All Woods Must Fail by J.R.R. Tolkien
MARGINALIA • SKIP TO THE POEM
It’s one of those trips where your family gets together with other families—friends of your parents, that sort of thing. The difference is every one else has big, expensive cars, and we were the lone family van chugging up the narrow road that winds around the mountain. At some point we came dangerously close to almost falling, and it was during this death-defying act that we got a phone call: the dogs have escaped the house. They were running up and down the street chasing god knows what. Can you imagine the tension? Everybody was screaming and I was gripping the headrest in front of me until I could no longer feel my fingers. I have lost my voice, I was on a perilous journey, and why have we done this again?
When I was in high school, we went on a field trip where we had to go inside a cave with very tapered passages. Locals say it is a form of purgatory: if you are able to get out to the other side unscathed, you’ve been blessed. If you have a hard time in there—well, perhaps, there’s a reason. Perhaps you’re a silly little witch who deserves to be cursed. Perhaps the woods and their maledictions have followed you all the way to the pit. Waiting outside for my turn, I could hear my classmates crying and whimpering, and the tour guides shouting at one another, attempting a rescue. Whoever thought this would be a fun thing to do again?
What I’m trying to say is—it can’t go on forever. It’s partly amusing and still partly terrifying when I think about these moments, but it worked out in the end. I’m not ordinarily an optimistic person, but when I’m down on my knees seized by anxiety, I tell myself: it can’t go on forever.
In the white room where all of us were cloaked by grief, saying goodbye to my grandfather—I felt so very small. Round midnight, waking up in the dark, screams lodged in my throat. Or in the middle of the day, immersed in work, when suddenly the room starts to close around me, and I can’t fathom the whys and hows of what is happening amidst the panic—it can’t go on forever.
All Woods Must Fail
O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
despair not! For though dark they stand,
all woods there be must end at last,
and see the open sun go past:
the setting sun, the rising sun,
the day’s end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail.
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This poem appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, published by William Morrow Paperbacks. Shared here with profound gratitude.
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