…The Passing of the Elves and the Harrowing of the Little People — by J.R.R. Tolkien
Here of late, I have been spending time at home (where I live alone in the growing shade of my late years) visiting the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s epic fantasy in three parts — The Lord of the Rings volumes, were published just after the end of the Second World War. Those of us who were born in the 1940s and ’50s were presented with these amazing tales in our early 20s, and they were so good, they were memorialized in four films — The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
Tolkien’s books were not exceedingly lengthy. They were, however, filled with amazing details, and they were, each one, an exciting tale of adventures that, of course, included both magic and tales of human kindness, as well as encounters with great evil. They were, and still are, hard to “put down”. I read them voraciously, and still watch the films with fascination.
I never grow tired of these stories, and I am sure that there are many of us who feel this way about them. Here of late, I have hungered for a new retelling of the tales. The lessons they teach never grow tiresome. I need hope in the face of what is happening to my world in these days of America’s fading dreams. The films that were made include, “The Hobbit,” and “The Fellowship of the Ring”, as well as “The Two Towers” and finally, “The Return of the King”.|
I recall one scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring”, where Frodo Baggins looks at the Ring of Power (which he was encouraged by Gandalf the Wizard to put on a small pedestal) as it sits in the midst of a gathering of humans, elves and a lone dwarf, all discussing how they can manage to take the Ring of Power to the “Cracks of Doom” in the Land of Mordor, where the ring can be destroyed, before the Dark Lord (Sauron) finds the means to take it back and fulfill his mission to become ruler of mankind’s world.
Frodo Baggins, a “hobbit”, is a small member of a village of hobbit farmers. After dropping the Ring on the pedestal, he then watches as the ring reflects all those who are gathered, and in the shining reflection of those present, Frodo sees the Ring of Power produce a raging fire in their midst. Meanwhile, the entire company is beginning to argue loudly about who will lead the party and who will take the Ring to the Cracks of Doom.
In many respects, the story of the Ring of Power and the dire fate that faces the world of men in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a parable on the plight of humankind as we all struggle to achieve power and control the fate of our peoples and our world. It’s a wonderfully adventurous, and imaginative, series of tales that lay out the fearful prospect of what can happen to us all as we attempt to deal with the powers that we wield.
I think it would be a useful activity for all of us to revisit Tolkien’s stories of the Ring of Power… the tales are timeless in both their moral lessons and in their deep insightful knowledge of the weakness in human moral development. Tolkien spoke eloquently about the greed that fills so much of humanity’s endeavors to grasp wealth and our obsessions with controlling not only all the potential resources around us but also one another — all the resources at our disposal.
In the midst of all the struggles that Tolkien portrays so masterfully, he shares one painfully poignant love story — the love that develops between an immortal elf maiden and the future King of Mankind…. Aragorn of Arathorn and Enya. She offers to forsake her immortality to stay in the World of Men, to be with Aragorn. Her father, who is a leader among the Elves, tries earnestly to convince her that she should go….with all the remaining elves of Middle Earth… to the shores of Middle Earth, where the last boats will carry all the elves away from our world.
I still weep through many parts of these stories in the films. (I did, like many of us in the 60s and 70s, read the entire trilogy and the preamble to the series.) I feel sorrow for the loss of the elves (who were Tolkien’s assessment of the very best of humankind…) their “goodness” being the emergent characteristic of their immortality. Only those who are truly Good and Pure can achieve immortality, in Tolkien’s stories. Their departure from the world of Man to the “blessed isles” was, I believe, Tolkien’s judgment of the fate of Man. We cannot go to the “Blessed Isles” because we simply are not pure enough in our spiritual nature to rise to the requirements of Ilúvatar (Tolkien’s Great Spirit — the Creator of both Elves and Humankind).
Of course, I feel regret for the fate of humankind — no matter what we manage to achieve in our worldly endeavors, we never seem capable of rising to the level of purity and goodness of Tolkien’s elves. We never seem capable of achieving the virtue or the worth that would convince Ilúvatar (the God of our Forefathers) to allow us to rise — to move eventually, at some point, to the Blessed Isles of the Immortals. (I think J.R.R. Tolkien did, indeed, take a dim view of the potential for virtue among us of humankind.)
But what makes me most sad, and more sorry, is that we cannot maintain, or ever restore the relationships we had with our kin who have passed into the Shadow and beyond, or perhaps to “The Blessed Isles”. in part because we love our worldly life here just a little too well, regardless of its faults.
I can speculate that perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien felt that way about what he saw as the weaknesses in human nature. Tolkien grew up before, and lived in the midst of the Second World War, which threatened the lives of many of his compatriots in the United Kingdom. It was the worst war of Man in the history of all our conquests and world-building endeavors at the time. (Notwithstanding the wars that had preceded it since the days of Noah and the Pharaohs in Egypt.) It threatened the lives of many more of us in Europe and the USA in the 1940s. We did not know then if the Third Reich of Hitler in Germany would overcome the democracies of Europe and America at the end of that terrible war. While we are fortunate to have survived that war with our nation intact, we are still in danger of losing our democracy to this day. One more Administration here in America with an authoritarian tyrant like Donald Trump could force us all down the rabbit hole to a dire new world where our freedoms are erased, and our final incarceration and the silencing of our voices and all could begin.
We face dire circumstances if we let a tyrant become our leader, as our world faces the rise of authoritarian regimes (as in China and the USSR, among others). To make these threatening realities clear, we recently witnessed the behaviors of our previous president Trump, who sought camaraderie's and “advice” from Vladimir Putin in his meetings in the USSR. These are dire times, as they were when Tolkien was writing about the failure of diplomacy, faith and good will during his time. Authoritarian leaders are, and have always been, a threat to the welfare of the common weal — the folk of the Shire — the common people.
The story of the struggle to rid our world of Rings of Power, like the Great Ring in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — and the lamentable departure of the best of our species… our elves … is an allegory still relevant today. It’s hard not to cry for the loss of all that is good, all that is best, in our world. And what is best in our world often is the simple truth of our way of life — when we are not attempting to conquer other people, not attempting to build a technological or social empire by controlling the elements or the peoples who live in far places.
We can’t simply let all that is good pass into legend and the mist of our past. We need to keep trying to control our greed for more of what is not ours, and our desire to destroy what we cannot possess. We need to find the wellspring of what is good within us — and encourage that to grow. That wellspring rises from the desire to “live and let let” — to preserve that which is most worthy of preservation — often the welfare of our peoples, and the preservation of our natural world.
Perhaps there is an Isle of the Blessed that we can still move toward, where what is worth saving lives and grows freely and in balance with the natural world. That would lead us to attain an immortality that is worth preserving.