Return of the King

“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you.” —Samwise Gamgee

There’s this long tradition we keep with our own kids of seeing the big new movie on opening night that started with my dad, with Empire, and after that we waited in line for them all, from Elliot’s alien to Indy’s last crusade and since the kids we’ve had the MCU, and all the clumsy ways Disney slayed Solo. But before marriage, before the kids, before Dad passed away and sailed to the undying lands of story, there was the ring to bind us all. By the time Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy was lighting theaters like fired up beacons, so much of my dad had been broken by sickness, by surgery, by pain and the impossibility of full recovery. In the summer of 2000, a week after my brother Paul had graduated college, an ulcer, that had probably had my dad in constant pain but that gone untreated for years, exploded in in his belly. He lived through the first surgery to tried to put him back together, and the next surgery that took his stomach and most of his intestines, and the summer of the coma recovery, and months of rehab, and learning to eat through a tube in his gut. With that breaking of his flesh, in that bodily trauma, a part of his mind was taken as well. There was a dip in his brilliance, in that mind that once saw everything so quickly, like some wizard four or five steps ahead of everybody else. So, when Return of the King came out in ’03 and Emily and I went to pick him up at the new house in Tewksbury to go meet the others, the house they bought because he could no longer do all those stairs in the house we grew up in Lowell, he seemed reluctant, sad, weary, like butter scraped over too much toast. He didn’t seem excited. I was buzzing to get there, to race my dark steed, my black Ford Bronco, through the cold December night to meet up with my brothers, my cousin, our girlfriends and buddies, to see the last chapter of Frodo and Sam and Gollum. 

But as we drove, my dad said he didn’t know what the movies were about, what was the point, even though he’d seen the first two films with us. And by “what is the point” he may even had meant what wad the point of him going, as if feeling he was fading into a barrow wight, caught between the living and the dead. Not that he would have known what a barrow wight was. I was the one who had actually read the Tolkien books and spent hours over Dungeons and Dragons maps, modules, and character sheets as a kid trying to be the neighborhood Dungeon Master recreating some version of Middle Earth magic for my brothers and buddies. I spent so much time in fact that my dad was worried I was getting weird, too bookish, and I even overheard him question my mom about why I spent so much time with books and dice. He worried about me losing balance, losing myself in my own head. 

In that moment, so many years later, driving in the car to see the movie, with Emily and my mom in back and him up front in the passenger seat because it was easier for him to get in, I was mad. I was mad for losing so much of my father. The power of his bulk and voice and mind, even if I had warred with him from time to time, even if we had trouble finding the words for each other. All fathers are Vader at times. All sons, Anakin. I squeezed the steering wheel. I reached over to turn down the radio. I let out a bitter breath, even seethed a second, as my tires cleaved the winter reaved concrete of Rogers Street. 

But then I relaxed. And I spoke. I became ten years old for him again, giddy even, as I became his dungeon master, his guide. I told him about a door, a hole in a hill, not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat. I told him about a ring riddled from a mountain’s goblin gut, about the power that men desire, about the greed of dwarves who dig too deep, of elves so beautiful and yet so aloof and of those elves tortured by dark magic into orcs. I told him about orcs. I slowed the truck and took my time, knowing people were waiting for me, knowing we would not arrive early or late but precisely when we were supposed to arrive. I turned through downtown instead of taking 495, which would have been the quicker path. I took him past the redbrick towers, the spiring churches, the lit-up taverns of Lowell, so I could tell him of Smeagol who was made junky mad by the one ring. I told him of the ring, its power, its curse, of its sick addictive sting, something he’d come to know too well from the oxy hell that spidered in his flesh after so many surgeries. I told him of Gandalf the Grey who fell and rose. I told what Gandalf told Frodo, that ours is not to decide the time we are born but that all we have to decide is what to do with the time we are given. And by that time, we had already rolled past the Moody School, the old middle school as haunted and abandoned as Moria, not far from where my friend Chris McGuirk had died flipping his Shadowfax, his white Mustang, into a dumpster a few years before. My stomach tightened thinking about Chris and all those we had lost. All those we would lose. I shook it off and kept driving, kept talking. 

Then we hit Thorndike Street and drove past the YMCA, the chimneys of old cotton mills rearing up behind us like spires of Minas Morgul, where Jon had taken swim lessons all those years before when we saw Empire and where I took lifeguard lessons in high school. I told him of Strider, of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a mortal man who loved the immortal Arwen, would have gone with Frodo to the end. I told him of Boromir who tried to take the ring and so broke the fellowship, of Galadriel who passed the test and diminished into the west, of wraiths and drakes, of Gondor’s White Tree, of Legalos and Gimli, Ents on the March, of the Witch King who wouldn’t be slain by any man. And as the truck turned off onto the Lowell Connector, Dad heard of the hearts and hearths of hobbits and that if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. 

And this was a lesson he himself had learned at last after so many years of work, of being away from his wife, his sons, living on Lucky Strikes and airport food, not taking care of his health as he piled up the dragon’s hoard he said he needed to shield us from a hard world but perhaps he loved the quest just as much he loved us. I told him of Frodo and Sam, of the courage to keep going, even after every surgery, the hospital stays, the PT pain, the so much pain that a pain management doctor told him he did not know how he was even alive. That was the only time he cried. I tried to tell that this, all of this, in the end, was only a passing thing, a shadow, that even darkness must pass. We turned off the Connector and drove into the Highlands neighborhood where my mom had grown up daughter of a former All Pro NFL tight end turned high school football coach and pulled into the cinema parking lot, walked into the theater, where my brothers and cousin Chris, our wives or about to be wives all met us. Our fond fellowship all there, our ring. 

As the lights dimmed and we were bound by darkness, drifting back from this age of earth to another, I looked over to see flashing on my father’s glasses. I could not see his eyes to see his eyes. As we cheered and laughed, I couldn’t tell if this was some three-hour hell he was in, if he was Theoden trapped in a body whittled down by cruel magic, staring out and unable to speak his own mind. Was he miserable sitting there in the dark? After, after the multiple endings of that movie, as we left the theater shivering in the cold, shivering in the excitement, and wondering where we should grab a drink, my father pulled me aside. And there it was. The almost wicked smile, the glinting of his brown eyes. The frame of his flesh had fallen, the great bark of his voice forever taken. But the smile was back. And those deep brown eyes. Not lidless or menacing like Sauron’s searching eye but as much afire, as much alive as I had seen them in so long. Something that had been gone was back, even if, like all things, it could not last. For now, though, it was here. And then he spoke to me. Thank you, he said. Thank you for telling me all of that in the car. I enjoyed the story, this movie so much

I just nodded and we met eyes with that look of silent understanding we had always shared even when at times that was all we had to share. I swelled for his happiness, for his moment of joy, and for what a story could do. Because it is in our stories, in the ones that really mattered, to borrow from Sam, who helped carry the burden of his friend, where we most know that there’s something more than just the struggle of living, more than just the long winters of whipped hearts and wounded flesh, where we know that we are more than our hurt and terror, that we can bring each other back from the pit. It is there where we know, if only in brief moments of clarity, that there’s some good in this world, when we see as well, that it’s worth fighting for. Then my dad and I rejoined the circle of goofing and sharing. Not wanting the evening to end, we all went down to the Old Court Pub on Middle Street, as crowded as Butterbur’s Prancing Pony, to raise some pints. My dad, as he did from time to time and much to shock of his doctors, toasted with his plastic syringe, filled with red wine, and then injected the wine into his J-Tube. And there, lifted by myth, ensconced in fantasy, we reveled in story, in our story, in this fellowship of parents and brothers, of friends and lovers, in all that ever really matters. 


  • Matt W. Miller is the author of Tender the River (Texas Review Press), shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Eric Hoffer Provocateur Award, and a finalist for the Jacar Press Julie Suk Award, Poetry by the Sea Book Award, and the New Hampshire Poetry Society Book Award. Other books include the The Wounded for the Water (Salmon Poetry), Club Icarus (University of North Texas Press), selected by Major Jackson as the 2012 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize winner, and Cameo Diner: Poems (Loom). He has published work previously in Narrative, Rhino Poetry, Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Southwest Review, Florida Review, Third Coast, Adroit Journal, and Poetry Daily, among other journals and was a winner of Nimrod International's Pablo Neruda Prize, the Poetry by The Sea Sonnet Sequence Contest, the River Styx Micro-fiction Prize, and the Iron Horse Review's Trifecta Poetry Prize. The recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers' Conference, he teaches English, coaches football, and coordinates the Assembly Program at Phillips Exeter Academy in coastal New Hampshire.

  • One Wonderful Sunday is a 1947 Japanese film co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. It was made during the allied occupation of Japan and shows some of the challenges of life in early post-war Tokyo. The film is notable because of a fourth wall-breaking scene at the climax.