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In all of Christopher Tolkien's labors to edit and publish his father's unpublished writings, one of the unsung jewels is the original ending of The Lord of the Rings.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
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.
Know a Tolkien fan? Pass the word about this obscure bit of Lord of the Rings Trivia!
walibooks on May 11, 2015:
Tim Bader from Surrey, UK on May 01, 2013:
I didn't know about this alternative, but I have always loved the "well, I'm back" line.
...So much so, that when Sam said it in the movie, it brought a tear to my eye!
TanoCalvenoa on April 06, 2013:
Interesting, I didn't know about the other ending that Tolkien had considered.
MusicMadness LM on March 27, 2013:
I must admit, the published ending is better. But it is interesting to hear of another ending Tolkien was dreaming up.
eightieschild on March 18, 2013:
I've read LOTR around 20 times, and love it, as well as The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, but never knew about this missing epilogue, so thank you so much for sharing this. I'll definitely be checking out one of the books that contain it.
Also, just wanted to let you know that I've included this on my "Coolest Squidoo Lenses" lens. :)
anonymous on January 27, 2013:
Thanks for keeping the conversation alive, just like a true fan!!!
Vilja from Helsinki on September 03, 2012:
I feel just like you do. The ending of the book as it is is great, but I loved the excluded ending and can't help but wish it had been included. Sam was my favourite character and I am completely emotionally invested in his happiness, family, legacy... everything the alternate ending gave us a glimpse of.
Cassidy Wadsworth on May 17, 2012:
I had no idea there was an alternate ending, and it's going to bug me now until I find it. Great job on this lens!
RylanPkns on February 20, 2012:
YOU MEAN THERE'S ANOTHER ONE?!!? ZOMG THIS IS AWESOME! *looks up*
tinw (author) from Middle Earth on February 01, 2012:
@M Schaut: I read them over and over every year from childhood. I am both grateful and vexed with Christopher Tolkien for publishing vast reams of his father's unfinished stories, notes, and histories of Middle-earth -- it's fascinating stuff, but there's so much more to know now, making the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit only the tip of the iceberg!
Margaret Schaut from Detroit on January 31, 2012:
I read the whole set annually for many years and read them to my children. Some of the most wonderful stories ever written. Favorite page. Thanks!
PeterStip on January 12, 2012:
good info, always interesting to read such details from the lord of the rings, thanks for the lens
giacomodonati on October 01, 2011:
Really interesting, thank you for sharing this alternative ending...
Bill from Gold Coast, Australia on April 21, 2011:
Wow, this is great to know as a LOTR fan. I will have to get the end of the third age book now I think!
Oliversbabycarecouk on February 15, 2011:
i did not know this, i will have to seek it out. great lens
emmaklarkins on February 13, 2011:
I love Lord of the Rings! I never knew about the extra bit at the end. Blessed!
daoine lm on February 13, 2011:
I had no idea! Blessed by the Fantasy Books SquidAngel :-)