The Return of the King
(1955) is the third and final volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic
novel-cycle The Lord of the Rings
. Following on from the action of The Fellowship of the Ring
(1954) and The Two Towers
(1954), The Return of the King
covers the culmination of Frodo Baggins’s quest to destroy the One Ring coveted by the Dark Lord Sauron, and Aragorn’s defense of the kingdom of Gondor against Sauron’s army. The Lord of the Rings
, taken as a single volume, is by several measures the best-selling book of all time, and the novel’s influence on contemporary fantasy fiction is all-pervasive.
As the novel opens, the wizard Gandalf the White and the hobbit Peregrin “Pippin” Took ride to Minas Tirith in Gondor. There they have a frosty encounter with Denethor, the Steward of the city. Pippin, whose life was saved by Denethor’s son Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring
, swears fealty to the Steward.
The sky over the city begins to darken, a sign of the coming invasion from Mordor. Aragorn, who is leading an army from Rohan to defend Minas Tirith, realizes that they may not have time to reach the city. With his companions Legolas and Gimli—an elf and a dwarf respectively—Aragorn leaves the army behind to take a perilous shortcut through the Paths of the Dead. There he earns the allegiance of a vast army of the Dead, who follow him to Gondor.
Meanwhile, in Gondor, Denethor has sent his surviving son, Faramir to delay the invading army at the city of Osgiliath. Faramir is forced to retreat, and in the process, he is wounded by a poisoned arrow fired by a Nazgûl—a wraith-like creature in the service of Sauron. The forces of Mordor advance to the walls of Minas Tirith, where Denethor loses his wits. Locking himself away with his injured son, Denethor plots to kill himself and Faramir.
Just as the army of Mordor threatens to break through the city’s defenses, the army from Rohan arrives and presses them back. Their king, Théoden, is killed by the leader of the Nazgûl. The hobbit Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck and Lady Éowyn, who have been traveling with the army from Rohan, kill the leader of the Nazgûl, but Éowyn is injured in the process.
As the forces of Mordor gather for another assault, Aragorn arrives via ship, having captured the enemy’s fleet with the help of his Dead army.
Denethor has lit a pyre to kill himself and his son. Pippin and Gandalf arrive in time to save Faramir, but Denethor throws himself onto the pyre and dies.
Aragorn drives back the army of Mordor and enters the city. He heals all those wounded by the Nazgûl, thereby fulfilling an ancient prophecy and confirming that he is the rightful king of Gondor.
Under Aragorn’s leadership, the united armies of the West decide to march on Mordor. They know that unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the One Ring, Sauron’s defeat will only be temporary, and they hope that their invasion will distract the Dark Lord. At the Black Gate of Mordor, Sauron’s Lieutenant tells Aragorn that Frodo has already been captured. Gandalf refuses to believe him, and the Lieutenant orders the full force of Mordor to attack.
Meanwhile, Frodo’s companion, the hobbit Samwise “Sam” Gamgee, rescues Frodo from captivity. Disguising themselves as orcs, they proceed towards Mount Doom, the volcano where Gandalf has told them they can destroy the ring. As they proceed, Frodo gets weaker and weaker, until at the foot of the mountain, he collapses and Sam has to carry him.
At the Cracks of Doom, where the Ring can be destroyed, Frodo’s will finally capitulates to the power of the Ring, and he refuses to give it up.
The creature Gollum—who also covets the Ring—has been following the hobbits, and now he attacks Frodo in an attempt to steal the Ring. He secures the Ring by biting off Frodo’s finger, but in the process, he falls into the Cracks of Doom. Sauron’s power is destroyed, and his armies flee. Gandalf flies to Mount Doom on the back of a giant eagle and rescues Frodo and Sam.
Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, and he marries his beloved Arwen, an elven princess first encountered in The Fellowship of the Ring
The hobbits—Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin—return to their homeland of the Shire. They find it ravaged by men, who have invaded and set up an oppressive regime. The hobbits lead a rebellion, and in the process of defeating the invaders, they learn that their leader is the wizard Saruman, defeated by the hobbits and their companions in The Two Towers
. Frodo decides not to kill Saruman, only for the wizard to be murdered by his despised servant, Wormtongue.
The Shire is rebuilt. Sam marries and starts a family, but Frodo finds he cannot recover from the angst of his quest. He joins Gandalf, his relative Bilbo Baggins, and other mortals who have borne the burden of the Ring to travel to the elven paradise in the West.