Aging Heroes

by Primula with some responses

I recently had a conversation with a friend in which he expressed a dislike for musicals because he wanted his stories to be "real" to him and the breaking into song and dance pulled him out of that comfortable narrative-created bubble.

I understand what he meant by desiring nothing to destroy the 'realness' of a literary/artistic world, though to me, the music and dance flows with a story because it is a visual/audio representation of the emotions that they are having inside - to me it isn't as if the whole world is suddenly literally singing along with them, it's rather as if I am looking at their *inner* self, the world through their eyes in which it *feels* like the whole world is paying attention to them and echoing their emotions and thoughts.

But aside from the musicals, the concept of a narrative world needing to remain unbroken, whole and 'real' is something I was pondering. It is the reason some of us have given for not wanting to watch bloopers, or even 'making of' segments. It is why we don't want to see photos that show where the crew was, why we flinch if a microphone accidently wanders into view. We want our fantasy world to be real, not a sham. We want our heroes to be real, doing real good things somewhere in the universe.

And we usually don't want our heroes to age.

One of the things I love about heroic, happy endings is that I am free to continue 'believing' they are still out there, happy and heroic. I hated Alexander Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask because it aged and killed off my heroic Musketeers from his previous book, for instance. I wanted them to remain young, strong and out doing good 'forever' in my mind. I love reading of the Scarlet Pimpernel, whose tales end while he is still hale and heroic, I leave Robin Hood and his Merry band performing good deeds and laughing over their roasted poached deer and quietly try to forget his sad ending by betrayal in old age.

One of the books I read in my youth was Terry Brook's "tolkien-alike attempt", The Sword of Shannara. I enjoyed it so much I eagerly watched for the next book but when it came - horror! My heroes were old, decrepit, even dead! I put it down and it was a long time before I picked it up again... I felt as if the author had betrayed the characters I'd come to love, allowing the decay of time into the bubble.

And yet - here is Tolkien.

I sorrow at the aging of Aragorn, the passing of what was fought for so hard. I sigh over the bittersweet ending of Merry and Pippin, laid to rest together so far from their Shire homes in honor. I wonder what became of Gimli, adrift upon the seas in his dotage, tended by his unaging friend. When I read my Horatio Hornblower books, I see Horatio grow older, but I leave him finally by his fireside, content, old but healthy, living with his beloved. If he were written by Tolkien, I would have to also see him die, laid to rest, and perhaps all of his deeds gone into the forgetfulness of the future as well.

Tolkien brings us into his bubble and we believe it. It is real to us, the heroes (for the most part) have a happy ending, or some way to find their peace. Yet time marches on. He doesn't leave us with Aragorn as King forever. Sam is many times Mayor, but not forever. Rosie is his darling wife, but one day she ages and dies, leaving him a widower. We are left with a palette of aging heroes in a world that will not stop for them. Throughout his work, one of his themes is that everything changes. Even heroes age and die. Even those who do good works do not last forever and can even be entirely forgotten.  
And yet he also shows that this is not the equivalent of 'vanity vanity all is vanity,' but that there is still a reason to live and fight, there is still hope, in spite of time's endless flow.

Just musing on it - I have no real conclusion to the thought except to wonder that he was able to not only bring about such skillful life, but also skillful death. Perhaps it is a great part of what makes it so real.

Reponse by Strange Elf:

One of the most touching parts in the film for me is the scene where Arwen grieves the loss of Aragorn, nothing now but an effigy in stone, leaves to wander the deserted Lothlórien until her heart breaks and she dies.

I have said it before and I'll say it again, I hate death still knowing that it is a natural part of our existence. Tolkien does not gloss over or ignore death for us, he paints life with death as it should be.

Response by Onomir:

1 = Neverland

2 = Heaven

no one grows old in either, meet me there some day.

thats what I like about a good re-reading/ re-living of a favorite tale

Reponse by Maura Labingi:

Tolkien's creations have always seemed more real to me than almost any other literary characters I've come across, and its hard to explain why. As you point out, other authors besides Tolkien allow their characters to age and die. So I can't figure out what alchemy Tolkien mastered to make his world feel so very... present.
Strangely enough, I enjoy watching all the making-of documentaries and bloopers from the New LIne films, have watched the animated versions many times, listened to the BBC Radio play, and enjoyed the LOTR musical stage play, have even played the computer games a little... and yet all those variations and versions haven't dinted my feeling that in some-impossible-where and improbable-when, Middle Earth is there, and the hobbits and the elves, dwarves, dragons, and wizards are going about their business or having adventures and babies and conversing with Ents.
What do they call it when one holds beliefs (or... cherishes hopes) inconsistant with reality... nuts? That's me!

Response by Lithilien Quicksilver:

Hear hear, Prim! Tolkien did something no one else has ever done for me... created a virtual reality which is somehow more reality than virtual. For me, Frodo is still out there somewhere, on Tol Earessea, healed and companioned by his dear Sam. Someday I know they both will move beyond the circles of the world... but I don't have to let them go, until I'm ready to meet them there.

Response by Pi:

 I was young my first time, and the detail of the story lent itself to believability. It seemed so complex that it "must" be real! I'd half thought and wholly hoped that I could see a halfling in the nearby woods.

Response by Agape4Rivendell:

1) One of the saddest parts of Gondor's history - one that would have eventually caused her downfall even if Sauron didn't 'intervene' - is the fact that the people of Gondor started trying to find the 'elixir' of life, so to speak. They wanted to live forever. And they began to experiment with potions and such - anything to prolong their lives. They began to build monuments for their bones. They put aside procreation to focus on long life. It is a hideous indictment of a once great people.

2) Loving one of the characters who is killed off long before his time has made being a fan bitter-sweet. Though I read with fervor Boromir lives AU's like Linaewen's, still I know deep in my heart that Boromir is, in fact, dead. It makes it difficult to read - though I try to read LOTR once a year.

3) The reason, I think, for the 'feel' of reality in this book is because Tolkien wanted us to believe. Bless his heart. He did everything possible to make his world seem very close to ours... so close that it felt natural to think it is the tale of our 'pre-history.' And we want some epic history of goodness and light and grace because we need it.

4) I sometimes get chills when I think how 'real' the characters are to me. Beloved ancestors, I suppose. Heroes that are 'mine.' Heroes that are great. Reminds me of the women of Ireland, like Mary Doyle and Grace O'Malley. Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen of Ireland, even had signal beacons created and fired when attack was upon her at the Hill of Doon. Hmm. wonder if Tollers knew about that!

Reply by Primula:

Thank you for mentioning Frodo's healing, Lith - I think you have put a finger on one of the puzzle pieces of our imagined worlds. Richard Adams, when asked about the death of his rabbit protagonist Hazel, replied simply,"Death is a natural part of life." But why, then, is it so essential that we read about it? Watership Down had a great, triumphant ending; then Hazel just keels over. It left an empty space in my heart. It is a part of life, at least on this earth, but I believe my heart was created to long for a life that does not end and always remains triumphant.

I had mixed feelings on the death of Hazel. It served a purpose, it plugged the story into our temporal world. It brought a continuity that helped it be 'always' there in another way, that while Hazel himself (or Sam, or Aragorn) could not continue, younger versions of himself would, and that world would somehow 'go on.' But Hazel also received a healing in going to join the ethereal band of Elahrairah, a freedom from old wounds that would never completely heal on earth.

Would I rather have imagined Hazel (or Frodo) 'forever out there' as a cripple? No, this was far better, and so it must be with us when we need to let someone go. It is a sorrowful lesson but a good one.

All our lives we must face this seeming paradox: we are surrounded by change, but everything that really matters is eternal.

Response by Icarus:

"Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods." - Alfred, Lord Tennyson
'Ulysses' (1842)

I think Tolkien really approaches death differently than do a lot of authors. It's a part of the world, so he wants to make sure to include it. One of the things that bothers me about many stories is all the loose ends that don't really get tied up. Tolkien ties up the loose ends of every character of the Fellowship (though not very cleanly with Legolas and Gimli... those poor guys always get short shrift!).

I am kind of a fan of keeping my heroes young, too, but I also like the tying up of loose ends, and so I think that's why Tolkien's treatment of death appeals to me.

Of course, I think the reason why I have always loved the Elves so much is that thought of immortality and the fact that they don't have to worry about age slowing them down and so on. Conan is one of those heroes that really hurts to see age, especially since his creator didn't really want to see him age so he ages improbably (you know - still able to kill hordes of Picts into his 50s when the average life span is about 25 ). I think that's worse than seeing them age gracefully because it's just kind of sad.

Response by Lithilien Quicksilver:

I totally agree, Prim, re Hazel. A dose of reality is all well and good, but sometimes it's just too blunt. Had Tolkien written Frodo as dying in agony in the Shire, or enduring in agony across the Sea, I would not constantly be re-reading LOTR. As it is, I can take what Tolkien has given me and imagine what I will. There's comfort in that, and I thank him for it.

Response by Beruthiel:

I thought there was an interesting spectrum of aging and 'death' amongst the heroes often depending on their culture (not quite the Greek area in Dante's Inferno) but also depending largely on the whimsy of higher powers rather than their just rewards. Not in keeping with the notions of a religious author, I would think, but what the heck it was fantasy!

Amongst the villains it was all unrealistic slaughter ( except Lobelia S-B for comic relief ) eg: 10,000 orcs against a few hundred unlikely trees, a handful of men who weren't in their prime and a very scary horn echo.Well of course, also Aragorn's efforts of smoke and mirrors ( or was it speeches at Helms Deep and bone rattling and banners in Gondor )

Despite the plot and fates of many, our Hero wrote with a voice which put even Saruman to shame and it is news of his death which I remember clearly and which we all lament to this day. For regardless of his age at various stages of writing we will never have enough of him!