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.
All the Lost Ponies
On a long January night a woman dreams
of all the lost ponies of Middle Earth
Wisenose, Swishtail and Bumpkin
running from the barrow-downs
and poor Bill from the Watcher in the water
She wakes with moist eyes marveling
again at calming words in certain chapters
assuring her that small bewildered creatures
do find their way home
At breakfast, she sees her child’s frail neck
bent over texting and suddenly dark trees
start casting shadows, the barrow-downs
are near – she thinks of Fatty Lumpkin.
On the bus she hears the echo of Gandalf’s voice;
Go with words of guard and guiding on you
and she almost pats the man beside her on the knee
to smooth out something in his face
old Tom and Samwise gave those ponies names,
otherwise they would have been just beasts
roaming aimlessly through Eriador and eaten by wolves
maybe it’s because of the names, she thinks
Her friend’s troubled face at work makes her see
a couple holding each other at the Cancer ward
one spouse stroking the others’ bald head
by the ashes of mount doom
The Eagles are coming
she thinks, closing her eyes.
Her arm around her friend’s back
feels like too little and too much at once
In the conference room, where by far
she is the smallest foot-soldier
she wants to draw Glamdring at something
“It’s just one of those days” she tells herself
in the bathroom mirror
for a moment forgetting her own name
you are a wise beast and have learned much
make your way to places where you can find grass…
In the evening, a woman, tired from sitting
wants to dream about Shadowfax or Gil-Galad
but each night instead, she keeps dreaming
of lost ponies, finding their way home.