“Down Into The Land of Shadow.” Tolkien’s Ending of The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.397-398

Those who came to know The Lord of the Rings through the films that were made some twenty years ago by Peter Jackson will have been surprised when they first read Tolkien’s own ending to the first volume of his trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien gives us no battles, no brave self-sacrifice from Merry and Pippin offering themselves to the orcs so that Frodo can escape, no farewell by Aragorn to Frodo, and no heroic death of Boromir. That last will take place off stage at the beginning of The Two Towers. Instead he gives us this…

“So Frodo and Sam set off on the last stage of the Quest together. Frodo paddled away from the shore and the River bore them swiftly away, down the western arm, and past the frowning cliffs of Tol Brandir”

Frodo and Sam struggle to get past the current of the river that seeks to drag them over the mighty falls and so at last make their way to the east bank, and then…

“At length they came to land again upon the southern slopes of Amon Lhaw. There they found a shelving shore, and they drew the boat out high above the water, and hid it as well as they could behind a great boulder. Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of the Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.”

We can understand why Peter Jackson decided to end his first film differently and I, alongside the packed theatre audience who witnessed the film, was glad to stand and applaud it. It was a masterpiece in its own right and I could not wait for the release of The Two Towers which is what Jackson had intended.

But Tolkien had his reasons for ending this first part of his great story in this way and if I were to try to create the scene as I think Tolkien intended us to see it I would slowly draw the camera back from Frodo and Sam as they set off on their journey until all we could see was two small figures set against a vast and empty wasteland.

There is an old and deeply poignant prayer of the Breton people of France whose ancient language is related to Welsh, a tongue that Tolkien loved. It simply states that “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” I have known it for some time through a collection of prayers from the Celtic tradition of which the Breton tongue is a part but discovered while preparing this blog post that an American admiral gave a small plaque to President John Kennedy, a fellow sailor, with this prayer inscribed upon it. The point of the prayer, as President Kennedy received it, was to remind us of our smallness against the vastness of the universe in which we are set. Kennedy kept the plaque on his desk in the Oval Office throughout his term of office to teach him humility. Presidents need such reminders in a way that Breton fisher folk do not. For them, and for all the “little” people of the earth, it is enough that they must set out each day into a world that is so much bigger than they are, and Tolkien intends us to see Frodo and Sam among such people. Their journey is not heroic in the sense that it is a conquest of the world although Elrond was right to compare Frodo to the great heroic figures of the First Age like Hurin and Beren, it is heroic in the sense that ordinary life is heroic. Ordinary folk shoulder their burdens and set out, seeking a path through a life that is so much bigger than they are. Frodo and Sam know that what they seek to do is far too big a task for people like them but they do it anyway because it is a task that they have been given to do.

Surely Tolkien drew here upon his memories of the ordinary soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War who did their job against overwhelming odds and did not see their lives as wasted because doing their job was what life was all about. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a woman whose husband had worked all his life in a job that he hated in order to feed his family and did it with pride so that the high point of his week was to cook breakfast on a Sunday morning and to share it with them all. That is the kind of heroism that Frodo and Sam represent.

Tolkien wanted to teach us the heroism of the “little” people of the world.

“It’s No Good Trying to Escape You.” Frodo and Sam Set Off For Mordor Together.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 395-398

Even though all the Fellowship recognise the wisdom of Sam’s words when he spoke of how Frodo was determined to go alone to Mordor, and that the time that he was taking was not to make up his mind about the right course of action but to find the courage to begin, the debate is not at an end. Merry and Pippin, at least, are still certain that they all should all go to Minas Tirith. It is only when Boromir arrives that the story is able to move on.

‘”Where have you been, Boromir?” asked Aragorn. “Have you seen Frodo?”‘

Boromir is not ready yet to tell his story, to admit his failure, but he says enough to throw the rest of the Company into panic and despite Aragorn’s efforts to prevent them Merry and Pippin run off in one direction, Legolas and Gimli in another and Sam in another yet.

“Boromir! I do not know what part you have played in this mischief, but help now! Go after those two young hobbits, and guard them at the least, even if you cannot find Frodo.”

And so Aragorn runs after Sam while Boromir makes his final journey in search of redemption. For he will fall in battle while doing as Aragorn had commanded, willingly laying down his life for the hobbits, willingly paying with his life for his attempt to seize the Ring from Frodo by force.

Once again it is Sam, who is closest to the mind and heart of Frodo, who works out what is really going on. After Aragorn catches and passes him, making his way up to Amon Hen, Sam realises that Frodo is making his way to the boats using the invisibility that the Ring gives him, and that it is Frodo’s intention to escape them all. Desperately, Sam makes his way towards the place to where the boats are moored, caring nothing now for anything, not even for his own life, as long as he can find Frodo. Even his fear of water will not stop him until the moment comes when he fears that he will drown.

Even his fear of water will not keep Sam from Frodo.

“Save me, Mr. Frodo!” gasped Sam. “I’m drownded. I can’t see your hand.”

At last Frodo gets them all safe back to shore but he is furious, convinced that Sam has come to do what he feared the most, to prevent him from going to Mordor. It is only when he realises that Sam wants to help him do what he planned that he relaxes at last and is actually pleased that Sam has caught him.

“So all my plan is spoilt!” said Frodo. “It’s no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together. We will go, and may the others find a safe road! Strider will look after them. I don’t suppose we shall see them again.”

So it is Boromir who sends each member of the Fellowship towards the place that they must go. Merry and Pippin will be carried by the Uruk-hai of Isengard just in time to meet Treebeard who has made a rare visit to a hill on the eastern border of Fangorn Forest. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, while in the process of a vain pursuit of the young hobbits, will arrive in Fangorn just in time to meet Gandalf and so rouse Rohan and their king from deadly slumber to great deeds. And Frodo and Sam will go step by step towards Mordor and the destruction of the Ring.

Frodo is sure that he is going to his death but he is at peace with his choice. All that he has to do is to do his duty. But Sam is not so sure that they are going to die. Nothing will keep him from staying with Frodo right to the very end but he has not forgotten the Shire and his heart lies there. Will he see the others again?

“We may, Mr. Frodo. We may. ”

Sam still looks beyond the Cracks of Doom to the future.

“If He Screws Himself Up to Go, He’ll Want to Go Alone.” Sam Gamgee Tells The Fellowship What Frodo Will Decide.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 393-394

While Frodo is making up his mind about what he is to do and after Boromir has tried to take the Ring from him the rest of the Fellowship continue to debate about which way all of them should go and about what choice Frodo ought to make. It is clear that the majority consider that the sensible option is to go to Minas Tirith but then Sam speaks up.

“I don’t think you understand my master at all. He isn’t hesitating about which way to go… He knows that he has to find the Cracks of Doom if he can. But he’s afraid.”

Frodo will seek to go to Mordor alone.

Sam, of all of the Fellowship, is not thinking about what he should, or wishes, to do. He made his choice in Lothlórien when he looked into Galadriel’s Mirror and saw the danger that was to threaten the Shire. He decided then that whatever was happening behind him he must go with Frodo to Mordor. And he knows that Frodo will go there because it is the task that he has been given and that when he makes up his mind to go, to “screw himself up”, as Sam puts it, he will want to go alone. And so Sam is not worried about which way to go. He is simply afraid that Frodo will want to go alone without him.

Aragorn knows that Sam is right. There are some courses of action that require the simple giving of orders but Aragorn knows that this is not one of those. This is why he has gathered them together in a circle and also why it did not concern him that Boromir had not been a part of the circle. He knew that Boromir had already made his decision and so did not need to be a part of the discussion. This wisdom is expressed in the Benedictine tradition of Christian monasticism in the Chapter House. This house was designed in the shape of a circle so that the abbot could gather with the whole community to make those decisions that required a common mind. While in the circle every voice was to be heard, even the voice of the most junior member of the community, and Aragorn will not make a decision until every voice has been heard. There is even a moment when he thinks that the decision has been made and that it is time to give orders. He will go with Frodo and with Sam and Gimli to Mordor while Legolas and Boromir will go with Merry and Pippin to Minas Tirith but there is enough uncertainty in his mind to for him to realise that even at this point the debate is not at an end which is why he is still ready to listen to Sam.

The Chapter House in Wells Cathedral

It is when Sam speaks that Aragorn realises that the key point within the debate has been made. Sam has spoken the truth for which he has been seeking and even though Pippin still tries to argue against what Sam has said and what Frodo will seek to do Aragorn realises that the decision has been made whether he, or any other, agrees with it or not.

And Aragorn has been listening to another voice throughout the debate, one that is not physically present but one that will speak the truth for which he has been seeking. When Pippin argues that Frodo must be prevented from going to Mordor alone Aragorn replies:

“He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger.”

When Aragorn speaks of “powers at work” he is not talking about Frodo’s strength of character, considerable though that is. He is talking about a power that guides and moves the course of things. Some people will look for a flow with which they seek to align their own actions while others will give that power a name. But however we see reality, if we are wise, we will seek to learn how to discern this power. Galadriel spoke of the how the paths of each member of the Company were already laid before their feet and that therefore they should not be overly concerned about which course of action they should take. At this moment none of the Fellowship know what is about to befall them but Aragorn knows what way Frodo will go and that it is not his part to oppose it.

“There are other powers at work”. The Song of the Ainur by Anna Kulisz

“Take Off the Ring!” Frodo’s Inner Struggle Upon Amon Hen.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 391-392

It all begins because Frodo has to flee from Boromir wearing the Ring in order to do so. Frodo climbs up the slopes of Amon Hen and finally reaches its top.

“He saw as through a mist a wide flat circle, paved with mighty flags, and surrounded with a crumbling battlement: and in the middle, set upon four carven pillars, was a high seat, reached by a stair of many steps.”

A beautiful depiction of Amon Hen by Woodhouse

The high seat upon Amon Hen has always been a place set apart for reflection, an expression of the belief that if only we can get high enough, if only we can somehow rise above all the chaos that surrounds us, we will achieve a kind of clarity and will know what we must do. But in all the long years since first the seat was placed upon this hill top by the men of Númenor there has never been a moment like this. No-one has been able to see as Frodo does because no-one has sat upon the chair while wearing the Ring.

And what Frodo sees is war. “The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills; orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien.”

And last of all, and perhaps inevitably, Frodo’s gaze is drawn towards the place in which the Ring was forged and the tower in which its master dwells: “wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dûr, Fortress of Sauron. All hope left him.”

A fascinating, almost surreal, depiction of the struggle upon Amon Hen by Joel Marriner.

It is at this moment that Frodo becomes aware that someone is searching eagerly, voraciously, for him, for the Ring that he is now wearing; and that this creature, whose very being has become an embodiment of desire, so entire, that if the thing that he longs for were to cease to exist there would be nothing left of him but a memory of what he once was, will find him. And it is at this moment too that he becomes strangely aware of a familiar voice telling him to take off the Ring.

“Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

The struggle lasts only for a moment but during that time the whole fate of Middle-earth lies, literally, in the balance. Frodo is held, “perfectly balanced” between the Voice and the Eye. If Sauron is able to find him, to identify exactly where he is, then he will regain the Ring at last and darkness will fall.

Crucially, this moment is resolved when Frodo becomes “aware of himself again” as one who is free to choose and he takes off the Ring. “Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree.”

Frodo is not only able to think for himself again but he is able to achieve a clarity of purpose that all his seeing could never give him. Not that the vision that he has been given upon Amon Hen has been of no value for it has enabled him to see that he cannot put his trust in any power outside of himself because every power is as nothing compared to the power that resides within Barad-dûr. All that he has is the Self who is able to make this choice, the choice to go alone to Mordor.

The problem with hope is, as T.S Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets, is that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” There is no hope for Frodo in Minas Tirith because, for all its courageous beauty, it cannot stand at the last before the power that is rising against it. All that he has is himself and the choice that he made at the Council of Elrond to take the Ring to the Fire though he did not know the way. As Eliot puts it, following his teacher, St John of the Cross, we come to the point in which all hope has been stripped away and there we find, as Frodo does, that “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.

Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing”. A depiction of Minas Tirith.