Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Movie)
Or, Not All Tears Are An Evil
Tears. And that song, drawing out from my very soul its deepest sorrows, its saddest days. How can such sadness be so beautiful?
Standing there was my friend, whose mother we farewelled. And that song. Singing me softly and oh, so gently into a place and space that we all must visit, sooner or later. Night time had fallen for Lynette and now she slept, her dreams full of her forerunners. Those voices that once called so distantly from shores beyond our own, now, silently, they were her constant companions. At last.
It wasn’t that many years since I’d farewelled my own mother from a similar malady: one of the many cancers that beset our lives so deeply and that so heartlessly wrest them from our grasp. As I stood there, the pale moon rose, and that song, unlike the cancer, eased my tears from my body and I wept.
Cancer has a habit of ruining things. Yet those who survive its derailing power are so often the ones who embrace its inevitable demise. And sometimes, with it, our own demise. I watched my mother pass away from a cancer that reached into her very personality and ripped it away from me. It wasn’t fair. I wast too young for this and too old, all at once. She was my mum, but the cancer had seeped into her brain and changed her, robbed me of her, while taunting me with her still-breathing body.
Peace. Peace for a broken heart, for a lost and forbidden soul, but it wasn’t to be there, not at first. I prayed, prayed! for the chance to speak to my mum once again. One more time.
Not to speak to this mum who confided in me that the she can hear the doctors and nurses jumping into the swimming pool she was sure they had in the hall outside her hospital room. Not to speak to the mum who, by the power of cancer, was seeing and hearing the faces of people from her past, playing hide and seek in the hospital room. Not this hallucinating mother.
I wished once more to see my mum and to talk to her. I still wish for it, 17 years after the fact.
I did get my wish, that one last time, only days before she found herself sailing across those distant shores.
She lay there, tubes to help her breathe, and to drain the insane amount of fluid that filled her lungs. I walked up to her bed and I reached to her arm. She turned to look at me and our eyes softly locked. For such a very brief moment, she’d returned.
Do you know what it’s like when someone you love has disappeared for a time, their personality gone? They know who you are but they’re not the same. And then, in a flash, in a moment of freak recognition, they return. It’s as sudden and as gut wrenching as can be. And there she was.
She reached to me. Imagine that. My mother of 23 years, whom I had driven to chemotherapy, and to the oncologist, and who had changed my nappy, and held me as I wept, both as a child and as a young adult failing at his uni studies. Imagine that. She reached out to me so tenderly, so lovingly, so beautifully, smiling. And her eyes.
Oh! Her eyes! You cannot imagine the immense love and sadness, and recognition that I saw! Oh, how it makes me weep now, even as I type this. She who loved so many, so well, loved me now, even as she knew that she looked out across her last swift sunset.
And I, her son, her baby of four children, yearned to know that she understood, that she loved, that she recognised me. She took my hand. Her soft, soft skin that once was hardened from gardening, like Sam Gamgee’s, but now was soft from rest, from disuse. She clasped my own hand in her’s and said one word only. “Stuart”.
Can a name be powerful? Yes, it can.
“Not all tears are an evil,” said Gandalf, at the end of his life with the hobbits. I imagine my mother was thinking that and probably a hundred thousand other things I can never know. Oh, how I miss that woman of immense power and love. How I desperately yearn for my wife and three young children to know her, but it can’t be, not on these shores. Can we know the swift run of our ship’s sail, to the place of blessed peace, the isles that belong to us all, but that none of us know until the end?
Six years later I stood in a church that seemed all at once a hundred years and a few seconds from that hospital bed and I waited. I waited for the final song that would escort my friend’s mother — and my dear friend, too — down the aisle to her final goodbye.
There’s something amazing you need to understand about Lynette, our friend. Every single year since the Fellowship of the Ring was first published as a novel, she read The Lord of the Rings. Every year.
Her struggle with cancer was a longer one than my mother’s. She and her whole family traveled a lovely journey that was transparent to any who looked on. They journeyed together and grieved together, each of them, and so this day, this funeral, it had a greater sense of peace and finality, a beauty that was rich and reached into your soul and whispered to it, “All is well,” and it was.
When the Fellowship of the Ring was released on DVD, they sat down and watched it in their living room. Then when The Two Towers was released, my wife, her father and I both joined them to watch both movies in a marathon, complete with obligatory M&Ms in a bowl. And then Return of the King came out, and so we began a tradition of watching all three movies (extended, of course!) together.
At one of those friendly meetings, Lynette told me that she was undergoing hyperbaric oxygen therapy. She had to do a lot of lonely sitting. Except she wasn’t lonely, she said. Do you know why? Can you guess?
She had her very close friends with her, permanently cast on the pages of her beloved book. Frodo, Sam and their companions, near and far, travelled with her into her darkest place and gave her such amazing joy, as they had every year since first they met.
I wonder how much strength they gave her as she gazed so long into the horizon of her journey’s end. I wonder what strength she found in Sam carrying Frodo up to Mount Doom. What hope in Gandalf’s belief in them and in the greater reason for his return.
Back at the funeral, as it came to an end, that immensely beautiful song, Into the West, descended on us and filled the church with its resonant beauty, unmatched in sorrow and beauty combined, I think. It massaged our hearts, comforted our souls and pleaded with us to truly live in this moment and feel the things that only we know we feel. My sorrow for the loss of Lynette, for the loss of my own mother, and for the loss that my friend and her family might now be feeling filled my body to its uttermost and I wept.
The Return of the King is a song about friendship, hope and journeys that change us. What follows is a kind of exploration of how those themes brought healing and hope to me through the movie adaptation that Peter Jackson directed.
So many themes jump out at me from this movie, so many wonderful things. The escapism I felt as I wandered the streets of Gondor, or the laugh I got as Gimli explained the effects of his axe on the enemy’s nervous system. There are, however, a few distinct scenes I remember in this moment more than others.
1. Don’t Do It!
If we think about the journey Frodo and Sam have been on, it’s pretty horrific. And right near the end we have the great treachery of Gollum. Sméagol has long disappeared, except maybe to live in hope of holding his Precious once again. It’s all lies and deception here. And Sam, that faithful friend of so long, is heart wrenchingly cast aside by this ancient creature’s devise.
That moment when Frodo told Sam to leave, I knew it was coming. It had to be coming. And yet, in that moment, I was so very sad for dear Sam. He had been so desperately faithful and all he got for it was rejection in favour of the one who deceived. Talk about being usurped.
I resonated with it because my own journey was one of being faithful. I’d been faithful to so many people in so many different ways. I’d done right by them and I’d tried to be transparent but all I felt I got from it was lies and deception. They had called on my help when they needed it, when tasks were too hard for them, but when they didn’t need me or they were afraid of … well, I don’t really know what … I was cast aside by them and left to rot. Lies were told about me, trust broken and everything I had staked my life upon was ripped out from me. I felt like Sam.
There’s a great catharsis, you know, in having the truth about you portrayed by someone else, especially when they don’t know it. This isn’t about being perfect, or being better than others, it’s about trying desperately to do the best you can with what you’ve got and instead of being listened to or believed, you’re held in suspicion and discarded by those who should know better. It’s hard when you’re so young and you need guidance but instead you get abuse, bullying or distrust. Let’s face it, though, we all know how easily the hearts of men are corrupted, don’t we?
And there was Sam, down the bottom of those steps, and here was I with him, weeping. My heart burning, his feet bleeding, and both of us feeling defeated. And in the meantime, Frodo climbed to his destruction.
2. I Can Carry You!
If you’re a fan of the movies, I dare you to tell me you weren’t crying as Sam spoke of the Shire and Frodo spoke of his nakedness in the dark. Parched of throat, weak of body and frozen with terror, Sam found something from somewhere deep within, something profound. He didn’t find strength, he didn’t even find courage, though they may have been byproducts. Rather, he found a profound and beautiful friendship. His heart broke as he looked at his Mr. Frodo, and felt the heat of Mount Doom, and listened to the horror of what his best friend was going through.
Sam’s burden wasn’t to take Frodo’s away from him, as if he were the one to destroy the Ring. Sam’s burden was to carry Frodo in the midst of his weakest and most fragile moment, when there was no one else to do it. His was the burden of truest, most naked friendship, that which is seen in the most private and intimate moments.
One thing that makes this powerful for me is that I’d travelled with Sam and Frodo on this journey for years. Each Christmas, we anticipated the release of the next movie (I have said to a few people, with The Hobbit series done, how I miss having something to look forward to each Christmas). So it made sense that, if the direction, scripting and acting were right, I’d be pretty inspired by this scene.
There’s another reason this scene is so powerful to me, though. As we watched it in the cinema, my wife and I, both of us sniffing our noses and letting the tears run down while the sobs (wails?) involuntarily leaped from our person (and pretty much the whole cinema — I’ll never forget that lady just up and back from us to the right!), my wife leaned in close to me, wrapped her arms around my arm and squeezed. She was my Sam, I felt. Here we were, watching a story about friendship and the strange journeys it can take us on, with our best mate beside us. She was my Sam.
And yet she told me that I was her Sam. Isn’t that amazing? We both drew the same meaning from the story — that we had a Sam — and we both decided the Sam was each other. That’s the story right there.
She still is my Sam. These last few years have been a train wreck of a life for me personally. Chronic illness has beset me from multiple angles, the same with my wife, business has suffered immensely as a result (it’s become practically non-existent) and we’ve had to fight our way to the top of Mount Doom (well, we’re kind of still passing through the hordes of Mordor armies), with no certainty of things changing. That makes for a lot darkness, I can tell you. I’ve had three constant companions through it all: Middle Earth, Doctor Who (yep! Kept me sane) and my wife.
What a privilege to be carried like that, to have someone let you be and let you deal with the burdens that are your’s alone, and carry you even though they’re exhausted, dehydrated and wanting to throw it all in.
Peter Jackson made it work for me. He brought it alive. I was there, on that mountain. The heat was buffeting my body, the ash landing on my clothes and my ears were listening to Sam and Frodo. At the same time, I was in the cinema with my Sam and I will always remember her squeezing me, loving me like no other. Only now it’s so much more.
The eagles get a lot of flack. Get over it, people. They’re eagles, they’re huge, and they’re awesome. All right, I’m a little biased, because they’re one of my favourite animals, but still.
It didn’t worry me that there could have been credits rolling with Sam and Frodo there on that rock, at the end of all things. Wasn’t it beautiful? And that music, oh, dear, wrench my heart out.
I love that Frodo had resigned himself to the end. And I love that finally, we had a lightness, almost like the whole cinema could breathe lightly again because Frodo remembered who Sam had been to him. A friend. Indeed, the only friend he would have with him there, at the end of all things.
The vista of bodies on the rock swept me away, even as the lava surged past them. But when the eagles came into frame, what a mighty and beautiful moment that was.
I’m not going to philosophise about some deeper meaning I drew from it, because the meaning is in the beauty of the images. Eagles, sky, talons, hobbits, lava, wings, eagle call, it just looked beautiful and cool and mighty all at once. It was art. Art is simply one person’s soul rift calling to another’s.
4. Into The West
There are many more things I could say about the journeys of the Fellowship and their friends. I suppose there’s a whole book there. The ending, though. The ending was beautiful.
It’s funny, you know, when we approach our own inevitability, we can think a great many things. Joy, regret, hope, curiosity, terror. Is it dark or is it light?
Throughout these movies we were invited to bask in the waning glory of the Elves, the First people of Middle Earth. We witnessed the autumn colours of their lives. We saw the leaves of orange, gold and brown swaying in the evening breeze. We witnessed a loving father watch his most beloved daughter choose a mortal life and with them both we shed a tear. We watched in horror as Pippin sang the doom of Faramir, while the Steward sat by unmoving, engrossed in his blood-red cherries.
How do you picture the final autumn of a great race? It’s a death of sorts, a departing from shores familiar to an unknown land of promise. And somewhere along the way, with Howard Shore’s beautiful score at the helm, we discovered with Frodo that we, too, were ready for one final journey.
So we travelled with the hobbits and the White Wizard as-he-was-meant-to-be, travelled with them to the edge of the known world, to those great and glorious Grey Havens. What a picture it was! I would love to visit those Havens and see firsthand their magnificent echoes of the waning days of might.
What gripped me about the characters was that moment of realisation on the part of Pippin and Merry, in particular, followed by Sam. Gandalf said those beautiful words and we knew something was not quite right:
“Farewell … my brave hobbits. My work is now finished. Here, at last, on the shores of the sea, comes the end of our friendship.
I will not say, ‘Do not weep’, for not all tears are an evil …”
There it is. The end of our friendship. There was an element where Gandalf was speaking to us, the audience, to me. We watched him ride into the Shire and grin at his fireworks. We saw him fall in Moria and wept with the Fellowship. We watched him revealed in all his white glory, drawing Saruman as poison from a wound. And as a general in charge of Gondor awaiting her king, we cheered for him.
Now, when all was said and all was done, when we, together with Frodo and Sam, had set out to save the Shire and succeeded, we were saying goodbye. Not the goodbye of a friend you’ll see next summer but the final goodbye that never gets undone. Gandalf turned and made his exit.
His exit, though, was merely a foreshadowing of what happened next. For me, it wasn’t the leaving of Frodo that was saddest, but the leaving of Sam.
Sam, so faithful, was left on the shores to watch his beloved friend sail away on waters gilt with one final Elvish sunset.
At the end of my friend’s funeral came a moment when I was beset by deep tears. When once everything was finished, and Into the West played over the speakers, I was sad, tearful. Then I looked and I saw her family left behind, like Sam on that harbour, and I wept. Nothing could hold it back. The knowledge that they had lost someone so dear to them. They had a bittersweet time of grieving with her while she was still alive but still there was the loss. Or perhaps, the lack of presence.
We all sail those waters. All of us. Golden suns set on us all and we depart. I only hope I can create a moment with my most beloved when we can farewell our friendships and with them the life that was. And then, in still repose, sail off into my own westering sun.
5. No. No, It Isn’t …
Almost as an aside, there was one more moment that gripped me profoundly, for its poetic beauty, its gorgeous delivery and its beautiful message of hope.
Gandalf and Pippin were in Gondor, surrounded by the machinations of war. Pippin, filled with terror, says,
I didn’t think it would end this way.
Does it ever end the way we think?
“End?” asks Gandalf. “No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. Then you see it … White shores … and beyond … a far green country under a swift sunrise”
Pippin’s response? “Well, that isn’t so bad”.
No, said Gandalf. No, it isn’t.
When my mother died and my friend’s mother, they both took with them a hope of something more. Like Tolkien, they had a hope of another future. Their end was the beginning of their start. Perhaps it’s this hope of which Gandalf speaks.
I don’t know what their new shores look like. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the midst of battle so fierce, the White Wizard, Mithrandir, had the wits to bring Pippin to a place he could understand.
As I watched the movie, bathed in sorrow, encased in the terror of war, I wished for that hope to be mine. It was a subconscious wish but one I know I had because like Gandalf, my breath came in deep and full. My heart smiled as Pippin’s did. Even in a profound moment of terror and confusion, of fear and uncertainties, someone could offer hope. I suppose I came to a place I could understand.
The End of All Things
We stood outside the church, my family and I. My Poppa — my mother’s father — stood to my side. The hearse was loaded with my mother’s casket and slowly it moved away. As it did, Poppa stood to attention and removed his hat to place it over his heart. The sorrow overwhelmed him and over and over he repeated the same sentiment.
“It’s not right for a daughter to die before her parents,” he said. “It’s not right. It’s not right. It’s not right …”
One tear falls. Scattered by the earth below, its crystal back shatters. A spherical wonder, like early autumn rains, it sings a song only the broken heart can know. It is our own Palantir, scattering the truth of our now and reaching for the hopes of our not-yet. Why do you weep?
Sometimes a hope flies in from the skies. We hear its faint cry on the air. Dare we dream of something new, of something more than just this hot and wearied end of all things?
My close friend’s mother died, as did my own. Her parting gift to us all was that beautiful song that drew forth the credits of Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth. In the cinema, my wife and I sat there basking in the beautiful artwork and the soul-caressing lyric, tears streaming down our cheeks. In the church, a similar thing happened.
How is it that fiction can so closely resemble life? How is it that someone else can weave a story that so closely parallels my own, even though they’re so far from each other?
It’s quite simple, really.
We are all human.
When finally that grey rain cloud is lifted, may we each have another human at our side as we look upon the silver glass beyond.
Thank you for reading this far. It’s a really intimate part of my self that I shared here. Thanks again for reading it. Stumac.