J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lessons on Friendship
At the end of The Lord of the Rings the Hobbits Samwise, Merry, and Pippin find themselves facing the loss of two of their closest friends as Frodo and Gandalf prepare to travel into the west across the sea to the land of the undying. Naturally, this causes much distress for the young Hobbits as friends they have grown so fond of are passing out of their story. In response to this sadness comes one of the great lines of literature. “It will be better,” Gandalf tells them, “to ride back three together than one alone. Well, 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.”
This passage has always stuck out to me. Coming at the very end of the story, it provides a fitting conclusion to one of the greatest books ever written. It is full of emotion and manages to relay many truths of life and friendship within this emotion. As a recent college graduate it has been constantly on my mind. I have found myself reading over it constantly and seeking to understand it. In many ways this passage seems to speak to and carry many of the same emotions I have found during commencement. For much like the Hobbits, commencement is a time when one realizes that the friends they have made over four years at college now must go their separate ways. No longer will they always be around. Oftentimes they do not know when they might be together again.
The starting place for the emotions of the Hobbits is the great friendships they have with one another. These friendships have been forged, tested, and strengthened in the course of their journey to destroy the One Ring. In other words, the Hobbits found themselves on a journey together. Throughout this journey their relationships grew and they in turn learned to love and care for one another as their journey progressed.
That does not mean that they did not already possess a sort of friendship before this journey. It is clear from The Fellowship of the Ring that the Hobbits have known each other and begin their journey with a great admiration for one another. However, by highlighting this journey, Tolkien hits upon the true meaning of friendship, reflecting the Aristotelian idea that the highest form of friendship is one of virtue. In a true friendship, each person acts with virtue and loves the other not simply because of their usefulness or ability to provide pleasure, but rather because the virtue within each person generates love between one another. Within this, friends journey or seek virtue together. As such, friendship is a sort of journey that seeks toward that which is good, true, and beautiful. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien expresses this through a literal journey. In this he shows that true friendship is a journey and as friends travel through life together their love and affection for each other grows.
Another important thing that is brought about by this ending is the strain that distance puts on relationships. It is universally known that leaving those you care about most is difficult. As the Lord says after the creation of Adam “it is not good that man should be alone.” Man needs community, an essential part of which is being with those people you truly care for. This means spending time with those true friends who are with you on the journey towards that which is good. More and more our modern society has sought to replace genuine community with gadgets that give one the illusion of being together. Screens and text messages can never replace a face-to-face conversation. Zoom and FaceTime can never replace being in the presence of someone you love. They merely offer the illusion of being with those one cares about. They can be good as a temporary arrangement, but man cannot ultimately live life behind technology. People need true human contact, and from this the pain of separation can indeed be great. This is reflected in the great sadness the Hobbits feel when faced with this separation.
At the end of The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits do not know if they will ever see Frodo or Gandalf again. These important figures in their lives are preparing for a journey on which they cannot follow. This is an extremely difficult reality for any person to face. Distance will put a strain on their relationship, but as Gandalf suggests, it will not destroy it. As Gandalf notes, the Fellowship has ended “in Middle-earth,” but it will not fully cease to exist. It has merely moved from point to another. The physical nature of the friendship has changed, but these friends will be eternally bound by love. This idea of togetherness is expressed by Gandalf. As he tells them, “it will be better to ride back three together than one alone.” Here he reasserts this idea that life must be experienced with others, not alone. Being alone is not good, especially in the toughest moments of our life.
From this fact of the pain of distance comes perhaps the most important lesson in the passage: “not all tears are an evil.” At first glance this phrase appears very strange. Most people view crying as the result of pain or hardship. This quote does not deny that fact, but instead serves as a means of enlightening that fact of man. Gandalf suggests crying, when rightly understood, is good. In this sense it is easy to see. The Hobbits cry because their close friends are leaving. Upon first glance this would seem to be an evil. They are being separated and are uncertain if they will ever be reunited. The friends they have come to know and love will no longer be present in their lives. This deprivation seems to be quite evil for those who are deprived. But this deprivation is only a part of the story. The underlying cause of the pain in this case is the immense love and respect the Hobbits have for each other. A man can be deprived of something he has never known and it will not bother him. Even more than this he can be deprived of something which has always been in his life but he never has cared for. In these instances it would be ridiculous and disorderly to shed tears. However, friendship is one of the highest things for man. When it reaches the level of true friendship this becomes even more true. Read from this point of view, Gandalf’s meaning becomes clear. The Hobbits are crying out of the love they bear those who are departing. This greatest of goods is the root cause of these tears, and one can never claim that love is evil. From this the Hobbits are able to experience a “sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness.” In his conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien manages to encompass one of humanity’s most universal experiences. Friendship is one of the most basic needs of the human person. Because of this and the nature of the world, all men are separated from their friends at some points. In many cases, this separation lasts the rest of their lives. Tolkien would have us remember how the true meaning of friendship is the cause of the pain that is felt upon separation. In this we can see that, indeed, “not all tears are an evil.”
About the Author
Samuel Stone is a Hillsdale College graduate who majored in politics. He currently is getting his masters from St. John’s College.