“What Do You Think of Elves Now, Sam?” Frodo and Sam Think About The Magic of Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 351-352

What healing can be done after the fall of Gandalf is now complete. Frodo and Sam feel a growing restlessness, knowing that the task of taking the Ring to Mordor still awaits and, according to the wisdom of Sam’s gaffer “it’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish”. Wisdom does not need to come from the mouths of the great in order to ring true and, with sadness, Frodo agrees with Sam.

But despite their growing restlessness, they still have time to think about what they have seen and learnt and Frodo has a question for Sam.

“What do you think of Elves now, Sam?”

What do you think of Elves now, Sam? Frodo and Haldir at Cerin Amroth by FÄeriel

Frodo asked the same question of Sam after the second night of their journey while still within the Shire when they had been given hospitality in the woods on the hills above Woodhall and Sam had answered that Elves were “a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak”. At that point in the journey Sam was still the loyal retainer, the one who had been given the job of “looking after Mr Frodo”. Now someone might use language like, to have an opinion about Elves is something that is above my pay grade. The language may appear more sophisticated but it still comes from an older world of masters and servants.

Alan Lee imagines the stay with Gildor Inglorien above Woodhall

But much has happened since that time, described by Frodo as seeming “a very long while ago”, and slowly Frodo and Sam are becoming friends. I have written before about how, even after all they had experienced together, Frodo would have to depart the scene in order for Sam to become Mayor of the Shire and a councillor to the King in his northern kingdom of Arnor, but here in Lothlórien we see Sam slowly becoming this person.

“I reckon there’s Elves and Elves. They’re all elvish enough, but they’re not all the same. Now these folk aren’t wanderers or homeless, and seem a bit nearer to the likes of us:they seem to belong here, more than even hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they’ve made the land, or the land’s made them, it’s hard to say, if you take my meaning.”

Sam cannot know that in just a few years these people who “seem to belong” in Lothlórien, more even than hobbits do in the Shire, will have deserted it to go into the West. If he were to have known that it would have given him the sense of the impermanence of all things; that permanence is always illusory, as anyone who has ever emptied the house of a much loved elder after their death in order to prepare it for sale will know. But Sam does have a deep insight into the relationship between people and the land. As Tom Bombadil, who also knows something of the relationship between people and land, says of Farmer Maggot, “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.”

Bombadil could have described Sam in much the same way and one can only hope that they got to know each other better in later years, but he could have used similar language to describe the Elves of Lothlórien. A deep harmony has been created between them and their land. As the great Irish farmer poet, Patrick Kavanagh, put it, “to know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience”. Sam, Tom Bombadil, Farmer Maggot, and Haldir too, would all have understood Kavanagh in a way in which the homeless wanderers, among whom I would count myself, can never do.

Sam recognises, rightly, that there is magic in this relationship. He can feel it working all around him and he wants to see the Elves perform it. What he does not know, at least not yet, is that the same magic is at work in the Shire also. For Hobbits the magic is almost entirely implicit and deeply hidden within the ordinary. For them, magic belongs to entertainment such as their enjoyment of Gandalf’s fireworks, and they regard anything beyond that as uncanny and to be feared. For the Elves the very same magic is explicit, intentional and also completely ordinary. If Sam but knew, he is much closer to the Elves than he has ever imagined.

The Magic of the Shire. Farmer and Mrs Maggot as imagined by Henning Jansen.

Sam Gamgee has Something to Do Before the End. Frodo and Sam decide to leave the Shire as soon as possible.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 84-86

Frodo awakens in a strangely scented bed of fern and grass in a bower created within a living tree. The Elves have gone and so Frodo emerges from a night spent in the Elder Days to hear Pippin’s usual chatter. It is a beautiful morning in the Shire but Gildor Inglorien’s words have gone home to his heart.

“I think that you should now go at once, without delay; and if Gandalf does not come before you set out, then I also advise this: do not go alone.”

Frodo and the High Elves in Woodhall by Alan Lee

Frodo now understands that the Shire is no longer safe and that he must leave it. He had perhaps hoped that he might rest in Crickhollow in Buckland for a while but he knows now that this is not possible. But what of Gildor’s second piece of advice? Who, if anyone, should he take him with him?

“You still mean to come with me?” he asks Sam. And Sam’s reply is sure and firm.

“Don’t you leave him! they said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him they’ll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with.”

So far, so much the kind of bluster that a young man might summon up to make himself a little braver and Frodo is inclined merely to acknowledge it. But then Sam says something that makes Frodo really take notice.

Frodo has asked Sam whether he still likes Elves now that he has had a closer view of them. It is the kind of question that a teacher might ask of a a pupil of which they are fond but it is not asked with much expectation of great wisdom. Then Sam replies:

“They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak…It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I had expected- so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

We never learn what Sam had expected to see when he first met Elves and so we need to use our imaginations. Perhaps the picture that Sam had carried in his heart was one formed by his childhood experience of listening to Bilbo’s stories. He felt special in that he had been chosen to hear them and not any other young hobbit. He had been able to walk into a home in which there dwelt a figure of legend, a hobbit, fabulously wealthy, or so it was believed, who had journeyed to the Land of Fairie away from the cabbages and potatoes that seemed to form the limits of his father’s experience and imagination. And as he began to enter his adulthood he still carried this child’s experience within his heart, perhaps holding it even more dearly because he had had to defend it against the likes of Ted Sandyman.

But now he has seen Elves and even more, he has seen the Eldar, High Elves who have dwelt in Valinor, the Undying Lands, and who have communed with the Valar, the angelic beings who govern the earth for Ilúvatar, the One. Sam now knows that the Elves do not need to be defended by him. He realises that his opinion and the opinion of people like Ted Sandyman is of utter irrelevance to the beings that he has just met.

But this does not diminish him in any way. Indeed, if anything, it makes his soul grow larger. A large soul has not been merely inflated. A large soul is not focused upon itself but upon something greater than itself and so Sam replies to Frodo’s question as to whether he still needs to leave the Shire now that he has seen Elves.

“Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to 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.”

Sam has made great steps towards a greatness that few ever begin to attain to.