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.