The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

If you click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post you will find a series of reflections on his progress through The Lord of the Rings at least since I began to publish them on WordPress in October 2013. At that point I had just begun to read The Two Towers and so my first encounter with Merry was as a prisoner of the Uruk Hai of Isengard. I intend to return to The Fellowship of the Ring later in the year and hope to do it better justice than I did when I wrote my early reflections on another website. But even though the reflections on Merry’s early story are missing from this blog I hope that you will see that they do form a true “pilgrim’s progress” as do all of the stories of the major major characters in Tolkien’s great tale.

Merry’s story is of a soul formed through a fall and a rise and if you have already noted that this is the opposite direction to the journey that Lotho Pimple takes and that we thought about last week then you are right. The tragedy of Lotho’s story is not so much that he fell but that he did not live to face the truth about himself and so to rise again. I wrote last week about gaining the world and so losing the soul. Lotho never saw the grace of losing the world before Wormtongue murdered him.

Merry begins The Lord of the Rings as a competent organiser just as he is at the Battle of Bywater when he takes command of troops who have no experience of battle but plenty of spirit and leads them to victory over Saruman’s brigands. Merry slays the leader of the outlaws who, if he had known that the hobbit that he faced had done battle with the deadliest warrior of the Age and lived to tell the tale would never have dared to confront him.

At our first meeting with Merry he is the “leader” of the conspiracy that seems to know more about Frodo’s business than he does. He has food, hot baths and ponies organised at Crickhollow and a secret escape route from the Black Riders through the Old Forest about which he also has local knowledge. But as soon as he is in the forest he is out of his depth, he has to be rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom Bombadil and he remains more or less out of his depth for the rest of the story.

Which of us is ever at our ease in being out of our depth? I mean, truly out of our depth, beyond our competence and in an unfamiliar element? For much of the story Merry sees himself as no more than unwanted extra baggage in someone else’s story and yet without realising it he is becoming at ease with unfamiliarity, at ease with the sense that each experience is beyond his capacity to cope with. And so, without being aware that this is what he is doing, he wins the trust of the mistrusting Treebeard and so brings about the fall of Isengard and it is in “being overlooked” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that he aids Éowyn in bringing about the fall of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. And he achieves all this because he is one who lives for love. Love for the Shire, love for his friends and love for those, like Théoden and Éowyn, who give their love to him.

And now, back on familiar territory, battle hardened but not heart hardened, he deploys his troops swiftly and effectively and so brings to a speedy end the occupation of the Shire. Does he know how he has made this journey and why he has become such an effective leader? I suspect not. But neither does he mind. It is enough that the work is done and that the Shire can begin to be healed once more but we can enjoy the growth of his soul and love him just as do all who know him well.

20 thoughts on “The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

  1. I don’t say this enough (or at all, really), but I truly enjoy your posts here. These deep dives into my favorite book of all time only help me to appreciate it even more. Excellent work, thank you.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this comment on my blog. Please drop by and leave some more! I am so glad that you find that my work enhances your enjoyment of Tolkien’s work. It is my favourite work of all time too and that’s why I write the blog.

  2. As usual, Tolkien gives us a hint about Merry’s character through his name. “Brandybuck” is not a common name in England, so he could be expected to be the hobbit who’s least disturbed by leaving his comfort zone in the Shire.

    • He isn’t disturbed by leaving the Shire, unlike Sam, but as soon as he leaves he is completely out of his depth. For me it has been a key element in this reading of The Lord of the Rings that the hobbits never achieve a measure of control over the world that they encounter beyond the boundaries that they know and yet all along the way the world is transformed around them. Who could be blamed for underestimating them?
      I enjoyed Tom Shippey’s lecture that you kindly shared on your site. It had not struck me that he almost never uses the word, hero. In that respect Jackson entirely re-writes Tolkien’s story (and even more so in The Hobbit). But what subtlety is displayed in not thereby creating anti-heroes. The hobbits are great souls because they give of themselves unsparingly and with little complaint. That in itself is heroic to my mind not least because they never think that it is.

  3. This is a beautiful tribute to Merry! His words about friendship at the unveiling of the conspiracy are among the most wonderful and moving in the whole tale. Indeed what he does out of love – what all the hobbits do out of love – is incredible and models to emulate. What he does to scour the Shire is all part of Gandalf’s mysterious words about what the hobbits were trained for. I was always puzzled by Merry’s words about being overlooked – overlooked by who? I thought he meant someone after the battle. But now you make it clear it’s the Witch-king himself who overlooked him. Thanks for that.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • It struck me that the phrase, being overlooked, is one that typifies Merry’s understanding of his own story. He was deeply hurt by Théoden’s decision to leave him behind especially as Pippin was taken into danger by Gandalf. I don’t think that he carries much sense of achievement from the encounter with the Witch King of Angmar. He just did what he could. One can only imagine how Boromir would have told the story if he had been the victor in that battle!
      And for all those reasons I would choose Merry as my captain any time!
      God bless you, Anne Marie ☺

    • What makes Merry your favourite above all the other characters? I would love to know.
      If you do have the time I hope you might click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post and take a look at some of the other posts that I have written about him. I would love to know your thoughts.

      • I always felt like Merry was the warmest of the Hobbits. I like the “round-ness” of him, the care. I always felt like Pippin was the trouble making “little brother” & though I do like Pippin he seemed to me to have more sharp edges and I tend to be attracted to rounder folk (not sure how else to explain that aspect).
        There’s also the communities & relationships Merry connects to – feels to me like he’s definitely the one who most connects with Treebeard & I much prefer the Rohan horse lords to the men of Gondor – so “guilt” by association there.
        I do admit that although Samwise & Frodo’s story / journey is key & I do love their friendship, I actually skip most of the walking through the swamp stuff – frankly it just bores me. And so does Gollum. So there’s more to put me off that part of the story & those characters.
        I also always loved that Merry took charge back in the shire and its scouring, felt totally natural to me.
        Can’t really put my finger on it more than that.
        Will have a look at the other merry posts 🙂

      • Thank you so much for sharing this.
        The Frodo and Sam trudge step by step to Mordor is grim and they find Gollum just as tiresome as you do so I cannot blame you for finding that part of the story rather hard. I agree with you too about the mischievous Pippin.
        Perhaps not so much about the difference between the men of Gondor and Rohan. Of course there is a huge difference between Théoden and Denethor but their men share the humility of those who know that death may come very soon. I remember my father telling me that he was sharing a beer with German soldiers within days of the end of the Second World War and quickly making friends. The point in the story when Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield is deeply moving. They are completely one then.

  4. I really enjoy Merry’s growth throughout the book. At the very beginning he comes across as more serious and mature than the others — that’s how I see him. It seems that his maturity, which was hidden underneath, was gradually taking shape and emerging as the story was progressing. And he’s more than up to the challenge when the Battle of Bywater comes.

    • I agree with you. Merry is the organiser. Much better organised than Frodo whose only plan seems to be to leave the Shire. Frodo is the pilgrim who sets out without any food or extra clothing trusting in Providence for each day’s food and shelter. I have read that at one time such pilgrims were a common sight on the roads of Russia. Are there any still today? I don’t think that Frodo ever has a plan but Merry starts with one. It just goes wrong immediately! And how wonderful that he is given the Battle of Bywater at the end of the story in which he is able to recover his sense of worth.

  5. I recently reread the books for the first time in many years and I was struck by how poorly Merry is served by Jackson’s adaptation. He really was a great character.

    • Many thanks for leaving your first comment on this blog. I hope that you will drop by again. I agree with you about Jackson’s portrayal of Merry’s character. He and Pippin are largely there to provide comic relief. When the films came out I enjoyed them very much and a few years later joined a weekend gathering in which we watched the entire 12 hour extended version on DVD and found it very moving. But whereas my experience of the books keeps getting deeper that is not true of the films. And that lack of depth is certainly true regarding Merry. Maybe that is the problem with film as a story telling device. When our children were growing up we made it a rule that they had to read the book before watching the movie and then reflect on their experience of both. We talked a lot about books and loved reading them together. I hope that this will stand them in good stead as they enter their adult lives.

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