The Return of the King: Theme Analysis

The theme of decay and passing looms large in The Return of the King. Minas Tirith, even though it is a beautiful and impressive city, is “in truth faling year by year into decay,” as the White Tree in its center symbolizes. The Pukel-men at Dunharrow symbolize the fleeting nature of mortal existence: they are silent witnesses of a long-gone and long-forgotten civilization. King Theoden speaks of “the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away.” Denethor, as he is about to consign himself to the flames, wishes that things could be “as they were in all the days of my life, and in the days of my longfathers before me,” but of course his wish can never be granted, for it is simply not the way of the world. What Tolkien attempts to do, in one sense, in The Lord of the Rings is to offer a constructive way for coping with this sometimes harsh reality.
The fact that all life passes, for instance, does not in Tolkiens mind justify an attitude of despair. This theme comes to the fore most in the character of Denethor, who-because he has seen in the palantir only what Sauron wishes and allows him to see; that is, a partial knowledge of the truth of his situation-decides to burn himself and his son Faramir alive rather than face what he (quite mistakenly) believes to be the inevitable downfall of the West. Gandalf rebukes Denethor: “Authority is not given you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death. And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.” Through Gandalf, Tolkien states that suicide is the ultimate expression of despondency. He also names despair as the fault-or, in Tolkiens own Roman Catholic vocabulary, the “sin”-that it is: pride, hubris. To despair-i.e., to utterly abandon all hope or even all possibility of hope-is a prideful and selfish act, because in doing so one assumes thats ones knowledge of reality is clear and complete-a possibility that Tolkiens narrative technique of interlacing again and again shuts off.
Tolkien offers a positive alternative to despair, then. Even though great deeds be forgotten, though, Tolkien argues that they must still be undertaken. This is Tolkiens central theme of heroism, which he took from old Norse mythology: the idea that Good must be done, not because it will inevitably be rewarded or triumph over Evil, but precisely because it is Good. One clear expression of this theme occurs when Legolas says, “Follow what may, great deeds are not lessened in worth. Great deed was the riding of the Paths of the Dead, and great it shall remain, though none be left in Gondor to sing of it in the days that are to come.”
Stewardship occupies Tolkiens attention in this last third of his story. Denethor, of course, is the Steward of Gondor; that is, he is-although he chooses not to understand himself as such-a temporary caretaker of the kingdom. Yet, as Gandalf says, “I also am a steward”-one whose task is to aid the renewal of Gondor and, indeed, of Middle-earth in his day. It is not surprising, then, that Gandalf is the character who, throughout The Lord of the Rings, reminds characters-from Frodo in Book I to the men of Minas Tirith in Book V-that they cannot choose their times, only what to do with them. In other words, they-and we-can and ought to be stewards of our lives and of our actions. We cannot create our days, but we can use them as well as possible. Denethor fails as a steward. The challenge Tolkien places before his reader is to succeed.
Not entirely unrelated to theme of stewardship is the theme of place and station in the world. The hobbits, throughout the course of their adventures, are placed in locations and situations they would never have otherwise encountered, and yet (excepting Frodo), their place and station seems to be fixed in the Shire. As Merry tells Pippin, that even though they can now see and honor “the heights” of the world, “It is best to love first what you are fitted to love. [Y]ou must start somewhere and have some roots.”
Eowyn. And so closely tied to this theme is the theme of duty