Like many readers, I first became aquainted with J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle Earth by way of The Hobbit. I was just entering high school and had already been exposed to the soaring intrumental combinations and quasi-mystical lyrics of the Led Zeppelin songs “Ramble On,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and the iconic “Battle of Evermore.” Thankfully The Hobbit introduced me to a Middle Earth that was less imposing and magnificent than the one hinted at by Page and Plant. This tale set in Tolkien’s newsprung world was scarcely yet more than a nursery story to be told to the young during the reading hour. Of course the story was not without terror, adversity and pain—no fairy tale is—but the level of emotional courage needed to simply keep reading was not so high that I and millions of others in the years since its first printing were unable to do so. Of course, The Hobbit was just the first book in what would become Tolkien’s lifework—a multi-book journey spanning thousands of years, from the first fires of Creation to a few final notes scribbled in Shire accountings in the Michel Delving Museum. After I had read The Hobbit many times, I decided I was ready for what my friends had told me was the very much darker part of the story. Thus I began reading The Lord of the Rings (LotR) while I was clerking in an antique shop over the summer of my 17th year. My life would be forever changed.
“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence...” I was so enchanted by those words and the five-hundred, sixty-one thousand, seven-hundred and sixty eight that followed I hardly remember anything else from the years I lived the book. That’s not entirely true—I graduated from high school, went on to junior college and 3 years at the University of New Mexico studying anthropology, made friends, had interesting jobs, found out about my biological parents, moved back home to a little wood-heated line shack from which I launched several failed careers including children’s book writer, illustrator and poet, fell in unrequited love at least a dozen times and watched my parents succumb to old age and death. During at least 18 of the intervening years I not only read the LotR many times, but also the “prequel” to the tale, The Silmarillion (not to mention the many annotated versions that followed).
I was an eight-year member of the Tolkien Society and my library still contains many biographies and commentaries of Tolkien and his epic. I learned to read, write and speak Elvish and finally, at the very last when I pulled myself out of that fictional world seemingly so much better than my own, I wrote a long poem describing my love for the Elves and the Creation of Eru Illuvatar. Let me go back to the beginning though, before I speak much more about the end.
We read books because the words therein allow us to travel into them. Our minds, our imaginations are so able to transport us to the world in a good book, some of us may have difficulty getting back to reality once the book is shut. So it was with The Hobbit first, and later the LotR and Silmarillion. Tolkien’s words were so well wrought that I was with the Company all the way, making breakfast for thirteen dwarves, leaving home without a hat, transversing the Misty Mountains, conversing with eagles, and enjoying the rich honey from Beorn’s bees. The climactic killing of Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies were very real, as was the image of a peaceful Thorin laid to rest under the Lonely Mountain with the Arkenstone on his breast. And by the time Bilbo arrives home at Bag End to find his possessions being carted away after the auction, I felt a distinct sadness that the journey was over.
As I began LotR, I understood why the back story of The Hobbit had seemed so much larger. I knew I was starting out on a road leading to further places than Dale and Erebor. Do you get a physical longing to be a part of a story you are reading? Have you ever desired above all things--even food--to feel the hilt of a sword in your hand, the surge of a horse beneath you, to see such wonders as Tolkien described in such sharp detail? What must the view from the seventh level of Minas Tirith have been like, with the wind-blown snow of Mindolluin above and the silvery shimmer of the Great River below? How terrifying the vision of the Emptying of Minas Morgul, the antithesis of Minas Tirith and the Pelennor before it. So many wonders—night skies filled with mythical stars strewn there by the Queen of Heaven, one star an actual jewel made by a genius, stolen by Evil itself and eventually bound upon the brow of a mariner set into the sky to bring hope to a darkening world; a broken sword, a hidden house of refuge in the mountains, a being wreathed in both flame and darkness, an Elven woman bowed by over 7,000 years of history and redeemed by a refusal; oath-breaking ghosts, an old king brought back from the edge of shame to a bright day of honor, a warrior sickened by weakness in others and determined to die as bravely as her ancestors; two sons, one reflecting the heroes of old in his fine face, the other the covetousness of his father; a dwarf and an elf becoming fast friends—so fast that in the end they refused to be parted and thus, perhaps, they found the Straight Road together; ancient kings so corrupted by evil that the very horses that carried them had to be bred to the purpose; Little People secure in their green land completely unaware of the darkness pressing close upon the borders, and one among them, no, four among them somehow calling up the courage to make a journey into that very darkness with little hope of ever returning home.
Through all of these wonders winds a thread of fate. Bilbo’s finding of “the least of rings” unties this thread that had been knotted for centuries as the Ring lay hidden in the mountains. Gandalf recognizes that fate is playing a larger part in the story than some would argue. Accepting fate and doing what must be done is the challenge faced by every member of The Fellowship, and to a person the challenge is met, sometimes unwaveringly, sometimes only after deadly personal struggle. Summoning courage, Frodo tells the Council of Elrond that he will take the Ring though he knows not the way. Aragorn has lived a life of unending acceptance of his fate, and his brief flash of resentment is tempered with hereditary strength. Samwise accepts that his place is with his master, even if that means facing death with him in the fires of Orodruin. Gimli’s simple view, that he has come all that way merely to represent the dwarves of Erebor, becomes more complex as the journey continues, until finally he understands his purpose—to bring elves and dwarves together after the New Age begins. Boromir’s attempt to steal the Ring is redeemed when he turns the desire for power instilled in him by his father into acceptance of the nobility inherent in the bloodline of Numenor, something his father detested in Boromir’s brother Faramir. His defense of Merry and Pippin allows Frodo and Sam to do what they in turn must do—leave the Fellowship and strike out East into the darkness. Unquenchable hobbits Merry and Pippin are to lead the broken Fellowship into desperation and great opportunity. Gandalf says “They were brought to Fangorn, and their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts and avalanche in the mountains.” Gandalf was “sent back” to complete his part in a story that was thousands of years in the telling.
Throughout the tale, each character’s choices influences their fates. Even the reader is fated to follow each member of the Fellowship in turn, suffering every wound, emotion and action, to the end.
It was to this end that I too stumbled in exhaustion that summer in the quiet coolness of the antique shop. Throughout the books, the reader is told time and time again that, no matter what the ending—whether Sauron was utterly defeated and Middle Earth saved from the Darkness or the Dark Lord triumphed and destroyed the last resistance—many things would come to an end. Even the destruction of the One Ring and the subsequent celebration was fraught with poignancy and pending loss. With the destruction of the One Ring, the Keepers of the Three Rings would lose the power they had used to preserve and heal the once splendid beauty of the Middle Earth they used to know. In effect, the magic of the Elder Days was fading just as the Eldar themselves would eventually fade and shrink to tiny fairy people inhabiting hills and trees, to be forgotten and eventually lost to humankind.
Now, just as drug use in later adolescence can trigger schizophrenia in those predisposed to the disease, loss and grief can cause the long fall downwards into depression for those predisposed to that illness. As a child it seemed to me that the world was a place of loss and that grieving was a near constant state of the heart. Adolescence being what it was, the introduction to such a place of monumental struggle, love and loss as Middle Earth seemed to wrap me in a cloak of sadness even as I walked that immense world and its beauty pierced my heart. When I was able to start another part of the epic story, the Silmarillion plunged me back in time to the Beginning, when Eru Illuvatar brought the Imperishable Flame out of the void. I both craved these stories and dreaded their outcomes, knowing after reading LotR that fate had already plotted the courses of so many soon-to-be-beloved characters.
Again Middle Earth was revealed to be a place of profound beauty, danger, sadness and loss. It took me the better part of a year to read the Silmarillion. Each piece of the story brought fresh sights to my mind’s view. Each mountain meadow, carven hall, ferny forest and windy height, the piney slopes, the flower-strewn, sunlit spaces in secret woods, rocky trails high into mountains since ground to sand, the ice and snow, the wild tides, all opened my mind to a world so large, so ancient, I would have to close the covers for weeks at a time to allow my own small life to go on. The terrible, fated sadnesses of the earliest days of Arda—all of the great love given to the works of their minds and hands by the Valar, the beauty of the Two Trees of Valinor, the Sun and Stars and Moon, the Children of Eru; all of the oaths, the anger, the terrible curse, the marching of gleaming armies against the Great Enemy, the downfalls of the golden children of high houses brought forth in the bliss of the Blessed Realm, the trothing of Elves to Men that would bring the songs of ancient times into the lives of the Shirefolk many millennia later—and all would culminate in the fall of Sauron, the dawning of a new age and the passing of so many beloved characters either to the Halls of Mandos upon the outer walls of the Blessed Realm, to the garlanded quays of Valinor itself, or to a slow decline into histories long forgotten.
Like someone returning from a long journey to a place once familiar, eventually I had to come home from Middle Earth. I still mourn the loss of Gil-Galad upon the slopes of Orodruin. The downfall of Gondolin, the passing of Frodo oversea, the separation of friends, lovers, brothers, husbands and wives, the fall of Numenor that so monumentally recorded the modern hubris of humankind, the lonely passing of Arwen as she laid herself down amid the elanor and niphredel on the green hill of Cerin Amroth, the fading away of the magic of Middle Earth—I mourn the loss of all of the marvelous things that Tolkien brought to life. Like the passing of loved ones from my own life here in the present day, those things I shall know no more until the breaking of the world.