“There Was No Laughter, and No Song or Music”. The Fellowship of the Ring Leaves Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 269-274

In the appendices that conclude the final part of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien outlines the key events in his great tale in strict chronological order, a valuable tool for those who want to know what each member of the Company was doing on each day, especially after the breaking of the Fellowship that takes place at the end of the first volume. And there, on page 1066 in my Harper Collins edition, in a brief sentence of heartbreaking terseness, we read these words:

December 25 The Company of the Ring leaves Rivendell at dusk.

Leaving Rivendell at dusk

The preceding pages have been autumnal in mood as preparation is made for last farewells. Gradually the days have shortened and leaves have fallen and it is Bilbo’s poem on old age that sets the tone best. But it is not in autumn that the Fellowship finally departs into the wild but at the very dead of winter. On December 25th in fact. And, as in all Tolkien’s writing, this is no mere accident, even as the dating of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is no mere accident. I will leave it to scholars to write about this but everyone in northern climes, who has participated in the feast that we call Christmas, arriving at church in the hour before midnight to welcome the birth of the Saviour, will know that it falls upon the day on which the sun first begins its long journey northward and the day is just a few seconds longer than it is at the winter solstice.

Not that it feels any longer. If we are brave enough to avoid the temptation to surround ourselves with artificialilty, with warmth and bright light then, like Aragorn at the beginning of the great journey, we might sit with our head bowed to our knees. But Aragorn knows that the great crisis of his life is about to begin, the days that all his adventures have been preparing him for. Only he, and Elrond too, know that it is only as King of Gondor and of Arnor that he can ever wed Arwen. It is one thing to live in a hope whose possible fulfillment seems to lie in the future; it is another matter entirely when that hope comes within your grasp and yet still feels like an impossibility.

Tolkien, like all his generation in England, would have remembered the bands and cheering crowds that sent the young men of every community in the land across the sea to France in the Great War of 1914-18. Is he deliberately contrasting the departure of the Company with those memories of festivity? “No laughter, and no song or music”. There is only one member of the Company who wishes to have his departure marked by music and that is Boromir who carries his great war horn by his side.

‘”Loud and clear it sounds in the valleys of the hills,” he said, “and then let all the foes of Gondor flee!” Putting it to his lips he blew a blast, and the echoes leapt from rock to rock, and all that heard that voice in Rivendell sprang to their feet.”

Perhaps it is Boromir who reminded Tolkien of the young men among his contemporaries who marched forth to battle with smiles upon their faces and brave music sounding in their ears and then died in their thousands and tens of thousands in the mud of Flanders.

Laughter and Song and Music

Gimli the dwarf, as befits his people, is not given to displays of courage as is Boromir, but he is deadly serious about the taking of oaths. Elrond wisely counsels him against doing this. He cannot know what lies ahead and if he had sworn an oath binding him to Frodo then he could not have gone with Aragorn and Legolas in their pursuit of the orcs who were to take Merry and Pippin and all that was to come of that choice. But Elrond’s words to him contain a hidden prophecy of Gimli’s own moment of crisis, of judgement.

“Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

Did Gimli recall these words when he feared to follow his companions upon the Paths of the Dead at Dunharrow?

“Books Ought to Have Good Endings”. Bilbo and Frodo Speak Together of Euchatastrophe and Dyscatastrophe.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 265-267

As a young person I used to read practically everything that I could lay my hands on. Books were not such common things back in the 60s and early 70s as they are now. There was not the market for children’s and young people’s literature and consequently I was forced to read books that were intended for older readers and many of them had sad endings. Some of them had terrible endings, the kind that shook my sense of safety in the world. I can still feel the memories of reading the ending to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, and the moment when Lear staggers onto the stage bearing the body of Cordelia in the play that bears his name. I felt his Howl! Howl! Howl! in my own body then and that memory still lingers physically. Such experiences had a major impact on my passage from childhood to adulthood and created, I hope, a deepening sensitivity towards the suffering of others.

But now I find myself to be increasingly in agreement with Bilbo. “Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?” To such an ending I want to say a resounding, Yes! If I possibly can.

Stories ought to have good endings! Bilbo the story teller.

In my work as a parish priest I find myself in the company of people as they narrate their stories and the stories of the people that they love. The Church of England still has a role in this country in the way that people want to tell their life stories and so in the past week I have been with young couples preparing to marry and for two couples, I have shared the day on which they declare their love for one another to their families, friends and the communities in which they have grown up. And I have shared the gathering of a family from all parts of the country as they honoured a grand old French lady of 96 as she was laid to rest in an English country churchyard with the husband that she lost 50 years ago and I shared the grief of a woman at the funeral of her husband, knowing that as an almost palpable presence in the crematorium chapel she also carried the loss of her son who died earlier this year from Covid 19. Perhaps it was in part the shaping of my inner life through reading that has taught me to listen to these stories intently and, over the years, to develop a reverence for ordinary life. Perhaps too, it was those early visceral responses to the stories that I read that has shaped my listening to and participation in the lives of others. My whole being has soared into the heavens with joy in this past week and it has plunged into dark places in communion with the people with whom I have shared it.

For me there is a story that enables me both to bear this joy and sorrow and that is the universal story told in the liturgies of the funeral and marriage services of my church. My task as the story teller in the lives of the people who come to church on these days is to hold both their story and the universal story together in a way that gives the highest honour and reverence that I can possibly give to both and so when I invite a couple to love and cherish one another until they are parted by death or when I declare the great promise of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection through Christ I deliberately and purposely lay aside all my doubts and the simple reality that I am speaking of mysteries that far surpass anything that I will ever understand. It is not my business to intrude into their lives or into the great story of which the liturgy speaks.

But there needs to be somewhere that I can go to afterwards and here I find myself resonating with Sam Gamgee’s question to his fellow hobbits and to Gandalf, “And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.” Sam is reflecting upon the simple fact that he does not know how the story is going to turn out. Will they succeed in their task or will the Dark Lord conquer? What he does not know is that he is prophesying regarding Frodo’s story. There will be nowhere for Frodo to live even though he will save the Shire for his own people.

Where will they live? Frodo arrives at a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Tolkien makes wise use of the word, good, in this passage. Good endings to stories and good days in Rivendell with meals, words and songs in which the hobbits take pleasure. As they do so “health and hope” grows strong within them again. The red star low in the southern sky is an ever present reminder of the threat that lies ahead of them all but how they need the “virtue of the land of Rivendell” to enable them to face all that lies ahead.

Tolkien’s own imagining of the Good Land of Rivendell

It is But a Trifle That Sauron Fancies. Gloín tells of the mission of the messenger of Mordor.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 234-36

One by one the company who are the Council of Elrond tell of how it is that they have come to Rivendell and as each listens to the other they begin to learn the truth of what Elrond says of how it is that they are sitting there on that October morning.

“You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”

The Council of Elrond

And so it is that Gloín is the first to give an account of why he is in Rivendell that day. A messenger of Sauron had come to the Kingdom under the Mountain seeking news of hobbits. For “one of these was known to you on a time”. That hobbit, of course, is Bilbo and the messenger seeks him because of the Ring. Although it is not stated explicitly it is clear as we read Gloín’s account that the messenger is a Ringwraith, one of the nine, the Nazgûl. His breath came “like the hiss of snakes” and all who stand near by shudder. Sauron wishes for his embassy to have a maximum impact and requires a herald who will be a cause of fear in all who hear him.

The Messenger of Sauron

But if Sauron’s intention is to create fear what he achieves is to inspire resistance. The messenger’s mention of hobbits serves only to remind Dáin Ironfoot, the King under the Mountain, of his bond of obligation to Bilbo without whom he would never have gained his crown. And it serves also to remind him and the other chieftains of the dwarves of the alliance that fought the Battle of the Five Armies and the shelter and counsel that Thorin Oakenshield’s party received at Rivendell during their journey. For we should not assume that just because Gloín and his companions are present at the Council that this represents a normal state of affairs in which ambassadors go to and fro between the hidden valley and the lonely mountain. If there is an ambassador whose labour in making alliances between the free peoples of Middle-earth is bearing fruit on this day in Rivendell then it is Gandalf, the Grey Pilgrim, the one who encouraged Thorin to make his journey to Erebor and who, for some strange reason, had him take a hobbit with him. And it was Gandalf who brought together the men of Dale and Esgaroth, the elves of the Woodland Realm and the dwarves to defeat the orcs of the Misty Mountains. Gandalf has followed hunches, grasped at straws, and held onto fool’s hopes many times and for many years before this moment, many times before the decision is made that will be the outcome of this Council.

The Battle of the Five Armies

Sauron too has been a builder of alliances over many long years. He is gathering them together for the great war even as the Council deliberates. He knows that many of the peoples of Middle-earth are not natural allies for all Gandalf’s efforts. There has been little love between elf and dwarf through the ages, much suspicion and sometimes outright hostility and even war. The dwarves have fought many battles against orcs through the centuries but apart from the Battle of the Five Armies they have fought them alone and they have usually felt alone in the world. Sauron’s alliance building is usually a mixture of threat and gift and so it is with the dwarves. The threat is war and the gift is of two of the rings of power once held by dwarf lords, rings that greatly increased their wealth. What choice will the dwarves make in the war that is to come?

It was no accident that Elrond placed Frodo and Gloín together at the table top of highest honour at the feast the night before. Gloín, the companion of Thorin Oakenshield had to become acquainted with the heir of Bilbo, the Ringbearer. He had to be reminded bodily of the bond between dwarves and hobbits, with the family of Bilbo.

“You have done well to come,” Elrond says to Gloín after Gloín speaks of his fears. “You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world.”

“You do not stand alone”. Krystyn Janelle’s imagining of the Lonely Mountain.

Here is The Hobbit, Frodo Son of Drogo. The Council of Elrond Begins.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 233,234

Surely every action that Elrond takes and every word that he speaks tells that he knows that there can be but one outcome to the council that he has called to take place on the day after the feast and Frodo’s recovery from his wound. The feast itself, held in Frodo’s honour, at which he is seated at the table of highest honour; the seat at Elrond’s very side at the Council and the words with which Elrond announces him to the gathering all point to the central role that Frodo is going to have to play in the story.

“Here, my friends, is the hobbit, Frodo son of Drogo. Few have ever come hither through greater peril or an errand more urgent.”

Alan Lee’s Depiction of The Council of Elrond

Elrond must not impose his will upon the Council. The deliberations must be, as that word implies, deliberate. Every part of the story that has led each member to be there that morning must be told and must be heard. And every teller of the story and every one who hears and who deliberates must be granted honour. Elrond is the one who will chair the debate because he is Lord of Rivendell, of Imladris, because he has played so central a part in the long history that on this day will reach its climax and because of his lineage; but he knows that unless every single person gathered there is prepared to give their assent to the decision that will conclude the discussion all will be in vain.

For gathered together on this day are representatives of all the free peoples of Middle-earth. elves of every kind, dwarves, the descendants of Númenor, and most surprisingly of all, hobbits. Some of them are well aware of their dignity and their right to be parties to the decisions that will be made. Glorfindel, mighty hero of the conflicts of every age, one who lives at once, and has great power, in the worlds of both the Seen and the Unseen; and Boromir, Son and Heir to the Steward of Gondor, ruler of the greatest of all the kingdoms of humankind, these know their dignity. So too do Galdor of the Grey Havens and Erestor of Rivendell, high in the counsels of their lords. Others who have gathered there represent peoples whose essential dignity is perhaps more contested. Gloín from the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, and his son, Gimli, are of an ancient people who have played their part in the history of Middle-earth but who have always kept themselves apart, making alliances from necessity rather than desire. And Legolas, son of Thranduil of the woodland realm in Mirkwood, is described here as strange, surely here drawing upon the older meaning of that word as one who is a stranger whether by accident or by choice. Like the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain Thranduil and his people have kept apart from the great alliances except, as in the Battle of the Five Armies, by necessity.

The Battle Under the Mountain by Matt Stewart

And last, and most certainly until that day, least among the free peoples of Middle-earth, are the hobbits. The dwarves and the elves of the woodland realm, both peoples at the fringe of the great story, know Bilbo because of his part in the events that led to the fall of Smaug and the great victory at the Battle of the Five Armies, but to the descendants of Númenor and to the High Elves, hobbits have not been of any importance. Even Aragorn and Glorfindel might be forgiven for regarding them as being completely out of their depth in events too great for them to comprehend or to be a part of. After all, their main knowledge of hobbits has come from the need to rescue them from danger. Only Gandalf has really made it his business to get to know hobbits and this interest has largely been regarded as an eccentric curiosity on his part.

Is it through Gandalf that Elrond has changed his mind about hobbits? Surely it is that, that and his acquaintance with Bilbo and his wise perception of the events that have led to this moment, and so it is that with emphasis, addressing each one present, he introduces Frodo as the hobbit, as one who has come to Rivendell heroically, through great peril and on the most urgent of errands. Thus he addresses Gloín, Legolas and Boromir, all travellers from afar who have come upon errands themselves. Frodo is at the centre of the Council and Frodo will be its outcome.

The Centre of the Council

Watch “Хоббит / The Hobbit (СССР / USSR, 1985 г.)” on YouTube

On Friday I posted a reflection on my blog about the encounter between Frodo and Glóin as they sat together at the feast in Rivendell and how this reconnected the stories of the Shire and the kingdom under the mountain, stories that were so remarkably woven together when Gandalf persuaded Thorin Oakenshield to allow Bilbo Baggins to become a part of his quest to regain the mountain kingdom from Smaug the dragon.

As I pondered the story that Tolkien told in The Hobbit I was led by my daughter, Bethan, a doctoral student at Oxford University, to the great Soviet cultural critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, and his concept of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin’s work was on the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the 16th century French writer, Rabelais. In both of them he finds a world that is turned upside down. As Bethan and I spoke together I became increasingly convinced that we can add another work to Bakhtin’s list, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.

As I pondered this I recalled once watching a film adaptation of The Hobbit that was made in Russian during the Soviet era that charmed me at the time I watched it. Instinctively I felt that its retelling of Tolkien’s story as a folk tale had an authenticity to it that I found sadly lacking in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Many have commented on the difficulty in reconciling the fairytale aspect of The Hobbit with the mighty epic that was both The Silmarillion and also The Lord of the Rings. My feeling is that Jackson kept trying to make the story heroic and epic in nature, even trying to turn Bilbo into a character who might belong in such a story. My belief is that this delightful Russian retelling of the tale is much closer to its true essence.

And while I am expressing appreciation for people who have helped develop my own understanding of Tolkien’s work I would like to thank a blogger who writes under the name, The Catholic Knight, for reminding me of the wonderful section of Tolkien’s, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth that deals with the quest for Erebor. If you have a copy then read these pages for yourself. You can almost feel yourself to be with Tolkien, perhaps at a gathering of the Inklings, as he wrestles with the question, why did he recommend Bilbo to Thorin? Each one of the answers is profound and, in my view, leaves the subversive carnivalesque nature of The Hobbit intact.

A final thought. Don’t worry if you don’t speak Russian. Any lover of The Hobbit will have little difficulty in following the story and you might find a version somewhere with English subtitles.

A Cure for Weariness, Fear and Sadness. Frodo in The Last Homely House, East of the Sea.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 219-220

I have been enjoying my imaginary rest in one of the wonderful beds in The Last Homely House as, I hope, have you as you have read the last pages of Tolkien’s great tale and my reflections upon them. Now it is time to get up and, with Frodo and Sam, who “has been getting to know some of the ways of the place”, it is time for us to get to know it a little better too. I don’t know about you but I could use a “cure for weariness, fear and sadness” right now. I know that beyond the hidden valley of Rivendell there will be many dangers to face but just for a while let us rest here to regather our strength and so make ready to face those dangers once more.

At rest in Rivendell

The journey eastward through Eriador in Middle-earth is always a journey towards hardship and danger; always away from the quiet lands of Bree, the Shire; and away from the Elven lands of Forlindon and Harlindon that lie hard against the great sea and the hidden lands beyond. When Bilbo Baggins made his journey to the lonely mountain of Erebor as recounted in The Hobbit this was the last time of rest before the passage through the Misty Mountains was to be attempted and all the adventures that were to befall him there and in the lands at their far side. Hence, in Bilbo’s mind it was always The Last Homely House.

Rivendell had always been a refuge from enemies right from its founding by Elrond in the middle of the Second Age when he had led an elven host against Sauron in the wars in Eregion after the making of the great Rings of Power by Celebrimbor, deceived as Celebrimbor had been by Sauron who desired only to learn ringcraft and to use all that he could learn to forge the One Ring, and through its power to subdue all lands and all peoples under his rule.

Elrond the Warrior by Ysydora

Sauron never achieved this end but also never gave up his age old desire to rule either. That this desire lies at the heart of The Lord of the Rings is made all too clear by Gandalf when he reminds the hobbits after Pippin’s ill judged words that “The Lord of the Ring is not Frodo, but the Master of the Dark Tower of Mordor, whose power is again stretching out over the world! We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark.”

It was during the conflict with Sauron in Eriador that Elrond first founded the “refuge of Imladris” in 1697 of the Second Age, the same year in which Celebrimbor was killed. Eventually Sauron was driven from Eriador but not by Elrond but by the Dúnedain, the men of Númenor, who arrived in a mighty fleet and established dominions on the coasts of Middle-earth. Even his possession of the Ring was not enough for Sauron to withstand the power of Númenor but something else enabled him to overthrow that mighty land. The appendices at the end of The Return of the King put it in the most chilling way when they say, ” The shadow falls on Númenor”. No military defeat ever took place but an inner moral collapse most certainly did. Again, in the appendices, Tolkien uses a few words to terrible effect.

2251: Tar-Atanamir takes the sceptre. Rebellion and division of the Númenoreans begins. About this time the Nazgûl or Ringwraiths, slaves of the Nine Rings, first appear.

Surely, Tolkien has no need to spell out what happened in any explicit manner. Sauron did not seduce just anyone with his gifts. As we come to learn about Sméagol later in the story, a small and miserable creature is capable only of small and miserable evils. Only the great can do the greatest harms. Surely it was men of Númenor that Sauron seduced and made slaves to his will through the insidious gift of Rings of Power. And this is where the contrast between them and those who find refuge in Rivendell lies. There are those who will give everything, even their souls, for power. And there are those who seek “a cure for weariness, fear and sadness”.

And so throughout the long years, years that Elrond terms “the long defeat”, Rivendell remains a secret refuge, a Last Homely House for all weary travellers, a home in need for the remnant of the Dúnedain of the North and now, for a little while at least, a refuge for the Ringbearer and his companions, a place, as Pippin who recognises true joy when he sees it, where it is “impossible, somehow to feel gloomy or depressed”.

A Cure for Weariness, Fear and Sadness. Tolkien’s own imagining of Rivendell.

Frodo is Cheered by Old Trolls. With a Little Help from a Song by Sam Gamgee.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 197-203

In attempting to keep away from the great East-West Road that runs from Rivendell to the Grey Havens, fearing that it will be upon the road that the Nazgûl will be lying in wait, Strider has taken the hobbits a little too far to the north. It is at this point that Tolkien’s maps of Middle-earth that he drew for The Lord of the Rings give us little guidance about the exact route of their journey. Although it is clear from Tolkien’s wonderfully evocative description that the travellers have to negotiate some difficult terrain with steep climbs and descents the map shows us none of this and we are left to our imaginations to trace their path. Indeed for a long time there is no path. They have to find their way through what is literally a trackless waste until Pippin stumbles upon one.

We remember the paths created by Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, respectfully even tenderly weaving in and out among the trees following the line of the Withywindle. This path in the wild is a brutal affair “made by strong arms and heavy feet. Here and there old trees had been cut or broken down, and large rocks cloven or heaved aside to make a way. “

Eventually we learn that the heavy lifting machinery is, in fact, three trolls, the very three who years before had captured the thirteen dwarves of the expedition to the Lonely Mountain that had been Bilbo’s great adventure; and the reason why they are now effigies seated on the ground in a clearing in the Trollshaws is that Gandalf had tricked them into continuing an argument about how to cook their prey until the rising sun had turned them into stone.

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the tale of Bilbo and the Trolls from The Hobbit

Throughout this stage of the journey Frodo has been drifting in and out of a shadowy world. We will not find out until later in Rivendell that a tiny sliver of the Morgul blade that had pierced his shoulder has been working its way inwards towards his heart, slowly but inexorably drawing him into the world of shadows in which his attackers dwell, but the progress of this deadly invader does not seem to be an even one and moments like this seem to stay its malevolent influence, for a time at least.

The person whose wholesome influence has this effect upon Frodo is Sam. I wonder if in this scene Tolkien was recalling the way in which soldiers in the trenches of the First World War would try to cheer each other up with songs like the one that Sam sings here in the shadow of the frozen trolls. Probably some of them were pretty bawdy but some would, as with Sam’s simple ditty, have simply made their hearers smile. And Frodo does smile. In the trenches such songs would have kept at bay a slow freezing of the heart for men, lice infested and surrounded by death. Here Sam’s song slows the progress of the splinter towards Frodo’s heart. Frodo jokingly declares that Sam might “end up by becoming a wizard-or a warrior” and wizards and warriors will both play a vital part in this story.

Alan Lee depicts the travellers amongst the stone trolls in the Trollshaws

But so too will jesters. That is the word that Frodo uses, somewhat dismissively we have to acknowledge, to describe Sam at this point of the story. Frodo does not yet know that the part that this jester is going to play in getting him and the Ring to the Cracks of Doom is going to be absolutely vital. Sam will prove to be a warrior, although never one by choice, especially in his heroic battle with Shelob in her lair and in his storming of the Tower of Cirith Ungol but it is his simple refusal to abandon his cheerful spirit that will play the kind of role that only someone who is learning to see through the eyes of a child will ever come to value. Those who study to achieve a cultured sophistication will never have that vision. Frodo might have been tempted to be such a sophisticate but his terrible suffering in the course of his Ringbearing journey will teach him that it is not cleverness that sustains us in our darkest days but pure and simple goodness.

Ted Nasmith’s tender imagining of Sam singing to cheer his companions

Frodo and the Challenge of Leaving Home

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 64-69

It was the difficulty of actually leaving Bag End for good that finally gave Frodo’s plans away. He meant to leave the Shire in secret, taking only Sam Gamgee with him and in order to do this he decided to sell Bag End to the Sackville Bagginses and to buy a small cottage in Buckland on the eastern border of the Shire. But his plan to leave in secret was rather spoilt by his habit through that last beautiful summer of taking long walks and then saying things like: “Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder”.

Let us not be too harsh on Frodo. He has already made up his mind to give up everything in order to save the Shire, even his own life. This is not a holiday that he is going on, a diversion from the tedium of ordinary life. Imagine, if you will, a tour operator who tries to sell you a holiday in which there is a strong possibility that you and your loved ones will not return from it alive. Even the armed forces today must reassure the families of their recruits that they take the duty of care seriously. How different that is from a time of war in which the survival of the country is at stake.

And so we should not be too hard on Frodo.

Shall I ever look down into that valley again?

Our longing for home, for belonging, is the most powerful that we will ever know. It gathers together all of our longings for safety, for control and for affection. Every safe arrival at the end of the day, wherever we are in the world, is a little homecoming. When I was a young man, working in Africa, I used to travel in the holidays and often a bed to sleep in and food to eat felt like a small miracle, a pure gift. This experience, far from the temporary shelter of my simple house in the school in Zambia, and farther yet from England heightened my sense of what home was to me.

I grew up in a family that was constantly on the move. By the time I was eight years old we had already lived in seven different places. I developed early an attitude to friends based upon my complete expectation that our friendship would not last. When we moved yet again I would end things quite brutally, even on one occasion destroying a play castle that I had built in a farmyard with the boys who lived on the farm where my father worked.

In all that experience of seemingly endless change my parents were a fixed point, a place of solidity. As I grew up I had a sense somewhere within me of what home was. But what about Frodo? He first came to Bag End after the tragic death, by drowning, of his mother and father. Bilbo took him in and eventually adopted him. Bilbo is unfailingly kind but he can never be a mother to the child who comes to live with him and we are not aware of any strong feminine influence upon Frodo anywhere in the story. I am struck that nowhere in The Lord of the Rings does any woman ever develop any romantic feelings towards him as they do with Sam or Aragorn or Faramir. Goldberry and Galadriel both display a motherly tenderness towards Frodo as does Rosie Cotton at the end of the story but no one ever falls in love with him. If anything it is the countryside of The Shire that is the biggest feminine influence in Frodo’s life with its gentle hills, small woodlands and little streams. It is a domestic landscape as much of England is and certainly the countryside of the English Midlands where Tolkien, another motherless child, grew up. And it is this that Frodo has to leave. No wonder it is so difficult.

“He is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers“.
A view of Worcestershire, England

“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.”

bag-end

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”.