“This Old Man Had a Hat Not a Hood.” Who Did The Three Hunters See Under The Eaves of Fangorn?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.573-577

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have found the site of the battle between the Riders of Rohan and the Orc band who had taken Merry and Pippin but they have found no sign of the hobbits themselves. Now before they continue their search they decide to make camp for the night right under the eaves of an ancient chestnut tree. They build a fire taking care not to cut wood from any living tree but only that which they can gather from the ground about them.

As they rest by their fire they ponder the journey that lies before them, a journey that is likely to take them into the forest itself.

“Celeborn warned us not to go far into Fangorn,” Legolas says. “Do you know why, Aragorn?”

But Aragorn knows little of the forest save that it is old, “as old as the forest by the Barrow-downs, and it is far greater. Elrond says that the two are akin, the last strongholds of the mighty woods of the Elder Days, in which the Firstborn roamed while Men still slept. Yet Fangorn holds some secret of its own. What it is I do not know.”

Alan Lee evokes the wonderful mystery of forests.

The journeys of The Lord of the Rings sometimes lead under the ground, such as the journey through Moria, the Paths of the Dead under the White Mountains between Rohan and Gondor and the path through Shelob’s Lair that passes under the mountains that surround Mordor. Each of these paths hide a deadly peril. The Balrog lurks in the depths of Moria; the Dead haunt the paths under the White Mountains; and Shelob lies in wait for any that might pass through her lair under the mountains of Mordor. All who pass through these dark ways will come to an end of themselves in some way and emerge the other side as different from the self that first entered in.

But the journeys through forests are different in nature. In these journeys a secret is encountered. The hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, a strange and delightful wonder. In Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, the Fellowship meet the Lady of the Wood, Galadriel. And in Fangorn Forest Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents, the Onodrim of which Legolas speaks by the campfire. Each forest is alive, not just as the aggregation of many things, many separate trees and other plants, but as an intelligence that holds all the separate parts together and which is expressed in the secret life hidden therein.

The night passes and Gimli is on watch by the fire when something happens that awakens all three. Or perhaps I should say that two things happen. An old man “wrapped in a great cloak” is seen standing in the firelight but who disappears when challenged by Aragorn. And the other thing is that the horses run off at the same moment.

Shadowfax, Chief of the Mearas.

Gimli is convinced that the old man is Saruman and that he has driven their horses away. He is partly correct in this. The following day the companions will meet Gandalf in the forest. It is one of the great moments of the story. Gimli will ask Gandalf if it was him or Saruman who he had seen by the fire and Gandalf will reassure him that he was not there so it was likely to have been Saruman; that Saruman had not been able to wait for his orcs to bring him the hobbits and with the hobbits the greatest prize of all, the One Ring. But it was not Saruman who drove away the horses. The following morning Aragorn will remark to the others that the horses did not sound as if they were fleeing in terror and Legolas will reply that “they spoke as horses will when they meet a friend that they have long missed.” The friend, as we will learn later, is Shadowfax, the greatest of horses who has drawn near to Fangorn in order to await Gandalf. If the companions knew this they would not have to worry about their horses. As Galadriel told them their paths are laid out before their feet and all they need do is to walk the paths in trust.

Gandalf and Saruman together.

“There Are Some Things That it is Better to Begin Than to Refuse, Even Though the End May be Dark.” Aragorn Ponders The Fate of The Young Hobbits.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 571-573

With some misgivings expressed by his company, Eomer gives three horses to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Or I should say that he gives two, because Gimli refuses the offer, feeling no more at ease on the back of a horse than Sam Gamgee felt in the Elven boats of Lothlórien. Aragorn is asked to promise that he will return the horses to Meduseld, the golden hall of the King of Rohan and this he promises to do. After that the three hunters follow the orc trail until they come to the eaves of Fangorn Forest.

There they find the scene of the battle a great burning of the orc host, the burial mound for the fifteen members of Eomer’s company, but no sign of the hobbits. Eomer has told them that only orcs were burned but Gimli is sure that the hobbits must have been among them.

The hunters search for the hobbits amidst the orcs.

“It will be hard news for Frodo, if he lives to hear it; and hard to for the old hobbit who waits in Rivendell. Elrond was against their coming.”

“But Gandalf was not,” said Legolas.

“But Gandalf chose to come himself, and he was the first to be lost,” answered Gimli. “His foresight failed him.”

Gimli bases his judgement regarding the wisdom of a choice upon one thing only; whether the choice leads to a successful outcome. Gandalf fell in Moria at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in the battle against the Balrog. Gimli fears that Merry and Pippin have fallen in the battle under the eaves of Fangorn Forest. Gandalf chose to accompany the Fellowship on its mission to destroy the Ring. Gandalf persuaded Elrond to allow the young hobbits to be a part of their company and it seems that they too are lost. Gimli is clear that Gandalf’s wisdom failed him as did his foresight.

Merry and Pippin were determined to join the Fellowship.

To be fair to Gimli, Merry and Pippin feel the same way about the wisdom of their desire to go with Frodo and Sam. At least they feel that way while they are prisoners of the orcs. “I wish Gandalf had never persuaded Elrond to let us come,” says Merry. And who can blame him for feeling that way while he is trussed up like a piece of baggage and carried by his orc captors.

But Aragorn thinks differently. He too tried to persuade Gandalf not to go to Moria because he had a foreboding that something would befall Gandalf there. We are not told what he thought about Merry and Pippin going with the Company. His first impression of them, based upon his encounter with the hobbits at the Prancing Pony in Bree, had not been encouraging. But his respect for them grows on the journey to Rivendell as he realises that they are made of sterner stuff than he first thought. But he recognises that there are reasons for choices that outweigh any considerations the success or otherwise of the venture. Friendship is one of them. Merry and Pippin simply could not abandon Frodo and Sam just as Gimli could not abandon Legolas, just as they could not abandon the young hobbits.

The other reason is Aragorn’s own choice to go with the Fellowship. He must fulfil his destiny as the heir of Eärendil, as the heir of Isildur. Either he will succeed, thus becoming King of Gondor and of Arnor and winning the hand of Arwen, or he will fall in the attempt and be the last of his line. He can refuse the attempt but to do so will be to refuse hope both for himself and for the free peoples of Middle-earth. Like Denethor later he would have to accept that “the West has failed”. He does not know whether he will succeed or not. Indeed after the fall of Gandalf he has very little hope that he will. But he must go on, perhaps with failure the only outcome.

“The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or others… There are things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.”

The Counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety

“I Must See It Through, Sir”. Thoughts, With The Help of Sam Gamgee, on the Yeomen of Worcestershire on Remembrance Sunday 2022

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.85

Back in May 2020, early on in our experience of the Coronavirus, as I began once more to write reflections on The Lord of the Rings after a pause of over a year as I got used to my duties as a parish priest in Worcestershire, I wrote about the moment when Frodo, Sam and Pippin prepare to leave the place above Woodhall in the Shire where they have enjoyed the hospitality of Gildor Inglorien and his wandering company of High Elves. If you would like to read that piece please click on the link below.

https://stephencwinter.com/2020/05/15/

Alan Lee’s beautiful depiction of the hobbits’ stay with the Elves above Woodhall.

I want to go back to that moment in the story today in order to think, once more, about the conversation between Frodo and Sam that takes place there; and I want to think about it on Remembrance Sunday here in Great Britain, and here in the County of Worcestershire, Tolkien’s Shire. For the little village of Hall Green in which he spent his early years lies within the ancient county boundaries of Worcestershire, and his grandfather and aunt on his mother’s side of the family farmed in Dormston which is just 6 miles from where I am writing these thoughts. Tolkien’s hobbits are very much based upon the country folk that he got to know as he grew up and he said of himself that his personal tastes and habits were very much those of a hobbit. Worcestershire gave up Hall Green to the growing city of Birmingham some years ago, a development that Tolkien watched and very much regretted. Dormston is still a country village but folk who live hereabouts watch, with some anxiety, the gradual spread of the kind of housing development that Saruman was starting to create during the brief time in which he ran the Shire.

The farm known as Bag End in Dormston where Tolkien’s Suffield relatives lived.

Remembrance Sunday takes place every year on the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day, November 11th, recalling the moment at 11 am on that day in 1918 on which the guns fell silent on the Western Front in France and Belgium and the terrible slaughter of the previous four years finally came to an end. In London, at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the King will lead a national act of Remembrance that is centred around a silence of two minutes and in villages and towns up and down the land there will be local acts of Remembrance taking place. I will lead one in the village of Ombersley and it will take about 5 minutes to read all the names of the fallen just from that village. It is about the nearest thing that this country has to a national day. There is no independence to celebrate as no conquest has taken place in nearly a thousand years and there is no overthrow of tyranny to celebrate, as in France, because we have largely been content (with all the usual grumbling) with our form of government for over 350 years now. I wonder sometimes what will be left of our national identity when the memory that this day seeks to keep alive finally begins to fade. But that would require another essay in order to ponder it.

It has been effectively shown that The Lord of the Rings is very much a personal response to Tolkien’s experience of the trenches of the Western Front. John Garth’s excellent study on the subject, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, very much established that as fact, as did the biopic, Tolkien, of 2019. Scholars, at least on this side of the Atlantic, still seem very reluctant to add Tolkien to the canon of war writers. I read an excellent study this year on another Worcestershire writer of the early 20th century, A.E Houseman, who never went to war himself but whose poetry was carried by thousands of British servicemen who did, that does not even mention Tolkien in its survey of war literature from this part of England. That Houseman played a vital part in the creation of English culture in the 20th century is undeniable. That Tolkien continues to do so today is surely equally so. In Blackwell’s bookshop, the largest and most important in Oxford, a whole section is devoted to Tolkien. No other writer comes even close to the the number of books on display either by or about him. The readers of Oxford do not need to be persuaded of his importance even if the university’s literary establishment may still regret it.

But let me come back in conclusion to Sam Gamgee. If one of the tasks of The Lord of the Rings is to re-enchant a world that has effectively lost touch with that which most truly nourishes its soul, then can we also say that the book also re-enchants warfare? Surely we must say that in one sense the slaughter that took place in the battlefields of Europe between 1914 and 1918 cannot be enchanted. And yet the deepest instinct of the British people is that the dead who will be remembered on this Remembrance Sunday cannot be so as if what they did was utterly useless and wasteful. Yes, the industrial nature of that conflict was simply appalling but each person whose name will be read out today was essentially beautiful. And Sam Gamgee speaks for them. He speaks for the country folk of England, of Worcestershire, who went cheerfully to war simply because they had been asked to do so.

“I have something to do before the end”.

“I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t go see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want- I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

“How Shall a Man Judge What to Do in Such Times?” Eomer Ponders The Making of Choices. To Aid or To Thwart Aragorn.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 565-571

Eomer dismisses his company in order to speak to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in private, and in order to give himself time to make his choice. Whether to aid or to thwart the hunters in their effort to find Merry and Pippin. He has already taken a risk in leading his men against the orc band that had slain Boromir and taken the hobbits prisoner. Theoden, the king, did not give him permission to go. Now what will he do about these three strangers who walk across the fields of Rohan?

Eomer needs space in order to make his decision. Anke Eissmann depicts the meeting between him and Aragorn.

Eomer needs space to think. He also needs space to reorient himself after all the things that he has just been told.

“It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dearf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”

In my last piece on this blog I wrote about a world “grown strange”. I wrote about how hobbits were dismissed as mere “children’s tales out of the North” while Galadriel is feared as one who belongs to “net-weavers and sorcerers”. Tolkien once wrote that if someone comes bearing tales of dragons either he will not be believed and so will be dismissed as a mad man or he will be believed and so will be regarded as dangerous and uncanny. Aragorn and his companions seem to be regarded as both at one and the same time and so Eothain, who speaks for the ordinary person dismisses them as “wild folk” who should be left to their fancies.

Bilbo tells tales of dragons and so is dismissed as mad, even though he gives very good parties.

It was not just because the world would be a more delightful place if it were to be more magical, to be re-enchanted, that Tolkien and the other Inklings wrote their stories. It was because the world would be more true. So the good, the beautiful and the true are really one and in order for something to be true it is not necessary to separate it out from the beautiful.

Nor is it necessary to separate the true from the good. “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn’s answer is both clear and simple.

“As he has ever judged… Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

Boromir began to make his choice to take the Ring while in the Golden Wood.

So Eomer is left with a choice to make. Aragorn has made it clear to him that he will not abandon Merry and Pippin. He determined to find them when at Tol Brandir even at the cost of his own life. If the wise choice were simply about finding out what was in his own interest and then pursuing it he would certainly not have followed the orc band. The wise choice would probably have been to go on to Minas Tirith. He could have spoken of his promise made to Boromir and expressed genuine regret about the unhappy fate of Merry and Pippin but the principle of self interest would have left him little choice in the matter. Of course by going to Minas Tirith he would have brought himself into conflict with Denethor who would have contested any claim that he might have made, but then politics and the achievement of power is always a matter of navigation through one set of circumstances after another in seeking to achieve the goal. That Aragorn would not have met with Gandalf once again in the Forest of Fangorn nor played his part in the defeat of Saruman and through that to win the loyalty of Rohan not just in the battles that immediately lay ahead but in the future too would simply be unfortunate. After all, it is not possible to achieve everything at any one moment. But Aragorn does not make this choice. He chooses the good in his loyalty to the young hobbits and so wins the respect and the aid of Eomer who chooses to try to do the good also. He gives horses to the three companions to aid them in their task and this choice will cost him his freedom, for some time at least.