“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.

Frodo and Sam Cast Away What They Do Not Need in Mordor

As I began to think about this part of the story a beautiful line from a French poem came to mind.

Partir, c’est mourir un peu 

To leave, or to say farewell, is to die a little.

As Frodo and Sam draw nearer to the mountain so the Ring, Frodo’s burden, becomes more and more unbearable.

“I can’t manage it, Sam,” he said. “It is such a weight to carry, such a weight.”

Sam offers to help Frodo to carry the Ring and this rouses what energy remains within him but the fact remains that the task of bearing the Ring is increasingly beyond his strength. And so Sam suggests that they lighten their load.

Some of the items are easy to dispose of. Frodo gladly casts away his disguise of orc shield, helmet and sword. “I’ll be an orc no more… and I’ll bear no weapon, fair or foul.” But he casts aside his elven cloak too. He describes himself to Sam as “naked in the dark”. Not a nakedness as a kind of liberation, that sees clothing as a kind of imprisonment but a nakedness that means that there is no protection, even the illusory protection of clothes, that lies between Frodo and destruction and there is no protection that lies between Frodo and shame.

In the fourth century, after the Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, the newly built churches were filled with people who were there in order to further their careers. It was Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, one of great spiritual geniuses of his age, who addressed this by creating the idea of Lent, a 40 day period of fasting, prayer, instruction and discipline for the many who were preparing for baptism. Baptism had once been a courageous thing to do in a world hostile to the Christian faith but it was now required behaviour for all. At the end of Lent those who were to be baptised presented themselves in a darkened church and they removed all their clothing, becoming naked in the dark, before descending into the water. All this signified a dying to them, a symbol of the ending of one life, and it was a ritual cleansing to. It was followed by an arising from the water after which they were clothed in a white robe, were given a lighted candle and received the bread and wine of the Eucharist that symbolised the new life that had just begun.

Cyril was doing what the great spiritual guides of every culture have done before the culture of the modern west and that is to teach that it is necessary to die before we die. He recognised the spiritual catastrophe of a baptism that simply affirmed the ascent to success that the young people of his day naturally desired. He knew that this could not prepare them for the inevitability of the descent that every life must know before the final and complete descent into death.

The church always recognised that those who were martyred required no baptism for martyrdom, the act of bearing true witness to the cross, is true baptism. Frodo and Sam in their journey through Mordor know the reality of death. Frodo knows what Coleridge named as a death in life. He is almost in the power of the Ring and if the Ring goes to the Fire he expects to be destroyed with it.

And for Sam, the moment when his pots and pans are cast into one of the deep fissures of the Plain of Mordor is “like a death-knell to his heart”. It is as if he is saying that there is no way back from the Mountain.

Partir, c’est mourir un peu. 

To leave, to say farewell, is to die a little.

Frodo and Sam know the truth of this.

But not quite. In a pocket of his tunic, next to his heart, Sam still keeps two things, “the phial of Galadriel and the little box that she gave him for his own”.