“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.”

They Cannot Conquer For Ever!

After parting from Faramir Frodo and Sam make their way southward once more as Gollum guides them toward the Morgul Valley and then to the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, the “secret way” by which they are to enter Mordor. As before Gollum prefers to travel by night and to rest by day seeking always to avoid the attention of unfriendly eyes and so it is that when Sam awakens in darkness he is sure that he has overslept and that they should be on the march once more. But it is not night. A darkness has crept across the skies from Mordor and robbed them of the day. Sauron’s armies are more at ease in a permanent half light and so he makes preparation for them by sending vapours across the sky.

I feel sure that Tolkien here remembers the slow creep of industrial Birmingham across the countryside to the village of Hall Green, now a suburb of the city, where he grew up. When I first came to the industrial West Midlands of England in the 1980s I asked an elderly man to show me an area west of Birmingham known as the Black Country, so named because of the deposits of coal and iron ore beneath the ground that had led to the creation of one of the world’s first great industrial areas. We spent the day going from one village to another up and down steep sided hills as he named each one for me, Gornal, Netherton, Tipton, Bilston, Oldbury, Lye and the larger towns of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley. I call them villages because that is what they once were but there was little space between them as they had grown towards one another. But already the process of factory closure and de-industrialisation was well underway and as we stood on one hillside and looked across the great urban sprawl he turned and said to me, “If you had stood upon this place thirty years ago you could never have seen this view.” And he went on to explain that the smoke of the factories would have robbed us of the ability to see for any distance. Now the factories were going and the smoke gone and what was left was largely a post-industrial wasteland. I suspect that if Tolkien had been standing with us that day he would have spoken of it as a land through which the armies of Mordor had once passed, destroyed and then left in order to move onto some other land. I doubt if he would have been an enthusiastic visitor to The Black Country Museum a large open air heritage centre that now seeks to capture the way of life that grew amidst the factories.

Before they enter the Morgul Vale Frodo and Sam come across a statue of a king of Gondor now fallen and defiled. As they stand and look mournfully upon it suddenly the sun dips briefly beneath the smokes before descending below the horizon. It falls upon the head of the king and Frodo sees a garland of flowers encircling it, enlivened briefly by the sun’s light. “Look!” he cries, “The King has got a crown again!”

In the years since that day I have come to know the peoples of Birmingham and the Black Country and not just the traditional population that worked in the factories that created the smoke but also the many peoples who have come from around the world to settle there. I have never felt that they are an enslaved people with all humanity crushed from them. I have never seen them as the armies of Mordor. I would like to offer an application of Tolkien’s garlanded king that he might not approve. If I stand beside Frodo gazing at the beauty of the sunlit garland I see the places of worship, the schools, the friendly pubs and coffee houses, the places of culture such as theatres and concert halls and all other expressions of the building of human community in the English West Midlands. I see the desire of families to make a world for their children and grandchildren and to care as best they can for their elderly. And as I see it I cry with him, “They cannot conquer for ever!”

An Agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard

Treebeard has learnt sympathy during the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth. On learning from Gandalf that Saruman has refused to leave Orthanc he says:

“So Saruman would not leave?… I did not think he would. His heart is as rotten as a black Huorn’s. Still, if I were overcome and all my trees destroyed, I would not come while I had one dark hole left to hide in.”

“No,” said Gandalf. “But you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.”

For Saruman had indeed dreamed and plotted to cover the world and to rule over it. Many have commented that it was the creeping spread of industrial Birmingham in the English Midlands into the Worcestershire countryside where Tolkien grew up that inspired much of the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien grew up in the village of Hall Green. I know this now as a suburb of Birmingham that lies well within the modern city boundary a few miles to the north of my own home. I can well see how he would have seen this encroachment as an invasion.

My own home lies still within the Worcestershire countryside. As I write this on a frosty February morning I can detect the first signs of approaching Spring about me. Soon I will see swans, ducks, moorhens and coots marking out their territories in the waters around my home and soon after I will see them raising their young once more. I have made the acquaintance of an angler who sits patiently by the waters through the warmer months of the year. I say acquaintance for like most anglers he is a marsh wiggle by nature and keeps himself to himself but he is ready to share his wisdom as long as I don’t disturb him from more important matters. The best time to talk is at the end of the day when he is about to make his way home. He has taught me where the kingfishers will make their nest and, for me, most exciting of all, where he has seen an otter and her cub, something not seen near here for many a year. And he knows the difference between the native otter and the pernicious foreign mink so I believe in his sighting. One day…one day… I hope to see an otter near my home myself.

I think that Tolkien would have loved the country near my home. Indeed he probably knew it himself. And yet if I walk towards the small town near where I live it is not long before I reach a major highway that cuts through the heart of the county. I have written before about my early morning walks through woodland with my dog in the autumn and winter darkness. What I have not mentioned is the noise of traffic from the highway. The dark of the woodland is real thanks both to the trees themselves and to a high embankment that lies between them and the road but so too is the noise.

I have developed a form of prayer for my daily walks with my dog and more and more I feel that the place in which I pray is a part and a vital part of the prayer. It is not some simplistic expression of “all that is green and living is good and all that is asphalt is bad”. I am too much implicated by own participation in the modern world to be able to do that without being justly called a hypocrite. But it is right that my prayer should happen at this point of tension in the woodland by the highway in which I do not know how much I am an agent of Saruman or a friend to Treebeard. Last year a group of folk planted the land between the woodland and the highway with hundreds of young saplings. That was a fine deed. Perhaps by supporting it I can offer something to Treebeard and to the Worcestershire man who created that character and in whose Shire I still live.