“From the First my Heart Misgave Me”. Gandalf, and Tolkien too, only gradually begin to understand the meaning of the the Ring.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p.245

When I thought to spend a few weeks reflecting upon themes from The Fellowship of the Ring over the summer before continuing with The Two Towers in September I did not expect to spend much of the time writing about Gandalf; but so it has proved. Maybe I should not have been surprised. When Elrond asks Gandalf to speak at the Council in Rivendell he introduces him by saying, “in all this matter he has been the chief”.

Peter Xavier Price imagines the Council of Elrond in Rivendell

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Gandalf loved to play in order to find some rest from his labours and how the Shire became especially important to him to allow him to do this. We saw how this desire for play proves to be utterly crucial in the history of Middle-earth. We recall that when Tolkien’s publishers first asked him for “more about hobbits” after the success of The Hobbit that he first regarded the request as an annoying interruption to what he regarded as his life’s work, the history that his son Christopher would eventually edit and publish as The Silmarillion. It was only with time that it began to dawn upon him that the ring that Bilbo found in the depths of the Misty Mountains and put to such good and, might one say, playful use, might be prove critical to the resolution of the history of the Third Age.

Why was the Ring given into Bilbo’s safekeeping?

As Gandalf puts it to the Council what began as a little more than a misgiving began to turn to dread. The thing that Bilbo had in his possession, that he regarded as little more than something useful in case awkward relatives like the Sackville Baggins came to call, was indeed the Ring of Power that Sauron had lost in the great battle at the end of the Second Age and for which he was now seeking in order to complete his conquest of Middle-earth.

Gandalf’s misgiving that turned to dread moved hobbits from a pleasant distraction on the fringes of his life onto the centre stage. When he reflects upon what he can discern of the big story, of the purposes of the divine, of Illuvatar in Arda, he tells Frodo that first Bilbo and then himself were meant to have the Ring. This is a statement of incredible importance. I use the word, incredible, in its essential meaning, as speaking of something that is hard, almost impossible, to believe. If the divine mind were to entrust the Ring to anyone for safekeeping surely a hobbit would be the last person chosen. Even hobbits are not, in themselves, a completely reliable choice. After all, Gollum was himself a hobbit and he began his possession of the Ring with murder.

But what began in Tolkien’s telling of a children’s story in The Hobbit as the happy and fortuitous entrance of magic into that tale was to turn into something that would be critical to the whole history of Middle-earth and it became clear that neither elf, nor dwarf or man could be entrusted with the Ring. It had to be a hobbit and it had to be a particular hobbit with the history and character that Bilbo had. And then because the Ring was beginning to have a destructive influence even on this good hobbit it had to pass to another, to Frodo. It has to pass to someone who does not want it, or the burden that it represents. Frodo tries to give it to Gandalf in Bag End, to Aragorn in Rivendell and to Galadriel in Lothlórien. He is the perfect person to have the Ring in his possession and even he will be overcome by it in the end.

Gandalf might have said that in his reluctance to take on the burden of the Ring Frodo reminded him of himself. When the Valar first thought to send the Istari to Middle-earth Gandalf was reluctant to go because he feared Sauron. Perhaps it is this reluctance, this desire for peace, even obscurity, that makes Gandalf, and Frodo too, the ones who can be chosen for the really great tasks. Help will be given to them when they most need it. Frodo will eventually achieve his task through the aid of Gollum. But it is not the ones who seek greatness who can be entrusted with the great things. It is those who wish to be little but are willing to say yes to the call that they receive.

Gandalf did not want to go to Middle-earth.

“So You Know About Our Little Footpad, Do You?” Gollum Follows The Fellowship Down The Anduin.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.371-375

“His longing for the Ring proved stronger than his fear of the Orcs, or even of light.” So said Gandalf to Frodo in the study at Bag End when he spoke to Frodo of Gollum, of the way in which, two years after the Ring left him in order to find its way back to its master, the Dark Lord who was calling it back to himself, Gollum had emerged from the darkness beneath the Misty Mountains in order to find the Ring and to revenge himself upon the “thief” who had stolen it, Baggins.

The encounter between Gollum and Bilbo deep beneath the Misty Mountains.

And it is the same desire that has driven his pursuit of the Fellowship since first he came upon them in the Mines of Moria. Somehow he had managed to escape the turmoil that followed the fall of the Balrog with Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and although his fear and loathing of Elves or anything elvish prevented him from entering Lothlórien, he had waited, hiding in the woods by the Silverlode, until the journey of the Fellowship began once more.

Aragorn has been aware of him all the time and has known who it has been that has been following them. On the one hand this is because he is one of the great trackers of the age, but it is also because he caught Gollum once. He had found him by a pool in the Dead Marshes, hunting for food and had driven him all the way to the Woodland Realm of the Elves in Mirkwood where Thranduil was to hold him prisoner. But he was not a prisoner for very long. Sauron had a purpose in mind for Gollum and that was to use his desire in order to help in the search for the Ring and so he was freed during an attack by orcs upon his guards and so had been hunting ever since. Probably it had been his intention to make his way through Moria from east to west and then to walk across Eriador all the way to the Shire and so track his mortal enemy down and to regain the Ring.

Although Gollum had dreams of becoming “Gollum the Great” once he had regained the Ring and of paying everyone back for all their mistreatment of him, as he saw it, Sauron had no fear of him. He knew that if ever Gollum were to find the Ring again he would be certain to use it, and as often as possible, and so it would not be long before his servants would track him down and to bring the Ring back at last to its Lord.

And so it is that Gollum has been floating upon a log down the Anduin in pursuit of the Fellowship and why he tries to climb onto the small island in the river where the the boats are moored where Frodo is sleeping even though Aragorn is there also. But Frodo is alert and draws Sting and Gollum quickly makes his escape.

“We shall have to trying going faster tomorrow,” says Aragorn to Frodo. “I wish I could lay my hands on the wretch. We might make him useful. But if I cannot, we shall have to try and lose him.”

The Fellowship Attempt to Escape From Gollum.

By driving their boats forward on the river the next day the Company are able to lose Gollum for a while but all such efforts are ultimately useless. Gollum’s desire for the Ring is so great that again and again he manages to find his way back to it until all comes to a head at the Cracks of Doom upon Orodruin. As Gandalf put it to Frodo Gollum has “no will left in the matter. If ever there was a time when Gollum had possession of the Ring it was very brief. He has never possessed the Ring. The Ring has always possessed him. He may think that he desires the Ring but it would be more true to say that desire has taken possession of him and will never let him go. There will be moments when the “little corner of his mind” that is still his own will emerge but that corner is very small and desperately weak. It will be his desire that will drive him on.

The story will come to its end at the Cracks of Doom.

Bilbo Baggins’s Little Joke

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-30

How might the Ring, the “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”, how might it have eventually taken possession of Bilbo had he kept it long enough?

I think that we get a clue that might help us answer this question in Bilbo’s “little joke”. The joke is first introduced to us in a conversation between Bilbo and Gandalf. Gandalf urges Bilbo to stick to his “whole plan”, in other words to give up the Ring of his own accord. Bilbo answers, “I mean to enjoy myself on Thursday, and have my little joke.”

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Gandalf plainly does not appreciate the joke and wonders who will laugh as he shakes his head. Bilbo’s reply gives us an insight into his character.

“We shall see,” he said.

In other words Bilbo does not much care who does or does not laugh as long as he enjoys himself. You see, Bilbo has a very high opinion of his own cleverness and a fairly low opinion of the cleverness of his fellow hobbits. One might argue that he has good reason for both opinions. Although his actual finding of the Ring was entirely fortuitous (except for the “meant to find it” that Gandalf will one day tell Frodo about!) his use of it thereafter until the end of his adventures as recounted in The Hobbit shows a high degree of intelligence, common sense and an ability to remain calm in a crisis. Even among his companions on the expedition to the Lonely Mountain the Ring chose the person best able to make use of it, excepting Gandalf, of course. And eventually Bilbo comes to realise this himself.

l3

I do not mean to be critical of him here. Self-awareness is praiseworthy and false modesty has little to recommend it. Bilbo’s growing self-confidence plays a vital role in the events of The Hobbit but there is little doubt that Bilbo becomes really quite pleased with himself.

Pleased, that is, until he realises that the Dwarves’ thirst for wealth is in danger of causing catastrophe among the Men of Esgaroth on the Long Lake, the Elves of the Woodland Realm and also the Dwarves themselves. At this point it is not so much Bilbo’s cleverness but his kindness that comes to the fore. At no point in the story does he wish to do harm to anyone, not even those who wish to hurt him, as can be seen in his sparing of Gollum.

But it is his cleverness and not his kindness that leads him to decide to use the Ring in order to make his disappearance from the Shire all the more dramatic. He wants to be talked about, to enjoy a certain notoriety and he wants to enjoy the effect that he makes. When Gandalf asks the question, who will enjoy your joke, the answer is, no-one, that is no-one except Bilbo himself and for Bilbo that is quite enough.

How would the Ring have insinuated itself into Bilbo’s heart? Surely by isolating him within his own self-satisfaction until there was room for no-one else. Once that had happened other people would either be fools or a threat. Even on the night of the party we see how Gandalf is a threat, one who might take the Ring from him, while he wants a holiday from everyone else. One wonders if he had taken the Ring with him whether he would ever have found a resting place. Later in Rivendell Bilbo will complain that he has been refused permission to go back to Hobbiton to get the Ring. “They seemed to think that the Enemy was looking high and low for me, and would make mincemeat of me, if he caught me tottering about in the Wild.” Bilbo may have been talking lightly but he was speaking a truth that went deeper than his words. He would have become a lonely figure “tottering about in the Wild” and eventually  he would have fallen into the hands of either the Enemy or of Gollum.

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But Bilbo is saved from that fate both because there is a goodness that goes very deep down inside him and thanks to the help of a very good friend. But more on that next week.

 

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.