56 pages 1 hour read

J. R. R. Tolkien

Return of the King

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


The Return of the King is a 1955 book by J. R. R. Tolkien and the final volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This book concludes the epic fantasy journey of Frodo Baggins to destroy the One Ring and portrays the final battle between Mordor and Gondor. In this work, Tolkien explores how good can overcome a seemingly more powerful force of evil. The end of the book has drawn critical attention due to its potential allusions to the contemporary politics of post-War England. This book was adapted into a film in 2003 directed by Peter Jackson, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

This guide refers to the version published by Houghton Mifflin in 1994.

Content Warning: This work contains depictions of violence and of death by suicide.

Plot Summary

The Return of the King begins as Pippin and Gandalf arrive at the city of Minas Tirith, the capital of the Kingdom of Gondor. They meet with the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, who is suspicious that Gandalf plans to replace him with Aragorn. A large army from Mordor marches on Minas Tirith, and Denethor believes that their defenses will not be enough without reinforcements. He sends his younger son Faramir to defend the border city of Osgiliath.

Meanwhile, Merry remains in Rohan with King Théoden as he musters an army to aid Gondor. Aragorn leaves Rohan accompanied by Legolas, Gimli, and his fellow Rangers, the Dúnedain, seeking to travel through a haunted location called the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn believes based on a prophecy that he will be able to command an army of cursed ghosts from Dunharrow who betrayed his ancestor Isildur and who can only truly rest once they fulfill their oath to his heir. He marches with his army of the dead to stop a fleet of Corsairs from Umbar invading southern Gondor. Théoden commands Merry and his niece Éowyn to stay behind in Edoras when he rides to war, but Merry is able to secretly join the army after a mysterious rider called Dernhelm offers to take him on his horse.

In Gondor, Denethor despairs when Faramir returns wounded from Osgiliath. The siege of Minas Tirith begins and Denethor begins behaving erratically, believing that no aid from Rohan is coming. He attempts to burn himself and Faramir alive, but Faramir is saved by Pippin and Gandalf. Gandalf realizes that Denethor has been manipulated by Sauron via the Palantír, and he is unable to stop Denethor from dying by suicide. The Riders of Rohan arrive in time to join the battle, having been shown a short cut by the Wild Man Ghân-buri-Ghân.

During the battle, Théoden is killed by the leader of the Nazgûl. Dernhelm is revealed to be Éowyn in disguise, and she avenges her king by killing the Nazgûl with Merry’s help. The tide of the battle turns when Aragorn arrives on the Corsair ships with reinforcements. Aragorn enters the city and heals Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry from their wounds. After Faramir recognizes him as the rightful king, he commands an army of men to march on Mordor as a distraction to help Frodo complete his quest and destroy the Ring.

In Mordor, Sam manages to rescue Frodo from the fortress at Cirith Ungol and returns the Ring to him. They sneak across Mordor, disguised as Orcs. Frodo becomes increasingly burdened by the Ring, and when they reach Mount Doom to destroy the Ring, Frodo is finally corrupted by its power. He puts on the Ring, seeking to claim it for himself, but is stopped by Gollum who bites off his finger and steals the Ring. However, Gollum accidentally falls into the Crack of Doom, destroying the Ring and defeating Sauron. Frodo and Sam collapse but they are rescued by Gandalf and the Eagles.

The hobbits reunite and go to Minas Tirith for Aragorn’s coronation and his wedding to Arwen, daughter of Elrond. Faramir and Éowyn also fall in love and plan to marry. The hobbits journey home to the Shire, but discover that, in their absence, it has been overrun with ruffians led by a person called Sharkey. Sharkey has cut down trees, built machinery that pollutes the environment, and denies the hobbits food and luxuries. Merry and Pippin lead a revolt against Sharkey and discover that he is actually Saruman. Frodo decides to spare Saruman’s life, but Saruman is killed by his own servant Wormtongue.

Sam works to restore the Shire and replant trees. He marries Rosie Cotton and has a daughter called Elenor. Frodo, however, begins to withdraw from public life. He writes down the story of his adventures in a book and then gives it to Sam to finish. Frodo reveals that he has been permanently wounded due to bearing the Ring for so long and that he must leave to sail into the West with the Elves who leave Middle-earth. He says goodbye to his friends and departs with Gandalf, Bilbo, and the Elves to find peace in the blessed land of Valinor.