It puzzles me when people cite LOTR as the standard of “simple” or “predictable” or “black and white” fantasy. Because in my copy, the hero fails. Frodo chooses the Ring, and it’s only Gollum’s own desperation for it that inadvertently saves the day. The fate of the world, this whole blood-soaked war, all the millennia-old machinations of elves and gods, comes down to two addicts squabbling over their Precious, and that is precisely and powerfully Tolkien’s point.
And then the hero goes home, and finds home a smoking desolation, his neighbors turned on one another, that secondary villain no one finished off having destroyed Frodo’s last oasis not even out of evil so much as spite, and then that villain dies pointlessly, and then his killer dies pointlessly. The hero is left not with a cathartic homecoming, the story come full circle in another party; he is left to pick up the pieces of what was and what shall never be again.
And it’s not enough. The hero cannot heal, and so departs for the fabled western shores in what remains a blunt and bracing metaphor for death (especially given his aged companions). When Sam tells his family, “Well, I’m back” at the very end, it is an earned triumph, but the very fact that someone making it back qualifies as a triumph tells you what kind of story this is: one that is too honest to allow its characters to claim a clean victory over entropy, let alone evil.
“I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.”
So where’s this silly shallow hippie fever-dream I’ve heard so much about? It sounds like a much lesser story than the one that actually exists.