“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.”

 

“I am Wounded; it will Never Really Heal”. Frodo Begins to Fade Away From the Shire.

After Sam and Rosie Cotton are married they move into together with Frodo in Bag End. It is a good arrangement for all. Sam and Rosie have a fine home in which to raise a family together. Frodo has kind and loving friends to watch over him. Sam is close enough to the Gaffer to keep an eye on him. But not too close.

It is the beginning of a golden age in the history of the Shire. Restoration work is underway everywhere and everything returns to how it was but perhaps it is even more beautiful than it was before the troubles. Tolkien gives us a vision, perhaps, of how England might have been restored after the destruction of the Second World War. One thinks of the beautiful medieval city of Coventry that was badly bombed during the war and its ancient cathedral almost completely destroyed. It is a grim joke told by the people of that city that the Luftwaffe only began the destruction of the city. It was completed by the city authorities. It is as if Lotho Pimple and Ted Sandyman had seized control of the country after the war for long enough until they had changed it for ever.

Not so the Shire. The Shire is seized, not by brutalist architects, but by a spirit of merriment. And the spirit is manifested above all in Merry and Pippin. “The two young Travellers cut a great dash in the Shire with their songs and their tales and their finery, and their wonderful parties. ‘Lordly’ folk called them, meaning nothing but good; for it warmed all hearts to see them go riding by with their mail-shirts so bright and their shields so splendid, laughing and singing songs of far away.”

Merry and Pippin bring something new to the Shire in a way that even hobbits, that most conservative of peoples, could receive. They give the Shire back to itself but more itself than ever it was before. And there is one other who does this work also and that is Sam the Gardener who will eventually take the name of Gardener for his family.

Sadly there is one who cannot share this joy, delight and glory and that is Frodo. It is not that Frodo becomes angry or embittered, withdrawing into a windowless inner darkness. It is just that Frodo has been hurt and cannot wholly be healed in Middle-earth.

Sam is away in March in the Year of Plenty on his duties as forester to the Shire. All his attention and his energy is given to looking forward. So he misses March 13th, the day one year before when Frodo lay helpless, poisoned by Shelob, a prisoner of the orcs in Cirith Ungol, and the Ring was gone. On that day Frodo had not known that Sam had taken the Ring in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the orcs but what Frodo relives a year later is not a sense of misery at the failure of the mission but an utter emptiness because the Ring has gone. It is the same emptiness that Gollum felt when Bilbo took the Ring and which was to fuel his obsessive search thereafter. The Ring has a hold over Frodo from which he can never wholly escape.

This is an experience that the Shire cannot share. The story of the Ring and its utterly malevolent maker is something that it has never shared. Even when the Ring was in the Shire it remained hidden and it was only revealed for the briefest of moments in the uncanny goings on at Bilbo’s farewell party. And when the War of the Ring came to the Shire it was through Saruman and his brigand ban, already defeated though able to do some small mischief before being caught. The Shire never shared Frodo’s heroic sacrifice of himself and so it cannot understand it. As Frodo himself says: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”

Frodo is the wounded healer, the prophet without honour in his own country. Merry, Pippin and Sam are all closer to the Shire and are able to bring the great story of deliverence to their people in such a way that they can receive it and learn to be grateful for it. For Frodo healing must come somewhere else.

 

Sam Gamgee: Warrior and Gardener

Sam Gamgee never intended to be a warrior. To be the best gardener that he could be, working in the garden of Frodo Baggins at Bag End, was an ambition sufficient for him. And he did not resent his lot because he loved Frodo. If he cherished a secret desire then it was to see the world that he had begun to learn about through the stories of Bilbo; but his secret desire had never turned into a root of bitterness within him.

So it is that when he first encounters a battle “of Men against Men” Tolkien tells us that “he did not like it much”. Faramir, Captain of Gondor, has left him with Frodo in the keeping of Mablung and Damrod, two Rangers of Ithilien, for a battle has to be fought. A force from the south is marching toward the Black Gate in order to join the forces of Mordor and Faramir is determined to stop them from getting there. He leads a guerrilla force whose aim is to make Ithilien as unsafe as possible for the enemies of Gondor. Soon Faramir’s men have the southerners on the run and Sam’s first encounter with one of his enemies is with a young warrior who falls dead at his feet.

It was the victorious Duke of Wellington, writing after his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, who said: ” “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Sam’s immediate response is to agree. As he gazes at the dead young warrior at his feet his heart goes out towards him. He “was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace- all in a flash of thought.” Tolkien is probably remembering his own experience of war here. As an infantryman on the Western Front during The Great War of 1914-18 he was present on the terrible first day of The Battle of the Somme in 1916 in which some 30,000 British troops died in a fruitless assault upon the German lines. The response that he expresses through Sam’s thoughts is typical of a volunteer soldier. The natural empathy between one human being and another has to be trained out of the soldier in order that killing should become “natural”.

By the end of The Lord of the Rings Sam will be a battle hardened warrior but he will never be a killer. The journey that he makes from the garden in Bag End and back again is not one that he he makes because he loves battle and adventure. He makes it because he loves Frodo and because Gandalf told him to do the job. Even his desire to see the wonders of the world is quickly satisfied though he never becomes cynical about them. He delights in seeing the Oliphaunt of Harad but it is not as important to him as finishing the job he has been given to do. At the end of the story he will be a gardener again, taking up his old task with the old love but with a new wisdom.

And as we get to know Faramir, the mighty Captain of Gondor, a little better, we shall learn that he shares much more in common with Sam Gamgee than we might ever have expected when we first met him.