The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 223-26
After the feast concludes Frodo and the whole company make their way, following Elrond and Arwen, to the Hall of Fire, a place which, except on high days “usually stands empty and quiet” and where people come “who wish for peace, and thought”; and it is there that Elrond brings Frodo and Bilbo together, much to their mutual delight.
Frodo discovers that Bilbo had sat with Sam at his bedside through much of the days in which he had lain, close to death, as the sliver of the Morgul blade, wielded by the Witch-king of Angmar, worked its way slowly towards his heart. And Frodo also learns that Bilbo has not been at the feast. Indeed that Bilbo is now old and is content to be alone with his own thoughts in this quiet place, composing a poem that he will perform before the assembled company before all retire to their rooms and dwelling places.
Little has the capacity to stir Bilbo now; except for one thing.
“Have you got it here?” he asked in a whisper. “I can’t help feeling curious, you know, after all I’ve heard. I should very much like just to peep at it again.”
Bilbo, of course, is speaking of the Ring, and there follows a brief period which, for Frodo, and then for Bilbo as well, is one of the most distressing that he has known. Frodo finds himself looking at “a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands”. The parallel with Gollum is all too clear for those who know the story. This is what the Ring does to those who have possessed it. This is what they are reduced to. Hungry and groping. They become spiritually ravenous and never satisfied. And except in degrees of power there is no distinction between Sauron, Gollum and, for a moment at least, Bilbo too. Each is reduced to the desire to consume all and everyone, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
In Bilbo’s case the triumph of his desire for the Ring is but momentary. Perhaps his distance from the Ring over many years and perhaps even the fact that he gave it up freely, albeit with a little help from Gandalf, enables Bilbo to master his craving; but for that moment the absolutely evil potential of the Ring mars the great love that Bilbo and Frodo have for one another and it even reduces the serene gathering of the company in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, a place where at one moment Frodo wondered if people were ever ill, to an unhappy silence.
That moment passes as Frodo puts the Ring away but the distress that Bilbo feels as he realises, maybe for the very first time, the power that the Ring has over him and the burden that his beloved Frodo has to bear is heartbreaking.
“Don’t adventures ever come to an end?”
And with this thought the whole entirety of Tolkien’s legendarium is brought together. And so too is the entirety of human history of the mythical world of which each one of us is a part. By myth we speak here of the age long need to find meaning in the age long sequence of events that have constituted the history of the cosmos ever since the Big Bang (as far as we know) and, in particular, the need to find meaning in the story of ourselves ever since we first emerged into consciousness in Africa long ago. Or not so long in comparison with the whole. This is the story told in the Music of the Ainur, and we will return to this next week. The story told in Tolkien’s creation myth, a story that the wise know is not about the manufacture of a clock that is then more or less left to its own devices, but one to which the divine is intimately connected at all times and in all places. Bilbo and Frodo are both a part of the one great adventure as are we. Does this adventure ever end? The Music of the Ainur reaches a sublime conclusion, but there is a beyond. There is always a beyond. But what that is is known only to the One.