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.”

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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”.

“Keep it Safe, and Keep it Secret!” On What Takes Place at Bag End after Bilbo Leaves The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 35-40

Bilbo leaves the Shire after the party in search of a holiday but for Frodo, at least at first, life is anything but leisurely. This is all Bilbo’s fault, of course. The manner of his disappearance means that the conventional hobbits feel abused by him. Some are simply outraged; the Sackville-Bagginses try to regain possession of Bag End; while some of the younger ones cannot help but try to find out whether there is more to the stories of Bilbo’s fabulous wealth than mere rumour. All in all Frodo spends some time after the party more or less under siege in Bag End.

It is during the process of repelling invaders that Gandalf returns. At first Frodo and his friends try to repel him too, or at least to ignore him.

“Suddenly the wizard’s head appeared at the window.

‘If you don’t let me in, Frodo, I shall blow your door right down your hole and out through the hill,’ he said.”

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Gandalf wishes to speak about the Ring. At this point in the story he merely refers to the Ring as “It”. This is what needs to be kept secret and safe. It is clear that Gandalf already has his suspicions regarding Bilbo’s “magic” ring. He knows from his Ringlore that “magic” rings don’t just turn up from time to time. There was only one time during the Second Age in which Rings of Power were created and every single one of them had a connection to the Dark Lord. Seven Rings were created for Dwarf lords and Nine for Lords of Men. Three were forged by Elven Smiths but were never touched by Sauron although Celebrimbor of Eregion received guidance in their making from the Dark Lord in his fair guise of Annatar. And then there was the One Ring to rule them all.

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Even now Gandalf fears that Bilbo’s ring might indeed be the One Ring. So why does he not act upon his fear straight away? It will be nearly seventeen years before he returns to the Shire and confirms his fears. In that time Sauron will have almost completed all his preparations for war and at the end of it he will send out his most deadly servants, the Nazgûl, the keepers of the Nine Rings, in search of the One. During those years no great alliance of the free peoples of Middle-earth will be formed as took place at the end of the Second Age, an alliance strong enough to overthrow the Dark Lord. And the one alliance that has remained, that between Gondor and the Kingdom of Rohan, will be systematically weakened by the work of Saruman the traitor.

I have two thoughts regarding these years of relative inaction.

One is that Gandalf knows that he cannot afford to make any mistakes regarding the One Ring. It is much too big for that. If he were to gamble on the identity of Bilbo’s Ring and get it wrong the consequences would be catastrophic. He knows that at the end this is not a war that can be won through force of arms. Sauron can be delayed but this time he cannot be defeated. Gandalf knows that at the moment of the crisis of the Age everything will depend upon a madness, upon a gamble in which everything is wagered upon one slender possibility.

I exaggerate! To describe the possibility as slender is a nonsense. The wager will be made on an action that is as close to impossible as can be conceived. Gandalf knows this even now and so he needs to be sure.

The second is that at the moment when Gandalf leaves the Shire and the Ring he does not know what to do next. He knows enough not to try to take the Ring himself. He fears what it might do to him if it turns out to be the One. He knows that when the time comes everything will have to be risked upon one throw of the dice. But what this will mean in an actual plan of action he does not yet know. He needs time to think.

“Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he were carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.”

 

Bilbo Wants to go on a Holiday. But Frodo is Still in Love With The Shire.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) p 32

One of the deepest longings in all of our lives is to belong. The Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, wrote, “Your longing is often wiser than your conventional sense of appropriateness, safety and truth.” We might say then that the conventional (and who is more conventional than a hobbit?) is a kind of training in the dulling of one’s sense of longing and replacing it with what is regarded as appropriate, safe and true. Most hobbits receive this training with their mother’s milk and their father’s carefully garnered store of well worn proverbs. But not so Bilbo Baggins and his nephew and heir, Frodo. Of them O’Donohue might have written, “Your longing desires to take you towards the absolute realisation of all the possibilities that reside in the clay of your heart; it knows your eternal potential, and it will not rest until it is awakened.”

JohnODonohue

Bilbo and Frodo will both undertake a pilgrimage through the events recorded within The Lord of the Rings that will end with a final voyage from The Grey Havens to the Undying Lands of the True West. In the twenty or so years that comprise the story Frodo in particular will journey through lands of wonder but then into hell itself before returning to the Shire and discovering that for him, at least, it is no longer home. It is my belief that in the West he finally achieves peace and healing but not his final homecoming. As Aragorn will one day say to Arwen, “We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” In hope Aragorn glimpses the eternal of which O’Donohue speaks. I believe that both Bilbo and Frodo will come to see it and long for it too.

But not yet. Now at the point of the story when Bilbo is able to leave the Shire and the Ring behind him his imagination, rich though it is, has not yet opened to him his eternal home.

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf- mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell. I might find somewhere I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.”

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The Happy Ever After ending goes with us throughout our days. At this point in the story only Gandalf has some sense of what might have to be endured before it can be achieved and even he does not know the details of the story. But his hope that Bilbo might find his own Happy Ever After is heartfelt.

Bilbo’s longing will take him from the Shire but not so, at least as yet, will Frodo’s. Bilbo says of him:

“He would come with me, of course, if I asked him… But he does not really want to, yet. I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.”

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This is the landscape of the English Midlands in which Tolkien himself grew up. There are hills but none are especially challenging, even for young or elderly legs. And any walk through its countryside will be through a patchwork of woods, fields and little rivers.

In the first of the pieces that I posted in this blog on The Fellowship of the Ring I quoted Patrick Kavanagh on learning to know and love your parish, the land in which you dwell.

“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.”

As one whose early years were at first a succession of temporary homes in different farms, then student rooms, then a voyage to Africa I find that I cannot read Kavanagh’s words without them evoking a deep longing within me. I don’t think that the conventional was ever really an option for me but home was always my deepest longing. To have arrived in a lovely home and to be happily married has long been a source of profound gratitude in me but I know that it is not my final Happy Ever After. I am trying to get to the woods, the rivers and the fields in the way that Kavanagh speaks of but just as with Bilbo and Frodo I know that even the heartbreaking beauty of the earthly paradise of the Undying Lands could not satisfy my longing for a true home. That lies elsewhere “beyond the circles of the world”.

Well, I’m Back

The Three Companions make their silent way back from the Grey Havens and their farewells to Frodo and Bilbo and their glorious fellow travellers.

“At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

For me these are some of the most poignant lines in all literature, the last lines of a story that I have loved ever since I first encountered it in my teens nearly fifty years ago. When I first read those lines I was filled with a deep sadness because it meant that I would have to leave a story that had somehow taken me to its heart. Middle-earth was now a place within my inner world, a world that was now peopled with new races whose history was a part of my history. A few years ago I was walking with my dog along a lane in Worcestershire, England, with high hedges upon either side. Suddenly I was captured by the thought that Gandalf might be walking towards me in the opposite direction and that when I turned the bend in the road he might meet me there to invite me upon an adventure. I was filled with excitement at the prospect and a little disappointment when he was not there.

Sam is in that world but his own adventure is over. It was an adventure that took him to places that were far beyond his imagining. All of this is now a part of him but all of this is now over. Rosie sets the scene for his future endeavours and she is right to do so. The fire in his own hearth is lit, the meal at his own table is set and his child is upon his knee. He is a husband, a father and a householder. He grows food for his growing family in his garden and from this place, from this homestead, a place worthy of the greatest respect, he leads his community.

Sam has returned from his journey bearing many gifts. The one that all can see is Galadriel’s box, and the fruits of that gift are clear for all to see. The Mallorn Tree in the Party Field, the beauty of the children born in 1420, the flourishing of the woodlands of the Shire that Saruman tried so hard to destroy and the excellence of the beer brewed in that year that satisfied the taste of the gaffers of the Shire for long years after. Galadriel saw this for herself as she passed through the Shire on her way to the Havens and she complimented Sam on the work that he had done.

But there are other gifts too. Sam has brought a wisdom and a fortitude from his journey that he did not know before he set out. He possesses a mastery over himself and over the ebb and flow of life that could only come from being tested to and beyond his limits. And he has brought to the Shire the gifts of Elfland. Not just the box that Galadriel gave him, not just the fulfilment of his longing for beauty that was satisfied by the encounter with Gildor even before he left the Shire. Sam carries Elfland in his soul and Elfland carries him. For a time at least, the Shire will be a place that treasures the memory of Elfland within Middle-earth. Sam’s beloved daughter, Elanor the Fair, will marry Fastred of Greenholm on the Far Downs and their family, the Fairbairns, the keepers of the Red Book, will dwell in the new Westmarch on the Tower Hills and by the gift of the king will be its wardens.

The history of Middle-earth must continue but the great story, in which the Fellowship of the Ring played such a part, that brought such gifts to its peoples must now come to an end.

But all who love this tale know that they can always turn back to the first page and start again.

That’s What Friends Are For. Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin Gather For the Last Time By the Great Sea.

It is just over three years since the Four Travellers sat together with Fredegar Bolger at Crickhollow and the “conspiracy” was revealed that led to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leaving the Shire together on the great adventure of the Age. Only three years but in that time the whole world has changed and so have they. Now they stand together for the last time by the shores of the Great Sea as Frodo prepares to board ship for the West and the Undying Lands. Sam is there because Frodo wants him to be there. Merry and Pippin are there because Gandalf in his wisdom and in his kindness knows that it would be almost unbearably hard for Sam to return alone from the Grey Havens back to Hobbiton and Bag End.

“‘You tried to give us the slip once before and failed, Frodo'” says Pippin amidst his laughter and his tears. “‘This time you have nearly succeded, but you have failed again. It was not Sam, though, that gave you away this time, but Gandalf himself!'”

Pippin can be forgiven for only remembering one occasion when Frodo tried to slip away alone from his friends. On the second he and Merry were the prisoners of the Uruk-hai of Isengard when Frodo tried to cross the River alone in order to make the journey to Mordor. Frodo had always had a sense that he could not take his friends with him on a journey that would lead almost certainly to failure and death. Perhaps, too, his sense of responsibility for others fitted neatly into his solitary temperament. Frodo was raised as an only child and after Bilbo’s departure for Rivendell he lived alone often preferring his own company on long walks alone. It is not inevitable that those who are solitaries are also lonely but what solitaries have to learn is that friends are necessary, that we cannot live without them.

It was the great German theologian and anti-Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who taught: “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone”. The kind of solitariness to which Bonhoeffer and, I suspect, Frodo, was drawn, was inhabited by books and a rich interior conversation that never became dull. The danger of such a life is that in such a conversation the solitary is never in danger of being challenged. It was the Inklings that turned Tolkien’s own rich interior conversation into The Lord of the Rings. Without the others who listened, criticised and encouraged, that richest of imaginations would have remained a private possession and we would all be the poorer for it. Bonhoeffer discovered the power of community in a gathering of young theologians in the 1930s hidden briefly away from the Nazi tainted official training establishments for Lutheran pastors. He was its director but he found friendship there that was to sustain him later when he was an enforced solitary in the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Frodo would never have reached the Cracks of Doom without his friends and most especially without Sam.

My hope is that, in company with Bilbo, Frodo came to learn true community during his gentle purgatory in the Undying Lands. Of course the True Self will enjoy a natural rhythm of aloneness and community both of which will nourish one another. Bonhoeffer, with equal wisdom also taught, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” It is those who are at peace with themselves who will be able to give most to their communities. Those who are not peace will always be taking from them and rarely giving.

It is good that Gandalf recognises that there are times when it is hard to be alone and that he sends a message to Merry and Pippin to come to the Grey Havens as quickly as possible. And it would have been unkind for Merry and Pippin not to have been allowed to make their own farewells. But let us forgive Frodo. At this point in his life he is so burdened still that he does not always think of the needs of others. And let us remember too that he has been wounded so deeply in laying down his life for others. He will be healed at last of the hurt in the Undying Lands and Sam, Merry and Pippin will have “great comfort” in one another “on the long grey road” back to the Shire.

“I Tried to Save The Shire, and It Has Been Saved, But Not For Me.” Frodo Leaves the Shire and Goes Into the West.

In a letter that he wrote in 1963 to a Mrs Eileen Elgar Tolkien wrote this about Frodo.

“Frodo undertook his quest out of love- to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.”

Frodo went as far as he could but ultimately his mind was overthrown in part by the endless demonic onslaught of the Ring and in part by his own desire to possess the Ring for himself. Gandalf and Aragorn never blamed him for this. Gandalf was deeply tempted by the Ring and knew its power over him. Aragorn never even mentioned it. But Frodo blamed himself. In the same letter Tolkien wrote that Frodo had hoped to return to the Shire as a hero but knew that the manner in which the Ring had gone to the Fire had robbed him of this possibility. This hurt him very much indeed.

Tolkien wrote: “We are finite creatures with absolute limitations upon the powers of our soul-body structure in either action or endurance. Moral failure can only be asserted, I think, when a man’s efforts or endurance falls short of his limits, and the blame decreases as that limit is closer approached.”

So no blame is attached to Frodo by any other person except for the blame that he attaches to himself but that is sufficient for Frodo to experience both judgement and punishment.

Tolkien addresses this with wonderful sensitivity in his letter.

“‘Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf- not in Middle-earth.  Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over the sea to heal him- if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.”

This is an extraordinary passage and I hope that my readers will take time to ponder it and allow Tolkien to be their guide and counsellor. Like Frodo we are tempted to believe that we exist in a universe of reward and punishment and we do not require the idea of a universal judge in order to hold onto that belief. We are quite capable of being our own judge. As far as we know, Frodo does not hold a belief in a supreme judge himself but he is perfectly capable of self-judgement. Tolkien tells us that he needs a purgatory, in other words, a place in which he can reflect in peace, not a place of punishment. Frodo’s purgatory is most definitely not a place of punishment. Bilbo is his companion and together they journey towards wholeness. Readers of this blog have suggested that Lady Nienna of the Valar, the teacher of Gandalf, the one who prepared him for his great work in Middle-earth, watches over their gentle education and I agree with them. Frodo and Bilbo will have to give up all illusion regarding themselves and to be healed at last of the hurt that the Ring has done to them, Frodo will have to give up his sense of failure and, as Tolkien puts it so beautifully, to accept both his smallness and his greatness.

And so too will we.

Frodo Finishes The Red Book and Gives It to Sam

Sam does not know it yet but the finishing of the Red Book is the ending of Frodo’s work in Middle-earth and almost the end of his story within it too. At last the day comes when he passes it onto Sam.

“Why, you have nearly finished it, Mr. Frodo!” Sam exclaimed. “Well, you have kept at it, I must say.”

“I have quite finished, Sam,” said Frodo. “The last pages are for you.”

And that is the way of it with stories. They are all bigger and certainly longer than our part within them. We enter them, play our part within them, and eventually leave them. Frodo displays his wisdom once again in leaving the empty pages. He knows that the story does not end with his departure from it. The self-obsessed Saruman could never have contemplated such a thing. His attempt to destroy the Shire was a  final and embittered expression of a belief that everything began and ended with him.

Frodo knows that wisdom is, at least in part, a knowing that we are smaller than the big story but his book, in itself a continuation of something that Bilbo began, displays another wisdom too. He displays it in the title that he chooses:

THE DOWNFALL OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS AND THE RETURN OF THE KING (as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.)

Frodo has seen the great events of his time in a way that no-one else can. It is the perspective of “the Little People”. When hobbits come to read his story they are meant to understand that in the eyes of the world they are small but they are meant to understand their greatness too. For whereas the other peoples of the story had a long-forged sense of destiny and a mythology that both preserved and celebrated that sense, the hobbits, the Little People, never have such a sense of themselves as in any way, great. They have no mythology, only family history. It is Gandalf, through his long friendship with them, who chooses Bilbo to accompany Thorin Oakenshield and his companions on the quest to the Lonely Mountain. And it is Gandalf’s hunch, that seems an absurdity to all but him but one that even he does not fully understand, that changes everything in the history of Middle-earth. It also convinces me, if I needed to be convinced, that great literature is a matter, not of invention, but of discovery. When Tolkien began to write The Hobbit his intention was to write a children’s story. He did, and wrote it successfully, but, as he put it himself when the matter that began as The Hobbit became The Lord of the Rings, “the tale grew in the telling”. The children’s story grew until it reshaped the mythology that Tolkien had been creating throughout most of his adult life.

How sad it is that certain adults, even literary ones, do not understand why it is necessary that the perspective of the child should re-form, even trans-form, that of the adult. When Bilbo first finds the Ring, by sheer “luck”, it is entirely necessary that he should regard it as a plaything. Not the burning gold upon the severed finger of the Dark Lord or the beautiful gold of the Birthday Present but a band of metal picked up by accident in utter darkness. Bilbo has nothing to see and admire but only an object picked up and squirrelled away until the moment when Bilbo absent mindedly wonders what he has in his pocket.

A certain author recently remarked angrily that he despised adults that he saw reading and enjoying Harry Potter. Poor man. Unless he learns to see and to have faith as a little child he will only be capable only of the endless and hopeless repeating cycle of existence that Sauron and all who are like him believe to be the only reality that there is. It is the moment that the children’s story, the “unexpected journey”, breaks into the adult tale of the doleful history of Middle-earth that Sauron’s Ring dominates and corrupts that something that truly new can happen. This is the story “as seen by the Little People” that Frodo writes and which he passes onto Sam.

What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

The Scouring of the Shire is one of the saddest chapters in The Lord of the Rings. We expected Mordor to be as desolate as it turned out to be and, step by step, we followed Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom longing to be free of it. But then the impossible happened and the Ring went to the Fire. Sauron fell into nothingness and his realm crumbled, Frodo and Sam awoke in a soft bed in the woodlands of Ithilien and Sam cried out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

But the spirit of Mordor was never something forced upon the world by one evil being. Sauron fed upon the selfishness, the meanness and the fearfulness of others to become the mighty lord of darkness. And he had many imitators not least Saruman of Isengard and Lotho Sackville-Baggins of the Shire. For those critics who have accused Tolkien of moral banality, of writing a simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” story, one need only read this chapter of the story to know that this criticism is arrant nonsense.

The Shire was never an earthly paradise with no knowledge of good and evil. It was never a realm of pure innocence. It was always a land inhabited by a people subject to the same passions and the same temptations as we are. But Tolkien gave us a land in which a people live securely because of the protection of the Rangers of the North and in which no one lives either in poverty or great wealth. There are two great families in the Shire, the Tooks and the Brandybucks, but although both enjoy great comfort it is a comfort shared with the community at large. Brandybuck Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough are more like communal villages than private residences.

But once there are those who regard the acquiring of private wealth well beyond that of their neighbours as a goal worth pursuing, a seed of meanness is sown in the Shire that will not be easily dug out. So it is with Lotho Sackville-Baggins as we will consider next week in more detail. Suffice to say at this point that it is this seed that infects the Shire and its fruits that the four companions encounter when they return from their adventures.

Some readers might wish to remind me of the avariciousness of the dwarves and their love for gold or that of Thranduil of the woodland realm or the Master of Esgaroth. To which I would answer that they are right! If it had not been for the lust for revenge of the goblins of the Misty Mountains all Gandalf’s efforts to unite the free peoples of the North against the growing threat in Dol Guldur might have ended in disaster. Tolkien’s characters are morally complex and are all subject to spiritual conflict, even the greatest of them. Perhaps especially the greatest. Only those such as the orcs who have long ago given up the inner struggle are morally simple.

The Hobbits of the Shire are far from morally  simple and when enough are encouraged to feed upon their sense of self-importance such as the Shirrifs or upon their fearfulness of the big world outside as with the easily cowed general populace then it becomes possible for a few people to take control of the whole country. I have often thought that it is only because Britain was never invaded during the Second World War that it is possible to make simplistic generalisations about “British Values”. If the Nazis had taken control there would have been plenty of British people in sympathy with their philosophy, plenty who would have collaborated simply out of self-interest and many who would have done so out of fear. Much of that which we would like to proclaim as innate goodness or decency is more the product of historical good fortune.

We should, all of us, especially those of us who live in some comfort, be grateful for our good fortune. But I do not want to be overly pessimistic about ourselves even as I wish to avoid over optimism. As we shall see there is a goodness and a courage lying deep down within the hobbits that is only waiting to be reawoken. And it dwells in us too.

 

 

Barliman Butterbur Speaks of his Troubles and Receives Some Comfort.

When the travellers arrive at Bree they find the gate locked against them and their welcome at first is anxious and even suspicious. But Barliman Butterbur is pleased to see them and after politely listening to the story of their adventures he gets down to the things that really matter, the news of events in Bree.

“There was trouble right here in Bree, bad trouble. Why, we had a real set-to, and there were some folk killed, killed dead! If you’ll believe me.”

And the travellers do believe him because all trouble is real to the one who has to undergo it. It may be that the listeners have done battle with a troll before the Black Gate, with the Witch King of Angmar before Minas Tirith, with the Balrog of Moria, with Shelob in her lair and with the Ring of Doom step by impossible step across the plains of Mordor to the very place in which it was made by the Dark Lord. All this may be true but each violent death is a crime against nature itself and five of the people of Bree died in the struggle against ruffians from the south.

It is the travellers who have seen so much and who have been through so much who have to be the listeners and that is the way of things. Each experience has deepened their understanding and broadened their sympathy and their imagination. Not so Barliman whose knowledge of the world has come only from the stories that he has heard told by travellers staying at his inn. His personal experience has come only from his life within the borders of the Breeland and within them he is a man of some wisdom and courage. We can admire his rushing to the doors of The Prancing Pony armed only with a club ready to defend it against desperate bandits but beyond these narrow limits he could not help much as Aragorn reminded him once when Bree was threatened by the Nazgûl of Mordor.

The travellers have begun to learn a new and a sad lesson and that is that they will find few interested listeners when they return home. Even their wives will be unable to make the kind of sympathetic leap of imagination that is required from a good listener. What I hope the wives will possess will be the quality of listening that comes of a loving heart. They may not fully comprehend what their husbands have experienced but they will care that each thing will have happened to someone that they love. But perhaps in the midst of worries about young children or problems in the household they will not  be able to spare much time for listening.

At one time as a parish priest in Birmingham, England I found that I often had to take the funerals of men for whom a major part of their life experience had been service in the military during the Second World War. Two things began to impress me deeply about these men. One was just how young they had been when they were torn away from ordinary life and all that they had seen and done. The other was of a different kind of courage. The courage to return to ordinary life as husbands, fathers and useful members of their communities. As I began to hear these stories I began to develop as much respect for the second kind of courage as for the first.

Now the hobbits will have to learn how to find peace within themselves and not seek it from others. Frodo will pass into the West and find healing there. Merry and Pippin will draw upon the optimism that has been such a source of strength to them and they will draw too upon their friendship with each other. Sam will develop a deep connection to his daughter, Elanor the Fair, to whom he will give the Red Book, the record of the deeds of the Great Years, before he too passes into the West after the death of Rosie Cotton to whom he will remain faithful through the long years.

And Butterbur will find comfort in the turning of the affairs of Bree for the better and after he has learned that the bandits will soon go and peace restored he will go to his bed more comforted than he has been for a long time.

“Where Shall I Find Rest?” Frodo Longs For Home. His True Home.

The hobbits are eager for home and set out for the Shire with Gandalf. It is the sixth of October when they reach the Ford of Bruinen, a place redolent with memory for Frodo as he almost fell into the grasp of the Nazgûl there. The date too is filled with ominous significance. It was on this date a year before that the Nazgûl attacked the camp below Weathertop and Frodo received a wound that almost made him a wraith like them but under their power.

The combination of the two is almost too much for Frodo and he says to Gandalf: “I am wounded with knife, sting and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Right from the very beginning of the quest it has been clear that Frodo and his companions have taken on a task that is too big for them. For the briefest of moments Frodo is excited by the thought of the adventure that lies ahead but soon that excitement is replaced by the unhappy realisation that he must leave the Shire, leave his friends, leave home. And soon it is clear that there are powers in the world that are far greater than he is. Old Man Willow in the Old Forest; the Wight in the Barrow Downs; and most deadly of all, the Nazgûl haunting their every step along the way. Aragorn doubts the hobbits’ capacity for the task. Butterbur fears they behave like gentlemen engaged in nothing more dangerous than a walking holiday.

But that is exactly the point. That is the mysterious wisdom of The Lord of the Rings. This is a task that can only be achieved by those for whom it is too great. Those who might have the capacity to undertake the task, who might be strong enough to carry the Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it are those who are in the greatest danger. Gandalf and Galadriel are both offered the Ring and both reject it despite being profoundly tempted to take it. They have come to realise that it is stronger than they are and that in taking it they would begin the road to becoming the Dark Lord or Lady. Boromir does not understand this believing that his noble spirit is sufficient defence against the Ring and he is almost overthrown entirely.

The task and the Ring itself is most certainly too great for Frodo and he knows that it is. Even he begins to ponder what it might mean to seek to possess and to use the Ring as he shows in his questioning of Galadriel at her mirror. Eventually it will overcome him and only through the strange mercy of Gollum’s attack will he and all Middle-earth be saved.

Frodo is saved but he is broken too. The knife that the Witch King of Angmar drove into his shoulder at Weathertop, the sting of Shelob in her lair, Gollum’s tooth biting the Ring from his finger at the Cracks of Doom and worst of all, the slow, inexorable overpowering that the Ring achieves over him, all these have done their terrible work.

“Where shall I find rest?”

Frodo knows that the return to the Shire will be no true home-coming for him. It may be the same but he will not be. This is a powerful insight and one that Tolkien must have gained on his return from the trenches of the First World War as did so many of his generation. It was not just the journey from the familiarity of home to the horror of the battlefield that lead to a profound sense of displacement but the journey back again to what should have been familiar but was no longer. Frodo puts it this way. “It shall not be the same; for I shall not be the same”.

Frodo knows that if there is to be a place of rest for him then it will be somewhere else than the Shire but he does not know where such a place can be. We might know that this sense of displacement, of homelessness, of exile is that which will lead us in search of our true home but when we are gripped by this it is nothing less than terrible.