Ranking the Many Endings of “The Return of the King”
If you’ve been on the nerdy parts of the internet in the past 13 years, you’ve heard the line: Peter Jackson’s Return of the King has “too many endings!” Indeed, there are several fade-outs and swelling crescendos in the final twenty minutes, and they always seem to be followed by the next fade-in and the next few bars of Howard Shore’s memorable score as Jackson treats us to one more stage of the Fellowship’s homeward journey.
As a big fan of the books (I’ve written about them here) and the movies (I’ve written about them here), I’ve always felt there were too few endings. After all, as Roger Ebert said, “no good movie is too long.” The purist in me rankled when Jackson passed up the chance to depict the Scouring of the Shire, a major event toward the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel. But even people who find the conclusion of Jackson’s nine-and-a-half-hour trilogy sufficiently fatiguing can agree on one indisputable advantage to the multiplicity of endings: we get to rank them.
I rank not only the endings Jackson gave us, but the ones he overlooked. Tolkien wrote so many denouements and epilogues to his Middle Earth saga that even superfans may not know about some of them.
Here are Jackson’s endings, ranked worst to best:
4. Jumping on the bed
Fade in. Frodo (Elijah Wood), lately rescued from the crumbling slopes of Mount Doom by Eagles, wakes up in bed in an unspecified location. He does not know that his deceased mentor, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), has been reborn, so it must be a shock to see Gandalf’s face smiling down at him. Frodo does not have time to question the felicitous reunion, because soon Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) storm into the room and leap on the bed in Hobbitish joy. Then Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) stride in with pleasure on their faces, and finally a triumphant, teary-eyed Samwise (Sean Astin). The surviving members of the Fellowship gather around the hero Frodo in intimate celebration. This wordless scene, which plays entirely in slow motion, feels like a wonderful happy ending, and in any other film it might have been. But this part of Tolkien’s story is not called The Return of the King for nothing: we must progress to the crowning of Aragorn, heir of Isildur. Fade out on the film’s fourth-best ending.
3. The actual return of the king
Fade in. A crowd is assembled on the jutting topmost level of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor, where for generations a line of Stewards has ruled in lieu of an accepted heir to the throne. Now, against all odds, the last in the line of Isildur claims his rightful inheritance. Together King Aragorn Elessar I and his distant cousin Queen Arwen Undómiel (Liv Tyler) will guide the ascendant race of Men into a new Age of the Earth; it is for this outcome that Frodo and his friends risked their lives. One of the beautiful and melancholic facts of Tolkien’s tale is that Hobbits, who save Middle Earth, will not inherit it; they are waning, like Dwarves and Elves, though they will flourish for an Age or two in the peaceful aftermath of Sauron’s regime. Hobbits’ outsized influence in the Quest of the Ring is partly a factor of their anonymity. Even the Wise have overlooked them, being more concerned with rings and crowns and demigods and armies. Aragorn, like his teacher Gandalf who crowns him, knows better. When the four Hobbits bow to him at his coronation, he tells them to stand. The crowd, and the King himself, bow to them. This is a powerful moment that makes good on the title and brings the Third Age of Middle Earth to a close (the precise date of the beginning of the Fourth Age is a matter about which more could be said, but not in this article.) Fade to sepia at the close of the third-best “ending.”
2. “I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.”
Back in the Shire, Sam gets married and Frodo finishes writing his chapters in the book that his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) started decades before. Having tidied up loose ends, it is time for him to truly go home; not to Bag End, which offers no peace to one who has felt the gnawing of the Ring and the bite of Morgul steel, but to the utmost West where all hurts are healed. Like Arthur to Avalon, Frodo must go where the living cannot, to Elven lands sundered long ago from Middle Earth. He sails by ship with the last of Middle Earth’s high Elves to a place Gandalf once described to Pippin — “a far green country under a swift sunrise.” Ancient Bilbo goes with him, having held the terrible Ring longer than any creature save Sauron and poor Gollum. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Gandalf, arguably the oldest and wisest creatures this side of the impassable expanse, also board the boat, their purposes fulfilled and their powers spent. Fade to white as magic and the memory of beautiful and terrible things leaves the shores of Middle Earth, never to return. This second-best ending is high fantasy par excellence.
1. “Well, I’m back.”
Jackson and Tolkien agree: the main text of The Lord of the Rings ends when Samwise Gamgee, erstwhile gardener and loyal friend, returns to his wife and children after saying goodbye to his master Frodo at the Elven port of the Gray Havens. Truthfully Sam had been “back” from his adventure for a handful of years, and the trip to the sea from which had just returned was but a brief journey. Yet his heart had been divided all that time; his service in the Quest of the Ring was not truly finished so long as Frodo lingered in Middle Earth, where the memory of the Ring and the sting of old wounds would always trouble him. When Frodo left the lands of mortals and passed out of knowledge into the undying lands, Sam’s life as a traveler, as a reluctant but indefatigable warrior, as a shaper of the fates of Men and Dwarves and Elves, was over. He became simply Sam of the Shire, husband and father, and he was at last “home.” The round door of a Hobbit hole shuts behind the Gamgee clan (the actors huddled behind it in a narrow space dug into a hillside near Matamata, New Zealand), and the movie fades to black before the credits begin. This is the greatest, and the most understated, of Return of the King’s endings, bringing both contentment and finality to the chief character remaining in Middle Earth… at least, until Tolkien continues Sam’s story in his appendices and unpublished epilogue.
Jackson’s four endings are each better than the last. They connect superbly, fading in and out in hues of black, then brown, then white as the emotions in them morph from relief to triumph to sober reflection. On the topic of endings, a word should be spared for the hand-drawn character sketches in the closing credits, which play to Annie Lennox and Howard Shore’s gorgeous song “Into the West.”
Here are the best additional endings that Tolkien wrote but Jackson didn’t choose to adapt for the big screen:
3. Tolkien’s unpublished epilogue
Tolkien planned to carry on from Sam’s “Well, I’m back” for a few more pages, but his editors persuaded him to end the story there. The next “ending” he had in mind was a flash-forward in which Sam, now mayor of the Shire, reads aloud to his numerous children from Bilbo and Frodo’s book. Sam then answers questions from his oldest daughter Eleanor (who eventually becomes the keeper of the book) before revealing the exciting news that Aragorn and Arwen are paying a visit to the Shire. It’s all better than it sounds, and Tolkien regretted having to reduce this episode to mere hints in the appendices. Jackson was certainly right not to include this lost ending in his film, but who knows, perhaps he can stretch it into a trilogy in the future. Fans can read both drafts of the epilogue in the book Sauron Defeated, part 9 of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series about his father’s work.
2. The strange journeys of Legolas and Gimli
Tolkien worked on “the matter of Middle Earth” his whole adult life. As such, there were a lot of loose ends to tie up when he brought the Third Age to a close at the end of The Return of the King. Though it may seem trivial on the surface, the friendship of Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf, forged in the fire of war, symbolically healed millennia-old wounds between those two great races. At the end of the War of the Ring, Gimli and Legolas traveled with Gandalf and the Hobbits (as well as Galadriel and Celeborn) north out of Gondor, through Rohan, and past Isengard. There Gimli made good on a promise he had made earlier to accompany Legolas into the hoary woods of Fangorn Forest. This is the last we “see” of them in the text, though it is rumored (and communicated in the appendices) that decades later Gimli set sail with Legolas for the undying lands, something no other Dwarf had permission from the gods to do. Jackson’s films do not offer much resolution about Legolas and Gimli; they are present at Aragorn’s crowning, but nothing is implied of their future travels together. Jackson missed a chance to hint at it in The Two Towers at Helm’s Deep, where there are stunning jeweled caves that Gimli wanted to show Legolas. The price for Legolas’s journeying underground was Gimli’s reciprocal visit to Fangorn.
1. The Scouring of the Shire
When the adventuring Hobbits return to the Shire they find it sadly changed. Instead of an agrarian utopia, it is now an industrial hellscape managed by thugs who answer to “Sharky.” Towers are belching smoke, the Party Tree has been torn down, and many Hobbits are homeless, dead, or imprisoned. (Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Bilbo’s longtime nemesis, behaves very bravely in the crisis; this is her redemption at the end of a minor arc that started way back in The Hobbit.) “Sharky” turns out to be Saruman, who in the book was not killed at Isengard but escaped to wreak what petty havoc he can. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin organize the free Hobbits into a militia and drive the interlopers away in the final battle ever fought in the Shire. Wormtongue offs Saruman in a fit of rage just as he does in the film, but on the stoop of Bag End instead of at Isengard. Though Jackson did not wish to stage the full Scouring, it is hinted at in two places in the films: once in Galadriel’s mirror, where we see the Shire aflame and swarming with Orcs, and later in Isengard’s storerooms where Merry and Pippin find crates of pipeweed that Saruman has been secretly importing from his agents in the Shire. The explanation for the crates is not given in the films.
The next time you hear someone complain that The Return of the King has “too many endings,” remind them that there could have been several more! Then ask them which is their favorite, because true Flickcharters love ranking like Hobbits love breakfast. Speaking of which, what’s the better meal: breakfast or second breakfast? Elevensies? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper?