The Return of the King: Essay Q&A

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1. Write a brief essay analyzing the place of oaths in The Return of the King. Use specific examples to make an argument about oath-taking and -breaking in the context of this book.
Students should consider that, in Tolkien's story, we see not only two hobbits' respective oaths of service to their lords, but also we hear of the oath-breakers of long ago who now inhabit the Paths of the Dead. In Book IV, we read about Gollum's oath to serve Frodo-or, more accurately, an oath sworn to serve "the Master of the Precious," an oath that Frodo warned Gollum the Ring would hold him to and even twist. Oaths are a powerful form of speech in Tolkien's world: not be given lightly, not to be dismissed casually. Like the blessing in the biblical worldview (with which Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, would have been familiar), the oath as a power-laden form of speech almost takes on a life of its own. Clarity of thought and intention must accompany oaths if dire consequences are to be avoided.
2. Analyze the Mouth of Sauron as a representation of Tolkien's philosophy of evil.
The Mouth of Sauron represents the theme, commonly found throughout The Lord of the Rings, that evil is a depersonalizing and dehumanizing force (in this sense, then, the Mouth functions much as do the repeated images of machinery used in the service of evil, or as the orcs function symbolically to represent dehumanized and distorted living beings). For a philologist-a scholar of words and names, as Tolkien was-there can surely be no greater horror than to lose one's name, and yet this is what has happened to the Mouth of Sauron: "The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it." More horrific still, the Mouth has forgotten his name through his own free will-or, perhaps put more accurately, by his choice to surrender his will to that of Sauron. He does so, the narrator informs us, in the hopes that he will share in Sauron's power-but readers already know from comments made regarding the vain ambitions of Saruman, as well as the ghostly status of the Ringwraiths (who are, quite literally, shadows of their former, truly human selves), that no such sharing is possible. The Mouth thus functions as a symbol of evil's power to dehumanize, and the ultimate emptiness of serving such power. Evil robs one of one's name-that is, of one's core identity.
3. Point out an example of "interlacing" from the text and discuss how Tolkien uses this technique to advance his narrative and thematic concerns.
Examples around which essays could be constructed abound; for one, consider how the narrator tells us that Pippin experiences the gloom of the Pelennor Fields "even as Frodo saw [sunlight] at the Cross-roads touching the head of the fallen king" (Book IV, Chapter 7). Readers will recall Frodo's words at that point: "They cannot conquer for ever!"-and may thus sense the hope that Pippin cannot. Tolkien uses interlacing throughout The Lord of the Rings to show how his characters do not have full knowledge of a situation. (Indeed, as even Gandalf says regarding the fate of the Witch King, "[H]idden from the Wise is the doom that awaits him.") As a result, characters must make the best choices they can given limited information-as, in real life, must we all.
4. How does Frodo's reaction to Sam when Sam reveals that he has been carrying the Ring help Tolkien develop the Ring as a symbol of evil?
The moment in which Frodo is angry with Sam for carrying the Ring cannot help but remind readers of Frodo's encounter with Bilbo at Rivendell in Book II. Frodo sees Sam, the narrator tells us, as an orc, "leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth." Compare the manner in which Bilbo appeared to Frodo when the elder hobbit wanted to see the Ring one more time: "a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands," a creature Frodo, in fact, felt the desire to strike. Here again we see evidence of the Ring's poisonous influence.
5. In his film adaptation of The Return of the King (New Line Cinema, 2003), director Peter Jackson omitted the material from "The Scouring of the Shire" (Book VI, Chapter 8). What of Tolkien's view of evil does this artistic decision lose?
A telling of Tolkien's story that omits "The Scouring of the Shire" loses Tolkien's view that evil is persistent even when its power has fundamentally been broken. Further, it loses Tolkien's profound recognition that evil is insidious and can penetrate even into the most (seemingly) innocent places and hearts. This is not to deny that Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's work preserves this insight in other ways; by omitting the closing action in the Shire, however, the film version fails to communicate, at that point, the hard, "down to earth" struggle against evil in which the hobbits find themselves-a struggle against despair and yielding to powerlessness that is more similar to the struggles against evil with which most people will find themselves faced. A deeper level of connection between the hobbits and ordinary people is lost, therefore, with a corresponding diminishment in our appreciation for how Tolkien's theory of heroism connects to our own experiences. (Conversely, students may wish to argue that Jackson's directorial decision does not detract significantly from Tolkien's message.)

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