That guy there is Faramir, Boromir’s brother and son of the Steward of Gondor. Remember, Boromir is the guy who got shot with all the arrows in the first movie?” A frozen frame from the final Lord of the Rings movie illuminated the room as I explained the history of Gondor to my dad.
“Oh, that’s right. How am I suppose to keep track of all this?” Dad said, slumping back into his chair and pushing play again. The Lord of the Rings is an exhausting, exhilarating, and sometimes flat out confusing trilogy. While watching the last movie, I tried to remember how faithful it was to the books.
Ah, the books. That 1,000-page behemoth, the prodigy of Norse mythology, Old Testament history, and Oxford University courses. I don’t remember much of what I read, but I do remember what I felt, the emotional journey Tolkien sent me on. Few books have captured the level of emotional depth The Lord of the Rings reaches, taking me through joy-filled shires one moment and plummeting me into the darkness of Mordor the next.
But it was Fangorn Forest I fell in love with, the home of the last Ents. Ancient talking trees of Middle Earth, Ents protected the forest from the rest of the world. When Saruman cuts down huge swaths of their forest, Treebeard rouses the enraged Ents to rise up. “The last march of the Ents,” Treebeard tells the hobbits, Merry and Pippin. As the Ents — and hobbits — march into the graying dusk, Treebeard explains:
“But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyways, sooner or later. That thought has long been growing in our hearts; and that is why we are marching now. It was not a hasty resolve. Now at least the last march of the Ents may be worth a song. Aye,” he sighed, “we may help the other peoples before we pass away. Still, I should have liked to see the songs come true about the Entwives. I should dearly have liked to see Fimbrethil again. But there, my friends, songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way: and sometimes they are withered untimely.
At the end of Lord of the Rings, the grand finale of a massive trilogy, Frodo and his friends leave Middle Earth forever. The moment their ships set sail from The Gray Havens to the Undying Land, the age of magic and elves is over. The Fourth Age has begun.
…the Third Age was over, and the Days of the Rings were passed, and end was come of the story and song of those times.
Throughout the trilogy, Tolkien creates a tension between the passing Third Age and the coming Fourth Age. There is a yearning for the past, the world before the machinery of war and the cogs of progress reared their head. Their world full of magic, walking trees, and elves is disappearing. But it’s this thread of loss that ties all three books together. As Gandalf explains to the hobbits:
Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.
I closed the last page and put the book on my shelf to collect dust. When I left Misty Mountains, shires, and forests behind, I returned to my world not only dazed but forever changed. But loss alone cannot explain why Lord of the Rings is such a majestic trilogy. Tolkien intertwines sadness with wonder, infuses painful losses with joy, and tinges dark despair with hope.
Maybe when we read stories like Lord of the Rings, we’re confronted with our own mortality and passing world. We look with nostalgia upon what was; we look with fear, sometimes unfettered optimism, to what will be. Yet we prove ourselves incapable of learning from the past and navigating away from the same mistakes moving forward.
Well-told stories, like Lord of the Rings, can help guide us forward. We need classics to remind us of the past, guide us forward into the future, and capture the gamut of human emotions along the way. It’s these books that help build a generation of self-aware, emotionally-intelligent, empathetic, open-minded, truth-grounded men and women who refuse to lose heart even in the face of darkness, loss, and despair.
This is the power of stories: they can tap into the common human condition and emotions we all share. Books remind us we’re not alone. Despite the extremism, wars, disagreements, and conflicts we have faced, are facing, and will continue to face, we’re all the same. We are all human. And stories have the power to connect us, reminding us of our shared humanity.
But we need storytellers who are brave enough to tell the stories the world needs to hear.