One does not simply walk into Mordor. We all know this, everyone knows this. The road to Mount Doom is treacherous. Every step brings confusion and terror. And yet we pretend it is so, that one can walk in, and can then walk out again, unchanged.
It starts so simply, so small. You find a ring, or someone leaves you one in an envelope. It appears under your pillow, or under your heart. You pay no mind. It’s a ring, nothing more. But you wonder sometimes, in the still hours of the night, what that ring might mean. If you have a puzzle, you ask a wizard. Everyone knows that. The wizard tells you that sometimes a ring is just a ring, but even the wizard wonders. The wizard does a few tests, tries a few things. The wizard finds tiny magical letters encircling the ring, written in the language of genetics, harbingers of doom. Something must be done.
The solution, of course, is fire. Throw the ring into the volcano, melt it down, get rid of it forever, or die trying. The wizard sets you onto on the long road to Mount Doom, helps you along. You assemble a traveling party, one or a few of each kind: the oncologist, the surgeon, the radiation specialist. (Secretly, you were hoping for an elf, but none appears.) Your party travels along with you, but you are the only one who can carry the ring. Even your best friend can’t touch it. (Not everyone has a magic ring. Does this make you special? Do you want to be special?)
Nobody, not even the wizard, tells you that the road is formed of poison, pain, and the kind of bone-deep exhaustion that a lifetime of napping cannot touch. If they told you that, you might stay home instead, in your cozy little hobbit hole, with your delightful garden, while the ring devoured you from the inside out. Sometimes, on steep and rocky cliffs when the pouring rain and the slippery, loose shale threaten to send you toppling, you think it might have been worth it.
You are bundled off along the road, dragged along by your new companions. No journey goes smoothly, and nothing is ever what it seems. You encounter wraiths with poison daggers that turn your eyelids numb and freeze your fingers. Elven travel bread tastes surprisingly like buttered toast, but even then you can barely stomach it. Wraith venom haunts you, until you long for the scent of kingsfoil. You will never again eat buttered toast without tasting poison on your tongue; elven waybread is not for you.
Mount Doom looms ever closer, but the road winds on forever and a day. The wraiths become old friends, traveling along with you, and you wrap them in your blankets at night. Their hands are clammy and cold, fingers trailing tubing and wires. (After enough hours, you will no longer notice the beeping.) It’s hard to sleep cuddled up with a wraith, but you manage, mostly.
The ring is always there. It is part of you. You can feel it. The wizard looks in your eyes, squeezes your numb fingers, senses the taint in your blood. Nonetheless, you are deemed fit to continue.
The watchtower at the foot of the mountain holds the last friendly faces. You rest there, make plans, try to prepare. The path up the mountain is steep, and you will need all the strength you can muster. They tell you what the path is like, but they have never walked it. They only watch, waiting to see whether you climb or fall. You take the first step, and the second. Fire lurks inside the mountain, bursting out along the road. It burns you as you climb, melting away your hair, draining your energy. You sit beside the road, knowing that you cannot climb one more step, then you sit some more. And then you lift one foot, and the other.
At the top of the mountain, at the end of the road, there is a great chasm in the earth, a fiery hole where you can drop the ring, where it can be melted away, gone forever. This is why you’ve walked among wraiths, scaled a burning mountain: all so you can throw an insignificant ring, a tiny golden circle, into a volcano. At the last, your traveling companions step in: you do not have to drive the dagger into your own belly, cut out the ring lurking beneath your heart yourself. The ring falls into a lake of fire, and is gone.
And then. And then. You are burned, bloody, numb with poison, and you are not done. You have a mountain to descend. The ring that defined your entire journey, filled your days and your nights—that ring is gone. (Are you still significant, or merely broken?)
The road down the mountain fades in and out of your brain. There was pain, and heat, and blood, but the details seep away, or perhaps you only wish they would. They offer you food and rest at the watch tower, but you continue on. There is a cozy cottage with a tiny garden somewhere ahead. You thought that once the ring was gone, you would be free, but the wraiths have not departed. Their fingers are even colder now. You stumble frequently. Your knees are covered in bruises that complement the purple scars on your belly.
You arrive home. Not all of those who carry rings return. The cozy cottage is the wrong shape, the wrong size. It pinches, binds, gapes. The tiny garden holds no solace. You force yourself toward the shape you once held. Wraiths still haunt your head, and your fingers. You are frozen, slow. Dagger wounds heal, but the ringbearer carries scars etched on the skin and under, reminders of wounds traced through brain and bone and muscle. You are thin, stretched, uneasy. Friends and neighbors congratulate you on your journey, as if it were a pleasure trip, a vacation, a success. They go, pleased and oblivious, leaving you alone in your ill-fitting life, your patterned body. You try to resume who you were, who you are expected to be. You fail. Home is not what it once was, nor are you.
In this tale, the story with wizards and wraiths and heroes, there is a place for the ringbearer to go, when the dissonance between was and are becomes too great. A ship waits at the Grey Havens to carry the ringbearer into the west to be soothed, be healed, be whole. The wizards know the cost of the quest. Even those for whom the ring is light and the journey is easy eventually find their way to Valinor. Those who are poisoned, burned, scarred may choose to depart all the sooner.
That is not our tale. Our story has no room for the broken, the changed, the poisoned and scarred. “There,” certainly, but we ignore “and back again.” Our narratives are simple: you fall bravely, fighting all the way, or you live happily ever after. (Either way, you are only here to inspire those around you, even those who never set foot on the road to Mount Doom.) The best stories limn the truth in tones of light and shadow. This tale has only glaring noon and blackest night.
We ignore the grays, push everything aside that fails to fit our story. Noticing the complexity would require also recognizing the randomness, the lack of control. The strongest fighters always win, because we pride ourselves on being strong. The story ends with the fight, because we cannot face the consequences of winning. (Losing is acceptable, if done bravely, because then we can be inspired and move on with our lives.) Ringbearers who come home live always in the light of noon, the winners. Those are the lies we force on each other.
Tolkien recalled the bayonets and poison gas of World War I. He knew that the happy ending is far too simple a resolution, whether society wishes to admit it or not, and perhaps he dreamed of a Valinor of his own. He didn’t find it, none of us do, but he made a space for the broken, the stretched, the fragile. His tale acknowledges that the journey changes those who return from it, as much as it changes those who fall. “There and back again” does not end where we would like it to, or take the shape we might desire. We—the ringbearers, those who love them, even those who never notice them—will have a kinder, wiser, more human society, if we allow narratives that encompass the complexity, the consequences, of walking to Mordor, and home again.
© 2018 Sarah Goslee