The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 254-258
The words in this week’s title come in the midst of a passage that is moves at a ferocious pace. From the moment in which Saruman has Gandalf confined to the pinnacle of Orthanc to the moment in which Gandalf apologises to Frodo for failing to keep his promise Tolkien takes us upon a journey that covers most of the western lands of Middle-earth and some east of the Misty Mountains too.
The journey begins with honest Radagast, keeping his promise to gather news and to send it to Gandalf in Isengard, a promise that he keeps even as he rides towards his home in Mirkwood. The Eagles of Manwë, Lord of the Valar, fly over many lands observing “the gathering of wolves and the mustering of orcs” and the ferocious pursuit search for the Ring by the Nazgûl. Gwaihir, the Windlord, takes Gandalf from his prison and carries him to Edoras and the hall of Théoden, King of Rohan, where Gandalf takes a horse, the mighty Shadowfax, who takes him hundreds of leagues even as Frodo and his companions rest in the house of Tom Bombadil and then have their misadventure in the Barrow Downs and their night at The Prancing Pony in Bree.
Gandalf arrives in Bree upon the very same day in which the hobbits had set off towards Rivendell with Aragorn and upon receiving this news from Barliman Butterbur with joy he decides to rest.
I have always enjoyed the moment in which Gandalf lays Butterbur’s beer “under an enchantment of surpassing excellence”. Apart from the obvious and enticing pleasure of excellent beer it is a moment in which we gain an insight into his character. Gandalf does not live at a great height in some remote and, to others, inaccessible place. In recent weeks we have poked fun at Saruman’s “high and lonely destiny”. Gandalf, the grey pilgrim, is as much at home in an inn at Bree, smoking his pipe and savouring the pleasure of good beer, as he is amongst the great. Not only does he enjoy simple pleasures for their own sake he also understands their importance in the wider scheme of things. Places of hospitality play a key role in the whole story of The Lord of the Rings. Without them the Ring could never have been taken to Mordor. All along the East-West road through Eriador from Rivendell to Bree to the Shire to the Grey Havens lie such places, places in which the giving of welcome is something that is prized. Such welcome is a inner disposition, an enjoyment of the stranger as well as those who are familiar. And, of course, there are the places along the road that are less known, where unexpected hospitality is given; places like Woodhall and Farmer Maggot’s farm, Crickhollow and Tom Bombadil’s cottage. It is because of the spirit of hospitality that the Quest of the Ring is ultimately successful and Gandalf has spent long years nurturing this spirit.
Gandalf is a warmer of hearts. He is the bearer of Narya, the ring of fire but this is not external to his character but merely an intensification of it. When Cirdan gave Narya to Gandalf and not to Saruman it was because of a recognition that he was the right bearer of such power. There are other uses that fire can be put to than the warming of hearts. Gandalf saw such uses as a prisoner in Orthanc in Saruman’s “pits and forges”. Places in which creatures are merely put to temporary use, in which shelter is a necessity required to enable production. Later Merry and Pippin will enjoy the hospitality of Isengard but will do so as a spoil of war and not as a freely given gift.
That Gandalf does not come to a place like The Prancing Pony in Bree as a figure of terror as do the Nazgûl is because he has chosen not to do so, a choice that he has made over and over again throughout the long and hidden years. That Aragorn and the hobbits are able to enjoy Butterbur’s hospitality too is the fruit of this choice and why Gandalf is able to sleep, albeit briefly, before returning to the great struggle.