The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ★★★★★

Extended Cut. 

Each volume of The Lord of the Rings is clearly and broadly defined by three modes of western archetypal storytelling, specific especially in Tolkien’s purposes to the Christian tradition — birth, death, and redemption. The Fellowship of the Ring finds the spirit of heroism achieving selfhood in camaraderie and courage. The Two Towers, the darkest of the three parts, sets its sight on the death of fellowship and the isolation our heroes and our villains must face amidst external forces of suffering. The Return of the King, as the title suggests, manifests itself in a story of redemption, a return to justice, order, and truth at the dawn of a new age, an age that pertains to us.

I’ve discussed in depth in my previous reviews that Tolkien sought to create a culturally synthesized mythology for England that was as grounded in a tried-and-true tradition as it was in a real geography of Ice Age Europe, when Britain was still a connected landmass. Myth, tradition, and geography all work to formulate the ancient tales of Middle-earth, but little has been stated here with regard to Tolkien’s philosophy. Tolkien, and subsequently Jackson in the films, was actively participating in a philosophical exercise of political proportion. He draws upon sources of inspiration that are rooted in legendary heroism, the basis of his metaphysical thesis, while contrasting the long defeat of the western spirit in philosophy. 

Notice, for instance, in The Return of the King how Théoden reflects the Germanic-Christian courage embodied by an Anglo-Saxon hero like Beowulf. Rohan’s leader directs himself to his doom in the face of the Nazgul, the dragons of darkness, but hastens an immortal legacy in his bravery. This type of bravery, these archetypes outlined in the fictional realm of high fantasy, are seen by Tolkien not as merely metaphysical ideals. They are modes of being that are actionable within reality itself. The Battle of Pelennor Fields where Théoden seals his legacy echoes the real battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD, where King Theodoric I died in similar circumstances. Tolkien is interested purely in a heroic idealism that can translate to the material world. His heroes aren’t just emblematic of shadows on the cave wall. They transcend mythology and take root in the now. This graces the context of Jackson’s films with a particular magnitude, since the cinematic medium is utilized to provide this philosophy a visual, tangible form. 

These ideals are intended to oppose, of course, the evil within Tolkien’s stories and Jackson’s films. The visual symbolism of the all-powerful eye of Sauron, for example, is particularly enlightening to our understanding of Tolkien’s contrasting ideal of evil. The phrase evil eye is often mistranslated in Matthew 20 as envy. Christ quotes the householder in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard as saying, “Is thine eye evil because I am good?” It’s sometimes rendered, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Perhaps there is something to the translation. Good fortune shouldn’t just beware in this world, but goodness in general, and perhaps heroism. In Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, we’re told that “where there is still a people, it does not understand the state and hates it as the evil eye and the sin against customs and rights.” 

Clearly, evil eyes abound. Evil eyes are envious. Envy is rooted within the lust for power. Tolkien’s philosophy situates itself within the context of a western world that conflates power with the good. Dysfunctional and shallow thinkers often assume that if only they had the power, then things would indeed be good. This sort of tangled up resentment is similarly the root of Sauron’s evil. Sauron’s eye, corrupted atop its hellish tower at the base of Mount Doom, seeks the one ring to rule them all. The eye, of course, is one of the keys to consciousness. The scales fall from Adam and Eve’s eyes for a reason. Dictating our place within history is how we use these eyes and the gifts of knowledge that they bring. 

The Return of the King completes the foundation of Tolkien’s new heroism and Jackson’s cinematic translation of it. Whether it be the royal goodness of Aragorn or the sturdy courage of Sam and Frodo, these are the tales that can prove to be an antidote for a degraded world violently consumed by power differentials. No envy or resentment necessary. In the end, our heroes sail into the sun of truth with the angels — the elves — and the hobbits are left only with a book detailing the journey. Within this book is the blueprint of myth. A new age is declared, an age of men. The virtues of duty and honor align directly with the redemption found in the end of The Lord of the Rings. We can rest assured that, even if ages come and go, even if the angels leave us, even if we lose the ones we love, there is a guide. There is hope. Renewed shall be the blade that was broken — the flame of the west lives on in good men’s hearts — and the crownless again shall be king.

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