Often, since the publication of The Lord of the Rings, critics have claimed that none of the characters experience loss or further are lost, as in dead. They claim the tale is the epic happily ever after. And it makes me wonder…Are they blind?!
Well that’s a bit harsh. The concept of loss is so ingrained in Middle Earth and in so many forms of such sublety it is often hard to truely understand while reading. What many readers fail to realize is that loss does not begin and end with death or injury. Loss has so many guises in Tolkien’s world. It can be an overwealming experience to deeply contemplate the depth of the endless of losses of Middle Earth. But let’s focus on Lord of the Rings, and the fellowship in particular.
Boromir is lost, of course, and his case seems cut and dry. Not so, look closer. Boromir loses his sense of self, his honor and his strength to the corruption of the Ring. He bears the burden of betrayal, and when the Ring passes beyond his reach he recovers himself. Aware of his duplicity he is horrified and desparate. His death is not a loss, rather it is his redemption. His sacrifice renews his honor. That is not the loss. So even with this apparently simple example, we begin to see the concept of loss runs much deeper and more subletly than once appeared.
What about Aragorn? Certainly he didn’t lose anything! But that’s another mistake; he does. It is just a matter of reevaluating what loss is. Notice the reticence of Aragorn towards reclaiming the kingship of Gondor from the beginning of the book onwards. As Strider, he is a lonely Ranger, free to go where he will and follow his own council. He is humble and even self demeaning. Yet to become King, Aragorn, he must cast aside his doubts and step out of the shadows. Aragorn loses a part of himself: Strider. He loses his freedom and gains the great weight of responsiblity of raising up a declining nation.
Gimli and Legolas, in some ways they appear the most unscathed of the whole fellowship, yet they too have their “scars.” Both lose their races’ habitual dislike of the other to become great friends. They step beyond the bonds of race to find value and respect in the other. (Who said all loss was a bad thing?) Gimli’s loss carries him further from his race, to find wisdom and a true appreciation of beauty. Gimli’s adoration of Galadriel is crucial to his development. He is made great, wealthy and wise among his people, and yet, for him this has no meaning or hold. He is freed from the more disreputable hungers of the dwarves.
Legolas’ loss is tragic by comparison. He follows Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead and on to Pelargir, where the cries of the gulls entrance him. The call of the Sea strips away Legolas’ attachment to Middle Earth. He can no longer find joy in tree and branch, all is marred by the uneasy knowledge of a greater beauty. Legolas can no longer live at peace in Middle Earth, so he must leave all he once loved. The weight of waiting for that final journey is great.
Gandalf is tricky to say the least. He dies, in a bodily sense, after fighting the Balrog. The knowledge, sublety and methods of Gandalf the Grey are lost. Olorin returns in new flesh as Gandalf the White, an Istari of greater power and stature. His days of sitting in the Shire, blowing smoke rings are over. Now he is both more serious and more joyful, more decisive. There is one subtle change, which really isn’t a change: he appears and acts with the dignity and power of the Maiar. His being, is much closer to the surface. This may foretell his final separation from the flesh of Men in his return to Valinor.
And that leaves the hobbits. Most importantly they lose their innocence. They find the world is much larger and meaner than they ever imagined. They find themselves thrust into a conflict they are neither prepared for or fully understand, and yet they prevail. Not only do the hobbits lose the innocence the world but the innocence of hobbits. They find themselves capable of valor, courage and great deeds, hereforto unthinkable for a hobbit.
And last, but not least, we have Frodo. He has lost the Ring and a finger, but these are obvious. What about the loss of happy times, of enjoyment in the world, the loss of satisfaction and happy memory? On Mount Doom, Frodo cannot even remember those things most dear to him. The Ring, and the loss of the Ring, have created a tremendous wound. He has lost peace. Though he would wish to find it and give it to the Shire, he cannot partake of it himself. He is constantly haunted by his loss, by the void in his heart, only worsened by the unhealable wound from Weathertop. He finds he has saved the Shire, saved even the world, and yet this brings no satisfaction. The Shire is saved, but not for him. His will to live, his vitality as a hobbit is drained. There is no other choice for him, but to depart.
I have not even scratched the surface. Tolkien’s Concept of Loss is so great and intricate, it would be pointless to attempt to unravel it. But in the unravelling, would its poingancy survive?