Bilbo Baggins Lets Go of The Ring. With a Little Help From a Friend.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 30-35

The One Ring has had a long and unhappy history since its forging in the Second Age of the Sun. Its purpose in its conceiving was to increase the power of its maker, Sauron, the Dark Lord.

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

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Rule has ever been its purpose so that all the work that has ever been done in freedom by Elves, Dwarves or Mortal Men should itself become the work of one being and enslaved forever to his will and purpose.

The Ring is a fearful thing and yet it has never quite accomplished that for which its maker purposed it. Even when it was in Sauron’s possession it never quite gave him the power he desired. He had to submit to the greater power of Númenor and, at the end of the Age, in battle against the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, had it taken from him by force by Isildur, son of Elendil. And although he grows in power once again towards the end of the Third Age the Ring, now the focus of an all-consuming desire, remains hidden from him.

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The Ring has had its own history throughout this time, betraying first Isildur to his death and then the unhappy Déagol too until it falls into the hands of a hobbit lost in the endless tunnels under the Misty Mountains. And in this moment of its history a theft takes place undoubtedly but no murder and so its history begins to change. At no point does the Ring ever change in nature but it is clear that another power is at work as well as its own entirely malevolent one.

I think we can say that Bilbo meant to give the Ring up and to leave it to Frodo. It is just that at the moment when he has to make a choice he finds that he is unable to do so.

“Into the envelope he slipped his golden ring, and its fine chain, and then sealed it, and addressed it to Frodo. At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.”

Poor Bilbo! The Ring is so much stronger than he is and if it had not been for Gandalf’s intervention it would have taken complete possession of him and dragged him down into a living perdition. Indeed already it has begun to do its work. Bilbo speaks of feeling “all thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”. He speaks of an “eye looking at me” of not being able to rest without it in his pocket.

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Eventually Gandalf has to hint at his own power in order to make Bilbo give it up. This is no act of a bully seeking to force someone weaker than himself to give up freedom for servitude but rather the opposite. Gandalf uses his greater power to free Bilbo from himself or should we say to free Bilbo from his false self from the self that can never be at rest while in possession of the Ring? Or perhaps that he can never be at rest while the Ring seeks to gain possession of him?

The true Bilbo leaps into full view almost as soon as he makes the decision to let go of the Ring.

“It was a fine night and the black sky was dotted with stars. He looked up sniffing the air. `What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves. This is what I have really been longing for for years.`”

A good spiritual guide might tell Bilbo that the thing that he had thought that he had desired the most was in fact nothing more than an adhesion “on the wings to love and adventure,” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it. But perhaps Gandalf is better than that for rather than telling Bilbo that this is what the One Ring has become to him he actually sets him free. Later in the story he will do the same for Théoden of Rohan.

But now let us watch with Gandalf as the 111 year old hobbit leaps over a low point in the hedge and heads off down the road to his own “love and adventure”.

Bilbo Baggins’s Little Joke

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-30

How might the Ring, the “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”, how might it have eventually taken possession of Bilbo had he kept it long enough?

I think that we get a clue that might help us answer this question in Bilbo’s “little joke”. The joke is first introduced to us in a conversation between Bilbo and Gandalf. Gandalf urges Bilbo to stick to his “whole plan”, in other words to give up the Ring of his own accord. Bilbo answers, “I mean to enjoy myself on Thursday, and have my little joke.”

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Gandalf plainly does not appreciate the joke and wonders who will laugh as he shakes his head. Bilbo’s reply gives us an insight into his character.

“We shall see,” he said.

In other words Bilbo does not much care who does or does not laugh as long as he enjoys himself. You see, Bilbo has a very high opinion of his own cleverness and a fairly low opinion of the cleverness of his fellow hobbits. One might argue that he has good reason for both opinions. Although his actual finding of the Ring was entirely fortuitous (except for the “meant to find it” that Gandalf will one day tell Frodo about!) his use of it thereafter until the end of his adventures as recounted in The Hobbit shows a high degree of intelligence, common sense and an ability to remain calm in a crisis. Even among his companions on the expedition to the Lonely Mountain the Ring chose the person best able to make use of it, excepting Gandalf, of course. And eventually Bilbo comes to realise this himself.

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I do not mean to be critical of him here. Self-awareness is praiseworthy and false modesty has little to recommend it. Bilbo’s growing self-confidence plays a vital role in the events of The Hobbit but there is little doubt that Bilbo becomes really quite pleased with himself.

Pleased, that is, until he realises that the Dwarves’ thirst for wealth is in danger of causing catastrophe among the Men of Esgaroth on the Long Lake, the Elves of the Woodland Realm and also the Dwarves themselves. At this point it is not so much Bilbo’s cleverness but his kindness that comes to the fore. At no point in the story does he wish to do harm to anyone, not even those who wish to hurt him, as can be seen in his sparing of Gollum.

But it is his cleverness and not his kindness that leads him to decide to use the Ring in order to make his disappearance from the Shire all the more dramatic. He wants to be talked about, to enjoy a certain notoriety and he wants to enjoy the effect that he makes. When Gandalf asks the question, who will enjoy your joke, the answer is, no-one, that is no-one except Bilbo himself and for Bilbo that is quite enough.

How would the Ring have insinuated itself into Bilbo’s heart? Surely by isolating him within his own self-satisfaction until there was room for no-one else. Once that had happened other people would either be fools or a threat. Even on the night of the party we see how Gandalf is a threat, one who might take the Ring from him, while he wants a holiday from everyone else. One wonders if he had taken the Ring with him whether he would ever have found a resting place. Later in Rivendell Bilbo will complain that he has been refused permission to go back to Hobbiton to get the Ring. “They seemed to think that the Enemy was looking high and low for me, and would make mincemeat of me, if he caught me tottering about in the Wild.” Bilbo may have been talking lightly but he was speaking a truth that went deeper than his words. He would have become a lonely figure “tottering about in the Wild” and eventually  he would have fallen into the hands of either the Enemy or of Gollum.

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But Bilbo is saved from that fate both because there is a goodness that goes very deep down inside him and thanks to the help of a very good friend. But more on that next week.

 

Bilbo’s Magnificent Party

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-28

Readers of works of literature from the mid 20th century might notice that food seems to play a particularly important role in many stories of the time. Later in The Lord of the Rings a clue to this is given by Beregond of the Guard of the Tower in conversation with Pippin. Pippin is anxious to find something to eat after his uncomfortable interrogation by the Lord Denethor. Beregond regretfully informs a rather disappointed Pippin that he has already broken his fast as well as any in the city but adds “They say that men who go warring afield look ever for the next hope of food and drink”.

The Lord of the Rings was written largely through a time of food rationing. Hobbits, in particular, are creatures of feast and fast and have a particular enthusiasm therefore for feasting. The description of the food and drink at Bilbo’s party is full of delight and pleasure.

Last week’s reflection led to a lively conversation in the Comments Section on Gandalf’s relationship with the Shire. The debate centred on whether Gandalf acted in the way he did in the Shire as a strategy to win the hearts of the hobbits or whether it was all unplanned and entirely providential. I think that eventually it was agreed that Gandalf did consciously seek to warm the hearts of those among whom he travelled. It was this quality that first drew Círdan of The Grey Havens to him. Círdan gave the Ring, Narya, to Gandalf, saying “Take this ring, Master… for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

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Gandalf walks the lonely roads of Middle-earth doing just this work so that when Sauron begins his great war to regain the One Ring and to achieve mastery he is opposed by all the free peoples despite his efforts to divide them. But I would add something more and that is that the hobbits touch and awaken something in Gandalf’s heart too. They teach him how to play. It would be hard to imagine Elrond of Rivendell or Dáin of Erebor or Denethor of Gondor playing in the way that Gandalf does. I could imagine Galadriel dancing among hobbit maidens but it would be a queenly dance.

Gandalf is not lordly when he is in the Shire. He is childlike in the way in which a grandfather is childlike. He has seen life and he has been marked by it. From the Lady Nienna he has learned pity. From hobbits he has learned pleasure. And he knows that deeper even than sorrow lies a joy that cannot cloy.

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“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarrappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

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I would encourage readers to read that passage aloud and to savour each word and sound. Each name of a firework is meant to be musical but it is not the music of Elrond’s halls but the music of a country party with lots of laughter and a little mischief too. Peter Jackson captures this well in his films by introducing the characters of Merry and Pippin here. Their soot covered faces as they emerge from the smoke of the exploded rocket, one of Gandalf’s hands tightly gripping each of their curly heads, conveys this well.

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A serious life can be a playful life too. Rowan Williams describes his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, saying that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. The same man who risked his life in the struggle against apartheid and who wept openly as he listened to the many stories of suffering during the time that he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also knows how to enjoy a good party.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings Gandalf announces to the four Travellers that he is going to visit Tom Bombadil for a good long talk. I suspect that a lot of that talk was full of laughter.

 

There Will Be Fireworks at the Party. Gandalf Returns to the Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 24,25

Hobbits may devote a lot of energy to keeping mystery out of their lives but if it comes in a package that can be controlled and is predictable then they might even welcome it. The key to this kind of mystery is that if it comes it will not be too disturbing and that it will go away again leaving everything unchanged.

So it is with Bilbo Baggins’s ‘long expected party’A party is a welcome distraction to the sameness of life and no-one will turn down the opportunity to receive presents. The hobbits will even put up with the arrival in Hobbiton of outlandish folk as long as they all go away again when all is done.

The most exciting visitor of all is Gandalf and when Tolkien first introduces him to the story it is through the eyes of hobbits.

“A cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.”

This description places Gandalf within a tradition of magical old men that inhabit the stories of both hobbits and us too. The hobbits know him through his fireworks. Not through their experience of them but through stories of long ago, the stories of a legendary figure in Shire history, the Old Took, who lived longer than any other hobbit and at whose birthday celebrations a magnificent firework display once took place.

It was Gandalf the Wizard who brought fireworks to the Shire then and he has brought them back again after a gap of a hundred years.

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Darell Sweet The Arrival of Gandalf

Later in the story Sam Gamgee will say these words in honour of Gandalf’s fireworks.

“The finest rockets ever seen: they burst in stars of blue and green, or after thunder golden showers came falling like a rain of flowers.”

As we have already seen when we are first introduced to Sam he is able to take an experience like the enjoyment of fireworks and travel through it to a deeper mystery. Most of his fellow hobbits treat the fireworks like we might a fairground or theme park ride whose danger and mystery is acceptable because it is limited. You are frightened but you know that you will get home again alive.

The point about Gandalf is that in his true business there is a very good chance that you will not get home alive. He is one of the Istari, one of seven Maiar who were sent by the Valar, the divine governors of Arda, of the world, to oppose Sauron, the Dark Lord, who seeks mastery of Middle-earth. And if anyone makes the mistake of underestimating the old man in a pointy hat who makes marvellous fireworks then it is surely enough to remind them that Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar, both belong to the same order of being within Arda.

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Gandalf vs Balrog by Daniel Pillaart

The hobbits do underestimate him. If they really knew what he was they would be terrified and they would flee from him. But why does Gandalf present himself in this way? Saruman, who Gandalf calls the leader of his order, certainly does not understand this. He notes that Gandalf enjoys smoking the pipeweed of the Shire and seems to enjoy the company of hobbits and he thinks of both of these as laughable.

Saruman is only capable of thinking of others either as useful to his own ambitions or as useless. At this point in the story hobbits are useless to him. Gandalf is different. He takes pleasure in hobbits for their own sake. He loves the delight and wonder that his fireworks produce, loves the moments when grown hobbits allow child-likeness into their hearts again. And he delights in hobbits’ simple pleasure in good food, good beer, good smoking and good company so when he arrives in the Shire for a time he is able to lay down his many burdens. He is just the funny old man who does marvellous tricks and magnificent firework displays. And that is enough.

Gandalf comes to the Shire in search of simple pleasure and so when in this simple place he is given the way to overthrow the Dark Lord it is a complete surprise but perhaps it is only those who know how to take joy in people and things for their own sake who are capable of receiving gifts that can change the world.

Dear friends, I intend to add the audio file for this week as soon as possible but my technical assistant, my daughter, Bethan Winter, is down in London at the moment and I need her advice! I am sure that after a week or two of practice this will all be second nature to me!

Gaffer Gamgee is Afraid of the Suddenness of the World but Sam is Learning to Love it.

Welcome to what is effectively a relaunch of my blog, Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings. I first began to write this in the autumn of 2012 and began to publish it on WordPress in October 2013. If this is your first visit then a very warm welcome. If you have been here before or you are a regular reader, welcome back!

The intention of the blog is to offer a weekly reflection on Tolkien’s great work in search of its wisdom. Tolkien was a central member of a group of writers and scholars, known as The Inklings, that used to meet in order to read and discuss their work with each other in Oxford in the mid 20th century. If you would like to know about them then I would warmly recommend a series of talks that you can find on YouTube given by Malcolm Guite. If you type in Malcolm Guite and Inklings when you visit YouTube you will find them easily. I just tried it and it works! The Inklings were regarded as highly unfashionable in their day by the literary establishment but I believe that they will prove to be one of the most important intellectual and literary influences, not just of their own time but of ours too. Tom Shippey’s fine book, J.R.R Tolkien, Writer of the Century, is a good read on this.

Just a note on this week’s blog and a personal connection. I refer to Louis MacNiece’s wonderful poem, Snow, in the post. When I first began to get to know my wife, Laura, back in the early 1990s, I noticed a framed copy of the poem in the hallway of her parents’ home in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England. The reason for this, so I learned, was because MacNiece had written this poem while a guest in the house some years before. It was in the time of a previous owner of the house but the summer house in which he wrote it remained very largely as it was at the time. We knew it mainly because at one time 21 of us used to sit down in it to eat on Christmas Day each year. A big fire used to roar in the fireplace. It was necessary on cold winter days. My mother in law, Bridget Pugh, used to teach English Literature at Birmingham University, and even in her later years also regularly taught a semester in Duluth, Minnesota. I am glad to say that she would teach a class on Tolkien.

Regular readers of the blog will notice two new things. One is that I include a page reference to my Harper Collins edition of The Lord of the Rings. That is to make it easier for readers who are reading the book to see what part of the story I am referring to. The other new thing is that I include an audio file of my reading of the post. This is at the encouragement of my wife who thinks people will like it. I would also like to thank my daughter, Bethan, who has helped me with the technical side of things. Please do let me know what you think of this in the comments section.

So,  introduction at an end, I invite you to read or listen or both and most importantly to enjoy another reading of The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Readers,

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The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 21-24

To know and to love a plot of land is no shame and does not diminish or shrink the soul in or of itself. It was the great Irish poet of the mid-twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh, who wrote of such knowledge and such love:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

The Gaffer, Master Hamfast Gamgee, of Number 3 Bagshot Row below Bag End in Hobbiton, the Shire, knows the gardens that he tends for Mr Bilbo Baggins. He knows every furrow and every corner, the right times to plant and the right times to harvest, but perhaps we might say that he has never fully experienced the gardens that he has spent a lifetime looking after.

To fully experience something is to look, not at, but through it. It is to have the vision that George Herbert speaks of when he writes:

“A man who looks on glass, on it may stay his eye; or if he pleaseth through it pass, and then the heaven espy.”

Or William Blake who speaks of seeing “A World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.

This is the poetic experience that Kavanagh speaks of and that the Gaffer has never known or valued and which he fears in watching his son, Sam, grow up. He knows that the world is “suddener than we fancy it” as Louis MacNiece speaks of in his poem, Snow. He speaks of “mountains of gold” in foreign parts, the places to which Bilbo mythologically travelled long ago, but he seeks to protect himself from such experience by reserving it for the gentry, the business of his betters, as he puts it. This allows him to remain within the safety of cabbages and potatoes and to keep his distance from Elves and Dragons.

Poor Master Hamfast! What glory he will never see, even the glory right underneath his very nose. The very cabbages and potatoes that he regards as symbols of safety and security would, in the hands of an elven cook, become a heavenly banquet.

For the Gaffer’s son, Samwise, everything is laden with possibility although at this point in his life the possibility lies elsewhere. One day he will be gardener to the Shire and bring this possibility within the very boundaries that his father thinks to be safe and known. Sam is learning his poetic experience through the “stories of the old days” as the Gaffer puts it and he has learned to read and write. Already he begins to know that the mythic, the world of Elves and Dragons, lies within his grasp, but not here, not in Hobbiton or the Shire. He still believes that he must go elsewhere to experience it. The Gaffer believes this too. Perhaps because he too believes that the mythical cannot lie within his own garden he is afraid. He is afraid of foreign parts and he is afraid of losing Sam to such an experience.

I grew up in the English countryside on farms that my father ran for wealthy people. It was a world of cabbages and potatoes, or pigs and fields of wheat in our case, but beauty and joy kept breaking into my life. A walk with my father through a wood filled with bluebells and sensing the strangeness of the church to which we had gone together. Walking across a room and suddenly standing transfixed in joy as a piece of orchestral string music began to play on our television set. And listening to the wonderful Miss Maher reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to us in my village school as the dusk of an autumn afternoon began to descend and I walked with Lucy Pevensie for the first time through the wardrobe into Narnia. Like Sam my ability to see, to listen, to go beyond the surface of things to the heaven that lies beyond was being formed.

“I hope no harm will come of it,” says the Gaffer. But harm does come. Sam will be be taken into a world that is far too big for him, to dangers that no other hobbit has ever faced, but he will see wonders that no other hobbit has ever seen.

The two go together.

 

Wisdom From The Lord of the Rings

My first encounter with The Lord of the Rings came when I was 13 years old and a pupil at The Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, England. The Royal Grammar Schools were originally founded by Queen Elizabeth I and so are younger than J.R.R Tolkien’s alma mater, King Edward VI School in Birmingham, but only by a few years. When I arrived at the RGS in 1967 it had not long since celebrated the 400th anniversary of its original foundation.

My introduction to Tolkien’s great tale came through two sources. One was my English teacher, Mr Roger Humphries and the other was my classmate, Jonathan Flint. Jonathan was the son of the commander of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the Royal Air Force’s largest overseas base, and still very much in active use today. I will be forever grateful to him for sharing his love of The Lord of the Rings with me and for selling me my first copy of the book, a paperback in a single volume, for 25 shillings. For me that represented five Saturday mornings’ work on the farm nearby that my father ran for a member of the Rowntree family (the famous confectioners originally of York). That was how I earned my pocket money back then. It was worth every penny then and now. Jonathan also shared his love for poetry with me which has been another lifelong gift for which I will always be deeply grateful.

I think that Jonathan got to know Mr Humphries at Tylers Wood house, a house once owned by a Nobel Prize winning scientist and which was lived in by about 25 boys at the school between the ages of 11 and 18 many of whom, like Jonathan, were the sons of senior military officers posted overseas. At the end of each term they would fly out to different parts of the world to rejoin their families. Mr Humphries had achieved legendary status at Tylers Wood when a group of boys had barricaded themselves into a room and resisted all demands to open the door. Mr Humphries gloriously put his shoulder to the door, smashing it from its frame and hinges. The boys within the room surrendered immediately and Mr Humphries was adored forever after. It was the kind of display of masculinity that boys both aspire to and worship.

I was one of the worshippers but sadly he did not think much of me. He regarded my work as mediocre at best and I think he was right. Jonathan was his favourite pupil but as I was an admirer of Jonathan too I never resented it. I only wished that he would notice me too.

Over the next 40 years or so I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings and later The Hobbit, greeting the publication of The Silmarillion with great excitement. I came to share Tolkien’s Christian faith when an undergraduate at university although not his Roman Catholicism. Like C.S Lewis and Charles Williams I found my home within Anglicanism and was eventually ordained as a minister in The Church of England in Birmingham in 1988. I have stayed in that part of the world ever since, marrying a doctor who at that time was working in one of the city hospitals, and we have had two daughters together and now live in a cottage (our Crickhollow) in the Worcestershire countryside just a few miles from the farm that was once owned by Tolkien’s aunt and called Bag End.

I think that it took me a long time to develop a confidence in my own voice. For too long I tried to imitate somebody else’s. I think that is why Mr Humphries did not think much of me. There wasn’t much of a me about whom he could actually think.

It was about ten years ago that finally I began to think that I might have something worth saying about the book that I had loved for so long. I began to try to write about it but nothing seemed to quite work. The breakthrough came in 2012 when I first discovered blogging. I realised that although I struggled to write the kind of lengthy sustained argument that would form a chapter of a book I could write a short piece of about 500 to 700 words and I started to do so. My first efforts were published on a website that I created after buying a package and they were read by just a handful of people. A friendly press officer of my acquaintance suggested that I learn to use Twitter to publicise my work and it was there that providentially I met Brenton Dickieson   https://apilgriminnarnia.com and Sørina Higgins https://sorinahiggins.wordpress.com , both of whom have encouraged my work ever since.

It was through Brenton’s encouragement that I first published my blog on WordPress in October 2013. I had just completed my reflections on The Fellowship of the Ring, reflections that hardly anyone read, and was starting to write about The Two Towers. I began to write a short piece each week learning how to write by just doing it. By the end 2015 my readership had grown to about 15 a day. I think that what kept me going were the comments that people around the world were leaving. I began to develop a correspondence with people, most of whom I had never met, about a book that I loved. I am grateful to every person who has left a comment on the blog. You have no idea how much your encouragement has helped me to develop my writing.

Towards the end of 2016 a kind of breakthrough was made when I had more than 1,000 views in a month for the first time. This is now over 2,500 and it is still growing. Thank you to everyone who reads my work.

Last week I wrote a piece entitled, Well I’m Back, Tolkien’s famous “flat ending” to The Lord of the Rings. It was the end of a six year project. What I hope to do now is to relaunch it. As I said, hardly anyone read what I wrote about The Fellowship or The Two Towers for that matter and I have been developing my style all the way through that time. I have also been learning a lot about what Tolkien was doing through his work. I have never wanted to write a scholarly work with footnotes and all but I can’t ignore the scholars either, nor do I want to. I think that we might be at the beginning of a quiet revolution in scholarship today. Those of you who listen to Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese’s excellent podcast https://theprancingponypodcast.com will have heard an interview with the great Prof Tom Shippey recently in which he said that he thought that Signum University might be the way forward in scholarship. By the way, Sørina Higgins is Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum. Brenton Dickieson also teaches there. I would be honoured to make a small contribution at what I deliberately wish to be a popular level of writing.

So please do come back dear readers when I start at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring next week. You will see a few changes and one or two innovations but just as I know that many of you do, after you have finished a reading of The Lord of the Rings, I hope that you will start again at the beginning and that we will read it together.

Well, I’m Back

The Three Companions make their silent way back from the Grey Havens and their farewells to Frodo and Bilbo and their glorious fellow travellers.

“At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

For me these are some of the most poignant lines in all literature, the last lines of a story that I have loved ever since I first encountered it in my teens nearly fifty years ago. When I first read those lines I was filled with a deep sadness because it meant that I would have to leave a story that had somehow taken me to its heart. Middle-earth was now a place within my inner world, a world that was now peopled with new races whose history was a part of my history. A few years ago I was walking with my dog along a lane in Worcestershire, England, with high hedges upon either side. Suddenly I was captured by the thought that Gandalf might be walking towards me in the opposite direction and that when I turned the bend in the road he might meet me there to invite me upon an adventure. I was filled with excitement at the prospect and a little disappointment when he was not there.

Sam is in that world but his own adventure is over. It was an adventure that took him to places that were far beyond his imagining. All of this is now a part of him but all of this is now over. Rosie sets the scene for his future endeavours and she is right to do so. The fire in his own hearth is lit, the meal at his own table is set and his child is upon his knee. He is a husband, a father and a householder. He grows food for his growing family in his garden and from this place, from this homestead, a place worthy of the greatest respect, he leads his community.

Sam has returned from his journey bearing many gifts. The one that all can see is Galadriel’s box, and the fruits of that gift are clear for all to see. The Mallorn Tree in the Party Field, the beauty of the children born in 1420, the flourishing of the woodlands of the Shire that Saruman tried so hard to destroy and the excellence of the beer brewed in that year that satisfied the taste of the gaffers of the Shire for long years after. Galadriel saw this for herself as she passed through the Shire on her way to the Havens and she complimented Sam on the work that he had done.

But there are other gifts too. Sam has brought a wisdom and a fortitude from his journey that he did not know before he set out. He possesses a mastery over himself and over the ebb and flow of life that could only come from being tested to and beyond his limits. And he has brought to the Shire the gifts of Elfland. Not just the box that Galadriel gave him, not just the fulfilment of his longing for beauty that was satisfied by the encounter with Gildor even before he left the Shire. Sam carries Elfland in his soul and Elfland carries him. For a time at least, the Shire will be a place that treasures the memory of Elfland within Middle-earth. Sam’s beloved daughter, Elanor the Fair, will marry Fastred of Greenholm on the Far Downs and their family, the Fairbairns, the keepers of the Red Book, will dwell in the new Westmarch on the Tower Hills and by the gift of the king will be its wardens.

The history of Middle-earth must continue but the great story, in which the Fellowship of the Ring played such a part, that brought such gifts to its peoples must now come to an end.

But all who love this tale know that they can always turn back to the first page and start again.

The Keepers of The Elven Rings Bid Farewell to Middle-earth

 

There are three others who set sail into the West from the Grey Havens. Actually I should not have described them as the “others”. This ship was originally meant for them and not for the Ring-bearers. At the ending of their work in Middle-earth, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the keepers of the Three Elven Rings, were to depart into the West. Arwen was meant to go with them but when she made her choice for Aragorn and for mortality it seems that she was the first to suggest that her place in the ship could go to Frodo. In his letters Tolkien said that Arwen was not able to make such a decision because it was not hers to make but that Gandalf, the true representative of the Valar in Middle-earth, could. It was he who offered the place that was to be Arwen’s to Frodo and realising that the wound of the Ring could not be healed in Middle-earth he also invited Bilbo to make the journey.

Saruman knew that the Three Elven Rings would lose their power when the One went to the Fire but he seems to have thought that their keepers would then diminish with them as unhappy exiles in Middle-earth and that his own unhappiness would be something that he would share with those that he had sought to betray and had learned to hate. His own rejection of grace and his embrace of despair and bitterness had led him to believe that this would be the destiny of his enemies also. The speedy healing of the Shire was a thing far beyond his miserable imagination. And he seems not to have any conception of the grace of the ship that would pass into the West either. Perhaps this was because he knew that to return to the West would also mean to stand before the Valar for judgement and, just like Sauron at the end of the First Age, this was something that he could not countenance. That this grace would be extended to others seems to have been beyond his imagination also.

I think of the journey into the West as being different in nature for each of the Three Keepers.

For Gandalf it was to be rest after his long labours. Although he was tempted to take the Ring and to use it to gain victory over its Maker this was a temptation that he was able to overcome. He was also able to overcome his fear. Tolkien tells us that he was at first unwilling to undertake the mission of the Istari, of the Wizards, to stand against Sauron. He felt himself to be inadequate and was afraid. That he was able to overcome his fear and to offer himself just as he was to the task was a great victory. The victory over the Dark Lord was never accomplished by superior power but by faithfulness and self-sacrifice. Gandalf laid down his life for his friends in the great battle against the Balrog of Moria. He was given his life back and so continued to victory but not a victory that he achieved through his own or any other’s might but one that was achieved through the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the strange grace of Gollum’s taking of the Ring to the Fire.

For Galadriel the return into the West was something that for long years she believed to be impossible and perhaps for a time did not even desire. When she, like Gandalf, was tempted to take the Ring, it was her dream of becoming a Queen over all Middle-earth that she laid down. “I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel,” she said to Frodo. This is what she now accepts as the ship finally departs.

And Elrond? I think that for him there is a particular sadness that is bound up with his separation from Arwen. Of course there is the sadness of the separation itself. But there is something more. Elrond is half-elven but not just by birth but also by choice. At the end of the First Age his brother, Elros, made the strange choice of mortality. Elrond rejected this and now at the end of the Third Age, Arwen, too, makes the choice of Elros and rejects the choice of her father. As he steps onto the ship and confirms his own choice he steps away from mortality and from his daughter. He too must embrace his own destiny for good and ill. He must overcome his bitterness and be healed.

The last pages of The Lord of the Rings are as incomplete as any in literature. Tolkien believed in the “Happy Ever After” of the fairy-story and yet he does not grant this to his characters at the end of this story. Full of uncertainty each one of them in stepping aboard the ship must embrace their own destiny. What that destiny is, lies, not in their own hands, but in the hands of the One to whom they now entrust themselves. As we read these last pages we too are invited into our own leap into faith as we let go our own control of our destiny.

That’s What Friends Are For. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin Gather For the Last Time By the Great Sea.

It is just over three years since the Four Travellers sat together with Fredegar Bolger at Crickhollow and the “conspiracy” was revealed that led to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leaving the Shire together on the great adventure of the Age. Only three years but in that time the whole world has changed and so have they. Now they stand together for the last time by the shores of the Great Sea as Frodo prepares to board ship for the West and the Undying Lands. Sam is there because Frodo wants him to be there. Merry and Pippin are there because Gandalf in his wisdom and in his kindness knows that it would be almost unbearably hard for Sam to return alone from the Grey Havens back to Hobbiton and Bag End.

“‘You tried to give us the slip once before and failed, Frodo'” says Pippin amidst his laughter and his tears. “‘This time you have nearly succeded, but you have failed again. It was not Sam, though, that gave you away this time, but Gandalf himself!'”

Pippin can be forgiven for only remembering one occasion when Frodo tried to slip away alone from his friends. On the second he and Merry were the prisoners of the Uruk-hai of Isengard when Frodo tried to cross the River alone in order to make the journey to Mordor. Frodo had always had a sense that he could not take his friends with him on a journey that would lead almost certainly to failure and death. Perhaps, too, his sense of responsibility for others fitted neatly into his solitary temperament. Frodo was raised as an only child and after Bilbo’s departure for Rivendell he lived alone often preferring his own company on long walks alone. It is not inevitable that those who are solitaries are also lonely but what solitaries have to learn is that friends are necessary, that we cannot live without them.

It was the great German theologian and anti-Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who taught: “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone”. The kind of solitariness to which Bonhoeffer and, I suspect, Frodo, was drawn, was inhabited by books and a rich interior conversation that never became dull. The danger of such a life is that in such a conversation the solitary is never in danger of being challenged. It was the Inklings that turned Tolkien’s own rich interior conversation into The Lord of the Rings. Without the others who listened, criticised and encouraged, that richest of imaginations would have remained a private possession and we would all be the poorer for it. Bonhoeffer discovered the power of community in a gathering of young theologians in the 1930s hidden briefly away from the Nazi tainted official training establishments for Lutheran pastors. He was its director but he found friendship there that was to sustain him later when he was an enforced solitary in the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Frodo would never have reached the Cracks of Doom without his friends and most especially without Sam.

My hope is that, in company with Bilbo, Frodo came to learn true community during his gentle purgatory in the Undying Lands. Of course the True Self will enjoy a natural rhythm of aloneness and community both of which will nourish one another. Bonhoeffer, with equal wisdom also taught, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” It is those who are at peace with themselves who will be able to give most to their communities. Those who are not peace will always be taking from them and rarely giving.

It is good that Gandalf recognises that there are times when it is hard to be alone and that he sends a message to Merry and Pippin to come to the Grey Havens as quickly as possible. And it would have been unkind for Merry and Pippin not to have been allowed to make their own farewells. But let us forgive Frodo. At this point in his life he is so burdened still that he does not always think of the needs of others. And let us remember too that he has been wounded so deeply in laying down his life for others. He will be healed at last of the hurt in the Undying Lands and Sam, Merry and Pippin will have “great comfort” in one another “on the long grey road” back to the Shire.

“I Tried to Save The Shire, and It Has Been Saved, But Not For Me.” Frodo Leaves the Shire and Goes Into the West.

In a letter that he wrote in 1963 to a Mrs Eileen Elgar Tolkien wrote this about Frodo.

“Frodo undertook his quest out of love- to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.”

Frodo went as far as he could but ultimately his mind was overthrown in part by the endless demonic onslaught of the Ring and in part by his own desire to possess the Ring for himself. Gandalf and Aragorn never blamed him for this. Gandalf was deeply tempted by the Ring and knew its power over him. Aragorn never even mentioned it. But Frodo blamed himself. In the same letter Tolkien wrote that Frodo had hoped to return to the Shire as a hero but knew that the manner in which the Ring had gone to the Fire had robbed him of this possibility. This hurt him very much indeed.

Tolkien wrote: “We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance. Moral failure can only be asserted, I think, when a man’s efforts or endurance falls short of his limits, and the blame decreases as that limit is closer approached.”

So no blame is attached to Frodo by any other person except for the blame that he attaches to himself but that is sufficient for Frodo to experience both judgement and punishment.

Tolkien addresses this with wonderful sensitivity in his letter.

“‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf- not in Middle-earth.  Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over the sea to heal him- if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.”

This is an extraordinary passage and I hope that my readers will take time to ponder it and allow Tolkien to be their guide and counsellor. Like Frodo we are tempted to believe that we exist in a universe of reward and punishment and we do not require the idea of a universal judge in order to hold onto that belief. We are quite capable of being our own judge. As far as we know, Frodo does not hold a belief in a supreme judge himself but he is perfectly capable of self-judgement. Tolkien tells us that he needs a purgatory, in other words, a place in which he can reflect in peace, not a place of punishment. Frodo’s purgatory is most definitely not a place of punishment. Bilbo is his companion and together they journey towards wholeness. Readers of this blog have suggested that Lady Nienna of the Valar, the teacher of Gandalf, the one who prepared him for his great work in Middle-earth, watches over their gentle education and I agree with them. Frodo and Bilbo will have to give up all illusion regarding themselves and to be healed at last of the hurt that the Ring has done to them, Frodo will have to give up his sense of failure and, as Tolkien puts it so beautifully, to accept both his smallness and his greatness.

And so too will we.