“Only a Ranger!” Gandalf Puts Frodo Right About Strider.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-219

The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, told a story of a prince who, in order to win the love of a peasant girl, decided to live among her people as a fellow peasant and to hide his true identity. Eventually he marries her and we await the moment when he will reveal himself to her. But then, Kierkegaard asks us, does he have to do this? Why can’t he remain a peasant for the rest of his life out of the same love that him to disguise himself in the first place?

As you ponder the philosopher’s question your thoughts may turn towards Strider, or Aragorn. The poet, priest and scholar, Malcolm Guite, has published a series of poems on the great O Antiphons of the Middle Ages that have a prominent place in the liturgy of the Advent season. In a note on his poem on O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations, Guite comments that the antiphon speaks of Christ as both king and also as a dusty potter working with the clay of our humanity, and then he says, “he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider!”

The One Who Walks Alongside Us

Aragorn, or Strider as he is known to the people of Bree, has walked alongside Frodo and his companions all the way from Bree to Rivendell, clad in boots that have seen much wear and are “caked in mud” with a “travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth” wrapped around him. As Frodo thinks back over the journey he begins by telling Gandalf that at first he had been afraid of Strider, then that he had become fond of him.

“Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange and grim at times. In fact he reminds me often of you.”

Finally, Frodo says, after making a few general and rather dismissive comments about “the Big People”, that he thought that Strider “was only a Ranger”. And so we return in our thoughts to the king who walks alongside us in rags. Those who learn wisdom come to understand that no-one, absolutely no-one, can be dismissed with the word, only. All people are more than they seem and if we take the time to be with them we begin to discover in what ways they are more than they seem. But Gandalf is anxious to let Frodo know that to say, “only” in relation to a Ranger, is an even greater insult.

“My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”

The Great Story into Which Frodo is Drawn

It was Strider’s ancestors who first entered Beleriand in the last centuries of the First Age where they were befriended by the Elves and gave them aid in their wars against Morgoth. That this was the people of Númenor who lived within sight of the Undying Lands. At this point of the story Frodo still has no idea that when Strider had sung the Tale of Beren and Lúthien in the camp below Weathertop he had been singing of his forefathers and foremothers. He does not know how great is the story into which he has been drawn and in which he is to play so great a part. There is one point at which his perception is entirely accurate and that is when he says of Strider “that he reminds me often of you”. But he has not learned to trust his perception. He does not yet know that he, the Elf-friend, is growing in greatness. Perhaps it is just as well, for it necessary that as we grow in greatness we must also grow in humility, to learn that everything is not gained as an achievement but given as a gift. This is the last time that we will refer to Aragorn as Strider but as Aragorn will say at a later stage of the story, Strider “has never been away”.

Strider has Never Been Away

And so we return to Kierkegaard’s story and to his question. Does his prince need to reveal his true identity to his beloved? Might not they live perfectly happily together as peasants for the rest of their lives? Perhaps they might, but equally, they might live together in happiness as a prince and princess. As Frodo is drawn into the great story so too he is becoming great, as Gildor Inglorien first recognised when he named Frodo, Elf-friend, and as Goldberry saw too in the house of Tom Bombadil. Just as with Kierkegaard’s prince, and just as with Strider, he will learn either to assume that greatness or to lay it aside as he chooses or as is necessary. Why cannot Kierkegaard’s peasant girl learn to do the same?

Divine Restlessness. Frodo Begins to Dream About the Wild Lands and the Mountains.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 40,41

Please Press Play to Listen to my Reading of this Post

 

None of us can control the stories that others tell about us although Bilbo may have tried to do so. If he had ever heard that he had become a part of Shire folklore as “Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold” we might be able to assume that he would have received the news with a certain amusement, and satisfaction too.

Frodo, on the other hand, never sought to be a part of the Bilbo Baggins “legend” but he finds himself a part of it anyway especially as his habit of giving a party in honour of Bilbo each year on the anniversary of his birth becomes widely known. All societies have a way of policing themselves by means of the informal court of public opinion. Most people do not wish to be thought strange and so will adjust their behaviour, for good or for ill, towards the norms and standards of their community. Until this point in their history hobbits have neither had, nor encouraged, a heroic culture in which certain individuals are permitted, for the sake of the greater good, to step beyond these norms. Smaug the dragon never threatened the welfare of the Shire and so Bilbo’s adventure was never thought worthy of much attention. Later Merry, Pippin and Sam will be granted a certain heroic status because of their leading part in driving out Saruman’s gang but the story of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom” which will be sung for generations in Gondor will never be given much regard in the Shire except among those to whom Sam will tell the story.

Frodo of the 9 Fingers

To the extent that Frodo desires the affection and esteem of others the lack of regard that he enjoys from his fellows will be a cause of unhappiness to him. Certainly Tolkien felt Frodo was tempted to “have returned as a ‘hero’, not content with being a mere instrument of good”.

But the desire to be a hero is not the only thing that can be said about Frodo. If it were so then he would almost certainly have fallen prey to the same temptation that would eventually beset Boromir. And it is during the seventeen years that lay between Bilbo’s departure and Gandalf’s return that a much more important aspect to his character was developed.

“Frodo himself… found that being his own master and the Mr Baggins of Bag End was rather pleasant. For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future. But half unknown to himself the regret that he had not gone with Bilbo was steadily growing. He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”

misty_mountains_by_tavenerscholar-d5opl3e

Frodo himself resists this growing desire to leave the Shire at first but it will not leave him alone. And such is the way with the kind of dreams that Frodo has and the kind of restlessness that begins to grow within him. Gradually all that we have considered to be home begins to feel too confined and the spaces that open up beyond our home become increasingly attractive.

Eventually Frodo will follow this yearning and will leave the Shire. He will wander the world, see mountains and experience Elven lands and their, almost, timeless beauty. Beauty will take hold of him on more than one occasion and yet even the wonder of Cerin Amroth will not be for him the end of his journey and neither can his return to the Shire. Frodo’s restlessness or, might we say, his homesickness, can only grow with each step that he takes. Eventually it will take him out of Middle-earth altogether and into an experience of “pure Elvishness” as Tolkien put it in a letter to a Mrs Eileen Elgar.

Cerin Amroth

But even there, as Tolkien put it in the same letter, Frodo went through what he terms “a purgatory and a reward… a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness”. All purgatory, certainly as Tolkien understood it, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The classic spiritual journey has three stages. Illumination, Purgation and Union. The journey that Frodo began in restlessness will end in the homecoming at last of pure union with Love beyond “the circles of the world”.

A Day of Praisegiving upon The Field of Cormallen

After Sam and Frodo have woken in a soft bed for the first time in many days, delighting in the sheer wonder of being alive, they are made ready to play the central part in a day of Praisegiving.

“‘What shall we wear?’ said Sam; for all he could see was the old tattered clothes that they had journeyed in, lying folded on the ground beside their beds.

‘The clothes that you wore on your way to Mordor,’ said Gandalf. ‘Even the orc clothes that you wore in the black land, Frodo, shall be preserved. No silks and linens, nor any armour or heraldry could be more honourable.'”

And so Frodo and Sam are brought before the host of the West and the Praisegiving begins. There are mighty shouts, “Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!” The King leads his people in doing honour to the heroes by bowing the knee and leading Frodo and Sam to thrones set up beside his own. And a minstrel sings praise before the host and the heroes telling them of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom”, so making Sam’s joy complete. So great is the skill of the minstrel that the hearts of all who listen are “wounded with sweet words” and they overflow with a joy “like swords” until they pass “in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

This Day of Giving Praise is one that enables all who are gathered together on The Field of Cormallen to create a sacred space within their hearts to hold all that has happened to them as a treasure that in days to come they will be able to take out and gaze upon to make some sense of all that will happen to them in their lives. For they will know many more days of sorrow and of joy and will share those days with others too. But they have been to the very edge of darkness and have seen it gather about them, ready to devour them, and then the light has broken through to carry them to blessedness and they hardly know how they have got there or what the place is that they have reached.

Stories must be told and doubtless a story of the deeds of Frodo and Sam has been told to the army before they appear before them. Of course they know nothing of the journey through Mordor or the final events upon the Mountain. All that they know is that the Halflings who stand before them, clothed in orc rags, are their deliverers. Even the minstrel who tells the story with such skill does not know what we would call the facts. What he knows is a truth that is so real that even the hobbits, who lived the facts, recognise it as their own lived experience and recognise it too as something that transcends that experience. Both the praise that the host gives and the song of the minstrel rely upon formulae, of recognised forms of speech, but the overflow of their hearts is in no way diminished by this. Rather it is contained as a river channel contains a mighty flood enabling the water’s force to empower rather than destroy.

Once again we are taken back to Frodo’s experience in the halls of Elrond when Bilbo’s singing of the Tale of Eärendil and Frodo’s experience of the mighty river of the Music of the Ainur all became one thing for a moment.

It is this experience that all who gather upon the Field of Cormallen will be able to draw upon in years to come. The giving of praise, a king who kneels before hobbits of the Shire clothed in orc rags, and a tale sung by the greatest of minstrels that transported them briefly to a place of blessedness and then brought them back to the ground upon which they must stand and then leave to the feast and then to their duties.

And if they should choose each duty will be transfigured from this day on by the treasure that they carry within their hearts and even those who allow the treasure to be choked and buried by the cares of their lives may, in a moment of illumination, find the light that they once experienced upon The Field of Cormallen breaking through once more.

The image in this week’s blog post is by Tolman Cotton.