The Shire is Stranger than Frodo Thinks. The Hobbits Encounter with the Nazgûl and with Elves.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 73-80

There is a phrase that shows just how disorientating it is when something happens in your backyard that is entirely unexpected. Frodo has just encountered one of the Nazgûl for the very first time. He has no idea that what he can see, just a few yards away, is one of the most terrifying things that he could ever meet unless he stood before the Dark Lord himself. He begins to have an overwhelming desire to put on the Ring, convinced that he would be safe if he did so. “And I am still in the Shire,” he thinks.

I am still in the Shire

Still in the Shire. Still in a place in which every blade of grass, every tree and rise and fall of the road speaks of familiarity and of predictability. The unexpected has no place in the Shire. Of all places in Middle-earth this is the one where the outlandish is where it should be; in the lands outside and beyond the borders. You would have thought that Frodo Baggins, of all hobbits, would have known that this was not true. The stories and actions of Bilbo, his friendship with Gandalf, and his own dealings with the world outside should have taught him that the world is not safe and predictable. As the poet, Louis Macneice put it (in a poem entitled, Snow, written in my parents in law’s house in Birmingham, England), “world is suddener than we fancy it”.

But that, of course, is the problem, even for Frodo. We fancy the world to be in a sense, on time. Not too late or we will make a complaint to the management. Nor too soon neither. Every event that departs from this ‘law’ we regard as abnormal. Except the abnormal keeps on happening. But this event is so abnormal that perhaps we could forgive Frodo. I think that the Powers do forgive him. He is not yet ready for this encounter and so Something prevents him from putting on the Ring, his life is saved, the Ring is not returned to its Maker and the world is not yet subjected to darkness.

World is suddener than we fancy it

And Something brings him into contact with another power at work in the world, a power that even the Nazgûl are not quite ready to match themselves against. Not just yet, anyway. When the hobbits encounter the Nazgûl for the second time Frodo wants to put on the Ring once more but “this time it was stronger than before. So strong that before he realised what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket”. The Ring has only one desire and that is to return to its Master and Frodo is no match for it.

But “world is suddener… world is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural” and in its glorious plurality a large company of High Elves just happens to be on the same stretch of road in the Shire as the hobbits, the Nazgûl and the Ring, at precisely that moment and, once more, Frodo and the world is saved.

Is this a writer’s tendency to allow a coincidence to occur in order to solve a problem with the plot? Or is it how this writer understands the world? I think that the latter is the case. Tolkien’s enchanted world, suddener, crazier, more of than we think, incorrigibly plural, is one in which powers are at work of which we are not usually aware. We might use the word, Providence, to describe these powers. You will remember how when Gandalf said that Bilbo was meant to have the Ring he spoke of “something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker”. Tolkien was always reticent when it came to his Christian faith and his imaginative work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. He chose to know no more than the main characters in his story, who were the hobbits, except by implication. They must learn about the powers at work in the world just as we do. But the world is suddener, and in it there are High Elves, the eldest of the children of Ilúvatar, who see its suddenness, its craziness and plurality with perfect clarity. And they take the hobbits under their protection.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

“Where Shall I Find Rest?” Frodo Longs For Home. His True Home.

The hobbits are eager for home and set out for the Shire with Gandalf. It is the sixth of October when they reach the Ford of Bruinen, a place redolent with memory for Frodo as he almost fell into the grasp of the Nazgûl there. The date too is filled with ominous significance. It was on this date a year before that the Nazgûl attacked the camp below Weathertop and Frodo received a wound that almost made him a wraith like them but under their power.

The combination of the two is almost too much for Frodo and he says to Gandalf: “I am wounded with knife, sting and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Right from the very beginning of the quest it has been clear that Frodo and his companions have taken on a task that is too big for them. For the briefest of moments Frodo is excited by the thought of the adventure that lies ahead but soon that excitement is replaced by the unhappy realisation that he must leave the Shire, leave his friends, leave home. And soon it is clear that there are powers in the world that are far greater than he is. Old Man Willow in the Old Forest; the Wight in the Barrow Downs; and most deadly of all, the Nazgûl haunting their every step along the way. Aragorn doubts the hobbits’ capacity for the task. Butterbur fears they behave like gentlemen engaged in nothing more dangerous than a walking holiday.

But that is exactly the point. That is the mysterious wisdom of The Lord of the Rings. This is a task that can only be achieved by those for whom it is too great. Those who might have the capacity to undertake the task, who might be strong enough to carry the Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it are those who are in the greatest danger. Gandalf and Galadriel are both offered the Ring and both reject it despite being profoundly tempted to take it. They have come to realise that it is stronger than they are and that in taking it they would begin the road to becoming the Dark Lord or Lady. Boromir does not understand this believing that his noble spirit is sufficient defence against the Ring and he is almost overthrown entirely.

The task and the Ring itself is most certainly too great for Frodo and he knows that it is. Even he begins to ponder what it might mean to seek to possess and to use the Ring as he shows in his questioning of Galadriel at her mirror. Eventually it will overcome him and only through the strange mercy of Gollum’s attack will he and all Middle-earth be saved.

Frodo is saved but he is broken too. The knife that the Witch King of Angmar drove into his shoulder at Weathertop, the sting of Shelob in her lair, Gollum’s tooth biting the Ring from his finger at the Cracks of Doom and worst of all, the slow, inexorable overpowering that the Ring achieves over him, all these have done their terrible work.

“Where shall I find rest?”

Frodo knows that the return to the Shire will be no true home-coming for him. It may be the same but he will not be. This is a powerful insight and one that Tolkien must have gained on his return from the trenches of the First World War as did so many of his generation. It was not just the journey from the familiarity of home to the horror of the battlefield that lead to a profound sense of displacement but the journey back again to what should have been familiar but was no longer. Frodo puts it this way. “It shall not be the same; for I shall not be the same”.

Frodo knows that if there is to be a place of rest for him then it will be somewhere else than the Shire but he does not know where such a place can be. We might know that this sense of displacement, of homelessness, of exile is that which will lead us in search of our true home but when we are gripped by this it is nothing less than terrible.