This post is a continuation of my reflections from my fall reread of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This is the final part in this series as I will not be writing a post on the Appendices. An introduction to this series can be read in this post. The other parts in this series can be found via the links below.
Part 1: The Hobbit
Part 2: The Fellowship of the Ring
Part 3: The Two Towers
The Return of the King
It appears that The Return of the King is the hardest book in the trilogy for me to put down or, more accurately, the hardest for me to resist picking up. This may be because of the many day-spring moments in The Return of the King: flashes of incredible beauty and joy and the renewal of hope beyond hope, such as the horns of the Rohirrim at dawn, Aragorn’s arrival in the Corsair ships, the healing of Éowyn, and the minstrel’s song at the victory feast on the fields of Cormallen.
Sam’s song in the tower of Cirith Ungol, “In western lands beneath the Sun,” reminds me of an old legend I heard as a child of the medieval minstrel Blondel who traipsed through Europe searching for his king, Richard the Lionheart. He sang a song under each tower, hoping that King Richard would answer. Eventually, as he rested at the base of a decrepit keep and hummed the first lines of Greensleeves, King Richard answered him by singing the second verse from a window above. Thus was the king found and ransomed, much to the dismay of his brother Prince John and his associates.
“Why did Tolkien write ‘The Scouring of the Shire’?” my brother asked me in a moment of philosophical reflection. I have pondered this question much during these last days of my reread. The main thought that runs in my mind springs from something Sam says in The Two Towers:
“We hear about those [heroes] as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same—like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!”(emphasis added)1
“The Scouring of the Shire” is not what those inside the story would call a “good end.” However, from a reading point of view—those outside the tale—after all the hobbits’ trials and growth and pain, if they had returned to the same blithe Shire, would it be satisfying for us as readers to think that they only lived happily ever after?
Here is a fragment of dialogue for reflection! Gandalf has just left Sam, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin and is going to visit Tom Bombadil. The four hobbits are making ready to return to the Shire.
“Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,”said Merry. “We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”
“Not to me,”said Frodo. “To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”2
This is a distinction of a C.S. Lewisian flavour: the idea that there are times, in experiencing great beauty or joy, even trials and pain, when one is more alive or awake. These moments often occur outside everyday life or when everyday life is intensified and one is constantly living to full capacity. When once in a period of greater spiritual aliveness, coming back to the old or everyday is like relapsing into sleep again.
1J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 8
2J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 7