January 17, 2002
Re: The Grey Havens
Hi Colles. Always a pleasure to welcome a new Tolkien fan. Don't worry about not getting the points you mentioned in the story. The problem is Tolkien included many ideas in LOTR that are related to the complex mythology he had worked out for Middle Earth, but not fully expanded on in the actual books.
The ships from the Grey Havens sail to the West, the land of the immortals which exist outside the 'Cirles of the World' as Tolkien puts it. It is, in essence, a mystical realm which only the elf ships can sail to. This land is ruled by Great Spirits called the Valar, and their servants the Maiar, who were created by Eru, the One. Sauron was one of the Maiar lured to evil by the first Dark Lord, Morgoth. Morgoth stole the Elves jewels and against the Valar's advice the Elves pursued Morgoth back to Middle Earth. The war was eventually won when the Valar intervened, but Sauorn escaped, later forging the Ring [as seen in the movie intro].
Still with me. Okay.
After Morgoth's defeat the Elves were allowed to return to the West if they wished, but some [like Galadriel] decided to stay and create their own realms. But after the war against Sauron many finally decided to return to the West. Thus in the movie Elrond tells Gandalf the Elves are leaving Middle Earth. Gandalf and Saruman are actually two more Maiar sent to help Middle Earth against Sauron, clothed in flesh to help them understand the lesser beings they are among [obviously this didn't really pan out with Saruman]. Check out Faramir's report on Gandalf in the Two Towers, Chap. 5.
Only immortal beings like the Elves are usually allowed to travel to the West, but Bilbo and Frodo gain grace because of their role as ringbearers and their great courage. The same goes for Sam. In the West they can be healed of their cares and wounds [especially Frodo] though they will remain mortal. Legolas is an Elf and is allowed to travel there, and Gimli, it is speculated in the appendices, gains grace by the intervention of Galadriel, one of the the most powerful of her race. Aragorn, Pippin, Merry and also Arwen are mortals, and also have more ties to the mortal world [Sam leaves only after the death of his wife Rose] and so live out thier time on the mortal shores of Middle Earth.
That is the very abbreviated explanation. For a full explanation, look at the appendices in Return of the King, especially the end of A and B. You should also check some of the extra works organised by Tolkien's son Christopher, like the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales.