“Books Ought to Have Good Endings”. Bilbo and Frodo Speak Together of Euchatastrophe and Dyscatastrophe.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 265-267

As a young person I used to read practically everything that I could lay my hands on. Books were not such common things back in the 60s and early 70s as they are now. There was not the market for children’s and young people’s literature and consequently I was forced to read books that were intended for older readers and many of them had sad endings. Some of them had terrible endings, the kind that shook my sense of safety in the world. I can still feel the memories of reading the ending to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, and the moment when Lear staggers onto the stage bearing the body of Cordelia in the play that bears his name. I felt his Howl! Howl! Howl! in my own body then and that memory still lingers physically. Such experiences had a major impact on my passage from childhood to adulthood and created, I hope, a deepening sensitivity towards the suffering of others.

But now I find myself to be increasingly in agreement with Bilbo. “Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?” To such an ending I want to say a resounding, Yes! If I possibly can.

Stories ought to have good endings! Bilbo the story teller.

In my work as a parish priest I find myself in the company of people as they narrate their stories and the stories of the people that they love. The Church of England still has a role in this country in the way that people want to tell their life stories and so in the past week I have been with young couples preparing to marry and for two couples, I have shared the day on which they declare their love for one another to their families, friends and the communities in which they have grown up. And I have shared the gathering of a family from all parts of the country as they honoured a grand old French lady of 96 as she was laid to rest in an English country churchyard with the husband that she lost 50 years ago and I shared the grief of a woman at the funeral of her husband, knowing that as an almost palpable presence in the crematorium chapel she also carried the loss of her son who died earlier this year from Covid 19. Perhaps it was in part the shaping of my inner life through reading that has taught me to listen to these stories intently and, over the years, to develop a reverence for ordinary life. Perhaps too, it was those early visceral responses to the stories that I read that has shaped my listening to and participation in the lives of others. My whole being has soared into the heavens with joy in this past week and it has plunged into dark places in communion with the people with whom I have shared it.

For me there is a story that enables me both to bear this joy and sorrow and that is the universal story told in the liturgies of the funeral and marriage services of my church. My task as the story teller in the lives of the people who come to church on these days is to hold both their story and the universal story together in a way that gives the highest honour and reverence that I can possibly give to both and so when I invite a couple to love and cherish one another until they are parted by death or when I declare the great promise of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection through Christ I deliberately and purposely lay aside all my doubts and the simple reality that I am speaking of mysteries that far surpass anything that I will ever understand. It is not my business to intrude into their lives or into the great story of which the liturgy speaks.

But there needs to be somewhere that I can go to afterwards and here I find myself resonating with Sam Gamgee’s question to his fellow hobbits and to Gandalf, “And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.” Sam is reflecting upon the simple fact that he does not know how the story is going to turn out. Will they succeed in their task or will the Dark Lord conquer? What he does not know is that he is prophesying regarding Frodo’s story. There will be nowhere for Frodo to live even though he will save the Shire for his own people.

Where will they live? Frodo arrives at a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Tolkien makes wise use of the word, good, in this passage. Good endings to stories and good days in Rivendell with meals, words and songs in which the hobbits take pleasure. As they do so “health and hope” grows strong within them again. The red star low in the southern sky is an ever present reminder of the threat that lies ahead of them all but how they need the “virtue of the land of Rivendell” to enable them to face all that lies ahead.

Tolkien’s own imagining of the Good Land of Rivendell

“Only a Ranger!” Gandalf Puts Frodo Right About Strider.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-219

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, told a story of a prince who, in order to win the love of a peasant girl, decided to live among her people as a fellow peasant and to hide his true identity. Eventually he marries her and we await the moment when he will reveal himself to her. But then, Kierkegaard asks us, does he have to do this? Why can’t he remain a peasant for the rest of his life out of the same love that him to disguise himself in the first place?

As you ponder the philosopher’s question your thoughts may turn towards Strider, or Aragorn. The poet, priest and scholar, Malcolm Guite, has published a series of poems on the great O Antiphons of the Middle Ages that have a prominent place in the liturgy of the Advent season. In a note on his poem on O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations, Guite comments that the antiphon speaks of Christ as both king and also as a dusty potter working with the clay of our humanity, and then he says, “he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider!”

The One Who Walks Alongside Us

Aragorn, or Strider as he is known to the people of Bree, has walked alongside Frodo and his companions all the way from Bree to Rivendell, clad in boots that have seen much wear and are “caked in mud” with a “travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth” wrapped around him. As Frodo thinks back over the journey he begins by telling Gandalf that at first he had been afraid of Strider, then that he had become fond of him.

“Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange and grim at times. In fact he reminds me often of you.”

Finally, Frodo says, after making a few general and rather dismissive comments about “the Big People”, that he thought that Strider “was only a Ranger”. And so we return in our thoughts to the king who walks alongside us in rags. Those who learn wisdom come to understand that no-one, absolutely no-one, can be dismissed with the word, only. All people are more than they seem and if we take the time to be with them we begin to discover in what ways they are more than they seem. But Gandalf is anxious to let Frodo know that to say, “only” in relation to a Ranger, is an even greater insult.

“My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”

The Great Story into Which Frodo is Drawn

It was Strider’s ancestors who first entered Beleriand in the last centuries of the First Age where they were befriended by the Elves and gave them aid in their wars against Morgoth. That this was the people of Númenor who lived within sight of the Undying Lands. At this point of the story Frodo still has no idea that when Strider had sung the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in the camp below Weathertop he had been singing of his forefathers and foremothers. He does not know how great is the story into which he has been drawn and in which he is to play so great a part. There is one point at which his perception is entirely accurate and that is when he says of Strider “that he reminds me often of you”. But he has not learned to trust his perception. He does not yet know that he, the Elf-friend, is growing in greatness. Perhaps it is just as well, for it necessary that as we grow in greatness we must also grow in humility, to learn that everything is not gained as an achievement but given as a gift. This is the last time that we will refer to Aragorn as Strider but as Aragorn will say at a later stage of the story, Strider “has never been away”.

Strider has Never Been Away

And so we return to Kierkegaard’s story and to his question. Does his prince need to reveal his true identity to his beloved? Might not they live perfectly happily together as peasants for the rest of their lives? Perhaps they might, but equally, they might live together in happiness as a prince and princess. As Frodo is drawn into the great story so too he is becoming great, as Gildor Inglorien first recognised when he named Frodo, Elf-friend, and as Goldberry saw too in the house of Tom Bombadil. Just as with Kierkegaard’s prince, and just as with Strider, he will learn either to assume that greatness or to lay it aside as he chooses or as is necessary. Why cannot Kierkegaard’s peasant girl learn to do the same?

“I Tried to Save The Shire, and It Has Been Saved, But Not For Me.” Frodo Leaves the Shire and Goes Into the West.

In a letter that he wrote in 1963 to a Mrs Eileen Elgar Tolkien wrote this about Frodo.

“Frodo undertook his quest out of love- to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.”

Frodo went as far as he could but ultimately his mind was overthrown in part by the endless demonic onslaught of the Ring and in part by his own desire to possess the Ring for himself. Gandalf and Aragorn never blamed him for this. Gandalf was deeply tempted by the Ring and knew its power over him. Aragorn never even mentioned it. But Frodo blamed himself. In the same letter Tolkien wrote that Frodo had hoped to return to the Shire as a hero but knew that the manner in which the Ring had gone to the Fire had robbed him of this possibility. This hurt him very much indeed.

Tolkien wrote: “We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance. Moral failure can only be asserted, I think, when a man’s efforts or endurance falls short of his limits, and the blame decreases as that limit is closer approached.”

So no blame is attached to Frodo by any other person except for the blame that he attaches to himself but that is sufficient for Frodo to experience both judgement and punishment.

Tolkien addresses this with wonderful sensitivity in his letter.

“‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf- not in Middle-earth.  Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over the sea to heal him- if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.”

This is an extraordinary passage and I hope that my readers will take time to ponder it and allow Tolkien to be their guide and counsellor. Like Frodo we are tempted to believe that we exist in a universe of reward and punishment and we do not require the idea of a universal judge in order to hold onto that belief. We are quite capable of being our own judge. As far as we know, Frodo does not hold a belief in a supreme judge himself but he is perfectly capable of self-judgement. Tolkien tells us that he needs a purgatory, in other words, a place in which he can reflect in peace, not a place of punishment. Frodo’s purgatory is most definitely not a place of punishment. Bilbo is his companion and together they journey towards wholeness. Readers of this blog have suggested that Lady Nienna of the Valar, the teacher of Gandalf, the one who prepared him for his great work in Middle-earth, watches over their gentle education and I agree with them. Frodo and Bilbo will have to give up all illusion regarding themselves and to be healed at last of the hurt that the Ring has done to them, Frodo will have to give up his sense of failure and, as Tolkien puts it so beautifully, to accept both his smallness and his greatness.

And so too will we.