On Learning How to Receive Good Gifts

With long but steady strides Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin on a long journey across the Fangorn Forest but at its ending they are in a safe place for the first time since leaving Lothlorien. They are in Wellinghall at the foot of the Misty Mountains, one of Treebeard’s dwelling places in the forest. “I like it,” he says. “We will stay here tonight.”

Treebeard gives Merry and Pippin a drink very like the water of the Entwash that they had drunk earlier that day near the borders of the forest after escaping the orcs and Tolkien tells us that the water had “some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night.” Tolkien seems to have had a particular love for this kind of description. He hints at what it is that his characters remember. They are “reminded” of the smell and the wood is “distant” and its savour “borne from afar”. Later in his description of Aragorn’s use of athelas to heal those who have been wounded in the Houses of Healing after the Battle of The Pelennor Fields he uses it in a particularly poignant manner. Instead of a simple and straightforward description of the properties of the herb or of the drink he evokes the memory of a sensation, a memory that lies hidden at the edge of consciousness. In the case of Aragorn’s use of athelas this is especially striking. When he uses it to bathe Frodo’s wound after the attack at Weathertop we are simply told that “the fragrance of the steam was refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared.” In the Houses of Healing Tolkien again hints at memories that are evoked by the effect of the steam. It is as if the memory, mingled with the working upon the senses of the aroma of the herb crushed in warm water and the hands of the true king, achieves the healing of body and soul and spirit together.


Here it is not so much healing that is achieved. That came about if you remember when the hobbits drank of the streams of the Entwash earlier that day. Here Merry and Pippin find refreshment and nourishment but what refreshment; what nourishment! Later their friends will observe that they have grown in stature and other hobbits will find them almost intimidating.



What a journey they have been upon since their capture by the orcs and Pippin’s unhappy description of himself as “a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage”. They have been through a kind of initiation together and now they are warriors and ready for battle. There is nothing that they have done which has brought about this transformation except their refusal to give up and their total loyalty to their friends and to the quest even though all seems hopeless. Later this will be described as a “gentle loyalty” thus distinguishing it from the fierce loyalty of battle hardened members of the Fellowship like Gimli or Legolas, but it is loyalty nonetheless. In Tolkien’s Christian understanding of such things no gift can be described as a payment to honour a contractual obligation. The hobbits did not encounter Treebeard or drink “of the draughts of Fangorn” as their due wage for loyalty. But without that loyalty no gift could have been received. The same is true for us. It is by means of our commitment to the good that we, like Merry and Pippin, will be capable of receiving gifts that will transform us.

4 thoughts on “On Learning How to Receive Good Gifts

  1. Reading this makes me realise how powerful the half-remembered memories are to me and how much those ‘memories’ guide me forward. They are so potent, aren’t they?
    The other thing that struck me when reading what you say about free-gifts and payment due and how the gift from the Ents was not BECAUSE of their loyalty and yet they wouldn’t have received the gift if they weren’t loyal! Allied a comment you made in an earlier post, it is so difficult to try to articulate how things happen and the tendency to reify them into ‘laws.’ I sort of get that feeling with Paul (and James) and the whole grace-works thing. I can almost hear them banging their heads against the walls saying, “you still don’t get it?” While we try to pin them down and get our doctrine straight once and for all.
    Perhaps the lesson is that those who no longer have to live by the laws also do not feel the need to find laws by which to live by. The sounds like freedom indeed!

    • That is a powerful statement! “Those who no longer have to live by the laws also do not find the need to find laws by which to live.” Is that the point of parables like the labourers in the vineyard? Those who turn up at the end of the day get the same as those who worked all day. In an economy (and a life?) that works like that you know that there will always be an abundance of generosity but that you may not be able to make it work for your own interest. Only creatures as simple as Merry & Pippin seem to get it, probably because “getting it” is not so much a conscious activity for them but an overflow of a long practice of life. I was going to say that hobbits “get it” but then remembered Lotho Pimple & realised that they can be corrupted too.

      • Now that is an interesting question about that parable. I remember, years ago in a youth group, a couple of lads becoming genuinely upset about it because of its apparent unfairness.
        I am wondering if it might also relate back to our conversation on kenosis? An economy like that in the parable can only really work in a world without self interest. There is a delightful simplicity here – sometimes naivety and freedom can look very similar!

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