Philosophy in the Pub. The World According to Ted Sandyman and to Sam Gamgee.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 42-44

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It is not necessary to have travelled far in order to have an imagination that extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own lived experience but it is necessary to wish to have done so. On an April evening after a rainy day Sam Gamgee and Ted Sandyman sit opposite one another by the fire of The Green Dragon in Bywater and the regulars of the pub gather about them. They expect a debate between the two hobbits and they are not disappointed.

Ted and Sam

By the rules of bar room debate Ted Sandyman is more skilled at the art and if a quicker wit were to guarantee success in life then he would have been the happier of the two. There is little doubt that the assembled company consider that Ted is the winner and certainly Ted, himself, thinks so, but Sam will end his days honoured by all and Ted…?

We never find out what happened to Ted after Saruman’s gang is driven out of the Shire. The last time that we hear of him is when the victorious hobbits, fresh from the Battle of Bywater, are marching upon Saruman’s headquarters in Bagshot Row. Ted still regards himself as Sam’s superior even then. “You was always soft,” he sneers at Sam and even when he sees the hobbit host he still believes that his horn will summon a force of men sufficient to put down the uprising.

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Of course the men would never come so what happened to Ted after that? There are two possibilities. The first and the most hopeful is that after a lifetime of small-minded mean spiritedness Ted comes to realise what a fool he has been and that he realises too that to think of oneself as a fool is not the worst fate that can befall a person. Indeed it can open the door to happiness. Ted could lay down the burden of what he considers to be his dignity, something that he has always regarded as more important than happiness, seek to make amends for the harm that he has done to others, and to put his mill to use in the service of the Shire at a difficult time. If he were to do that he would almost certainly find that his fellow hobbits would be quick to forgive and he would live out his days as a useful and contented member of his community.

That is one possibility. The other would be that he would retreat into his last remaining possession, his resentment, and nourish it as if it had the ability to feed him. He would hate Merry and Pippin as entitled members of the old gentry of the Shire, a class from which he has always felt himself to be excluded, and he would hate Sam even more because he would see Sam as having achieved the thing that he had always desired himself but now could not have. If he chose the latter pathway would he be able to remain in his mill, serving a community who knew what he had done as an enthusiastic collaborator and whose contentment he would always hate? Or would he, like Bill Ferny, have withdrawn to the edges of things to eke out a miserable existence through small, mean and nasty acts.

I will allow my readers to decide this for themselves. For myself, just as Frodo did with Lotho Pimple even after he saw the destruction of his own home, I will hope for Ted Sandyman. Frodo continued to hope for Lotho, not because he had scaled some moral height, but because of his own sense of failure in not being able to cast the Ring into the Fire. Frodo does not feel alien from his cousin. They have both fallen. Perhaps Sam will not feel alien from his old sparring partner from The Green Dragon. 

But on this April evening after the rain all of this lies in a future beyond events that will change all of their lives. Sam, the hobbit with a ‘soft’ head, will follow his longing to see wonders and he will go with Frodo through terrible hardship unto great glory. While Ted will never see beyond the next successful deal and the next one and the next one until he falls with Lotho Pimple, the hobbit he has most admired, the one who could have written a book about making successful deals.

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Divine Restlessness. Frodo Begins to Dream About the Wild Lands and the Mountains.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 40,41

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None of us can control the stories that others tell about us although Bilbo may have tried to do so. If he had ever heard that he had become a part of Shire folklore as “Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold” we might be able to assume that he would have received the news with a certain amusement, and satisfaction too.

Frodo, on the other hand, never sought to be a part of the Bilbo Baggins “legend” but he finds himself a part of it anyway especially as his habit of giving a party in honour of Bilbo each year on the anniversary of his birth becomes widely known. All societies have a way of policing themselves by means of the informal court of public opinion. Most people do not wish to be thought strange and so will adjust their behaviour, for good or for ill, towards the norms and standards of their community. Until this point in their history hobbits have neither had, nor encouraged, a heroic culture in which certain individuals are permitted, for the sake of the greater good, to step beyond these norms. Smaug the dragon never threatened the welfare of the Shire and so Bilbo’s adventure was never thought worthy of much attention. Later Merry, Pippin and Sam will be granted a certain heroic status because of their leading part in driving out Saruman’s gang but the story of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom” which will be sung for generations in Gondor will never be given much regard in the Shire except among those to whom Sam will tell the story.

Frodo of the 9 Fingers

To the extent that Frodo desires the affection and esteem of others the lack of regard that he enjoys from his fellows will be a cause of unhappiness to him. Certainly Tolkien felt Frodo was tempted to “have returned as a ‘hero’, not content with being a mere instrument of good”.

But the desire to be a hero is not the only thing that can be said about Frodo. If it were so then he would almost certainly have fallen prey to the same temptation that would eventually beset Boromir. And it is during the seventeen years that lay between Bilbo’s departure and Gandalf’s return that a much more important aspect to his character was developed.

“Frodo himself… found that being his own master and the Mr Baggins of Bag End was rather pleasant. For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future. But half unknown to himself the regret that he had not gone with Bilbo was steadily growing. He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”

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Frodo himself resists this growing desire to leave the Shire at first but it will not leave him alone. And such is the way with the kind of dreams that Frodo has and the kind of restlessness that begins to grow within him. Gradually all that we have considered to be home begins to feel too confined and the spaces that open up beyond our home become increasingly attractive.

Eventually Frodo will follow this yearning and will leave the Shire. He will wander the world, see mountains and experience Elven lands and their, almost, timeless beauty. Beauty will take hold of him on more than one occasion and yet even the wonder of Cerin Amroth will not be for him the end of his journey and neither can his return to the Shire. Frodo’s restlessness or, might we say, his homesickness, can only grow with each step that he takes. Eventually it will take him out of Middle-earth altogether and into an experience of “pure Elvishness” as Tolkien put it in a letter to a Mrs Eileen Elgar.

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But even there, as Tolkien put it in the same letter, Frodo went through what he terms “a purgatory and a reward… a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness”. All purgatory, certainly as Tolkien understood it, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The classic spiritual journey has three stages. Illumination, Purgation and Union. The journey that Frodo began in restlessness will end in the homecoming at last of pure union with Love beyond “the circles of the world”.

“Keep it Safe, and Keep it Secret!” On What Takes Place at Bag End after Bilbo Leaves The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 35-40

Bilbo leaves the Shire after the party in search of a holiday but for Frodo, at least at first, life is anything but leisurely. This is all Bilbo’s fault, of course. The manner of his disappearance means that the conventional hobbits feel abused by him. Some are simply outraged; the Sackville-Bagginses try to regain possession of Bag End; while some of the younger ones cannot help but try to find out whether there is more to the stories of Bilbo’s fabulous wealth than mere rumour. All in all Frodo spends some time after the party more or less under siege in Bag End.

It is during the process of repelling invaders that Gandalf returns. At first Frodo and his friends try to repel him too, or at least to ignore him.

“Suddenly the wizard’s head appeared at the window.

‘If you don’t let me in, Frodo, I shall blow your door right down your hole and out through the hill,’ he said.”

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Gandalf wishes to speak about the Ring. At this point in the story he merely refers to the Ring as “It”. This is what needs to be kept secret and safe. It is clear that Gandalf already has his suspicions regarding Bilbo’s “magic” ring. He knows from his Ringlore that “magic” rings don’t just turn up from time to time. There was only one time during the Second Age in which Rings of Power were created and every single one of them had a connection to the Dark Lord. Seven Rings were created for Dwarf lords and Nine for Lords of Men. Three were forged by Elven Smiths but were never touched by Sauron although Celebrimbor of Eregion received guidance in their making from the Dark Lord in his fair guise of Annatar. And then there was the One Ring to rule them all.

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Even now Gandalf fears that Bilbo’s ring might indeed be the One Ring. So why does he not act upon his fear straight away? It will be nearly seventeen years before he returns to the Shire and confirms his fears. In that time Sauron will have almost completed all his preparations for war and at the end of it he will send out his most deadly servants, the Nazgûl, the keepers of the Nine Rings, in search of the One. During those years no great alliance of the free peoples of Middle-earth will be formed as took place at the end of the Second Age, an alliance strong enough to overthrow the Dark Lord. And the one alliance that has remained, that between Gondor and the Kingdom of Rohan, will be systematically weakened by the work of Saruman the traitor.

I have two thoughts regarding these years of relative inaction.

One is that Gandalf knows that he cannot afford to make any mistakes regarding the One Ring. It is much too big for that. If he were to gamble on the identity of Bilbo’s Ring and get it wrong the consequences would be catastrophic. He knows that at the end this is not a war that can be won through force of arms. Sauron can be delayed but this time he cannot be defeated. Gandalf knows that at the moment of the crisis of the Age everything will depend upon a madness, upon a gamble in which everything is wagered upon one slender possibility.

I exaggerate! To describe the possibility as slender is a nonsense. The wager will be made on an action that is as close to impossible as can be conceived. Gandalf knows this even now and so he needs to be sure.

The second is that at the moment when Gandalf leaves the Shire and the Ring he does not know what to do next. He knows enough not to try to take the Ring himself. He fears what it might do to him if it turns out to be the One. He knows that when the time comes everything will have to be risked upon one throw of the dice. But what this will mean in an actual plan of action he does not yet know. He needs time to think.

“Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he were carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.”

 

Bilbo Wants to go on a Holiday. But Frodo is Still in Love With The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p 32

One of the deepest longings in all of our lives is to belong. The Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, wrote, “Your longing is often wiser than your conventional sense of appropriateness, safety and truth.” We might say then that the conventional (and who is more conventional than a hobbit?) is a kind of training in the dulling of one’s sense of longing and replacing it with what is regarded as appropriate, safe and true. Most hobbits receive this training with their mother’s milk and their father’s carefully garnered store of well worn proverbs. But not so Bilbo Baggins and his nephew and heir, Frodo. Of them O’Donohue might have written, “Your longing desires to take you towards the absolute realisation of all the possibilities that reside in the clay of your heart; it knows your eternal potential, and it will not rest until it is awakened.”

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Bilbo and Frodo will both undertake a pilgrimage through the events recorded within The Lord of the Rings that will end with a final voyage from The Grey Havens to the Undying Lands of the True West. In the twenty or so years that comprise the story Frodo in particular will journey through lands of wonder but then into hell itself before returning to the Shire and discovering that for him, at least, it is no longer home. It is my belief that in the West he finally achieves peace and healing but not his final homecoming. As Aragorn will one day say to Arwen, “We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” In hope Aragorn glimpses the eternal of which O’Donohue speaks. I believe that both Bilbo and Frodo will come to see it and long for it too.

But not yet. Now at the point of the story when Bilbo is able to leave the Shire and the Ring behind him his imagination, rich though it is, has not yet opened to him his eternal home.

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf- mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell. I might find somewhere I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.”

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The Happy Ever After ending goes with us throughout our days. At this point in the story only Gandalf has some sense of what might have to be endured before it can be achieved and even he does not know the details of the story. But his hope that Bilbo might find his own Happy Ever After is heartfelt.

Bilbo’s longing will take him from the Shire but not so, at least as yet, will Frodo’s. Bilbo says of him:

“He would come with me, of course, if I asked him… But he does not really want to, yet. I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.”

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This is the landscape of the English Midlands in which Tolkien himself grew up. There are hills but none are especially challenging, even for young or elderly legs. And any walk through its countryside will be through a patchwork of woods, fields and little rivers.

In the first of the pieces that I posted in this blog on The Fellowship of the Ring I quoted Patrick Kavanagh on learning to know and love your parish, the land in which you dwell.

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.”

As one whose early years were at first a succession of temporary homes in different farms, then student rooms, then a voyage to Africa I find that I cannot read Kavanagh’s words without them evoking a deep longing within me. I don’t think that the conventional was ever really an option for me but home was always my deepest longing. To have arrived in a lovely home and to be happily married has long been a source of profound gratitude in me but I know that it is not my final Happy Ever After. I am trying to get to the woods, the rivers and the fields in the way that Kavanagh speaks of but just as with Bilbo and Frodo I know that even the heartbreaking beauty of the earthly paradise of the Undying Lands could not satisfy my longing for a true home. That lies elsewhere “beyond the circles of the world”.

Bilbo Baggins Lets Go of The Ring. With a Little Help From a Friend.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 30-35

The One Ring has had a long and unhappy history since its forging in the Second Age of the Sun. Its purpose in its conceiving was to increase the power of its maker, Sauron, the Dark Lord.

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

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Rule has ever been its purpose so that all the work that has ever been done in freedom by Elves, Dwarves or Mortal Men should itself become the work of one being and enslaved forever to his will and purpose.

The Ring is a fearful thing and yet it has never quite accomplished that for which its maker purposed it. Even when it was in Sauron’s possession it never quite gave him the power he desired. He had to submit to the greater power of Númenor and, at the end of the Age, in battle against the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, had it taken from him by force by Isildur, son of Elendil. And although he grows in power once again towards the end of the Third Age the Ring, now the focus of an all-consuming desire, remains hidden from him.

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The Ring has had its own history throughout this time, betraying first Isildur to his death and then the unhappy Déagol too until it falls into the hands of a hobbit lost in the endless tunnels under the Misty Mountains. And in this moment of its history a theft takes place undoubtedly but no murder and so its history begins to change. At no point does the Ring ever change in nature but it is clear that another power is at work as well as its own entirely malevolent one.

I think we can say that Bilbo meant to give the Ring up and to leave it to Frodo. It is just that at the moment when he has to make a choice he finds that he is unable to do so.

“Into the envelope he slipped his golden ring, and its fine chain, and then sealed it, and addressed it to Frodo. At first he put it on the mantelpiece, but suddenly he removed it and stuck it in his pocket.”

Poor Bilbo! The Ring is so much stronger than he is and if it had not been for Gandalf’s intervention it would have taken complete possession of him and dragged him down into a living perdition. Indeed already it has begun to do its work. Bilbo speaks of feeling “all thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”. He speaks of an “eye looking at me” of not being able to rest without it in his pocket.

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Eventually Gandalf has to hint at his own power in order to make Bilbo give it up. This is no act of a bully seeking to force someone weaker than himself to give up freedom for servitude but rather the opposite. Gandalf uses his greater power to free Bilbo from himself or should we say to free Bilbo from his false self from the self that can never be at rest while in possession of the Ring? Or perhaps that he can never be at rest while the Ring seeks to gain possession of him?

The true Bilbo leaps into full view almost as soon as he makes the decision to let go of the Ring.

“It was a fine night and the black sky was dotted with stars. He looked up sniffing the air. `What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves. This is what I have really been longing for for years.`”

A good spiritual guide might tell Bilbo that the thing that he had thought that he had desired the most was in fact nothing more than an adhesion “on the wings to love and adventure,” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it. But perhaps Gandalf is better than that for rather than telling Bilbo that this is what the One Ring has become to him he actually sets him free. Later in the story he will do the same for Théoden of Rohan.

But now let us watch with Gandalf as the 111 year old hobbit leaps over a low point in the hedge and heads off down the road to his own “love and adventure”.

Bilbo Baggins’s Little Joke

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-30

How might the Ring, the “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”, how might it have eventually taken possession of Bilbo had he kept it long enough?

I think that we get a clue that might help us answer this question in Bilbo’s “little joke”. The joke is first introduced to us in a conversation between Bilbo and Gandalf. Gandalf urges Bilbo to stick to his “whole plan”, in other words to give up the Ring of his own accord. Bilbo answers, “I mean to enjoy myself on Thursday, and have my little joke.”

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Gandalf plainly does not appreciate the joke and wonders who will laugh as he shakes his head. Bilbo’s reply gives us an insight into his character.

“We shall see,” he said.

In other words Bilbo does not much care who does or does not laugh as long as he enjoys himself. You see, Bilbo has a very high opinion of his own cleverness and a fairly low opinion of the cleverness of his fellow hobbits. One might argue that he has good reason for both opinions. Although his actual finding of the Ring was entirely fortuitous (except for the “meant to find it” that Gandalf will one day tell Frodo about!) his use of it thereafter until the end of his adventures as recounted in The Hobbit shows a high degree of intelligence, common sense and an ability to remain calm in a crisis. Even among his companions on the expedition to the Lonely Mountain the Ring chose the person best able to make use of it, excepting Gandalf, of course. And eventually Bilbo comes to realise this himself.

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I do not mean to be critical of him here. Self-awareness is praiseworthy and false modesty has little to recommend it. Bilbo’s growing self-confidence plays a vital role in the events of The Hobbit but there is little doubt that Bilbo becomes really quite pleased with himself.

Pleased, that is, until he realises that the Dwarves’ thirst for wealth is in danger of causing catastrophe among the Men of Esgaroth on the Long Lake, the Elves of the Woodland Realm and also the Dwarves themselves. At this point it is not so much Bilbo’s cleverness but his kindness that comes to the fore. At no point in the story does he wish to do harm to anyone, not even those who wish to hurt him, as can be seen in his sparing of Gollum.

But it is his cleverness and not his kindness that leads him to decide to use the Ring in order to make his disappearance from the Shire all the more dramatic. He wants to be talked about, to enjoy a certain notoriety and he wants to enjoy the effect that he makes. When Gandalf asks the question, who will enjoy your joke, the answer is, no-one, that is no-one except Bilbo himself and for Bilbo that is quite enough.

How would the Ring have insinuated itself into Bilbo’s heart? Surely by isolating him within his own self-satisfaction until there was room for no-one else. Once that had happened other people would either be fools or a threat. Even on the night of the party we see how Gandalf is a threat, one who might take the Ring from him, while he wants a holiday from everyone else. One wonders if he had taken the Ring with him whether he would ever have found a resting place. Later in Rivendell Bilbo will complain that he has been refused permission to go back to Hobbiton to get the Ring. “They seemed to think that the Enemy was looking high and low for me, and would make mincemeat of me, if he caught me tottering about in the Wild.” Bilbo may have been talking lightly but he was speaking a truth that went deeper than his words. He would have become a lonely figure “tottering about in the Wild” and eventually  he would have fallen into the hands of either the Enemy or of Gollum.

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But Bilbo is saved from that fate both because there is a goodness that goes very deep down inside him and thanks to the help of a very good friend. But more on that next week.

 

Bilbo’s Magnificent Party

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-28

Readers of works of literature from the mid 20th century might notice that food seems to play a particularly important role in many stories of the time. Later in The Lord of the Rings a clue to this is given by Beregond of the Guard of the Tower in conversation with Pippin. Pippin is anxious to find something to eat after his uncomfortable interrogation by the Lord Denethor. Beregond regretfully informs a rather disappointed Pippin that he has already broken his fast as well as any in the city but adds “They say that men who go warring afield look ever for the next hope of food and drink”.

The Lord of the Rings was written largely through a time of food rationing. Hobbits, in particular, are creatures of feast and fast and have a particular enthusiasm therefore for feasting. The description of the food and drink at Bilbo’s party is full of delight and pleasure.

Last week’s reflection led to a lively conversation in the Comments Section on Gandalf’s relationship with the Shire. The debate centred on whether Gandalf acted in the way he did in the Shire as a strategy to win the hearts of the hobbits or whether it was all unplanned and entirely providential. I think that eventually it was agreed that Gandalf did consciously seek to warm the hearts of those among whom he travelled. It was this quality that first drew Círdan of The Grey Havens to him. Círdan gave the Ring, Narya, to Gandalf, saying “Take this ring, Master… for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

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Gandalf walks the lonely roads of Middle-earth doing just this work so that when Sauron begins his great war to regain the One Ring and to achieve mastery he is opposed by all the free peoples despite his efforts to divide them. But I would add something more and that is that the hobbits touch and awaken something in Gandalf’s heart too. They teach him how to play. It would be hard to imagine Elrond of Rivendell or Dáin of Erebor or Denethor of Gondor playing in the way that Gandalf does. I could imagine Galadriel dancing among hobbit maidens but it would be a queenly dance.

Gandalf is not lordly when he is in the Shire. He is childlike in the way in which a grandfather is childlike. He has seen life and he has been marked by it. From the Lady Nienna he has learned pity. From hobbits he has learned pleasure. And he knows that deeper even than sorrow lies a joy that cannot cloy.

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“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarrappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

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I would encourage readers to read that passage aloud and to savour each word and sound. Each name of a firework is meant to be musical but it is not the music of Elrond’s halls but the music of a country party with lots of laughter and a little mischief too. Peter Jackson captures this well in his films by introducing the characters of Merry and Pippin here. Their soot covered faces as they emerge from the smoke of the exploded rocket, one of Gandalf’s hands tightly gripping each of their curly heads, conveys this well.

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A serious life can be a playful life too. Rowan Williams describes his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, saying that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. The same man who risked his life in the struggle against apartheid and who wept openly as he listened to the many stories of suffering during the time that he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also knows how to enjoy a good party.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings Gandalf announces to the four Travellers that he is going to visit Tom Bombadil for a good long talk. I suspect that a lot of that talk was full of laughter.

 

There Will Be Fireworks at the Party. Gandalf Returns to the Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 24,25

Hobbits may devote a lot of energy to keeping mystery out of their lives but if it comes in a package that can be controlled and is predictable then they might even welcome it. The key to this kind of mystery is that if it comes it will not be too disturbing and that it will go away again leaving everything unchanged.

So it is with Bilbo Baggins’s ‘long expected party’A party is a welcome distraction to the sameness of life and no-one will turn down the opportunity to receive presents. The hobbits will even put up with the arrival in Hobbiton of outlandish folk as long as they all go away again when all is done.

The most exciting visitor of all is Gandalf and when Tolkien first introduces him to the story it is through the eyes of hobbits.

“A cart came in through Bywater from the direction of the Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight. An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.”

This description places Gandalf within a tradition of magical old men that inhabit the stories of both hobbits and us too. The hobbits know him through his fireworks. Not through their experience of them but through stories of long ago, the stories of a legendary figure in Shire history, the Old Took, who lived longer than any other hobbit and at whose birthday celebrations a magnificent firework display once took place.

It was Gandalf the Wizard who brought fireworks to the Shire then and he has brought them back again after a gap of a hundred years.

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Darell Sweet The Arrival of Gandalf

Later in the story Sam Gamgee will say these words in honour of Gandalf’s fireworks.

“The finest rockets ever seen: they burst in stars of blue and green, or after thunder golden showers came falling like a rain of flowers.”

As we have already seen when we are first introduced to Sam he is able to take an experience like the enjoyment of fireworks and travel through it to a deeper mystery. Most of his fellow hobbits treat the fireworks like we might a fairground or theme park ride whose danger and mystery is acceptable because it is limited. You are frightened but you know that you will get home again alive.

The point about Gandalf is that in his true business there is a very good chance that you will not get home alive. He is one of the Istari, one of seven Maiar who were sent by the Valar, the divine governors of Arda, of the world, to oppose Sauron, the Dark Lord, who seeks mastery of Middle-earth. And if anyone makes the mistake of underestimating the old man in a pointy hat who makes marvellous fireworks then it is surely enough to remind them that Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar, both belong to the same order of being within Arda.

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Gandalf vs Balrog by Daniel Pillaart

The hobbits do underestimate him. If they really knew what he was they would be terrified and they would flee from him. But why does Gandalf present himself in this way? Saruman, who Gandalf calls the leader of his order, certainly does not understand this. He notes that Gandalf enjoys smoking the pipeweed of the Shire and seems to enjoy the company of hobbits and he thinks of both of these as laughable.

Saruman is only capable of thinking of others either as useful to his own ambitions or as useless. At this point in the story hobbits are useless to him. Gandalf is different. He takes pleasure in hobbits for their own sake. He loves the delight and wonder that his fireworks produce, loves the moments when grown hobbits allow child-likeness into their hearts again. And he delights in hobbits’ simple pleasure in good food, good beer, good smoking and good company so when he arrives in the Shire for a time he is able to lay down his many burdens. He is just the funny old man who does marvellous tricks and magnificent firework displays. And that is enough.

Gandalf comes to the Shire in search of simple pleasure and so when in this simple place he is given the way to overthrow the Dark Lord it is a complete surprise but perhaps it is only those who know how to take joy in people and things for their own sake who are capable of receiving gifts that can change the world.

Dear friends, I intend to add the audio file for this week as soon as possible but my technical assistant, my daughter, Bethan Winter, is down in London at the moment and I need her advice! I am sure that after a week or two of practice this will all be second nature to me!

Gaffer Gamgee is Afraid of the Suddenness of the World but Sam is Learning to Love it.

Welcome to what is effectively a relaunch of my blog, Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings. I first began to write this in the autumn of 2012 and began to publish it on WordPress in October 2013. If this is your first visit then a very warm welcome. If you have been here before or you are a regular reader, welcome back!

The intention of the blog is to offer a weekly reflection on Tolkien’s great work in search of its wisdom. Tolkien was a central member of a group of writers and scholars, known as The Inklings, that used to meet in order to read and discuss their work with each other in Oxford in the mid 20th century. If you would like to know about them then I would warmly recommend a series of talks that you can find on YouTube given by Malcolm Guite. If you type in Malcolm Guite and Inklings when you visit YouTube you will find them easily. I just tried it and it works! The Inklings were regarded as highly unfashionable in their day by the literary establishment but I believe that they will prove to be one of the most important intellectual and literary influences, not just of their own time but of ours too. Tom Shippey’s fine book, J.R.R Tolkien, Writer of the Century, is a good read on this.

Just a note on this week’s blog and a personal connection. I refer to Louis MacNiece’s wonderful poem, Snow, in the post. When I first began to get to know my wife, Laura, back in the early 1990s, I noticed a framed copy of the poem in the hallway of her parents’ home in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England. The reason for this, so I learned, was because MacNiece had written this poem while a guest in the house some years before. It was in the time of a previous owner of the house but the summer house in which he wrote it remained very largely as it was at the time. We knew it mainly because at one time 21 of us used to sit down in it to eat on Christmas Day each year. A big fire used to roar in the fireplace. It was necessary on cold winter days. My mother in law, Bridget Pugh, used to teach English Literature at Birmingham University, and even in her later years also regularly taught a semester in Duluth, Minnesota. I am glad to say that she would teach a class on Tolkien.

Regular readers of the blog will notice two new things. One is that I include a page reference to my Harper Collins edition of The Lord of the Rings. That is to make it easier for readers who are reading the book to see what part of the story I am referring to. The other new thing is that I include an audio file of my reading of the post. This is at the encouragement of my wife who thinks people will like it. I would also like to thank my daughter, Bethan, who has helped me with the technical side of things. Please do let me know what you think of this in the comments section.

So,  introduction at an end, I invite you to read or listen or both and most importantly to enjoy another reading of The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Readers,

Barliman_Butterbur

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 21-24

To know and to love a plot of land is no shame and does not diminish or shrink the soul in or of itself. It was the great Irish poet of the mid-twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh, who wrote of such knowledge and such love:

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields- these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

The Gaffer, Master Hamfast Gamgee, of Number 3 Bagshot Row below Bag End in Hobbiton, the Shire, knows the gardens that he tends for Mr Bilbo Baggins. He knows every furrow and every corner, the right times to plant and the right times to harvest, but perhaps we might say that he has never fully experienced the gardens that he has spent a lifetime looking after.

To fully experience something is to look, not at, but through it. It is to have the vision that George Herbert speaks of when he writes:

“A man who looks on glass, on it may stay his eye; or if he pleaseth through it pass, and then the heaven espy.”

Or William Blake who speaks of seeing “A World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.

This is the poetic experience that Kavanagh speaks of and that the Gaffer has never known or valued and which he fears in watching his son, Sam, grow up. He knows that the world is “suddener than we fancy it” as Louis MacNiece speaks of in his poem, Snow. He speaks of “mountains of gold” in foreign parts, the places to which Bilbo mythologically travelled long ago, but he seeks to protect himself from such experience by reserving it for the gentry, the business of his betters, as he puts it. This allows him to remain within the safety of cabbages and potatoes and to keep his distance from Elves and Dragons.

Poor Master Hamfast! What glory he will never see, even the glory right underneath his very nose. The very cabbages and potatoes that he regards as symbols of safety and security would, in the hands of an elven cook, become a heavenly banquet.

For the Gaffer’s son, Samwise, everything is laden with possibility although at this point in his life the possibility lies elsewhere. One day he will be gardener to the Shire and bring this possibility within the very boundaries that his father thinks to be safe and known. Sam is learning his poetic experience through the “stories of the old days” as the Gaffer puts it and he has learned to read and write. Already he begins to know that the mythic, the world of Elves and Dragons, lies within his grasp, but not here, not in Hobbiton or the Shire. He still believes that he must go elsewhere to experience it. The Gaffer believes this too. Perhaps because he too believes that the mythical cannot lie within his own garden he is afraid. He is afraid of foreign parts and he is afraid of losing Sam to such an experience.

I grew up in the English countryside on farms that my father ran for wealthy people. It was a world of cabbages and potatoes, or pigs and fields of wheat in our case, but beauty and joy kept breaking into my life. A walk with my father through a wood filled with bluebells and sensing the strangeness of the church to which we had gone together. Walking across a room and suddenly standing transfixed in joy as a piece of orchestral string music began to play on our television set. And listening to the wonderful Miss Maher reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to us in my village school as the dusk of an autumn afternoon began to descend and I walked with Lucy Pevensie for the first time through the wardrobe into Narnia. Like Sam my ability to see, to listen, to go beyond the surface of things to the heaven that lies beyond was being formed.

“I hope no harm will come of it,” says the Gaffer. But harm does come. Sam will be be taken into a world that is far too big for him, to dangers that no other hobbit has ever faced, but he will see wonders that no other hobbit has ever seen.

The two go together.

 

Frodo Carries Sam to Mordor

Once again I am reblogging a post that I wrote in an earlier stage in this project. In this case I wrote the post in March 2015. At the time I had recently written a post entitled, Sam Carries Frodo to Mordor, which has been among the most frequently read ever since I wrote it. This one has not been read so frequently. My hope is that this reblog will encourage a few more readers.
The post is about Sam as much as it is about Frodo. How can you separate one from the other? It is about the effect of awakening the imagination first in Sam’s life and then in ours. I do hope that you enjoy it and if you would like to comment then I would be delighted to respond.

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

All who know the story of The Lord of the Rings know that without Sam Gamgee Frodo Baggins could never have reached Mordor so that, in other words, Sam carried Frodo to Mordor. But this week we are going to think about the way that Frodo carried Sam to Mordor and we will show how Sam could never have made the journey he did without Frodo or become the person that he did without him. It was Sam’s relationship with Frodo that enabled him to grow into someone who could inhabit this story that is far too big for him even though he is never really aware that this is what is happening to him.

In the very first scene of The Lord of the Rings we meet Sam’s father, Gaffer Gamgee, sitting in The Ivy Bush on the Bywater Road talking over the news with the assembled gathering there as the Shire prepares for Bilbo Baggins’s…

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