The Bittersweet Ending of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

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!

ending of the lord of the rings discussion

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.”


13 thoughts on “The Bittersweet Ending of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

  1. marydrover says:

    I was just talking about this the other day! I teach yoga, and I tend to talk about Sam more than is probably appropriate in class, and I was talking about how the several endings of ROTK don’t always leave us feeling relieved, but that there is some kind of light after the dark, just perhaps not what we expected. Which is, I think, one of the reasons these books are among my favorites.


  2. Beth Gould says:

    I love the ending of LotR! One of my favorite endings in fiction. I’m really baffled that anyone would think it is is too *safe* or not dark enough. Part of it is that even the bittersweet victory of LotR is not all that common in Middle Earth as a whole; it is full of tragedy. So it has a credibility that it sometimes lacks in other fantasy worlds. On the other hand, I don’t read much YA and I don’t think purely happy endings are all that common in adult fantasy, as far as I can tell.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      YA books do tend to have very “neat” endings. People basically rioted when the protagonist died at the end of a popular series. Unfortunately, this also makes YA pretty predictable.

      Yes, there is a surprising amount of tragedy even after the characters defeat Sauron, something they didn’t even 100% believe they could do. It’s happier than anyone expected, but there’s still so much loss. I agree that’s realistic in a way that a fully happy ending might not be. There are always scars from wars.


  3. Greg says:

    I LOVE the bittersweet end to Lord of the Rings, and am convinced that George RR Martin is going for a similar feel for his story when he talks about how it will have a bittersweet conclusion. He of course has been greatly influenced by Tolkien in many ways. Even if their tales are quite different! But back to LotR- I always feel that bittersweet feeling acutely when Frodo suffers, in later years, from his Morgul- wound, or when some of the beauty passes from the world as the elves leave. And yet it’s mixed with the practical joys of mankind coming into their own as a race, of Sam arriving home to Rosie, etc. It really IS complex!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I only read the first GoT book and don’t watch the show, but I am kind of interested in how that will end. There are endings that I think people want, but they might feel too pat or too happy, so you’re probably right about Martin’s intentions to try to avoid that.


  4. Krysta says:

    I think the ending is part of what makes LotR so moving. It feels real, not pat, as you say. It reminds us that the struggle never really ends. The Hobbits go home and evil entered the Shire, too. They have a happy ending, of sorts, but things can never go back to the way they were.


  5. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    Well noted. The conclusion of LotR is one of the reasons why the book is so powerful to me. It strikes a balance between ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ (to put it simply) that few other books can hit. And as someone who can be very nostalgic, it forces me to confront that hard truth about change that you note.


  6. Papertea and Bookflowers says:

    Yes yes yes to everything in this post! Lately I struggle to feel the stakes in (ya) fantasy novels because I know they’re gonna be all right. It’s this need for happy endings that seems to be particularly high right now (as it feels the real world is slowly falling apart) but I do crave the feeling of not being sure of the characters will make it and if everything will be okay.

    And that’s the reason I love the LoTR books. Just as you said … it is happy. For the most part. But it shows that things do come at a cost. And that not everything willl be perfectly fine. That some things were lost during the war.
    Great post!


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, it makes YA predictable and, to some extent, less artistic and less able to be taken seriously. (I say that as someone who routinely says I LIKE the optimism of YA, but you can’t have it that there’s really only one possible ending for a book, and one that might come across as too pat and unrealistic.)


  7. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Definitely agree that LOTR has a bittersweet ending that prevents it from ever seeming cliché or a straightforward happy ending. It’s kind of interesting that, as the forerunner in the genre, it still manages to be ahead of the game in that sense (but I guess that’s why it’s a classic- it not only broke the mould, it continues to do so) Great piece!


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