There are three others who set sail into the West from the Grey Havens. Actually I should not have described them as the “others”. This ship was originally meant for them and not for the Ring-bearers. At the ending of their work in Middle-earth, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the keepers of the Three Elven Rings, were to depart into the West. Arwen was meant to go with them but when she made her choice for Aragorn and for mortality it seems that she was the first to suggest that her place in the ship could go to Frodo. In his letters Tolkien said that Arwen was not able to make such a decision because it was not hers to make but that Gandalf, the true representative of the Valar in Middle-earth, could. It was he who offered the place that was to be Arwen’s to Frodo and realising that the wound of the Ring could not be healed in Middle-earth he also invited Bilbo to make the journey.
Saruman knew that the Three Elven Rings would lose their power when the One went to the Fire but he seems to have thought that their keepers would then diminish with them as unhappy exiles in Middle-earth and that his own unhappiness would be something that he would share with those that he had sought to betray and had learned to hate. His own rejection of grace and his embrace of despair and bitterness had led him to believe that this would be the destiny of his enemies also. The speedy healing of the Shire was a thing far beyond his miserable imagination. And he seems not to have any conception of the grace of the ship that would pass into the West either. Perhaps this was because he knew that to return to the West would also mean to stand before the Valar for judgement and, just like Sauron at the end of the First Age, this was something that he could not countenance. That this grace would be extended to others seems to have been beyond his imagination also.
I think of the journey into the West as being different in nature for each of the Three Keepers.
For Gandalf it was to be rest after his long labours. Although he was tempted to take the Ring and to use it to gain victory over its Maker this was a temptation that he was able to overcome. He was also able to overcome his fear. Tolkien tells us that he was at first unwilling to undertake the mission of the Istari, of the Wizards, to stand against Sauron. He felt himself to be inadequate and was afraid. That he was able to overcome his fear and to offer himself just as he was to the task was a great victory. The victory over the Dark Lord was never accomplished by superior power but by faithfulness and self-sacrifice. Gandalf laid down his life for his friends in the great battle against the Balrog of Moria. He was given his life back and so continued to victory but not a victory that he achieved through his own or any other’s might but one that was achieved through the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the strange grace of Gollum’s taking of the Ring to the Fire.
For Galadriel the return into the West was something that for long years she believed to be impossible and perhaps for a time did not even desire. When she, like Gandalf, was tempted to take the Ring, it was her dream of becoming a Queen over all Middle-earth that she laid down. “I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel,” she said to Frodo. This is what she now accepts as the ship finally departs.
And Elrond? I think that for him there is a particular sadness that is bound up with his separation from Arwen. Of course there is the sadness of the separation itself. But there is something more. Elrond is half-elven but not just by birth but also by choice. At the end of the First Age his brother, Elros, made the strange choice of mortality. Elrond rejected this and now at the end of the Third Age, Arwen, too, makes the choice of Elros and rejects the choice of her father. As he steps onto the ship and confirms his own choice he steps away from mortality and from his daughter. He too must embrace his own destiny for good and ill. He must overcome his bitterness and be healed.
The last pages of The Lord of the Rings are as incomplete as any in literature. Tolkien believed in the “Happy Ever After” of the fairy-story and yet he does not grant this to his characters at the end of this story. Full of uncertainty each one of them in stepping aboard the ship must embrace their own destiny. What that destiny is, lies, not in their own hands, but in the hands of the One to whom they now entrust themselves. As we read these last pages we too are invited into our own leap into faith as we let go our own control of our destiny.