book V follows everyone else.

I listened to a basically unabridged audiobook version that included sound effects and music from the films. As with the previous volumes, this very much enhanced my experience of the story. I also have a pre-film paperback edition from Ballantine (pictured above).

The Return of the King Review

The writing quality of this book is just like the previous volumes: The narrative style creates an immersive reading experience; the foreshadowing is great; the world-building is amazing; the characters are some of my favorites of all time.

The resolution of this book is long, about 100 pages. Since LOTR is essentially one book sold in three volumes, I would expect the resolution to last a bit longer than a single book resolution, but this is still quite long.  Unlike The Hobbit, however, I wasn’t bored during the lengthy resolution of this book. There’s a segment the end that is related to the main conflicts of the books but also sort of separate, like a bonus story. This works because it ties up some important loose ends and there’s no way Tolkien could have tied them up before the climax of the story.

The end of the story is not purely happy, but even the sad things are satisfying in a way. They make the story feel real. On some level, we know that not everything can be as it was before. There’s grief there, but also joy for new things. Some things will continue on as they were before, or even better than before because someone bothered to keep them from being destroyed or to rebuild them.

This book is deeply religious, but not in a cheesy-Christian-fiction sort of way. It’s much more subtle than, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or anything you’re likely to see from a Christian publishing house. Tolkien explores themes of justice and mercy. There are moments of prophecy, providence, and divine will. The weak have the most important job, and just about fail at it, but she strong wouldn’t have gotten even that far. The person of Jesus has definite tie-ins with Aragon and Gandalf both, though in different ways. This is not an allegory; it is its own beautiful work of art.

Tolkien’s personal experiences also come into play. Villains spoil the countryside with industrialization. Strong male friendships play a big role in this story. Characters are not unaffected by their battles and traumas; like Tolkien’s WWI generation, they’ve got a lot of healing to do, and some things can never go back to the way they were before.

There’s also a romance in this book that I love, but I can’t get into it without spoilers. It’s not hugely developed—it’s more of a side story than a central thing—but the two characters are well-developed separately and very likable before they get shipped together. After all of their suffering, I can’t help cheering when they find something good and wonderful in each other. This was one of many things in the story that made me want to give John Tolkien a bear hug.

I came to this book feeling heavy, tired, and sad. Not because of the book, but because of a number of other things in my life, not the least of which was wonky brain chemistry. I wasn’t able to do a whole lot at the time, so I crocheted tons of hats, cooked huge batches of chili, and listened to this book over the course of a few days. Looking back, I was super productive for feeling so terrible.

I was hoping for some escapism, some diversion to make me feel better. What I found was so much better than that. There are moments in this book so touching that I nearly cried.  On several occasions, I felt the overwhelming urge to give “Grandpa Tolkien” (as Brandon Sanderson has dubbed him for all fantasy writers) a hug. Nevermind that he died decades before I was born. After reading this again, I adore him even more.

I even love when his characters express strong opinions and arguments to each other. Is this preaching? Probably, but it always makes sense in the situation and feels authentic to the characters. Heck, sometimes I want to hug him for his preaching. As I read, I got the feeling that he understood things about what it means to be a Christian that I am only now just beginning to understand.


Be warned of some gross graphic content. War is horrifying, and war happens in this book. Tolkien doesn’t hide that horror, but he also doesn’t glory in it every five seconds. He recognizes that sometimes war is necessary to defend the good things from those who would destroy them—either through their misguided intentions of making things better and more efficient, through a selfish desire to lord wealth and status over other people, or through pure malice. If you can't deal with descriptions of graphic violence or if you were considering this for small children who might get nightmares, steer clear.

Manuscript Wishlist:

Having any women play a prominent role in the story (and not just sex objects) is impressive, especially at this stage of the fantasy genre, but I would have liked to have seen more non-breathtakingly gorgeous ladies play prominent roles in the story.

A Note on the Appendices

This review took me forever to finish because I wanted to read the appendices before I published it. Yeah, I know—I’m a nerd.

Most of Appendix A is probably only interesting to hardcore Middle Earth nerds who want to know all about history and stuff. I’ve read The Silmarillion, but I still had a hard time following it. The most interesting thing in Appendix A is part v “Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.” Since this isn’t nearly as developed in the main story as I thought it would be, this was actually quite nice to read.

Appendix B is a timeline for Middle Earth. I enjoyed this one because it covers information before and continues past the end of The Lord of the Rings, so I got to see more of Sam’s story. By now you guys get how much I love Sam, right? I may have to start writing Samwise Gamgee fanfiction.

Appendix C Family Trees was interesting, just to see how so many of the hobbits are related. It’s mostly charts, so it doesn’t take too long to read.

I didn’t find the appendices on calendars, writing and spelling, languages and pronunciation (D-F) particularly interesting, though it is worth noting that the pronunciation of Gandalf that I disliked from The Hobbit BBC radio dramatization is actually correct. (Drat).

I guess my point is that you don’t have to read the appendices. It’s pretty much all the sort of stuff that authors should know about their world but that readers aren’t necessarily interested in. But if you do read (or skim) the appendices, there are some parts that are more interesting than others.

Bottom Line

The Lord of the Rings gets better in each successive volume and The Return of the King closes out the trilogy with a bang…and then an echo of the bang.  I love this book. It was exactly the emotional bear hug that I needed at the time and because of that, I’m never going to look at it the same way again. It brings my overall experience of The Lord of the Rings to a seven-mustache-read.

Have you ever read The Return of the King? Or do you want to read it?  Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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