The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 73-80
There is a phrase that shows just how disorientating it is when something happens in your backyard that is entirely unexpected. Frodo has just encountered one of the Nazgûl for the very first time. He has no idea that what he can see, just a few yards away, is one of the most terrifying things that he could ever meet unless he stood before the Dark Lord himself. He begins to have an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring, convinced that he would be safe if he did so. “And I am still in the Shire,” he thinks.
Still in the Shire. Still in a place in which every blade of grass, every tree and rise and fall of the road speaks of familiarity and of predictability. The unexpected has no place in the Shire. Of all places in Middle-earth this is the one where the outlandish is where it should be; in the lands outside and beyond the borders. You would have thought that Frodo Baggins, of all hobbits, would have known that this was not true. The stories and actions of Bilbo, his friendship with Gandalf, and his own dealings with the world outside should have taught him that the world is not safe and predictable. As the poet, Louis Macneice put it (in a poem entitled, Snow, written in my parents in law’s house in Birmingham, England), “world is suddener than we fancy it”.
But that, of course, is the problem, even for Frodo. We fancy the world to be in a sense, on time. Not too late or we will make a complaint to the management. Nor too soon neither. Every event that departs from this ‘law’ we regard as abnormal. Except the abnormal keeps on happening. But this event is so abnormal that perhaps we could forgive Frodo. I think that the Powers do forgive him. He is not yet ready for this encounter and so Something prevents him from putting on the Ring, his life is saved, the Ring is not returned to its Maker and the world is not yet subjected to darkness.
And Something brings him into contact with another power at work in the world, a power that even the Nazgûl are not quite ready to match themselves against. Not just yet, anyway. When the hobbits encounter the Nazgûl for the second time Frodo wants to put on the Ring once more but “this time it was stronger than before. So strong that before he realised what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket”. The Ring has only one desire and that is to return to its Master and Frodo is no match for it.
But “world is suddener… world is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural” and in its glorious plurality a large company of High Elves just happens to be on the same stretch of road in the Shire as the hobbits, the Nazgûl and the Ring, at precisely that moment and, once more, Frodo and the world is saved.
Is this a writer’s tendency to allow a coincidence to occur in order to solve a problem with the plot? Or is it how this writer understands the world? I think that the latter is the case. Tolkien’s enchanted world, suddener, crazier, more of than we think, incorrigibly plural, is one in which powers are at work of which we are not usually aware. We might use the word, Providence, to describe these powers. You will remember how when Gandalf said that Bilbo was meant to have the Ring he spoke of “something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker”. Tolkien was always reticent when it came to his Christian faith and his imaginative work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. He chose to know no more than the main characters in his story, who were the hobbits, except by implication. They must learn about the powers at work in the world just as we do. But the world is suddener, and in it there are High Elves, the eldest of the children of Ilúvatar, who see its suddenness, its craziness and plurality with perfect clarity. And they take the hobbits under their protection.