The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – 2003 – dir. Peter Jackson
The Return of the King is the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new era. The age of the fair folk passes, and the age of men dawns.
In Tolkien’s books, Aragorn the Ranger has a goal of claiming the kingship from the outset. However, in the films, he undergoes a transition from reluctant leader to king of men. Of course, such a transition is interesting to watch – we first see him as a shady character at the Prancing Pony Inn, contrasted with the crowned royalty he becomes at the end of the third film.
But what makes such a king? A king under whom the glory of Gondor was forever unmatched, according to Tolkien?
Frodo asks Aragorn, “Would you destroy it?” in reference to the ring, but we know what Frodo’s really asking him. Even in The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn must be tested in more than mere combat. We assume from the outset that he is a formidable warrior. But adroitness with a blade does not a good king make. Aragorn must know his limits, and he must recognize the perils of taking too much power. This is reflected in his first statement as king, “This day does not belong to one man.” It belongs to everyone, who must work together to ensure a lasting peace. The king is one man, but kingship is shared by the populace.
In The Two Towers, the elf prince Legolas offers Aragorn another test. In discussing the odds stacked against the warriors of Rohan, Legolas says, “Three hundred against ten thousand? Aragorn, all of these people are going to die.” In frustration, Aragorn shouts, “Then I shall die as one of them!” Aragorn is not the king who would send out his subjects to die upon an alien field as he barks orders from his throne. He leads the charge, to fall in battle at the first perhaps, to rally and inspire those who serve beneath him.
Theoden, king of Rohan, undergoes a transition of his own between The Two Towers and The Return of the King. In the films, he is portrayed as being physically possessed by the powers of Saruman the wizard. In the books, however, Theoden is not possessed, but merely under the power of suggestion that there is nothing he can do to stop the onslaught of Isengard and Mordor. He has fallen into despair, and Gandalf convinces his old friend to look out upon his lands and see the hope that awaits him.
“He rose out of darkness to a last, fair morn,” Aragorn speaks fondly of Theoden, who, as Aragorn himself, leads the charge against the forces of darkness. Theoden puts himself in front and sacrifices himself for something greater, all the while knowing that he will very likely not return from the battle. He has gained his life by losing it, and has become a hero.
There’s a great line in (of all places) Disney’s Hercules. Hercules performs feat after feat of strength and daring. “I’m the most popular person in all of Greece! I’m an action figure!” he says. But as Zeus reminds him, “Being famous isn’t the same as being a true hero.” Neither is being physically proficient. What then, is a hero? As we finally learn with Herc, “A hero is not judged by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.”
We’re not a hero by helping a friend lift a mattress. We’re not a hero by making it to the soccer game on time. And we’re definitely not a hero by having a number one album on MTV.
If we’re willing to sacrifice that which we hold most dear for who or what we believe in, then that’s when we become a hero. That’s when we become immortal. That’s when we claim the Kingship.