As always, dear readers, welcome.
When economic circumstances forced the reluctant Tolkien to break The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, he entitled the third The Return of the King
and, of course, Strider/Aragorn becomes that king by the end of the volume.
The last king before Aragorn was Earnur, who had disappeared into Mordor in TA2050, leaving the Stewards to rule until the death of Denethor in TA 3019.
In modern Western history, I can think of two royal restorations, of both of which I’m sure that JRRT was aware:
1. that of the Restoration of 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne of England
after the execution of his father, in 1649,
and that of Louis XVIII in 1814,
after the execution of his older brother, Louis XVI, in 1793 (although Louis XVI had gradually been losing his royal powers since the Revolution began in 1789).
In the first case, this would have been a span of 11 years and, in the second, of 21.
In the case of the Kings of Gondor, it would have been a span of nearly a 1000. After such an immense stretch of time, why would anyone want the king back?
In the Shire, there still existed a kind of ghost of kings:
“There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king at Fornost, or Norbury, as they called it, away north of the Shire. But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years…Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king. For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 3, “Of the Ordering of the Shire”)
But why do we readers—or at least I, reader–accept this return, especially as someone who lives in a country which hasn’t had a monarch over it for not quite so long as Gondor, but since 1776, which is 245 years?
Perhaps it has something to do with the traditional story culture we grew up in. Think of fairy tales: how many of them are set in kingdoms, with kings and queens
and often marriageable princesses—sometimes in need of rescuing.
Open what was perhaps Tolkien’s first fairy tale book, Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890)
and you’ll see that the first story is called “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and the second story, “Princess Maybloom” begins:
“ONCE upon a time there lived a King and Queen whose children had all died, first one and then another, until at last only one little daughter remained, and the Queen was at her wits’ end to know where to find a really good nurse who would take care of her, and bring her up.”
For JRRT the medievalist, there was also all the world of Arthurian legend, with earlier stories, dating back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”)
to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century)
of which Tolkien and his colleague, E.V. Gordon, published a scholarly edition in 1925
and of which Tolkien himself made a translation, published posthumously by his son, Christopher, in 1975.
Then there is the later Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory’s collection of Arthurian material, first published by William Caxton (c.1422-c.1491) in 1485.
And, for a late Victorian/Edwardian like Tolkien, there was the poetical work, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s (1809-1892)
The Idylls of the King (1859-1885)
At the center, of course, is Arthur himself, a man born to be king, but who had no idea that that was his fate until he found himself in front of a stone upon which rested an anvil with a sword embedded in it, a story first appearing, it seems, in Robert de Boron’s Merlin, c.1200.
This is sometimes confused in early tellings with Excalibur, Arthur’s other sword, which, in some versions, was given to him by the “Lady of the Lake”.
This confusion is then employed, to wicked effect, in Monty Python’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
where it is used to question the very idea of kingship which I’m puzzling my way through here.
Soon to be on his quest for the Holy Grail, King Arthur approaches some peasants who are grubbing in a muddy field.
“ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady? I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Whose castle is that?
WOMAN: King of the who?
ARTHUR: The Britons.
WOMAN: Who are the Britons?
ARTHUR: Well, we all are. We are all Britons, and I am your king.
WOMAN: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.”
This is clearly not going to go well
and soon Arthur is shouting:
“ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!
WOMAN: Order, eh? Who does he think he is? Heh.
ARTHUR: I am your king!
WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, how did you become King, then?”
“ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake,…
…her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.
That is why I am your king!”
A second peasant’s response suggests that this is not quite so convincing as Arthur would have them believe:
“DENNIS: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
(Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Scene 3: “Repression is Nine Tenths of the Law?”)
Arthur’s argument is that he is the rightful king because he was appointed by a spiritual power and this easily ties in with justifications of kingship under the idea of “the divine right of kings”, in which a monarch claimed that he was there because God had appointed him to his position. It also suggested that, in that position, he was answerable to no one but God—an idea which got Charles the First
of England not only into a civil war, but carried him all the way to his execution, as his opponents asserted that Charles was not himself a kind of god (an idea with which his father, James the First, had actually played in his The True Law of Free Monarchies, 1598, and Basilikon Doron, 1599), but a man responsible to his people and, when, by his actions, he betrayed them, he was as liable as any of his subjects to a charge of treason.
For the medieval Arthur, however, there was a fatal wounding on the battlefield,
or perhaps a kind of rescue by a group of mysterious women, who take him off to “the Isle of Avalon”
where, in some versions of the story, he is to be healed and there await the appropriate moment to sail back to retake his kingdom—the original Return of the King.
This, of course, brings us back to my original question: why accept that that return is an appropriate part of the ending of The Lord of the Rings?
I think that we can begin with the remark about hobbits, that
“they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.”
If we look at Middle-earth in TA 3018, much of it is in desperate need of laws which are “both ancient and just”, as
1. Sauron is active in Mordor, raising armies, including those from his alliance with Harad, and sending the Nazgul, his creatures, abroad
2. Saruman, now in the service of Sauron, although believing himself independent, is also building armies and infringing upon Rohan
3. Gondor is gradually growing weaker, its main city, Minas Tirith, largely depopulated, and its steward, Denethor, is being emotionally manipulated by Sauron through his unwise use of a palantir
4. Theoden, king of Rohan, has been taken over by Saruman’s spy, Grima
5. whole areas beyond the Anduin are, at best, unsafe
6. Moria is in the hands of orcs—and worse, in the form of a balrog
(and 7.—to come—the Shire itself will fall into the vengeful hands of the deposed Saruman, now called “Sharkey”, to be turned into a kind of fake socialist industrial state)
With a background in fairy tales and Arthurian legend, it would have seemed natural to JRRT to see this as a world out of balance and in need of a savior—or, in the case of The Lord of the Rings, two: Frodo and Aragorn.
And there appears to be a kind of divine sanction for both of these in these words which both Boromir and Faramir had heard in dreams, as Boromir tells the Council of Elrond:
“For on the eve of the sudden assault a dream came to my brother in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.
In that dream I thought the eastern sky grew dark and there was a growing thunder, but in the West a pale light lingered, and out of it I heard a voice, remote but clear, crying:
Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.”
(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)
The “Sword that was broken” is in the hands of Aragorn, its rightful owner as the direct descendant of its original owner, Elendil, as Gandalf explains to Boromir:
“For the Sword that was Broken is the Sword of Elendil that broke beneath him when he fell. It has been treasured by his heirs when all other heirlooms were lost; for it was spoken of old among us that it should be made again when the Ring, Isildur’s Bane, was found.”
But then Gandalf continues:
“Now you have seen the sword that you have sought, what would you ask? Do you wish for the House of Elendil to return to the Land of Gondor?”
Boromir has his doubts, however:
“I was not sent to beg any boon, but to seek only the meaning of a riddle…Yet we are hard pressed, and the Sword of Elendil would be a help beyond our hope—if such a thing could indeed return out of the shadows of the past.”
Aragorn replies—and here we begin to see his street cred:
“If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we [his people, the Dunedain] have played another part. Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay…Peace and freedom, do you say? The North would have known them little but for us. Fear would have destroyed them. But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us.”
Thus, Aragorn suggests that he’s not only the possessor of an ancient sword which signifies his heritage, but he’s also an experienced soldier, who has continued has family’s role as protectors of the North. As the story proceeds, Aragorn continues to show proofs of his kingship, laying claim to a palantir and using it to turn the tables on Sauron (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”), traveling the Paths of the Dead to call upon the Oathbreakers finally to fulfil their oath (“The Passing of the Grey Company”), and in his ability to heal those near-death, as Gandalf says:
“ ‘Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spake Ioreth, the wise-woman of Gondor: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” ‘ “ (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 8, “The Houses of Healing”)
And we should note two things here:
1. it is Gandalf who quotes Ioreth and who is Gandalf? One of the 5 Istari, lesser spirits sent by the Valar to counter Sauron in Middle-earth (Unfinished Tales, Part Four, II. The Istari)
2. not “a rightful king”, but “the rightful king”—Gandalf may be thought, then, to be speaking for the Valar to say that Aragorn is, indeed, the King Who Returns
All this may convey a kind of justification for Gandalf’s earlier identification of Aragorn as “Aragorn son of Arathorn, the heir of Kings” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”), although it skates very close to that divine right of kings which got Charles the First into trouble, but it is only when all of the menace in the list above has been dissipated, much of it by the efforts of others, that we see the true nature of the Return of the King:
“In his time the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory; and it was filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets paved with white marble, and the Folk of the Mountain and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there; and all was healed and made good, and the houses were filled with men and women and the laughter of children, and no window was blind nor any courtyard empty; and after the ending of the Third Age of the world into the new age it preserved the memory and the glory of the years that were gone.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 5, “The Steward and the King”)
And it’s not just the sick and the City which Aragorn heals, but a great portion of Middle-earth:
“And embassies came from many lands and peoples, from the East and the South, and from the borders of Mirkwood, and from Dunland in the west. And the King pardoned the Easterlings that had given themselves up, and sent them away free, and he made peace with the peoples of Harad; and the slaves of Mordor he released and gave them all the lands about Lake Nurnen to be their own.”
I’ve wondered whether being conditioned by fairy tales has had something to do with my acceptance of the Return, and this seems to be a giant fairy tale ending, including the marriage with Arwen (“The Steward and the King”)-
but JRRT is a better story-teller than to take such an easy way out. The Return of the King has brought peace and will bring prosperity to a world much in need of both, but it isn’t a happy world for everyone.
When Frodo and his friends return to the Shire, they find destruction, both to the landscape and to the social fabric and it takes the deaths, not only of men, but of hobbits and even of one of the Istari, Saruman, to begin the healing there. (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)
And there is another sadness as well: the departure of Frodo and Bilbo and Gandalf from Middle-earth (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”).
(A real beauty by Ted Nasmith)
So perhaps, beyond fairy tales and the Once and Future King of Arthur, it’s this mixture of joy and sorrow which persuades me to believe in The Return of the King.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Hope for wizards in our world (but not so ambitious and self-deceiving as Saruman)
And know that, as always, there’s
Near the beginning of this piece, there is an illustration of a king and queen which I drew from one of Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for one of my favorite A.A. Milne’s poems, “The King’s Breakfast”. Here’s a LINK, if you don’t know it: https://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/2000/09/king-breakfast-a-milne.html WARNING: this has such an infectious rhythm that you will find yourself memorizing it without knowing it!