Ride to Meet Your Fortune. A Final Thought From the Wisdom of Tom Bombadil

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 143-145

I had intended to be safely within the hospitable walls of The Prancing Pony in Bree by now but I will have to leave that pleasure until next time. You see, one thing kept niggling at me after last week’s post. I was reasonably satisfied with my thoughts on Tom Bombadil’s encouragement to the hobbits to keep up their merry hearts but I had said almost nothing about the last words that he said to them.

“Ride to meet your fortune.”

Back in August 2017 I wrote about Sam Gamgee’s decision to trust to luck on the roads of Mordor, the last place you would think where any luck might be found. If you click on the tag, luck, at the end of this post, you will be taken to that piece. I wrote about Tom Shippey’s musings upon the subject of luck in his magnificent The Road to Middle-Earth (Harper Collins 2005 edition pp.170-74) and I wrote about the way in which Sam understood what it meant to trust his luck.

Tom Shippey

In these pages, Dr. Shippey refers to the translation of The Consolation of Philosophy ascribed to King Alfred the Great and written originally by the 5th century philosopher, Boëthius. My own personal choice for the founding myth of the English nation is the winter that Alfred and his small group of loyal followers spent on the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes hiding from the Danish invaders. Eventually Alfred overcame t invaders and established the kingdom that became England. Alfred (like Faramir in The Lord of the Rings?) was both a warrior and had a deep love for scholarship. As well as making the greatest work of early medieval philosophy available to his people in the English language he also had Pope Gregory the Great’s treatise on pastoral care translated into English for his clergy. Now that is how to found a nation. Would that we had more of his kind among us in our own times.

An imaginining of Alfred the Great

Boëthius gives much thought to the subject of fortune or wyrd. Tom Shippey quotes this passage from his great work.

“What we call God’s forethought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done then we call it wyrd.

Boëthius is thinking about the fall in his personal fortunes. Once he was a senator of Rome but now he is a prisoner of King Odoacer the Goth and he awaits his death. The wheel of fortune is inexorable but philosophy enables him to bear either good or bad. We still speak of someone as being of a philosophical disposition in this sense today. The hobbits too have little control over what lies ahead of them. They cannot prevent the wheel of fortune from turning. They have no choice but to ride to meet it. Actually, they do have a choice. They could follow the advice of Fatty Bolger and hide in Crickhollow but if they had followed that advice they would merely have waited for the Black Riders to arrive and find them. Either you ride to meet your fortune or it comes to meet you. Either you can meet it with a merry heart and while being wary you ride boldly or you try to hide from it.

Even as Tom Bombadil speaks these words the hobbits are afraid. They are on the Road once more and it is on the Road that the Nazgûl seek them. “The shadow of the fear of the Black Riders came suddenly over them again. Ever since they had entered the Forest they had thought chiefly of getting back to the Road; only now when it lay beneath their feet did they remember the danger that pursued them.” Danger lies behind and before them and they have little control over it. All that they can do is to keep on going, to keep up their merry hearts, to be bold but wary and to ride, not away from their fortune, but towards it, to meet it.

Frodo before The Witch King of Angmar

Keep Up Your Merry Hearts. Tom Bombadil Bids the Hobbits Farewell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 141-145

Tom Bombadil tells the hobbits that he will accompany them on their journey from the barrow in which they have been imprisoned until they reach the Road once more. As Tom puts it, the hobbits are “so good at losing themselves” that he will not feel happy until he has “seen them safe over the borders of his land”.

The hobbits are delighted that they will have Tom’s company for a little while longer. They enjoy his joy and they feel safe with him. He has rescued them from disaster twice; once from Old Man Willow and once from the barrow wight. On both occasions they stumbled into danger entirely unawares. We should not blame them. Until now they have all lived lives entirely free from danger, the kind of lives that we all wish for our children, for no-one wishes that their children’s lives should be deliberately put at risk, but now they will often be in danger and they need to learn how to live with this.

Farewell Tom Bombadil

Tom gives them sound advice. Probably, as with most advice that we are given, the hobbits will soon forget what Tom has told them, but somewhere his words will take root within them. In the days that lie ahead they will face many dangers, toils and snares and each experience will make Tom’s words more real until both word and experience will be woven together as one. When they are finally returning to the Shire, and begin to hear ominous news about what awaits them, Gandalf leaves them to enjoy a good long chat with Tom Bombadil and tells them that they do not need looking after any longer.

Tom’s words to the hobbits are both a celebration of what they already are and, at the same time, a warning of the qualities that they need to develop if they are to have a chance of surviving what lies ahead.

“Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune.”

The hobbits understand this kind of wisdom. It is a wisdom shared through proverbs that are easy to teach and to recall. It is a wisdom well known in non-literate peasant cultures but no-one should make the mistake of mistaking simplicity for shallowness. Tom Bombadil’s wisdom is profound.

The quality that Tom celebrates in the hobbits is their “merry hearts”. He recognises this quality within himself and he approves of it in them. Throughout the story others will both remark upon the hobbits’ childlikeness, seeing this especially in Merry and Pippin, and many will enjoy it. Even Denethor, in all his world-weariness and cynicism, will for a brief moment seek to keep Pippin near him, surely recognising as he does so something that he has long lost but misses still. Throughout The Lord of the Rings there is the feel of a world grown old and sad, a world that is passing away. Merry and Pippin will make others glad that they are alive or at least remind them of a time when they were glad and, perhaps, rekindle within them the hope that they might find such gladness again.

Concerning Denethor by Luke Shelton

But merriness will not protect them from harm. Already they have encountered terrible danger and on each step that they take they will be surrounded by it. Their merry hearts will enable them to endure dangers but they will need to learn boldness tempered by wariness if they are to have a chance of surviving them. As we have seen, wariness is most certainly something that they have not yet learned.

Keep up your merry hearts

I am not sure that Merry and Pippin will ever learn wariness and Frodo and Sam will be forced to place their entire lives into the care of someone who wishes them nothing but harm. Simply by going on with this journey the hobbits are embracing boldness. Simply by riding eastwards along the Great Road they are facing their fortunes, separately and together. And simply by being themselves they are riding towards their fortunes with merry hearts.

For those interested in exploring the use of proverbs in The Lord of the Rings I would warmly recommend The Proverbs of Middle-earth by David Rowe.

“Tom, he is Master”. The Stronger Songs of Tom Bombadil Rescue the Hobbits From the Barrow Wight.

The Fellowship of the Ring (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 133-143

Anyone who has ever been out walking in the downland of a county like Wiltshire in England as the evening turns towards night will know that it does not require too much imagination to picture the scene that Tolkien gives us in this episode of The Lord of the Rings. Some of the barrows that you will find there are older by far than anything that you would call European civilisation and among them are the great stone circles such as Stonehenge that conjure such a wonderful sense of mystery, or at least they would do so if it were not for modern highways and visitor centres.

The opening to a barrow in Wiltshire that is 6,000 years old

Once again the hobbits let their guard down, falling asleep with their backs to a standing stone and awakening amidst a chilling fog as night begins to fall. Frodo becomes separated from his companions and their ponies panic and flee towards safety. Eventually Frodo is captured by the same creature that has taken his friends, a barrow wight, and all are imprisoned within a burial chamber.

Frodo strikes a blow by Ted Nasmith

Frodo found Sam, Merry and Pippin lying “on their backs, and their faces looked deathly pale; and they were clad in white. About them lay many treasures, of gold maybe, though in that light they looked cold and unlovely. On their heads were circlets, gold chains were about their waists, and on their fingers were many rings. Swords lay by their sides, and shields were at their feet. But across their three necks lay one long naked sword.”

The hobbits have been drawn inside the spell under which a barrow wight, a spirit that feeds upon the sadness of death, has placed the barrow and those who have been laid to rest within it. When they are rescued by Tom Bombadil it becomes clear that for a time they have been imprisoned within an old memory of a battle between the forces of the witch kingdom of Angmar and the kingdom of Arthedain. As he returns to consciousness Merry is held for a moment within that memory, feeling a spear piercing him in his heart. The barrow wight is a creature that exists almost entirely within the dread, the misery and sadness of such memories, relying upon incantations and ceremonies through which it draws its prisoners into its own miserable existence.

The wight is so frozen within that moment that even Frodo’s limited freedom is already too much for it. Frodo has it at bay even before he begins his own spell, the song that calls Tom Bombadil to aid them. It is the song that Tom taught them while they stayed in the house under hill and soon he arrives, joyfully announcing that “Tom, he is the Master: his songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster”.

Tom’s songs are stronger songs

Tolkien’s legendarium is faithful to the spirit of norse mythology with its intimate relationship between language and matter. In many ways the incantation of the wight within this story represents that relationship in its most corrupted form as the evil creature seeks to bend the hobbits to its twisted but miserably limited purposes. Tom’s song by contrast is completely pure, although deceptively simple. His one purpose is to allow all creatures to be entirely free and themselves. He has a wild desire for their beatitude, as one theologian speaks of the saints. Tolkien was a great student of language but did not only know language in an abstract sense as in dictionary definitions. Language was something he experienced through his five senses. Tolkien always regarded Charles Williams, the member of the Inklings who understood and perhaps practised magic the most, with a certain suspicion. I wonder if that is because, as with Gandalf and his fear of the Ring, he knew that he might have too great a profiency as a practitioner of magic himself, were he ever to practice it, with all its attendant temptations to control the lives of others.

How important it is then that this episode ends with the hobbits running naked and free upon the downs, subject to no-one except by the commitments that they have made to each other and, as in Frodo’s case, his promise to Gandalf. Frodo, in particular, has won an important victory, most especially over the temptation to put on the Ring, but also in his exercise of freedom in wielding a blade against the barrow wight and in the song that calls Tom Bombadil, the master, to give them his aid.

A Far Green Country Under a Swift Sunrise. Frodo’s Dream in the House of Tom Bombadil.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 132-133

“Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was all rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”

This dream passage comes at the beginning of Frodo’s journey on the last night of the hobbits’ stay in the house of Tom Bombadil, the second of two important dreams at this part of the story, the other of which was the tower dream in Crickhollow the night before the hobbits entered the Old Forest. But Tolkien uses the same words at the end of the story at the very end of Frodo’s earthly travels following his sea voyage with Bilbo, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the Ringbearers, into the West, and Tolkien makes a point there of remembering Frodo’s dream as it is fulfilled.

The Grey Havens by Alan Lee

A far green country under a swift sunrise. As far back as 1944 Tolkien intended to end his story with a remembrance and a fulfillment of the dream in Bombadil’s house. He meant to use these words as a frame about his story. (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 104). Of course at this point of the story, with all the struggles that lie ahead of him, Frodo has no notion of this, but the story and the storyteller does. As we have considered in other posts Frodo is a part of a story far greater than he is. He is meant to have the Ring. He will be overcome by its utterly malign power but by grace he will not be destroyed either by the Ring nor by its maker, nor will he be caught up in its destruction; but neither will he find healing in Middle-earth. By the prayer of Arwen Undómiel, whose place he will take on the ship bearing her father, Frodo will be permitted to enter the Undying Lands and there he will be healed.

A Far Green Country

But why does Tolkien refer to Frodo’s healing in Undying Lands at this point of the story? It does Frodo no good in so far as we are able to tell and until we, who read The Lord of the Rings, come across these words once again at the end of the story, it has no effect upon us either. There is no comfort to be gained here for any of us.

I think that there are two things to be said. On the one hand it is an encouragement to read The Lord of the Rings again and again, as I hope you are doing. There are so many layers of meaning to be discerned within the story that we will discover more and more with every reading. But the other speaks to how Frodo, and we ourselves as his fellow creatures, must live. Frodo will carry this dream within his subconscious throughout and there, no doubt, it will do its work within his psyche as dreams will always do but the dream will point to a reality that does not require our conscious assent to be entirely itself. Even before Arwen’s prayer or before Frodo’s despair that he will ever find healing in Middle-earth, a place has been prepared for him in which, as Tolkien put it in another letter, Frodo will go “both to a purgatory and peace” (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 328). There is no sense in which this purgatory is a punishment in the usual way in which this has been understood and if prayers are required to release him from it it can only be that what awaits him beyond the circles of the world is of such surpassing wonder that to be denied it, even in an earthly paradise, is punishment by comparison. Those of us who are mortal can only grasp this reality by faith and be encouraged in it by those occasional glimpses that might be afforded to us, but even these are enough to strengthen us to live our lives courageously and so fulfill our calling even as Frodo does.

I am grateful to Keith Kelly and Michael Livingston for a fine paper published by The Mythopoeic Society and which can be accessed through the link below.