Did Tolkien write and confirm that a possible interpretation of the ending of The Lord of the Rings was that Frodo sailing into the West was something Sam wrote in the Red Book as a metaphor for Frodo's actual death, dying in Bag End?

I thought I remembered reading that Tolkien himself confirmed that this was one possible interpretation of the book's ending. Does anyone know where I might have read this? Is this something Tolkien wrote about in one of his Letters?

  • 6
    Could you remove the bit about "Is there any validity to this interpretation of the book's ending?", which is calling for subjective opinions and is thus off-topic here. It's OK to ask what Tolkien thought about this, but not to ask what we think.
    – Mike Scott
    Jun 29 '14 at 6:06
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    Naah, the wording "is there any validity" is OK; this is asking for confirmation rather than opinion.
    – Mr Lister
    Jun 29 '14 at 8:26
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    @MrLister - but there is a danger that it's straying close to being a "what do you think of my pet theory?" question, which would make it off-topic.
    – user8719
    Jun 29 '14 at 16:56
  • Thank you all for your input. I've removed the validity question.
    – Amara
    Jun 29 '14 at 20:25

There's absolutely nothing in Tolkien to support this interpretation that I'm aware of; rather the exact opposite: Frodo did sail West at the end of LotR. There are many passages in Letters that make this clear, for example the following from Letter 154:

But in this story it is supposed that there may be certain rare exceptions or accommodations (legitimately supposed? there always seem to be exceptions); and so certain 'mortals', who have played some great part in Elvish affairs, may pass with the Elves to Elvenhome. Thus Frodo (by the express gift of Arwen) and Bilbo, and eventually Sam (as adumbrated by Frodo); and as a unique exception Gimli the Dwarf, as friend of Legolas and 'servant' of Galadriel.

What Tolkien is also quite clear about is that Frodo did die at some point after his sailing. The purpose of him going West was to obtain healing (both physical and spiritual) from his wounds and ordeal, and to eventually be able to die in a state of "unfallen grace".

There is plenty in the story of LotR that leads to this moment, for example Galadriel's song in Lórien:

Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!

And Arwen's words to him in Gondor:

A gift I will give you. For I am the daughter of Elrond. I shall not go with him now when he departs to the Havens; for mine is the choice of Lúthien, and as she so have I chosen, both the sweet and the bitter. But in my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West, until all your wounds and weariness are healed.

Tolkien, as a general rule, doesn't do metaphor, symbolism or allegory, so you shouldn't really go looking for such alternative interpretations except in cases where they explicitly do exist. In this case everything builds up to Frodo actually sailing West, so we have no cause to assume otherwise.

  • 5
    Agreed. If the text was open to such a drastic reinterpretation then we could not safely consider anything to be canon. Jun 29 '14 at 12:50
  • Thank you, Jimmy and Ian. Part of my question still stands if anyone knows the answer. Does anyone know where I might have read this? I do have a small volume of the History of Middle-Earth by Christopher Tolkien called The End of the Third Age. I thought this was an accepted theory. Frodo dies in Bag End of his physical/emotional wounds and Sam makes up a story to put in the Red Book and tell his children.
    – Amara
    Jun 29 '14 at 20:26
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    "Tolkien, as a general rule, doesn't do metaphor, symbolism or allegory" -- at least, he didn't do it consciously. Of course his work is open to being interpreted in this way. Maybe a better way of putting it is, Tolkien doesn't do unreliable narrators. Sam's observations in the text are intended as a literal and correct accounting of what he saw and heard, and Tolkien would probably have been horrified at any suggestion he meant it otherwise. Jun 29 '14 at 20:37
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    Another problem with 'sailing to the West' being an allegory for Death is that Elves were actually sailing to the West in the 3rd Age and Humans (and I suppose Hobbits) did not go to Valinor after death, but had a fate of their own.
    – Oldcat
    Jun 30 '14 at 22:48
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    In Middle Earth, mortal and living aren't synonyms like they are for us, as immortal beings walk by all the time. It is more like using "visiting Paris" as a metaphor for dying. It just isn't a good fit.
    – Oldcat
    Jun 30 '14 at 23:11

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