Tolkein’s View On Death: The Grey Havens

“Where are you going, Master?” cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.

To the Havens, Sam,” said Frodo.

“And I can’t come.”

“No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens…Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”

“But,” said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.”

“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. Come now, ride with me!”

Then they were led to the Havens, and there was a white ship lying, and upon the quay beside a great grey horse stood a figure robed all in white awaiting them – Gandalf. 

“Well,” said Gandalf; “here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. The grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.

– JRR Tolkein, Return of the King “The Grey Havens”

Tolkein, in his unparalleled skill, portrays the final journey we all take from both vantage points. We see the wonder and solace that Frodo finds upon sailing into the Undying Lands, but also see the pain and heart ache of Sam, left at the dock before a stormy sea. When death comes, we must comfort ourselves that those we love will, like Frodo, have all pains and problems healed and will finally rest with Christ in eternity. But, we must also be honest about the difficulty of saying goodbye to those that we dearly love, and not feel guilty for not being more happy about them being in a “better place”. That severance is a true pain that cannot be dismissed, and is evidence that we really loved the person we lost.

That is a pain that I think God wants us to experience because (1) it reminds us that this world is not our home. When someone we love passes, there is an underlying frustration in our hearts that whispers through gritted teeth: this isn’t supposed to happen. And that is true – we weren’t made to die, but because of sin we do. But there will be a day when sin and death are wiped away, forever (Rev. 21:4). (2) The pain, mingled with our love, makes our joy the sweeter. “Not all tears are an evil.” If we believe that those that we love really are going to the true Undying Lands, and that one day we shall too, then we can swallow the bitter reality of death, and speak of its sweetness. How? Jesus Christ disarmed death, so that now death is our servant (1 Cor. 3:21-22). Is it painful? Absolutely. But there is an anticipation that comes with knowing that one day all of the pain will be undone, and be eclipsed by the joy that comes from dwelling with Jesus, forever. And that creates a yearning inside of us, amidst the sadness, that blossoms into joy.

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