In LOTR, nothing is perhaps more sad than the moment when Frodo leaves
at the Grey Havens. And when I was a teenager, a long time ago, I wept and
wept into the night as I finished the book, like many of us I am sure; I
will remember this moment forever. For years I could not understand why Tolkien
had done that, why he had abandoned him, why he left had left us all to grieve
so much, why he left Sam alone to come back home at last.
With time and many experiences, I came to see it very differently. It seems to me that Tolkien is saying many things through his characters, or perhaps it is me who see many things, and maybe some will say I am seeing what I want to see - but what good is a work of art anyway if it does not make you reinvent your own world? :-)
Anyway, at the end of LOTR, there are many things that change, of course, people choose new paths, destinies are twisted, the Elves are leaving and so on. A new Age has begun indeed, the Age of Men. What strikes me is how more free the people seem to be in the end, even beside the obvious ‘freedom’ that the destruction of the Ring allows. Aragorn is a bit afraid of that freedom, with Gandalf leaving Middle-Earth: he would have wished him to stay longer to help him rule, he is at lost for a while. But isn’t the Age of Men precisely that: the Age of Choice, the Age of your own destiny, the Age where no-one will define the rules but yourself, for your own life? Together, Men rule their own lands with no Wizards, no Elves to guide them. Men are left to themselves to judge their own actions and decisions. Yes we could look at things and see that much of what once was is lost, and indeed much was lost, knowledge, wisdom, beauty. But maybe because I have always been an eternal optimist, I can’t help it but see that this new Age is a new beginning and even a chance for Men to ‘show their quality’.
Many changes do happen. One thing that goes almost unnoticed in LOTR is the choice of Éowyn to become a healer, after having spent time in the Houses of Healing and met and opened her heart to Faramir. That is no small thing: to go from being a caged, bitter and suicidal shieldmaiden of Rohan to a Healer of Ithilien, land of life and natural beauty, is a transformation that tells of a desire to honour and nurture life. In a sense, her vital force is now used to give and maintain life instead of honouring death and glory.
As well, with Frodo leaving for the Undying Lands, Sam is ‘free’ to live his own life, ‘to be whole’ again as he was meant to be. All the time spent to repair and heal the Shire after the ravages of war is telling of Sam’s inner strength and vital force. Of course Frodo is changed as well. Frodo was part of the Third Age, and indeed he became an instrument that allowed the passage to the Fourth Age, he was himself forced to let go of wizards and elves to count only on his 'humanity' to go on on his quest, with Sam as a symbol of vitality and hope.
But if he was an instrument that allowed it to come, Frodo does not belong to the Age of Men. And yet, for all his suffering, what he decides to do in leaving Middle-Earth is an act of pure Freedom, almost as a tribute to the New Age. He makes the Choice to Heal, or at least to try to find some healing, to ‘understand’ as Tolkien says in his letters, and to find the great inner peace that this never fails to bring. Tolkien does not say whether he achieves this or not, but he gives him all the time he needs to do so, until he chooses to die at his own will, which is in my opinion the Ultimate act of Freedom. Not suicide! But to let go when it is time to do so.
LOTR is a story about war, and I believe about passages or initiations, but when war is over, when the passage is crossed, or some part of it is, what does peace/light mean? Does it mean to go back to old ways, not to be disturbed, forgetting about what happened? Or does it mean to reflect on the past and remember it and learn the lessons of war, as Frodo tries to do with the Red Book? What if peace was not a time for comfort, but a time to heal and to go ahead and understand and find new ways of honouring life? A time to find what we have best in each of us in order to do so? A time for the cleansing, for the ‘scouring’ of our inner shires?
Frodo chose to leave Middle-Earth because, rightly or wrongly, he could not find anything for him there that would give him peace. His decision honours life, honours hope, continuation. In leaving, in a way he is saying: “The Shire has been saved, but not for me, I have given all for this and now I have to find some other way to feel whole again” and in doing that, he is telling Sam and all his friends that he will NOT abandon himself to death, suffering and decay. What better example of love than that? Along with Éowyn and Faramir, and even Gandalf going to Tom for ‘such talk as he have not had in all his time’, does he not tell us that losing something does indeed mean gaining something else?
Frodo was stripped of his old life in the darkest of ways, through a suffering that is not to be compared to anything else in Middle-Earth, and yet he chooses life in the end, not death. To us, who lose him, it is almost unbearable to see him leave, but even Sam through his tears understands in his heart of heart that this is for the best, and not only for Frodo himself. Frodo’s leaving is the ultimate choice for life and healing and understanding and peace. He is an example that after war, or even to prevent war, there must be a deep healing, an understanding, an openness to life and its manifestations. For him it had to be outside Middle-Earth, for Sam it was in living a whole life in the Shire, and for Éowyn, in becoming a healer, to honour life and not death.
I know LOTR is about war and loss, and as any of you I can feel it deep inside, it touches a reality that we all share. And yet I am not one to let death govern my life, so why would such a story drive me so much and for so long? What was it, what is it? It must have been the subconscious appeal to life and hope, and the love of Frodo and Sam, and somehow a deep understanding that Freedom and Choice were the ultimate gift and doom of the Age of Men, our Age.