The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King VI.9, “The Grey Havens”

In the Lord of the Rings re-read, we have reached the last chapter, “The Grey Havens,” though not the end of the book. The usual spoilers and comments follow.

What Happens

The Shire prisoners are released and the cleaning-up begins. Merry and Pippin hunt out the last of the ruffians; Frodo, as Deputy Mayor, reduces the number of Shirriffs. Lobelia gives Bag End to Frodo and leaves him her money in her will to help other hobbits. The buildings built by the ruffians are dismantled and the materials used to rebuild or repair hobbit holes. Sam plants saplings to replace the cut-down trees and finds that Galadriel’s gift was soil, which accelerates the saplings’ growth, and a nut, which is the seed for a mallorn tree. In the spring, Sam and Rose marry and move into Bag End, one wedding of many in a year of great plenty and peace in the Shire. Frodo retreats from public life and is ill on the anniversaries of Weathertop and being poisoned by Shelob. Sam and Rose’s first child, Elanor, is born on the second anniversary of the Ring’s destruction.

In September, Frodo asks Sam to see him on his way to visit Bilbo, who will be turning 131. Frodo gives Sam the book that he and Bilbo have written of their adventures, with some blank pages at the end for Sam. The day before Bilbo’s birthday, they ride out, and the next day meet Elrond and Galadriel (both openly wearing their Rings) and Bilbo. Frodo admits to Sam that the Ring-bearers are going to the Havens and over the Sea, and that Sam cannot accompany them, though his time may come. Frodo says he has been too deeply hurt to be able to enjoy the Shire, but Sam will be busy and happy with his family and his work for many years to come.

At the Havens, they find Gandalf and Shadowfax. Merry and Pippin ride up at the last minute, warned by Gandalf, to say farewell and accompany Sam back. The Ring-bearers and many Elves board the ship and sail to the West. The other three hobbits ride home in silence. When they arrive at the Shire, Sam comes home to dinner and his family waiting for him.

“He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”


Like many geeky families, we use “Well, I’m back” as a catch-phrase. And I probably still will, because it’s too handy, not to mention commonplace, a phrase not to. But I almost feel bad about it now, of using something so deeply and complexly bittersweet to mean something so mundane as “returned from vacation.”

This is not, by the way, a reaction I’ve had before; indeed, I’ve never had any deep feelings one way or another about this chapter. But now, maybe because the nature of the re-read means I’m stopping here until I get this post written instead of going on to look for story-bits in the Appendices, I’m just marveling at it. It fits for me the way that Frodo not destroying the Ring should have but didn’t: painful, surprising but right, and true to the characters, the world, and the story. So much so that I’m having trouble coming up with something more to say about it—my brain seems to think it’s so self-evidently fabulous that it refuses to produce any expository prose that it doesn’t cringe away from as painfully obvious. All the same, I recognize my obligations, here, and will swallow my pride and sally forth.

Perhaps one way to approach this is to note that my reaction of “oh, ow, perfect” is much more on Sam’s behalf than Frodo’s. I recognize Frodo’s pain and the way it flows from the plot and themes. Indeed, way back at the start of this re-read, I flagged Frodo’s statement “some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them” as the book’s coming full-circle to that chapter’s “It will have to be paid for.” But Frodo’s got what I am apparently to believe is a happy ending, being allowed to dwell in the West “until all (his) wounds and weariness are healed” (per Arwen in VI.6). I find it hard to imagine what his life is going to be like or how his emotional/psychological healing will proceed or anything like that. But I also find it hard to imagine him being in a lot of pain from missing Sam and the Shire while in that blessed land. And even before then, this chapter is fairly remote as to his life and experiences. So while this ought to be bittersweet for Frodo, I can’t get any useful mental grasp on his life after this chapter besides “happy and peaceful”—and thus, rightly or wrongly, I can’t feel the ending as bittersweet for him.

Sam, on the other hand, has a very concrete life now and in the future. He has a family that he loves very much, particularly Rose; I’ve always seen their marriage as a legendary grand-passion type relationship, on the admittedly-thin evidence of the number of their children (while that could be only proximity, as I think Inspector Grant in The Daughter of Time put it, a glance at the family trees in Appendix C demonstrates that not all hobbit families were that large) and his leaving for the Havens after her death. He has satisfying and important work in a place that he “care(s) about . . . more than any other place in the world” (VI.8). But he has also just said farewell, possibly for the last time, to the person he loved enough to support through a journey of indeterminate length, great danger, and, at the end, apparently-certain death—but who he couldn’t protect well enough for him to be able to stay. And if that’s not bittersweet, I don’t know what is.

On a prose level, look at the way this passage is structured:

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.

Yes, it has that beautiful image, but it’s in the middle, bracketed by Frodo “slipp(ing) away” until his light “was lost,” and then the reversal of Sam seeing only darkness and hearing only the waves. Ow. In a good way.

* * *

I’m having a very hard time finding anything else substantial to say about this chapter, and I think there are two reasons for that. One, it’s an amazingly local chapter: except for the comment about travelers coming to see the mallorn tree later, there’s no mention of anything outside the Shire. Not even the very first chapter was that narrowly-focused. So there’s very little to gossip about; we’ll have to save that for the Appendices. Two, except for Frodo, it’s an uncomplicatedly happy chapter, and while I don’t begrudge the Shire its happiness, some additional shades to the recovery would have engaged me more. I don’t believe in the least that Frodo is the only one scarred by the War of the Ring (Pippin nearly died! Merry got up close and personal with the Witch King! Hobbits were killed!), but I certainly couldn’t prove it by this chapter, which actually says, “All things now went well, with hope always of becoming still better.”

But then, it’s also a very short chapter, and it has such a perfect ending, that perhaps I shouldn’t ask much more of it. It simply seemed worth nothing that the ending was the only thing that felt vivid to me about it.

So here are some things I noted that don’t warrant extended comment.

Fredegar Bolger demonstrates that the initiative he showed, way way back in the day, by escaping from Crickhollow when the Black Riders arrived, wasn’t a fluke: he was leading a band of rebels against the ruffians. A captured band, granted, but still.

Also released from the cells is Lobelia, who then vanishes in a haze of sadder-and-nicer.

I’d wondered last chapter about the population of the Shire; here we’re told that it encompasses “thousands of willing hands of all ages.”

The conversation about what Sam should do with the soil from Galadriel is a lovely bit of characterization in miniature: Pippin, literally, breezy; Merry practical and conservative; and Frodo wise but not entirely vague.

I do appreciate the line about the summer of 1420 and how the children “sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on.” I don’t know how that imagery avoids being discordant, but I like it.

Rosie Cotton is rather forthright in her speech, as demonstrated in the last chapter. But she apparently bowed to hobbit social convention earlier in the story, according to Sam: “It seems she didn’t like my going abroad at all, poor lass; but as I hadn’t spoken, she couldn’t say so.”

I find it really weird that Frodo’s pony is called Strider.

In the post about “Many Partings,” I asserted that there was the last variant of “The Road goes ever on.” Of course, I was wrong: just before Frodo and Sam meet Bilbo, Sam hears Frodo “singing the old walking-song, but the words were not quite the same” (which, in my defense, is why I missed it).

Frodo is apparently given foresight here, naming Sam and Rosie’s future children and Sam’s election as Mayor (the children’s names could be self-fulfilling, but the election—well, it could almost be, as a practical matter, but I don’t think we’re supposed to read it that way).

Shadowfax is with Gandalf on the quay; there’s no description of them getting on the ship, but I think the only reasonable inference is that he goes with.

* * *

As I said, I always go on to read the Appendices, which is what we’ll do next post (I think just one). Then a movie post—I’ll be talking about the movies and the books at Arisia this coming Sunday at 12:30, so I’ve already re-watched it, but we’ll do things in order. And then a final thoughts post to conclude the re-read.

And if you’re at Arisia and see me (I look like this), do feel free to say hi.

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Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.


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