The Return of the King
Even now that some time has passed between my viewing of the third and final Lord of the Rings film and my sitting down to write this review, that word is still the foremost in my mind: Wow. More than anything, this movie really felt like a journey: a complete, captivating, thrilling and deeply moving journey from beginning to end (nearly four hours that could have been years yet also that lacked the sensation of dragging). The way that the film was visually conceptualized, scripted, and above all the incredibly detailed nature of Tolkien’s fantastical world create a truly immersive experience, one that allows the viewer to experience the emotional landscape of the characters in a very real way.
There is far too much going on in “The Return of the King” for me to attempt to dabble in every plotline, and so I will restrict myself to a few that loom the largest in my mind. The first has been a consistent thread running through my reviews of the first two movies: the journeys of Merry and Pippin. I find myself extraordinarily fond of these two hobbits, and for reasons quite different from those I would have predicted. Rather than being confined to roles as the “comic relief,” Merry and Pippin quickly become vital to the story and to the quest to save Middle Earth, and this is only more evident in the third instalment.
Merry and Pippin, known and frequently defined as a pair, must separate and survive independent of one another, after Pippin’s blunder. Once again, Pippin commits a foolish error in taking and looking at the eye of Sauron while Gandalf is sleeping. Such an action is not only dangerous and ill-advised, but has the potential to expose Frodo, destroying his quest and plunging Middle Earth into darkness. This makes it seem, once again, that Pippin is more of a burden than a benefit, more of a hindrance than a help. Yet, despite his failings and despite the limitations imposed on him by his own size and stature, Pippin (once again) has a significant impact on the outcome of the battle. By secretly lighting the signal fire, Pippin successfully alerts the kingdom of Rohan, which sends help to the battlefield at Minas Tirith, help which is sorely needed. In this venture, Pippin’s size is what allows him to light the fire without detection.
Here (and at many other times in the movie) weakness does not exclude strength; perhaps it would be better said that weakness does not determine strength. There is not only one standard for strength, for courage or bravery. Pippin cannot impact the course of history in the same way as Aragorn can with his powerful leadership, or Legolas with his deft warrior skills (and ability to leap onto a giant moving elephant in an insanely cool way). However, while this may differentiate between Pippin, and Aragorn and Legolas, it does not detract from Pippin’s value. In fact, Pippin’s value is not derived from any good or courageous act he could commit; this value is innate and stems from being rather than from doing.
This affirmation of the value of life, which I see manifested in Pippin’s story, becomes all the more profound when it is Pippin who saves the life of Faramir. After Faramir is brought back from the battlefield, Pippin discovers that Faramir, though taken for dead, is actually still alive. At this point, the outcome of the battle seems hopeless and Faramir’s father is deaf to Pippin’s cries. It would seem that Pippin need hardly be troubled by a claim to responsibility for Faramir’s life, and that it doesn’t much matter whether the injured warrior lives or dies in the midst of such bleak circumstances. Yet this is not what Pippin thinks (or if it is, it is not how he acts). Surrounded as he is by the death, despair, suffering and violence of countless scores of people, Pippin does not lose this belief in the value of this one life and of the vital importance of saving it. Similarly, Gandalf, upon hearing this news, does not tell Pippin that “there are more important things to attend to” or that “one life does not matter in the grand scheme of things” or that he is “busy and must remain in the centre of the battle.” No, Gandalf says none of these things. Instead he follows Pippin at once to where Faramir lies and does everything in his power to save and protect the value of this one life. But in the end, it is Pippin who is Faramir’s ultimate saviour, pulling him at the last moment from his fiery grave, in a display of courage and selflessness to rival those of the mightiest warriors.
On the subject of weakness, strength and value, I think also of Pippin’s compatriot, Merry, and of Merry’s newfound friend, Eowyn. Merry and Eowyn are both outsiders in this film, and the two bond over their “outsider” status and the perception others have of them as being of lesser value in this sphere of the battle. One of my favourite quotes from the movie is the soft yet impassioned encouragement Eowyn offers: “Courage, Merry. Courage for our friends.” This brings into our discussion of bravery and valour another factor, which is not to be overlooked: love. Out of love a person gains access to strength and courage seemingly surpassing their weaknesses and limitations. In Merry’s case, his cares and concerns for his friends and to be reunited with them outweigh his cares and concerns for his own life.
Initially, it seems, at least to me, that Eowyn is primarily concerned with proving herself and being recognized as one who is strong, brave and heroic, since she has often been discounted in such regards due to her sex. While understandable, this concern is self-motivated and involving more ego (here ego does not label a person as “egotistical” but refers to the self and perhaps the false self that is consumed by thoughts of its own image). Yet when Eowyn rides into battle and experiences firsthand the fear, despair and sadness of war, I think these aspirations fade, or at least they are not her primary concerns. Rather they are secondary concerns: they are subjugated to love. And nowhere is this clearer than in one of my other favourite quotes (which, I must admit, made me tear up), delivered by Eowyn to the terrifying foe poised to murder her beloved uncle: “If you touch him I will kill you.” Eowyn’s love for another gave her the strength and the courage to reach beyond herself and commit a truly great deed. Although her defeat of the enemy could not recall her uncle from the brink of death, her bravery gives him the opportunity to have a parting moment with his niece and to die with dignity and peace.
I have spent far more time discussing these (perhaps minor) characters than I intended, but this is only a testament to the richness of the story. However, in the interest of keeping this review to a manageable length, I will turn to only one other subject or storyline, one that is probably the most important; after all, it is the reason for the quest in the first place: Frodo and his journey to destroy the ring.
The thing that stands out to me the most is not Frodo’s distrust and misjudgement of Sam, or any of his great adventures among the orcs or with that terrifying massive spider. It is Frodo’s suffering. Not the suffering that is externally imposed by the people around him, his travelling conditions or the various places in which he finds himself, but his internal suffering: the suffering caused by the ring. This suffering continues steadily over all three movies, becoming worse and worse as Frodo moves closer and closer to Mordor.
I find Frodo’s suffering here so deeply moving, in a way that I can’t quite explain. I think what makes his suffering so profound to watch is the very fact that it is not external and the causes are not visible, certainly not as visible as other displays of suffering in the movie. In a time of great war and upheaval, the screen is frequently filled with the victims of violence and grief, of people who, before their time, breathe their last breath. This suffering is also moving, but Frodo’s plight is different. He suffers greatly, but no one can share his suffering; no one can witness it or really understand it. This could lead the viewer (or any of the other characters) to discount, dismiss or diminish Frodo’s suffering. Yet it could also, I think, lead us to great compassion.
In a way, I think we all suffer like Frodo. Certainly we do not suffer in the same way as Frodo, blighted by an evil ring of power (hopefully no one reading this will encounter an evil ring any time soon). However, everyone suffers; we all experience pain, and all of our struggles are unique. There are times when people can understand and sympathize more easily with our afflictions, when they are more visible and explicit. Yet there will be times for every one of us when we must suffer alone, when our pain or the reason for our pain is not visible. Perhaps it is not even rational, but the pain exists nonetheless. I think this speaks in a beautiful way to the need to be gentle, compassionate, sensitive and loving to every person that we meet. Although we may not know their struggles, their past, their present or their pain, or even be able to understand them, we can treat them with love in the knowledge of their innate worth and the understanding that they have their own unique struggles, just as we ourselves do.
Speaking of suffering, I want to close my review by talking of Gollum. Frodo most likely seems to us a far more sympathetic character than the “wretched” Gollum, but Gollum suffers too from the influence of the ring, and the effects of this suffering are devastatingly clear in the film’s flashback to Smeagol’s appearance and personality upon first encountering the ring. I have to admit, not knowing how the story was to end, I had been holding out hope for Gollum’s ultimate redemption, perhaps for a restoration to his identity as Smeagol, for his relationship with Frodo to triumph over his greed and obsession with the ring. Obviously this did not happen, and I was exceedingly disappointed and grieved. For a moment I thought to myself, was it all for nothing: the glimpses of hope in Gollum?
The longer I thought about it, it became obvious that the answer is certainly ‘no.’ In the end, the power of the ring had held control over Gollum for too long and could not be completely erased before he met his fiery demise. Yet Gollum did have his place in the story; his role was of crucial importance, and without his guidance and mercy towards Frodo (following Frodo’s mercy towards him), the ring would never have been destroyed and the darkness would have claimed complete victory. So Gollum’s life, despite his depravity, always possessed great value and his purpose always shone before him. And the flashes of goodness, of beauty, of hope seen in Gollum’s eyes when Frodo showed him care and kindness were not for nothing. No beautiful thought, word or action ever is. In this story, in this epic saga, every life has value and every life has its place, its role in the “grand scheme of things,” in the great battle between good and evil, no matter how small, how fallen or flawed.