Such is Sam’s query, and like the (relatively) learned hobbit he’s become, he cites the tales of Beren Erchamion and of Eärendil to support his point—the connecting thread that is the light of the Silmaril shines through all three stories, and many in between. Given the statements about sub-creation and the supposedly abandoned Pan-Anglican legendarium which we’ve encountered in this story, it is, I think, safe to say that The Lord of the Rings has no “ending,” that if Leo were satisfied by the mass departure from Middle-Earth and Sam’s homecoming (I wasn’t, at his age; I suspected a death-allegory), he would be mistakenly so. It’s open-ended, then, and in a much realer sense than are many explicitly “ambiguous” conclusions (the celebrated television dramas of our time come to mind) because there is, not only something left to be done, but everything, a whole life-age of the world’s worth of action; the phial of Galadriel goes west, but Eärendil the brightest of stars persists, presumably, and inspires the Cynewulf quote at the top of our syllabus.
In class yesterday, I postulated that sub-creation constituted a continuation of the story, and the response that I got—that we ourselves are in some sense living in the same story, our lives parts of it—was interesting, to say the least. In what sense is it true? Well, in a religious one, first of all—a Catholic one, even, although my grandfather would shudder to hear me say it. But I won’t summarize the lecture; this post is not primarily interested in Lewis’s musings on faith, but rather in the somewhat related ideas about “endings” that Byatt has, and their relevance to a discussion of Tolkien’s ending(s).
In “Old Tales, New Forms,” she discusses stories that consist entirely of series of endings, or series of beginnings, and chief among these is the Arabian Nights, which, for obvious reasons, strives in some sense towards endlessness. One aspect of The Lord of the Rings which I feel was overlooked in class is the multiplicity, not just of the endings that you can ascribe to the story (Arwen’s death, Aragorn’s death, Celeborn’s departure, Sam’s return home) but of the endings which the book actually presents and recounts in full. Its narrative “arc” (a misnomer if ever there was one) is bizarre—March 25th is an end, the completed scouring is an end, Frodo’s departure is an end. It almost seems, when four in the morning is fast approaching and your eyes are starting to ache and the appendices are still thirty pages distant and you cannot stop, as if the denouement of LotR is an Arabian Nights writ small. In addition, then, to being one tale among many, the book is in some sense many tales unto itself.
The publication history which Carpenter chronicles in “A Big Risk” reinforces the idea—of course, we were all aware that the novel was published in three volumes, but the fact that people were meant to be and are still confused about the actual size of the book, that they did and do believe it to be a trilogy, proves that Tolkien’s magnum opus seems to contain multitudes. Its extraordinary fertility, greater by far than that of any other best-seller, provides similar evidence: even if we are to disregard movies, board and video games, and the like, as Christopher would no doubt have us do, that same Christopher is intimately familiar with all the work that was left to do after the typescript was submitted, and indeed after the book was published (reasonably enough, as his livelihood seems to depend on publishing at regular intervals volume after volume after volume of substantial and entirely novel Tolkieniana, while still withholding things like that Taliska grammar and lexicon which I needed for my project THANKS CHRIS).
This Byattian endlessness is interesting for its own sake, but also for the sake of what it tells us about the form of the rest of The Lord of the Rings. Byatt’s discussion of endings is framed by a discussion of the nature of tales and stories (as opposed to novels), and even the contemporary, novelistic examples she gives are in some way responding to or appropriating elements of the older narrative mode. LotR, as we’ve established and discussed in previous classes, is not exactly a novel either; I recall one lecture where Professor Fulton Brown said (or quoted someone as saying) that Tolkien wasn’t interested in any English literature from Chaucer onward, and while that’s undoubtedly an exaggeration, it’s evident from what we’ve read of his correspondence (recall the letter in which he discusses the “heroic” rhetorical register that he slips into in scenes involving the Rohirrim) that he is (to make a dramatic understatement) substantially influenced by archaic styles and ideas. We’re familiar as well with how important fairy tales (which also feature prominently in Byatt’s piece) are to the creation of the new genre in which LotR participates. Perhaps, then, the reason that LotR doesn’t have a novelistic plot structure towards the “end” is because it isn’t, in many ways, a novel—because it combines entirely original elements with the various influences we’ve discussed through out the year (epic poems, &c.) to form a part of what Tolkien might have thought of as a story, a chapter in an infinite whole that includes the Quenta Silmarillion and much else besides.