Well, I’m Back

The Three Companions make their silent way back from the Grey Havens and their farewells to Frodo and Bilbo and their glorious fellow travellers.

“At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

For me these are some of the most poignant lines in all literature, the last lines of a story that I have loved ever since I first encountered it in my teens nearly fifty years ago. When I first read those lines I was filled with a deep sadness because it meant that I would have to leave a story that had somehow taken me to its heart. Middle-earth was now a place within my inner world, a world that was now peopled with new races whose history was a part of my history. A few years ago I was walking with my dog along a lane in Worcestershire, England, with high hedges upon either side. Suddenly I was captured by the thought that Gandalf might be walking towards me in the opposite direction and that when I turned the bend in the road he might meet me there to invite me upon an adventure. I was filled with excitement at the prospect and a little disappointment when he was not there.

Sam is in that world but his own adventure is over. It was an adventure that took him to places that were far beyond his imagining. All of this is now a part of him but all of this is now over. Rosie sets the scene for his future endeavours and she is right to do so. The fire in his own hearth is lit, the meal at his own table is set and his child is upon his knee. He is a husband, a father and a householder. He grows food for his growing family in his garden and from this place, from this homestead, a place worthy of the greatest respect, he leads his community.

Sam has returned from his journey bearing many gifts. The one that all can see is Galadriel’s box, and the fruits of that gift are clear for all to see. The Mallorn Tree in the Party Field, the beauty of the children born in 1420, the flourishing of the woodlands of the Shire that Saruman tried so hard to destroy and the excellence of the beer brewed in that year that satisfied the taste of the gaffers of the Shire for long years after. Galadriel saw this for herself as she passed through the Shire on her way to the Havens and she complimented Sam on the work that he had done.

But there are other gifts too. Sam has brought a wisdom and a fortitude from his journey that he did not know before he set out. He possesses a mastery over himself and over the ebb and flow of life that could only come from being tested to and beyond his limits. And he has brought to the Shire the gifts of Elfland. Not just the box that Galadriel gave him, not just the fulfilment of his longing for beauty that was satisfied by the encounter with Gildor even before he left the Shire. Sam carries Elfland in his soul and Elfland carries him. For a time at least, the Shire will be a place that treasures the memory of Elfland within Middle-earth. Sam’s beloved daughter, Elanor the Fair, will marry Fastred of Greenholm on the Far Downs and their family, the Fairbairns, the keepers of the Red Book, will dwell in the new Westmarch on the Tower Hills and by the gift of the king will be its wardens.

The history of Middle-earth must continue but the great story, in which the Fellowship of the Ring played such a part, that brought such gifts to its peoples must now come to an end.

But all who love this tale know that they can always turn back to the first page and start again.

24 thoughts on “Well, I’m Back

  1. Nicolas and I just read this last week and closed off the story while camping. The line struck me too, though you have brought more out here that is helpful.
    Now we’ll read the Appendix A story before dividing our road. Nicolas will reread the trilogy right away in our old paperback, while I think I’ll queue this up in audio for the first time ever (though to be frank I connect reading LOTR with summer and watching the film with Christmas).

    • Hi Professor, make sure you listen to the magnificent BBC version of the tale. It’s abridged but it is so marvelously done. Ian Holm is Frodo. If you haven’t already listened to it. what a treat you are in for! I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve listened ot it. I arrived in Rivendell this morning after the great victory at the Ford and heard Bilbo and Frodo reunite.

      Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

      • My version of this from the early 1990s was on cassette tapes that have perished (as have my old cassette players!) My wife and I listened to an episode each day on our honeymoon and would sing the hobbit walking song while tramping across the Yorkshire Moors together. I would love to reconnect to that fine retelling of the great tale and those happy memories. Perhaps I will persuade her to buy it for me (us) for Christmas!

    • May you both have much joy in all of them! My younger daughter tells me that when she gets together with her university house mates this weekend as they start the new year they are going to watch the extended movies together. For myself I seem to be going deeper into Tolkien’s writings but when Anne Marie mentioned the BBC radio dramatisation I realised that I would like to hear that again.

  2. The Road goes ever on and on. Now we can go there and back again. I was just as this point yesterday in editing my book and now must go back to the beginning and input all my changes into the computer. Looking forward to more from you as we continue down the Road!

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Olga 😊 I have just returned from a brief holiday in a cottage by the ocean in West Wales. I was largely offline except for an hour or so in a pub in the village where I was able to publish the post. I read Stratford Caldicott’s fine study on Tolkien’s spiritual vision while I was there. He goes much deeper than I did into the way that Sam brings Elfland to the Shire and Tolkien does so in our lands. We all need it so much at the present, not as an escape into unreality but from all our illusory prisons into reality.

  3. You’re knocking them out of the park, Stephen. Sam’s words say so much while saying so little.

    And I think the closing credits to the film adaptation are one of its finest elements. The imagery of the characters/cast coupled with the poignant lyrics (“Why do you weep? What are these tears upon your face? … Don’t say we have come now to the end.”) … it gets me every time. But, as the lyrics also say, “You and I will meet again.”

    • I was pointed to the wonderful interview with Tom Shippey on the Prancing Pony Podcast and if you get the chance I wouldn’t really recommend that you listen to it. He calls the ending to LOTR, flat, and that this is deliberate on Tolkien’s part. As you say, Sam leaves so much unsaid.
      I agree with you about the ending to Peter Jackson’s films. There may be flaws in them but there is so much that is wonderfully done.

  4. Thanks for a lovely reflection on that beautiful final line. It’s such a swift transition from the world of the departing elves back to “ordinary” life, and home and family at Bag End. I don’t think many authors could weave the two together so seamlessly.

  5. Shippey is trying to construct a better ending than Tolkien left us by imputing a meaning to Sam’s final words that the text does not support. Shippey wants the statement, “Well, I’m back” to reflect a heroic choice by Sam in turning his back on “eternal life” in Valinor in order to live out a slow death with Rosie in Middle Earth, making Sam’s supposed choice almost on a par with Arwen’s. Shippey said of Sam’s statement: “What it means is, I gave up immortality, I’ve come back. I gave up eternal life, I’ve come back to be with you. I’ve come back to death.”

    But there is nothing in LOTR to indicate that Sam had the option of leaving the Grey Havens with Frodo, or that Sam even had the desire to leave with Frodo. He was certainly sad that Frodo was leaving the Shire, but there is no indication at all that Sam either could have, or wanted to, go with him. In other words, there was no “choice” presented to Sam between “immortality” and “death” at the Grey Havens.

    Frodo was only allowed access to the ship because Arwen gave up her “spot,” and Bilbo’s passage appeared to have been arranged by Galadriel, and there is suggestion that even Arwen and Galadriel did not have independent authority to grant such access, but that they had to lobby the “higher ups” for ultimate approval. As of Frodo’s departure, there is no indication at all that such passage had been approved for Sam. If family tradition were true and Sam was granted passage some 60 years later, it would only mean that he was allowed to have his cake and eat it too, again with no heroic choice having been presented or required.

    Moreover, leaving the Grey Havens was not equivalent to gaining immortality or eternal life. According to Tolkien, Valinor was more like a physical purgatory than heaven as far as Frodo were concerned, a temporary stay for the healing of wounds and purging of self-interest, after which would come the eventual death of his mortal body.

    Whatever the “meaning” of Sam’s last words, it cannot be what Shippey supposes.

    • Dan, thank you so much for taking the time to leave this comment on my blog. It is over two years ago that I wrote this post and I confess that my memory of the interview with Tom Shippey on The Prancing Pony podcast is now a little hazy. I will need to go back to it again which I will gladly do in order to refresh my memory.
      If Prof Shippey is indeed arguing that that Sam is turning his back upon immortality through these last words then I agree with you. In making the offer to Frodo (and to Bilbo too) to make the journey to the Undying Lands it was not immortality that was being offered, at least not in the sense in which the Elves understood it. The Ring Bearers make the journey for healing and not immortality. Like all mortal creatures Frodo and Bilbo, and eventually Sam too, will have to taste death and then the mystery that follows.
      Like Frodo, Sam too has been wounded. “I am that torn in two,” he says to Frodo when invited to join Frodo in his last journey. His love for Frodo and his love for Rosie and the world she represents are in conflict with each other. But Frodo is right in his response when he says to Sam, “But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.” When Sam comes to make his last journey it will not be in search of healing but it will be the last action of a man fully at peace and looking forward to one last reunion.

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