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

Peregrin Took Teaches Us the Value of Cheerfulness in Dark Times

It is Pippin’s cheerfulness that gives courage to Beregond, the soldier of Gondor. It was the kind of cheerfulness that Tolkien met among the soldiers from the villages of England in the trenches of the First World War. On July 1st of this year we will remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme on which 20,000 British soldiers were killed and about 40,000 wounded. Tolkien was present at the battle and survived. My great uncle, Tommy Young, was also present and did not survive. I shall think of him especially on that day.

Tolkien received what was known, amongst the soldiers, as a blighty wound during the battle. This was a wound not serious enough to cause lasting damage but serious enough to mean that the soldier who received it would be withdrawn from the front line for a lengthy period of recuperation. To receive such a wound was generally regarded as good luck among the soldiers. Tolkien though had to live with the fact that among his closest friends he was the only survivor of the war.

It is with this memory that Tolkien begins to describe the preparations for the great battle of The Lord of the Rings at the Pelennor Fields. It may not have been this battle that was to be the decisive action of the story. That was the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom and the events in the Sammath Naur. But if Minas Tirith had fallen to the armies of Minas Morgul there would have been nowhere to return to for Frodo and Sam.

Pippin’s cheerfulness before the overwhelming might of Mordor reminds us of Sam Gamgee’s reflection at the Black Gate when  it appeared that the journey was at an end. Tolkien tells us that Sam “never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.”

It is this spirit that enables Sam to bring Frodo and the Ring to Mount Doom; that brings Merry and Eowyn to the place in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields where they are able to slay the Lord of the Nazgûl; and which enables Pippin to save the life of Faramir in the face of Denethor’s despair and the passivity of his guard. It is not quite the same thing as the great joy that Pippin sees in Gandalf after the encounter with Denethor. Gandalf’s joy is a heavenly thing that Pippin, as yet, can only catch glimpses of; it is the inbreaking of another world into the world that Pippin knows and one that declares that even in the darkest of times the last word belongs to love and to joy and not to darkness. The cheerfulness of the hobbits is of a different order and belongs to the earth. It is a peasant quality that determines to make the best of whatever life brings, enjoying the good without too much expectation that it will last for long and bearing up under times of difficulty. It takes a quiet pride in maintaining the right kind of face. This is not a kind of dissembling, a deliberate attempt to deceive, unless it is to deceive an enemy, but it is a kind of virtue, most closely akin to fortitude. Perhaps the last time it was seen in British life to a great degree was during the heavy bombing of British cities during the Second World War by the German Luftwaffe, an action that was intended to demoralise the civilian population but which failed to do so. Perhaps it should be noted here that the bombing of German cities proved to be just as ineffective in this regard.

Pippin’s cheerfulness will be needed much in the days that lie ahead for the “darkness has begun”. But it will be no mere whistling in the wind. It will be a source of strength that will enable him to do brave deeds and will prevent the doing of great harm. We will do well to honour this quality and to develop it ourselves.