“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened…But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer…Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why…”
These are the words that Sam Gamgee speaks at the end of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers. These are not words that Tolkien’s Sam speaks, they were written to tie up the end of a contemporary film. And yet I think that these words have captured something of what the Lord of the Rings has meant for me in my life.
I read the Lord of the Rings when I was 12. It was as a sequel to The Hobbit, on which I had presented a very successful oral book report for my sixth grade reading class the year before. At the time the book was hard for me to understand in places. The language was sometimes difficult. I went to the dictionary to look up what a “league” was or what it meant to say “At length..” before you began a sentence. It took a long while to read some parts of the book. The Journey through Moria took forever it seemed to me, and Frodo and Sam’s journey across Gorgoroth took an age. There were also many names in the book, and references to unknown history and languages. Yet the story stayed with me as Sam says even though I did not understand why. It lead me to read and to study history, languages and many other things.
When I grew older I joined the army, and I experienced what it was like to endure hardship with others, and to support one another in a team. But of course I had already seen what this was supposed to be like by reading about the fellowship and Sam and Frodo. Later, when I sat with other soldiers on a plane waiting to land in Saudi Arabia to fight in a war, I understood how the men at Helm’s Deep felt as they stood upon the walls and waited for Saruman’s enormous force to come and to think that they may not live to see the daylight.
And as I saw the terrible events of 9/11 and the death and destruction wreaked upon my nation and the loss of so many lives. I thought of the people of Minas Tirith, and how they kept hope alive in the face of certain destruction.
Now as I grow older still, and I am placed in positions of authority over people younger and less experienced than myself, and I begin to understand a little more of the ways of the world and things that younger people will not know until they themselves have been sandpapered by life a little. I see how it was for Aragorn and Gandalf to teach and guide men and hobbits, and to let Frodo and Sam go on a quest that could kill them and where they could be of no direct help.
And so this story stays with me, but now I think that I understand why. It does not stay with me because it is an escape from reality, but because it says so much about what real life is like in a way that no other story could. Not only does it speak of what is, but what ought to be. How people face their own death, and the deaths of those they love. The value of friendship and loyalty and keeping one’s word. The story stays with me because it points me to that which is high and good beyond my imagination or ability to think
So today I pause to remember the birth of a man who has had a deep and abiding affect on my life. I say that not as hero-worship, but in respect and gratitude for someone who gave me the gift of expanding my vision.