The Far Green Country
The Far Green Country
So, who gets to sail West? What's the "Rule"? The process seemed pretty simple in the old days, when everything we knew about it was between the covers of The Lord of the Rings. The Keepers of the Three sailed West, taking Ring-bearers Bilbo and Frodo with them. Before leaving, Frodo tells Sam that he can come with him no farther than the Havens, 'Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come.' So it's possibly a happy surprise, but not a shock, when we learn in the appendix that there's evidence that Sam did follow Frodo West after Rose died. The Rule seemed to be that if you've been a Ring-bearer, you get to follow the Straight Road to Valinor; if not, too bad. It even made sense of the whole episode that gave Sam the chance to be Ring-bearer for a little while; without it, he and Frodo couldn't have been reunited. Well, maybe, but...
This explanation left the often-asked question: "What about Gimli?" Faulty evidence, perhaps? After all, we're not really told he did sail West, any more than we're directly told that about Sam. But it seemed kind of inconsistent to accept the one and dismiss the other. A mistake, perhaps? Those who thought it was a slip-up by the author can possibly be excused because none of us knew Tolkien well enough at that point to realize how unlikely that was. Or was it something the author got exactly right, but we didn't understand... yet?
Later, we got more information, the most important for this discussion being found in Tolkien's published Letters (#246). In that letter, JRRT never links being a Ring-bearer with the ability to sail to the Undying Lands. Certainly the effects of being Ring-bearer are what cause Frodo to need the healing and peace he can hopefully find there. And, the letter says, Bilbo went partially for his own healing and reward; but the primary reason Bilbo was allowed to go West was to keep Frodo from being alone, since he was 'the person that Frodo most loved,' not because he'd had possession of the Ring.
So, what's the "Rule"? It's the same as it's always been, ever since the Valar asked Eru to remove the Undying Lands from the curved earth to protect them from invasion by Men: Elves and Ainur only - no mortals allowed. But it's a different kind of "Rule" than the one many of us thought we understood in the pre-Letters/pre-Sil days. It's not a law of physics, with possession of the Ring somehow altering a mortal's being so that he can follow the Straight Road (that same letter told us that mortals who sail West will still die, which was spelled out even more clearly in the Sil). A better comparison is a parent's rule of "Don't phone me when I'm at work," which is often followed by, "unless there's blood or fire." Or the rule that bedtime is at 8:00 p.m., which the parent can decide to break for any occasion the parent considers special enough.
In other words, each mortal who's allowed to sail to the Undying Lands represents a specific decision by the Valar to make an exception to the rule of "no mortals allowed," for what they consider a good reason. Personally, I prefer this explanation to the automatic Ring-bearers-get-to-go idea. It's a better fit with Tolkien's cosmos, where not even "magic" follows impersonal, scientific laws the way it does in so many other fantasy worlds. That the process should involve unselfish love and personal caring (to say nothing of decisions made by free will) is completely Tolkienian.
As said in the essay on Salvation History, Catholicism looks at life, our relationship with God, and all of history, as a journey (that is, an ongoing process) more than is true of some kinds of Christianity. So it's perhaps not surprising that Catholics believe it's possible for the process to continue after death, which is the purpose of purgatory. Tolkien's sense of purgatory comes into play in LotR because of his statement (also in letter #246) that Frodo's passing into the West is meant to be his going '...both to a purgatory and to a reward, for awhile: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness...' It's in line with the Catholic view of things that it's not of ultimate importance whether Frodo's healing is completed before or after his death, as it's all one continuous process. What's important is that the healing will take place. In Catholic understanding, if a person "makes it" to purgatory, that person will be made whole and perfect and will enter heaven. So Tolkien's "Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him - if that could be done, before he died," (emphasis in the original) has a specific meaning. Arwen's statement to Frodo that he '...may pass into the West until all your wounds and weariness are healed...' is similar. On the surface, it may sound as if, after his wounds and weariness are healed, he can return to Middle-earth. But, of course, Arwen knows better than that, and so do most readers by this point in the story. After his healing, he won't return to the Shire, but will move on to another stage of his spiritual journey, one that's beyond time.
It's important to note that we don't know anything about purgatory - some mystics have had visions of it, but those have been strictly private revelation (meaning they aren't part of Church teaching or general Catholic belief) and have probably been affected by how each visionary's own culture would interpret things. We also don't know how purgatory "works"; it's entirely possible that those of us who aren't perfect at the time we die will be perfected in the blink of an eye. In my first fantasy novel, the two main characters each have an encounter with God immediately after death in which one is healed from a life of emotional pain and the other is drawn to admit her sins and ask for forgiveness. Since, in my mind, these were obviously experiences of purgatory, I was a little nervous about how they would be received by the two members of my writers' critique group who are evangelical Christians. It turned out that neither of them had a problem with the scenes and neither of them understood why I might think they would, adding to my own suspicion that the labels we give our beliefs often cause more disagreement than the beliefs themselves.
Being a traditional Catholic himself, it's especially interesting that Tolkien finds no use for the trappings of fire and punishment that many traditionalists add to their image of purgatory. It's one of the areas where I think Tolkien understands a traditional belief in a way that leaves a lot of traditionalists in the dust. The best illustration of Tolkien's view of purgatory is in his story "Leaf by Niggle." In Niggle's experience of purgatory, he first learns, through hard work, some of what he had avoided learning during life, and then is given "gentle treatment," or healing. It's not too difficult to see how this would apply to Frodo, whether in the Undying Lands and/or after death.
As noted above, Tolkien said that, in order to be healed, Frodo would need 'to gain a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness,' which is one of the best descriptions of humility I've ever seen. Tolkien says that after his return to the Shire Frodo carried 'unreasoning self-reproach' (emphasis added), so he didn't yet see himself as he truly was. It's in achieving that end - whether or not it could be done before he died - that Frodo would become his final "something quite different."