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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have something to do before the end”.

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

“Do We Walk in Legends or On The Green Earth in Daylight?” The Riders of Rohan Encounter Dreams of Legend Springing Out of the Grass.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991/2007) pp.558-565

As Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli continue their weary and hopeless march across the plains of Rohan in pursuit of the orc host that have taken Merry and Pippin captive they become aware that a band of horsemen is moving swiftly towards them back down the very trail that they are following. The horsemen are Rohirrim, riders of Rohan. Aragorn describes them to his companions.

“They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned; writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.”

The Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields

The companions decide to wait for the riders to come to them and Aragorn greets them as they ride by. Wrapped about in their cloaks of Lothlórien it seems to the riders that they have sprung from the grass itself and what follows is a tense encounter that almost ends in disaster. For Tolkien in this scene brings us into the heroic world of the North in which honour has more meaning than even life itself and most certainly of a life, or existence, in which honour has been lost. So Gimli is ready, almost eager, to die for the sake of the honour of Galadriel, the lady of Lothlórien, when he feels that it has been slighted by Éomer, who leads the company of riders.

The Rohirrim surround the three companions

Aragorn is able to avert the disaster but then, in the manner in which he announces himself, brings us all back into the very stuff of legend.

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Anke Eissmann imagines the first meeting between Aragorn and Eomer

So Tolkien deliberately mingles the stuff of legend with the stuff of ordinary life and invites his readers to make the same kind of choice that Aragorn demands of the Rohirrim. For Tolkien not only makes the Rohirrim the people who would have heard tales like that of Beowulf which would have been told in the halls of their lords in the early middle ages, but he also makes them a very modern people for whom a story like Beowulf that might be one that stirred them when they were young but which would have been consigned to the pleasant, but private, world of fantasy when they grew up. For real life with its duties can, for the modern person, only be lived with stuff that can be touched, smelt, heard, seen or tasted. The life of the imagination might give a moment of pleasure amidst the grim reality of ordinary life but it can never be regarded as real.

This division between that which is heroic and that which is ordinary is one that Aragorn suggests is false. When the rider who stands beside Eomer scoffs at Aragorn’s mention of halflings Aragorn’s response is not to the rider but to his Lord. The Rider dismisses the mention of halflings as “old songs and children’s tales out of the North”. And then he asks, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

I say that Aragorn addresses Eomer because, as far as the Rider is concerned, Aragorn is simply speaking nonsense that does not deserve attention. He, and his fellows, are the spiritual kin of Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the sensible though devoted servant of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote tilts at windmills Sancho Panza does all that he can to keep his master out of trouble. Modern readers side with the servant yet wish, secretly, that they could live in the lost enchanted world of the master. Aragorn argues that it is possible to do both as he presents himself as a representative of the world of legend amidst the world of the sensible.

As far as the Riders are concerned the strange creatures who have sprung from the grass are merely “wild men”, but Eomer heard the rhyme that Boromir spoke when he came to Edoras, the rhyme that spoke of halflings as well as the blade that was broken. Eomer knows that he needs to pay closer attention to Aragorn’s words even if he does not understand them. Perhaps there is more to what Aragorn is saying than mere tilting at windmills.

“You Have Conquered. Few Have Gained Such a Victory. Be at Peace!” Is Aragorn Just Being Kind to Boromir as He Dies?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.537-540

In Tolkien’s telling of the tale the whole of Boromir’s last fight takes place off stage and we are taken with Aragorn upon his pointless climb after Frodo up Amon Hen and then his equally pointless descent of the hill when he hears the horn of Boromir and realises that both Boromir and, probably, the hobbits are in need. At last he draws his bright sword, and crying out, Elendil! Elendil! he crashes through the trees.

But it is all too late. Aragorn finds Boromir “sitting with his back to a great tree” as if he was resting. His body is pierced by many orc arrows, his sword is broken near the hilt and his horn is cloven in two by his side.

Inger Edelfelt’s poignant depiction of the death of Boromir.

Boromir’s final words are both a report on how the hobbits have been taken by orcs and an admission of guilt.

“I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.”

Anke Eissmann depicts the terrible moment in which Boromir comes to try to take the Ring.

Aragorn’s response is one of great, and gentle, kindness.

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!”

And Boromir smiles; and then he dies.

Is Aragorn simply being kind to a dying man? One might begin to try to answer this question by saying that such kindness is never a simple matter. When we are with someone as they reach the moment in which they will cross the river, never to return, it is a deeply solemn affair. We are aware that a fellow human being is entering into a mystery about which we know almost nothing. If we are people of faith then we will have received from our traditions some sense of what awaits them and rightly we will seek to comfort the one who is dying with the confidence of that tradition but we all know that faith does not mean seeing. We may even receive some comfort from the dying. A good friend of my wife told me that when her mother was dying she began to speak with joy to the people who were waiting to greet her and our friend was, indeed, greatly comforted by this. But for all the comforts death remains a mystery.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end.”

But Aragorn’s words to Boromir are more than a matter of comfort, important though that is. They are a matter of truth. Boromir did conquer. Although he did try to take the Ring from Frodo, almost immediately after Frodo’s escape he became aware of what he had done and returned with bitter regret to the place where the rest of the Company were. He met Aragorn’s distress and anger without any attempt at self justification and upon Aragorn’s command to go after Merry and Pippin and to watch over them he did so without question and then gave his life in their defence when they were attacked and taken by the Uruk Hai of Isengard. One might think that for the heir of the Steward of Gondor, one of the mightiest lords of Middle-earth, to give his life for hobbits, perhaps the least significant of its peoples, was a wasted gift, but doubtless Boromir remembered his words to Frodo, of his curse upon all halflings, and wished with all his heart to undo them, to pay a price for what he had sought to do.

Boromir’s deed in laying down his life for the hobbits was a victory over his desire, at all costs, to achieve greatness, to be the hero of Middle-earth and the Third Age. In itself this was a conquest. But it also achieved much in the task of the Fellowship. In taking Merry and Pippin the orcs believed that they had accomplished their mission to seize the halflings and so Frodo and Sam were able to make good their escape and to continue their journey to Mordor. Surely the fact that a great warrior was defending the hobbits convinced Uglûk and the Isengarders that they had done what they had been ordered to do. There was no need to hunt and kill anyone else. They could return to base. The lives of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were probably saved by this mistake. And surely there is something in Aragorn’s declaration that Minas Tirith would not fall that is linked to Boromir’s conquest. Just as the pity of Bilbo, when he did not begin his keeping of the Ring with the murder of Gollum, was to rule the fate of Middle-earth, might we not say that Boromir’s conquest over the corrupting power of the Ring in his own heart, expressed in his sacrifice for the hobbits and his truth telling to Aragorn, also rules the fate of his people?

I love this depiction of Boromir’s last moments. The picture is entitled ‘The Horn of Boromir’ by Matthew Stewart. Note the contrast between the fear on the faces of Merry and Pippin, the violence of the orcs, and the achievement of an inner peace shown upon the face of Boromir. He has conquered indeed.

Many thanks to Overly Devoted Archivist for letting me know about the source of the artwork. To find Matthew Stewart’s work please go to the comment below and click on the link there.

Frodo Finishes The Red Book and Gives It to Sam

Sam does not know it yet but the finishing of the Red Book is the ending of Frodo’s work in Middle-earth and almost the end of his story within it too. At last the day comes when he passes it onto Sam.

“Why, you have nearly finished it, Mr. Frodo!” Sam exclaimed. “Well, you have kept at it, I must say.”

“I have quite finished, Sam,” said Frodo. “The last pages are for you.”

And that is the way of it with stories. They are all bigger and certainly longer than our part within them. We enter them, play our part within them, and eventually leave them. Frodo displays his wisdom once again in leaving the empty pages. He knows that the story does not end with his departure from it. The self-obsessed Saruman could never have contemplated such a thing. His attempt to destroy the Shire was a  final and embittered expression of a belief that everything began and ended with him.

Frodo knows that wisdom is, at least in part, a knowing that we are smaller than the big story but his book, in itself a continuation of something that Bilbo began, displays another wisdom too. He displays it in the title that he chooses:

THE DOWNFALL OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS AND THE RETURN OF THE KING (as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.)

Frodo has seen the great events of his time in a way that no-one else can. It is the perspective of “the Little People”. When hobbits come to read his story they are meant to understand that in the eyes of the world they are small but they are meant to understand their greatness too. For whereas the other peoples of the story had a long-forged sense of destiny and a mythology that both preserved and celebrated that sense, the hobbits, the Little People, never have such a sense of themselves as in any way, great. They have no mythology, only family history. It is Gandalf, through his long friendship with them, who chooses Bilbo to accompany Thorin Oakenshield and his companions on the quest to the Lonely Mountain. And it is Gandalf’s hunch, that seems an absurdity to all but him but one that even he does not fully understand, that changes everything in the history of Middle-earth. It also convinces me, if I needed to be convinced, that great literature is a matter, not of invention, but of discovery. When Tolkien began to write The Hobbit his intention was to write a children’s story. He did, and wrote it successfully, but, as he put it himself when the matter that began as The Hobbit became The Lord of the Rings, “the tale grew in the telling”. The children’s story grew until it reshaped the mythology that Tolkien had been creating throughout most of his adult life.

How sad it is that certain adults, even literary ones, do not understand why it is necessary that the perspective of the child should re-form, even trans-form, that of the adult. When Bilbo first finds the Ring, by sheer “luck”, it is entirely necessary that he should regard it as a plaything. Not the burning gold upon the severed finger of the Dark Lord or the beautiful gold of the Birthday Present but a band of metal picked up by accident in utter darkness. Bilbo has nothing to see and admire but only an object picked up and squirrelled away until the moment when Bilbo absent mindedly wonders what he has in his pocket.

A certain author recently remarked angrily that he despised adults that he saw reading and enjoying Harry Potter. Poor man. Unless he learns to see and to have faith as a little child he will only be capable only of the endless and hopeless repeating cycle of existence that Sauron and all who are like him believe to be the only reality that there is. It is the moment that the children’s story, the “unexpected journey”, breaks into the adult tale of the doleful history of Middle-earth that Sauron’s Ring dominates and corrupts that something that truly new can happen. This is the story “as seen by the Little People” that Frodo writes and which he passes onto Sam.