The end of the Lord of the Rings is bittersweet. After our four hobbits have been through so much, Frodo leaves them all behind and boards a boat to the Undying Lands, known as Aman to the elves. “Don’t go where I can’t follow,” Sam tells him in The Two Towers after Frodo has been attacked by Shelob. A book later, Frodo does exactly that.
A brief snippet of good news before we get to the bad, young Samwise can actually follow Frodo to the Undying Lands due to the fact he briefly bore the Ring. And he does, taking up the elves’ offer after he and Rosie have had their fun in Middle-earth. By fun I mean shagging. Seriously, the prolific pair had 13 children, did they not have a telly? Anyway, he follows Frodo and Bilbo to the West, and Gimli later joins them.
Before we look into what happens over in the Undying Lands, we need to ask why. Why are these mortals allowed into the lands of the Valar? It’s a little complicated, but we can work it out from Tolkien’s notes. But firstly, there’s precedent.
Eärendil and Elwing arrived in Valinor during the First Age to ask for the Valar’s (they’re gods not dissimilar to the Greek pantheon) help in defeating Morgoth. They are a special case, however, both being half-elven. Eärendil is descended from Tuor and Idril Celebrindal (the latter of whom is of the Ñoldorin flavour of elves), and Elwing Beren and Lúthien (the latter of whom is a Sindarin elf). Still, the Ñoldor were exiled from Aman, so Eärendil had no place to be in Valinor from either of his heritages.
Mandos, the Vala who cares for the spirits of the dead, suggests that the usual fate for mortals who make the journey West is death, asking Manwë, the greatest Vala, “Shall mortal Man step living upon the undying lands, and yet live?” Manwë decided that yes, Eärendil and Elwing should live, but they would have to choose which race they belonged to. Both choose the immortal life of the elves – who wouldn’t? – and it seems Manwë looked kindly on them due to the fact they came to Valinor not for selfish reasons, but to unite the Two Kindreds of elves and men and to seek help. It seems that their humility and selflessness saved them – and this is why many believe Aman is an equivalent to Tolkien’s Catholic heaven. Mortals passing into this realm without permission are sinning – it’s a sacred realm after all – but Eärendil and Elwing’s pure intentions are deemed worthy of forgiveness.
It’s worth noting that Eärendil’s father, Tuor, also sailed West, but considering Eärendil was “the first of living Men” to land on the immortal shores, according to The Silmarillion, we can assume that Tuor sadly did not make the journey.
With this in mind, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam were granted passage (this permission is why they do not need to ask forgiveness upon arrival) to Aman due to being ringbearers and therefore “have played some great part in Elvish affairs” (Tolkien, Letter 154). In this letter, Tolkien also notes that Gimli is “a unique exception,” entering the Undying Lands purely on the notion of being Legolas’ mate and a “servant” of Galadriel. Turns out simping can get you places. This is mirrored in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien describes Gimli’s ascension to Aman as being “strange indeed.” Tolkien writes that Galadriel may have had a word with the big bosses, but ultimately he doesn’t know – “more cannot be said of this matter.”
However, there’s bad news. I did warn you this was coming. It has come to my attention that many people who read the books or watch The Lord of the Rings films assume that Frodo, once arrived in the Undying Lands, is granted immortality. I mean, it does say “undying”. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably guessed, that’s not the case.
Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, and Gimli all go West to die. Living in Aman extends their life somewhat, so Sam could have met Frodo one last time, but this is not the happy ending you think it is. This is all described by Tolkien in Letter 325:
“As for Frodo or other mortals, they could only dwell in Aman for a limited time – whether brief or long. The Valar had neither the power nor the right to confer 'immortality' upon them. Their sojourn was a 'purgatory', but one of peace and healing and they would eventually pass away (die at their own desire and of free will) to destinations of which the Elves knew nothing.”
Elves who make the journey – the likes of Legolas, Elrond, and Galadriel – are immortal due to, you know, them being elves, but mortals are mortal, even in the hallowed lands of the West. While Aman is a heaven of sorts for elves, Valar, and their selected guests, nothing can prevent a mortal’s death.
Frodo and friends likely made Tol Eressëa their home for their remaining days, along with whatever elves already lived there. But now, after their passing, it’s only home to the world’s smallest graveyard, and their four headstones will be all that remains of their lives. At least we have the stories to remember them by.
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