“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

“Seek for the Sword That Was Broken: In Imladris It Dwells.” Boromir Speaks of His Mission to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.239-240

Boromir is in Rivendell because he has been called there by a dream. This is no dream that begins and ends in doubt but one that is crystal clear in its content and it has been repeated over and over again. We are left in no doubt that Boromir is supposed to be here except it was not supposed to be Boromir but his brother, Faramir.

“A dream came to my brother in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.”

Boromir by Donato Giancola. I like the way he captures Boromir’s insecurity of character.

That Boromir is at the Council and not his brother is because of Boromir’s masterful nature. Everything about the dream has something of the heroic quest about it. The hero must go upon a perilous journey “over many dangerous leagues” and must bring back a gift to his people. In this case it is the gift of counsel. What does the dream mean?

Seek for the Sword that was broken:
   In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken 
   Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token 
    That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur's Bane shall waken, 
    And the Halfling forth shall stand. 


The first thing that we notice is that the dream is intended to hit the dreamer right between the eyes. Compare it with the dreams that Frodo has at Crickhollow or in the House of Tom Bombadil. We know where these dreams will eventually take Frodo but Frodo himself has absolutely no idea. He just has to keep on walking toward his destiny one step at a time. Even as we ponder Boromir and Faramir’s dream we know that Frodo sits silently among the company even as that destiny unfolds. We know how the Council will end but Frodo sits in a cloud of unknowing.

Boromir’s dream is completely different. Every line in the verse has an explicit interpretation and yet, as far as we can tell from Boromir’s telling of the story, no-one in Gondor seems to be able to say what the verse means. The only guidance that Denethor offers is that Imladris is the home of Elrond Half-elven and that it lies in the north. Is this why the guidance that the dream offers is so explicit? Compared to Frodo’s dreams this is guidance for children and yet it has such an air of mystery about it.

Within minutes of Boromir’s telling of his story much of its meaning will have been revealed. Aragorn will show Boromir the shards of Narsil, the Sword that was broken. Elrond will command Frodo, the Halfling, to bring forth Isildur’s Bane, the One Ring, to display it to the Council. All this is clear. But there is subtlety contained within the verse as well. Boromir is told that in Imladris, in Rivendell, counsels will be taken “stronger than Morgul spells”. These words ought to make it clear to Boromir that what is decided at the Council is more powerful than the danger posed by the enemies of Gondor and yet all that he says about Elrond’s wisdom is a somewhat dismissive comment about the relative importance of Rivendell’s wisdom as against its military strength. We are left in little doubt which of the two Boromir considers more important. It reminds us of Stalin’s famous dismissal of the importance of the Vatican and the Papacy when he asked about how many divisions the Pope had.

A broken sword? A Halfling? Counsels that are taken? All these somewhat beyond our brave warrior. There is only one thing that really catches his attention and that is the Ring, Isildur’s Bane. We know this tragic tale will play out. And so why was this divine guidance given at all? Would it not have been better if Boromir had never come to Imladris? Has the divine guide not simply made a big mistake here? Or would it not have been better if the voice who spoke these words had ended by saying, “And I want Faramir to go to Rivendell?” But it is necessary that all the free peoples of Middle-earth should be represented in Rivendell on that day, that all should be drawn into the Quest of the Ring and the decision that is to be made. Gondor must be at the Council because Gondor will be at the heart of the events that are going to unfold.

Catherine Chmiel imagines Faramir and Boromir’s Farewell