The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 360-362
As the Fellowship begin the next stage of their journey packing their “slender goods” as they face the wild once again, Elves who can speak the Common Tongue bring gifts of food and clothing, and then boats and rope.
“You are indeed high in the favour of the Lady!” they exclaim as the gifts are given, for it has not been their custom to be so generous to strangers. Doubtless according to the custom of hospitality to strangers provision would be offered but these gifts go far beyond what is customary. The Elves give lembas, “more strengthening than any food made by Men”, and they give garments, woven by the Lady Galadriel and her maidens themselves. They give rope much to the delight of Sam who “knows a bit about rope-making: it’s in the family as you might say”. And last of all they give boats, less to Sam’s delight who looks wistfully at the shore of the Silverlode as his companions make trial of their wayward craft before they set off on their journey.
Each of these gifts are expressions of the very essence of the intimate relationship between Elves and their world. Pippin is so filled with wonder by what he sees that he asks if they are magic. Here Pippin is close to Sam in his desire to see “a bit of magic like what it tells of in old tales” but the Elves do not know what Pippin means by his use of the word, magic.
Hobbits have an intimate relationship themselves with their land, with the slow rhythm of seed time and harvest, of careful observation of the seasons and of the right times and the right ways in which to prepare the soil for planting and the nurture of that soil and the crop that grows within it till the time comes for harvest and storing. Like the Elves they know of the many uses to which the things they grow can be put. They know how to preserve foodstuffs that can be used in winter. They can hang, dry and salt meat in a world without refrigeration in a way that now we see only in specialist delicatessens. And they can use the fibres of certain things that grow in order to make garments or rope. They can hide from strangers if they choose to do so, blending into the background with ease. All of this they regard as normal, the kind of skills that any hobbit can, and indeed should learn. Tom Bombadil recognises some hobbits as being akin to himself in terms of their relationship to the earth and when Sam expresses his interest in the rope that the company is given the Elves show genuine disappointment in not taking the opportunity to share a skill that they love with him.
Hobbits would never use the word, magic, to describe their own skills and neither do the Elves of Lothlórien. What both recognise is that the farmer’s and craftsperson’s relationship with tools and materials is, in the true sense of a word that is much abused, mystical. When a hobbit pays close and delighted attention to the flask of ale or beer in their hand or a pipe of pipeweed in their mouth, savouring its flavour, lingering over that flavour until it departs at the last, leaving behind a memory that is almost as delicious as was the taste at the moment when first encountered, that hobbit enters into a relationship with these things is sacramental. And the relationship is not only with these elements but with the others with whom they share this. The friendship that they enjoy in an equal sharing of food around a table enhances their delight in the taste of that food. Think of the moment when Mrs Maggot reveals the mushrooms that have grown in her fields and so transforms Frodo’s memory of the fields, the mushrooms and Farmer Maggot and his dogs.
Hobbits have little desire to give words to all of this that make more of it than they think it ought to have. And so too do elves. Unlike hobbits elves are immortal and so have so much longer to craft the relationship between things and to ponder its nature, so when the Lady Galadriel and her maidens weave robes they express the mystery of things in a way that hobbits call magical but but elves do not. And all of this is in sharp contrast to industrial manufacture that gives us quantity in such abundance as to create an illusion of wealth but which robs us of the kind of quality in which the Fellowship are able to delight as they receive these gifts.