Hobbits and Other Peasants at Christmastide

If I were to keep to my usual practice and to reflect on a passage from The Lord of the Rings as I read through the story then I would have to end the year, and to keep Christmas, with Frodo and Sam in Shelob’s Lair. I could not do this. Tolkien himself used December 25th as a day of hope in his story, the day on which the Fellowship left Rivendell to begin their mission. The dereliction of Shelob’s Lair comes later when Sam believes Frodo to be dead and wrestles with the choice of whether to leave him and to carry on the mission alone. We will reach that point in 2016. I could not spend Christmas thinking about it.

As I thought about what to write I recalled a piece that I wrote in December 2012 when I first began to write my Lord of the Rings blog. At that point I had not yet discovered WordPress and so posted it on my website. If you want to read what I wrote then please read it at http://stephenwinter.net/page6.htm#128678. In it I spoke of a story told by the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. In it he tells of a mighty prince who while riding through fields in his country sees a beautiful peasant girl and falls in love with her. So great is her beauty that the prince decides to dress in peasant’s clothing and to work in the fields alongside her and so win her hand in marriage. Kierkegaard tells us that we all want to know when the prince will reveal who he really is to the girl and so take her off to be his princess. Then he asks, why should he do this at all? Why, if he really loves her, should he not remain a peasant and to share her life? Do let me know what you think of this!

Back in 2012 I was thinking of Tolkien’s reply to his publishers when, after the success of The Hobbit, they asked for “more about hobbits”. Tolkien’s hero, Bilbo Baggins, had been unlike any other that he had ever created, making excellent use of plentiful good luck, living by his wits and his kind and generous nature and finally spending the Battle of the Five Armies, the great climax of the story, in a state of unconsciousness. Clearly he did not feel that there was much more that Bilbo or any other hobbit could offer and that was what he replied.

The seventeen years between the publications of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a journey of discovery for Tolkien, a journey in which he learnt about hobbits. The words he gave to Gandalf in the crucial chapter that sets the scene for Frodo’s journey, The Shadow of the Past, are surely Tolkien’s own: “My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you in a pinch. I hardly expected to get such an answer, not even from you.” Tolkien is taken by surprise by hobbits but by the end of The Lord of the Rings it is clear that only hobbits could possibly have accomplished the destruction of the Ring and the saving of the world.

Gandalf could only have heard Frodo’s words because he did spend many years in the company of hobbits, years in which for the most part, he was known to them mainly for the quality of his fireworks and for little else. Saruman regarded Gandalf’s interest in hobbits either with ill concealed contempt or with suspicion. The only hobbits that he could do business with are those who saw reality as he did, such as Lotho Sackville-Baggins or Ted Sandyman. He could never have received Frodo’s surprise as Gandalf did.

So at this Christmastide I would like to offer you Gandalf’s long apparently pointless sojourn among hobbits and Kierkegaard’s story of the Prince and the Peasant Girl as a meditation upon the Incarnation (John 1.14). I think they are related to each other. I do not say that they explain or tell us what the Incarnation means. It is not the purpose of stories to “explain” things but they do cause us to think about things. Are we the peasants among whom the Prince comes to live or the hobbits who enjoy Gandalf’s fireworks? Will the Prince reveal his true identity to us or is there some other great surprise to be revealed? I look forward to any reflections you may have to offer and in this Christmastide I pray that God may rest you merry!


18 thoughts on “Hobbits and Other Peasants at Christmastide

  1. ‘It is not the purpose of stories to “explain” things…’


    Anyway, my little reflection: there is a lot of ‘cross-culturalism’ in missions work. You can start with Saul taking on the Greek name Paul (and to the Romans became a Roman, etc), and then carry on to people like Hudson Taylor and Jackie Pullinger taking on Chinese names and dress, and modern-day Isa-imams working in Islamic culture.

    Gandalf’s ‘missionary work’ in Middle-earth saw him take on a man-like physical form (whilst being an angel), receive names in the languages of different peoples, learning habits (like smoking) from them, and fighting with/for them.

    God’s missionary work to humanity is the ultimate in cross-culturalism, because while he also took on a man-like form, received ‘native’ names, and lived within a mortal culture, (etc.) the condescension is so great as to be infinite, making the transformation/glorification of the fallen so much more glorious.

    I think that the parallels speak to me mostly about the incarnational nature of mission that God invites us to share with Him: that the Missio Dei is not about us dragging people into the lifeboat of the Church, but about being yeast/salt/light (pick your metaphor) in collaboration with God in order that Mordor should become the garden of the Lord.

    • It’s great to hear from you again, David and to read your thoughts. I enjoyed reading them all and then… read the punchline! “In order that Mordor should become the garden of the Lord.” That, of course, reminded me of those great passages in the prophets that speak of the flourishing of deserts.
      I liked your reflections on “missionary work”. What strikes me both in Kierkegaard’s story and also in Gandalf’s is that in neither case do the main protagonists try to turn the beloved into something. They simply love/delight in the beloved. I remember once listening to a minister who was to conduct the funeral of someone who had been murdered in a botched armed raid. She seemed terribly put out that the family did not seem to be responding to her as she would wish. At the end I said, “I think all that you have to do is to love them.” She looked as if I had just tried to make her eat something deeply unpleasant and after that we never spoke again. We had enjoyed a friendly relationship before that. It may just be that our paths did not cross but I don’t think so. I can only think that she felt it her duty to make something happen and that she saw me as somehow inviting her to desert her post. It was very sad.

      • Yes, I agree – there is certainly an assumption that *I* need to be the answer, or to bring the answer, or to make the answer happen to other people. Maybe the difference is between ‘doing the Gospel’ with people, and ‘saying the Gospel’ at them?

        I think Jesus’ missionary example was far more ‘with’ than ‘at’ (and even when he did use words they were often stories and illustrations rather than statements) as was Gandalf’s. And certainly Tolkien’s vehement distaste for all forms of ‘one person telling other people what to do’ passed into his work – bossy people are always baddies.

        Your mentioning loving/delighting in the beloved reminded me of the poem St. Francis and the Sow – do you know it?

        ‘… sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness… and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely until it flowers again from within…’

      • I don’t know the poem. Do tell me more about it. I loved the lines you quoted.
        It was Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers of Jesus who noted that for the great majority of Jesus’ life he said nothing that anyone recorded excepting the apocryphal gospels that clearly found this silence problematic. Of course that is a challenge to all writers too! How to write without being bossy, being ‘with’ and not speaking ‘at’ others. Also knowing that there is a time to speak as well as remain silent as the famous walk when Tolkien changed C.S Lewis’s mind about the True Myth.

  2. Here’s the text. One of my very favourites:

    The bud
    stands for all things,
    even for those things that don’t flower,
    for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
    though sometimes it is necessary
    to reteach a thing its loveliness,
    to put a hand on its brow
    of the flower
    and retell it in words and in touch
    it is lovely
    until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
    as Saint Francis
    put his hand on the creased forehead
    of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
    blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
    began remembering all down her thick length,
    from the earthen snout all the way
    through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
    from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
    down through the great broken heart
    to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
    from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
    the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

    • And on the Lewis–Tolkien walk, I think that’s a great example of how ‘with-ness’ and ‘at-ness’ ought to fit together. The two (plus Hugo Dyson) had shared ‘with-ness’ for quite a long while (about five years by that time) and both had earned the right to confront what they disagreed with in the other without it in any way interrupting their bond.

      It’s similar to the way that nearly all of Jesus’ sermonising (as far as we can tell) was directed to his disciples, not the crowds (who instead got parables). Because the disciples were with him day and night, month after month, the relationship is completely different: the with-ness preceded the at-ness.

      You think?

  3. Oh I have come to this post so late… And such blessings to uncover!

    Mr. David Rowe, thank you for sharing that beautiful poem – I didn’t know it, and it is truly something special.

    Stephen, thank you for your words, as always. My thoughts are tumbling in their usual incoherent and disorganised fashion…. I love what you say about Christmas and not wanting to be in Shelob’s lair at that point… We know the journey will unfold to that point, as readers, but it’s useful to look back and place this in the context of the settings out…. From Bag End, and from Rivendell. Partly because of what you later say about just spending time and being. I remember your post about Sam & Frodo and the fact they set out on this journey in unknowing… They don’t know how it will unfold.., they *live* the story. Each setting out is a beginning, whence, in some senses, we take steps into the unknown. But all that unfolds, in some senses will grow from the beginning. We have a journey that begins in trust and hope. It continues in friendship, solidarity and love… And through this all the characters develop and overcome and grow… Shelob’s lair would have been a different story if Frodo and Sam had stepped into it from the doorway of either setting out.

    I’ve been reading a book recently called “into the silent land” by Martin Laird… And there is much in there about this sense of “being” … Of experiencing and knowing being somehow greater (as in wider) than understanding… Of knowing someone so well… And yet also knowing there is a vastness to them that is beyond your ability to pin down.

    But I think the story that resonates with me most is your experience with the funeral.

    When we spend time with people, without words or a feeling that we can/should/might ever completely understand them… What we touch is the open vastness of Love… It is Love that puts us there… And the longer we are there, the more we may understand… But also the more we will see of the vastness and what fills it. There is something greater than understanding.

    The prince and Gandalf… Both may be thought to come to bring things to the lowly hobbits/peasants… And to learn and understand them.. And perhaps improve them… And yet, what happens is that through love and sharing a mutual journey is undertaken.. And through that, at least in the case of Gandalf, comes the flowering, not just of what Gandalf gives the hobbits, but of what, through their shared journeying, and love, they both experience and discover can unfold from within them…

    Love is the breath of everything, Stephen, as you know. If it were me… I’d have contrived at every point to work with you again! People sometimes just need to feel that the emptiness… Is not empty. That comes from walking alongside, sharing and exchanging, or just … Being… as much, if not more, than anything else…

    I think I’ve wandered around, past, and totally off the point here! But thank you for such cause for reflection 🙂

    • Thank you so much for taking the trouble to write this, Victoria. I appreciate it very much.
      I am now in Shelob’s Lair with Frodo and Sam a darkness you are right. They could not possibly have faced this on the evening they left Bag End. In the early stages of the journey they are rescued many times a day Aragon does not think much of them when he first meets them.In Shelob’s Lair they are utterly alone.
      What strikes me about both Kierkegaard’s prince and Gandalf too is that they both learn to love those among whom they love. In the case of the prince it is a particularly lady who wins his heart and perhaps not her people in general but Kierkegaard at least leaves us with the possibility that for love of her he might never reveal who he is. I don’t know if you have come across a story connected to Hanbury Hall in our county about a man of the hall who flees his aristocratic life and goes to work for a simple farmer. He, like the prince, falls in love with the farmer’s daughter and marries her. Eventuality he is tracked down because he has inherited a great title but he still does not tell his wife. Together they travel to the great house that is his seat and it is only when the assembled ranks of servants and estate workers kneel and curtsey before them that the truth dawns upon her. The story goes that she goes into some kind of break down from which, sadly, she never recovers.
      Do these stories suggest to us that as we think of the incarnation that both we and God in some way grow toward each other? We certainly need to grow towards God or we too would go mad in seeing the Glory in one blinding flash. Does God deepen in love for us as God dwells among us? I do not know. One day we will.
      Thank you for what you say about working with me. I always receive much when I work with you. I especially remember the Crib service on Christmas Eve. Often it strikes me that for many, going to church can feel like a visit to an ageing relative. You feel it is your duty to go but you are so glad when it is over. This was so different. It was a joy from beginning to end and you played such a major part in that. What stuck me, even as we all shared that hour together, was that five women (you, Eva, Charlotte, Becky and Maria) played such an important role in creating that experience. And it was love that bound us all together that evening. Here’s to more times when we will work together in 2016. And to more correspondence too!

  4. Oh thank you for your kind words, Stephen. That crib service glowed with innocent delight and joy. As did the church beaconing light into the darkness through those glorious Windows.

    I didn’t know that story about hanbury – my goodness, what a shock for the lady! But yes, there’s miles of depth here in exploring what it means to truly walk alongside. Your words about humanity and an incarnate God growing toward each other… So much brought to mind the words of the prayers… In sharing in our humanity that we may come to share in his divinity … It’s not something I feel quite up to unpacking… But it resonates so much. I’m not sure about the vast depthless depths of God’s Love… But I think certainly we come closer because we have such an intimate God… God with sand between his toes, a God who has walked any path we may have to tread.. And for God to have planned that… I think we can certainly find encouragement in your perception that sometimes walking alongside, and Loving… is what is most needed.

    • In sharing our humanity that we might come to share in his divinity; the theosis so beloved of the early Greek Fathers. I wonder if, instead of becoming something, in a sense, unearthly, that Kierkegaard’s insight is that we become truly human? The prince discovers that the peasant girl (that’s us) is truly beautiful and chooses to stay with her rather than take her away to his. Surely her world is transformed by his love. I am struggling to find the right words here. For our spirituality it is a call to immerse ourselves in our humanity and to learn to delight in it.

  5. “It is not the purpose of stories to “explain” things but they do cause us to think about things.”
    Oh yes. So very much yes.

    My thought on the peasant/prince story is this:

    “But why should he ever reveal this if he truly loves her? He may, if he really loves her for herself, choose to remain a peasant for ever.”

    Wouldn’t real love be to reveal himself, and THEN choose to remain a peasant forever? And isn’t it possible that this is what Christ has in store for us? For we know who He is. He is our King. And whether the King comes down to us in order to eventually bring us up to Him, or whether He comes down, at last, to dwell with us (or… a thought that has just occurred to me… that the two are not mutually exclusive, but quite possibly two perspectives on the exact same action) we know who He is, and that makes the action both honest, and all the more precious.

    For, if I was the peasant woman (and I am,) I would not like for my lover to keep his true nature hidden from me forever. That would be to live in a lie. And if our faith is true, then God is no liar.

    As a side-note, I have a lot to catch up on, but I have rarely looked forward to catch-up so much!

    • It is really good to hear from you again. I am sure that you are right in saying that a good relationship will mean a revealing of who two people truly are to one another. I also wonder if, in the great story of the revelation of God to humankind in Jesus Christ, the great surprise will be in his choosing to remain one of us.
      Coincidentally I am currently reading Tom Shippey’s marvellous study of Tolkien, The Road to Middle-earth. As I am sure you know Shippey taught Old English at Oxford as Tolkien did. In his study he shows how Tolkien discovered Old English texts originating from Herefordshire after the Norman conquest, a border land that had relative freedom from Norman control. They show that the robustness of English continued far longer than has been thought. Shippey wonders how much the Shire is born of this English shire not far from his own Worcestershire. I would want to ask him how significant it is that Langland’s Piers Plowman was written just a few miles from Tolkien’s early home (and where I live too) in the 14th century and, of course, Shakespeare also came just a few miles away too.

  6. “As I am sure you know” I actually didn’t! I know very little of Tolkien scholarship.

    I have many questions for Tolkien, and that sounds like a good one.

    • I have tried very hard not to write this blog as a piece of scholarship but simply to allow each part of the story to speak to me and to write that down. But I can’t help it when I read something and want to understand it better. I have also found an ever deepening respect for Tolkien, as a writer, a scholar and a man of profound spiritual insight. But, and it’s a big but, I don’t call myself a scholar! I am an amateur in the true sense of the word. I do this for the love of it above all else.

  7. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:

    Dear Readers,
    I wrote this piece at this time of the year in 2015. It has never had a lot of readers but I enjoyed a wonderful conversation in the Comments section with those who did read it. I think that it is worth reading for that alone but I offer it to you with my greetings at this Christmastide and if any of you would like to join in the conversation I would be delighted to read your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s