Big time spoilers for The Lord of the Rings – especially the ending – ahead.
It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings. There aren’t too many things in my life that have stayed constant since age 14, but these books continue to inspire, motivate, and comfort me. As I’ve grown, aged, and lived, the meanings have changed, the understandings deepened, but every time I pick them up, I find something new. When I first read the books, I was thrilled by the exciting adventure, the battles, and, oh yeah, Aragorn. These days, it’s a different part that I keep turning to read.
One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings now is the ending. The movie version leaves out part of the original ending, and I understand that choice at some level. The original ending is messy, hard, and complicated in a way that’s difficult to translate to the screen.
For those who aren’t familiar with the book ending, it looks initially like a very traditional storybook ending wrap-up. Then the movie and book part ways: there is evil waiting in the Shire for the returning hobbits. They have to fight yet another battle to get the Shire back – their home is ugly and changed by that evil. The book and the movie return to sync when Frodo departs Middle Earth.
When I initially read The Return of the King, the scouring of the Shire irritated me a bit. It seemed…unnecessary. The major task was fulfilled, the ring destroyed, the epic showdown at the gates of Mordor fought, and the hobbits returned home triumphantly. Then Tolkien throws in this seemingly discordant sadness and destruction. It’s no wonder Peter Jackson left it out of the movie. It feels unfair that after everything the hobbits have done and the horror they’ve been through they don’t come home to a hero’s welcome, that there’s still more to do. This isn’t a Harry Potter ending.
Now, though, I get it. Tolkien has captured the reality of life after being touched by struggle and tragedy, in whatever form that comes to particular people. You don’t walk through Mordor and remain untouched. Even once the main event is over and evil seemingly vanquished or at least survived, it’s coming home to find more work to do and reminder after reminder sitting in your front yard.
We walked through Mordor the days my daughter nearly died. We walked through Mordor when my brother so inexplicably left us. The days when nothing made sense.
I hoped when we finally came back, naively, it would still be mostly the same. I knew better. But I hoped.
Instead, it’s been the weariness of battling back what those journeys took from us.
It’s no longer the epic battles of life and death. It’s the bitterness at the bottom of the glass, the sh*ttier stuff, but battles that are no less for their smallness. It’s fighting those unwelcome triggers and reclaiming home.
It’s knowing when to lay down the swords and begin the peaceful work of planting and bringing green life back to damaged land. It’s showing mercy. In some ways, this is almost harder. It requires vulnerability, patience, honesty, kindness, and diligence. Qualities that some days are tough to muster.
Tolkien doesn’t give Frodo a beautiful happy ending in his beloved Shire. The wounds simply go too deep. I take a lot of heart, though, from Sam’s ending. Sam, who also bore the Ring, touched evil, who also walked through Mordor. Sam, who “planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each. He went up and down the Shire in this labour…” Sam, who receives these words at the last, painful farewell: “Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”
That is an ending – or perhaps another beginning – worth all of the work.