Although often published in three-volume editions, The Lord of the Rings is one novel, and not technically a "trilogy" at all. It consists of six parts or "books." The first two comprise The Fellowship of the Ring (first published July 1954); the second two comprise The Two Towers (first published November 1954); and the third two comprise the present volume, The Return of the King (first published October 1955). The following commentary assumes readers' familiarity with Books I-IV of The Lord of the Rings, and interprets Books V and VI in the context of the entire work.
Summary: Pippin and Gandalf arrive at the great, fortified city of Minas Tirith, chief city of the ancient kingdom of Gondor and the place where Men will make their last stand against Sauron and the hosts of Mordor. The venerable line of kings who once ruled Gondor has long ago been broken-a sad reality symbolized by the lone, withered White Tree at the center of the city. The absence of the rightful king is also symbolized by the empty throne in Minas Tirith's great hall. In the hall, ruling the city as "steward" in the king's stead, is Denethor, whose own throne is smaller and situated beneath the king's. When Pippin and Gandalf meet him, Denethor is grief-stricken by the loss of his son Boromir (see Book II, Chapter 10). Moved by the memory of Boromir's death, Pippin pledges his allegiance to Denethor, who accepts his service. Beregond, one of the City's guards, teaches Pippin the ways of this service. Pippin also befriends Beregond's son, Bergil. Meanwhile, hosts of defenders arrive at Minas Tirith to lend their aid-"but always too few, always less than hope looked for or need asked." Despite their efforts to put on a brave front, the people of Minas Tirith begin to despair that they can prevail in the last, great, coming battle.
As the penultimate book of his novel begins, Tolkien leaves readers with no doubt that Middle-earth will change as a result of the events he has been recounting. As Gandalf tells the Men of Gondor, "Whatever betide, you have come to the end of the Gondor that you have known." His words are but one of many signals throughout The Return of the King that Tolkien's tale is, in theological terms, an eschatological story-that is, a story about the "last things" (Greek, eschaton), or, more colloquially, "the end of the world." For good or for ill, the world will be different when the War of the Ring reaches its conclusion.
As Gandalf tells Pippin, Denethor is "proud and subtle." Over the course of Book V, as readers will discover, this pride leads him to despair-yet another instance of misplaced pride in Tolkien's tale. Denethor has too much pride to accept his role as steward, or caretaker, of the kingdom of Gondor. He resents Aragorn's coming to Minas Tirith as the heir to the throne. His vision of Gondor's situation, relative to the other peoples of Middle-earth, is far too narrow: "[T]here is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands," he claims, "than the good of Gondor." Gandalf states, in contrast, "[A]ll worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care." Beregond is much closer to the truth when he tells Pippin, "This is a great war long-planned, and we are but one piece in it, whatever pride may say." The tale of Denethor, as it unfolds, will become a cautionary one.
Rather suddenly, Pippin swears his obedience to Denethor. His relationship to Denethor will serve as a foil (a contrast) to Merry's relationship to King Th´┐Żoden. At this point, however, readers can note Pippin's oath as a further example of the rashness indicative of his youth. (The text itself invites such a reading, as Gandalf warns Pippin "not to let his tongue wag freely after the manner of a hobbit among friends"-readers will doubtless remember the "slip," in more ways than one, at the Prancing Pony in Book I!) Good will come out of this oath, however, a reinforcement of Tolkien's repeated insistence in the narrative that good-and hope-can and does arise from unexpected quarters.
Pippin's initial conversation with Beregond is another conversation about the identity of hobbits, and therefore raises again for readers the question of their own place in the world. The narrative as a whole seems to suggest that clarifying and adhering to "the order of things" is a great good. Readers may want to question when such clarification and adherence is proper and when it may not be, for the text itself presents instances of both circumstances (see, for example, ´┐Żowyn's desire to fight and the results flowing from that desire). Further, readers should bear in mind Pippin's statement, which also reflects a recurrent theme in the work: "For when you are older, you will learn that folk are not always what they seem."