The events of The Return of the King fall between the years 3019 and 3021, with most of the novel's action falling between March 9 and March 25 of the year 3019. Though the story is not presented in chronological order, the events can be arranged in sequence and Tolkien offers a calendar that even assigns scenes to specific dates. This third novel of the trilogy begins with Gandalf and Pippin heading towards Minas Tirith (March 5, 3019). The next day finds Aragorn in battle against the Dunedain, while Theoden leaves the Hornburg fortress and sets out for Harrowdale. Aragorn eventually wins his battle and heads towards Dunharrow, arriving on the night of the 7th. The next day is crucial to the story, as Aragorn takes the "Paths of the Dead." Gandalf arrives at Minas Tirith with Pippin and Lord Denethor does not receive Gandalf so warmly, as he is resigned to the fate of his inevitable defeat.
March 10 is the "Dawnless Day;" during the Muster of Rohan, the Rohirrim ride from Harrowdale and when Faramir is trapped in battle outside the gates of Minas Tirith, it is Gandalf who rescues him in dramatic fashion. Aragorn has still not arrived at his destination, crossing Ringlo and reaching points in Linhir and then Lebennin. Meanwhile, Lorien is being attackedyet another battle in a war that is being fought on at least three fronts at any given time. The Ents defeat the invaders of Rohan, while Aragorn drives the enemy towards Pelargir and Theoden camps under Minrimmon while Faramir has no option but to retreat to the Causeway Forts. Midway through March is when we find heated action on the battle front as well as in the story of Frodo and Sam. The Return of the King continues the story of Frodo and Sam after Frodo is captured by the Orcs of Cirith Ungol (March 13). This is the same day in which the Pelennor is overrun, Faramir is wounded and Aragorn reaches Pelargir. The next day, Sam finds Frodo in the tower.
Minas Tirith suffers under siege and on March 15 (which we might identify as the "Ides of March") the side of good suffers several blows: The Witch-King finally breaks down the walls of the city (Minas Tirith); Denethor is unsuccessful in murdering his wounded son, though he is successful in burning himself to death on his funeral pyre; Lorien is assaulted for a second time; and Theoden is slain in battle. If there is any hope remaining, as Gandalf notes, it is with Frodo, Sam and the Ring. On this day of battle, Sam and Frodo escape from the tower, disguised as orcs. This disguise has a negative consequence when the hobbits are apprehended by orcs later on and presumed to be mutinous orc-soldiersbut at least their true identity is hidden, and the two hobbits eventually escape from the ranks of the orc army (March 18, 19).
By the time of this second escape, the commanders have debated ("The Last Debate") and the Battle of Dale has been fought. King Brand and King Dain Ironfoot are both killed. Meanwhile, Shagrat (an orc) presents Frodo's cloak, mail-shirt, and sword to Barad-dur. If March 10 was "the Dawnless Day," March 22 is "the dreadful nightfall." This is when Lorien is assaulted for a third time and deep in the realm of Mordor, Frodo and Sam are forced to leave the road and head due southtowards Mount Doom. On the 18th, Aragorn and the Host of the West marched from Minas Tirith and on the 23rd, they pass through Ithilien. Out of sympathy, Aragorn releases some of his soldiers from their duty, as they are without hope and faint-hearted. Only the bravest remain with him. Victory comes with Frodo and Sam's success: they reach Mount Doom on March 24, and the following day, marks the scene in which Frodo is about to complete his mission, only the evil power of the Ring overcomes his good intentions. Frodo suddenly feels compelled to keep the Ring for himself. As Sauron realizes that his Eye has been diverted from the true threat, his evil power rushes towards Mount Doom to make an end of Frodo and Sam. Gollum reappears after a long absence and successful rips the Ring away from (invisible) Frodo, tearing Frodo's finger off in the process. Gollum's wrestling sets him off-balance, however, and he falls into the Cracks of Doom, destroying the Ring in the process.
An eagle rescues Frodo and Sam, returning them to the company of Gandalf, Pippin and the others. The power of Sauron has been destroyed and only comparatively minor and administrative tasks remain. Aragorn officially comes into the royal seat that was prophesied.
When the Hobbits finally make their way back to the Shire, they find that the Shire has been altered for the worseit is "all very gloomy and un-shirelike." They find that a sizeable portion of the population has been jailed as they were unwilling to obey Mr. Lotho (a hobbit who serves as a self-appointed mayor) and his henchman, Sharkey. The hobbits successfully chases out the henchmen and Sharkey reveals himself to be Saruman. Saruman laughs with revenge because he has destroyed so many of the homes and gardens of Hobbiton. He stabs Frodo, but the hobbit is wearing a coat of mail beneath his garment and the knife does no damage. Frodo remains patient and forgiving and he refuses to strike at Saruman, but this only angers Saruman. Asking about Mr. Lotho, the hobbits learn from Saruman that Wormtongue (Grima) has killed himbut Wormtongue is enraged because Saruman forced him to do this. Wormtongue then draws his own knife and cuts Saruman's throat. Wormtongue is shot dead with arrows. Saruman's body emits a grey mist and then it dissolves into nothing.
The cleansing of the Shire does not take as long as Sam fears. One of the initial tasks at hand is the release of the prisoners who have been locked up by Sharkey and Mr. Lotho. Sam remembers the gift of Galadriel: a box that was filled with a grey dust and a small seed. Sam spreads this dust and in a year's time, it does the work of twenty years. The trees and flowers return, the children grow beautiful and strong, and pretty much everybody is happy.
Sam gets married to Rose Cotton and they move in with Frodo, who still suffers his ailment. Frodo finishes nearly all of the writing before he passes the project on to Sam to finish the final pages. Sam becomes the mayor in Frodo's place and Frodo prepares for his departure with Gandalf to the shores of the Sea. Sam, Merry and Pippin ride along with them, and there are also the Elves, Bilbo, Elrond and Galadriel. All of the ring bearers must depart from Middle Earth and so they board the great ship and sail away. The three hobbits return to their lives in Hobbiton and enjoy the rest of their lives.