07 August 2014

'Well, I'm back.'

Everyone who has read The Lord of the Rings remembers the ending well.  Frodo has sailed off into the West with the Elves, leaving Sam, Merry, and Pippin behind on the hither shore, listening to the sea.

At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards, and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire, but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road.
At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland, and already they were singing again as they went.  But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as the day was ending once more.  And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected.  And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath.  'Well, I'm back,' he said.
(RK 6.ix.1031)

The last line we all know and love, and I daresay many of us have murmured it to ourselves, or even said it aloud, when we came home from some long journey of our own.  The words allow the book to culminate in a satisfying moment, a homely moment as Tolkien might have said, in which the hero (yes) tells us that he is back again.

But we should stop to consider how the last two paragraphs set up this line.  First read the lines again.  Read them aloud.  They have a balance and a cadence given to them by all those 'ands' and commas, slowly rolling and full of rests, which allow the brief final line to bring resolution to the whole.

To start with, the first paragraph, which is a single sentence, and the first sentence of the second paragraph echo each other in style and structure.  Both open with the words 'at last', to give a sense of completion and relief.  Both continue with three coordinate clauses linked by 'and,' which balance the final steps of their journey and lend them equal emphasis. So far so good, in fine, old rhetorical style.

Then Tolkien nicely varies the structure of the paragraphs to reflect the action, while still preserving the echo and, in effect, the parallelism.  In the first paragraph Merry, Pippin, and Sam are still together, and their companionship is an important source of solace for them. So Tolkien gives us a final clause, a fourth independent clause, separated by a comma and a 'but' which signals that it is closely connected to what went before, but also that it is a connection with a difference.  In the second paragraph, however, Merry and Pippin quickly part company with Sam, and so the independent clause beginning 'But' also begins a new sentence emphasizing that separation.  The 'but' clauses are no longer truly parallel, though they feel and sound that way.

And now that Sam is on his own, Tolkien further heightens the style.  Starting with 'And he went on,' we get three sets of coordinate clauses split over two sentences, and not only are the clauses within each set linked by 'and,' but the clauses themselves are also each introduced by 'and.'  Together they nicely set up the two short, simple sentences of the last line. (Punctuating a paragraph with a short sentence at the end is something Tolkien excels at.)

Nor is that all.  For these two paragraphs set up the concluding words in substance as well as style.  The first paragraph is about returning from a wider world and not looking back.  The friends and comrades who belong to that world, or who no longer belong to the world of the Shire, are gone.  Their adventures are done.  The second paragraph is about returning to a world that is smaller, and somewhat changed -- as they themselves are -- but still very much their own.  And the descriptions hark back to details mentioned earlier in the last two chapters.

The singing of Merry and Pippin 'already' and 'again' as they head off to Buckland recalls to us 'the two young Travellers [who] cut a great dash in the Shire with their songs and tales and finery, and their wonderful parties,' in the house at Crickhollow which they share (RK 6.ix.1025).1  Sam is 'expected' by Rosie back in the bliss of Bag End, just as, when he first returned, she said she had been 'expecting [him] since the spring' (RK 6.viii.1008).  And of course The Grey Havens is the chapter in which we see Sam marry, start a family, and become master of the house in which he had served.  It is all this that he comes back to.  This is the grace that the sacrifice of Frodo obtained (RK 6.ix.1029; cf. FR 1.ii.62).

But there is also a more distant correspondence here that we often miss.  For this is not the first time we have seen Sam walk home of an evening.  In The Shadow of the Past we find Sam, whom we have never met before,2 having a pint3 of beer at The Green Dragon in Bywater.  There he is eager to discuss the troubling rumors of the world outside and the 'sailing, sailing, sailing' of the Elves into the West never to return.  But his drinking companions scorn and laugh at such news as 'fireside-tales and children's stories' (FR 1.ii.44), recounted by people who are 'cracked' (Bilbo and Frodo), and which at any rate have no relevance at all to the Shire (FR 1.ii.45).  But their scoffing makes no impression on him.

Sam sat silent and said no more.  He had a good deal to think about. For one thing there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared.  The grass was growing fast.  But Sam had more on his mind than gardening.  After a while he sighed, and got up and went out.
It was early April and the sky was now clearing after heavy rain.  The sun was down, and a cool pale evening was quietly fading into night.  He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully.
(FR 1.ii.45)
Here, too, Sam is looking forward, and tomorrow will indeed be a busy day.  For while trimming that fast growing grass, he will overhear Frodo and Gandalf speaking about the Ring, and be drawn into that wider world and larger tale from which he see him returning 'at last' in The Grey Havens.


1The parties of Merry and Pippin in their house at Crickhollow are also reminiscent of the 'lively' annual birthday parties of Frodo and Bilbo mentioned back in FR 1.i.22, even before the great party of the first chapter.

2Sam has been mentioned before, by his father in the earlier pub scene in A Long-Expected Party (FR 1.i.22-24), but the relationship between that scene and this one is a topic for another day.

3Yes, it comes in pints, as the Gaffer could have explained (FR 1.i.24): 'There's some not far away that wouldn't offer a pint of beer to a friend, if they lived in a hole with golden walls.'

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