I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But one thing always confused me. Why did he call the last book The Return of the King? If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know that the title refers to the fact that the kingdom of Gondor has been without its rightful king for a very long time. And the true king of Gondor, Aragorn, has not yet returned to claim the kingdom as his inheritance. So, from the title, you presume that the heart of the book will be the return of Aragorn to reestablish the kingdom of Gondor.
And, in one of the story’s climactic scenes, that’s exactly what happens. A huge army of vicious, ugly orcs has invaded Gondor and looks certain to destroy its capital city, slaughtering all of the Gondorians along the way. At the last possible second, Aragorn and his companions arrive on a fleet of black-sailed ships. Leaping from the side of the ship, Aragorn stares down the waiting orcs before unleashing his own army of ghost-soldiers (it’s complicated) to destroy the opposing army and save the besieged humans.
The king has returned.
The story isn’t even close to being over. Indeed, there’s an even larger army of orcs just sitting over in Mordor, waiting to be unleashed on the humans. And they haven’t even faced the evil overlord, Sauron, who is behind all of this in the first place.
So the good news: the king is back. The bad news: you’re about to be eaten by an orc anyway.
The story doesn’t seem to find its true resolution until the Ring of Power, which Sauron needs to sustain his awesome evilness, gets tossed into the depths of a powerful volcano. Actually, it doesn’t get tossed into the volcano. One of the more interesting characters in the story, Gollum, steals the ring and, while triumphantly dancing around with glee, he falls into the fiery volcano with the ring clutched in his greedy little hands. (The moral of the story, of course, is that one should never dance near open volcanoes.) And, once the ring is destroyed, Sauron dies and his orc armies are finally vanquished.
So the real hero of the story is…Gollum. After all, he’s the one who destroys the ring and Sauron along with it. The evil one is defeated. Victory! Let’s go home.
So why does Tolkien call this book The Return of the King? Why not Gollum Saves the Day? Wouldn’t that be a more fitting description of the book’s real climax? Not for Tolkien. Killing Sauron isn’t the point. Sauron needs to be defeated, of course. But that’s just one part of a much larger story—the restoration of the kingdom. That’s why Tolkien continues the story even after Sauron dies, telling us about Aragorn getting married, establishing his kingdom, and ruling for a nice, long time. That’s where the real good news lies. Killing bad guys is one thing. But, unless the king returns and establishes the kingdom, things still won’t be the way they’re supposed to be. It’s only when the kingdom comes that you have all the blessings of the kingdom: peace, justice, prosperity, pretty elf-wife—shalom.
Jesus came and proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God (e.g. Mt 4:23; Lk 4:43; 8:1). Notice that he doesn’t come and proclaim the good news that Satan has been defeated, that the evil rulers of the earth have been squashed, or even that our sins have been forgiven. He just says that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Of course, what he means by that is that the King has returned, and that when the King comes to establish the Kingdom, he will accomplish all of those other things as well. They’re not excluded, but there’s more. The King is here! The Kingdom has come! Let’s rejoice!
The Return of the King. That’s a pretty good title for a book.
[This is an excerpt from a book that I’m writing about the gospel, Good News for the Living Dead: A Fresh Take on the Gospel Story. You can read the other excerpts and keep track of new ones as they become available on my blog.]
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.