“The Road Goes Ever On and On”. Frodo, Sam and Pippin Begin a Journey that will change the World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 69-73

Those who know and love The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien does not exactly hurry to get his story started. This ought to be a problem. Most story tellers know that unless you have gained your readers’ attention within minutes you will have lost them for ever. And yet in the best selling work of fiction of the last hundred years its author simply does not seem to care. What we are treated to as the world-changing epic journey begins is the anachronistic tale of two gentlemen and their servant setting out for a walking holiday.

Two Edwardian Gentlemen Out for a Stroll

Even the more unsettling matters, Gandalf’s failure to make the rendezvous or the encounter between Gaffer Gamgee and the Nazgûl are not permitted to spoil the general sense of well being. At this point in the story the worst thing that can happen is a soreness of the shoulder caused by the rubbing of the straps on a backpack. Happy the man or woman whose problems in life are limited to things such as this.

There is only one thing that disturbs this sense of wellbeing and that is Frodo’s melancholy. If we were to take our Edwardian imagery just a little further then we might liken Frodo’s mood to that which was retrospectively applied to the beautiful summer of 1914. Each memory of that summer was to be marked for ever after by sadness. Those who survived the war would remember the ones who had been lost with whom they had shared that day. And so Frodo looks back at the lights of Hobbiton and of Bywater twinkling in the dark and wonders if he will ever see them again.

An inn in the Cotswolds by night

Pippin has no more concern than to make his journey to Buckland as comfortable as possible and so in the middle of the day on the first full day of walking he declares to his companions that although the road might go on for ever he cannot, at least without a rest. Frodo takes up Pippin’s reference to the road and begins to recite.

The Road goes ever on and on 
   Down from the door where it began. 
Now far ahead the Road has gone, 
   And I must follow if I can, 
Pursuing it with weary feet, 
   Until it joins some larger way, 
Where many paths and errands meet. 
   And whither then? I cannot say. 

It is not the stepping into the Road that is daunting. Even the great journeys come to an end eventually as Bilbo once pointed out. “Do you realise that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, might take you to the Lonely Mountain?” And as you picture the mountain in your imagination its very loneliness calls you to follow the path. This call is to adventure and it makes your heart grow larger. But the “wither then?”, that sense that the Road may never end, that there might never be a homecoming, never a place to rest your head at the last, that is a different matter altogether. And that too is a possibility when you step out of your door and onto the Road.

Tolkien’s use of capital letters in a noun like this is always significant. This road is not a lane that takes you to a welcoming inn or the road to the home of a good friend. It is the Road. It is life itself and you do not know its final end. No wonder most people choose not to entertain such imaginings. They are much too big and most of us, maybe all of us, are much too small. A Gandalf, calling us to adventure, must cross our paths if we are to embark on such journeys. And when he does so the longing must be greater than the fear; at least until the journey is well underway.

The Road goes ever on and on

Frodo and the Challenge of Leaving Home

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 64-69

It was the difficulty of actually leaving Bag End for good that finally gave Frodo’s plans away. He meant to leave the Shire in secret, taking only Sam Gamgee with him and in order to do this he decided to sell Bag End to the Sackville Bagginses and to buy a small cottage in Buckland on the eastern border of the Shire. But his plan to leave in secret was rather spoilt by his habit through that last beautiful summer of taking long walks and then saying things like: “Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder”.

Let us not be too harsh on Frodo. He has already made up his mind to give up everything in order to save the Shire, even his own life. This is not a holiday that he is going on, a diversion from the tedium of ordinary life. Imagine, if you will, a tour operator who tries to sell you a holiday in which there is a strong possibility that you and your loved ones will not return from it alive. Even the armed forces today must reassure the families of their recruits that they take the duty of care seriously. How different that is from a time of war in which the survival of the country is at stake.

And so we should not be too hard on Frodo.

Shall I ever look down into that valley again?

Our longing for home, for belonging, is the most powerful that we will ever know. It gathers together all of our longings for safety, for control and for affection. Every safe arrival at the end of the day, wherever we are in the world, is a little homecoming. When I was a young man, working in Africa, I used to travel in the holidays and often a bed to sleep in and food to eat felt like a small miracle, a pure gift. This experience, far from the temporary shelter of my simple house in the school in Zambia, and farther yet from England heightened my sense of what home was to me.

I grew up in a family that was constantly on the move. By the time I was eight years old we had already lived in seven different places. I developed early an attitude to friends based upon my complete expectation that our friendship would not last. When we moved yet again I would end things quite brutally, even on one occasion destroying a play castle that I had built in a farmyard with the boys who lived on the farm where my father worked.

In all that experience of seemingly endless change my parents were a fixed point, a place of solidity. As I grew up I had a sense somewhere within me of what home was. But what about Frodo? He first came to Bag End after the tragic death, by drowning, of his mother and father. Bilbo took him in and eventually adopted him. Bilbo is unfailingly kind but he can never be a mother to the child who comes to live with him and we are not aware of any strong feminine influence upon Frodo anywhere in the story. I am struck that nowhere in The Lord of the Rings does any woman ever develop any romantic feelings towards him as they do with Sam or Aragorn or Faramir. Goldberry and Galadriel both display a motherly tenderness towards Frodo as does Rosie Cotton at the end of the story but no one ever falls in love with him. If anything it is the countryside of The Shire that is the biggest feminine influence in Frodo’s life with its gentle hills, small woodlands and little streams. It is a domestic landscape as much of England is and certainly the countryside of the English Midlands where Tolkien, another motherless child, grew up. And it is this that Frodo has to leave. No wonder it is so difficult.

“He is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers“.
A view of Worcestershire, England

Samwise Gamgee Introduces Himself

The arrival of Samwise Gamgee into the story is not designed to earn our respect and admiration. That will not come until much later. Gandalf becomes aware that Sam has long since stopped any pretence of working in the garden outside the window by which he and Frodo have been talking and then:

“With a dart he sprang to the sill, and thrust a long arm out and downwards. There was a squawk, and up came Sam Gamgee’s curly head hauled by one ear.”

Actually I am sorry to say that it took me a long time before I was willing to give Sam any respect at all. When, at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo attempted to continue the journey to Mordor alone, the fifteen year old version of myself was delighted that at last he was free of the ludicrous Sam. I was furious when Sam came splashing through the water in search of Frodo. And when Frodo hauled him out of the river into the boat and greeted him with the words, “Of all the confounded nuisances you are the worst, Sam!” I fear that I agreed with him. I was only able to think of Sam as some kind of encumbrance and certainly not as the one without whom the task could never have been accomplished, without whom Frodo would not have got very far.

You see, I am back to the journey of discovery that I wrote about last week. Back to the place where Tolkien was himself when he described himself as “immensely amused by hobbits as such, and can contemplate them eating and making their fatuous jokes indefinitely.”

Oh dear, fatuous jokes. At first this was all that Tolkien expected of hobbits. Clearly, Frodo became an exception to this low expectation, and a remarkable exception at that. But as for the rest of the race of hobbits little more was to be expected of them except an enjoyment of food and drink and a rather dull sense of humour. And at this point in the story I doubt if any more was to be expected of Sam.

And yet he had to go with Frodo. And surely the reason why he had to go was because of the Elves. By this we do not mean that the Elves wanted Sam to go. They had no more knowledge of Sam than of any other hobbit, except Bilbo of course. It is not their knowledge of Sam but it was Sam’s longing to see them.

“I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons, and a fiery mountain, and- and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too, whatever Ted may say. Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

Sam has to go on the journey because of his longing. The language that he uses to express it is clumsy, naive and childlike but Gandalf can recognise genuine longing when he meets it. “Whatever Ted may say,” says Sam. Sam and Ted are total opposites to one another. Ted Sandyman, the young miller, longs for nothing more than making a profit and on spending it in The Green Dragon in Bywater. Sam longs for that which appears far beyond him, even outside his grasp. And he will find it. For those whose hearts are shaped by Yearning can never be satisfied until they find what they seek and they will find it. As St Augustine prayed,

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”