Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The End of the Story

In Monday’s class, we mentioned Sam’s line in The Two Towers: “Don’t the great tales never end?” This line is obviously important to Tolkien and much of his oeuvre, but also of much importance is Frodo’s response. “No, they never end as tales,” he says, “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner,” (TTT 363). I can’t say that I like that The Lord of the Rings has to end (I imagine that many of us don’t), but every time I finish the books or the movies, I feel very emotional, the most emotional I feel in my encounter with the story. I feel as though it is time to move on (at least for a time), and I must admit that the thought has crossed my mind that one day I will finish these stories for good, never to return. My part will end, and what I do about that is up to me.

What we do about the end of our part in our entire story, as well as in the entire story in which we may be participating (if we really are in the Fourth Age) is one thing. But whether or not The Lord of the Rings is meant to be a part of our grander story of humanity, it does also have an ending, as it is possible for stories within the larger story to have endings, too. We can’t say that the story really hasended if we are still taking part in the same story, but I think we can say that the end of The Lord of the Rings is the end of that specific story, even if it is situated in the larger story. The same is true of Bilbo’s adventure in The Hobbit, which has an ending, too; or Frodo and Sam’s journey to dispose of the Ring. These stories—adventures?—have endings; there comes a time when Frodo, Sam, and Bilbo must come to terms with the fact that their part is done, and that they must exit the realm of Faery. We see one form of inheritance, in a sense, where Bilbo bequeaths the adventure to Frodo. We do not see Frodo bequeath to anybody, but he does finish his adventure, leaving his place at the center of the story for the next hobbit.

We find the theme of inheritance in Smith of Wootton Major, as well, and there we have two bequeathals again, which work together to show the process of inheritance of fairy stories. The first is the Master Cook leaving the faystar, which passes to Smith, who then ventures through the land of Faery. We see the wonders of the realm through Smith’s eyes, and thus, the positive effect of the Master Cook’s ability to bequeath the faystar to him. Finally, Smith must, himself, pass the faystar on to someone else. In both instances, the bequeathal is linked to mortality. In the first instance, the Master Cook bids farewell and remarks that he “shan’t be coming back again,” (SWM 12), which alludes to death. In the second instance, once Smith gives up the faystar, he remarks to his son that he has walked “all the way from daybreak to evening,” (SWM 48), which also alludes to death in a Riddle-of-the-Sphinx sort of way.

Thus, there is a double meaning to the theme of endings in Tolkien. On one hand, there was the idea we mentioned in class about us living in the Fourth Age, and that our world is really a continuation of the story of Middle-Earth. This is what Sam is saying in that touching scene at Cirith Ungol: people come and go, but the overall story that is continuously happening around them keeps on. We have this in Smith and Wootton Major, as well, with the realm of Faery remaining after the Master Cook leaves it to Smith. The second meaning, though, is acting on the theme of storytelling: we experience the story and love the story, immersing ourselves in it for a time, and then move on. We may return to the story, but we can never truly remain in it, as one day, we must take our own journey to the Undying Lands (or wherever you may go; perhaps you like to think you’ll be reborn clad in white, or inhabit this world ethereally, I am open to all beliefs) and leave the story behind for good. This is the theme of mortality.

The theme of inheritance is also central to Tolkein’s Legendarium, and in more ways than just with the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo. In the Legendarium, the connection between inheritance and mortality is made even more explicit than we see in Smith and Wootton Major. As Tolkien says in Letter 131, the theme of mortality plays into his Legendarium “especially as it affects art and the creative desire”, which he says is “usually at strife” with ordinary biological life (Letter 131, p145). Furthermore, he says that this creative desire is “wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it,” leading to one of the opportunities for a Fall (one of his other large themes). The desire can become possessive over its sub-creation, and hence, foment a rebellion against “the laws of the Creator”, lead to more power, etc. etc. (Letter 131, p145). Essentially, I take Tolkien to be saying that one of the larger themes of his work is the inability to bequeath a sub-creation and how that in turn leads to power, which leads to the Fall.

I must note that I don’t think this links perfectly with the theme of inheritance, even if it links well for the most part. I think that the major difference is in Tolkien’s emphasis on sub-creation, which actually raises an interesting question for our class. In what respect are the players of the story also sub-creators, even those who we might not immediately think of as sub-creators? When I think of the sub-creators inside of the Legendarium, I think of Aule and Morgoth, who both are actual creators of beings within Arda. But what about Frodo? Can we think of his part in the creation of the story of The Lord of the Rings as a kind of subcreation, in that he is responsible for an adventure within the larger story of the history of our world? If we can, then obviously, we can say that letting go of one’s part in a fairy story is akin to letting go of a subcreation, but if not, then we might have to think about this more.

I’m running out of space, but I want to end by saying that I think this is a very rich theme to explore in Tolkien’s Legendarium. Consider Numenor, which gives us the middle ground between the immortality of the elves and the mortality of man. As Tolkien says of the Numenoreans in Letter 131, “Their long life aids their achievements in art and wisdom, but breeds a possessive attitude to these things, and desire awakes for more time for their enjoyment,” (Letter 131, p154). This is essentially the Fall he alludes to at the beginning of the letter, and as one of the larger themes of his work. We might also consider the elves, who remain in Middle-Earth perhaps too long, or Gollum, who clearly hangs on too long to the physical world through the Ring. Or the Nine, who are granted immortality by their rings. Or Sauron? The list goes on and on. 

-Daniel Lewis


  1. Dear Daniel,
    Thanks for your thoughts! I think you’ve put your finger on a couple key issues, venturing beyond what we covered in class (a good thing!), but which could be fleshed out a bit more.

    Why is it, do you think, that we, readers, do experience such emotions at the ending of the tales? Though Frodo and Sam assure us the ‘great tales’ never end, do we experience a sadness when they turn corners, perhaps a temptation to push a part of the story beyond its bounds? (Here I think, your final discussion on mortality and the Fall of Numenor (also Denethor’s refusal, maybe?) could circle back around to connect with this sadness at endings. Very interesting.)

    Well spotted, on the inheritance theme and its connection to mortality. But I would like to hear more about it or go deeper into it! How does inheritance–linked to mortality–and the sadness of endings (or, not endings proper but transitions) open up the idea of subcreation? As you pointed out, subcreation is motivated by a creative desire that can turn possessive and so bring about a Fall.

    You wrote: “Essentially, I take Tolkien to be saying that one of the larger themes of his work is the inability to bequeath a sub-creation and how that in turn leads to power, which leads to the Fall.” (I think this liability of the subcreator is deeply linked to the theme of inheritance and, as you wrote, the “inability to bequeath!”)

    Here is quite an interesting, potential insight! But after just stating it you move on to another point. Everyone has their own thinking process, which we work out in our writing. (I or my fellow wizards would be happy to talk over or brainstorm a blog post ahead of time, too!) I warmly encourage you, in your thinking and writing, not to let the pearls fall carelessly. Take some time to work out central ideas like this, explaining to us slower readers and illustrating from the texts.

    Robert/Radegundus the Green

  2. In comparison to our discussion in the last class, your post brings up a very interesting point: are we ever expected to leave Middle Earth for good? What is the point when we can say we are leaving the Faerie but not turning into its enemy? What does it mean by leaving and never return? Every year I would feel the yearning to revisit Middle Earth, and then I will dig out books or webpages or the movies, all of which I always find enchanting. Is it the time to leave when I am no longer enchanted by Tolkien’s narration? Is it the time when I come to know the tale too well to see the story as linear in time but rather see it in its completeness? Is it the time to leave when I come to grasp the Truth told in the secondary reality and no longer wonder about the wonders? It is a rather dreadful thought to think that there would be an end to my participation in the world of Middle Earth. But perhaps that is why Faerie is a perilous realm, that we would linger there for too long and do not want to come back, becoming “possessive” of its enchantment. Perhaps, in recognition of such peril, the creator incorporates fragments of our primary reality into his creation—not only to reinforce the sense of reality, but also to reinforce that it is secondary, providing guidance both in and out of the perilous land. Such fragments are not necessarily just namesake of places or people, but also fragments of understanding applicable to affairs in our world. It is like the mallorn seed that Sam brings back to Shire. A mallorn tree is still a tree that can grow and flourish in the place where Sam sets out to his journey. It is both different and same, just like Sam is both different and same. On the other hand, things not quite applicable to Shire—the mithril mail, the sword Sting, the phial of Ëarendil and ultimately the Ring—eventually all leave its border and never return.

    Perhaps that is why the Elves must leave—they are the storytellers to the Men. They bring the sense of Recovery, Hope and Eucatastrophe to Men from their own memory, but themselves do not have any source of comfort, as there is no one to bring such stories to them… Stories become eternal through a teller, the Elves become truly eternal independent of Arda through the tale of those who can depart from it…

    ↑On a random note, it would be interesting to think our primary reality as the place where Men go after they are “dead” in Arda… just like we enter and leave Faerie, the spirit of Men enter and leave Arda… then Arda is indeed both party of human history and a superposition of primary reality………perhaps this thought experiment is too allegorical?