I’m going to wrap up this series on Tolkien by considering the bittersweet, or even unhappy, ending to the greatest story ever told. Someone once asked Tolkien to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. This is what he said in reply:
“I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall of Mordor, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice, and prosperity, would be become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse… Not worth doing.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, #256, to Colin Bailey)
We should keep these comments in mind the next time we get to the supposedly happy ending where Aragorn is crowned king. Aragorn knows that he’s not ushering in an age of glory. “That was in the past, the glory of the Numenoreans; some of that glory still exists in the person of Aragorn, but he is an exception, a mere reminder of the glory of the past, not a promise of the glory of the future” (Greg Wright, Tolkien in Perspective, p 135).
For despite Sauron’s defeat, the ending to The Lord of the Rings isn’t happy at all. The elves lose the power of the Three Rings made possible by the existence of the One. That’s why they were never wild about Frodo’s quest to destroy it. As Galadriel says to him in Lothlorien:
“Do you not see now wherefore your coming to us is as the footstep of doom? For is you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)
The destruction of the One Ring — the most evil artifact ever — ends up being simply the lesser of two evils, as far as the elves are concerned. Galadriel even wishes that it had been lost and never found, rather than have it destroyed.
As for Frodo, his ending is one of the most tragic in literary history. He was relentlessly self-reproachful for having claimed the Ring on Mount Doom, “seeing himself and all that he had done as a broken failure” (Tolkien’s letter to Eileen Elgar, #246). Karyn Milos writes:
“His self-reproach would have been compounded when Frodo realized he had been permanently scarred with a temptation to desire the Ring and regret its destruction. ‘It is gone for ever,’ said Frodo in his March thirteenth delirium, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’ Upon recovering from his illness Frodo was undoubtedly horrified with himself and, since this illness was pivotal to his ultimate decision to sail, considered himself condemned: He had claimed the Ring and so had forfeited all hope of ever being free of the desire of it and, like Gollum, of ever finding peace in life again.”
And so Frodo departs Middle-Earth for a brief respite of healing before he dies.
Sauron may have been defeated, but the ending to The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat — the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men.