The Return of the King
A Movie-goers Guide
Peter Jackson's movie version of The Return of the King, the final instalment of the trilogy, is probably the most powerful and impressive of the three films. For that matter, it's surely among the most powerful and impressive films of its kind ever made. Now that we can see the entire story in movie form, there's no denying that it's an astonishing, spectacular achievement.
The Encyclopedia of Arda is a site dedicated to Tolkien's original books, rather than the movies, so our particular interest lies in the transition of the stories to the screen. It could be argued that The Return of the King is the most successful of the three films from this point of view. While it doesn't - of course - follow Tolkien's story to the letter, the fundamental strands that make up those stories are woven together well.
Like our previous Movie-goer's Guides, this article is mainly intended for those who have seen the movie, but aren't familiar with the complexities of the original story. Here you'll discover some of the scenes that didn't make it into the movie (at least in its theatrical form), as well as some background on the details that were shown. If you're wondering why the Orcs were chanting 'Grond!', or who Sam's 'old Gaffer' was, this is the page for you.
We've had a lot of feedback from the first two Guides, and based on that, it'll be useful to make a couple of introductory comments. A number of readers seem to have inferred that, because these Guides concentrate on the movies' differences from the books, they are intended as a criticism or a negative review of the movies. That's certainly not the case: it's clearly quite impossible to translate 1,200 pages of story into a film, or even into three films, without making significant changes to its structure and details. The mere fact that we discuss some of those changes here certainly shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the film-makers (who have, it should be said, remained relatively close to the original in most fundamental respects). That said, a few of the changes do seem rather strange, or jar slightly with the details of the books. In those cases, of course, we've tried to discuss why the change might be problematic.
This Guide is not intended to be an exhaustive catalogue of every difference between the books and the films. The Movie-goer's Guides for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers each generated a flood of e-mail with readers' own suggested additions. Some of these were very useful indeed, and we did incorporate several of the common suggestions into the Guides themselves. On the other hand, many of the suggestions were pointing out extremely minor changes - we've generally avoided trivial changes like this. So, if you'd like to send along your own ideas about this Guide to The Return of the King, please feel free to do so, but please also bear in mind that we've already considered many of the smaller issues and deliberately omitted them.
It should be said that this article contains numerous 'spoilers', including an in-depth discussion of the movie's ending. If you haven't seen the movie, or read the book, we'd strongly recommend doing one or the other before you read any further!
This article has been updated to include a few comments relating to the Extended Edition DVD.
It seems fair to say that the movie version of The Return of the King follows the story of the books more closely than The Two Towers. Certainly, there are some changes in the details of events, and a few events that don't occur in the original story, but nothing so radically different as (for example) the arrival of Haldir's Elves at Helm's Deep in The Two Towers.
Probably the most significant difference between the two versions is the movie's considerable (and surely unavoidable) compression of the story. This means that there are more than a few events in the books that don't appear on the screen. Most of these don't directly affect the action, but a few do help to shed light on the events that are shown (and in fact many of these scenes do make it into the Extended version of the film). These, then, are the more significant scenes that didn't make it into the movie:
- Probably the best known omission from the movie is Gandalf's final confrontation with Saruman among the ruins of Isengard, where he breaks Saruman's staff and casts him out of the Order of Wizards. This scene is included in the Extended Edition, though with some departures from the original story.
In the book, Saruman dies in the Shire at the hands of Gríma, who is then shot by Hobbit archers. The film follows the same sequence of events, but the players and location are different: Gríma attacks Saruman on Orthanc, and is then shot by Legolas in place of the Hobbits.
Another slight change here relates to Saruman's palantír. The original story has Gríma throw it from the tower as a missile, but the movie has Saruman fall from the tower with it, after which the Seeing-stone rolls out from his cloak. This explains how it came to be lying in the water to be found by Pippin, which was left as something of a mystery in the movie's theatrical version.
- The movie seems to suggest that Théoden's Rohirrim rode directly to Gondor without hindrance. In the book, their story is more complicated. The route to Minas Tirith was blocked by an enemy army, and the Riders had to ally themselves with the Drúedain, a strange woodland people, to find a secret route through the Mountains.
Though the Drúedain themselves don't appear in the movie, we do get an indirect glimpse of them. The weird, eroded statues on the road beneath Dunharrow, which the Rohirrim called the Púkel-men, were ancient carvings of the Drúedain.
- Denethor's madness is an important factor in both the book and the movie, but the film omits any mention of the reasons for this. What we're not told is that he had secretly been using a palantír of his own, which Sauron had subverted to drive him mad with despair and hopelessness. The movie's Denethor appears to be completely irrational, whereas in the book, though he's driven to the most desperate lengths by despair, there's always an inner logic to his actions.
Although there's no direct mention of Denethor's palantír in the film, he does hint from time to time that he has access to a special source of knowledge, which may be an indirect reference to his secret Seeing-stone.
- There's a brief scene in the book that sees Gandalf meet the Lord of the Nazgûl at the broken Gate of Minas Tirith. The fact that this scene was omitted from the movie would hardly be significant, except that earlier in the film the Witch-king assures his lieutenant that he will deal with the Wizard, but the two never actually meet. This oddity is addressed in the Extended Edition, though in that version the encounter takes place within Minas Tirith, with the Witch-king mounted on his Winged Creature. In this version, too, the Nazgûl Lord has acquired the power to destroy Gandalf's staff at a distance, though it isn't completely clear how he manages this.
- The Movie-goer's Guide to The Fellowship of the Ring mentions a missing scene in that movie, in which the hobbits lay their hands on rare and powerful weapons in the Barrow-downs east of the Shire. Instead, Aragorn presents them with a selection of swords on Amon Sûl, and never hints that they're anything but ordinary weapons.
This missing scene from The Fellowship of the Ring raises a problem for Merry on the battlefield before Minas Tirith. In the original version, he is armed with an enchanted blade of Westernesse, and uses that weapon to make the Nazgûl vulnerable to Éowyn's own attack. In the movie, though, he finds himself in the same situation with an ordinary sword, so that (in principle) the Witch-king should have survived.
Many readers have suggested that the solution to this question lies in the Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring
, where we see Merry
presented with an Elvish
sword as he leaves Lórien
. The idea that he could use this in place of his Barrow
-blade from the book does indeed seem quite plausible.
Matters are complicated, though, by a scene in The Return of the King
where we see Merry
practising with a blunt sword in Dunharrow
('You won't kill many Orcs
with that!', jokes Éowyn
, and directs him to the armoury to have it sharpened). This is inconclusive, but it sits uneasily with the idea of Merry's
weapon being an enchanted gift from Galadriel
- While Gandalf and Aragorn lead their armies away to Mordor, the wounded Faramir and Éowyn meet in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, and Éowyn transfers her affections from Aragorn to Faramir. This isn't mentioned in the theatrical release, but there are a couple of brief scenes showing these events in the Extended version, which help to explain why the two are seen together at Aragorn's coronation. There is one slight inconsistency here, though: in the book, Merry's wound from his encounter with the Witch-king means that he, too, remains in the Houses of Healing with Faramir and Éowyn. In the movie, though, he's recovered enough to ride to Mordor with the army.
- When Aragorn issues his challenge at the Gates of Mordor, the book sees him answered by the chilling Mouth of Sauron, who shows tokens captured from Frodo by the Orcs, including his mithril-coat. Not knowing that Frodo and Sam have escaped, then, Aragorn and his army fight their last battle thinking that the quest has certainly failed. Like the Houses of Healing, this can't really be said to be an essential scene in terms of the plot, but it's a particularly memorable moment in the book, and indeed the Mouth of Sauron does appear in the Extended Edition of the movie, too.
- Probably the most significant omission from the movie is the sequence known as the 'Scouring of the Shire'. In the book, Frodo and his companions return only to find that Men and corrupt hobbits have allied themselves and taken over the Shire. While they've been away, the green fields have been turned into an blighted industrial wasteland, in which the Shire-hobbits live their lives regulated by 'The Rules'. So Frodo and his companions have to fight another battle before the true ending of the book, freeing the Shire and defeating the evil 'Sharkey', who turns out to be none other than Saruman.
It could be said that these events aren't absolutely essential to the plot. If you've read reviews of the movie, though, you'll have noticed that perhaps the only common criticism is the way it seems to have several endings closely following each other. This is partly due to the loss of the story of the Scouring, which stands between these various endings in the book.
If it isn't essential to the mechanics of the plot, the Scouring of the Shire is an important part of the message Tolkien was trying to convey. In the original book, the universal War of the Ring has universal consequences, and evil lurks even among the hobbit-holes of the idyllic Shire, even though the great Enemy has been defeated. The Scouring of the Shire is arguably one of the book's most important serious statements, though admittedly it's hard to see how the film-makers could have hoped to communicate all this in the closing scenes of the movie.
Differences of Detail
The events shown in the movie follow the book closely, but it's hardly surprising to find that it doesn't follow the original text to the letter. Characters and events have been moved around here and there, and there are even a few scenes that don't appear in Tolkien's books.
In comparison with the original trilogy, the events shown in the final film don't come exclusively from The Return of the King, but also include material from the later chapters of The Two Towers. This is especially true of the story of Frodo and Sam. The book of The Return of the King starts with Frodo having been captured by Orcs and held in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. In fact, Gollum is hardly even mentioned in the final volume of The Lord of the Rings until he plays his vital final role.
The change of pacing aside, these are some of the differences in events between the book and the movie.
- The idea of Arwen's riding to the Grey Havens was introduced by the movie The Two Towers, and is carried on in the The Return of the King, where she has a vision of her future son, Eldarion, which causes her to turn back to Rivendell. There's nothing in the books to correspond to these episodes. When Arwen discusses her vision with Elrond, it's interesting that they discuss 'the child' as if there will only be one. In fact, Tolkien describes at least two daughters as well as Eldarion, though we aren't given their names.
- Sam's deeply suspicious relationship with Gollum exists in both versions of the story. The idea that Gollum could manipulate Frodo to the extent of breaking his friendship with Sam, and that Sam would actually abandon his master to Gollum on the borders of Mordor, appears only in the movie.
- Gondor's use of Beacons to call for aid from Rohan appears in both the book and the film. In the original story, though, it would have been quite unnecessary for Pippin to light the first Beacon-fire in defiance of Denethor. In that version, Denethor orders the Beacons lit himself, even before Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Minas Tirith. To complicate matters further, the first Beacon wasn't in Minas Tirith, but on the hilltop of Amon Dîn many miles north of the city, so Pippin couldn't realistically have lit it even if he'd needed to.
- The Gondorians use rather more Beacons in the film version. In Tolkien's original, just seven Beacon-fires are sufficient for Minas Tirith to contact Edoras. In the movie, it takes a total of eleven fires to alert the Rohirrim to Gondor's danger.
- In the same way that the book's Denethor was rational enough to light the Beacons himself, he also retained enough reason not to send his son's company on a suicidally dangerous mission, as the movie suggests. In the book, Faramir's men still held the western part of Osgiliath when he reported to his father, so his return to the garrison, while certainly perilous, was by no means the hopeless charge shown in the movie.
- The story of Aragorn's sword Andúril is rather different in the movie's version of events. In Tolkien's original story, the sword is reforged before Aragorn sets out from Rivendell, and he carries it throughout the adventures of the Fellowship.
The movie's suggestion that it was reforged later, and then delivered to Aragorn in Rohan, does essentially follow a template from the book, in which a party of Dúnedain arrives (accompanied by Arwen's brothers Elladan and Elrohir) and delivers gifts from the north. The idea of having Elrond deliver the sword himself, though, is entirely an invention of the film-makers. Indeed, it does seem strange to see one of the most important of all Elf-lords carrying probably the world's most valuable sword, apparently alone, across hundreds of miles just to deliver it to Aragorn.
- When they meet, Elrond tells Aragorn that Arwen's fate has become somehow bound to that of the Ring, and that it must be destroyed for her to survive. It's hard to tell precisely what he means - nothing like this appears in Tolkien's original book. Perhaps he's simply stating the obvious (that she would be unlikely to live through a victory by Sauron) but he does seem to have something more mystical in mind.
- Several readers have suggested a significant point of difference in the climactic scene within Mount Doom: that Frodo intentionally pushed or kicked Gollum into the Cracks of Doom. If this is true, it would be a major change to the plot of the book, with Frodo actually breaking the Ring's hold over him and intentionally destroying it. Whether this was actually the film-makers' intention is really a matter of personal perception: the scene seems to be at least equally interpretable as an accidental fall. Actually, among the material provided with the Extended Edition, there's an abandoned version of this scene that sees Frodo very definitely and deliberately force Gollum from the ledge, but that's very different from the scene in the final version.
Whatever the facts about the Ring's fate, there is definitely a rather less crucial change in the scene that's been spotted by a lot of visitors: in the book, Frodo loses his third finger, but in the movie, it's his index finger that Gollum bites off.
- The conduct of Aragorn's coronation is at variance with the events described in the book in many minor respects. Perhaps the most obvious is his crown itself, for which we have a very detailed description: '...the crown of Gondor (the S[outh] Kingdom) was very tall, like that of Egypt, but with wings attached, not set straight back but at an angle.' (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 211, dated 1958). It was intended to follow the general design of the winged helmets worn by guards in Minas Tirith (which are actually shown in the movie). The film's version of Aragorn's crown, though, follows a much more traditional design.
Elvish and Other Languages
There are a few fragments of Elvish in the movie that aren't translated on-screen. Here, we'll provide explanations not only of the Elvish words and phrases used, but also one or two other linguistic peculiarities.
- Several times during their conversation in Rivendell, Arwen calls Elrond adar. That's simply the Elvish word for 'father'.
- When Frodo holds out Galadriel's Star-glass in Shelob's Lair, he cries out: 'Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!', which means 'Hail Eärendil brightest of stars!' 'Eärendil' was the Elves' name for the Morning and Evening Star, Venus, some of whose light was carried within the Phial. It comes ultimately from the name of a great Mariner, who was in fact Elrond's father, and who legend said sailed the skies with a shining Jewel bound to his brow. (The full legend is bound up with the long story of The Silmarillion, and rather too complicated to explain in detail here. If you click the various links here, though, you can travel to entries in the Encyclopedia itself that will explain matters further.)
- The Dark Door leading to the Paths of the Dead is shown in the movie with a line of mysterious symbols above it. The book (The Return of the King V 2) describes these: 'Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read...' which is only natural given that they were thousands of years old. In the movie, though, they're clearly legible, though the hieroglyphic script is apparently unique - it isn't related to any the alphabets devised by Tolkien himself.
- As the great battering-ram is brought up to Minas Tirith's Gate, the Orcs can be heard chanting 'Grond! Grond!' That's actually a name given to the ram, a name with a much older source. In the First Age, it was the name of the Hammer of the Underworld, used by the first Dark Lord, Morgoth, in single combat with the Elf-king Fingolfin.
- At Aragorn's coronation, he sings an Elvish chant:
'Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta!'. This is a Gondorian tradition, honouring the words of Aragorn's distant ancestor Elendil after his first arrival in Middle-earth: 'Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.' (The Return of the King VI 5). It's perhaps interesting to note that his words contain one of the Elvish terms for Middle-earth itself: Endor.
A Collection of Curiosities
These are a few moments throughout the film that seem just a little odd. In some cases, these must be small deliberate changes by the film-makers, but in others, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they're minor mistakes.
- While explaining the history of the Dead and their curse, Legolas mentions that they were cursed by the 'last King of Gondor'. His history is a little inaccurate: Isildur was far from the last King of Gondor. Instead, he was succeeded by his nephew Meneldil, whose descendants ruled Gondor for nearly two thousand more years. There were in fact no less than thirty-one Kings of Gondor after Isildur, until the true last King, Eärnur, was lost in Minas Morgul.
- In a scene that only exists in the movie, Gandalf comforts Pippin before the assault on Minas Tirith. 'Death is just another path', he tells the hobbit, and strangely then adds, 'one we must all take.' It seems to have slipped Gandalf's mind that Middle-earth is full of immortal beings, and that he himself is one of them. He then goes on to describe the sights the Elves see as they sail into the West, but the reasons for this are unclear, because mortal Pippin would never be able to make that journey.
Actually, even these comments represent a fairly gross over-simplification of the metaphysics of Middle-earth. Though it isn't inevitable, beings like Gandalf can die in a sense (indeed, at this point in the story, Gandalf already has, and then returned). What's more, the word 'immortality' doesn't have quite its usual meaning in Tolkien's universe. Suffice to say, this apparently harmless insertion into the movie's script hides quite a tangle of philosophical complexities.
More than a few readers have commented on this point that Pippin might
see the same sights as the Elves
if his spirit follows the same journey after death. That's not an impossible scenario, but Tolkien himself doesn't go into any detail at all about what mortal spirits might experience in these circumstances. What is sure, though, is that the words Gandalf
uses at this point in the film are taken directly from a passage in the book, and that passage definitely refers to a real, physical
passage over the Sea
. In fact, it describes the arrival in the West
of the White Ship
that leaves the Grey Havens
at the end of the story.
- We've already commented in the Movie-goers' Guides for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers on the film-maker's decision to depict Sauron as a giant glowing eye, whereas Tolkien imagined him as a physical being. In fact his brief appearance in the prologue to the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring - huge and armoured, but basically human in shape - would have been more in keeping with Tolkien's description of him during the War of the Ring.
In fact, there's no clear description of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings itself - we have to resort to Tolkien's correspondence for that. What there are, though, are numerous comments and references that only really make sense if Sauron has a physical form (not least, of course, the fact that a disembodied Dark Lord wouldn't have been able to wear his own Ring).
It's curious, then, to find that one of these clues to his physical nature has been included in the movie's script. Outside the Morannon, Aragorn issues a challenge taken directly from the books: 'Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Justice shall be done upon him.' (The Return of the King V 10). This makes perfect sense if Sauron has a physical body, but how exactly Aragorn expects a disembodied Red Eye to 'come forth' from the gate, let alone to 'do justice' on it, is something of a mystery.
There's a clue to this among the material that accompanies the Extended Edition. It seems that the film-makers considered the possibility of Sauron emerging from the Morannon himself, in his full armoured form, to fight Aragorn in single combat. In that context, Aragorn's challenge makes a great deal more sense (though nothing remotely like this happens in the book).
It's worth mentioning that there's a suggestive but ambiguous scene (again, only in the Extended Edition) in which Sauron is apparently seen through a palantír in his armoured physical form. If that's the case, it's possible that (in the film version of the story, at least), he managed to 're-embody' himself at some point in the story. That idea would help to clear up some of the inconsistencies, but it's never addressed in any direct way.
- As the Black Gate opens and the armies of Mordor swarm out, we get a dramatic glimpse of Sauron's Red Eye glaring over the battlefield from the top of his Dark Tower of Barad-dûr. There's a certain amount of artistic licence here: Barad-dûr was a hundred miles from the Morannon, and far off to the east (the left, from the Gondorians' point of view) - it couldn't possibly have been seen from where they stood.
- The ship that sails into the West at the end of the movie is referred to as the 'last ship', but in fact it was more properly the 'White Ship'. We don't know exactly when the last ship sailed, but it was at least several decades after Gandalf and the others departed into the West.
The occupants of the ship are slightly different in the two versions. The movie seems to show Celeborn boarding it with Galadriel, while in the book he remains in Middle-earth, at least for a time. On the other hand, Tolkien envisaged Gandalf taking Shadowfax into the West with him, but there's no sign of the great horse at this point in the movie.
Some Historical Background
There's such a range and depth to the history of Tolkien's world that even with the movie running to more than three hours, it can only hope to reflect a tiny fraction of that depth. Here, we'll discuss some of the 'historical' context that the movie had to omit, along with a few trivial but hopefully interesting facts.
- Starting the movie with the scene where Gollum first acquired the Ring was certainly an interesting touch. What's perhaps not completely clear in this scene, though, is just how long ago this was, compared with the main story. Sméagol murdered Déagol and took the Ring in about the year III 2463, while The Return of the King is set in III 3019, so the opening scene could have been captioned 'About 556 years earlier...'.
- We only see one palantír in the movie, but in fact there were originally seven of them, brought to Middle-earth by Aragorn's ancestor Elendil. By the time of the War of the Ring, three had been lost, but four remained. The one belonging to Saruman, and later foolishly used by Pippin, was the Orthanc-stone of Isengard. Denethor also had possession of one, and Sauron had gained one of his own when he captured Minas Morgul (through which he commanded Saruman and dominated Denethor). The final Stone doesn't come into the story directly: it was held in the tower of Elostirion on the Tower Hills, not far from the Shire.
- As Gandalf rides for Minas Tirith on Shadowfax, he's seen fording a river as Pippin asks him where they are. Gandalf's answer, that they are entering the land of Gondor, seems to be exactly correct: the border between Rohan and Gondor was marked by a river, the Mering Stream. According to the geography of the books, though, the road to Minas Tirith crossed the river under the trees of the Firien Wood, whereas in the movie Gandalf is riding across an open plain.
- The strange, disfigured creature - some kind of Orc, apparently - who leads the armies of Mordor against Minas Tirith has seen his part in the story expanded immensely. This is Gothmog, the Lieutenant of Morgul, who is mentioned precisely once in the book, and about whom we know practically nothing. Indeed, it's not even clear from the book what kind of creature he is, and there's some debate about this. Some have suggested that he was another one of the Nazgûl, while others prefer to see him as an evil Man. The idea that he was an Orc, as the movie seems to show, is a rather less common suggestion, but there's nothing in the books that would make it impossible.
- After Aragorn meets the King of the Dead, we don't see anything of him and his companions until they arrive at the Battle of the Pelennor. In that time, he led the Dead right through the Mountains, emerging on their southern side, in a part of Gondor far distant from Minas Tirith. From there, they travelled nearly three hundred miles through Gondor's southern regions (in the books, they still had their horses to help them make this journey). At the port of Pelargir, they intercepted the enemy fleet and captured it, sailing north to the main battle beneath Minas Tirith. Actually, this account is treated in slightly more detail in the Extended Edition, and there we do actually see the Corsair ships being captured at Pelargir. The geography has been somewhat compressed in these new scenes, to say the least. Rather than travelling three hundred miles from the Paths of the Dead to Pelargir, Aragorn only has to step out of the caverns to find himself with a clear view of the port.
There is one small change between the two accounts, in that the book has Aragorn freeing the Dead after the battle at Pelargir. So, they were never seen at Minas Tirith, and instead Aragorn's ships were manned by Northern Dúnedain and Gondorians who had rallied to his cause.
- As Sam fights the Orcs of Cirith Ungol, he cries out 'That's for Frodo - that's for the Shire - and that's for my old Gaffer!' His 'old Gaffer' is Gaffer Gamgee, his father back in the Shire.
- The Tower of Cirith Ungol, where Frodo was briefly imprisoned, was guarded by two powerful sentinels: Silent Watchers that could bar the entranceway to the Tower. In the book, these are a major hindrance and danger. They appear in the movie, too, sitting menacingly in the gateway to the Tower, but there they seem completely inert.
- When he mocks Éowyn, the Lord of the Nazgûl refers to a prophecy that he cannot be slain by the hand of a man. This goes back to the great Battle of Fornost more than a thousand years before, where the Witch-king's armies were defeated, but from which he himself escaped. The Elf-lord Glorfindel prophesied his fate: 'Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.' (The Lord of the Rings Appendix A 1 (iv)).
- When Aragorn establishes his new royal house, he chooses a familiar name for it: Telcontar, which is Elvish for 'Strider', his nickname in the north.
- With all the attention on Aragorn in Gondor, it isn't clear from the film who becomes King in Rohan after Théoden's death. His heir is his nephew Éomer, the brother of Éowyn.
The ending of The Lord of the Rings has caused a certain amount of confusion among readers and viewers alike. This is perhaps not completely surprising, because it's necessary to know a little of the history of Middle-earth to understand why Frodo steps onto the White Ship at the Grey Havens.
From the most ancient times, the Valar (the Powers of the World) had dwelt in the land of Valinor, in Aman beyond the Great Sea, called the Blessed Realm and the Undying Lands. Their lands of peace and plenty had once been part of the World, and they welcomed the first Elves there to enjoy their lives of immortal bliss. Through a chain of tragic events, though, some of the Elves rebelled against the Valar, and exiled themselves from Valinor by returning to Middle-earth. Among them were Galadriel and the ancestors of Elrond.
These exiled Elves fought a centuries-long war against the first Dark Lord, Sauron's master Morgoth, in which they were aided by certain houses of Men. After Morgoth's defeat, these Men were rewarded with a new home - the island of Númenor in the middle of the Sea, where they built the greatest and most powerful nation of Men to have ever existed.
Ultimately they became too great even for Sauron to meet in battle, so instead he used the power of his Ring to seduce the already corrupt King of Númenor, and persuaded him to launch an invasion of Aman itself. As Sauron had foreseen, the result of this foolish act was utter disaster for the Númenóreans, and their entire island home was destroyed. A few survivors, led by Elendil, escaped the destruction and returned to Middle-earth.
At the same time, Aman was 'taken away' from the world, so that it became impossible for mortals to sail there except by the special grace of the Valar. However, it was granted to the Elves to continue to travel there, so that an Elvish ship travelling into the West would eventually come to the green lands of the Blessed Realm. It's to Aman, then, that the Elves are travelling in The Lord of the Rings, never to return to Middle-earth. This explains Arwen's burden of regret and the difficulty of her choice - by refusing to sail from the Grey Havens, she gives up an eternity in an earthly paradise to stay with Aragorn.
The choice of those Elves who sailed on the White Ship was a simple one, then - indeed, for Galadriel, this would be a homecoming: she had been born in Valinor, and been among those exiled millennia before. It would be a homecoming for Gandalf, too, because the Wizards were actually Maiar, immortal beings of the same kind as the Valar themselves.
For Frodo, the two years he spent in the Shire after the Downfall of Barad-dûr were filled with suffering and regret. The wounds he had received on the journey continued to pain him, but worse than this was the memory of the Ring, which during the Quest had taken hold of his mind. "'It is gone for ever,' he said, 'and now all is dark and empty.'" (The Return of the King VI 9). Across the Sea, he could be freed from all this, so his decision to sail into the West is not perhaps so surprising. Being mortal, neither Frodo nor Bilbo could enjoy the unending lives of the other peoples of the Undying Lands, but they could live out their days free of the burden of the Ring.
Beyond the Ending
Though the story of The Lord of the Rings ends with the White Ship sailing from the Grey Havens, and Sam returning to Rosie, the history of Tolkien's universe doesn't stop there. We have enough extra information, coming especially from the Appendices to the books, to describe most of the major characters' lives after the end of the story. (Note that this list doesn't include the characters who sailed into the West at the end of the story: Bilbo, Elrond, Frodo, Galadriel and Gandalf).
- Aragorn enjoyed a long and prosperous rule over the western lands of Middle-earth, including not only Gondor, but also the lost kingdom of Arnor in the north. His Númenórean descent meant that he enjoyed a lifespan far beyond that of normal Men, and reigned as King of the Reunited Kingdom for one hundred and twenty years. He was succeeded as King by his son Eldarion.
- Arwen was Aragorn's Queen throughout his long reign. As Elrond had foreseen, she outlived the King, and after his death she took leave of Eldarion her son and wandered away from Gondor. She came to Lórien, which had become an empty land after Galadriel's departure, and there she gave up her life on the green mound of Cerin Amroth.
- Éomer succeeded his uncle Théoden to become the eighteenth King of Rohan. He lived to the age of ninety-three, ruling Rohan for sixty-five of those years, and maintained the strong alliance between his country and Gondor. His queen was Lothíriel of Dol Amroth, and he was succeeded as King by their son, Elfwine the Fair.
- Éowyn became the consort of Faramir, and dwelt with him among the hills of Emyn Arnen, so becoming Lady Éowyn of Ithilien (Ithilien being the lands held by Gondor east of the Great River, where Frodo had met Faramir in The Two Towers).
- Faramir inherited the role of Steward from his father, though he now served the King, rather than ruling the kingdom of Gondor directly. He was also made Prince of Ithilien and Lord of Emyn Arnen by Aragorn, and it was in Emyn Arnen that he dwelt with Éowyn. He had a measure of the blood of the Dúnedain, though to a lesser degree than Aragorn, and he lived to the age of one hundred and twenty.
- Gimli brought a part of the people of his homeland of Erebor, and came to the Glittering Caves of Aglarond that lay behind Helm's Deep. There he dwelt as Lord of the Glittering Caves as long as Aragorn's reign lasted. After this time, he seems to have passed into the West with his friend Legolas: probably the only Dwarf to ever do so.
- Legolas, like his friend Gimli, removed from his northern home and came into the south. He dwelt with his people in Faramir's wooded land of Ithilien. After the passing of Aragorn, he built himself a ship and sailed into the West, apparently taking Gimli with him.
- Merry dwelt happily in the Shire, where he married Estella Bolger. Eleven years after his return from the War, he inherited the title of Master of Buckland from his father Saradoc, and became one of the most important hobbits in the Shire. In the last years of his life, he went travelling with his friend Pippin.
- Pippin also lived happily in the Shire for many years. He married Diamond of Long Cleeve, and they named their son after Prince Faramir. Soon after Merry became Master of Buckland, Pippin also inherited an important title, that of Thain of the Shire, from his father Paladin. In their old age, Pippin and Merry journeyed together into the south, passing through Rohan and coming at last back to Minas Tirith, where they lived out their last years together.
- Sam married Rose Cotton soon after he returned to the Shire, and together they had no fewer than thirteen children. For much of his life, Sam was the elected Mayor of the Shire, and together with Merry and Pippin became one of the northern councillors of the King. His marriage to Rose lasted sixty-two years, but at last she died, and Sam travelled away from the Shire. Though his fate isn't known with certainty, he was thought to have gone to the Grey Havens and passed over the Sea himself, perhaps to be reunited at last with Frodo in the Blessed Realm.
- Saruman's fate is harder to explain, because the key events surrounding it simply don't happen in the movie version. In the book, Gandalf ejects him from the Order of Wizards, but he later escapes from Isengard with Gríma, and they travel north, where his agents have already been at work bringing the Shire under their control. When Frodo and the others return, they succeed in driving him out. In a sudden fit of madness, Gríma turns on his master and cuts his throat. The last we see of Saruman is his disembodied spirit looking back to its original home in the West '...but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.' (The Return of the King VI 8). Note that the Extended Edition of the movie does explain how Saruman dies, but the story is quite different from the version described here, as we mentioned in 'Unseen Events' above.
It seems appropriate to end with a word of acknowledgement of Peter Jackson and everyone else associated with the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Though of course they haven't come close to the scope and intricacy of the original story - that would be quite impossible - what they have produced is still nothing less than a masterpiece. The film-makers, and of course Peter Jackson in particular, have to be admired merely for having the courage to take on such an immense challenge, let alone to produce such an exceptional result. The complete story of The Lord of Rings is probably unfilmable, but Peter Jackson has come closer than anyone could have imagined possible.
It's encouraging to see, too, that the movies are drawing more and more new readers to Tolkien's original works. Indeed, awareness of Tolkien's writings is probably more widespread now than at any time since their publication: there can hardly be a person on the planet who doesn't know the names of Frodo, Gandalf or Sauron.
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