Thursday, June 5, 2014

Here, at the end of all things

“Well, I’m back.”

And so are we. We have embarked on a journey through Middle Earth. We have travelled along with our companions the fellowship. We have walked to the cracks of Mount Doom. And now we are back, back in the primary reality and so is our hero, Master Samwise. And as this journey comes to an end it is easy to ask well, what now? How do we feel and what do we do?

Oftentimes, when coming to an end of a book I have been outraged, like Saskia and Leo and the listener’s to Agatha’s story, that the author would be so cruel. That they left so much seemingly unfinished, or in other cases just utterly destroyed. This rage turns to sorrow, because I felt like something that had meant so much to me was just ripped away fast and hard, and now I am left with nothing but my own contemplations. Perhaps this was how Frodo felt. The Ring had been ripped away from him, his strength had been ripped away from him, and his will to continue on in this world had been ripped away from him by this journey. He boarded a ship and sailed to the West to escape his sorrow and himself and this world. Similar to how I have locked myself in my room and refused to talk to or see people until I’ve better processed what had just happened in a book.

But there are times, when we finish a book, and it ends, and we are brought back into this world, because our time in the other world has come to an end. Both worlds must go on as they are. Such as Sam comes back to the Shire and knows that now is his time, “ to be one and whole, for many years.”  He will return to the Shire, his primary reality and see in it all that is beautiful and good more vividly than he did before his journey and he will share that beauty with his children and the community. He is back. And so, we must return to our primary reality, and shed light on the hope and the beauty in the world that we occupy. We must now be better able to experience the world that we live in, not lock ourselves up and cry. We must go forth and live.

“Don’t the great tales never end?” 

“No, they never end as tales,”

“What is a real end?… the end is always the most unreal bit.”

That’s because life never ends, and so stories never truly end either, there is always more to be said, and parts can extend as long as the teller sees fit. But stories must end, as they are told anyway. We cannot live in the stories we read or hear alone. Though I have often longed to live in Middle Earth, to see the land of Rivendell with my own eyes and to see the golden leaves of Lothlorien. I feel that now I understand more than ever, why I must leave. Why like the Smith, I must pass on my star and let someone else go on the journeys to Faerie. My life is in this world, and so in this world I will live.

This class has been a journey for me, and sometimes a journey that I may have wished to turn back on, to return to the happy, comfortable reading of the Lord of the Rings that I held so dear, as Bilbo wished to return to the Shire – not for the last time! – throughout his journey with the dwarves. I feel that I have learned a lot about creation and story, but sometimes I feel that I have been alienated from a story that I have always held dear. I am not a religious person, and shedding this light of religious intent on the story has made me often times wonder, if I am worthy of such a beautiful religious work. Professor Fulton Brown asked in class on Wednesday whether we felt as if we still felt as if we were inside the story or if we felt like we were outside looking in. And I couldn’t think of an answer. Not a clear-cut one, anyway. I am inside the story, I find myself inside the house of Tom Bombadil listening to his stories, I am in Rivendell watching the council of Elrond take place, I am sitting on the stairs of Cirith Ungol wondering if people will tell our tale, I am there at the end of all things, and I am glad that I am with Sam and Frodo. And while I can appreciate the statement that, “Fantasy remains a human right… because we are made, and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker,” for its beauty, I don’t know if I can believe it. And if I do not believe it, how have I really engaged in the action of sub-creation as Tolkien intended us to? I am no longer sure.  I am no longer inside, but I don’t feel like I’m outside. I am standing at a doorway and all that I can think is,

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might get swept off to." 



  1. Dear SEB,

    Thank you for your post, which made me reconsider my answer to the question as to whether I feel as though I am inside or outside of the story. My initial response was that I am looking into it from the outside, but now I realize that this is not really the case, at least while I read or discuss specific parts of them. I think of the story as being a bit like Galadriel’s Mirror, or a pensive: I can immerse myself in its depths and, at times, it can feel so real that I am almost a participant within it, but remain attached to the outside world and must emerge eventually. Once I have left, however, I do not lose the knowledge or memory that I gained in my visions. These will remain with me for the rest of my life, affecting my actions, thoughts, or decisions. In effect, a reversal takes place. Where I had been inside of the story, the story has moved inside of me. I do not leave it behind when I put the book down, but rather carry it with me until my story comes to an end in turn, as they all must.

    -Jeff Nocton

  2. I understand what you mean by desiring to return to the comfortable reading of The Lord of the Rings that you held so dear. As I read it first as a child, I can see that that colored my perspective as the class went on. There were times when I realized I could never return to the way it was before. I had explored aspects of the Legendarium before, but had always done it alone, locked away in my perspective. If anything has come to an end as a result of this class, it is that perspective. It lies shattered on the ground, the pieces occasionally there to glimpse, but never to recover. However, as you say, the story never ends and this must be a part of it. I can now reexamine the story and experience in an entirely new way. A part of me is disappointed this class is over because there are so many questions that were never discussed and I would have welcomed another infusion of differences into my perspective, and a part of me is glad, because I know I have so many new directions to explore and if I were given many more, I’d wander in circles, going nowhere as I tried to go everywhere at once. For now, I’ll simply pick a direction and start walking. Who knows what I’ll find?

  3. Thanks for a beautiful post. I think one danger in the sort of reading that we've been engaged in so far, which comes out in your reflection, is that it sets up the text as a kind of immutable given—something "received," from Tolkien, from our cultural history, from God, or from all three—which we find ourselves sucked into and to which we therefore must accommodate ourselves. In a way, that’s good, because that’s where Tolkien’s writing finds its power to challenge us and change us: the peril of the perilous realm. But it’s also true, if we live inside the story, that it’s not only the story that works on us: we have the power to work on the story. Reading The Lord of the Rings means taking a stand in a number of places: did Frodo fail at the cracks of doom, or did the Ring overcome his will? Is Boromir’s love for Minas Tirith noble or small-minded? Is the departure of the Elves a tragedy, or is it good for ushering in the Age of Men? I think this is the real value of our sub-creative final projects for this course. It allows us (forces us, even) to take a stand somewhere in Tolkien’s legendarium, to say: this is how things are and this is how they should be. Fantasy remains a human right, I think, whether or not you believe any particular justification for its right. It remains a right, I think in part, because we continue to seize it as such.

  4. Dear SEB, thanks for the great and thoughtful post. I would suggest that when it comes to worthiness, as Tolkien himself would have doubtless pointed out, none of us creatures of a fallen Creation are worthy of the Light. Which doesn’t mean we’re not still meant for it, and it continues to resonate with us, whatever our chosen response to it.

    I don’t think responding to Tolkien’s subcreation necessarily entails accepting or rejecting the huge and subtle iceberg beneath the work we see. Like the unbeliever in Tolkien’s correspondence, we can gape at the luminous world he creates, even if we’re not sure how to relate it to the darker one we perceive around us. I think because Tolkien was trying to create a universal myth here, he’d vehemently reject the idea that it was meant to promote a specific metaphysical view, though he certainly couldn’t—and didn’t—deny it was based in one. If he’s succeeded in taking you into Faërie and bringing you back, the means by which he did it aren’t as important as your seeing anew the leaves and trees bathed in light.

    Doubtless as a man and a Christian he’d be intensely pleased if his work led anyone to the faith to which he was so profoundly devoted, but as an author and a mythographer, I think he’s much more hoping for precisely the reaction you describe, a resonance within yourself that something here is real, true, and deep—and therefore unsettling: unheimlich in the sense we get when looking at something we thought we knew and seeing it as if for the first time.

    I think it’s precisely the sensitive response to the story both as a fictional artifice and as touching the real that creates that eerie liminal feeling you describe. As an old guy, let me suggest that the coziness of your previous, cherished reading and the vertiginous response to this more informed, spikier, more difficult reading doesn’t strike me at all as a movement from affection to alienation (though that may be how it feels) but as a transition from reading the story in a safe way, like a child’s reading of a fairy tale with a complete commitment and complete faith in the ultimate outcome, to perceiving the tale’s altogether more consequential dimensions—which, like those of all great art, extend outside the frame, the covers, even time itself.

    Sam imagined people telling comforting stories of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, but living the Story, he goes through agonies, griefs, consolations, restorations, births, deaths, partings, betrayals, self-reproach, painful knowledge of his own mistakes, and yet when we last see him (of all people!), he has achieved some sort of mature, happy contentment in the face of all of it. Master Samwise has seen the world in full, its horrors and its joys, Gandalf’s death and returning; Frodo’s claiming the Ring and all but miraculous return to the Shire alive; elves and orcs; balrogs and babies; “the full catastrophe” as Zorba the Greek wryly called life.

    You’re young, you’re at the door, and the Road beckons. See where it takes you, and I very much predict that someday, in front of a hearth you can’t now imagine, with maybe a little gray in your hair and some well-earned creases in your countenance, you’ll crack open The Lord of the Rings, take a deep breath, and say, “Well, I’m back.”

  5. This was a very heartfelt post, and I am not sure I can match the support of those that have already commented here other than to share my own experience. I remember being intensely sad on my first reading of The Lord of the Rings. Like many others I’m sure, I didn’t want the story to end, I didn’t want to leave behind the beauty of Lothlorien or the grandness of Minas Tirith or any of the characters that had become my friends. So I reread it off and on for many years afterward, avoiding the end because I remembered it as a sad experience. Yet, rereading the ending for this class, I rediscovered the ending and was not sad, but joyful. And I think that’s when I realized that I had to leave the story, that I had to go out and live it, to create new stories from my experience in Tolkien’s great story.

    The stories we’ve heard are always both inside and outside of us, we cannot wholly step into them, nor they wholly into us. But we may carry parts of them, and we may also sub-create new stories of our own, carrying them all with us. These stories are our home. We may need to go out of our doors, to step onto uncertain roads, and we may be swept off of our feet in the process. But we never truly leave our home behind, it is with us wherever we go. It and we may change but it is still a part of us. The Lord of the Rings is such a home to me, and for myself that is an encouraging thought.

  6. Like those who have commented before me, I must commend you for a lovely post. Like you, I’ve always had two reactions to coming to the end of a good book. In one case, I finish reading and am voracious for more, desperately rereading the book over and over again, searching for some element of the story I’ve missed, something that will extend my experience. I draw massive amounts of art and obsess over the story; its incompleteness consumes me, in a way, making me incomplete, too. In the second case, I finish the book and am wholly satisfied. I will reread the book in time, but the book itself is, for me, perfect enough that I am content with what the author has provided me, and any attempt to add or change to that creation feels like it takes something away from the story that I loved. As I believe it has for you, The Lord of the Rings has always fallen into the second category for me. As such it is a point of comfort, a touchstone I can return to that instantly brings me back to the first time I visited the story. And I think, that, even though I am in many ways less actively engaged with the text (unlike The Silmarillion, for example, it does not inspire any acts of subcreation in me), having “complete” stories like that to return to is a very good thing. Unlike the first type of stories, whose attraction flares brightly and then dies away equally as fast, the second type of story lingers and remains with you your whole life.

  7. After taking this class, like you, I don’t think I’m going to be able to read the Lord of the Rings in the same way again, but I feel like in a way it’s because through this class I’ve been able to experience the richness of the mythology more fully. Like you, I’m unsure of whether I’m inside or outside of the story—on the one hand I feel like I have a better grasp on the intricacies of Tolkien’s writing, and on the other hand I feel like, because I now view the Lord of the Rings as a more mythological and less like I’m living and journeying along with the characters, I exist outside the work. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced of Aragorn’s response to Eomer when Eomer asks whether “we walk in legends or on the green earth in daylight”: “A man may do both.” Maybe we exist more inside a continuation of Tolkien’s writing rather than within the story itself.

    -Jamie Keener

  8. Jumping on the bandwagon here to say that your post was also beautifully articulated and summed up what seems to be a common feeling, here at the end of all things.
    In response to your first point about reactions to the ends of books – at rage and sorrow that the story is seemingly unfinished – this is where the idea of subcreation comes in. The story is not finished, and we, as readers, have the opportunity to step into the world and continue the story ourselves. If the story felt entirely finished, we would not be able to add to the tales
    I also feel slightly alienated from the story now. This is the difficulty in carving up a world that so many of us grew up with – it can either enhance or ruin the magic of Middle Earth. We are, as you said, neither inside nor outside the story now. Any subsequent readings of The Lord of the Rings will be altered, different than they were before. I think Bill in his above comment articulated these feelings well – those of us who grew up on these stories can no longer reread The Lord of the Rings with the same childlike safety that we had before. The story is now darker, more consequential, more nuanced – and it for the better that we now read it this way.

  9. I agree with you, the story never truly ends especially in the case of LOTR. What continues to draw to Tolkien’s universe is its extensive, rich and detailed secondary reality. It was a while after reading LOTR that I found some like-minded friends that who were as obsessed as mtself. Once I did, we took up the task of consistently challenging Tolkien’s universe. We would ask ourselves questions like “Whatever happened to the dwarf-rings?” and “Where really could the ent-wives have gone”?This lead to extensive research and extension of knowledge by tackling books such as “The Simarillion” I do not think LOTR is the end of the story but merely a window into a much larger story. I prefer to think of the LOTR Universe in the context of Illuvatar’s song. Illuvatar did not make Arda just to watch to watch the events of the Third Age, he made as a story itself from beginning to end, written by the creatures that inhabit Arda. LOTR merely serves a teaser in the grand scheme of things, an introduction to the immensity of Middle Earth. The story never ends because of its immensity. Tolkien never did and never could complete a history of Middle-Earth that would complete all of his questions. In that matter, the left it up to us, one hundred and eleven nerds in a room who want nothing more that to use our imaginations to patch the gaps in Tolkien’s story and in that way continue the story of Arda.

    -Javon Brown

  10. To echo the sentiment expressed in the previous comments, I really appreciate how you accurately capture the complicated emotions coming to the end (...I could almost feel tears welling up when I was reading it yesterday). As someone who reads LotR quite late in age and thus does not have the privilege of a childhood impression, I found our inquiries into Tolkien's world more constructive than destructive toward my interaction with Middle Earth.Thanks to the power of Tolkien's narration, I don't feel I am removed from inside Middle Earth because I went through analyses of the intention of its creator. I still see the Lady of Lorien in a noble light of whiteness even after I learn about the possible darkness in her history ("The History of Galadriel and Celeborn", Unfinished Tales). I am still deeply touched by the destruction of Frodo, Gollum and thereby the Ring at the heart of Mount Doom, even after the design of the author is dissected and put back in a new context. I am still moved by the sorrow and the joy when the mallorn tree blooms in Shire, the one and only between West of the Mountains and East of the sea, as a token of both glory and fading of the Elves, even though I already know by heart that Sam will open his box and the tree is indeed a mallorn tree.
    To me, attempts to understand the underlying principles of the Arda is indicative of our temporary visits inside its dimensions--we have to fully accept the validity of its existence just like we accept the validity of the primary reality we live in, and I feel such acknowledgement is itself the step over the door threshold. In the primary reality I learned about why the sky is blue and why the grass is green, and knowledge of these kind usually goes to the level of the microscopic world, but knowing how the particles and wavelength work does not prevent me from appreciating the lively green and the all-encompassing blue. Rather the marvel of their beauty is enhanced by the knowledge of how it is brought to existence by the underlying mechanisms that construct this world. Similarly, learning about how Tolkien designed his legendarium does not really prevent me from appreciating the turn of each event. A leaf is a leaf even though it is made of a trillion cells, Middle Earth is Middle Earth even though it is inspired by Christian beliefs. Exactly because Tolkien does not write his stories as an analogy, there is no mask to be poked through in between the texts. Understanding does not and should not lead to alienation in a reality, regardless of whether it is primary or secondary.

    Such is my personal experience at the end of this class. I feel I am somehow closer to Middle Earth rather than being separated from it. It is like how I would feel a surge of sense of belonging when I notice some quirky detail on campus that a visitor would not know. (Or perhaps I just don't know the texts enough to start making all kinds of association and connection while reading them...