The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

I had intended to return to Frodo and Sam at the Tower of Cirith Ungol this week but I felt that I needed to offer one last meditation on the “hopeless” battle before the Black Gate of Mordor before I leave it for a while. At the very least I felt that I owe it to Pippin who is lying under the body of a Troll chieftain that he has just valiantly slain in defence of Beregond of the Guard, his friend. I can’t just leave him there without hope!

When I first read The Return of the King as a teenager it was a volume that I had borrowed from my school library. After eating my evening meal I disappeared to my room and read and read and read…

I wonder how long it took me to read the section from the end of Book 5 and the battle before the Black Gate to the moment when Gandalf calls upon the armies of the West to “stand and wait!” I was reading as fast as I could but even so it must have been a good hour or so before I got there. Tolkien’s happy ending, his eucatastrophe, as he termed it, was something for which I was made to wait. I had to endure the endless journey through the horror of Mordor that Frodo and Sam had to make in order to reach Mount Doom and once there I had to watch helplessly with Sam as Frodo failed in his mission and all was saved only by the unlooked for intervention of Gollum.

But still the happy ending came. Did it come because of the courage of the Armies of the West and their brave captains? Did it come because of the faithful witness to the Good that Gandalf had born through the long centuries of his sojourn in Middle-earth? Did it come because of the friendship of the nine companions who set out from Rivendell just three months before? Did it come because Frodo staggered, step by weary step, supported and, at the last, carried by Sam up the slopes of Mount Doom?

After we have given due praise to all of the characters that we have come to know and love in Tolkien’s great work, and each of them deserves great praise, we have to say that none of these things actually brings about the happy ending. That comes through grace alone, from something that lies beyond the endless repetition of cause and effect.

This is one of Tolkien’s greatest contributions to the culture of our time and one which has brought the greatest anger from literary critics. Most of all Tolkien has been accused of being an escapist. Life, real life, the critics say, is not like that. Tolkien is treating us as if we are children. This is mere fairy tale and it is time for us to grow up and embrace reality.

Tolkien faced this criticism head on in an essay first printed in 1947 entitled, On Fairy-Stories. In it he wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears  (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back”.

It is this “sudden glimpse of Truth” that is so subversive to the “chain of death” that is held to be the only reality by the so-called modernists. And it is precisely from that prison, surrounded by the chain of death, from which Tolkien calls us to escape. Is it a coward who cannot face up to reality who tries to escape from this prison? Surely it is the ones who tell us that the prison is the only reality and that there is no freedom beyond it who lack courage. The courageous life is the one that refuses to submit to the tyranny of the “chain of death” as do Tolkien’s heroes.



10 thoughts on “The Battle Before the Black Gate. Do the Best Stories have Happy Endings?

  1. I’m out of the mainstream on this, but I don’t think the Eagles are eucatastrophic. After much careful scholarly chin-pulling, I have concluded that Manwë thinks the answer to your title question is “yes”. The Eagles hardly ever materially affect the large-scale wars in which they appear. Manwë doesn’t send Eagles out of any desire to harmonize with the Great Music, or a desire for a sudden turn of joy. He just thinks it’s a better story if the protagonist gets home at the end (sometimes safely, sometimes less so).

    • Many thanks for leaving a comment once again. It’s good to hear from you.
      In this reading of LOTR I have been moved by the decision in the last debate to risk everything on Frodo and Sam’s mission. I am with W.H Auden, perhaps the first literary critic to read Tolkien with care rather than prejudice, who in his New York Review of Books review argued that it was essential that Sauron should believe that Aragorn had taken the Ring. Sauron does believe it but what a price the Captains of the West are prepared to pay in order to encourage that belief. It makes me think about the way I live my own life. It encourages a certain boldness. Perhaps not to confront orcs and trolls before the Black Gate although the people who confronted the murderers in London on Saturday night displayed something of that spirit. Perhaps the usual way to live boldly is to be generous, kind, encouraging and to refuse to give way to cynicism and despair. I want to give Manwe a chance to intervene at the last moment although the critical intervention comes, not from the Eagles but from Gollum. Who knows where it will come in my small life. I have even had one or two people who have brought the spirit of Gollum into their professional dealings with me. Who knows what blessing they might bring before the end.
      Now that is an encouraging thought and one that makes me smile 😁

  2. I love your ending here about escaping the prison enchained about by death and despair and darkness. So many people are trapped inside and do not see there is a way to escape it. so they don’t even think to try.

    I must admit to my inner cry, “Frodo did not fail!” when I read he did. He did not. He succeeded brilliantly. “I will take the Ring.” and he did. And the Ring-destroyer fulfilled his task perfectly too, though he was ignorant of it.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • C.S Lewis described the prison brilliantly in Prince Caspian as Miraz tries to create a disenchanted world that is desperately dreary but is seemingly “all there is”. He even tries to convince his princely charge that anything that seems to call his creation into question is a threat to order and stability. Tolkien achieves something similar in the Shire that Saruman and his bandits create.
      On Frodo’s “failure” I would argue that I would rather “fail” as Frodo does than to succeed as Denethor would have chosen to succeed. He pours out his life to the point of defeat and so, in a sense, demands grace. I think that Meister Eckhart expresses this when he says, “I do not pray that God will give himself to me. I pray that God will empty me. For when I am empty God of his very nature must fill me.”

      • Oh, that’s neat quote at the end – indeed, exactly what happened to Frodo, even though he is ignorant of his Creator, he does empty himself and God does fill him with grace. I hope he got to know the One God in the West after such an intimate and searing, scarring relationship with the One Ring.

        The dwarves in Narnia who refuse to leave their prison even though they are the only ones who see it are prime examples as well of this entrapment people got stuck in.

        Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

      • I am sure that when Frodo and Sam see God truly they will declare with delight, “But I always knew you! I just didn’t know.” I believe that for all my own seeking after God when I see God face to face it will be the same sense of recognition and utter surprise too.
        The tale of the Dwarves who cannot recognise heaven is so very sad. I hope that eventually they learn to see although that will also require deep sorrow. At the point Lewis leaves them they are far from being ready for that.
        God bless you, Anne Marie, and thank you for your fellowship.

  3. Love this post. Reading a book is in itself an escape. And Tolkien had written a fantasy, not reality. If critics can’t understand that as well as what grace means, it’s their loss.

    • Many thanks for leaving this comment and for your appreciation of the blog and of this post. Of course what Tolkien and Lewis were both saying picked up on Plato’s great Myth of the Cave from his, The Republic. In it Plato shows us that what we think is reality is actually only a shadowland. When in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Peter protests to the professor that Lucy’s experience of Narnia cannot possibly be real the professor replies, “What do they teach them at these schools?” He means Plato, of course! The philosopher who teaches us to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

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