At the Harbor of the Grey Havens, I clung on to the Pier for dear Life (Or The Art of not Letting Go)

Recently we had a meeting with the Grey Havens, discussing the very end chapter of the trilogy, “The Grey Havens,” concluding an era in our Group’s book discussions of the trilogy, spanning over more than two years.

There was a sense of nostalgia in the air during the discussion and we touched upon what the chapter symbolizes. When Kelly/Badgaladriel mentioned that a key theme in this part of The Return of the King was to be able to let go of things, many people around the table nodded in agreement. I could even feel my own head nod, even though at the same time, I was struck by a familiar sense of shame while thinking about the end of the trilogy and the aspect of “letting go.”

Later, toward the end of the meeting, I cleared my throat and said that I was going to tell everybody a secret that I hadn’t told a single blessed soul before in my life. The time seemed right.

After I told them, many broke out laughing kindly, one very positive individual even said “That’s awesome!” And I realized that I had certainly done the right thing to tell the story of my own farewell process with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. My shameful secret was something to smile at in recognition – perhaps a little extreme and childish, but very human.

So, here is the story of what happened when I had finished reading The Return of the King, many years ago:

I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about ten years old, and suffice to say it changed my life – it certainly changed my reading patterns, but also many other things. The last chapter was my first real experience with a melancholic ending. I had read sad endings – mainly remembering H.C. Andersen’s tales (which I loved), but even if those stories sometimes made me cry, they never had the time to let me get so profoundly attached to fictional characters over such lengthy periods, as I had with Tolkien’s books.

I was sad and confused and there was real actual loss flowing through my system, and I had no idea how to handle it. Worst of all, I had no one to talk to about it!

If I had read the books for the first time in high school, I’d probably been able to sniff out some other nerd and sit and gripe about it, but in elementary school I knew no one of my own age who had read these books, and my poor hard working parents would probably had looked at me as if I had just arrived from Pluto, had I tried to discuss my longing for hobbits, wizards and elves with them.

I did however have a childhood friend named Helen, who didn’t read any books, but who loved listening to stories if you told them to her. Helen and I had spent our first school years in a rougher part of town, and after my parents finally could afford to move to greener parts and buy a house, she often came over on weekends and school holidays and lived with us for days.

So, I started to tell Helen the magical and epic story of Frodo and the Ring of Power.

It was great! Just like a support circle for grieving family members, only Helen didn’t suspect what kind of emotional service she provided for me. I didn’t read the books out loud, instead I had memorized large chunks of the chapters so well, that I could quote long passages from favorite poems, and phrase moods, happenings and descriptions in a completely faithful (but slightly abbreviated) way. I was a veritable one-girl theater company. There was one voice for Gandalf, one for Frodo, and awful, awful voices for the orcs and monsters. Gollum got a really tiring accent and the voice of Saruman proved very challenging, as I had to make it slimy and enticing at the same time. I don’t know how well I managed according to peer review, but I do know that Helen was mesmerized by the show.

Every evening one part was performed/told, often with a cliffhanger at the end, and Helen was frustrated and distraught when she had to go home and perhaps wait weeks to hear the next part.

I particularly remember that she loved the chapter with the Balrog and my hissing, growling sound effects and descriptions of the whip and the flaming blade and everybody’s reaction to Gandalf falling. I think I performed “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” three times for her.

But gradually the inevitable ending came closer and I could see the chapter about the Grey Havens approaching. Helen was already affected by Frodo having aches and being so passive and philosophical, we couldn’t express our feelings on this matter very well, but she did say: what is wrong with Frodo?? And I felt a knot in my stomach just thinking about performing all those farewells and the tears and the unavoidable demise.

I couldn’t do it. Frodo got healed (in fairness it took some time). Gandalf didn’t leave, and I totally made Galadriel the super-queen of the ugliest part of Middle-earth where she prettified the living daylights out of it. Oh, and the hobbits all went on adventurous quests where they helped Strider to be king in all those remote regions of the former kingdom. Also, I was very busy marrying off all kinds of characters without knowing a single blessed thing about their love life. Gimli for instance, got a very handsome wife, covered in jewels.

It can certainly be argued that it was a heavy burden for a 10-year-old to hold such huge and beloved characters in her hands without slipping. But if I let go, they would sail away forever and die on me!

Of Course I slipped, I understood just how much when Helen started to be less and less eager to hear the night time stories (my voices were probably not as good anymore either). We hadn’t started watching any geeky tv series yet, but she reacted exactly like someone would do if their favorite show had gone on for ten seasons too long and changed script writer for the worse. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the deathblow would fall and she would say that it was boring and she wouldn’t have any part of it anymore.

I realized that the only solution was sadly to do exactly what I had tried so hard for months to avoid. We needed to go to the Grey Havens, and I needed to create such an epic ending, that it would be worthy of a song!

What can I say…she cried, I cried, a Greek choir probably cried under the sofa-bed.  And that was the end of the one-child-nerd theater show. Never again would I be so emo, not even when I was goth for a few years, and never again would I try to honor any other author’s creations in the way I tried to honor  the ones of Professor Tolkien. Only great literature can bring out those traits in a reader, and only the clingiest of readers would go to such lengths as my ten year old self did back in the day, to hold on to the pier of “The Grey Havens,” instead of just getting myself on that patiently waiting ship.

14 thoughts on “At the Harbor of the Grey Havens, I clung on to the Pier for dear Life (Or The Art of not Letting Go)”

  1. What a wonderful story, Reodwyn! Except, when you told this story in the meeting, it went on and on and the episodes seemed to never come to an end… Anyway, you make me think back to my first reading of LotR. My mother had bought a forest, and our first summer there was the summer of 1967, and my oldest brother brought home LotR from college, and my sibs & I read it, and we got The Hobbit at a bookstore in town. We all enjoyed Middle-earth, and I kept reading Tolkien for the next three years. But that summer of 1967 we had a deaf white dog named Sally. She enjoyed grubbing in the cattails along our ponds and she was always wet and muddy, and since she couldn’t hear, she made a loud gulping sound all the time, so we dubbed her “Gollum.” We also had a tiny plastic blue boat just large enough for one person to paddle around in, and we took turns in it, paddling around our main pond all summer talking about LotR. I guess I never realized how fortunate I was then, to have others around to share the magic adventure of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Then we moved in 1968 and I learned to play chess with one of my brothers, and we had medieval chess pieces that reminded me of Gondor, and I listened to the Rolling Stones fantasy album all year (Their Satanic Majesties Request). Grey Havens summons up for me a version of my past that I will always treasure, and tonight, reading your post, Reodwyn, I feel very fortunate to share this journey with a new Fellowship!

  2. Just the sentence “My mother had bought a forest” makes me want to read *your* childhood story! Honestly, the whole scenery sounds magical to me.
    I wasn’t all that miserable however, only a year or two later I found some friends who were hobbit-minded and interested in fantasy, and we went on forest hikes together. I guess it was the prelude to my Tolkienist days-to-come.
    Did you ever write about your first readings of Tolkien here on the blog? (or anywhere else), from this snippet I sense that i would love to read about it.

  3. How kind of you to wonder about my past! As your tale reminds me, Reodwyn, at Grey Havens all of our various wandering pasts seem both wonderfully bright and wonderfully blurry. When we gather to talk, it is always the epic tale of how our paths have become woven together upon the enchanted shores of this version of Middle-earth. And now, with your help, our tales here have become threaded into the edges of the tales that they tell in other far-off Kingdoms of Middle-earth. But looking back into the millennium that happened before this one, my past doesn’t seem very real sometimes. I will say that in 1968 I dwelt in a cold winter world somewhere in the far north. The wind howled. The snow didn’t ever seem to settle anywhere. I wore a long black hooded coat. There was a border not far to the north, and beyond it dwelt… Others. I guess there could have been a huge ice wall somewhere nearby. I played chess and I learned that my brother was marvelously wise and deep — he seemed like a wizard in those days! So what is “real” anyway? And what is fantasy?

    1. Having a mother who owns a forest and a wizard-like brother, and all the rest of your descriptions… come one Talelmarhazad, who wouldn’t want to read that book!

      1. Thanks, Reodwyn! Your story helped me feel much better and I agree that I want to hear more of Tal’s tale! I also appreciated ilverai’s story. I don’t know why I am more fascinated by how people felt when they finished the books than when they found them. Maybe because, for me, knowing that I will never read LotR again for the first time is the wound that will never really heal. If I had had your imagination, I would have tried to spare my friend as you did. Still, the delight is totally worth the sadness!

  4. As Talelmarhazad has commented, this makes me think of my own experience saying goodbye at the end of the LotR for the first time. For myself, my first goodbye was actually a hello:P
    I immediately turned around and reread the whole kit and kaboodle…granted I think I was largely able to do this primarily because my first reading was under a pneumonia induced haze.
    I’ve always had that particular sadness upon finishing a book, it felt like leaving a friend behind, and it was/is always very difficult to move on to the next one. I think this is why I re-read so often…it throws a huge wrench into trying to read anything new, but I never have to say the final goodbyes.

    1. Ilverai, that must be the perfect way to experience the LotR, just binge reading them while at home, bedridden and sick. Such a great way to be swept away while healing!

    1. Heal well, dear BG. This blog and what you’ve created has made me write about Tolkien and fantasy, which feels wonderful.

  5. I really enjoyed this. Here is my own take on the importance of letting go:

    Holding and Letting Go
    We have a call to live, and oh
    A common call to die
    I watched you and my father go
    To bid a friend goodbye.
    You held my grieving father’s hand,
    How could it not be so?
    The gentleness of holding on
    Helps in the letting go
    And when your heart-beat stirs in me
    How can I not respond?
    How can I not reach for your hand
    And feel the common bond?
    This friendship touches heights above
    And every depth below,
    Touches the very quick of love,
    Holding and letting go

    1. That is quite lovely, and it also reads like a song.
      Badgaladriel (Kelly, the founder of the Grey Havens) introduced me today to your Inkling lectures on youtube, which is providing me with some interesting watching indeed!

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