When I’m sick, I listen to the BBC dramatization of Lord of the Rings. I’ve listened to it so many times, I can fall asleep and wake up later and not miss anything. So, as is my tradition, I started listening again when I felt terrible after getting my COVID booster shot on December 31, and I’ve listened on and off in free moments since then.

When I was younger, I always wished the story ended with Aragorn getting crowned. I wanted the happy ending, with no baggage or lingering pain. It bothered me that Frodo wasn’t happy after getting rid of the ring, that the Shire was damaged, that the elves’ magic had to fade away, and that in the end Frodo and Bilbo and all the elves had to leave Middle Earth. It’s not how I wanted the story to end! Where’s the unalloyed triumph and happiness?

Now, I appreciate so much more the story Tolkien told. He writes:

“Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,” said Gandalf.

“I 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?”

J. R. R. Tolkien

Since August, I’ve come understand how true and real that ending to the book is. There’s no unalloyed happy ending; the defeat of Sauron freed the world, but at great cost — including the loss of the elves and the passing away of the old order. To have a future of hope, the familiar ways had to end.

And of course Frodo couldn’t come out of that experience undamaged. The burden he carried would scar him. Even returning to his beloved home couldn’t heal him, because the experience changed him. The wound went wherever he was; he needed healing from the inside.

Bilbo sings, in his last song:

Day is ended, dim my eyes,
but journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship’s beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the Sea.

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

J. R. R. Tolkien

In the end, Frodo and Bilbo went with the elves into the West to seek the healing they needed. Extraordinary measures, indeed. It’s sad: Frodo cannot live in peace in his beloved Shire any longer; he lost the life he thought he would have. But it’s also hopeful: There is healing to be found, although it is a long journey to get there.

That resonates with me right now, the sense of starting a long journey to find healing for deep wounds. There are no unalloyed happy endings, and painful experiences do leave scars. Tolkien did write the right ending to Lord of the Rings, of course. It just took me living a lot more life to understand why.

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