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.
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.
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.
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.