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The title, The Return of the King, refers to Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen. The heir to the Kingdom of Gondor, Aragorn has hidden from his heritage, living out his life instead disguised as Strider, one of the mysterious Rangers – wanderers who perform discreet military operations against Sauron. Yet the throne of Gondor is empty. The Kingdom is in decline. As Sauron threatens to eradicate all the races of Middle-earth, the moment has come for him to step forward and face his urgent destiny to lead. "How do you assume the mantle of a king?" Jackson asks. "How do you take that on yourself? How do you say ‘I am the one that you must follow'? I think that is what he's struggling with, because he has seen what power can do."

Ambivalent about his lineage and the ancestors who fell in disgrace through their quest for power, Aragorn struggles with personal doubts that he is truly the one. "He is the heir to the throne; he is the sole person capable of assuming this position in Minas Tirith, but he is unsure of his worthiness to lead mankind," comments Jackson. "Aragorn needs to believe in the nobility of his own people."

Mortensen identifies Aragorn with the image of the prodigal leader whose true nature is initially hidden, "from his companions and, for a while, from the world at large," he explains. "A person such as Aragorn, much like King Arthur or Moses, for example, is raised by non-blood relatives, hidden until he is ready to learn of his true identity and the great responsibility that is his birthright. Aragorn, who was brought up by the Elves in Rivendell and tutored by Elrond, must eventually fulfill a destiny that requires him to understand the complex and tragic history of Middle-earth, and to ensure a future born of hope and justice for all beings of that world."

Yet to Aragorn, the throne represents the very quest for power that tempted and ultimately destroyed his ancestors. Power would alter everything that makes him who he is. What Aragorn finds in his journey is that the call to lead is not for power at all. "What's at stake is a city which is falling to an enemy," explains co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens. "Many people will die as a result. Aragorn decides that if it is in him, and it is going to save people's lives, he will do it. He steps up to the mark. His motives are pure, which is one of the reasons he's not corrupted by The Ring. Because it's not power for power's sake."

With Sauron's forces also comes recognition that death is encroaching with the irrevocable passage of time. Aragorn's journey requires a confrontation with the very souls that betrayed his ancestors in the treacherous Paths of the Dead. It's a road from which he may not return, yet he enters it without hesitation to stave off not only mass death but the intractable destruction of those he loves. "For me, the story is about confrontation with death, about the consequences of death for us and for those we love," Mortensen reflects. "That's a significant reason why the story continues to resonate with modern audiences."

Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who sets The Fellowship's quest in motion – and sends Frodo into Mordor – must confront the repercussions of his own role in the quest. No longer a benevolent outsider, Gandalf, too, actively joins the fight on the side he believes must triumph. "In a way, Gandalf is a general in this war," comments Boyens. "He initiated this and caused it to happen, and he must bear the responsibility for that. It was an awesome gamble. That is power wielded in another way and it bears a dif

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