The Power of Grief

Stories don’t always have happy endings. In fact, many are not necessarily happy. Quite a few staunch classics fall into this category: A Tale of Two Cities, The Color Purple, Hamlet; the list goes on and on.

This preponderance of tragedy always confused me as a child. I usually wrote off stories with less-than-warm-and-fuzzy endings as bad storytelling. I set aside the “lesser work” and sought out a feel-good novel. It would probably be good to add here that my literary education in a parochial K-8 school consisted primarily what I wished to read. I read a lot — volumes — but I didn’t have access to what was considered staples in the literary world. As such, my mental library was filled with Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein and a plethora of coming-of-age children’s literature.

It took a few years of hard knocks before I realized that life wasn’t a feel-good novel – and therefore, the feel-good novel didn’t represent real life. Life is full of trial and tragedy, many which we create for ourselves. And there are not always a kindly wizard at the end of the road.

An unavoidable aspect of life is grief, and learning how to deal with it. I did not understand its potency in literature until I had a few hard knocks myself; perhaps one must first experience grief in order to sympathize with a character’s ordeals. Moments of grief tend to be turning points in life and in books; life-changing and game-changing events cause the writer, the characters (and, if it’s really well done, the reader) to re-assess their own situation.

Tolkein definitely brings a tear to the eye throughout his tales of Middle Earth, no less his well-known Fellowship of the Ring. Here, grief not only causes the characters (and the reader) to mourn, but it changes the entire tone of the story. Up to Gandalf’s death, the journey unfolded at the pace of The Hobbit; in fact, I found the first half to be terribly slow. Half the novel chronicles the hobbits’ journey from Bilbo’s birthday party to Rivendell. And then the Fellowship enters Moria.

Everything pales in comparison.

In Moria, the cornerstone holding up the Fellowship was crushed. But Gandalf was even bigger than the Fellowship. A general reader understands the importance of the Grey Pilgrim’s passing – he is the single character visibly present in both The Hobbit and The Fellowship. Obviously, he is very powerful and is someone who tends to fix everything.

But in reality, Gandalf’s death left a gaping hole across an entire world. Gandalf housed thousands of years of knowledge, acting as a mediator between all of the living creatures of Middle Earth. He was the only reasonable hope for the survival of men. And all of his knowledge, power and wisdom disappeared with him off of the bridge of Kazad-dhûm.

And, I am not afraid to say it: I reached the close of that (and Gandalf’s) chapter and cried. In the midst of a coffee shop brimming with disaffected, trendy college students, I was sobbing into a plush chair over Gandalf the Grey.

From that point on, one’s senses are heightened. Every movement of the Fellowship becomes crucial – and it seems they are moving much more quickly than ever before. The entire book has a sense of urgency and portending doom that was not present before.

I am personally very interested as to when, and how, Tolkein decided to let Gandalf disappear into darkness. What was he experiencing at the time? What was he feeling when he wrote out the scene? Was he bringing out his own personal experience in his writing?

I don’t know if there is a way we can know for sure. But this makes it clear to me that even our mundane, day-to-day lives can inform us as we shape fantastic stories. Let your life and your experiences inform how you write. It just might speak to someone.

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