Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
When I read fantasy, I often find myself half hoping for a happy ending and half hoping that things will fall apart and go terribly wrong because, as much as I love happy endings, I sometimes have a sneaking suspicion that they’re too common, too predictable and that if the protagonist were to fail at least it would be a good plot twist. The heroes win so much in fantasy (particularly YA fantasy, which I read a lot of) that I often assume the outcome of the book is a given, that I’m not really reading to see how things end but to see how the characters get there. I want good to win, but I’m sometimes left wishing the villains would triumph, just to mix things up. It’s a mental struggle I go through nearly every time I pick up a fantasy novel.
The last time I thought about my dilemma in choosing whether to cheer for good or evil (again, just for the sake of variety), it occurred to me that Tolkien’s heroes in The Lord of the Rings win. They take the Ring to Mount Doom and toss it in, Sauron is destroyed permanently, and his armies mostly fall apart. Yet it never occurred to me to think that this ending was too boring or too predictable and needed to be “spiced up.” And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is because the ending of the book comes with immense joy but also with a sense of loss because, although the future is bright in Middle-earth, things will never be quite the same.
I do want to emphasize that the ending is happy, happier than the characters and even readers might predict. Boromir, of course, is killed by Saruman’s Uruk-hai early on, but no other members of the Fellowship die. Frodo and Sam, who were prepared to toss the Ring into Mount Doom at the cost of their own lives, are saved. Merry and Pippin make it through the war. Aragorn is crowned king. Both he and Eowyn find love. Middle-earth is poised to flourish. But, still, there is loss. It just isn’t what the characters were expecting.
Fighting Sauron meant fearing death, fearing the Ringwraiths, fearing a world where all the Free Peoples were enslaved and all green things died. Little of that came to pass. Instead, Frodo lost peace and his sense of belonging. Sam lost his best friend when Frodo left for the Undying Lands. The Shire lost its innocence and sense of safety. Middle-earth lost the Elves and ushered in the Age of Man.
The Lord of the Rings shows us that, even when we defeat great evil, one of the costs is that things can never be quite the way they were before. Change, of course, is not necessarily bad, and maybe some of what is different will be better. But there will always be loss. The “good guys” win in The Lord of the Rings, but it is a bittersweet victory tinged with the loss of some beautiful things. It’s too complex to be a “happy ending.”