Warning: This letter contains (many!) spoilers of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel and film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
Have you ever had a story just humming along, when you realize your ending is like a horizon, constantly remaining just out of reach?
My crackpot hypothesis about that is it’s a sign. It’s time to start deciding how the story will end. Not the exact scene or sentence, but thematically, emotionally.
One way out is to just choose three or four possible themes and notes, and then rough them out, and see what happens.
Put another way, try Lord of the Rings-ing it.
If somehow you have not seen Peter Jackson’s 11-hour, three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, the final movie The Return of the King actually ends five—five! — times. Each with its own distinct mood.
Ending No. 1: The survivors of the Fellowship of the Ring reunite in a gauzy, sunlit room, overjoyed to find each other alive. Many stories about war or odysseys end this way, with companions reunited in victory. It’s an ending of elation, and triumph, and it infers (without showing) that the world will heal.
Apparently, inference wasn’t good enough, so onto…
Ending No 2: Aragorn is crowned king before the Fellowship and a crowd that’s basically the United Nations for Middle Earth. Rose petals cascading around him, he talks of unity, reunites with his beloved, and kneels before the four Hobbits, prompting the entire crowd to do the same. This ending is victory and unity and honor, with a touch of romance.
But wait, there’s more!
Ending No. 3 follows the Hobbits home to the Shire, where they return to their favorite pub, and celebrate Sam-Wise’s wedding, and they realize, everything is restored, and nothing is. This ending gives the audience the satisfaction of seeing the Hobbits safely home, while also acknowledging war changes people.
Which leads us to …
Ending No 4: Four years (!) later, Frodo leaves Middle Earth, heading into the Undying Lands with the Elves, Gandalf, and his uncle Bilbo. “We set out to save the Shire,” he says, “and it has been saved — but not for me.” His Hobbit friends wave and sob as he and Gandalf sail off into a golden sunset. This takes the triumph and homecoming, and makes them bittersweet.
Still, Jackson was not done.
Sam-Wise returns to his wife and children after seeing Frodo off, gazes out at the Shire, and says, “Well, I’m back,” the last line of Tolkien’s novel.
Unless you’re Peter Jackson, you won’t get away writing a story with five endings. Unity and romance? Bittersweet homecoming? Joyful reunion? You will eventually have to choose.
But sometimes the best way to navigate your way to it is to map out several destinations, and point your sail toward the one that feels like home.
Dean of Faculty