Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 116-118

I love all the times in The Lord of the Rings when someone enters the story mysteriously, wonderfully and decisively. Think of Gildor Inglorien and his companions appearing on the woodland path upon which Frodo, Sam and Pippin have just encountered the Black Rider or think of the moment when Merry and Pippin, fleeing from their orc captors and a deadly battle are swept up into the arms of Treebeard. Without warning, we like they are caught up into a world so wonderful that we want to give it the name, magical. The same is true at this moment when “suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band.”

Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest

It is Tom Bombadil and in moments the terrifying experience with the malevolent Old Man Willow is at an end and the hobbits are free.

Now, those who only know The Lord of the Rings through the fine films made by Peter Jackson will know little or nothing about Tom. He is a secret shared only by the initiates who have read Tolkien’s books and we clasp this secret close to our bosoms and share it only with other initiates. It marks us out from those “lesser” mortals who have not shared what we know. Now we hear that a small screen version of the story is in preparation and might Tom Bombadil make an appearance?

Now, I do not wish to comment on whether this might be good news or not. I enjoyed the films that Peter Jackson made of The Lord of the Rings with all their flaws. I disagreed with some of the ways in which certain characters were portrayed but I felt that the films were largely true to what Tolkien had given to us in his great work.

Now Bombadil might be given to us through the mind and imagination of a writer other than Tolkien and just as with the movies millions of people may meet him for the first time through that medium. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I happen to think that it is neither. It is an inevitable consequence of writing a great story that it will be passed on by other means and by other hands. It has always happened and every time that it does it brings new people to an experience that has been loved by those who have enjoyed the story in its original form. It also allows people who have known the story and the character of Tom Bombadil to compare their understanding of him with the character that is brought to them by this new means. They may or may not like this new character. For myself I rather expect that he will fall short of the Bombadil that exists in my imagination but I will not resent the experience that others will have by encountering him for the first time on the small screen. I will nurse my own hope that they will go on to pick up the books and meet him through Tolkien’s imagination and his masterful character drawing.

For the hobbits who meet him on the path along the Withywindle on that autumn afternoon the experience is overwhelming. This is partly because of the terror that they have just been through and which Bombadil has brought to an end so suddenly and so completely. And it is because of the utter strangeness of the creature that has done this. Tom Bombadil brings an overwhelming gladness with him that is unique within this story and which I find difficulty in being able to recall from any other character in literature that I know. Is the character of Jesus as portrayed in St St John’s gospel like this? You know that bit in the gospel when he prays for his disciples that his joy may be in them and that their joy may be full. Is this the kind of joy that we see in Tom Bombadil? I do not have answers for certain but for those of you who love this character as I do I hope that you will enjoy the next few weeks in which we explore him together and please do use the ability to leave a comment so that we can talk together.

Old Man Willow. O Hobbits, Take Care Where You Sleep!

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (HarperCollins 1991) pp 108-116

The hobbits have to make their way through the Old Forest in order to rejoin the East-West road through Eriador. Their intention is to throw the Black Riders off their scent and so to arrive safely in Bree. There, or at least so they hope, they will meet up with Gandalf and so journey on to Rivendell together.

Well, that is their intention anyway, but first they have to get through a forest that clearly regards them with dislike or worse. “They all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity”.

The Old Forest by Alan Lee

The Old Forest was all that was left in Eriador of the great primeval forest of the Elder Days. When Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard in the forest of Fangorn later in the story he tells them that “there was all one wood once upon a time from here [Fangorn] to the Mountains of Lune”.

“I do not doubt,”says Treebeard, “that there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north”, and it is the Darkness, the time of the dominion of Morgoth, in the First Age of the World, of whom Sauron was merely a lieutenant that led even a part of the natural world to fall under its dominion.

We should not blame the hobbits too much for their unwariness. Life until now has taught them so little of the dangers of the world. But they should not have fallen asleep with their backs to the trunk of Old Man Willow, the heart of the hostility of the Forest. Falling asleep in the wild can either be an opening into wonder or danger. I read just the other day of an explorer of the wild who fell asleep on a warm summer day in the woods and awoke to find a female Roe Deer gazing at him just a few inches from his face. Their encounter lasted only a few seconds before the deer ran off into the undergrowth but it left him with a sense of peace and wonder that stays with him to this day. I once climbed down with a companion into a gorge a little below the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river. This was in the days before it was possible to navigate the gorges in inflatable craft and so we had this place to ourselves. At the bottom of the gorge he wandered off to look around and I fell asleep in the stifling heat of the afternoon with my back to a rock. I awoke to find myself surrounded by a troop of baboons who were eyeing me with great curiosity. I stayed quite still and looked back at them. What would have happened next I do not know for my companion returned, startled the troop and they ran away. Like the explorer and the deer my brief connection with wild things has never left me.

To be awoken by a gentle deer is one thing. It is a little more uncertain to be awoken by a troop of baboons and I sometimes wonder what was going to happen next if my companion had not returned. But Old Man Willow wishes nothing but harm for the hobbits. He tries to drown Frodo in the Withywindle river and to entrap Merry and Pippin within himself. Only Sam seems to be alert to his malice. The first time in The Lord of the Rings in which he is ahead of the others. But the great adventure seems to be at an end on the very first day beyond the borders of the Shire until a song of utter carefree joy alerts Frodo and Sam to the rescue that is about to come to them.

So do take care where you fall asleep. You may avoid danger that way. But there again you may avoid wonder too. To be open to wonder it seems that you have to be open to danger as well. At least that is what the hobbits discover. They fall into danger but wonder is bounding down the path towards them.

Wonder bounds down the path towards the hobbits

Forests are Strange Things. The Hobbits Enter the Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 107-09

Anyone who has anything to do with forests for any length of time soon comes to know that they have an identity that is very much their own. In his introduction to the wonderful book, The Hidden Lives of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, the Australian palaeontologist, Tim Flannery, writes of Wohlleben, “His deep understanding of the lives of trees, reached through decades of careful observation and study, reveals a world so astonishing that if you read his book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.”

The magic of the forest (A painting by Alan Lee)

And the essence of this “magic” is the ability of trees to communicate with each other so that they can give aid to one another against any potential threats. They even continue to feed the stumps of trees that have long fallen or been cut down knowing that these stumps still have their part to play in nurturing the future of the forest. I recently came across the stump of a tree that had been cut down and through a neat round hole in its centre a healthy young sapling was climbing vigorously upwards towards the sky.

I have been walking my dog in woodland near my home in north Worcestershire, in our own Crickhollow, close by the farm where Tolkien’s aunt and grandfather lived and where he often stayed as a child, I discovered, to my pleasure, that I can have the woods to myself because most people are nervous about entering them. You really don’t know what you will find within them. So most people stick to the paths that run alongside the woods. A bit like Fredegar Bolger really.

I find that the best time of the day to walk in them is the early morning. I have the particular pleasure of greeting the sunrise in the spring and autumn. In the summer the woods are already fully awake. In the winter I enter their mysterious darkness. I have got to know the paths and so I feel confident in making my way through them, even when I cannot see more than a yard or so ahead of me.

The Forest by Night

At least that is how I like to reassure myself as I step off the wide pathway and into silent darkness of the wood. Except the wood never stays the same. The weight of a snowfall in winter or a hig storm will almost certainly bring down tree branches, sometimes hefty boughs or even whole trees. One path that used to take me down to a secret place at the joining of two streams is now completely blocked by the fall of an ancient hollow oak. There is a gap beneath it that my dog can pass through but I have to clamber over it. It is worth the effort but I still remember my dismay when I first encountered this obstruction.

There have been many obstructions in the years in which I have come to know the woods. Some have required the making of new paths. First, the trampling down of the undergrowth. There are far too many nettles in the late spring and summer in this modern nutrient saturated environment. You might think that the surfeit of nitrates would be a good thing but wild flowers prefer a plainer diet and, sadly, nettles thrive on them. So the first stage in the making of a path is always a discomforting affair as I get my legs covered in stings that go through my trousers. The second stage is the removal of branches that lie across my way. And then the third is to walk the path again and again and again until the earth beneath my feet is gradually forced together and, for a time at least, the life beneath is not able to make its way through to the world above.

A Forest Path by Grrroch

So yes, the Old Forest is a strange affair, but only because it is not like “the woods and fields and little rivers” of the Shire or my own county of Worcestershire where everything takes time to happen. In the Old Forest the speech of the trees and the endless changes that take place in every wood all happen much more quickly. And the Forest has little love for hobbits. Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin really will have to be rescued before the day is out.

The Story of Meriadoc Brandybuck. Or The Necessity of Getting Out of Your Depth.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 107,108

There are few things more annoying than when someone for whom you don’t have very much respect gets something absolutely right. I don’t know how much respect the other hobbits have for Fredegar Bolger (or Fatty to his friends) although I do note that little attempt is made to persuade Fatty to come with them when he tells the other hobbits that he will not come into the Old Forest with them.

Fatty’s main contribution to the discussion about how the hobbits are to leave Buckland without attracting the attention of the Black Riders is to warn them of the dangers of the Forest. By contrast, Merry is both confident and competent. He has been into the Forest before. He speaks about the path that he intends to take. He gives a lesson on the history of the Forest or at least the history that hobbits have been a part of. He has ponies ready for the journey and all the supplies have been prepared. He has anticipated Frodo’s insistence that he must leave the Shire immediately. He has been making preparations for just this moment all through the summer. And with a little help from Pippin he has even composed a song that is suitable for the occasion drawing upon his knowledge of hobbit history. “It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune”.

Merry takes charge at Crickhollow

One day Merry will make a fine Master of Buckland but on this day everything will go completely wrong and Fatty will be proved completely right.

“I only hope that you will not need rescuing before the day is out.”

Merry and his companions will need rescuing before the day is out. In fact if rescue had not been at hand the quest would have ended in disaster almost before it had begun. And things do not really get much better for Merry from that point onwards. He will lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe and will need to be rescued many times.

Rescued from the barrow wight by Tom Bombadil. Rescued from the Black Rider in the streets of Bree by Nob of all people and rescued from starvation in the Forest of Fangorn by Treebeard. Eventually he will complain bitterly of being no more than an item of baggage in the story and perhaps his lowest point will be when Théoden of Rohan will announce to him that he is to be left behind when the Riders go to war outside the gates of Minas Tirith. He has been of some value as a kind of entertainment for the king on the journey from the sack of Isengard to the gathering at Dunharrow but he will be of no value at all in the serious business of war. And even when he does go, thanks to the intervention of another character who has been left behind, he finds himself being addressed by a soldier who has just stumbled over him as “Master Bag”. It is the one name they know him by, the name that speaks of his humiliation.

Merry’s journey is in many ways a miserable one and yet he neither falls into bitterness nor despair. Two qualities will sustain him throughout and these are his cheerfulness, by which I mean that he has the ability, no matter how great the humiliation, to be ‘cheered up’ to find cheer as soon as he is able, in the house of Tom Bombadil, in the dwelling of Treebeard and in the wreckage of Isengard amidst the spoils of battle. A moment of pleasure is always able to put all suffering out of his mind. And the other is what Gandalf calls, “his gentle loyalty”. There may be many times in which Merry is unhappy but at no time is his self-pity of more importance to him than the welfare of his friends.

Merry cheers up at the house of Tom Bombadil

And so the time will come when he will play a central role in one of the great deeds of his Age in Middle-earth. And he will be there because of his gentle loyalty. When he sees Éowyn standing hopelessly before the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields it will be pity that fills his heart and, Tolkien tells us, “suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.”

“She should not die alone”. Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the fight with the Lord of the Nazgûl.

Frodo Longs to See the Sea. The Dream at Crickhollow.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 105-106

Frodo has made up his mind. He will leave the Shire the very next morning as early as possible and he will go through the Old Forest. All is ready thanks to Merry, the great organiser, and so the hobbits make their way to bed after tidying up, of course.

And there Frodo dreams. At first he dreams of a forest with creatures snuffling at its roots. Frodo is sure that they are looking for him and that they will find him.

Frodo is sure that they will find him

And then Tolkien writes that Frodo “heard a noise in the distance” and that he thought at first that it was the wind in the trees of the forest. But then, in that way in dreams in which you know that you know something, without knowing why or how, Frodo realises that the sound that he can hear is that of the sea. Actually, Tolkien does not spell, sea, as I have done in its generic form as not being the land. He speaks of the Sea. The Sea. The great Sea that parts Middle-earth from the Undying Lands. The Sea over which the Elves may pass in order to reach those lands but which is a way that is denied to mortals.

We learn that this is not the first time that Frodo has heard this sound in his dreams, that it is a recurring and troubled theme within them. And so we are brought within his inner life. Dreams will play an important part in The Lord of the Rings. As in our own experience they will always leave us with as many questions as answers. Tolkien had too much insight into the mystery of the human psyche to write write one of those all too popular books on “the interpretation of dreams” in which particular objects or images within a dream are assigned particular meanings. Such an understanding of dreams would either make Frodo in some sense, omniscient, or it would give that quality to us, the reader. As it is, both Frodo and us as well have to stumble through life in the dark, walking by faith and not by sight.

“Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge.”

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of The Sea

So Frodo is taken in his dream from a vision of a forest and creatures snuffling about just as he had heard the Black Rider sniffing for him. Everything in this part of the dream takes him downwards and this is the journey that he must now take. Even in his dream this feels a hopeless affair. The creatures will find him. But then Tolkien uses the word, Suddenly, and we look upwards with him to a tall white tower, alone on a high ridge. We are taken from the journey that he must take to the journey that he longs to take, even though he does not know what that journey is.

“A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea.”

The great Tolkien scholar, Verlyn Flieger, comments on this passage in her book, Splintered Light. She speaks of an “implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown.” And then she speaks of a “very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” Or to use the great insight of Augustine of Hippo, to keep on searching restlessly until we find our rest in the ultimate, or in God.

Significantly, Tolkien does not give us our last glimpse of Frodo at the end of the story as he does to his companions as they gaze outwards to the last glimpse of the light of the phial of Galadriel as the ship dips over the horizon. He takes us onwards with Frodo until journeys end as Frodo “beholds white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise”. Frodo must take the journey into danger and darkness but his heart longs for something else and one day he will find it.

I am grateful to the blog written by Jonathan McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable, for many of the insights in this week’s post and for the quote from Verlyn Flieger. You can find it at https://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/frodos-dream-tower/

“We Are Your Friends, Frodo.” A Conspiracy Unmasked.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 96-105

If Frodo has a fault, and I will allow my readers to decide whether or not it really is a fault, it is that he has a sense of himself that he, and he alone, must shoulder the burden of this quest. In my imagination I picture him sitting alone by the fire in his study in Bag End, sucking on the stem of his pipe, and seeing himself walking alone in the wild towards a far horizon as the light fades about him. And already he is nursing a feeling of desolate loneliness but he is also beginning to enjoy a feeling of greatness that, if anything, grows with the loneliness. The lonely hero is a figure much loved in the mythology of Europe and, as my North American readers will confirm, travelled across the Atlantic to the vast empty spaces of that continent. Indeed, it was as if this kind of hero was just waiting for those vast spaces in order to be reborn there.

Frodo bears his burden alone

Of course, the reason that I can picture Frodo almost starting to enjoy this sense of having “a high and lonely destiny” is that I have been drawn to the temptation of wanting to be this kind of hero myself. And I also think that I have evidence within The Lord of the Rings to support my case. You will remember how, in the Council of Elrond, Frodo heroically chooses the task of taking the Ring to Orodruin in Mordor and how, straight away, Sam cries out, “But you won’t send him off alone surely, Master?” And you will remember how, after Boromir tries to seize the Ring, Frodo announces to himself, “I will go alone. At once.”

Thankfully, Frodo always fails in his attempts to “go alone”. Even without Sam’s intervention at the Council Elrond swiftly decides that Frodo cannot go alone and creates The Fellowship of the Ring, the nine walkers who will oppose the nine riders, the Nazgûl. And it is Sam, the confounded nuisance, who prevents him from going alone to Mordor after the breaking of the Fellowship. But now, at the very beginning of the journey, it is Frodo’s friends who keep him from trying to go alone.

Of course they have no idea what lies ahead of them but then, as Gandalf remarks to Elrond later on, “neither does Frodo”. Indeed, he emphasises, “Nor do any of us see clearly. ” We are all spared the burden of knowing what lies ahead for us. We are neither robbed of the surprise of joy nor of knowing what pain or sorrow lies before us. Joy cannot be joy unless it comes to us by surprise and who would wish to rob their days of what contentment that can be enjoyed by knowing the sufferings of the future?

What Merry and Pippin and Sam have to offer is not their foreknowledge but their friendship. Frodo makes a blustery speech about not being able to trust anyone once he realises that his secret has been long known. Merry answers him magnificently. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin- to the bitter end… But you cannot trust us to face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” And it is friendship that will prevail against all the power of the Enemy and not might nor even wisdom.

Ted Nasmith “Bathing at Crickhollow”

Friendship will take Merry into combat against the very foes that pursue them when he decides not to allow Éowyn to fight the Lord of the Nazgûl alone and it is through friendship and not might that he enables Éowyn to prevail against him. And it is friendship that takes Pippin to the high place in Minas Tirith where Denethor would take the life of his own son so that he need not die alone in his despair. It is through friendship, not might, that Pippin saves the life of Faramir. And it is through friendship that Sam brings Frodo step by intolerable step through the deserts of Mordor to Mount Doom before he carries him up the slopes of the mountain. It is not good to be alone. We were made for friendship, for belonging.

Frodo Finds Sanctuary With Farmer Maggot

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 86-95

Tolkien grew up first of all in the village of Hall Green in the county of Warwickshire and then in the city of Birmingham, raised by priests of the Birmingham Oratory founded in the 19th century by John Henry Newman. He never loved the city although he had a deep respect for the priests who became as fathers to him. Even in his time the city was coming ever closer to Hall Green and today it is a suburb of the city and it is hard to remember that it was ever seperate from it. But he always kept a close connection to the country through his mother’s family who farmed in a village in North Worcestershire just a few miles from where I now live.

The farmhouses hereabouts are sturdy affairs and as most of the smaller farms have become economically unviable in recent years so they have become much sought after dwellings for people who have made their money elsewhere. But there are still plenty of families who have farmed the land here since the young Tolkien would visit his aunt and grandfather and I rather think that he would still recognise the same kind of people that he would have met then, with their slow speech delivered with care who became the models for his hobbits.

A Worcestershire Farmhouse

People like Farmer Maggot. We never learn his first name and I doubt whether he or Mrs Maggot would use first names to each other unless something needed to be said that was very serious. He would identify most with his family name, one that he would bear proudly, linked as it was with the land that he and his ancestors had farmed and the house that they had built. As Tom Bombadil was to say of him later on, “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones and both his eyes are open.”

Farmer and Mrs Maggot

I have lived here for a few years now and as a parish priest I have a position in these villages that has been a part of their life for many centuries. I have discovered that the older families are willing to give me a chance and just as Farmer Maggot and his wife welcome Frodo and his companions into their home without hesitation, that is, of course, after they realise who they are, so I too know that I can count upon a respectful welcome even if I show up unannounced. And I know that once I am made welcome people like the Maggots will be fiercely loyal to me thereafter. It is a loyalty that I am determined to treasure and never abuse.

It is the kind of loyalty that is willing to take great risks. Maggot has no idea how deadly the creatures are who are looking for Frodo beyond his brief encounter with the one who rode up to his door that day but even if he did he would still never betray a guest that he had welcomed to his table. And he would certainly never betray the eldest son of one of the most respected families in the Shire, that is Mister Peregrin Took. Such bonds of mutual respect and, often, kinship too, are not to be lightly put aside or done so even under great duress.

Workers in the fields on an English farm in the early 20th century

Sadly, even in the Shire, things were changing and within less than a year of Frodo’s brief stay in Farmer Maggot’s house there will be plenty of hobbits who will cheer on the coup d’etat engineered by Lotho Sackville Baggins, that sour faced hobbit, who drank his parents’ resentment in at being excluded from Bag End with his mother’s milk. They too will be hungry for the status from which they feel themselves to have been excluded. They will feel entitled to share in the privilege that they believe families like the Tooks, the Brandybucks and even the Maggots enjoy.

But now on this September evening Maggot will go to his bed with a feeling of satisfaction because of the way in which he has helped a neighbour while Frodo, Pippin, Sam, and Meriadoc Brandybuck too (who they have met along the way), make a grateful way to the cottage at Crickhollow after the adventures of the day.

Sam Gamgee has Something to Do Before the End. Frodo and Sam decide to leave the Shire as soon as possible.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 84-86

Frodo awakens in a strangely scented bed of fern and grass in a bower created within a living tree. The Elves have gone and so Frodo emerges from a night spent in the Elder Days to hear Pippin’s usual chatter. It is a beautiful morning in the Shire but Gildor Inglorien’s words have gone home to his heart.

“I think that you should now go at once, without delay; and if Gandalf does not come before you set out, then I also advise this: do not go alone.”

Frodo and the High Elves in Woodhall by Alan Lee

Frodo now understands that the Shire is no longer safe and that he must leave it. He had perhaps hoped that he might rest in Crickhollow in Buckland for a while but he knows now that this is not possible. But what of Gildor’s second piece of advice? Who, if anyone, should he take him with him?

“You still mean to come with me?” he asks Sam. And Sam’s reply is sure and firm.

“Don’t you leave him! they said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him they’ll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with.”

So far, so much the kind of bluster that a young man might summon up to make himself a little braver and Frodo is inclined merely to acknowledge it. But then Sam says something that makes Frodo really take notice.

Frodo has asked Sam whether he still likes Elves now that he has had a closer view of them. It is the kind of question that a teacher might ask of a a pupil of which they are fond but it is not asked with much expectation of great wisdom. Then Sam replies:

“They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak…It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I had expected- so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

We never learn what Sam had expected to see when he first met Elves and so we need to use our imaginations. Perhaps the picture that Sam had carried in his heart was one formed by his childhood experience of listening to Bilbo’s stories. He felt special in that he had been chosen to hear them and not any other young hobbit. He had been able to walk into a home in which there dwelt a figure of legend, a hobbit, fabulously wealthy, or so it was believed, who had journeyed to the Land of Fairie away from the cabbages and potatoes that seemed to form the limits of his father’s experience and imagination. And as he began to enter his adulthood he still carried this child’s experience within his heart, perhaps holding it even more dearly because he had had to defend it against the likes of Ted Sandyman.

But now he has seen Elves and even more, he has seen the Eldar, High Elves who have dwelt in Valinor, the Undying Lands, and who have communed with the Valar, the angelic beings who govern the earth for Ilúvatar, the One. Sam now knows that the Elves do not need to be defended by him. He realises that his opinion and the opinion of people like Ted Sandyman is of utter irrelevance to the beings that he has just met.

But this does not diminish him in any way. Indeed, if anything, it makes his soul grow larger. A large soul has not been merely inflated. A large soul is not focused upon itself but upon something greater than itself and so Sam replies to Frodo’s question as to whether he still needs to leave the Shire now that he has seen Elves.

“Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want- I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

Sam has made great steps towards a greatness that few ever begin to attain to.

“I Name You Elf Friend”. The Hobbits Meet and Stay With a Company of High Elves

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 77-83

The chance encounter, if chance it was as Gildor Inglorion observes, probably saves the hobbits from the Black Rider, the Nazgûl, most deadly of the servants of the Dark Lord. When Gildor and his company realise what it was from which they had inadvertently rescued Frodo and his companions they decide to take them under their protection and so the hobbits spend the night in a place of wonder.

The hobbits with Gildor by Alan Lee

In last week’s post we saw how Frodo begins to learn about the strangeness of a world that he had thought familiar. Gildor corrects Frodo when he speaks of “our own Shire”. “The wide world is all about you;” he says, “you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”

And the inability of hobbits and of ourselves too to fence the world out is a reason for thankfulness. It may be that enemies can enter the Shire but so too can friends, and in the case of the High Elves they are such friends as bring blessing beyond conceiving. For the hobbits that night in Woody End this blessing contains protection of course, but also for Sam it is the beginning of the fulfillment of a life long yearning. He has always wanted to see Elves and now they stand before him. The expression on his face, we are told, is one “half of fear and half of astonished joy”. And as for Pippin the whole thing is perhaps too much for him now. He is soon fast asleep but it begins an education that will make him a mighty hero.

And this is so for Frodo too. Gildor names him Elf Friend and this is not a title lightly given. Elrond of Rivendell will later say this of him at the Council that “though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together, your seat should be among them.” The elves gave this title for those heroes who made common cause with them in the age long struggle against the dark. Elrond names some of them whose stories are told in The Silmarillion and other places but he could also have named his own father, Eàrendil, and Elendil, high king of Gondor and Arnor and Aragorn too.

Beren and Lúthien by Alan Lee

And why is Frodo named among them? He is not a mighty warrior, doing great deeds in battle. He will never sweep all his enemies from the field in a glorious charge of knights. It is not for this reason that Elrond names him among the company of heroes. No, the reason why Frodo is so named is because of the deed that he offers to do and the price that he is prepared to pay in order to do it. Gildor rightly judges that Frodo does not yet know the full scale of this but one might say that this was true of Beren before he set out to win a silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth. But like Beren Frodo has made the great choice. He will accomplish the task that he chooses to do and is in turn chosen for or he will be overthrown or even die in the attempt.

And the task is truly great as well. He will seek to destroy the Ring which, if it were to fall into the hands of the Dark Lord, would lead to the final victory of darkness over Middle-earth. Day by day he will conquer his fear. Day by day he will fight the growing desire of the Ring to return to its maker, a desire that will make the carrying of this burden intolerable. Eventually he will be cast down by the Ring but this will not happen until another undreamt of means will be provided to accomplish the Ring’s destruction.

It is for this reason that Elrond will confirm that he is truly an Elf-friend. Gildor knows far less than Elrond but even without the knowledge that Elrond has he perceives the greatness of the story in which he was been called upon to play a part and the greatness of the person who he has taken under his protection as well.

The Shire is Stranger than Frodo Thinks. The Hobbits Encounter with the Nazgûl and with Elves.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 73-80

There is a phrase that shows just how disorientating it is when something happens in your backyard that is entirely unexpected. Frodo has just encountered one of the Nazgûl for the very first time. He has no idea that what he can see, just a few yards away, is one of the most terrifying things that he could ever meet unless he stood before the Dark Lord himself. He begins to have an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring, convinced that he would be safe if he did so. “And I am still in the Shire,” he thinks.

I am still in the Shire

Still in the Shire. Still in a place in which every blade of grass, every tree and rise and fall of the road speaks of familiarity and of predictability. The unexpected has no place in the Shire. Of all places in Middle-earth this is the one where the outlandish is where it should be; in the lands outside and beyond the borders. You would have thought that Frodo Baggins, of all hobbits, would have known that this was not true. The stories and actions of Bilbo, his friendship with Gandalf, and his own dealings with the world outside should have taught him that the world is not safe and predictable. As the poet, Louis Macneice put it (in a poem entitled, Snow, written in my parents in law’s house in Birmingham, England), “world is suddener than we fancy it”.

But that, of course, is the problem, even for Frodo. We fancy the world to be in a sense, on time. Not too late or we will make a complaint to the management. Nor too soon neither. Every event that departs from this ‘law’ we regard as abnormal. Except the abnormal keeps on happening. But this event is so abnormal that perhaps we could forgive Frodo. I think that the Powers do forgive him. He is not yet ready for this encounter and so Something prevents him from putting on the Ring, his life is saved, the Ring is not returned to its Maker and the world is not yet subjected to darkness.

World is suddener than we fancy it

And Something brings him into contact with another power at work in the world, a power that even the Nazgûl are not quite ready to match themselves against. Not just yet, anyway. When the hobbits encounter the Nazgûl for the second time Frodo wants to put on the Ring once more but “this time it was stronger than before. So strong that before he realised what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket”. The Ring has only one desire and that is to return to its Master and Frodo is no match for it.

But “world is suddener… world is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural” and in its glorious plurality a large company of High Elves just happens to be on the same stretch of road in the Shire as the hobbits, the Nazgûl and the Ring, at precisely that moment and, once more, Frodo and the world is saved.

Is this a writer’s tendency to allow a coincidence to occur in order to solve a problem with the plot? Or is it how this writer understands the world? I think that the latter is the case. Tolkien’s enchanted world, suddener, crazier, more of than we think, incorrigibly plural, is one in which powers are at work of which we are not usually aware. We might use the word, Providence, to describe these powers. You will remember how when Gandalf said that Bilbo was meant to have the Ring he spoke of “something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker”. Tolkien was always reticent when it came to his Christian faith and his imaginative work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. He chose to know no more than the main characters in his story, who were the hobbits, except by implication. They must learn about the powers at work in the world just as we do. But the world is suddener, and in it there are High Elves, the eldest of the children of Ilúvatar, who see its suddenness, its craziness and plurality with perfect clarity. And they take the hobbits under their protection.

World is crazier and more of it than we think