"Death is the omnipresent reality in the Lord of the Rings. Its presence serves as a caveat against the life-worship that is the unofficial faith of the modern world. The constant iteration of the word 'doom' solemnly reminds readers that we are not the final arbiters of our own lives, much less the world's life. Tolkien never lets us forget that no battle is finally won, no victory permanently achieved -- not in this world at least -- just as every triumph creates a host of new perplexities. The ending of the Lord of the Rings -- where the defeat of evil is muted by an enormous grief at the departure of Gandalf and Frodo and Bilbo and the elves -- can be read without tears only by the flint-hearted. C.S. Lewis rightly noted that a 'profound melancholy pervades the whole of Tolkien's book, even if the sadness serves to enhance the joy. Haldir the elf voices this paradox touchingly: 'The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater" (Ralph Wood, in The Gospel According to Tolkien).
Somehow grief is always bound up with joy, like the inseparable two sides of one coin. Indeed, Scripture links sorrow and joy in some inexplicable ways. The Psalmist says that "Those who sow in tears/ will reap with songs of joy./ He who goes out with weeping,/ carrying seed to sow,/ will return with songs of joy,/ carrying sheaves with him" (Ps. 126:5-6). The Apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians that "in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6b). Grief and suffering are bound up with joy.
Some examples help: The feeling of joy, for example, that arises when a parent sees their children sleeping peaceably is shadowed by sorrow, because we know that they will grow up and leave and endure much hardship that we would rather they be spared. And then there's the feeling of joy we have on that particularly good day, or moment, when all seems so well with the world, that is also tempered by the knowledge that some difficulty most assuredly lies around the corner. The effects of sin thread their way through our lives, corrupting every good thing, robbing us of the full enjoyment of any moment.
Just as in Middle-Earth, a great dynamic is at work in the world, an unseen hand of Providence, turning all things to good. Sin flourishes, and yet the Kingdom grows, hope endures, and as Haldir says of love, "it grows perhaps the greater." Even that tinge of doubt or melancholy in the elve's "perhaps" is a part of our own experience, our own wonder that the fairy-tale of the Gospel really is true, that all will be set right one day.
One day I'll trade this two-faced coin in for one with one word on both sides: Love. For now, I can only hold tight to what God has entrusted to me here and now: the currency of love and grief, out walking with this two-faced coin rattling around in my pocket, waiting for that Day.
[The picture is a classic piece of Americana by James Earle Fraser (1876-1953). It represents the dispirited American Indian on his horse, or perhaps the end of a way of life. I first saw it on the cover of the Seventies Beach Boys album, Surfs Up. It reminded me of the sadness of the passing of the elves from Middle-Earth to the Grey Havens, and it also suggests the weight of sin's toil on the world. It seems incomplete without some light to suggest that grace is at work as well.]