Sam’s Deep Breath: The Exquisite Ending to the LOTR

Sometimes a man gets up from his dinner
And walks outside and walks and walks and walks —
Towards a Church, that stands in the East.

And his children bless him as if he were dead.

And sometimes a man, dying in his house,
Remains inside, remains in dish and glass,
So his children are drawn out into the world
Towards the Church that he forgot.
(Rilke, Book of Hours, 2.19)

Frodo and Sam have been ones who walked and walked to the end of the quest. Since any adventure ends either in death or in a return to less adventurous reality, the chapters that ensue after the completion of the quest inevitably feel like an anticlimax in comparison to all the heroic action. Frodo is saved from the anticlimax of living by being given a special destiny in the ethereal West, but Sam has to come back down to the hobbit house of dish and glass, chair and baby. Many have felt the ending to The Lord of the Rings to be not only anticlimactic, a disappointing descent for Sam’s high aspirations — but also terrible, because in consigning him to his new domestic role Frodo has in fact abandoned Sam to a half-life in which all his rich yearning will have to be suppressed in the face of incomprehension. He apparently ends up as the third kind of person, who is not in Rilke’s poem: the one who went out, came back, and is now imprisoned for life in dish and glass. Everything depends on how we read the very last line of the novel — which, as I hope to show in this essay, is the fitting and true climax to the story, carrying the full force of the preceding thousand pages.

And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
   He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.
(311)

Rose is the mother-figure who swallows him back into comfort and domesticity. If the book had ended with this action — and put little Elanor upon his lap — we would have been left hanging in the air: we need Sam to say something, to show us where he is, to prove his commitment, otherwise the lacuna will be filled only with the reverberating grief of Frodo’s departure. What is in that “deep breath,” and what is meant when someone says “well, I’m back”?

   The final chapter takes place firmly in Sam’s point of view: The clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared. (301) For the most part it continues so, with Sam trying to make sense of what is happening:  It was a fair golden morning, and Sam did not ask where they were going: he thought he could guess. (307)  The only exception is when Frodo has a fit while Sam is away doing forestry work, but presumably the narrative gives this to us because Sam is later told about it by Farmer Cotton, who was the one who found Frodo in his fit. Three times in this short chapter the phrase “torn in two” comes up between Sam and Frodo. The first time, Sam is bringing up his dilemma of wanting to live with Rosie and Frodo at the same time:  ‘I feel torn in two, as you might say.’ (304) This is a problem with an easy practical solution, but it masks a deeper dilemma, which is not about how to live with two people, but about how to live in two worlds:

‘I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, and see Mr. Bilbo,’ said Sam. ‘And yet the only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.’
   ‘Poor Sam! It will feel like that, I am afraid,’ said Frodo. ‘But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.’ (306)
We saw in The Fellowship of the Ring that the special thing about Sam is that he is a fusion of two opposite perfections. On the one hand he is supremely practical in taking care of people, animals, and plants; he is well suited to being the gardener of the Shire, an earthy and affectionate statesman. On the other, he is also the most lyrically rapturous of the hobbits, with his mind and heart constantly in the realm of song and legend — as when, in Lothlorien, he feels himself to be inside the song. He has two worlds, and the blessing of the quest is that for a thousand pages at least, and by the side of Frodo, he is able to inhabit them simultaneously. But how will he do that back in the Shire? Frodo understands  Sam’s torn heart, and it is striking that he interprets it as a wound: “you will be healed.” What does he mean by this? He cannot mean that both worlds will become integrated in Sam’s life in the Shire — because if that were possible, Frodo himself would not have to leave. And he cannot mean that time will take its course and sooner or later Sam’s ties to the story and to Frodo will be superseded by familial absorption; he knows all too well that Sam is governed by unshakeable loyalty, that his yearning is profound, and that if that absorption were to happen it would mean that the Sam we knew has died inside. Could Frodo’s words be mere empty consolation, based on nothing more than faith and hope? The consolation is repeated and amplified a few pages later:

‘And I can’t come.’
   ‘No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’
   ‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too. for years and years, after all you have done.’
   ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone. so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on. (309)
From the perspective of legend, it would be right for all the Ringbearers to leave together, and Sam must have accompanied Frodo with this possibility in mind. This moment echoes the moment when Éowyn turns up in armor and ready for battle, only to be told to stay behind; and her acceptance of Faramir instead of Aragorn, and a healer’s life, raises the same questions as Sam’s return: is she forced into domesticity, does she surrender, or does she assent? Frodo’s consolation to Sam is that he will be needed and also surrounded by love, and that there is greater growth for him along that path — whereas the sojourn in the West is a kind of final stasis and happy embalming, with no prospect of movement or growth. Frodo knows that while he himself has been completed, finished, by the quest, Sam is not and has more work to do, which he can be happy in. 

    When Frodo leaves, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness. (309) What kind of sadness is this? There is sadness at anything good coming to an end or being lost, but most endings and losses are confused, entangled, unresolved. This one is a clean finish, with nothing left undone, and with the chance to bid a real farewell. And yet the sadness is profound.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.
   At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire. but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road. (311)
To understand what Sam is feeling, we have to search into our own experience and remember a time when we actually stood for hours in silence lost in emotion. I recall once, as I lay on the top bunk of a Chinese train compartment, noticing how the old man in the opposite bunk lay there gazing for six hours at a small photograph held between thumb and index finger of his right hand, his face without expression, his body absolutely still. Such is the remembrance of a person who is saying goodbye not to a person or a thing but to a whole essential history; it is almost a farewell to life. The grand story that he has been part of, the great love that he has felt, now has to reside far inside him: hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. The three hobbits know that they have concluded this part of their lives, and that it is definitively gone; this is why they never again look back. 

   Thus Sam returns with full heart, and Rosie — if she loves him — must know it, and also understand why he isn’t beaming to be home. She has to settle him back into his role physically. He drew a deep breath: he doesn’t only take a deep breath; rather, the drawing is effortful, deliberate, a slowing down of emotions and heart, a self-settling and reorienting.  This is not easy for him. Part of him had not expected to return, after all. Well, I’m back — not just I’m back. The well is like a sigh, a gasp, expressing surprise and discovery. It is acknowledgement that he might also not have come back, and also that miraculously he has found a reason to be back. If you have ever experienced the temptation to walk away from everything and then, to your own puzzlement, nonetheless refused the temptation and returned, you yourself will have drawn that deep breath and said Well, I’m back, if only to yourself. But Tolkien is not done: the last words are he said. Sam has to utter the thought before he can truly be back, for the words are a commitment. Tolkien’s phrasing could be taken to mean “Well, I’m back” was what he said, suggesting that there are things that Sam isn’t saying and perhaps will never say, at least to these people. 

   Sam’s torn nature is his peculiar completion. Whereas Frodo’s completion renders him unable to live in the Shire, Sam can live because he has two worlds and is well established in each of them. He will never be fully here, but perhaps the other world in the background can be sublimated in his earthly work — growing plants with magical elf-dirt, for example,  and being keeper of the legends for his community, and raising his children with stories from “the church in the East.” The novel’s last line gives perfect expression — in soothing iambic pentameter — to the mystery of Sam, who — like Tolkien’s readers — have no choice but to find a way to occupy two worlds, the one we imagine and the one we have to live in. 

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Frodo’s Wound

Is The Lord of the Rings a great book or not?  In the Western tradition, from Homer and Aeschylus on, the essential mark of a great book is that it must have a dilemma. It is not enough to have a ripping yarn populated with vivid characters and eloquently written: the narrative has to be built on a crisis that cannot be solved, a conflict that cannot be won. A struggle of right versus wrong might be entertaining but is not fundamentally interesting; however, a struggle of right versus right will hold our attention for centuries. Why is this? — it must be because deep down in our hearts we know that our own lives are dilemmas, which both make us truly alive and also destroy us. Thus, the heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone is right in her stand on natural bonds, but so is her adversary Creon in his stand on political necessity. In the Iliad, who is right, Achilles or Agamemnon — and who has the greater excellence, Achilles or Hector?  In Plato’s Apology, were the Athenians right to kill Socrates, or would they have been right to let him live? All the Platonic dialogues are built on dilemmas. Even in Greek mathematics the most significant propositions involve contradiction or paradox. I would also argue that the greatest Eastern classics are also caught on horns: thus the Mahabharata, with its perplexities concerning dharma and its deep ambivalence towards its heroes, is a greater epic than the Ramayana, which is too simply black-and-white. In Chinese, Confucius and Mencius are fascinated by seemingly balanced moral alternatives; and is there a book anywhere that is as abundant with dilemmas as Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian? In short, if The Lord of the Rings is only about the war between good and evil, in which the good triumphs, then it may be a rousing and edifying epic but it is not a great book. What lifts Tolkien’s work into greatness is Frodo’s dilemma, which breaks him.

   At the beginning of the “Homeward Bound” chapter, we learn that Frodo is not well:

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
   ‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
   ‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
   ‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
   Gandalf did not answer. (268)

What is this wound? We have watched him getting physically injured several times, and he has been treated by the best possible doctors — but there is something more. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. The “and” is powerful: I am hurt by a wound, but also by a memory. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. The second “and” stands out, suggesting that the real pain is not physical. Gandalf’s “alas” says that he knows what is going on, and that he knows that Frodo knows. There is no real going back: yes, there is a kind of apparent going back, but no real going back. Their conversation is like a patient talking with his doctor about a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Frodo asks Where shall I find rest? is it a rhetorical question, or a real, desperate question? Gandalf’s silence is full of meaning: either nowhere, or who knows?

   Frodo’s anguish is the profound mystery at the heart of the book; it has been prefigured by the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum. Perhaps Tolkien has too much tact to drag this mystery into the light of day and tell us straight out what it is, but it could also be that while he feels it the author himelf doesn’t comprehend it well enough to give words to it. On one level we are witnessing the post-traumatic stress of a sensitive soul who has seen pure evil and all the darkness possible in this world, face to face. After such an encounter it is not possible to return to ordinary life unshaken; the very existence of so much evil will cast everything in permanent shadow. But there is more to Frodo’s trauma. A little later, as they are heading home:

‘Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
   ‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’
(276)

While Merry feels that he is waking up, coming to his senses again, Frodo is sad to lose his hold on the hyper-reality of the epic world: his old hobbit life will be less vivid, less real, less interesting. The painful struggle to destroy the Ring, in all its misery and horror, is preferable to the tedium of comfortable mundane living. If it was Merry who voiced this, we would understand it more easily, because he at least has experienced the rush of battle and heroic action — but all Frodo has experienced is plodding hardship and literal torture. 

   Tolkien’s description of his fits of anguish can sound like an account of withdrawal from heroin addiction:

Sam stayed at first at the Cottons’ with Frodo; but when the New Row was ready he went with the Gaffer. In addition to all his other labours he was busy directing the cleaning up and restoring of Bag End; but he was often away in the Shire on his forestry work. So he was not at home in early March and did not know that Frodo had been ill. On the thirteenth of that month Farmer Cotton found Frodo lying on his bed; he was clutching a white gem that hung on a chain about his neck and he seemed half in a dream.
  ‘It is gone for ever,’ he said, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’
   But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself. (304)

The white gem was given by Arwen in anticipation of his need: “When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you….this will bring you aid.” (253) It is either a magical antidote to a supernatural poison, or a more benign addiction to replace the harmful one. He clutches it in exactly the same way he used to clutch the Ring: has she given him a souvenir of hope and brightness to balance out the nightmares, or a milder version of the Ring, keeping him anchored to the period in his life when he felt most alive but without letting him be devoured by it? There is one more recurrence of the memory:

One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.
   ‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.
   ‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’
   But then he got up, and the turn seemed to pass, and he was quite himself the next day. It was not until afterwards that Sam recalled that the date was October the sixth. Two years before on that day it was dark in the dell under Weathertop.
(305)

The memory is of having been stabbed by the Witch-King and almost dying; it was Frodo’s baptism into death, his first experience of what it might be to fade away into nothing. On first consideration, this would seem to be the opposite of what I have described earlier as a more vivid hyper-reality. We have seen throughout journey to Mount Doom that Frodo has been largely absorbed in brooding, which is interrupted occasionally by Sam, who can make him laugh. It is a little like the devotional brooding of a monk, who goes through his daily tasks with his mind on God, and also like the brooding of someone enthralled by an intense inner experience that he cannot relinquish. It bears very little resemblance to Sauron’s obsession with the Ring, which is actually only an obsession with the power it represents; but we see in Frodo’s brooding, as well as in Gollum’s evident love for it, that the Ring brings much more than power. For Frodo and Gollum, putting on the Ring means connecting with something more intense than life can offer; it is not necessarily pleasant or blissful, and perhaps it cannot be expressed in any language of duality. Someone who through the Ring has experienced this higher state cannot go back and live in a world of simple moral valuations. The power of the Ring is that it releases its wearer from commitment to moral distinctions by acclimating them to the larger-than-life state of soul in which the wearer is willing to sacrifice anything to remain bound to this wonderful thing. 

   For a person of shallow character or wicked desires, this is not a problem: the Ring simply brings him what he he thinks he wants. However, for a decent person who cares about goodness and other people, the Ring comes as a terrible dilemma. It is essentially a Romantic dilemma, well expressed in poems by Coleridge, Keats, and Yeats. In Keats’ “Nightingale” Ode, the speaker seeks to escape this world of suffering into a realm of transcendent beauty through the song of the nightingale, but by the end of the poem finds himself alone and forlorn on a desolate shore. The decent, thoughtful person cannot be happy  without love, goodness, other people, the pleasures of life; but after experiencing the Ring, he also cannot live without connection to the dark, intense, inner reality in which these mere human values mean nothing. The tension between these two poles is more than Frodo can endure; it exhausts him and drains his will to live. On the surface, the epic tale is a triumph of light over darkness, with Frodo as the principal hero; but under the surface, it is a tale about the gradual breaking of a sensitive, intelligent being who loses interest in ordinary living because only the destroyed Ring could have given him something more vitally satisfying. 

   In the end Tolkien brings Frodo to a place very similar to the “magic casements opening on the foam / Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn,” where Keats’ speaker finds himself bereft:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (310)

The journey to the Grey Havens is an image of a beautiful, chosen death. The poetically noble, who cannot bear to live any more in the Age of Men, decide to relinquish the world to its new owners, and Frodo — incapacitated for life — disappears with them into the dream world of legend, to which he belongs more than to this life. Is this a sad or happy ending? From the point of view of life, it is sad that the most complex, lovable character in the book, the one who has undergone and achieved the most, has been rendered unfit to live; and from the point of view of legend, Frodo is complete, has achieved everything he has set out to achieve, and he can vanish now in his fulfillment. Why wish anything more for him? He gets to fade away gracefully at his climax and not be reduced over the years, like most of us, to a boring, garrulous anticlimax who lives in the past. The dilemma of Frodo was born with the germ of unrest at the beginning of the tale, where already he knows he is not a hero of legend but also cannot be content to be just a hobbit; it then grows into something that both culminates and kills him.

   His dilemma is the heart of the entire book. Without it, we have just another tale of epic heroism. With it, we have a novel about the perplexed meeting of two incompatible worlds. It is not that the book contains no other dilemmas: Sam, Eowyn, Gollum, Faramir, and Denethor all have dilemmas that deepen the tale. But Frodo’s dilemma runs through the entire book like a diameter, and pierces it with an insoluble problem. We want long lives of pleasure and comfort, of material and social stability, of mundane virtues and cozy excellences, all warm and rounded — but we also want to risk ourselves in life-quests and life-missions, to be grand and save the world with a sword, to experience a great love and a great death. If we are lucky, like Merry, we get to partake in conventional heroism against a conventional monster; but if we are less lucky, we get to do the dirty, painful grind-work of the mission, in which we find ourselves transformed bit by bit into something very close to the darkness we are fighting — and from this transformation there is no going back. It is the same struggle we see in modern superhero stories, in which too our little lives are not enough and we have to do something stereotypically great, like save the world: some heroes do it by fighting, and others do it by becoming the villain in some way. At the end of the first war Isildur removed Sauron’s ring by cutting off his finger probably while his men hold him down; it is no coincidence that Frodo loses his own finger with the Ring. He knows what it is like to have been Sauron and Gollum, and this knowledge is the “long burden” that fulfills him, bringing out depths of power and goodness he never knew he had — and that also renders him unable to live in any earthly society.