In the Harry Potter books and films, the forces for good magic are victorious while Voldemort is destroyed and the wizards who practice the dark arts are vanquished. The good characters presumably go on to live happily ever after, continuing to practice their good forms of magic.
In The Lord of the Rings, however, the conclusion has a bittersweet tone. Despite the fact that Frodo and Sam destroy the one ring on Mount Doom, their victory is not without its costs, for magic fades from Middle Earth. A potent sense of loss permeates the final third of The Return of the King. It is their respective conclusions that distinguish these two epics: the Harry Potter saga remains a fairy tale, perhaps the greatest and most imaginative fairy tale ever written; The Lord of the Rings is something more profound.
If we think of these sagas as a metaphor for the psyche as I discussed in my earlier posts, then we see two very different resolutions to the issue of splitting.
J.K. Rowling gives us a more-or-less ideal ending. In psychological terms, the story remains in the realm of splitting: good survives and bad is destroyed. The alternative would have been the destruction of goodness and the victory of hatred. As I discussed in my post about hopeless problems and perfect answers over on my ‘After Psychotherapy’ website, this type of all-or-nothing approach reflects an underlying despair that nothing real can ever be done about internal states of damage in depression and other psychological difficulties.
Where splitting is strong and idealization and perfectionism reign, it generally means that the damage is felt to be so widespread it can never be repaired. The only possibility is to continue splitting, to deny the damage and hope for perfect magical solutions. This way of thinking is characteristic of bipolar disorder.
But in “normal” development, we hopefully learn to tolerate both love and hatred toward the important people in our world, to mitigate the latter with the former. In other words, we learn to accept ambivalence as a part of life. Along with this development, magical thinking tends to fade and an intermittent sense of grief arises. We learn to accept what is actually possible for us, to recognize our own limitations, our own damage, and to face the fact of death. As we accept these truths, we may feel both grief and gratitude as I’ve discussed elsewhere.
The pervasive sense of loss and mourning throughout the conclusion to The Return of the King embodies this experience. Yes, Frodo and Sam return victorious, the forces of evil are overthrown and Aragorn ascends to the throne of Gondor … but at what cost?
The elves are leaving Middle Earth, the wizards are leaving Middle Earth and the Age of Men has begun. In other words, it is the end of magic. Further, Frodo never recovers from the wound he received by the morgul blade. “Evil” has forever infected him and he can never return to his prior state of innocence — pure splitting is no longer possible, nor is “happily-ever-after” an option. Goodness has in some sense won, but it is a bittersweet victory.
In no way am I suggesting that J.R.R. Tolkien intended to write about these states of mind as I describe them, or that J.K. Rowling meant to avoid them. But great works of art tap into something universal whatever the author’s conscious intention.
The Harry Potter books and movies vividly capture the world of magical thinking that pervades early human development and the longing for magical solutions and perfect answers; The Lord of the Rings portrays the grief and loss that are a part of growing up.