When the Ring-Bearer Sails: The Tolkiens’ Story
Written by Ben Zornes on January 20, 2020
By Ben Zornes
What Was the Story About?
Though great beings both good and evil––elves, men, dwarves, ents, Valar, Ainur, balrogs, dragons, orcs, and wargs––inhabit the mythology of Middle Earth, the most important character is Sam the Gardener. The whole epic tale––which Tolkien began as a bedtime story for his children––sweeps us up into matters great, mighty, awful, and lofty. Wizards go astray in their towers. Sauron’s roving eye scans the world from his high post in Barad Dur. The Steward of Gondor uses his seeing stone, at first, in an endeavor to ward off great evil. The gods and demons do battle. The orcs march with twisted hate, while elves craft beautiful artifices of good with which to fill the world.
But do you know how Tolkien ended the story? If you do, keep it to yourself for now. Don’t blurt it out and ruin it for everyone.
This bedtime story grew in Tolkien’s mind, and he began crafting entire languages, histories, and poems to “fill-out” this fairy land he had imagined. His son (who recently passed away) says in the forward of The Silmarillian, “On my father’s death it fell to me to try to bring the work into publishable form.” In other words, the jotted notes, and scattered ideas needed to be brought together, and Christopher set out to do so. If you’ve muscled your way through that volume, well done. There we have an example of how history books ought to be written. It contains the history of Middle-Earth, marked by the great conflicts of those ages. The elven peoples began to fill Middle Earth, while the evil Melkor seeks to thwart purposes of Eru Ilúvatar (the God figure of the whole tale). Why would Tolkien craft a simple bedtime story, then go to great lengths to create an entire historical backdrop to it all? Did he just take his hobby too far? And why would his son take up the task of arranging, editing, and compiling all those notes into a transcendent history?
From the charming simplicity of The Hobbit, to the grandeur of The Lord of the Rings, to the historical anthologies found in The Silmarillion, Tolkien had a game-plan. He wanted to “en-story” truth, so that when we return to our own story we are “en-truthed.” He wanted a tale which we could never get our arms around. He told us a story which would terrify us with the sheer immensity of its scope, so that we’d come back to the “real world” fortified. As he stated in his introduction to The Silmarillion, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” We are to see in the wreckage and failures and conflicts a mirror of our own sorry situation. The world is not as it ought to be. It has been spoiled, and fallen into darkness. But in dark moments of stories, we see courage, loyalty, hope beyond reason, and faith in a Providential Hand.
The Hand of Fate
Indeed, it is this personal Fate which governs the whole of the story. Every story. Both Tolkiens knew this, and lived accordingly. This Fate wasn’t an impersonal force, it was the hand of our Creator and God. Middle Earth wasn’t a world full of accidental atoms smashing against each other. It was a myth with a creator’s hand on the wheel. Fate brought the ring to Bilbo, then Frodo. Fate took them on a grand adventure to ultimately destroy that evil power.
And notice an easily overlooked piece of the story that Tolkien tucks into the story: a red book, scribbled out by Bilbo, containing the tale, so that the story might be retold to others. Bilbo gives the book to Frodo to steward. Frodo then adds his story, and hands it on to Sam. J.R.R. Tolkien died with much of his work unfinished; but a wise son maketh his father glad. Christopher took up, with a passion, the labor of retelling the story. The “red book” had passed on to the younger Tolkien, and he gave us an even wider and deeper myth than his father had. Godly fathers pass on the story to their children. Not to adapt or change, but in order to be lived. The Story of the Gospel is meant to be lived, and all other stories are intended to encourage us to be good guys in our own story.
The End of the Story
So, how does Tolkien’s story end? Pay close attention to these final lines of LOTR:
“Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. 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.”
Catch it? It ends at a supper-table. It ends with a wife’s embrace and a baby’s snuggle. It ends with a return. It ends with a beginning. The final lines of the book aren’t really Sam’s, they are yours. When you close the book, you’re the one who is saying, “I’m back.” The journey which the Tolkiens took you on was intended to bring you back to this earth in order to live; to love your wife, dandle your baby, do your job, and weed your garden. You may be called upon to do great things, during a momentous period of history. But you must always see yourself as a simple, faithful, courageous gardener. Nothing great about you. The story is bigger than you, but you are called to do your part, and trust that the Story-teller knows what He’s doing.
RIP, Christopher Tolkien
We each pass out of the story eventually. Those who grasp after power, control, their own glory, and the subjugation of others end with throats slit, buried in forgotten barrows of cold misery. Christopher Tolkien, like a good gardener, faithfully toiled away at the work given him, and now, the gardener has set sail from the Gray Havens. Those who journey faithfully come at last to the Gray Havens, and find what Frodo did: “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.” We should be sad for our loss. Christopher Tolkien was a great son, who stewarded his father’s wealth impeccably. But the Tolkiens would adjure us to be “filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness.”
Faithful story-tellers help us to live out our story with faithful courage, loyalty, and hope in the God who is the Greatest Story-teller. So take up the book that’s been handed to you, fill it in with a tale of faithful courage, and hand it on to your heirs for them to follow in your footsteps. And one day, we shall listen as our Father retells it, in its entirety, and we shall say, “He hath done all things well.”