The evening after Grandma's graveside service, I walked past Grandma and Grandpa's house. It had been almost eight years since I took a writing job 2000 miles away.
The sun was halfway down. The windows dark. Grandpa's garden idle.
It smelled like fall.
Grandpa and Grandma used to sit there reading or watching the news. I could always go around to their back door, and they always had time to talk.
Memories flooded back as I walked by the 3x4x8-foot straw bales that still sat beside the pickup shed.
Twenty-five years before, Coulee City was enchanted, 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. There were afternoons spent fixing fence with grandpa, stumbling out of bed to check the cows at calving time, the time I spent trying to convince him we could use Curtail instead of Roundup on the thistles, walking to the house slower than I usually did so that we could talk about the sunset and the blackbirds.
The pastures aren’t irrigated anymore. Some Ranger variety alfalfa still persisted. A tangle of Russian olive and cattails overtook the stream bank.
A half grown mule deer stopped chewing to watch me. I heard one or two other deer crossing the “dump road” on the far side of the pasture.
And now this place connects me to what was and reminds me that it cannot be again.
J.R.R. Tolkien's history of Middle Earth also unfolds in ages. Characters enter and leave the story. Events can be cyclical but not circular.
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.'"
Beren too came to a story in progress. His father was betrayed and killed by Morgoth's Orcs. Beren wandered until he entered Doriath, a land protected from Morgoth's evil by it's queen Melian, a Maia, who for her love of Thingol, remained in Middle Earth. And according to the fourth chapter of the “Quenta Silmarillion,” “...of the love of Thingol and Melian there came into the world the fairest of all the Children of Iluvatar that was or shall ever be.”
Chapter 19 of the “Quenta Silmarillion,” tells how Beren “came stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road. But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Lúthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar. Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.”
And how when he finds himself before King Thingol, “Then Beren looking up beheld the eyes of Lúthien, and his glance went also to the face of Melian and it seemed to him that words were put into his mouth. Fear left him, and the pride of the eldest house of Men returned to him; and he said: 'My fate, O King, led me hither, through perils such as few even of the Elves would dare. And here I have found what I sought not indeed, but finding I would possess for ever. For it is above all gold and silver, and beyond all jewels. Neither rock, nor steel, nor the fires of Morgoth, nor all the powers of the Elf-kingdoms, shall keep from me the treasure that I desire. For Lúthien your daughter is the fairest of all the Children of the World.'”
Thingol then, thinking to send him to his death, sends Beren to retrieve one of the three Silmarils then captive in the crown of Morgoth.
Thus is Beren's fate entwined not only with Thingol but with the Silmarils and the history of the elves.
Luthien escapes her father and comes to Beren's aid, saving his life as he saves hers until Beren, in his final approach to Morgoth's stronghold, tries to leave her in the care of Huan, the great wolfhound of Valinor, who has attached himself to them.
It is recorded in “The Lay of Leithian” that when Luthien once more overtakes Beren, Huan counsels them:
'Of one fair gem thou must be thief,
Morgoth's or Thingol's, loath or lief;
thou one must choose, exile or oath!
Though vow to break is still thee loath,
know that Lúthien must either die
alone, or death with thee defie
beside thee, marching on your fate
that hidden before you lies in wait.
For Lúthien now, in thy doom's snare
in love must in thy dying share.
In exile you would seek in vain
for peace, but, rather, find there pain.
Hopeless the quest, but not yet mad,
unless thou, Beren, run thus clad
in mortal raiment, mortal hue,
witless and redeless, death to woo.
'Lo, good was Falagund's device,
but may be bettered, if advice
of Huan ye will dare to take,
and swift a hideous change will make
to forms must curséd, foul and vile,
of werewolf of the Wizard's Isle,
of monstrous bat's evermined fell
with ghostly clawlike wings of hell.
'To such dark straits, alas, now brought
are ye I love, for whom I fought.
Nor further with you can I go -
whoever did a great hound know
in friendship at a werewolf's side
to Angband's grinning portals stride?
Yet my heart tells that at the gate
what there ye find, 'twill be my fate
myself to see, though to that door
my feet shall bear me nevermore.
Darkened is hope and dimmed my eyes,
I see not clear what further lies;
yet maybe backwards leads your path
beyond all hope to Doriath,
and thither, perchance, we three shall wend,
and meet again before the end.'
Beren and Luthien follow Huan's advice, and though their path is frought with danger and sorrow, their love seems to preserve them from the power that passes through their hands or the pride that had ensnared the maker of the Silmarils, and would later destroy Turin, the son of Hurin, who like Beren was hunted by Morgoth.
The dying Beren placed the Silmaril into Thingol's hand. And the Valar gave Luthien a choice, as the “Quenta Silmarillion” account concludes, “...she should be released from Mandos, and go to Valimar, there to dwell until the world's end among the Valar, forgetting all griefs that her life had known. Thither Beren could not come. For it was not permitted to the Valar to withhold Death from him, which is the gift of Iluvatar to Men. But the other choice was this: that she might return to Middle-earth, and take with her Beren, there to dwell again, but without certitude of life or joy. Then She would become mortal, land subject to a second death, even as he; and ere long she would leave the world for ever, and her beauty become only a memory in song.”
“This doom she chose, forsaking the Blessed Realm, and putting aside all claim to kinship with those that dwell there; that thus whatever grief might lie in wait, the fates of Beren and Lúthien might be joined, and their paths lead together beyond the confines of the world. So it was that alone of the Eldalie she has died indeed, and left the world long ago. Yet in her choice the Two Kindreds have been joined; and she is the forerunner of many in whom the Eldar see yet, though all the world is changed, the likeness of Lúthien the beloved, whom they have lost.”
There will be other joys…but not those. Hurts can heal, but there's no going back to how we were before.
and Sam made it to Mount Doom, but it was Gollum—whom Bilbo and Frodo
pitied and did not kill—who inadvertently destroyed the ring.
return of King Elessar and the defeat of Sauron ushered in a new age in
Middle Earth, but these goods likewise did not erase the cost.
"'Are you in pain, Frodo?' said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo's side," (on the anniversary of a wound Frodo received).
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."
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."
When the time comes for Frodo to leave Middle-Earth with Gandalf and the elves,
Gandalf says: "'…Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the sea comes the end of our fellowship in middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep for not all tears are an evil.'"
“Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. 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.”
"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 in the waters that was soon lost in the West. There 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...."
Return of the King" closes: "…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."
Perhaps Tolkein in this way echoes the Biblical sage:
It is better to go to the house of mourning,
than to go to the house of feasting:
for that is the end of all men;
and the living will lay it to his heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter:
for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
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 to hear the rebuke of the wise,
than for a man to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad;
and a gift destroyeth the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof:
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
The hope one finds in Tolkien's work is not conditioned on happy endings but rooted in the existence of those good things in the world that are worth sacrificing for. And
if the lore of Middle-Earth shares anything with the world we inhabit,
it seems the love we share with others does more to preserve us than our achievements...or even our integrity.