19 October 2011

The Elves Are Gone

The evening after Grandma's graveside service, I walked across the lawn in front of Grandma and Grandpa's house.

The sun was about halfway down. It smelled like fall.

I used to look in and see Grandpa and Grandma reading or watching the evening news. They were always home. I could always go around to their back door, and they'd always have time to talk.

Now those windows are dark. Grandpa's legendary garden stands idle across the driveway. The memories flood back as I walk by the 3x4x8-foot bales still sitting beside the pickup shed.

Twenty-five years ago, I saw Coulee City as an enchanted wonderland. It was my grandparents’ town—a place I only visited two or three times a year.

When we moved to Coulee City in December 1990, life and work rubbed off some of the wonder. But Grandpa let me keep cows on his pasture around what had been the Coulee City Stockyards. Then there were afternoons spent fixing fence with grandpa, stumbling out to check the cows during calving season, the grass we grew.

A half grown mule deer stopped chewing to look at me.

The pastures aren’t irrigated anymore. Some Ranger variety alfalfa still grows there. The stream bank now supports a tangle of Russian olive and cattails.

I heard a couple deer cross the “dump road” on the far side of the pasture.

It’s been almost eight years since I took a writing job 2000 miles away. Grandpa still talked about me coming back.

The sense of loss, even in new beginnings, runs through J.R.R. Tolkein's work. Time and characters have a trajectory and a purpose. Events can be cyclical but not circular. Tolkein imagines the history of Middle Earth in consecutive ages. Gandalf's purpose is to be the Enemy of Sauron.

The characters don't necessarily understand these changes and often experience loss in the process. After Bilbo's journey in "The Hobbit," the characters do not recognize the full significance of everything they have experienced. In particular, they do not realize the full significance of Bilbo's ring.

Somewhere toward the end of "The Two Towers" Frodo and Sam are working their way into Mordor:

"I don't like anything here at all." said Frodo, "step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid."

"Yes, that's so," said Sam. "And we shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into? "

"I wonder," said Frodo. "But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to."

"No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it and the Silmaril went on and came to Erendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We've got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?"

"No, they never end as tales,' said Frodo. `But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later or sooner."

Though loss can have meaning in this context, it still hurts. "I wish it need not have happened in my time." said Frodo (referring to the rise of Sauron). To which Gandalf responds, "So do I…and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given, us…."

Frodo and Sam eventually make it to Mount Doom and destroy the ring, but Gandalf's ethic comes at a price:

"Are you in pain, Frodo?" said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo's side (on the anniversary of a wound Frodo received on his quest).

"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.

The return of King Elessar and the defeat of Sauron ushered in a new age in Middle Earth, but these goods did not erase the cost. And with the passing of the elves into the west, other things were lost as well.

There will be other joys…but not those. The hurt can heal, but there's no going back. And then it’s not achievement we remember but the longing and the journey.

We only experience joy when we’re busy building corral fence or pulling weeds; and sometimes we only notice it after we’ve moved thousands of miles away.

Better than most authors, Tolkein captures the art of the good ending, not just the happy ending. And in doing so perhaps echoes the Biblical sage:

It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.

Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.

For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fools;
this also is vanity.

Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

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