A Journey into the Wild Pursued by Enemies. The Hobbits and Strider Set Out From Bree to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.169-80

Up until this point of the journey the hobbits have been more or less “looked after”. Even though almost from the beginning their steps have been dogged by the pursuit of the deadliest of enemies in the shape of the Nazgûl of Mordor they have been able to find protection from such mighty allies as the company of High Elves led by Gildor Inglorien or Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. And as well as the hospitality they enjoyed in the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry they have been well fed and watered in the farmhouse of the Maggots and the Prancing Pony in Bree.

But now the nature of the journey makes a sudden change with the attack upon the Prancing Pony in the night. The hobbits lose their ponies and set off with a poor half-starved creature belonging to Bill Ferny, the biggest villain in the Breeland, who is certainly in league with the Black Riders and who makes as much money as he can from their misfortune.

When I say, misfortune, I mean the fact that, from their perspective, that what they thought was going to be a road journey by sturdy pony from Bree to Rivendell, has become a hard march, a yomp as soldiers call it, across hard terrain, carrying heavy loads, with no shelter. Their only pony has to carry as much food as it can take for a fortnight’s journey and the hobbits have to take the rest upon their backs. Only Strider is not much discomfited by this. For him a yomp from place to place is normal life and he has but one extra burden to carry and that is the care of four companions about whose capacity to deal with hardship he has many doubts. Butterbur has already voiced these aloud through his remark that the hobbits are acting as if they are on holiday but even with these doubts in mind Strider has already made up his mind.

Strider Leads the Hobbits through the Wild

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

The journey really begins with the crossing of the Midgewater Marshes. Tolkien never liked boggy country. I was about to say that nobody does but at one time a whole way of life was developed by people living in the fenland of eastern England or the Somerset Levels. Those who know their English history will treasure the year 877 when all that remained of free England was the Isle of Athelney hidden deep in the Somerset Levels when Alfred the Great hid there from Danish invaders. Some call this place the birthplace of England, a place so remote that the Danes could not reach it with sufficient forces to capture the king. Others will remember the last defence of Hereward the Wake against the all conquering armies of William of Normandy on the isle of Ely in the Cambridgeshire fens two centuries later when he too used the natural defence of the bog against his enemies. But a bog makes good defence because it is hard to cross by foot. I remember once having to cross one late in the day. I was grateful for the sturdy stick that I had with me. Every step that I took required a careful use of the stick to find ground firm enough to take my weight and I would often use it to swing across from tussock to tussock hoping that I would not miss my footing and find my boots and then my legs disappearing into the ooze. Recently I learned that in the trenches of the First World War British soldiers feared the mud more even than shells exploding about them and that many of them drowned in that mud.

The Isle of Athelney in 877

Tolkien knew the mud of the Western Front at first hand and hated it. Is it a coincidence that two of the great journeys of The Lord of the Rings begin with a journey across marshland, the journey from Bree to Rivendell and later the journey of Frodo and Sam from the Emyn Muil to Mordor. For Tolkien nothing would better express the hardships that lay ahead. For the hobbits even the companionship of the greatest traveller of his age cannot protect them from the hardships that they must now endure.

The Midgewater Marshes looking towards Weathertop by Anna Kulisz

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Gandalf’s Letter Commends Aragorn to the Hobbits.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 160-168

It is Gandalf’s letter that he had left with Barliman Butterbur that eventually convinced the hobbits to trust the strange man who goes by the name of Strider. Of course, when I say, trust, it must be said that Sam Gamgee did not really trust him. Sam has grown up in a small world,”in a little circle of light,” as Tolkien put it in his essay on Beowulf, The Monsters and The Critics, from which “men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Not that Sam expects his journey to end in defeat. Sam Gamgee is a happy ever after kind of a man who expects things, even the darkest things, to end well. Much will ride upon this quality in the events that lie ahead. But Sam has grown up in a little circle of light and regards the world outside as dark and hostile. He does not know how to distinguish between the offspring of the dark and the kings and champions; not yet at any rate. But the strange man who now stands before the hobbits knows this world very well indeed. Speaking of the Black Riders who are pursuing the hobbits he says:

“They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.”

They will come upon you in the wild

This man knows about about the offspring of the dark. “They are terrible!” He has wandered the wild and dark places of the earth for many years having been sent out from the circle of light that is Rivendell by Elrond, its lord, who has been as a father to him. I have written about him and his story in greater detail in other places in this blog over the years and if you click on the tag, Aragorn, at the end of this post, you will be able to read these if you so wish but as this is the first time in The Lord of the Rings in which we meet this king and champion it would be good to say a few things about him.

This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Rangers of the North, the last of the line of Isildur, son of Elendil, the hero who cut the Ring from the finger of Sauron with the shards of Narsil his father’s sword. Aragorn still carries those shards, “the blade that was broken”, the symbol of his diminished house. And Elrond sent him out from the circle of light to “that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark” when he was a young man in order that he might undergo an apprenticeship that will lead to this crownless one becoming king.

Sustained by Love

In this apprenticeship he serves in the armies of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and of Thengel, King of Rohan and he befriends Gandalf, aiding him in his long struggle against the dark. Through all these long years he is sustained by hope, hope that his wandering will not end in defeat but in the renewing , not just of the blade that was broken but of his people. And he is sustained by love, for he loves Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond, who returned his love, but he cannot win her hand in marriage except as king of both Gondor and of Arnor, the first to sit upon both thrones since the great founder of his house, Elendil and he cannot achieve his longings unless the Dark Lord, Sauron, is finally and utterly defeated. So it is that he meets a hobbit who does “want looking after and no mistake”, who might be “on a holiday” and not at the heart of the greatest events of his age and he has to base all his longing upon this encounter and because of his friendship with Gandalf he chooses to do so. “If by life or death I can save you, I will.”

I began these thoughts with a quotation from Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf. In it Tolkien describes an heroic but ultimately hopeless world. Despite their courage the heroes, “even the kings and champions” are finally defeated in their struggle against the dark. Aragorn has no idea whether or not his story will end in defeat. He has to place his trust, all the longings of his life in this slenderest of threads. Is this a story of hope fulfilled or of defeat and darkness? Will Aragorn’s wanderings end in a homecoming or will he be lost in the wilderness?

There are Many Strange Men On The Roads. Is this the Real Strider?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp160-68

It was only after posting last week’s blog that I really began to ponder Tolkien’s description of the man in the corner of Barliman Butterbur’s common room. Let me take you back there again.

“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud.”

Strider in The Prancing Pony by Anthony Foti

Apart from a sudden desire to know in what way his pipe was “curiously carved” it was those words, “strange-looking”, that caught my attention. In what way, strange? Those who come to know Tolkien’s work quite well know that he is never a lazy writer. There will be a reason why he will have chosen this description. To describe the man sitting in the shadows as weather-beaten is obvious enough. He is a man who has walked many miles in those boots and in all weathers. Not for the men of his time the artificial protection of the ton of metal about him that keeps us and the weather separate from each other. Now if we meet someone who is truly weather-beaten it is something that is worthy of note, even strange, but not in those days. The faces of even quite young men would be wind-darkened and their hands tough and leathery. No, this is not what makes this man strange.

Nor is it the fact that he is not a regular fixture of the common room of The Prancing Pony that makes this man strange. There are many strangers in the only place of comfort on the long journey between Rivendell and the Shire or on the Greenway that runs northwards from Dunland and Rohan. Some of these are strange enough to be a cause of concern to the Breelanders. One of these southerners, “a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future”.

No, this is not what makes the man in the shadows strange, and, in any case, Butterbur tells Frodo that he is a fairly regular visitor to Bree. No, what makes him strange is that he is not one of the usual kind of people who visit The Prancing Pony. He is neither a local farmer or artisan nor the usual kind of wanderer upon the road. The quality of his pipe and his boots should be a clue to an identity that is different from others. Everything about him speaks of mystery.

The Rangers of the North

But Frodo who, after the highly disturbing incident with the Ring after his comic song on the table top, is starting to see everyone as a potential threat, and soon begins to think that this man is a rascal, a rogue. And when the hobbits meet the stranger in their room after the events in the common room Frodo is not much comforted by his words.

“You must take me along with you, until I wish to leave you.”

Eventually it is Gandalf’s letter left in the hands of Butterbur that convinces Frodo and his companions to put their trust, albeit with some reluctance, in this man. And such is the way with decisions that have to be made in unfamiliar situations. When we are at home, surrounded by the familiar, our choices are more often than not a weighing up of possibilities about which we have some knowledge. But ever since Gandalf revealed to Frodo that the ring that Bilbo had left behind on the day of the Long-expected Party was in fact the One Ring made by the Dark Lord to rule all things, Frodo has lived in a world that is unfamiliar and in which he has to make choices with little to go upon that he fully understands. This Strider, this strange man who is sitting in his room as if he owned it, may be a rogue. Frodo is risking his life in the decision that he makes. Is Strider the man that Gandalf’s letter speaks of or is he one of the “many strange men on the roads”? A strange man he most certainly is. His looks are against him. What decision will Frodo make?

My looks are against me

A Strange-Looking Weather-Beaten Man in The Prancing Pony at Bree. Frodo Meets Strider for the First Time.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 151-159

The common-room of an inn is not the best place in which to remain unnoticed and it becomes even more difficult if the host is skilled at creating a community within it, introducing locals and visitors to one another so that each becomes relaxed in one another’s company, stays a little longer and spends a little more money. All of which might be regarded by those of a suspicious nature as somewhat manipulative but which most of us are willing to accept because the quality of our visit to the inn has been improved thereby.

In The Prancing Pony a marvellous evocation by Katie https://thefandomentals.com/lord-rings-re-read-sign-prancing-pony/

But put a hobbit like Peregrine Took among a company of people most of whom are strangers to one another and who are only too glad to be entertained by a good teller of stories and soon the need to be discreet is forgotten. Pippin begins to tell the story of Bilbo’s farewell party and soon it becomes possible that he might mention the name of Baggins and even speak of the Ring itself.

“You had better do something quick!” whispers a stranger sitting in the corner of the room to Frodo and for the first time in the story we are introduced to Strider.

He is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall… He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him,showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face”.

Strider in The Prancing Pony

All that Frodo can see of his face is the gleam of his eyes and so everything about him speaks of mystery. Even Butterbur knows very little about him. Strider comes and goes but keeps himself very much to himself. He is one of the Rangers, a “wandering folk”. It isn’t Barliman’s business to inquire too closely into the lives of others. He allows them to keep their lives a secret as long as they do not bring trouble to Bree. But we have been introduced to the Rangers before and by Tom Bombadil. When Tom freed the hobbits from the barrow wight and brought out the treasure from the darkness he spoke of the Men of Westernesse, foes of the Dark Lord but overcome by the evil king of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl, chief of the very Black Riders who have been pursuing the hobbits.

Tom speaks of the Rangers as “sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.” And now the heedless folk, the unwary hobbits feeling quite at home in a warm and comfortable inn, meet one of the guardians who have long maintained them in their comfortable life.

Alan Lee’s mysterious evocation of the Rangers of the North

To speak of a once great people as a company who now walk in loneliness is deeply poignant. We might speak of a person who has become closely acquainted with loneliness almost wearing it like a garment but to speak of a whole people in this manner deepens their mystery and its sadness. Imagine being the child of such a people. Imagine an education in which you begin to learn of your ancestry and as you do so begin to realise that your dignity has been fading away for generations. And what dignity! You belong to a race of king, the people of Númenor, the second children of Ilúvatar after the firstborn, the Elves, who are in the world together in a manner unknown to them both to achieve its healing and yet are so diminished now. As you grow up with only a flickering ember of hope to sustain you, you realise that you can only become one of the keepers of this ember if you will embrace the loneliness that is given to you along with your dignity.

As Tom Bombadil spoke of the Rangers the hobbits saw them in their hidden glory as Men, “tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow”. But now Frodo sits beside one of them who is alone, weather-beaten and smoking in Bree who speaks roughly to him just as Pippin begins to feel just a little too pleased with himself.

At The Sign of The Prancing Pony. The Hobbits Arrive in Bree.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.146-151

After a two week break enjoyed in the land of my father-in-law in Wales it is good to return to the journey from the Shire to Rivendell in the company of Frodo, Sam Gamgee, Merry and Pippin. And it is good to arrive at the inn in Bree that is the sign of The Prancing Pony. Good because there are few places on earth more hospitable than a really good English inn or pub and because I also want to use this week’s post to honour the wonderful podcast created by Alan Sisto and Shawn E. Marchese that is entitled The Prancing Pony (https://theprancingponypodcast.com) which, like the best wine, seems to get better and better with age and which received The Tolkien Society Award in 2020 for the best online content. The last edition that I listened to was a fascinating interview with one of the world’s leading Tolkien scholars, Dr Verlyn Flieger, and I learnt so much from it.

I said just now that the English pub is one of the most hospitable of places on earth. Sadly I fear that I need to add that although this remains true it is becoming increasingly difficult to find one. If I were to take, for example, the pub that I can see from my bedroom window on the banks of the canal by which my cottage is situated I would be able to tell you that the old sign is there, the building is still as it would have been many years ago apart from the modern extension but that it has become a restaurant as have so many in recent years.

At the Sign of The Prancing Pony

I ought not to complain too much. There is no doubt that the beer is better than it was when I used to sneak out of my English boarding school to the pub down the road. Many pubs either brew their own beer nowadays or buy excellent crafted beers from small breweries. But what is lacking in so many pubs is the right kind of place in which to enjoy it. All too often all the space is taken by tables at which food is served and there is nowhere to sit and talk with a pint in your hand by a good fire on a comfortable chair or sofa.

Everyone is made welcome at The Prancing Pony

Tolkien’s description of The Prancing Pony and of its excellent host, Barliman Butterbur, evokes so many memories of the best of the English pub. The beer is good and after Gandalf puts a spell of excellence upon it becomes even better. The food is simple and served in substantial quantities. It takes the hobbits three quarters of an hour to finish it. And above all everyone is made welcome. There are rooms that are just the right size and design for hobbits and Sam’s misgivings when he first looks at the size of the inn are soon put aside. It is the genius of the best kind of inn that there whether you are a local resident or a traveller there is a space just for you and you are all treated as if you are a personal guest of the proprietor. On the night on which the hobbits arrive there are travellers from the south. Are they refugees from trouble or are they bringers of trouble, the thugs who will eventually make up Saruman’s army of occupation in the Shire? At this point in the story nobody knows and so Barliman makes them welcome. And then there are the locals themselves, the residents of Bree, who feel at home in The Prancing Pony even as they make space for strangers.

The Comfortable Sofa before a Good Fire

Barliman makes them welcome. He is the key to the wonder of this place. Tolkien describes him as a man of important in his community and rightly so. To feed and house so many visitors at such an important crossroads requires a local economy. It also requires a generous spirit. Barliman is at the heart of both.

Barliman Butterbur

In medieval Europe the inn and the monastery were the two great places of hospitality. The latter offered this believing that in serving the guest they were making Christ welcome. The inn did not proclaim this in the same way but I think that they were closer than might appear obvious and I think that the catholic Tolkien recognised this too.

Faramir Remembers “Númenor that was”

I am on a holiday with my wife in the county of Pembrokeshire in west Wales, the county in which my father in law was born and grew up. I am sitting in a pub with a glass of ale at my hand. I do not wish to write something new this week and so I decided to republish an old post in the hope that I would get some new readers for it. Do let me know what you think. When I first wrote this it was the first of three posts on “Númenor that was”, “Elvenhome that is” and “That which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.” Why don’t you read all three.

“We look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

Faramir looks westward with Frodo and Sam

So says Faramir to Frodo and Sam motioning to them to stand with himself and his men facing westwards into the setting sun at the refuge of Henneth Annûn before they sit to eat. And in this simple action the people of Gondor recollect both their history and their identity day by day.

They remember the peril that Eärendil “ventured for love of the Two Kindreds” at the end of the First Age of the Earth. For when the forces of Morgoth had all but overthrown the kingdoms of the Elves and Men in Beleriand Eärendil had journeyed to Valinor to plea for the mercy of the Valar in their uttermost need, and mercy was granted to them. They remember how Morgoth was overthrown and in punishment was “thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World into the Timeless Void”. They remember how Elros and Elrond, the sons of Eärendil, were granted a choice that none had ever been offered either before nor since. The Valar offered to them either to live as one of the deathless that was the destiny of the Elves upon the Earth or to choose mortality that was the destiny of Humankind. And they remember how Elrond chose the destiny of the Elvenkind and so came to live in Rivendell in Middle-earth and how Elros chose mortality and was granted as gift for himself and his people the great isle of Númenor in the Western Seas just within sight of Valinor.

The Shores of Númenor by Izzi Saeta Cabrera

They remember how at first their ancestors lived in contentment with the choice that Elros had made and the land that had been granted as gift; but how, even as their power grew, they grew envious of those that were deathless, coming to see their own mortality as a punishment laid upon them by the Valar who they now regarded as tyrants. This discontent and envy grew and festered over many years even as their might grew. Indeed, we might say, unease and power seemed to grow in equal measure. Eventually so great was that power that they were able to overthrow and make prisoner Sauron even after he had forged the One Ring and had made Barad-dûr in Mordor the heart of his dominions within Middle-earth. But their victory over Sauron was achieved, not as a rejection of his darkness but in envy of his power and so, even as a prisoner, Sauron was able to make that envy grow directing it now against the Valar. Eventually with Sauron’s encouragement they assaulted Elvenhome itself believing that if they could conquer it they would achieve the immortality that they desired, that it was the land itself that somehow granted to its people their deathlessness. But a great wave arose that destroyed the fleets and even the Isle of Númenor and so it is that when Faramir and his men stand in silence they remember “Númenor that was”.

The Fall of Númenor

But even as the faithlessness of the kings of Númenor and those that followed them comes to mind every time the people of Gondor stand before they eat so too does the memory of those who were faithful at great cost to themselves. For among the people of Númenor there were those known as Elf-friends who still loved the Valar and were content with the choice of Elros. When the fleets of Númenor sailed in assault upon Valinor they refused to go with them and the great wave that destroyed Númenor carried Elendil, his sons, Isildur and Anárion and all their peoples, in nine great ships to the shores of Middle-earth where they founded the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor.

All this is called to mind as the peoples of Gondor remember “Númenor that was”, and it is a memory of gift, of choice, of growing discontent and envy that led to unfaithfulness and also to the faithfulness of Elendil and his people, the Elf-friends. And each time they do this they know that they themselves are the fruit of this story and how they too must live.

In this week’s reflection we have remembered  “Númenor that was” and perhaps it has caused us to think of our own discontents with our lives and what has been given to us and what it might mean for us to be faithful even as were the Elf-friends. Next week we shall think with Faramir and his men of “Elvenhome that is” and all that comes to mind as they gaze towards it.

Ride to Meet Your Fortune. A Final Thought From the Wisdom of Tom Bombadil

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 143-145

I had intended to be safely within the hospitable walls of The Prancing Pony in Bree by now but I will have to leave that pleasure until next time. You see, one thing kept niggling at me after last week’s post. I was reasonably satisfied with my thoughts on Tom Bombadil’s encouragement to the hobbits to keep up their merry hearts but I had said almost nothing about the last words that he said to them.

“Ride to meet your fortune.”

Back in August 2017 I wrote about Sam Gamgee’s decision to trust to luck on the roads of Mordor, the last place you would think where any luck might be found. If you click on the tag, luck, at the end of this post, you will be taken to that piece. I wrote about Tom Shippey’s musings upon the subject of luck in his magnificent The Road to Middle-Earth (Harper Collins 2005 edition pp.170-74) and I wrote about the way in which Sam understood what it meant to trust his luck.

Tom Shippey

In these pages, Dr. Shippey refers to the translation of The Consolation of Philosophy ascribed to King Alfred the Great and written originally by the 5th century philosopher, Boëthius. My own personal choice for the founding myth of the English nation is the winter that Alfred and his small group of loyal followers spent on the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes hiding from the Danish invaders. Eventually Alfred overcame t invaders and established the kingdom that became England. Alfred (like Faramir in The Lord of the Rings?) was both a warrior and had a deep love for scholarship. As well as making the greatest work of early medieval philosophy available to his people in the English language he also had Pope Gregory the Great’s treatise on pastoral care translated into English for his clergy. Now that is how to found a nation. Would that we had more of his kind among us in our own times.

An imaginining of Alfred the Great

Boëthius gives much thought to the subject of fortune or wyrd. Tom Shippey quotes this passage from his great work.

“What we call God’s forethought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done then we call it wyrd.

Boëthius is thinking about the fall in his personal fortunes. Once he was a senator of Rome but now he is a prisoner of King Odoacer the Goth and he awaits his death. The wheel of fortune is inexorable but philosophy enables him to bear either good or bad. We still speak of someone as being of a philosophical disposition in this sense today. The hobbits too have little control over what lies ahead of them. They cannot prevent the wheel of fortune from turning. They have no choice but to ride to meet it. Actually, they do have a choice. They could follow the advice of Fatty Bolger and hide in Crickhollow but if they had followed that advice they would merely have waited for the Black Riders to arrive and find them. Either you ride to meet your fortune or it comes to meet you. Either you can meet it with a merry heart and while being wary you ride boldly or you try to hide from it.

Even as Tom Bombadil speaks these words the hobbits are afraid. They are on the Road once more and it is on the Road that the Nazgûl seek them. “The shadow of the fear of the Black Riders came suddenly over them again. Ever since they had entered the Forest they had thought chiefly of getting back to the Road; only now when it lay beneath their feet did they remember the danger that pursued them.” Danger lies behind and before them and they have little control over it. All that they can do is to keep on going, to keep up their merry hearts, to be bold but wary and to ride, not away from their fortune, but towards it, to meet it.

Frodo before The Witch King of Angmar

Keep Up Your Merry Hearts. Tom Bombadil Bids the Hobbits Farewell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 141-145

Tom Bombadil tells the hobbits that he will accompany them on their journey from the barrow in which they have been imprisoned until they reach the Road once more. As Tom puts it, the hobbits are “so good at losing themselves” that he will not feel happy until he has “seen them safe over the borders of his land”.

The hobbits are delighted that they will have Tom’s company for a little while longer. They enjoy his joy and they feel safe with him. He has rescued them from disaster twice; once from Old Man Willow and once from the barrow wight. On both occasions they stumbled into danger entirely unawares. We should not blame them. Until now they have all lived lives entirely free from danger, the kind of lives that we all wish for our children, for no-one wishes that their children’s lives should be deliberately put at risk, but now they will often be in danger and they need to learn how to live with this.

Farewell Tom Bombadil

Tom gives them sound advice. Probably, as with most advice that we are given, the hobbits will soon forget what Tom has told them, but somewhere his words will take root within them. In the days that lie ahead they will face many dangers, toils and snares and each experience will make Tom’s words more real until both word and experience will be woven together as one. When they are finally returning to the Shire, and begin to hear ominous news about what awaits them, Gandalf leaves them to enjoy a good long chat with Tom Bombadil and tells them that they do not need looking after any longer.

Tom’s words to the hobbits are both a celebration of what they already are and, at the same time, a warning of the qualities that they need to develop if they are to have a chance of surviving what lies ahead.

“Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune.”

The hobbits understand this kind of wisdom. It is a wisdom shared through proverbs that are easy to teach and to recall. It is a wisdom well known in non-literate peasant cultures but no-one should make the mistake of mistaking simplicity for shallowness. Tom Bombadil’s wisdom is profound.

The quality that Tom celebrates in the hobbits is their “merry hearts”. He recognises this quality within himself and he approves of it in them. Throughout the story others will both remark upon the hobbits’ childlikeness, seeing this especially in Merry and Pippin, and many will enjoy it. Even Denethor, in all his world-weariness and cynicism, will for a brief moment seek to keep Pippin near him, surely recognising as he does so something that he has long lost but misses still. Throughout The Lord of the Rings there is the feel of a world grown old and sad, a world that is passing away. Merry and Pippin will make others glad that they are alive or at least remind them of a time when they were glad and, perhaps, rekindle within them the hope that they might find such gladness again.

Concerning Denethor by Luke Shelton

But merriness will not protect them from harm. Already they have encountered terrible danger and on each step that they take they will be surrounded by it. Their merry hearts will enable them to endure dangers but they will need to learn boldness tempered by wariness if they are to have a chance of surviving them. As we have seen, wariness is most certainly something that they have not yet learned.

Keep up your merry hearts

I am not sure that Merry and Pippin will ever learn wariness and Frodo and Sam will be forced to place their entire lives into the care of someone who wishes them nothing but harm. Simply by going on with this journey the hobbits are embracing boldness. Simply by riding eastwards along the Great Road they are facing their fortunes, separately and together. And simply by being themselves they are riding towards their fortunes with merry hearts.

For those interested in exploring the use of proverbs in The Lord of the Rings I would warmly recommend The Proverbs of Middle-earth by David Rowe.

“Tom, he is Master”. The Stronger Songs of Tom Bombadil Rescue the Hobbits From the Barrow Wight.

The Fellowship of the Ring (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 133-143

Anyone who has ever been out walking in the downland of a county like Wiltshire in England as the evening turns towards night will know that it does not require too much imagination to picture the scene that Tolkien gives us in this episode of The Lord of the Rings. Some of the barrows that you will find there are older by far than anything that you would call European civilisation and among them are the great stone circles such as Stonehenge that conjure such a wonderful sense of mystery, or at least they would do so if it were not for modern highways and visitor centres.

The opening to a barrow in Wiltshire that is 6,000 years old

Once again the hobbits let their guard down, falling asleep with their backs to a standing stone and awakening amidst a chilling fog as night begins to fall. Frodo becomes separated from his companions and their ponies panic and flee towards safety. Eventually Frodo is captured by the same creature that has taken his friends, a barrow wight, and all are imprisoned within a burial chamber.

Frodo strikes a blow by Ted Nasmith

Frodo found Sam, Merry and Pippin lying “on their backs, and their faces looked deathly pale; and they were clad in white. About them lay many treasures, of gold maybe, though in that light they looked cold and unlovely. On their heads were circlets, gold chains were about their waists, and on their fingers were many rings. Swords lay by their sides, and shields were at their feet. But across their three necks lay one long naked sword.”

The hobbits have been drawn inside the spell under which a barrow wight, a spirit that feeds upon the sadness of death, has placed the barrow and those who have been laid to rest within it. When they are rescued by Tom Bombadil it becomes clear that for a time they have been imprisoned within an old memory of a battle between the forces of the witch kingdom of Angmar and the kingdom of Arthedain. As he returns to consciousness Merry is held for a moment within that memory, feeling a spear piercing him in his heart. The barrow wight is a creature that exists almost entirely within the dread, the misery and sadness of such memories, relying upon incantations and ceremonies through which it draws its prisoners into its own miserable existence.

The wight is so frozen within that moment that even Frodo’s limited freedom is already too much for it. Frodo has it at bay even before he begins his own spell, the song that calls Tom Bombadil to aid them. It is the song that Tom taught them while they stayed in the house under hill and soon he arrives, joyfully announcing that “Tom, he is the Master: his songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster”.

Tom’s songs are stronger songs

Tolkien’s legendarium is faithful to the spirit of norse mythology with its intimate relationship between language and matter. In many ways the incantation of the wight within this story represents that relationship in its most corrupted form as the evil creature seeks to bend the hobbits to its twisted but miserably limited purposes. Tom’s song by contrast is completely pure, although deceptively simple. His one purpose is to allow all creatures to be entirely free and themselves. He has a wild desire for their beatitude, as one theologian speaks of the saints. Tolkien was a great student of language but did not only know language in an abstract sense as in dictionary definitions. Language was something he experienced through his five senses. Tolkien always regarded Charles Williams, the member of the Inklings who understood and perhaps practised magic the most, with a certain suspicion. I wonder if that is because, as with Gandalf and his fear of the Ring, he knew that he might have too great a profiency as a practitioner of magic himself, were he ever to practice it, with all its attendant temptations to control the lives of others.

How important it is then that this episode ends with the hobbits running naked and free upon the downs, subject to no-one except by the commitments that they have made to each other and, as in Frodo’s case, his promise to Gandalf. Frodo, in particular, has won an important victory, most especially over the temptation to put on the Ring, but also in his exercise of freedom in wielding a blade against the barrow wight and in the song that calls Tom Bombadil, the master, to give them his aid.

A Far Green Country Under a Swift Sunrise. Frodo’s Dream in the House of Tom Bombadil.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 132-133

“Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was all rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”

This dream passage comes at the beginning of Frodo’s journey on the last night of the hobbits’ stay in the house of Tom Bombadil, the second of two important dreams at this part of the story, the other of which was the tower dream in Crickhollow the night before the hobbits entered the Old Forest. But Tolkien uses the same words at the end of the story at the very end of Frodo’s earthly travels following his sea voyage with Bilbo, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the Ringbearers, into the West, and Tolkien makes a point there of remembering Frodo’s dream as it is fulfilled.

The Grey Havens by Alan Lee

A far green country under a swift sunrise. As far back as 1944 Tolkien intended to end his story with a remembrance and a fulfillment of the dream in Bombadil’s house. He meant to use these words as a frame about his story. (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 104). Of course at this point of the story, with all the struggles that lie ahead of him, Frodo has no notion of this, but the story and the storyteller does. As we have considered in other posts Frodo is a part of a story far greater than he is. He is meant to have the Ring. He will be overcome by its utterly malign power but by grace he will not be destroyed either by the Ring nor by its maker, nor will he be caught up in its destruction; but neither will he find healing in Middle-earth. By the prayer of Arwen Undómiel, whose place he will take on the ship bearing her father, Frodo will be permitted to enter the Undying Lands and there he will be healed.

A Far Green Country

But why does Tolkien refer to Frodo’s healing in Undying Lands at this point of the story? It does Frodo no good in so far as we are able to tell and until we, who read The Lord of the Rings, come across these words once again at the end of the story, it has no effect upon us either. There is no comfort to be gained here for any of us.

I think that there are two things to be said. On the one hand it is an encouragement to read The Lord of the Rings again and again, as I hope you are doing. There are so many layers of meaning to be discerned within the story that we will discover more and more with every reading. But the other speaks to how Frodo, and we ourselves as his fellow creatures, must live. Frodo will carry this dream within his subconscious throughout and there, no doubt, it will do its work within his psyche as dreams will always do but the dream will point to a reality that does not require our conscious assent to be entirely itself. Even before Arwen’s prayer or before Frodo’s despair that he will ever find healing in Middle-earth, a place has been prepared for him in which, as Tolkien put it in another letter, Frodo will go “both to a purgatory and peace” (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 328). There is no sense in which this purgatory is a punishment in the usual way in which this has been understood and if prayers are required to release him from it it can only be that what awaits him beyond the circles of the world is of such surpassing wonder that to be denied it, even in an earthly paradise, is punishment by comparison. Those of us who are mortal can only grasp this reality by faith and be encouraged in it by those occasional glimpses that might be afforded to us, but even these are enough to strengthen us to live our lives courageously and so fulfill our calling even as Frodo does.

I am grateful to Keith Kelly and Michael Livingston for a fine paper published by The Mythopoeic Society and which can be accessed through the link below.