The Multiple Endings of The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings has a false ending. It occurs at the end of the chapter called “The Steward and the King,”  and in any other novel this would have been a beautiful way to conclude:

And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!’

   Then the King welcomed his guests, and they alighted; and Elrond surrendered the sceptre, and laid the hand of his daughter in the hand of the King, and together they went up into the High City, and all the stars flowered in the sky. And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment. (251)

In both imagery and cadence, this is a perfect ending for the book as an epic and fairy tale: the cosmic battle of good and evil has been won, the rule of the good has been re-established, and there is peace and beauty in the kngdom again. Now we can all go home to our lives. If the reader wished to stop here and not read a single word more, it would have been a satisfying tale, concluding on the heights. But we know that there are sixty more pages to come. Why then is this ending not enough for Tolkien — why can he not stop here?

We have seen throughout that the epic tale of war is not the whole book, but a large part of the book — and it is this part that “The Steward and the King” concludes. The epic tale is embedded in a novel that starts in the Shire and that must return to the Shire. This novel is about the inner impulse to seek completion, fullness of soul; it is about a handful of hobbits’ participation in the epic tale, but their trajectory begins before the war and continues after the war. As a novelist and not a mere spinner of tales, Tolkien is less interested in the events themselves than in their impact on his characters. Gandalf himself says frankly that the war has really been a training for the hobbits:

‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’ (275)

That is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? What exactly is it that they do not yet understand? — that the purpose of the entire tale is to help them grow up, to take charge of their own lives, and to have no more need of the Big People? At the beginning of the trilogy the Shire seemed a sufficiently pleasant and comfortable world, amiably middle-class in the narrow security of its preoccupations — but it filled Bilbo and Frodo with restlessness because it was also an asphyxiating, infantilizing world where no one could ever grow up because they had no chance to face dangerous heights and depths. On their adventure, they developed fortitude and courage, found the hidden power of love and lost their fear of death. Moreover, they gained a broader perspective on life and death: having encountered the darkest evils and luminous visions of good, they should now find life on the middle scale more manageable and more intelligible. From the heights and the depths, they must now live on earth again. In not permitting his heroes to remain in the realm of high legend, Tolkien is a realist.

The greatest problems always come not from “enemies” but from neighbors — the people who immediately surround us and who impinge on our lives every moment, night and day. This is why Jesus in his wisdom said “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is much easier to love your enemy, because the Enemy is always a little abstract and remote. The neighbor, on the other hand, is right there, wearing away at you in all his annoying concreteness. Tolkien recognizes that Sauron is actually a great boring emptiness, and that the real threat is the people whom he influences. Now in any war, the powerful Enemy will always succeed in dividing even distant communities; there will always be some who are motivated to form an alliance with the Enemy, others who will go along with them, and others who will resist. Any Enemy worth his salt will have clever strategies to divide his opponents. Even the tranquil Shire is not invulnerable to internal divisions, and the hobbits are not done with their journey until they can deal with the depredations of their neighbors. This is always a more difficult task than destroying orcs, because neighbors have friends and families; killing off large numbers of them will only create long-term strife, and leave us with no peace and harmony to return to — that is to say, no home. This was the problem of Odysseus, who, absent for two decades, returned only to have to purge all of his neighbors, leaving a terrible mess that only the gods could solve. Perhaps there is no easy way out of this; there will always be determined allies of the enemy who will have to be eliminated, and their elimination will always have consequences.

What the hobbits find when they get home bears some striking similarities to the 20th century West. First, the Shire is being run by authoritarians who have succeeded in spreading the mantra  “We’re not allowed to.” (281) Second, the land has been marred by industrialization and the love of the ugly that so frequently accompanies it:

The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air. (283)

It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking overflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.
   As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great waggons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts.
   ‘They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’ He pointed to where the tree. had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech. It was lying lopped and dead in the field. As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears. (296)

As with many writers who love trees — Wordsworth, Cowper, Hopkins, Chekhov, Frost — nothing in Tolkien symbolizes the desecration of nature and the destructiveness of rampant desire better than the wanton chopping down of trees. People who can cut down the Party Tree and the great chestnuts for the sake of a quarry have no perception of beauty and are enemies to life’s simple delights — yet such people are around us, and crawl into the foreground whenever a master-vandal like Sauron removes the social inhibitions. Tolkien’s lyrical realm of elves, trees, heroes, and radiant mountains is set against the tenacious, low-minded thuggery of modern life that is incarnate in the industrial wasteland, the image of nature vandalized into trash: the Party tree lying lopped and dead in the field. This mentality is the true enemy, and Sauron only its catalyst.

The impulse to soil and desecrate is fueled by envious hatred for beauty and nobility, which for a vandal are sleepy delusions cocooned far away from the spikes and rigors of the ruthless “real” world. In his defiling of other people’s contentment, the vandal characteristically uses the vocabulary of “shaking up” or “waking up”:  “This country wants waking up and setting to rights.” (284) To some extent this is not wrong; Frodo himself grew sick of Hobbiton ease and comfort, and all four of our hobbits are better for having been woken up by their adventure.

Tolkien evokes these traits of the modern vandal but does not elaborate on them. The Shire is in fact easily scoured: the bad guys are killed off without much effort and leave behind them no poisonous miasma of ill-feeling to blight the land for generations; and even the industrial disfigurement of the countryside is healed in a short time with the help of Galadriel’s magic dust. Such buoyancy may be the defining trait of hobbits in general, and it may be more poignant because every adult reader comes to the book with old, unhealed wounds, and knows that hobbits, in this respect, are not like us.

The one element in “The Scouring of the Shire” that troubles me is the presence of Saruman. Would it not have been more true to life to have disposed of him at Orthanc, and then focused solely on hobbit neighbors in the Shire? In this final phase of the novel we do not need the great villains any more, and the task now is to learn how to handle the mundane ones. I can think of two good reasons why Tolkien may have felt it right to assimilate Saruman into the life of the Shire as “Sharkey” and then draw him out to an anticlimactic death. First, throughout the book he has embodied the modern spirit: he is technologist and technocrat, the one who finds nothing natural or social that cannot be manipulated, and who is consequently easily enraged by those who resist him. It is fitting then that Saruman should preside over the industrialization and spiteful vandalism of the Shire.

More important, however, is his role as Gandalf’s alter ego: “Gandalf the White” could have become Saruman, and for a time the two are indeed indistinguishable. They are two possible manifestations of the same person. Wizards with all their power can easily be tempted to use it to bend the world to their desires. It has been a distinguishing mark of Gandalf throughout the book is that he lets others be and trusts them to perform their designated parts, even though he himself may not understand these parts. He is content, for example, to leave Frodo free to do what he has to do, and accepts the danger of Gollum in the providential patterning of the whole. Saruman, on the other hand, is constantly scheming for the upper hand, and in every conversation needs to show that he is in charge: power for him is power over people and things, whereas for Gandalf true power is built upon the strength not to need power. Gandalf accompanies the hobbits at the beginning of their journey home, but it is Saruman who, after being granted mercy by Frodo, has the last word when they are finally able to settle:

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! (299)

Saruman’s You have grown, Halfling, you have grown very much is a twisted echo of Gandalf’s You are grown up now. In one reading of this echo, Gandalf was asserting that the hobbits have grown into strength, integrity, wisdom — a ripening into unequivocal excellence; but Saruman, on the other hand, is describing a darkly sophisticated adult mindset, for which no virtue is free of taint, and virtue and vice always equivocal. You are wise, and cruel: he is accusing Frodo of masking perceptive malevolence with apparent mercy. The act of mercy is intended to subjugate and humiliate. To Saruman, Frodo has learned and become wise in the ways of the world; he knows how to wield irony and to use goodness as an instrument of pain. Is Saruman just projecting his own tortuous paranoia onto the innocent hobbit, or is he somewhat right in his assessment of Frodo? If he is right, Frodo in the course of his journey has lost his innocence, his capacity for faith in simple goodness, and so cannot return to a life of contentment and delight in the Shire; if he is wrong, Frodo will nonetheless reflect on these words and wonder if he has indeed lost the hope of simple happiness. Saruman will have fired a poisoned dart on his way out. Yet it is because the hobbits have lost some vital part of their innocence that they are able to read the intentions of corrupted hobbits and spiteful men, and to take appropriate action against them: they have become worldly, realistic, lethal.

Thus, close to the end of the book, we get a view of Frodo through the eyes of Gandalf’s doppelganger, and these eyes give us Frodo as he has been transformed through his experiences. “The Steward and the King” chapter closes the book’s epic action, and “The Scouring of the Shire” is a necessary trammeling of elements, like Saruman, that have burst out of the epic action — but the book cannot be concluded until we understand what the main action has done to the hearts and minds of our heroes.

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