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.
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.
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.