“…and Tolkien’s point is accordingly missed, as I think he intended…” (Tom Shippey)
In the quotation above, Tom Shippey gives us a window not only into the brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world-building prowess, but also into its striking and easily missed subtext.
Tolkien’s point to which Shippey refers comes after The Return of the King chapter (“Mount Doom”) in which Frodo and Gollum (against all their desire) destroy the Ring, as Sam helplessly looks on.
If you are reading this article, I know you won’t mind an extended quotation of the scene to better showcase Tolkien’s brilliance (pertinent section in bold).
“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.“When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.
He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. ‘Bless me!’ he mused. ‘How long have I been asleep?’ For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. ‘Why, what a dream I’ve had!’ he muttered. ‘I am glad to wake!’ He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him, and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.
Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: ‘It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?’
And a voice spoke softly behind him: ‘In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.’ With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. ‘Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?’ he said.
But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’
‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.
‘How do I feel?’ he cried. ‘Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel’ — he waved his arms in the air — ‘I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!’ He stopped and he turned towards his master. ‘But how’s Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘Isn’t it a shame about his poor hand? But I hope he’s all right otherwise. He’s had a cruel time.’
‘Yes, I am all right otherwise,’ said Frodo, sitting up and laughing in his turn. I fell asleep again waiting for you, Sam, you sleepyhead. I was awake early this morning, and now it must be nearly noon.’
‘Noon?’ said Sam, trying to calculate. ‘Noon of what day?’
‘The fourteenth of the New Year,’ said Gandalf; ‘or if you like, the eighth day of April in the Shire reckoning. But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King. He has tended you, and now he awaits you. You shall eat and drink with him. When you are ready I will lead you to him.’
‘The King?’ said Sam. ‘What king, and who is he?’
‘The King of Gondor and Lord of the Western Lands,’ said Gandalf, ‘and he has taken back all his ancient realm. He will ride soon to his crowning, but he waits for you.’” (The Return of the King, Book VI, Chap. 4, “The Field of Cormallen”, pp. 229, 230).
On Tolkien’s often missed reference to Good Friday in the above quotation, Tom Shippey writes, “No one any longer celebrates the twenty-fifth of March, and Tolkien’s point is accordingly missed, as I think he intended. He inserted it only as a kind of signature, a personal mark of piety. However, as he knew perfectly well, in old English tradition, 25th March is the date of the Crucifixion, of the first Good Friday. As Good Friday is celebrated on a different day each year, Easter being a mobile date defined by the phases of the moon, the connection has been lost, except for one thing. In Gondor the New Year will always begin on 25th March . . . One might note that in the Calendar of dates which Tolkien so carefully wrote out in Appendix B, December 25th is the day on which the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell. The main action of The Lord of the Rings takes place, then, in the mythic space between Christmas, Christ’s birth, and the crucifixion, Christ’s death” (Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, pp. 208, 209).