What Happened at the Fords of Bruinen? Gandalf Explains All to Frodo in Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 215-219

Gandalf explains much to Frodo as the hobbit rests in his wonderful bed but one question above all still bothers him.

“Just give me news of my friends, and tell me the end of the affair at the Ford, as I keep on asking, and I shall be content for the present. After that I shall have another sleep, I think; but I shan’t be able to close my eyes until you have finished the story for me.”

We thought about the events at the Fords of Bruinen a few weeks ago when we were introduced to Glorfindel and his decisive intervention. Now we return to them as Gandalf explains to Frodo what was happening to him on that day. Gandalf explains to Frodo that the Ringwraiths could see him even when he was not wearing the Ring because he was “on the threshold of their world”. The Morgul-knife, with which the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of Minas Morgul, had pierced Frodo in his shoulder, had broken inside the wound and had left a splinter there. He had tried to pierce Frodo in his heart and if he had succeeded he would have done a deed that would have been worse than murder for Frodo would have become a wraith, he “would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command”.

And now we know why Gandalf looked at Frodo so closely. How far into the shadow world had Frodo gone? Was there any lasting damage caused by the Morgul Blade as the Witch-king intended or had Elrond been successful in both removing the deadly splinter and in preventing Frodo from slipping out of the world of substance and into the world that the ringwraiths knew?

What is clear is that Frodo’s resistance played a crucial role in his escape and then his recovery. As Gandalf puts it, “Your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last”. Frodo’s resistance was crucial at that point and then at the Fords of Bruinen when he called out, “You shall have neither the Ring nor me”. But most important of all was the fact that he was able to resist tye journey of the fragment of the blade from the shoulder to the heart.

Frodo resists until the very end of his strength

Frodo’s resistance was aided at the beginning by Strider’s application of athelas to the wound. Even though he is not yet king it is a sign of his true identity that this herb, that seems to share his hiddenness in its apparent insignificance, responds both to his touch and his voice. Strider is the true king who is to come and the world listens to his voice.

But this is not the only aid that Frodo receives. When his hobbit companions said to him, “We are your friends, Frodo”, on that night at Crickhollow when the “conspiracy” was unmasked, these were not mere words. The friendship of Merry, Pippin and, above all, Sam was shown in the unloading of Bill the pony and the carrying of great burdens; it was shown in hobbit cheerfulness even in adversity; it was shown in Sam’s song about trolls at the discovery of the place where Bilbo’s first adventure took place; and it was shown at the Fords of Bruinen when they all ran towards the deadliest of danger in the ringwraiths. And, as readers of The Lord of the Rings know, this was not the last time in the story that this friends were willing to lay down their lives for the love of a friend.

Sam Gamgee cheers his friends with a little song

Of course, none of this would have been to any effect if the hobbits had been alone. The Nazgûl would have been too deadly a foe and the Ring, and Frodo too, would have been taken away to Mordor had it not been for the intervention of Glorfindel and the power in the river that awaited any attempt to cross by an enemy. The waters in the river rose and the steeds of the ringwraiths were swept away, their riders forced to return to Mordor having failed in their mission and to be rehorsed.

All of this Gandalf explains to Frodo but he also tells him that while “fortune or fate” may have helped him to escape his deadly foe so too did courage and all through the story that courage will make all the difference.

Frodo has mighty allies

Forests are Strange Things. The Hobbits Enter the Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 107-09

Anyone who has anything to do with forests for any length of time soon comes to know that they have an identity that is very much their own. In his introduction to the wonderful book, The Hidden Lives of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, the Australian palaeontologist, Tim Flannery, writes of Wohlleben, “His deep understanding of the lives of trees, reached through decades of careful observation and study, reveals a world so astonishing that if you read his book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.”

The magic of the forest (A painting by Alan Lee)

And the essence of this “magic” is the ability of trees to communicate with each other so that they can give aid to one another against any potential threats. They even continue to feed the stumps of trees that have long fallen or been cut down knowing that these stumps still have their part to play in nurturing the future of the forest. I recently came across the stump of a tree that had been cut down and through a neat round hole in its centre a healthy young sapling was climbing vigorously upwards towards the sky.

I have been walking my dog in woodland near my home in north Worcestershire, in our own Crickhollow, close by the farm where Tolkien’s aunt and grandfather lived and where he often stayed as a child, I discovered, to my pleasure, that I can have the woods to myself because most people are nervous about entering them. You really don’t know what you will find within them. So most people stick to the paths that run alongside the woods. A bit like Fredegar Bolger really.

I find that the best time of the day to walk in them is the early morning. I have the particular pleasure of greeting the sunrise in the spring and autumn. In the summer the woods are already fully awake. In the winter I enter their mysterious darkness. I have got to know the paths and so I feel confident in making my way through them, even when I cannot see more than a yard or so ahead of me.

The Forest by Night

At least that is how I like to reassure myself as I step off the wide pathway and into silent darkness of the wood. Except the wood never stays the same. The weight of a snowfall in winter or a hig storm will almost certainly bring down tree branches, sometimes hefty boughs or even whole trees. One path that used to take me down to a secret place at the joining of two streams is now completely blocked by the fall of an ancient hollow oak. There is a gap beneath it that my dog can pass through but I have to clamber over it. It is worth the effort but I still remember my dismay when I first encountered this obstruction.

There have been many obstructions in the years in which I have come to know the woods. Some have required the making of new paths. First, the trampling down of the undergrowth. There are far too many nettles in the late spring and summer in this modern nutrient saturated environment. You might think that the surfeit of nitrates would be a good thing but wild flowers prefer a plainer diet and, sadly, nettles thrive on them. So the first stage in the making of a path is always a discomforting affair as I get my legs covered in stings that go through my trousers. The second stage is the removal of branches that lie across my way. And then the third is to walk the path again and again and again until the earth beneath my feet is gradually forced together and, for a time at least, the life beneath is not able to make its way through to the world above.

A Forest Path by Grrroch

So yes, the Old Forest is a strange affair, but only because it is not like “the woods and fields and little rivers” of the Shire or my own county of Worcestershire where everything takes time to happen. In the Old Forest the speech of the trees and the endless changes that take place in every wood all happen much more quickly. And the Forest has little love for hobbits. Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin really will have to be rescued before the day is out.

The Story of Meriadoc Brandybuck. Or The Necessity of Getting Out of Your Depth.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 107,108

There are few things more annoying than when someone for whom you don’t have very much respect gets something absolutely right. I don’t know how much respect the other hobbits have for Fredegar Bolger (or Fatty to his friends) although I do note that little attempt is made to persuade Fatty to come with them when he tells the other hobbits that he will not come into the Old Forest with them.

Fatty’s main contribution to the discussion about how the hobbits are to leave Buckland without attracting the attention of the Black Riders is to warn them of the dangers of the Forest. By contrast, Merry is both confident and competent. He has been into the Forest before. He speaks about the path that he intends to take. He gives a lesson on the history of the Forest or at least the history that hobbits have been a part of. He has ponies ready for the journey and all the supplies have been prepared. He has anticipated Frodo’s insistence that he must leave the Shire immediately. He has been making preparations for just this moment all through the summer. And with a little help from Pippin he has even composed a song that is suitable for the occasion drawing upon his knowledge of hobbit history. “It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune”.

Merry takes charge at Crickhollow

One day Merry will make a fine Master of Buckland but on this day everything will go completely wrong and Fatty will be proved completely right.

“I only hope that you will not need rescuing before the day is out.”

Merry and his companions will need rescuing before the day is out. In fact if rescue had not been at hand the quest would have ended in disaster almost before it had begun. And things do not really get much better for Merry from that point onwards. He will lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe and will need to be rescued many times.

Rescued from the barrow wight by Tom Bombadil. Rescued from the Black Rider in the streets of Bree by Nob of all people and rescued from starvation in the Forest of Fangorn by Treebeard. Eventually he will complain bitterly of being no more than an item of baggage in the story and perhaps his lowest point will be when Théoden of Rohan will announce to him that he is to be left behind when the Riders go to war outside the gates of Minas Tirith. He has been of some value as a kind of entertainment for the king on the journey from the sack of Isengard to the gathering at Dunharrow but he will be of no value at all in the serious business of war. And even when he does go, thanks to the intervention of another character who has been left behind, he finds himself being addressed by a soldier who has just stumbled over him as “Master Bag”. It is the one name they know him by, the name that speaks of his humiliation.

Merry’s journey is in many ways a miserable one and yet he neither falls into bitterness nor despair. Two qualities will sustain him throughout and these are his cheerfulness, by which I mean that he has the ability, no matter how great the humiliation, to be ‘cheered up’ to find cheer as soon as he is able, in the house of Tom Bombadil, in the dwelling of Treebeard and in the wreckage of Isengard amidst the spoils of battle. A moment of pleasure is always able to put all suffering out of his mind. And the other is what Gandalf calls, “his gentle loyalty”. There may be many times in which Merry is unhappy but at no time is his self-pity of more importance to him than the welfare of his friends.

Merry cheers up at the house of Tom Bombadil

And so the time will come when he will play a central role in one of the great deeds of his Age in Middle-earth. And he will be there because of his gentle loyalty. When he sees Éowyn standing hopelessly before the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields it will be pity that fills his heart and, Tolkien tells us, “suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.”

“She should not die alone”. Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the fight with the Lord of the Nazgûl.

Frodo Longs to See the Sea. The Dream at Crickhollow.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 105-106

Frodo has made up his mind. He will leave the Shire the very next morning as early as possible and he will go through the Old Forest. All is ready thanks to Merry, the great organiser, and so the hobbits make their way to bed after tidying up, of course.

And there Frodo dreams. At first he dreams of a forest with creatures snuffling at its roots. Frodo is sure that they are looking for him and that they will find him.

Frodo is sure that they will find him

And then Tolkien writes that Frodo “heard a noise in the distance” and that he thought at first that it was the wind in the trees of the forest. But then, in that way in dreams in which you know that you know something, without knowing why or how, Frodo realises that the sound that he can hear is that of the sea. Actually, Tolkien does not spell, sea, as I have done in its generic form as not being the land. He speaks of the Sea. The Sea. The great Sea that parts Middle-earth from the Undying Lands. The Sea over which the Elves may pass in order to reach those lands but which is a way that is denied to mortals.

We learn that this is not the first time that Frodo has heard this sound in his dreams, that it is a recurring and troubled theme within them. And so we are brought within his inner life. Dreams will play an important part in The Lord of the Rings. As in our own experience they will always leave us with as many questions as answers. Tolkien had too much insight into the mystery of the human psyche to write write one of those all too popular books on “the interpretation of dreams” in which particular objects or images within a dream are assigned particular meanings. Such an understanding of dreams would either make Frodo in some sense, omniscient, or it would give that quality to us, the reader. As it is, both Frodo and us as well have to stumble through life in the dark, walking by faith and not by sight.

“Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge.”

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of The Sea

So Frodo is taken in his dream from a vision of a forest and creatures snuffling about just as he had heard the Black Rider sniffing for him. Everything in this part of the dream takes him downwards and this is the journey that he must now take. Even in his dream this feels a hopeless affair. The creatures will find him. But then Tolkien uses the word, Suddenly, and we look upwards with him to a tall white tower, alone on a high ridge. We are taken from the journey that he must take to the journey that he longs to take, even though he does not know what that journey is.

“A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea.”

The great Tolkien scholar, Verlyn Flieger, comments on this passage in her book, Splintered Light. She speaks of an “implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown.” And then she speaks of a “very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” Or to use the great insight of Augustine of Hippo, to keep on searching restlessly until we find our rest in the ultimate, or in God.

Significantly, Tolkien does not give us our last glimpse of Frodo at the end of the story as he does to his companions as they gaze outwards to the last glimpse of the light of the phial of Galadriel as the ship dips over the horizon. He takes us onwards with Frodo until journeys end as Frodo “beholds white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise”. Frodo must take the journey into danger and darkness but his heart longs for something else and one day he will find it.

I am grateful to the blog written by Jonathan McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable, for many of the insights in this week’s post and for the quote from Verlyn Flieger. You can find it at https://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/frodos-dream-tower/

“We Are Your Friends, Frodo.” A Conspiracy Unmasked.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 96-105

If Frodo has a fault, and I will allow my readers to decide whether or not it really is a fault, it is that he has a sense of himself that he, and he alone, must shoulder the burden of this quest. In my imagination I picture him sitting alone by the fire in his study in Bag End, sucking on the stem of his pipe, and seeing himself walking alone in the wild towards a far horizon as the light fades about him. And already he is nursing a feeling of desolate loneliness but he is also beginning to enjoy a feeling of greatness that, if anything, grows with the loneliness. The lonely hero is a figure much loved in the mythology of Europe and, as my North American readers will confirm, travelled across the Atlantic to the vast empty spaces of that continent. Indeed, it was as if this kind of hero was just waiting for those vast spaces in order to be reborn there.

Frodo bears his burden alone

Of course, the reason that I can picture Frodo almost starting to enjoy this sense of having “a high and lonely destiny” is that I have been drawn to the temptation of wanting to be this kind of hero myself. And I also think that I have evidence within The Lord of the Rings to support my case. You will remember how, in the Council of Elrond, Frodo heroically chooses the task of taking the Ring to Orodruin in Mordor and how, straight away, Sam cries out, “But you won’t send him off alone surely, Master?” And you will remember how, after Boromir tries to seize the Ring, Frodo announces to himself, “I will go alone. At once.”

Thankfully, Frodo always fails in his attempts to “go alone”. Even without Sam’s intervention at the Council Elrond swiftly decides that Frodo cannot go alone and creates The Fellowship of the Ring, the nine walkers who will oppose the nine riders, the Nazgûl. And it is Sam, the confounded nuisance, who prevents him from going alone to Mordor after the breaking of the Fellowship. But now, at the very beginning of the journey, it is Frodo’s friends who keep him from trying to go alone.

Of course they have no idea what lies ahead of them but then, as Gandalf remarks to Elrond later on, “neither does Frodo”. Indeed, he emphasises, “Nor do any of us see clearly. ” We are all spared the burden of knowing what lies ahead for us. We are neither robbed of the surprise of joy nor of knowing what pain or sorrow lies before us. Joy cannot be joy unless it comes to us by surprise and who would wish to rob their days of what contentment that can be enjoyed by knowing the sufferings of the future?

What Merry and Pippin and Sam have to offer is not their foreknowledge but their friendship. Frodo makes a blustery speech about not being able to trust anyone once he realises that his secret has been long known. Merry answers him magnificently. “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin- to the bitter end… But you cannot trust us to face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” And it is friendship that will prevail against all the power of the Enemy and not might nor even wisdom.

Ted Nasmith “Bathing at Crickhollow”

Friendship will take Merry into combat against the very foes that pursue them when he decides not to allow Éowyn to fight the Lord of the Nazgûl alone and it is through friendship and not might that he enables Éowyn to prevail against him. And it is friendship that takes Pippin to the high place in Minas Tirith where Denethor would take the life of his own son so that he need not die alone in his despair. It is through friendship, not might, that Pippin saves the life of Faramir. And it is through friendship that Sam brings Frodo step by intolerable step through the deserts of Mordor to Mount Doom before he carries him up the slopes of the mountain. It is not good to be alone. We were made for friendship, for belonging.