“There Must Be Someone of Intelligence in The Party”. On the Choosing of The Heroes Who Will Help Frodo to Take The Ring to The Fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.264-267

Elrond honoured Frodo’s offer of himself to take the Ring to the Fire by speaking of the heroes of the past. “If you take it freely,” he says, “I will say that your choice is right; and though the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself, were assembled together, your seat should be among them.”

Alan Lee depicts Túrin Turambar, one of the children of Húrin

When The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954 little was known of these names except for Beren because of the story that Strider told to the hobbits in the camp below Weathertop on the night on which the Nazgûl attacked and wounded Frodo. The Silmarillion was not published until after Tolkien’s death and in the years since our knowledge of them all has grown thanks to the work of Christopher Tolkien. But if all we knew of them was the list that Elrond gives us, that phrase, “mighty elf friends” would be sufficient to evoke our deepest respect and even a little awe.

The four “mighty elf-friends of old” that Elrond names are figures of the First Age of Arda. They were the mortal Children of Ilúvatar who, upon entering Beleriand, chose to side with the Elves against Morgoth. Deeply flawed though they were, it was their implacable denial of despair in the face of the seemingly inevitable victory of darkness that shines out again and again through the long defeat of that age. Typical of this spirit we read of Húrin at the terrible battle of Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

“Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: “Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!”

Jenny Dolfen imagines Húrin at Nirnaeth Arnoediad

It is of heroes like this to which Elrond likens Frodo, not because of his martial ferocity but because of his quiet courage in the face of an impossible task. When he and Sam and Bilbo meet with Merry and Pippin, Frodo describes his mission as “a hopeless journey”. There is no point at which he regards it as anything less than hopeless and yet he never thinks of turning back, of resting in Rivendell, “a long while, perhaps for good”.

Frodo is a hero to stand with the Elf-friends of old because of the choice that he makes but what of Sam, Merry and Pippin? At first glance we might think that Tolkien uses them as some kind of comic relief and Pippin’s words about “someone with intelligence in the party” and Gandalf’s response to what Pippin says seem to show that this is indeed their purpose in the story. But at all times Tolkien wants us to see that the bonds of fellowship that bind the hobbits together have a power that cannot be measured through force of arms or even their intelligence. Later when Elrond chooses the party that will accompany Frodo, Sam and the Ring, he is minded to choose someone like Glorfindel, a mighty elf-lord, but Gandalf disagrees.

“I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom”

It is not that Gandalf has given way to sentimentality at this vital moment in the story but that he is true to his own charism, the grace that he has been given and which he has long nurtured. His teacher, the Lady Nienna, taught him to see with pity, not with blame and to warm the hearts of free peoples everywhere. He knows the power of a warmed heart especially when the world has grown cold and time and again, I suspect without really knowing why, his heart was drawn to the Shire and the simple hospitality of its people. His pleasure in good, simple food, good beer and a pipe to follow dinner meant that his own heart was warmed when he made these visits and if the only fruit of them was rest and the enjoyment of fireworks then this would have been sufficient for him but it was to these simple folk to whom the Ring was entrusted. Folk who live in the “merrier world” in which “food and cheer and song” are valued above hoarded gold.

The friendship of hobbits

“I Will Take The Ring, Though I Do Not Know The Way.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 260-264

How much we would like to view the hero as someone in an exalted state. The eyes should gaze intently to a distant point, towards the hero’s glorious destiny. The hero will stand alone and the admiring gaze of all will look up into those eyes for how could anyone look down at the hero. And the hero should be beautiful. How could it be otherwise? For the hero is the projection of our longings for ourselves, the exalted self that we long to be or, perhaps, to be with.

If this hero is beautiful it is not because he tried to be beautiful. If he is a hero it is not because he wants to be a hero.

Older and wiser heads may smile at such longing with a degree of indulgence, remembering that I used the words, high, lonely and destiny quite recently in this blog reflecting as we did so on the close kinship between Saruman the White and Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew. Am I suggesting that neither Saruman nor Uncle Andrew have never outgrown this rather adolescent longing? I rather think that I am. There is no blame attached to an adolescent being an adolescent but the world is blighted by adolescents who never grow up.

And when we compare these characters to the one who speaks the words of the title of this blog post so quietly and so reluctantly we know that we are talking about something quite different to the self admiration of these outgrown children. For Frodo shares little in common with Saruman. This is not to say that Frodo is completely free of the desire for exaltation. When he sat with Gandalf in his study at Bag End Frodo had felt “a great desire to follow Bilbo” flame up in his heart; a desire “so strong that it overcame his fear”. Perhaps at this point of the story the influence of Narya, the ring that Gandalf bears, is able to warm his heart, though even Gandalf is surprised. It is at that moment when he declares that “hobbits really are amazing creatures”. So there is a place and a time for exaltation but as the story reaches the place in which the decision has to be made concerning the Ring all exaltation, all warmth has gone. Frodo has met the implacable hatred of the Morgul Lord, has felt his blade pierce his flesh, the tiny splinter travel towards his heart. Now as he sits among the Council and listens to the debate about what should be done to the Ring he feels “a dead darkness in his heart”.

The debate continues. Boromir argues that the Ring should be used against Sauron, Elrond says that this is impossible; Glóin asks about the three Elven Rings and Elrond declares that they must remain hidden; Erestor of the Grey Havens speaks of the folly of trying to make the journey to Mordor and Gandalf answers that it is this folly that Sauron is incapable of grasping; and at the last it is Bilbo who asks what messenger should take the Ring to the fire.

No-one answers him. Either because they still feel that it is folly to take the road to Mordor or because they know that for them to carry the Ring is impossible all remain silent. And at the very last it is Frodo’s voice, this time struggling against an overwhelming desire to rest, that speaks “as if some other will was using his small voice”.

“I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

After this everything is all quite simple. So it is once the great choices are made. All falls into place around them and the people who make them. Even Sam does not argue against the choice only that Frodo should not go alone. But the choice and the manner of its expression is the most moving moment of the whole story. It is the moral heart of the story. It is made, not at the conclusion of some process of selection with all the qualities of each candidate having undergone careful assessment but simply because one person has been called, has been chosen. And the choosing is like “the pronouncement of some doom”.

Are life’s truly great choices always like this? Do they always feel unavoidable, even inevitable, and yet they still have to be made? And do they always feel like pronouncements of doom? A last judgment against which no argument can be found? Such choices are practically inexpressible. Elrond rightly places Frodo amongst his mighty ancestors even as the heroes gathered in Rivendell had to remain silent as a hobbit stood to speak but even his words feel small against the magnitude of the choice.

It is But a Trifle That Sauron Fancies. Gloín tells of the mission of the messenger of Mordor.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 234-36

One by one the company who are the Council of Elrond tell of how it is that they have come to Rivendell and as each listens to the other they begin to learn the truth of what Elrond says of how it is that they are sitting there on that October morning.

“You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”

The Council of Elrond

And so it is that Gloín is the first to give an account of why he is in Rivendell that day. A messenger of Sauron had come to the Kingdom under the Mountain seeking news of hobbits. For “one of these was known to you on a time”. That hobbit, of course, is Bilbo and the messenger seeks him because of the Ring. Although it is not stated explicitly it is clear as we read Gloín’s account that the messenger is a Ringwraith, one of the nine, the Nazgûl. His breath came “like the hiss of snakes” and all who stand near by shudder. Sauron wishes for his embassy to have a maximum impact and requires a herald who will be a cause of fear in all who hear him.

The Messenger of Sauron

But if Sauron’s intention is to create fear what he achieves is to inspire resistance. The messenger’s mention of hobbits serves only to remind Dáin Ironfoot, the King under the Mountain, of his bond of obligation to Bilbo without whom he would never have gained his crown. And it serves also to remind him and the other chieftains of the dwarves of the alliance that fought the Battle of the Five Armies and the shelter and counsel that Thorin Oakenshield’s party received at Rivendell during their journey. For we should not assume that just because Gloín and his companions are present at the Council that this represents a normal state of affairs in which ambassadors go to and fro between the hidden valley and the lonely mountain. If there is an ambassador whose labour in making alliances between the free peoples of Middle-earth is bearing fruit on this day in Rivendell then it is Gandalf, the Grey Pilgrim, the one who encouraged Thorin to make his journey to Erebor and who, for some strange reason, had him take a hobbit with him. And it was Gandalf who brought together the men of Dale and Esgaroth, the elves of the Woodland Realm and the dwarves to defeat the orcs of the Misty Mountains. Gandalf has followed hunches, grasped at straws, and held onto fool’s hopes many times and for many years before this moment, many times before the decision is made that will be the outcome of this Council.

The Battle of the Five Armies

Sauron too has been a builder of alliances over many long years. He is gathering them together for the great war even as the Council deliberates. He knows that many of the peoples of Middle-earth are not natural allies for all Gandalf’s efforts. There has been little love between elf and dwarf through the ages, much suspicion and sometimes outright hostility and even war. The dwarves have fought many battles against orcs through the centuries but apart from the Battle of the Five Armies they have fought them alone and they have usually felt alone in the world. Sauron’s alliance building is usually a mixture of threat and gift and so it is with the dwarves. The threat is war and the gift is of two of the rings of power once held by dwarf lords, rings that greatly increased their wealth. What choice will the dwarves make in the war that is to come?

It was no accident that Elrond placed Frodo and Gloín together at the table top of highest honour at the feast the night before. Gloín, the companion of Thorin Oakenshield had to become acquainted with the heir of Bilbo, the Ringbearer. He had to be reminded bodily of the bond between dwarves and hobbits, with the family of Bilbo.

“You have done well to come,” Elrond says to Gloín after Gloín speaks of his fears. “You will hear today all that you need in order to understand the purposes of the Enemy. There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world.”

“You do not stand alone”. Krystyn Janelle’s imagining of the Lonely Mountain.

Eärendil Was a Mariner. The Story That Seems to Fit Somehow.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 227-30

Frodo gradually emerges from “a dream of music that turned into running water, and then suddenly into a voice”. And the voice is that of Bilbo chanting verses.

Eärendil was a mariner 
that tarried in Arvernien;
he built a boat of timber felled
in Nimbrethil to journey in;
her sails he wove of silver fair,
of silver were her lanterns made,
her prow was fashioned like a swan, 
and light upon her banners laid. 



Eärendil The Mariner by Ted Nasmith

And so begins the longest poem in The Lord of the Rings. A poem that links the story both to The Silmarillion and to the moment in 1914 when first Tolkien began to conceive his legendarium, the moment in which his heart was captured by the beauty of some lines from an Anglo-Saxon poem.

” Eala earendel, engla beorhtast, ofer middangeard monnum sended…”

“O, Earendel, brightest of angels, sent to men above Middle-earth…”

Eala Earendel

The poem was entitled, Christ ,or The Advent Lyrics and as soon as we read the word, Advent, we know that these words are an expression of profound longing, a cry from the darkness of our prison, a longing for freedom and for peace.

The poem continues, “You come yourself to illuminate those who for the longest time, shrouded in shadow and in darkness here, reside in the everlasting night- enfolded in our sins, they have had to endure the dark shadows of death.”

It all fits because the tale that Bilbo tells in his poem is one of deliverance from darkness. Eärendil journeys from Middle-earth to Valinor to plead for aid against Morgoth who has conquered all. Gondolin has fallen. Nargothrond has fallen. Doriath has fallen. All that was most beautiful has been lost for ever.

But that is not all. The darkness does not belong to Morgoth alone. The sons of Fëanor, bound by the oath that they swore to their father in their grief and fury, attack Arvernien seeking for the Silmaril, seized from the very crown of Morgoth by Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. Even the reverence in which the memory of Beren and Lúthien is held is not enough to restrain the revenge required by this oath. But Eärendil still goes to Valinor seeking mercy for all and Manwë, Chief of the Valar, of the Ainur, the makers of the Music, allows this one emissary to enter the Undying Lands. Eärendil, the great intercessor, brings aid to Middle-earth in its darkest hour. “The looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope.”

And Eärendil will come once more in The Lord of the Rings in Shelob’s Lair, when in his darkest moment, in darkness visible as death bears down upon him, Frodo holds high the star-glass of Galadriel in which the light of the Silmaril is held and cries out, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Hail Eärendil, Brightest of Stars! The very same Advent cry that Tolkien read in 1914 and which captured his heart.

Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima

“It all seemed to me to fit somehow.”

The sense in which the story fits, both in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell and in Shelob’s Lair in Mordor is that Frodo has been drawn into the age-old longing of the Children of Ilúvatar for a light that will never go out, that darkness can never overcome.

“O Morning Star! Come and Enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death”.

“O Oriens…Veni et inlumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis”.

Those who sit at ease are not in need of deliverance. The story that seems to fit somehow is the age long story of the prisoner in darkness. Bilbo and then Frodo are drawn into this story. Bilbo becomes a member of Thorin Oakenshield’s party. Frodo sets off into the wild with his three companions. Both are linked together by the finding of the Ring of Power. Both are linked together too by a desire for adventure. Soon all who have been drawn into this story, all who have been brought to Rivendell at this moment, at the coming of the Ring and the Ringbearer, will gather together to take counsel for the deliverance of Middle-earth. And once again the prayer of Eärendil will be made by those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

Frodo is Lucky to Be in Rivendell “After All the Absurd Things” He Has Done Since Leaving Home.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 213-19

As I wrote last week it is altogether too pleasant to think of getting out of bed after nearly three weeks in the wild since leaving Bree. Even Gandalf’s chastisements feel like pleasantries compared to the terror of the attack below Weathertop, the agony of the long miles from that moment and the flight across the Fords of Bruinen with the Black Riders in close pursuit.

Frodo recalls all that has happened to him. “The disastrous ‘short cut’ through the Old Forest; the ‘accident’ at The Prancing Pony; and his madness in putting on the Ring in the dell under Weathertop.” But he is still too tired to be able to judge himself and besides Gandalf continues after a long pause:

“Though I said ‘absurd’ just now, I did not mean it. I think well of you-and of the others. It is no small feat to have come so far, and through such dangers, still bearing the Ring.”

“I think well of you”

It is a major part of Tolkien’s skill as a storyteller that we have become so used to seeing the story through the eyes of the hobbits as, apparently, they stumble from one near disaster to another from the moment they set out from Bag End that we do not realise what an achievement their safe arrival in Rivendell is. Months later, in the pavilions at the Field of Cormallen, a bard will sing of these things as the deeds of mighty heroes and the armies of Gondor and Rohan will acclaim Frodo and Sam as such. For their part, the hobbits do not believe their own press. Perhaps it is as well that they don’t. To regard oneself as a hero is unwise. In a few weeks time we will be introduced to a character who longs to be seen by others as a mighty hero and have them come flocking to his banner. Things will go badly for him before his final redemption.

We could have looked at the journey of the hobbits from a number of other perspectives than their own. For poor old Fatty Bolger even the choice to go through the Old Forest is madness and that is before he encounters the Black Riders for himself. Aragorn does not think very highly of them, certainly at first when he meets them in Bree. After the raid on The Prancing Pony by the Black Riders and the loss of the pack ponies he gazes long at the hobbits “as if he was weighing up their strength and courage”. We get the impression that, at this stage of the story, he does not have much expectation of their ability to make the journey to Rivendell.

“weighing up their strength and courage”

He is nearly right, of course. And so is Gandalf. Frodo and his companions are lucky to have reached Rivendell. But then so too is Aragorn. And, as we shall learn later, so too is Gandalf. Perhaps it is Tom Bombadil who sees things with the most clarity. Tom makes no judgements about the hobbits knowing, as he does, the dangers of the world. Through his experience over many years he has learned the measure of these dangers, both those against which he can pit himself and those against which he cannot. As he says before his final farewell to the hobbits, “Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country”.

And yet, despite their own frailties, despite their inexperience, even despite the power of the Nazgûl, Frodo and his companions arrive safely in Rivendell. Perhaps, as Frodo says, it was Strider who saved them. Perhaps, as Gandalf puts it, “fortune or fate” helped them, as well as courage. Perhaps, as we weigh up the challenges of life that we must face it is wise if we do not do too much ‘weighing up’. Either we will put too much confidence in our own ability or we will be so terrified that, like Fatty Bolger, we will never try the journey at all. Bombadil’s final advice to the hobbits remains the best. He tells the hobbits simply to be themselves. “Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune!” And this is just what Frodo and his companions have done. And we might say also, this is what fortune has done too.

“Keep up your merry hearts and ride to meet your fortune”

At Weathertop With a Long Journey Ahead. Frodo Longs to Go Home.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 180-84

There are moments in any great venture in which its sheer scale becomes all too much. There is no shame in such moments. Who, upon setting out on a great journey, can possibly know all that lies ahead? Modern life seems to require the elimination of as much risk and unpredictability as possible. Those who try to sell us a holiday will brand the experience as an adventure but a true adventure is something in life in which the end is uncertain. A holiday, by comparison, is a distraction from our regular routine.

I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t

Later in the story, after he has had much more experience of adventure, Sam will reflect on this with Frodo.

“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been landed in them, usually- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”

And it is upon Weathertop, with the first view of snowcapped mountains ahead of him and long leagues of open country between him and the horizon, that Frodo longs to be safe at home, longs to be able to turn back, wishes “bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire.”

Strider Approaches Weathertop with Frodo and Merry

Frodo and his companions have been landed in a story that is quite simply much too big for them. As Gandalf said to Frodo in the sitting room at Bag End it would appear that, first, Bilbo, and then Frodo, were meant to have the Ring. Why this should be is unknown to either them or anyone else. It is not because of their wisdom or might. Later the story will be told about them that will draw attention to both of these qualities but the hobbits will never draw attention to themselves in this regard.

But what of the other heroes that are mentioned in the pages about which we are thinking here? What of Gil-galad and Elendil? They were kings of Elves and of Humankind who were confronted by the might of Sauron at the end of the Second Age. Gil-galad was the last great elven king in Middle-earth, capable of raising an army to fight the Dark Lord in all his power in open battle. Elendil, whose very name means elf-friend, had remained faithful to that friendship when Sauron had seduced Númenor to the worship of Morgoth. He, his family and followers, were literally carried by a great wave to the shores of Middle-earth. It was friendship that brought the last alliance together just as it was friendship that caused the hobbits to leave the Shire with Frodo.

And so it always seems to be. Something compels us to make a choice, to take an action that we never anticipated. There comes a moment in which the thought that we might have to deny something essential about ourselves becomes intolerable. Merry, Pippin and Sam could not have denied their friendship with Frodo to allow him to journey into the wild alone. Elendil could not have denied the friendship that was the meaning of his very name.

And Aragorn, or Strider as we know him in this part of the story, cannot deny the destiny that he must seek to fulfil, spending the years of his manhood as a homeless wanderer in the lands of Middle-earth, sneered at by people like Bill Ferny in Bree. Despite all of his doubts about the hobbits he has promised to save them by life or death if he can.

And so it is on Weathertop, with the signs of Gandalf’s battle about them and the Black Riders assembling on the road beneath them that the companions must try to go on together, hoping against hope.

Alan Lee’s Wonderful Evocation of the Bleak View from Weathertop

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Gandalf’s Letter Commends Aragorn to the Hobbits.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 160-168

It is Gandalf’s letter that he had left with Barliman Butterbur that eventually convinced the hobbits to trust the strange man who goes by the name of Strider. Of course, when I say, trust, it must be said that Sam Gamgee did not really trust him. Sam has grown up in a small world,”in a little circle of light,” as Tolkien put it in his essay on Beowulf, The Monsters and The Critics, from which “men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Not that Sam expects his journey to end in defeat. Sam Gamgee is a happy ever after kind of a man who expects things, even the darkest things, to end well. Much will ride upon this quality in the events that lie ahead. But Sam has grown up in a little circle of light and regards the world outside as dark and hostile. He does not know how to distinguish between the offspring of the dark and the kings and champions; not yet at any rate. But the strange man who now stands before the hobbits knows this world very well indeed. Speaking of the Black Riders who are pursuing the hobbits he says:

“They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.”

They will come upon you in the wild

This man knows about about the offspring of the dark. “They are terrible!” He has wandered the wild and dark places of the earth for many years having been sent out from the circle of light that is Rivendell by Elrond, its lord, who has been as a father to him. I have written about him and his story in greater detail in other places in this blog over the years and if you click on the tag, Aragorn, at the end of this post, you will be able to read these if you so wish but as this is the first time in The Lord of the Rings in which we meet this king and champion it would be good to say a few things about him.

This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Rangers of the North, the last of the line of Isildur, son of Elendil, the hero who cut the Ring from the finger of Sauron with the shards of Narsil his father’s sword. Aragorn still carries those shards, “the blade that was broken”, the symbol of his diminished house. And Elrond sent him out from the circle of light to “that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark” when he was a young man in order that he might undergo an apprenticeship that will lead to this crownless one becoming king.

Sustained by Love

In this apprenticeship he serves in the armies of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and of Thengel, King of Rohan and he befriends Gandalf, aiding him in his long struggle against the dark. Through all these long years he is sustained by hope, hope that his wandering will not end in defeat but in the renewing , not just of the blade that was broken but of his people. And he is sustained by love, for he loves Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond, who returned his love, but he cannot win her hand in marriage except as king of both Gondor and of Arnor, the first to sit upon both thrones since the great founder of his house, Elendil and he cannot achieve his longings unless the Dark Lord, Sauron, is finally and utterly defeated. So it is that he meets a hobbit who does “want looking after and no mistake”, who might be “on a holiday” and not at the heart of the greatest events of his age and he has to base all his longing upon this encounter and because of his friendship with Gandalf he chooses to do so. “If by life or death I can save you, I will.”

I began these thoughts with a quotation from Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf. In it Tolkien describes an heroic but ultimately hopeless world. Despite their courage the heroes, “even the kings and champions” are finally defeated in their struggle against the dark. Aragorn has no idea whether or not his story will end in defeat. He has to place his trust, all the longings of his life in this slenderest of threads. Is this a story of hope fulfilled or of defeat and darkness? Will Aragorn’s wanderings end in a homecoming or will he be lost in the wilderness?

There are Many Strange Men On The Roads. Is this the Real Strider?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp160-68

It was only after posting last week’s blog that I really began to ponder Tolkien’s description of the man in the corner of Barliman Butterbur’s common room. Let me take you back there again.

“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud.”

Strider in The Prancing Pony by Anthony Foti

Apart from a sudden desire to know in what way his pipe was “curiously carved” it was those words, “strange-looking”, that caught my attention. In what way, strange? Those who come to know Tolkien’s work quite well know that he is never a lazy writer. There will be a reason why he will have chosen this description. To describe the man sitting in the shadows as weather-beaten is obvious enough. He is a man who has walked many miles in those boots and in all weathers. Not for the men of his time the artificial protection of the ton of metal about him that keeps us and the weather separate from each other. Now if we meet someone who is truly weather-beaten it is something that is worthy of note, even strange, but not in those days. The faces of even quite young men would be wind-darkened and their hands tough and leathery. No, this is not what makes this man strange.

Nor is it the fact that he is not a regular fixture of the common room of The Prancing Pony that makes this man strange. There are many strangers in the only place of comfort on the long journey between Rivendell and the Shire or on the Greenway that runs northwards from Dunland and Rohan. Some of these are strange enough to be a cause of concern to the Breelanders. One of these southerners, “a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future”.

No, this is not what makes the man in the shadows strange, and, in any case, Butterbur tells Frodo that he is a fairly regular visitor to Bree. No, what makes him strange is that he is not one of the usual kind of people who visit The Prancing Pony. He is neither a local farmer or artisan nor the usual kind of wanderer upon the road. The quality of his pipe and his boots should be a clue to an identity that is different from others. Everything about him speaks of mystery.

The Rangers of the North

But Frodo who, after the highly disturbing incident with the Ring after his comic song on the table top, is starting to see everyone as a potential threat, and soon begins to think that this man is a rascal, a rogue. And when the hobbits meet the stranger in their room after the events in the common room Frodo is not much comforted by his words.

“You must take me along with you, until I wish to leave you.”

Eventually it is Gandalf’s letter left in the hands of Butterbur that convinces Frodo and his companions to put their trust, albeit with some reluctance, in this man. And such is the way with decisions that have to be made in unfamiliar situations. When we are at home, surrounded by the familiar, our choices are more often than not a weighing up of possibilities about which we have some knowledge. But ever since Gandalf revealed to Frodo that the ring that Bilbo had left behind on the day of the Long-expected Party was in fact the One Ring made by the Dark Lord to rule all things, Frodo has lived in a world that is unfamiliar and in which he has to make choices with little to go upon that he fully understands. This Strider, this strange man who is sitting in his room as if he owned it, may be a rogue. Frodo is risking his life in the decision that he makes. Is Strider the man that Gandalf’s letter speaks of or is he one of the “many strange men on the roads”? A strange man he most certainly is. His looks are against him. What decision will Frodo make?

My looks are against me

A Strange-Looking Weather-Beaten Man in The Prancing Pony at Bree. Frodo Meets Strider for the First Time.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 151-159

The common-room of an inn is not the best place in which to remain unnoticed and it becomes even more difficult if the host is skilled at creating a community within it, introducing locals and visitors to one another so that each becomes relaxed in one another’s company, stays a little longer and spends a little more money. All of which might be regarded by those of a suspicious nature as somewhat manipulative but which most of us are willing to accept because the quality of our visit to the inn has been improved thereby.

In The Prancing Pony a marvellous evocation by Katie https://thefandomentals.com/lord-rings-re-read-sign-prancing-pony/

But put a hobbit like Peregrine Took among a company of people most of whom are strangers to one another and who are only too glad to be entertained by a good teller of stories and soon the need to be discreet is forgotten. Pippin begins to tell the story of Bilbo’s farewell party and soon it becomes possible that he might mention the name of Baggins and even speak of the Ring itself.

“You had better do something quick!” whispers a stranger sitting in the corner of the room to Frodo and for the first time in the story we are introduced to Strider.

He is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall… He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him,showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face”.

Strider in The Prancing Pony

All that Frodo can see of his face is the gleam of his eyes and so everything about him speaks of mystery. Even Butterbur knows very little about him. Strider comes and goes but keeps himself very much to himself. He is one of the Rangers, a “wandering folk”. It isn’t Barliman’s business to inquire too closely into the lives of others. He allows them to keep their lives a secret as long as they do not bring trouble to Bree. But we have been introduced to the Rangers before and by Tom Bombadil. When Tom freed the hobbits from the barrow wight and brought out the treasure from the darkness he spoke of the Men of Westernesse, foes of the Dark Lord but overcome by the evil king of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl, chief of the very Black Riders who have been pursuing the hobbits.

Tom speaks of the Rangers as “sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.” And now the heedless folk, the unwary hobbits feeling quite at home in a warm and comfortable inn, meet one of the guardians who have long maintained them in their comfortable life.

Alan Lee’s mysterious evocation of the Rangers of the North

To speak of a once great people as a company who now walk in loneliness is deeply poignant. We might speak of a person who has become closely acquainted with loneliness almost wearing it like a garment but to speak of a whole people in this manner deepens their mystery and its sadness. Imagine being the child of such a people. Imagine an education in which you begin to learn of your ancestry and as you do so begin to realise that your dignity has been fading away for generations. And what dignity! You belong to a race of king, the people of Númenor, the second children of Ilúvatar after the firstborn, the Elves, who are in the world together in a manner unknown to them both to achieve its healing and yet are so diminished now. As you grow up with only a flickering ember of hope to sustain you, you realise that you can only become one of the keepers of this ember if you will embrace the loneliness that is given to you along with your dignity.

As Tom Bombadil spoke of the Rangers the hobbits saw them in their hidden glory as Men, “tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow”. But now Frodo sits beside one of them who is alone, weather-beaten and smoking in Bree who speaks roughly to him just as Pippin begins to feel just a little too pleased with himself.

Faramir Remembers “Númenor that was”

I am on a holiday with my wife in the county of Pembrokeshire in west Wales, the county in which my father in law was born and grew up. I am sitting in a pub with a glass of ale at my hand. I do not wish to write something new this week and so I decided to republish an old post in the hope that I would get some new readers for it. Do let me know what you think. When I first wrote this it was the first of three posts on “Númenor that was”, “Elvenhome that is” and “That which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.” Why don’t you read all three.

“We look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

Faramir looks westward with Frodo and Sam

So says Faramir to Frodo and Sam motioning to them to stand with himself and his men facing westwards into the setting sun at the refuge of Henneth Annûn before they sit to eat. And in this simple action the people of Gondor recollect both their history and their identity day by day.

They remember the peril that Eärendil “ventured for love of the Two Kindreds” at the end of the First Age of the Earth. For when the forces of Morgoth had all but overthrown the kingdoms of the Elves and Men in Beleriand Eärendil had journeyed to Valinor to plea for the mercy of the Valar in their uttermost need, and mercy was granted to them. They remember how Morgoth was overthrown and in punishment was “thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World into the Timeless Void”. They remember how Elros and Elrond, the sons of Eärendil, were granted a choice that none had ever been offered either before nor since. The Valar offered to them either to live as one of the deathless that was the destiny of the Elves upon the Earth or to choose mortality that was the destiny of Humankind. And they remember how Elrond chose the destiny of the Elvenkind and so came to live in Rivendell in Middle-earth and how Elros chose mortality and was granted as gift for himself and his people the great isle of Númenor in the Western Seas just within sight of Valinor.

The Shores of Númenor by Izzi Saeta Cabrera

They remember how at first their ancestors lived in contentment with the choice that Elros had made and the land that had been granted as gift; but how, even as their power grew, they grew envious of those that were deathless, coming to see their own mortality as a punishment laid upon them by the Valar who they now regarded as tyrants. This discontent and envy grew and festered over many years even as their might grew. Indeed, we might say, unease and power seemed to grow in equal measure. Eventually so great was that power that they were able to overthrow and make prisoner Sauron even after he had forged the One Ring and had made Barad-dûr in Mordor the heart of his dominions within Middle-earth. But their victory over Sauron was achieved, not as a rejection of his darkness but in envy of his power and so, even as a prisoner, Sauron was able to make that envy grow directing it now against the Valar. Eventually with Sauron’s encouragement they assaulted Elvenhome itself believing that if they could conquer it they would achieve the immortality that they desired, that it was the land itself that somehow granted to its people their deathlessness. But a great wave arose that destroyed the fleets and even the Isle of Númenor and so it is that when Faramir and his men stand in silence they remember “Númenor that was”.

The Fall of Númenor

But even as the faithlessness of the kings of Númenor and those that followed them comes to mind every time the people of Gondor stand before they eat so too does the memory of those who were faithful at great cost to themselves. For among the people of Númenor there were those known as Elf-friends who still loved the Valar and were content with the choice of Elros. When the fleets of Númenor sailed in assault upon Valinor they refused to go with them and the great wave that destroyed Númenor carried Elendil, his sons, Isildur and Anárion and all their peoples, in nine great ships to the shores of Middle-earth where they founded the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor.

All this is called to mind as the peoples of Gondor remember “Númenor that was”, and it is a memory of gift, of choice, of growing discontent and envy that led to unfaithfulness and also to the faithfulness of Elendil and his people, the Elf-friends. And each time they do this they know that they themselves are the fruit of this story and how they too must live.

In this week’s reflection we have remembered  “Númenor that was” and perhaps it has caused us to think of our own discontents with our lives and what has been given to us and what it might mean for us to be faithful even as were the Elf-friends. Next week we shall think with Faramir and his men of “Elvenhome that is” and all that comes to mind as they gaze towards it.