“Well, I’m back.”
Not including the six appendices, these are the last words of the final chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They’re spoken by Sam Gamgee to his wife Rosie as he returns from seeing Frodo and the rest of the Ring-bearers depart from the Grey Havens into the True West. Implied, but not overtly stated, is that they “lived happily ever after,” all the days of their lives. But what did that happily ever after look like for the four hole-dwelling halflings and the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring? What happened to them all after The Lord of the Rings?
As for Samwise, Frodo’s final words proved exactly right in every respect. Prior to the hobbits’ road trip to the Grey Havens, Sam read the first page of the manuscript Frodo had been working on, and Bilbo before him, recounting the events of the Quest to Erebor and the War of the Ring as seen from the perspective of the five little folk, as well as translations of elvish tales dating back to the First Age. Frodo had titled it “The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King.” Nicknamed the Redbook of Westmarch, a copy of this was Tolkien’s quote/unquote “source” for his fictions set in Middle-earth, from the familiar Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to The Silmarillion and other obscure asides like Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.
Upon reading the title, Sam remarked that the book was just about finished, to which Frodo replied, “I have quite finished, Sam. The last pages are for you.” It was contributing to these final pages that Sam spent a significant portion of his later life, and his attestation forms the basis for how we have knowledge of the final fates of the Fellowship. In addition to passing along his unfinished tales, Frodo also told Sam during their final parting at the Havens, “Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin… You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history.”
This too proved prescient, with Sam and his descendants taking the surname Gardner, making him quite literally the most famous in history. He named his next five children exactly as Frodo foresaw, though didn’t stop there; he and Rosie bred more like rabbits than hobbits, their large litter totaling thirteen kids.
Sam was elected the Mayor of the Shire in the sixth year of the Fourth Age, the first of seven consecutive seven year terms holding the office, a record rivalled only by the ten terms of Jerry Gergich of Pawnee, Indiana. During his tenure, one of the duties of Mayor became serving as an official counsellor to the king – a duty also shared in the Shire by the Thain and the Master of Buckland, offices filled in Sam’s day by former Fellowship members Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck, respectively. Despite Frodo having taken the “last ship” into the West, Sam too was granted passage to the Undying Lands on account of him having briefly been a Ring-bearer between the time that the she-spider Shelob seemingly killed Frodo to the two hobbits’ reunification in the tower of Cirith Ungol. Thus, in the year 61 of the Fourth Age, Sam took the Straight Road to the Lonely Island, following his master quite literally to the ends of the earth.
Some two years later, Merry handed down his office of Master of Buckland to his son, and his close companion Pippin likewise passed the title of Thain to his heir, Faramir Took. Just a few years shy of a hundred and eleventy, the two trekked across the vastness of Eriador, repeating the same general sojourn from the Shire to Rohan to Gondor. While in Edoras, Merry – who during the war had served the Roharrim as the squire to King Théoden himself – spent time with Théoden’s nephew and successor, King Éomer, who himself passed away that autumn. From there the two progressed to Minas Tirith, where the noble knight sir Peregrin Took himself had served as a Guard of the Citadel. There they spent their final years, being buried alongside the Stewards and the Kings of Gondor.
As a King of Gondor himself, Aragorn too would eventually be interred in the tombs there, but not for several score more years. In 120 of the Fourth Age, on his two hundredth and tenth birthday, after a hundred and twenty-two year reign over the Reunited Kingdom as King Elessar, he decided to die. But he didn’t commit suicide or sepukku or anything. He simply possessed such unique strength of will among all mortal men that he was able to willingly sunder his spirit from his body and the world at the appointed hour. This is actually what also had happened to Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam, after their long retirement in the so-called Undying Lands. Per Tolkien:
“[It was] an opportunity for dying according to the original plan for the unfallen: they went to a state in which they could acquire greater knowledge and peace of mind, and being healed of all hurts both of mind and body, could at last surrender themselves: die of free will, and even of desire, in estel. A thing which Aragorn achieved without any such aid.”
That Aragorn achieved this is particularly fitting given that his childhood nickname while growing up in Rivendell was Estel, an elvish word meaning hope, particularly the kind of hope for a good outcome despite all evidence to the contrary other than a trust in God’s goodness. You see, unlike Elves, who knew they would continue to enjoy longevity and continual reincarnation for the duration of the solar system, nothing was promised to the Men of Middle-earth after they died: not heaven, or a resurrection, or respawning at the last checkpoint. Nothing. So Aragorn’s decision to die really was the ultimate trust fall, one which could possibly end in his utter annihilation and non-existence.
But not everyone was as hopeful as he was, particularly the wife he was willingly widowing, Queen Arwen. She alone was beside him at his deathbed, begging him to live longer and not leave her. But to the truly bitter end Aragorn remained every bit as steadfast in his strength of character as he had throughout the War of the Ring. His final words before dying reiterated that hope: “Let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farwell!”
With that, the king was dead. Tolkien described it thusly: “Then a great beauty was revealed in him, so that all who after came there looked on him in wonder; for they saw that the grace of his youth, and the valour of his manhood, and the wisdom and majesty of his age were blended together. And long there he lay, an image of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.”
Utterly bereaved, Arwen left Gondor and returned to her longtime home of Lothlórien, by then deserted and decaying, emptied of all its elven magic. There – upon what was once the hill where Galadriel and Celeborn had reigned over the land, and where Arwen and Aragorn had promised themselves to one another, she renouncing her immortality in doing so – there she laid down and died as a mortal woman. So that subplot in the movies where Elrond doesn’t want Aragorn hooking up with his daughter? This is the thing Elrond was worried about. Arwen could’ve been with her dad on the Lonely Island sunbathing and sipping daiquiris for a few more millenia, but instead, she actually for real died, something which simply does not happen to the other elves for as long as the world lasts.
Arwen was not the only close companion of Aragorn to take his passing particularly hard. The death of the king was the catalyst which convinced Legolas to finally leave Middle-earth. During the post-War years, Legolas and Gimli had travelled together for some time back to Fangorn Forest and the Glittering Caves behind Helm’s Deep. Legolas spent the majority of his last century establishing a colony of Silvan elves in Ithilien, the woodland region of Gondor between the Anduin river and the mountains or Mordor, which had been devastated during Sauron’s return. Under Legolas; leadership it “became once again the fairest country in all the westlands.”
Gimli likewise led a colony of his own, bringing Longbeard dwarves descended from Durin to the Glittering Caves. Unlike the stereotypical greedy mining and smithing of other dwarves like those of Moria and Erebor, Gimli’s folk were far more ecologically-minded, tending the jewel-encrusted columns of stalactites and stalagmites almost like a Japanese gardner gently trimming a bonsai tree. Nevertheless, they did produce enough mithril with which to forge new gates for Minas Tirith to replace those felled by the Witch-king.
Still, when Aragorn had died, Legolas at last heeded the call of the sea that had haunted his heart ever since first hearing the cry of gulls when he and Gimli had helped Aragorn capture the corsairs at Pelargir. He built a grey ship with which to sail over the Sea along the Straight Road to the Undying Lands, asking Gimli to join him, the only dwarf ever to enjoy that honor. And as it passed over the horizon, so too, over a century after the Nine Walker were all last together, finally ended the days of the Fellowship of the Ring in Middle-earth.
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Canonically, the most recent event to take place in Tolkien’s Middle-earth is whatever the hell is happening right now. That’s because, contrary to the mistaken assumption of many readers, Middle-earth is not another planet, nor “a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in.” Tolkien described it rather as an imaginary period of time taking place in our real world. This should be evident to those who have read even as far as the Prologue of Lord of the Rings, wherein Tolkien places the Shire in the northwest of Earth’s eastern hemisphere, approximately where England is today, albeit in a distant past, such that the shape of the surrounding lands is no longer quite the same. As to how distant of a past, Tolkien estimated that the final fall of Sauron took place approximately six millenia prior to the present period, and opined that if he were to date known history along the same paradigm as his imaginary past, we would now be living sometime in the Sixth or Seventh Age.
Non-canonically, Tolkien did write a story that would have taken place at the end of the reign of King Eldarion, about one hundred years after the death of his father Aragorn. This would-be sequel to The Lord of the Rings was to be titled The New Shadow, and would have been a thriller detailing the discovery and dismantling of satanic orc-cults among the youths of Gondor. Despite making three manuscripts of the story over the years, Tolkien never eked out more than thirteen pages of the tale, and ultimately abandoned it as a tale not worth writing – though the aborted first chapter was later posthumously published by his son Christopher in Book Twelve of his History of Middle-earth.
And now for another bonus fact:
There may be one canonical event in the Legendarium which has yet to take place. Though it appears nowhere in the published Silmarillion (an editorial decision made by Christopher Tolkien), many of the manuscripts contained the Prophecy of Mandos concerning Dagor Dagorath, a Sindarin phrase meaning “The Battle of Battles.” Basically, Ragnarök meets Revelation. Per the prophecy:
“When the world is old and the Powers have grown weary, Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World, seeing that the guard sleepeth, shall come back through the Door of the Night out of the Timeless Void; and all shall be darkness, for the sun he will turn to black, and the moon will no longer shed his light… But the Host of Valinor shall descend upon him as a searing flame, white and terrible. Then shall the Last Battle be gathered on the fields of Valinor.”
And now for a final bonus fact:
The notion that the divine plan for Mankind, had it not Fallen under the Shadow of evil, was for all to die in the willing manner of Aragorn, is not necessarily gospel-truth within the fiction. Tolkien himself spent much of his later years meditating on the metaphysics of how his fiction function, with specific emphasis on the nature of Elves and Men.
Circa his writing of the trilogy, Tolkien’s perspective of mankind’s mortality within the fiction was that “…the mere shortness of human life-span – is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore spiritually, since the body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man’s nature.” This he admitted at the time was “bad theology… but it is an imagination capable of elucidating truth, and a legitimate basis of legends.” Later in life, however, he labored to write new legends that could better conform to his Catholic worldview.
These were “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth” and the associated “Tale of Adanel.” During the debate the Elf Finrod dispels the misconstructions of the mortal woman Andreth, explaining that Elves are not truly immortal, but merely experience “serial longevity,” and no matter how many millennia of life they enjoy, it’s always haunted by the notion that death will truly take them in the end. For her part, Andreth corrects his misconception that humanity’s desire for immortality was born of jealousy for the elves, explaining that before the two races ever met, men had long told themselves the legend that they were originally created to outlive the sun and stars and material universe altogether, existing eternally “without any shadow of an end.” The Tale of Adanel details how Sauron’s master Morgoth seduced the first humans away from worship of God to himself instead, and God’s subsequent imposition of mortality upon mankind, contra their original design as immortals.
“The Debate” concludes with what is the most explicitly Catholic part of any of Tolkien’s Legendarium. Andreth alludes to the Old Hope that “…the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” In his own commentary on the text, Tolkien elaborated that Finrod concluded from the exchange that the original design for unfallen humans must have been to still live life on earth for a short duration relative to that of elves, but then for every man to experience bodily assumption outside of time and space in the manner of Mary, mother of Jesus.