Would Lord of the Rings Be More Satisfying With a Different Ending?

Specifically, what if the Eagles hadn’t rescued Frodo and Samwise from Orodruin after the destruction of the One Ring?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Joshua Engel:

J.R.R. Tolkien was a firm believer in “eucatastrophe,” or the sudden, unbelievable, positive turn of events, for a simple straightforward reason: It’s fun. And also for a not-so-simple reason: because we have to.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

But what the question is really asking is: Was he right? Is it worth it? Or do we feel cheated by it?

Perhaps that’s especially true for those of us who don’t believe, as Tolkien did, in the greatest eucatastrophe of all, the sacrifice of Jesus for human salvation. That’s a story that rings hollow to nonbelievers for a wide variety of reasons.

And yet, I think we can identify with why those who do believe want to believe. Hope is a fragile thing. It’s something we need to maintain, against reason, for the simple reason that eucatastrophes do, in fact, happen. Pessimism turns to despair, and despair is illustrated in Lord of the Rings by Denethor. Denethor is the natural pairing with Frodo, a dyscatastrophe who, because he could see no hope, did not participate in the joy when it came. He died needlessly and foolishly to the mind of most readers. Yet I think, for those of us who question the narrative wisdom of the Eagles, we might also empathize with Denethor.

Compare it also to the story of Beren and Luthien, as Strider tells it to the Hobbits. “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts,” he says. He emphasizes the sorrow in the tale, not the victory. That story, too, ends with eucatastrophe: the unforeseeable progeny of Luthien, Elrond, and Earendil.

This is not a storytelling mode that, I think, appeals the way Tolkien might have wanted it to. I think that as a matter of pure narrative, Sam Gamgee had to survive: Somebody had to relay the story. Frodo could well have died next to Gollum, and there would have been a deep poetic justice in that, too.

But Frodo’s suffering isn’t over. Frodo had to strive more and undergo more sorrow and pain, only so that he could get his own true eucatastrophe, a journey to Valinor.

Does this lighten your heart? Maybe. Maybe not. I used to love a silly rom-com with a happy ending; sorrow has left me unable to bear it. I can’t rightly say how I feel about the coming of the Eagles; it simply is, and I wouldn’t presume to change the narrative one way or the other. But I feel that, while I may not have learned anything about Frodo, it teaches me something about a way of looking at the world that is, quite frankly, as alien to me as the Elves. Whether that is good for me, I cannot say.

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