Lord of the Rings: The True Ending
The Lost Epilogue of Return of the King
In all of Christopher Tolkien's labors to edit and publish his father's unpublished writings, one of the unsung jewels is the original ending of The Lord of the Rings.
Perhaps I should not call it the "true" ending, since J.R.R. Tolkien was continually rewriting up until his publisher cried "enough!" and seized the manuscripts from his hands. Nor would I have the gall to quibble with the published version, Sam Gamgee's simple yet eloquent, "Well, I'm back." He sums up so much in those three words: the return of Sam the hero, the fact that Frodo (and Arwen) cannot return, and the fact that all the labors and losses in The Lord of the Rings did not simply return a king to his kingdom but also ordinary, decent people to their simple lives.
It's the perfect ending to the book, as far as narrative structure is concerned. It just isn't quite the end of the story.
(Artist's note: yes, I'm afraid I drew that doodle many years ago.)
How Tolkien Meant to End the Saga - There and Back Again, With an Emphasis on "Back"
In J.R.R. Tolkien's manuscript of The Lord of the Rings, Sam's return to Bag-end and his family is not the ending of Return of the King. Nor is the true ending found in the Appendices, although the heart-wrenching "Tale of Aragorn and Arwen" carries forward the events of the saga even further.
Immediately after the words, "Well, I'm back," is a scene set seventeen years later. Sam, Rosie and their children have just celebrated the fifteenth birthday of Elanor, Sam's firstborn child named by Frodo shortly before he left Middle-earth. Sam answers his children's eager questions about what happened to all his old friends, and has a brief heart-to-heart talk with Elanor. The story ends with Sam and his wife together in the doorway of Bag-End, discussing that faithful day when Frodo cast the Ring into the fire, and both Rosie and Sam were thinking of each other in their darkest hour.
Tolkien dropped the ending on the firm advice of friends and editor shortly before The Lord of the Rings went to press. He regretted leaving out the scene, but he understood that multiple endings would be a sputtering finish. As a storyteller, he knew the scene in Bag-End was basically a package to deliver "In case you'd like to know" information, not really serving the dramatic structure of the whole saga as a powerful "Finis."
A Small Excerpt of the Epilogue
A Conversation Between Elanor and Sam Gamgee
'Good night, Sam-dad. But--'
'I don't want good night but,' said Sam.
'But won't you show it me first? I was going to say.'
'Show you what, dear?'
'The King's letter, of course. You have had it now more than a week.'
Sam sat up. 'Good gracious!' he said. 'How stories do repeat themselves! And you get paid back in your own coin and all. How we spied on poor Mr. Frodo! And now our own spy on us, meaning no more harm than we did, I hope. But how do you know about it?'
Christopher Tolkien has spent most of his life painstakingly editing, annotating and publishing his father's work posthumously. Much of this material is dry and dense, and all but die-hard fans and Tolkien scholars would not be interested enough to plow through it. Sauron Defeated, Book IX of HOME, is no exception. Thanks to graduate school, I have a higher tolerance for footnotes than most, yet even I have not gotten around to reading all of Sauron Defeated. Unfortunately, this is the volume in which you will find the Epilogue I just described.
Luckily, Christopher Tolkien also published the Epilogue in a much shorter volume, The End of the Third Age, which simply covers the rough drafts and revisions of The Return of the King from Frodo and Sam's final scene in Mordor through the Epilogue. There are also a few fun tidbits like Tolkien's own sketches of Orthanc and Dunharrow.
Have You Read the Original Ending of LOTR? - Lord of the Rings fan survey
Have you read the Epilogue of Lord of the Rings?
Why I Love the Epilogue
I treasure the epilogue for four reasons.
First, as a lover of The Lord of the Rings, I like to know what happened to all the characters.
Second, the letter from Aragorn to Sam is the longest piece of Sindarin Elvish (with translation) in all of Tolkien's writings. It is still not very long, but it is our most important source for the language, since Tolkien was usually careful not to inflict too much Elvish on his non-Elvish-speaking readers. It's also fun to read a snatch of Aragorn's grand, courtly style after he becomes good King Elessar-- a king who has not forgotten his friends, and who holds them in the highest regard.
Third, the scene spotlights Elanor, one of the strongest and most vividly realized female characters in Tolkien's male-centric writing. She's a sharp young lady! Her mother gets a voice too, briefly. For a moment they cease to be background figures and prove to be quite likable.
Finally, the true ending of the story both is and is not a "they lived happily ever after" moment, a tender conversation between Sam and Rosie after their children are tucked in bed. The last line is lovely yet haunting, a more subtle note to end on. I will not spoil it for you; seek it out.