Like Frodo in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell I usually fall into sleep while listening to this mesmerising music. While writing “It Seemed to Fit Somehow” I listened to the whole thing, maybe for the very first time. And it does seem to fit. John Luther Adams captures the way in which water flows in a way that is wonderfully musical.
Apparently those two fine composers, John Luther Adams and John Adams, who like each other very much, have a lovely time redirecting mail to one another. This must be fun for the postal service because Luther Adams lives in Alaska while his namesake lives in California.
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.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 221-223
The history of Dwarves and Elves in Middle-earth has been a long journey that has often taken dark turnings. The memories of both peoples are long and so these things are not forgotten and can rise dangerously to the surface at any moment. Later in the tale Celeborn of Lothlórien will speak bitterly of Dwarves and will seek to repent of the welcome given to Gimli, son of Glóin, but here in Rivendell this same Glóin sits in a place of honour at the table of Elrond next to the Ringbearer. Thus, in the scenes before the great Council of Elrond takes place, Tolkien draws together many essential threads of the great story.
“Am I right in guessing that you are the Glóin, one of the twelve companions of the great Thorin Oakenshield?” asks Frodo of his fellow guest at Elrond’s table.
“I have already been told that you are the kinsman and adopted heir of our friend Bilbo the renowned,” replies Glóin.
And in an age that is more formal than our own not one word spoken by either is wasted or without content. Each word conveys the honour that each feels appropriate to the other and which each wishes to give. And in their greetings to one another both place the other and also themselves within the great story of how Gandalf the Grey brought together Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve companions with a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, in order to regain Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, from the grip of Smaug the Dragon.
Anyone who has read The Hobbit will know that much of that tale is told as a child’s fairy story and much is even comic in style befitting the character of the hobbit who plays so essential a part within it. For it was only a hunch upon Gandalf’s part that led him to recommend Bilbo to Thorin, persuading him that he had found an excellent burglar who would be useful as a stealer of treasure from a dragon’s hoard. Bilbo’s complete lack of any of the qualities thought necessary for a hero makes Thorin wonder if Gandalf is merely playing some unpleasant trick upon him but, perhaps by a carnivalesque invasion of Tolkien’s heroic legendarium, it is this figure who Thorin regards as being little more than a clown who finds the Ring of Power by pure chance.
It was the great Russian cultural theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin who developed the idea of carnival within life and literature, a situation in which the world is turned upside down and the first become last while the last become first. I have written before of how I believe that hobbits took Tolkien completely by surprise and how that surprise simply would not let him go. There is nothing in The Silmarillion that prepares us for the moment when hobbits enter the tale and after the success of The Hobbit Tolkien tried to persuade his publisher that there was nothing more to be said about them. It is my belief that the whole world owes an incalculable debt to a publisher who in seeking another commercial success made hobbits essential to the creation of a mythology that is subversively enriching the world of our day.
Of all the retellings of Tolkien’s tale of Bilbo Baggins I have an especial affection for a Russian film of The Hobbit from the Soviet era that, to me, captures the spirit of the story perfectly, telling it as the kind of folk tale that the mighty always feel that they can ignore safely. Self important literary critics from the great universities and even heads of government or state feel that they can laugh at such nonsense until the moment comes when they get the terrible sense that they might be the butt of the joke as Smaug does when Bilbo steals the Arkenstone from his treasure or Saruman is driven from his mighty fortress by creatures who he has treated with contempt.
Where do we end with this reflection? Of course we end as Frodo and Glóin do in acknowledging the greatness of the other. Both carnival and heroic epic come together here bowing respectfully to one another, taking pleasure in one another’s company, sharing news and wisely waiting for the right time in which to speak of weightier matters such as the destiny of the whole world. That can wait for the next day.
On Friday I posted a reflection on my blog about the encounter between Frodo and Glóin as they sat together at the feast in Rivendell and how this reconnected the stories of the Shire and the kingdom under the mountain, stories that were so remarkably woven together when Gandalf persuaded Thorin Oakenshield to allow Bilbo Baggins to become a part of his quest to regain the mountain kingdom from Smaug the dragon.
As I pondered the story that Tolkien told in The Hobbit I was led by my daughter, Bethan, a doctoral student at Oxford University, to the great Soviet cultural critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, and his concept of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin’s work was on the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the 16th century French writer, Rabelais. In both of them he finds a world that is turned upside down. As Bethan and I spoke together I became increasingly convinced that we can add another work to Bakhtin’s list, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.
As I pondered this I recalled once watching a film adaptation of The Hobbit that was made in Russian during the Soviet era that charmed me at the time I watched it. Instinctively I felt that its retelling of Tolkien’s story as a folk tale had an authenticity to it that I found sadly lacking in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Many have commented on the difficulty in reconciling the fairytale aspect of The Hobbit with the mighty epic that was both The Silmarillion and also The Lord of the Rings. My feeling is that Jackson kept trying to make the story heroic and epic in nature, even trying to turn Bilbo into a character who might belong in such a story. My belief is that this delightful Russian retelling of the tale is much closer to its true essence.
And while I am expressing appreciation for people who have helped develop my own understanding of Tolkien’s work I would like to thank a blogger who writes under the name, The Catholic Knight, for reminding me of the wonderful section of Tolkien’s, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth that deals with the quest for Erebor. If you have a copy then read these pages for yourself. You can almost feel yourself to be with Tolkien, perhaps at a gathering of the Inklings, as he wrestles with the question, why did he recommend Bilbo to Thorin? Each one of the answers is profound and, in my view, leaves the subversive carnivalesque nature of The Hobbit intact.
A final thought. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Russian. Any lover of The Hobbit will have little difficulty in following the story and you might find a version somewhere with English subtitles.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 220-21
There is one more person to whom Frodo pays attention at the table at which he sits in a place of honour and Tolkien devotes more space to her than he does to Elrond, Gandalf and Glorfindel put together. This is the first time that we meet the daughter of Elrond, the Lady Arwen of Rivendell, Arwen Undómiel, the Evenstar of her people, “in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien had come on earth again.”
Frodo’s attention to his fellow diners is more akin to a visitor to one of the great art galleries of the world than to a guest enjoying the company that he finds himself in. Even Gandalf, who he knows well, is presented to him, and to us, in his symbolic guise. The excellence of the food upon his plate provides him ample excuse for not worrying about his situation. When was the last time that Frodo enjoyed a good meal? Was it at the Prancing Pony almost four weeks before? He need not worry overmuch about other matters, not just yet at any rate.
Frodo has seen great beauty before in the house of Tom Bombadil in the person of Goldberry but there “less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to human heart; marvellous and yet not strange.”
Arwen has an altogether different effect. “Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had never seen before nor imagined in his mind”. Goldberry’s beauty was of an order in which Frodo might feel that he could be close to even as Tom Bombadil was close. Tom might be eldest but he is close to the same soil that nurtures hobbits, the soil that he speaks of approvingly when he speaks of Farmer Maggot. Goldberry belongs to the “little rivers” in which Frodo delights, whose loveliness has nurtured his heart all his life. Arwen is of another order altogether. Frodo may, on reflection, use the word, loveliness in thinking of her, but in gazing upon Arwen he knows that he will never use that word in quite the same way again, or that he will never quite feel that the word could possibly do justice to the one he has tried to describe in this manner. Either he will have to find new words, (and what words might they be?) or he will be reduced to wordless admiration, to silence. He will have to learn how to gaze upon such beauty for a long time in order to be able to appreciate it as it should be. One day, in the Undying Lands, he will have such opportunity.
Perhaps there will come a time when he can look upon beauty such as Arwen possesses and not have to gaze, to admire, to delight in, at a distance. For Arwen Undómiel is not only a symbol but a living being with a beating heart. She is a woman in love and the man she loves is not at the feast. It is almost, it would appear, as an afterthought that Tolkien tells us that Frodo “could see no sign of Strider”. I was going to say a few weeks ago when I wrote about Gandalf putting Frodo right about Rangers that we will never refer to Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, as Strider again but here at the feast when we meet Arwen for the first time Tolkien uses the name by which Aragorn first introduced himself to Frodo and his companions in Bree. Of course, this is the name by which Frodo knows him and it is a name that brings a man who himself could be a symbol of greatness and of potency, close to a hobbit of the Shire. It has even allowed Frodo to refer to this man as “only a Ranger”. What is the place where Arwen Undómiel, the Evenstar of her people, and Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, Estel, the hope of his people, can meet and fall in love? Surely it is a place where they are man and woman in total simplicity. And yet maybe none of us are quite permitted to live lives of total simplicity. Elrond has already made it clear to this young man that his daughter “shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor”. Our roles will be probably not be quite so exalted but we all have roles to play in which the people that we are are symbols appropriate to those roles as well as being mere flesh and blood.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 220-223
If we are to understand the true significance of the feast that takes place on the evening after Frodo first awakes in Rivendell then we need to understand it as if it is a great state occasion. Elrond does not preside in his great chair at the end of a long table upon a dais every day. This is an occasion of real significance.
There are many reasons why they should hold such a feast, says Gandalf to Frodo. “I am one good reason. The Ring is another: you are the Ring-bearer. And you are the heir of Bilbo, the Ring-finder.”
So we learn much in just a few words about the reasons why, in the world of Elrond and of the wise, honour is granted. There will be royal halls later in the story where Gandalf will be received with no honour at all. And Frodo, and to some degree, Bilbo too, regard themselves as those to whom all these events have simply happened. Frodo knows that he never sought the Ring. The Ring sought him out. But the court of Elrond in Rivendell is no meritocracy. As Gandalf said to Frodo at Bag End when Frodo asked why he had been chosen to bear the Ring, “Such questions cannot be answered… You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate.”
Frodo is not honoured because he is one of the great. He is honoured because he has been chosen and it is the choice that must be honoured. But there will soon come a time when Elrond will declare that Frodo is among the great and that will be because he will accept the burden that has been laid upon him. That we will think about in a few weeks time.
As Frodo sits nervously among the great at table he sees Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel close by, revealed in their glory. Tolkien draws upon all his wordcraft to convey think to us and so doing achieves far more than any picture. And so he says of Elrond that his face was “ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful.” As we read those words it is not a picture that we see. Tolkien tells us nothing about the shape of Elrond’s nose or mouth, for example. What we see, we see by means of the thoughts of our hearts, and those who know the prayer to which I allude will also know that those thoughts must be cleansed before they can enable us to see clearly.
So it is that Tolkien shows us that Frodo is learning to see. Later Galadriel will make reference to the keenness of Frodo’s sight. Gandalf, Elrond and Glorfindel are among the immortals and unlike ourselves whose appearance is shaped by factors both inward and outward over which we only have some control, they are able to convey the truth of who they are. Glorfindel is “fair and young and fearless and full of joy. Gandalf has an aged face with eyes “like coals that could leap suddenly into fire”. And Elrond, neither young nor old seems venerable “as a king crowns with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength.” Later when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli encounter Gandalf they are not sure if it is he that they see or Saruman.
As a maia, an order of angelic being to which both Sauron and Saruman also belong, Gandalf has power over how he is able to appear; but this power can also be lost. In seducing Celebrimbor into teaching him the craft required to make the Ruling Ring Sauron was able to appear fair. After he seduced Númenor into its catastrophic act of rebellion he lost that power and could only be the Dark Lord thereafter. And when Saruman dies “the long years of death” are revealed in his hideous face. Gandalf remains faithful to his order’s obedience to Ilúvatar and so conveys both wisdom and strength in the face that others can see.
All this Frodo is able to see because his sight grows keen and his eye is innocent. He does not yet know that he is able to see what others cannot.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 219-220
I have been enjoying my imaginary rest in one of the wonderful beds in The Last Homely House as, I hope, have you as you have read the last pages of Tolkien’s great tale and my reflections upon them. Now it is time to get up and, with Frodo and Sam, who “has been getting to know some of the ways of the place”, it is time for us to get to know it a little better too. I don’t know about you but I could use a “cure for weariness, fear and sadness” right now. I know that beyond the hidden valley of Rivendell there will be many dangers to face but just for a while let us rest here to regather our strength and so make ready to face those dangers once more.
The journey eastward through Eriador in Middle-earth is always a journey towards hardship and danger; always away from the quiet lands of Bree, the Shire; and away from the Elven lands of Forlindon and Harlindon that lie hard against the great sea and the hidden lands beyond. When Bilbo Baggins made his journey to the lonely mountain of Erebor as recounted in The Hobbit this was the last time of rest before the passage through the Misty Mountains was to be attempted and all the adventures that were to befall him there and in the lands at their far side. Hence, in Bilbo’s mind it was always The Last Homely House.
Rivendell had always been a refuge from enemies right from its founding by Elrond in the middle of the Second Age when he had led an elven host against Sauron in the wars in Eregion after the making of the great Rings of Power by Celebrimbor, deceived as Celebrimbor had been by Sauron who desired only to learn ringcraft and to use all that he could learn to forge the One Ring, and through its power to subdue all lands and all peoples under his rule.
Sauron never achieved this end but also never gave up his age old desire to rule either. That this desire lies at the heart of The Lord of the Rings is made all too clear by Gandalf when he reminds the hobbits after Pippin’s ill judged words that “The Lord of the Ring is not Frodo, but the Master of the Dark Tower of Mordor, whose power is again stretching out over the world! We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark.”
It was during the conflict with Sauron in Eriador that Elrond first founded the “refuge of Imladris” in 1697 of the Second Age, the same year in which Celebrimbor was killed. Eventually Sauron was driven from Eriador but not by Elrond but by the Dúnedain, the men of Númenor, who arrived in a mighty fleet and established dominions on the coasts of Middle-earth. Even his possession of the Ring was not enough for Sauron to withstand the power of Númenor but something else enabled him to overthrow that mighty land. The appendices at the end of The Return of the King put it in the most chilling way when they say, ” The shadow falls on Númenor”. No military defeat ever took place but an inner moral collapse most certainly did. Again, in the appendices, Tolkien uses a few words to terrible effect.
2251: Tar-Atanamir takes the sceptre. Rebellion and division of the Númenoreans begins. About this time the Nazgûl or Ringwraiths, slaves of the Nine Rings, first appear.
Surely, Tolkien has no need to spell out what happened in any explicit manner. Sauron did not seduce just anyone with his gifts. As we come to learn about Sméagol later in the story, a small and miserable creature is capable only of small and miserable evils. Only the great can do the greatest harms. Surely it was men of Númenor that Sauron seduced and made slaves to his will through the insidious gift of Rings of Power. And this is where the contrast between them and those who find refuge in Rivendell lies. There are those who will give everything, even their souls, for power. And there are those who seek “a cure for weariness, fear and sadness”.
And so throughout the long years, years that Elrond terms “the long defeat”, Rivendell remains a secret refuge, a Last Homely House for all weary travellers, a home in need for the remnant of the Dúnedain of the North and now, for a little while at least, a refuge for the Ringbearer and his companions, a place, as Pippin who recognises true joy when he sees it, where it is “impossible, somehow to feel gloomy or depressed”.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 215-219
Gandalf explains much to Frodo as the hobbit rests in his wonderful bed but one question above all still bothers him.
“Just give me news of my friends, and tell me the end of the affair at the Ford, as I keep on asking, and I shall be content for the present. After that I shall have another sleep, I think; but I shan’t be able to close my eyes until you have finished the story for me.”
We thought about the events at the Fords of Bruinen a few weeks ago when we were introduced to Glorfindel and his decisive intervention. Now we return to them as Gandalf explains to Frodo what was happening to him on that day. Gandalf explains to Frodo that the Ringwraiths could see him even when he was not wearing the Ring because he was “on the threshold of their world”. The Morgul-knife, with which the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of Minas Morgul, had pierced Frodo in his shoulder, had broken inside the wound and had left a splinter there. He had tried to pierce Frodo in his heart and if he had succeeded he would have done a deed that would have been worse than murder for Frodo would have become a wraith, he “would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command”.
And now we know why Gandalf looked at Frodo so closely. How far into the shadow world had Frodo gone? Was there any lasting damage caused by the Morgul Blade as the Witch-king intended or had Elrond been successful in both removing the deadly splinter and in preventing Frodo from slipping out of the world of substance and into the world that the ringwraiths knew?
What is clear is that Frodo’s resistance played a crucial role in his escape and then his recovery. As Gandalf puts it, “Your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last”. Frodo’s resistance was crucial at that point and then at the Fords of Bruinen when he called out, “You shall have neither the Ring nor me”. But most important of all was the fact that he was able to resist tye journey of the fragment of the blade from the shoulder to the heart.
Frodo’s resistance was aided at the beginning by Strider’s application of athelas to the wound. Even though he is not yet king it is a sign of his true identity that this herb, that seems to share his hiddenness in its apparent insignificance, responds both to his touch and his voice. Strider is the true king who is to come and the world listens to his voice.
But this is not the only aid that Frodo receives. When his hobbit companions said to him, “We are your friends, Frodo”, on that night at Crickhollow when the “conspiracy” was unmasked, these were not mere words. The friendship of Merry, Pippin and, above all, Sam was shown in the unloading of Bill the pony and the carrying of great burdens; it was shown in hobbit cheerfulness even in adversity; it was shown in Sam’s song about trolls at the discovery of the place where Bilbo’s first adventure took place; and it was shown at the Fords of Bruinen when they all ran towards the deadliest of danger in the ringwraiths. And, as readers of The Lord of the Rings know, this was not the last time in the story that this friends were willing to lay down their lives for the love of a friend.
Of course, none of this would have been to any effect if the hobbits had been alone. The Nazgûl would have been too deadly a foe and the Ring, and Frodo too, would have been taken away to Mordor had it not been for the intervention of Glorfindel and the power in the river that awaited any attempt to cross by an enemy. The waters in the river rose and the steeds of the ringwraiths were swept away, their riders forced to return to Mordor having failed in their mission and to be rehorsed.
All of this Gandalf explains to Frodo but he also tells him that while “fortune or fate” may have helped him to escape his deadly foe so too did courage and all through the story that courage will make all the difference.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-219
The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, told a story of a prince who, in order to win the love of a peasant girl, decided to live among her people as a fellow peasant and to hide his true identity. Eventually he marries her and we await the moment when he will reveal himself to her. But then, Kierkegaard asks us, does he have to do this? Why can’t he remain a peasant for the rest of his life out of the same love that him to disguise himself in the first place?
As you ponder the philosopher’s question your thoughts may turn towards Strider, or Aragorn. The poet, priest and scholar, Malcolm Guite, has published a series of poems on the great O Antiphons of the Middle Ages that have a prominent place in the liturgy of the Advent season. In a note on his poem on O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations, Guite comments that the antiphon speaks of Christ as both king and also as a dusty potter working with the clay of our humanity, and then he says, “he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider!”
Aragorn, or Strider as he is known to the people of Bree, has walked alongside Frodo and his companions all the way from Bree to Rivendell, clad in boots that have seen much wear and are “caked in mud” with a “travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth” wrapped around him. As Frodo thinks back over the journey he begins by telling Gandalf that at first he had been afraid of Strider, then that he had become fond of him.
“Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange and grim at times. In fact he reminds me often of you.”
Finally, Frodo says, after making a few general and rather dismissive comments about “the Big People”, that he thought that Strider “was only a Ranger”. And so we return in our thoughts to the king who walks alongside us in rags. Those who learn wisdom come to understand that no-one, absolutely no-one, can be dismissed with the word, only. All people are more than they seem and if we take the time to be with them we begin to discover in what ways they are more than they seem. But Gandalf is anxious to let Frodo know that to say, “only” in relation to a Ranger, is an even greater insult.
“My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”
It was Strider’s ancestors who first entered Beleriand in the last centuries of the First Age where they were befriended by the Elves and gave them aid in their wars against Morgoth. That this was the people of Númenor who lived within sight of the Undying Lands. At this point of the story Frodo still has no idea that when Strider had sung the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in the camp below Weathertop he had been singing of his forefathers and foremothers. He does not know how great is the story into which he has been drawn and in which he is to play so great a part. There is one point at which his perception is entirely accurate and that is when he says of Strider “that he reminds me often of you”. But he has not learned to trust his perception. He does not yet know that he, the Elf-friend, is growing in greatness. Perhaps it is just as well, for it necessary that as we grow in greatness we must also grow in humility, to learn that everything is not gained as an achievement but given as a gift. This is the last time that we will refer to Aragorn as Strider but as Aragorn will say at a later stage of the story, Strider “has never been away”.
And so we return to Kierkegaard’s story and to his question. Does his prince need to reveal his true identity to his beloved? Might not they live perfectly happily together as peasants for the rest of their lives? Perhaps they might, but equally, they might live together in happiness as a prince and princess. As Frodo is drawn into the great story so too he is becoming great, as Gildor Inglorien first recognised when he named Frodo, Elf-friend, and as Goldberry saw too in the house of Tom Bombadil. Just as with Kierkegaard’s prince, and just as with Strider, he will learn either to assume that greatness or to lay it aside as he chooses or as is necessary. Why cannot Kierkegaard’s peasant girl learn to do the same?
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-19
As I wrote last week it is altogether too pleasant to think of getting out of bed after nearly three weeks in the wild since leaving Bree. Even Gandalf’s chastisements feel like pleasantries compared to the terror of the attack below Weathertop, the agony of the long miles from that moment and the flight across the Fords of Bruinen with the Black Riders in close pursuit.
Frodo recalls all that has happened to him. “The disastrous ‘short cut’ through the Old Forest; the ‘accident’ at The Prancing Pony; and his madness in putting on the Ring in the dell under Weathertop.” But he is still too tired to be able to judge himself and besides Gandalf continues after a long pause:
“Though I said ‘absurd’ just now, I did not mean it. I think well of you-and of the others. It is no small feat to have come so far, and through such dangers, still bearing the Ring.”
It is a major part of Tolkien’s skill as a storyteller that we have become so used to seeing the story through the eyes of the hobbits as, apparently, they stumble from one near disaster to another from the moment they set out from Bag End that we do not realise what an achievement their safe arrival in Rivendell is. Months later, in the pavilions at the Field of Cormallen, a bard will sing of these things as the deeds of mighty heroes and the armies of Gondor and Rohan will acclaim Frodo and Sam as such. For their part, the hobbits do not believe their own press. Perhaps it is as well that they don’t. To regard oneself as a hero is unwise. In a few weeks time we will be introduced to a character who longs to be seen by others as a mighty hero and have them come flocking to his banner. Things will go badly for him before his final redemption.
We could have looked at the journey of the hobbits from a number of other perspectives than their own. For poor old Fatty Bolger even the choice to go through the Old Forest is madness and that is before he encounters the Black Riders for himself. Aragorn does not think very highly of them, certainly at first when he meets them in Bree. After the raid on The Prancing Pony by the Black Riders and the loss of the pack ponies he gazes long at the hobbits “as if he was weighing up their strength and courage”. We get the impression that, at this stage of the story, he does not have much expectation of their ability to make the journey to Rivendell.
He is nearly right, of course. And so is Gandalf. Frodo and his companions are lucky to have reached Rivendell. But then so too is Aragorn. And, as we shall learn later, so too is Gandalf. Perhaps it is Tom Bombadil who sees things with the most clarity. Tom makes no judgements about the hobbits knowing, as he does, the dangers of the world. Through his experience over many years he has learned the measure of these dangers, both those against which he can pit himself and those against which he cannot. As he says before his final farewell to the hobbits, “Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country”.
And yet, despite their own frailties, despite their inexperience, even despite the power of the Nazgûl, Frodo and his companions arrive safely in Rivendell. Perhaps, as Frodo says, it was Strider who saved them. Perhaps, as Gandalf puts it, “fortune or fate” helped them, as well as courage. Perhaps, as we weigh up the challenges of life that we must face it is wise if we do not do too much ‘weighing up’. Either we will put too much confidence in our own ability or we will be so terrified that, like Fatty Bolger, we will never try the journey at all. Bombadil’s final advice to the hobbits remains the best. He tells the hobbits simply to be themselves. “Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune!” And this is just what Frodo and his companions have done. And we might say also, this is what fortune has done too.