It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality.

J.R.R. Tolkien, commenting on The Lord of the Rings in a letter, October 14, 1958.

Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.

C.S. Lewis, Image and Imagination

 

Death. The mere sound of the word covers our minds with gloom and dread. It sounds like a cold whisper of foreboding — an end, a ceasing of what is real and warm, and we are left with loneliness and no hope. We live in a society that is growing increasingly distant from what makes us human — a cycle of birth and death in a sterile hospital room, surrounded by machines. Death is an ugly point on our timeline. We cannot comprehend the importance of that passage into eternity.

J.R.R. Tolkien “becomes a sub-creator” of a world he names Middle-earth, giving us characters so real that we are baptized into a new perspective on death and immortality.[1] Tolkien, commenting on The Lord of the Rings in a letter of 14th October, 1958, stated that “It [The Lord of the Rings] is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality.”[2] This theme is the warp upon which the story is woven. In fact, death in some manner appears in subtle ways in many chapters; symbolically as a shadow, a change of heart, physical death as a noble act, or a natural conclusion of life on earth, moving to immortal life. Even non-living things can ring of death. In all circumstances for the living, death is a pathway or a purpose, not an end. Tolkien writes from his Christian view, portraying death as a symbolic and noble passage and as a gateway to the hope of immortality. Death is necessary, not something to be reviled or feared.

A personality transition can be a symbolic death. Faramir and Èowyn are recovering after battle in the Houses of Healing. Faramir has fallen in love with this shieldmaiden of Rohan. When he asks for her love in return, she answers, “I wished to be loved by another. But I desire no man’s pity.”[3] Faramir knows that she “‘desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn … ’ ‘But when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle.’”[4] The warden then brings Èowyn to Faramir and although she has been awakened, she is not healed nor content. The shadow of her discontent is over her mind like a living death that she cannot shake. The only resolution that she sees as a cure is not rest in the Houses of Healing but a noble death in war. She “looked for death in battle. But I have not died, and battle still goes on”[5] — not just for Middle-earth, but also for Èowyn’s mind and heart.  She declares, “I do not desire healing. I wish to ride to war … like Théoden the king, for he died and has both honour and peace.”[6] She feels that her only escape from the living death that traps her is physical death in battle. Dying to our selfish desires requires a conscious decision, and this proves difficult for the strong-minded Éowyn.

But Faramir assures her that she already has what she desires to die for. He does not pity her but tells her, “For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten … And I love you.”[7] What stands before her is the real fulfillment of her wishes — her true destiny, not the hollow desires based on pride that she had believed in. “Then the heart of Èowyn changed, or at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”[8] Èowyn laid down her dark “shield” forged of pride, defiance, and unrequited love to step into the light of her destiny. She transitioned from a war-like, masculine personality to a healing, feminine nature. She tells Faramir, “Behold! The Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer and love all things that grow and are not barren.”[9] Èowyn now rejoices in life rather than death. Likewise, when we finally reconcile ourselves with our purpose, we find peace.

Faramir also experiences a symbolic death. He transforms from a servant living in the shadow of his brother, Boromir, to becoming a Steward of the Realm of Gondor. His father, Denethor, commands Faramir to lead perilous charges that should end with certain death. He always reminds him of Boromir’s battle successes and Faramir’s failure to do anything right in his eyes. Some people murmur, “They give him no rest. The Lord [Denethor] drives his son too hard, and now he must do the duty of two, for himself and for the one that will not return.”[10]  Humble and obedient, Faramir tells Denethor, “Since, you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead — if you command it.”[11] Faramir rides with his brave men to Osgiliath to fight a hopeless battle. After finding him fallen but alive, Prince Imrahil brings Faramir to the White Tower. Denethor, under the dark influence of Sauron, loses his mind and tries to burn them both alive. Again, certain death of the Stewards of Gondor seems inevitable. Denethor perishes, but Faramir is rescued and healed and becomes the noble Steward of the Realm in his stead. The old, decaying order of Gondor has passed and its rebirth with Faramir as Steward has begun. Although reconciling with death is difficult, Denethor’s violent death was necessary for the return of a good and noble ruler.

Even the houses of Gondor know death. Legolas and Gimli enter Minas Tirith after the battle of the Pelennor Fields. Gimli studies the walls of the city and comments on “some good stone-work here.”[12] But Legolas observes, “They need more gardens. The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad. If Aragorn comes into his own the people of the Wood shall bring him birds that sing and trees that do not die.”[13] When the citizens return to Gondor, they are “laden with flowers” and play all manner of instruments with the “clear-voiced singers,” bringing music, the “language of creation.”[14] [15] [16] Only growing things can bring life to cold stone.

The physical and redemptive death of one member of the Fellowship early in the adventure is poignant because of its depiction of deceit, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Boromir attacks Frodo in his attempt to steal the Ring for his father, Denethor. He claims that he only wants to borrow it, but when Frodo refuses, Boromir accuses him of “running willfully to death and ruining our cause!”[17] But it is Boromir who has started down the path to his own death. He feels convicted about what he has done and “for a while he was as still as if his own curse had struck him down”[18] He feels ashamed.

Aragorn is suspicious of Boromir’s behavior after Frodo disappears. When asked by Aragorn if he had seen Frodo, Boromir hesitates and says, “Yes, and no. Yes: I found him some way up the hill, and I spoke to him. I urged him to come to Minas Tirith and not to go east. I grew angry and he left me. He vanished … I thought he would return to you.”[19] Boromir’s guilt leaves him helpless to explain what came over him. When Aragorn finds him again after battle, the dying Boromir confesses the truth to him. Aragon blesses him and assures him that Minas Tirith and his people will not fall. This scene bears a similarity to Adam as he is questioned by God in the Garden. He blames then confesses, but death comes upon him still. Boromir’s sin has led to his death, but he also met with forgiveness. His mistakes lead to the Fellowship’s splintering, a move that was ultimately beneficial toward the final victory over Sauron. Even events that seem dire can be part of a grander plan for good.

Théoden endured not only a symbolic, nearly spiritual death and renewal, but also a physical death with a glimpse into immortality. When Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf come to Edoras to speak with Théoden in Meduseld, they are met with a cold reception. Deceit and evil had already established a stronghold there through the treachery of Saruman and in the figure of Gríma Wormtongue. Gandalf calls him a “snake,” and that image of the snake in the Garden of Eden describes Gríma perfectly.[20] The snake whispered half-truths to Adam to bend his will to evil, just as Gríma’s words slowly destroy the once noble King.

Gríma puts himself in charge as advisor to King Théoden and begins to whisper poisoned thoughts and lies into Théoden’s mind — all directed toward the building up of darkness and the dismantling of the goodness in Middle-earth. When Aragorn and company walk into the hall, they do not find a King, but instead “a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf.”[21]  Théoden uses a short staff that causes him to slouch and appear small and frail. His white hair and beard are long and thick. A glimmer of the former mind could be seen in his eyes that “still burned with a bright light, glinting as he gazed at the strangers.”[22] Théoden is under a curse because he listened to the lies from an evil voice. The King has ‘died’ and an old man remains.

Under Gríma’s dishonest influence, Théoden believes that Gandalf brings nothing but trouble and bad news — in fact, he tells him that, “Troubles follow you like crows.”[23] Not content to only plant lies in Théoden’s mind, Wormtongue weaves in subterfuge about Gandalf and the others in the presence of the court. He claims that they are working “in league with the Sorceress of the Golden Wood.”[24] Gandalf, who has “passed through fire and death” will not “bandy crooked words” with him.[25] He raises his staff and lifts the curse that has influenced Théoden’s mind.

Wormtongue continues to hiss his lies, but Gandalf’s words of truth call Théoden from the darkness, telling him, “Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.”[26] He calls out to the King, and a light starts to creep in as the doors of the hall swing open. Gandalf announces, “The Lord of the Mark comes forth” and tells him to “look out upon your land. Breathe the free air again!”[27] His mind cleared of darkness, trusting in the good and truthful counsel of Gandalf and Éomer instead of a man of crooked mind, Théoden stands tall and noble once again. Calling for Herugrim, his ancient sword, King Théoden has been brought back from a symbolic death.

Using a battle scene, Tolkien gives us a vision of the restored King. Théoden experiences physical death but holds to a beautiful faith of a continuing life beyond death. He rallies the Riders of the Mark, and Merry joins them in preparation for battle. Théoden’s bent figure springs up, “tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before: Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”[28] He charged ahead on horseback with the Riders and Éomer, and they could not overtake him. The King who led the charge appeared:

Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! It shone like an image of the Sun.[29]

Tolkien’s vivid imagery depicts a King and leader who was battle-ready and glorious — a stark contrast to the withered old man found by Gandalf.

On the Pelennor Fields, Théoden kills the chieftain of the Southrons, then fearlessly charges ahead as the Dark Lord of the Nazgul approaches. Thrown by the terrified Snowmane, then crushed as the dying horse falls on him, Théoden lies wounded and near death. Merry finds him among the bodies and stoops to kiss his hand. It seems that death and darkness have finally won. But as Merry looks at him, the King opens his eyes and bids Merry farewell, saying, “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed…a grim morn, a glad day, and a golden sunset!”[30] As he lay dying, he motions for the banner to be passed to Éomer, the new King, and tells them, “Hail, King of the Mark! Ride now to victory!”[31] Théoden passes, not in fear of the unknown or darkness of the end but with anticipation to join the realm of the kings before him for eternity.

We have noted several characters who help us understand death, but the character who best depicts near-death, death, and immortality is Frodo, the brave, Ring-bearer hobbit at the heart of the story. There are many times that Frodo nearly died on his journey with the Ring. One night early in the adventure, the hobbits and Strider were encamped on Weathertop. Frodo was attacked and stabbed by a Wraith. Like a cry of fervent prayer, he exclaimed, “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”[32] and the five Wraiths disappeared. But the damage was done. Frodo suffered from a grave injury to his shoulder. Strider assures Sam that Frodo is not dead — his shouting the name of Elbereth was a dangerous stroke against the Wraiths. The other hobbits were not familiar with the name he invoked, but Frodo knew a little of the song and words in the Elven tongue. He heard the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel long ago when he left Hobbiton and listened to the High Elves singing, “Gilthoniel! O Elbereth! / Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath! / Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee / In a far land beyond the sea.”[33] The sound and melody “seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood.”[34] But something prompted Frodo to call out the names of the star-queen when he was set for death at the hand of the Wraith. The knowledge that Frodo would use to survive the attack was learned long before he needed it or understood the words. God intervenes in our own lives to provide us with experiences and memories to be hidden away in our minds, preparing us for future hardships.

Frodo’s next brush with death is his encounter with the monstrous spider, Shelob. He is accompanied by his ever-faithful Sam. Lured into the spider’s lair by a deceitful trick of Gollum, Frodo is stung, bound, and put into a deathlike trance by Shelob. It is up to Sam to save his master. Again, a long-buried memory of the Elves comes to Sam’s mind. He calls to Galadriel as he finds the Phial of Light that she gave to Frodo. This time, it is Sam who sings out the same names that Frodo exclaimed on Weathertop, invoking the help of “Gilthoniel A Elbereth!”[35] He begins to sing the music of the Elves, a language he does not know, but remembered hearing in the house of Elrond. Sam fights against Shelob to save Frodo, and she is defeated. At first, Sam believes for certain that Frodo is dead, until he holds the Light of Galadriel over him and sees that “Frodo’s face was fair of hue again, pale but beautiful with an elvish beauty.”[36] The sight of Frodo gives him “bitter comfort” and a hope to continue with the mission.[37] Unsure if Frodo dies at this point, Sam takes the Ring on the chain and resolves to complete its destruction.  Again, we see that the wisdom we are given through life can save us later. Sam and Frodo never considered that Elven song as important, but Tolkien shows the reader that there is no experience wasted in life, and death is not the end if there is a purpose in it.

At the end of The Return of the King, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry have returned to the Shire to live. Life has returned to a somewhat normal pace with token pieces of the past still evident. Merry and Pippin wear their mail-shirts and tell tales, Sam falls in love and marries, but Frodo is restless. His old injuries from the Wraith and Shelob pain him, and on the anniversary of receiving the stab wound on Weathertop, Frodo grows “very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.”[38] He feels the ache and longing for something else. He tells Sam, “I am wounded; it will never really heal.”[39] So after two years, Frodo decides that it is time to take the opportunity to gather his papers and writings, especially the “big book with plain red leather covers; its tall pages were now almost filled” with wisdom gathered, the history of Bilbo’s experiences and the story of the Fellowship’s quest.[40] Sam remarks that it is nearly finished, but Frodo explains that as his part in the story comes to an end, Sam’s begins.  Thus, Frodo leaves his story, added to Bilbo’s, for the next generations, providing a timeline for Sam to continue. This written story, like a great epic or the Bible narrative, shows purpose in the good and bad events in life and how they play a part in a grander plan. Bilbo and the Fellowship may not have understood the purpose in an isolated tragedy like Boromir’s death, but in the broad sweep of history, events begin to fit together.

As they journey to the boat that will take Frodo from the Grey Havens, Sam hears Frodo singing the old walking song, but he has changed the words slightly. The last line has a finality to it. Rather than “And take the hidden paths that run / Towards the Moon or to the Sun,” Frodo sings softly to himself, “Shall take the hidden paths that run / West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”[41] The destination of this final journey will go past what they know, to a place beyond “the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass.” Frodo will see “white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”[42] He is on his way to what lies beyond our world and the mortal life — something better that promises rest and release. As Sam watched the boat sail away across the grey sea, “he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West.”[43]  He could not see anything beyond his world because it was not his time to leave it. Sam still has a purpose in the Shire.

Frodo tells Sam, “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”[44] Dear, brave Sam is now at the helm. Merry and Pippin are once again blessing the Shire with their joy and storytelling. Their perilous journey gave them the courage and knowledge they needed to build up the Shire. When our “age” ends, we will also pass away, but as we read about the departure of Frodo from the Grey Havens, we must inspire others who can step in to carry on.

Like Frodo, we are invited to our own Grey Havens – heaven – as a rest from the difficulties that we experience in life. Death and an eternal, heavenly home as depicted by the Grey Havens should be sweetly anticipated. Death is not the end, just a continuation or passage to a new realm to join the loved ones who have gone before us. The Lord of the Rings can encourage the believer, reminding us that there is something beyond what we can physically see. It can also challenge the seeker to think, “What if there is an ending to this life that is even better than anything we could experience here? Tolkien stated in his letter to Miss Rhona Beare, 14 October, 1958, that The Lord of the Rings “is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality.”[45] Indeed, the epic is rife with symbolic and physical death and near-death with recovery. Immortality can be gained by renown that is written and retold in stories or like Théoden, who joins the Kings of Rohan after he dies. Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Elves leave Middle-earth because “the Third Age was over, and the Days of the Rings were passed and an end was come of the story and song of those times.”[46] Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf are older, weary, and their legacy with the Ring is complete. The heroes of the story who died never feared death because they knew that something better waited for them. As Tolkien read through The Lord of the Rings, he “became aware of the dominance of the theme of Death.”[47] He writes in a letter, dated 10 April 1958, “But certainly Death is not an Enemy!”[48] This epic tale encourages us to face our eventual mortal end with hope — the trust in a high calling and an eternal home.


Citation Information

Annie Nardone, “A Passage to Something Better,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 189-208.

Direct Link:  https://anunexpectedjournal.com/a-passage-to-something-better/


Endnotes

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2008), 42.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 284.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994), 943.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 938.

[6] Ibid., 939.

[7] Ibid., 943.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 943.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 798.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 854.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 944.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Peter Kreeft, “The Lord of the Rings: Beauty and Language,” YouTube, accessed December 10,

2018,  https://youtu.be/Tku1r7tFE6I.

[17] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 390.

[18] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 390.

[19] Ibid., 395.

[20] Ibid., 509.

[21] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 501.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 502.

[25] Ibid., 503.

[26] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 503.

[27] Ibid., 504.

[28] Ibid., 820.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 824.

[31] Ibid., 825.

[32] Ibid., 191.

 

[33] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 78.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 712.

[36] Ibid., 716.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 1002.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 1003.

[41] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 1005.

[42] Ibid., 1007.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 1006.

[45] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 284.

[46] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 1006.

[47] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 267.

[48] Ibid.

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